With Ayn Rand lurking behind Paul Ryan's political agenda and about to invade our theaters ("Atlas Shrugged II" arrives Friday) we all have a chance to consider the literary influences claimed by our candidates. In Mitt Romney's case, L. Ron Hubbard's dystopian "Battlefield Earth" wins the prize as the would-be president's favorite novel. He noted this preference on Fox News in 2007, explaining, "I'm not in favor of his religion [Scientology] by any means," but it "was a very fun science-fiction book."
Fun it may be, but "Battlefield Earth" is also a thousand pages of violent pulp set in a post-apocalyptic future and filled with Scientology's grandiosity and fearfulness. Its characters are one dimensional and its plot is unreliable. Critics panned it as "laughable" and "tedious" and, in the words of The Economist, "atrociously written." In a typically sarcastic review, Punch noted that Hubbard "is well-enough aware of his weaknesses not to dwell upon frailties like love, generosity, compassion" in his writing.
Hubbard's writing generally steers clear of messy human concerns like love and compassion. When he does enter these realms he becomes mechanistic and technocratic, referring to his own work as a "science of knowing how to know answers." He is, in this way, very much like Rand, who offered a philosophy based on her version of "reason." She intended to cure humanity's ills by rewarding self-interested supermen and punishing lazy "moochers" who participate in government social programs. In her novels, as well as non-fiction books like "The Virtue of Selfishness," Rand presents a grotesque view of human nature with no room for the commonweal or the sacrifices that make societies work.
Many books have been written by Rand's critics, and her philosophy of greed has been widely discredited. (For the best arguments against her thinking one might study the concept of "reciprocal altruism" offered by evolutionary biology.) Likewise, the religion that arose out of Hubbard's writings, Scientology, is renowned for its extremes and its controversies. In the 1970s, and again in recent years, church officials have been convicted of crimes related to overzealous campaigns and practices.
Hubbard and Rand offer ways of thinking that are cold, rigid and circular. They have also been influential. Hubbard inspired a religion that enjoys rather outsized power in Hollywood. Rand has been an inspiration for those who push deregulation and winner-take-all capitalism. She can be heard in Mitt Romney's speech in which he declared that 47 percent of Americans "believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them." Paul Ryan, who wants to slash social programs, has said that Rand "taught me quite a bit about who I am, and what my value systems are." (Perhaps he doesn't know that Rand collected Social Security and Medicare.)
We are, each of us, vulnerable to what we read. Novels and nonfiction books, especially those we take-in when we are young, influence our assumptions about human nature and the way we imagine the world. The fully human characters and complex morality found in the best works, demand that we confront our prejudices and help us to appreciate others. The cartoons offered-up by Rand and Hubbard narrow our field of vision and reduce the human experience to right and wrong, good and evil, black and white.
One can hope that Mitt Romney's favorite novel has been balanced, in his reading life, by much better stuff. However his view of the world, in which roughly half the people can be dismissed, makes me think he missed out on much of the canon. When he gets the chance, perhaps he can start on Dickens.