What we love says a lot about who we are. That's why, in getting to know someone, we're quick to ask about their favorite books, music, food and the like.
So what does it say about reputed brainiac Paul Ryan that he loves* the work of Ayn Rand, the inventor of the radically individualistic doctrine of objectivism?
Well, for a start, it says he's incapable of recognizing terrible writing.
Almost no one who knows prose admires Rand's. While many people are attracted to her work when they're in high school or college, her adult fans tend to come from professions that, despite their other merits, don't necessarily require an understanding of literature: business, science, engineering and the military.
Pretty much every serious writer or critic finds her work cartoonish and clumsy -- even those who might be sympathetic to her right-wing politics. In a 1957 review of Rand's Atlas Shrugged in the conservative National Review, anti-communist icon Whittaker Chambers wrote:
The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: "Excruciatingly awful." I find it a remarkably silly book...
Since a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does, many incline to take her at her word...
Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term.
There is no end of other scathing reviews of Rand's writing -- Google awaits. For an entertaining demonstration of just why it's bad, I recommend "The Red Pen of Doom Murders The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand."
Now, hold on, Rand fans will say, who's to say what good writing is? Probably a bunch of effete eggheads and snobs, threatened by the cold, penetrating steel of Rand's thought (as she might put it, with characteristic sexed-up hyperbole).
To which I say there are lots of different kinds of good writing, just like there are lots of different kinds of good chairs. But a chair that's held together with bent nails and duct tape, and that collapses when you sit on it, is objectively a bad chair. That's the kind of bad writing we're talking about with Ayn Rand. Just like there are things that good carpenters know, no matter what kind of chair they make, there are things good writers know. Rand didn't know those things.
Paul Ryan apparently can't tell that something like this, from the opening of The Fountainhead, is awful:
He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.
An appreciation of good writing involves a sensitivity to things that matter a great deal in real life -- such as the nuance and complexity of human experience. These are missing from Ayn Rand's writing, and Paul Ryan has said that writing inspired his life's work.
I don't think it's an accident that someone who doesn't seem to appreciate the calamitous impact his ideas would have on millions of people also doesn't see that his favorite author's depiction of reality is absurd:
The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the "competition" between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of "exploitation" for which you have damned the strong.
-- John Galt, hero of Atlas Shrugged.
Any good reporter knows something about writing, and so knows that Rand was outlandishly bad at it. And yet nearly all reporters seem obliged to pretend they don't know this.
Meanwhile her political philosophy, in which genius builders must triumph over do-nothing "looters," is just as bad -- not just morally, which might conceivably be a matter of opinion, but bad the same way her writing is. No serious philosophers take Rand seriously. Her Wikipedia entry states the bare facts:
Within academia, her philosophical work has earned either no attention or has been criticized for its allegedly derivative nature, a lack of rigor, and a limited understanding of the issues she wrote about, though an increasing interest in her writing saw the philosophy department of the University of Texas at Austin establish a fellowship in her name in 2001.
This, too, any good reporter knows. And yet so many of them refer to her as a "philosopher" instead of the far more accurate "pop philosopher."
That reporters pretend ignorance of this sort may be a more serious problem than Paul Ryan actually owning such ignorance. It's a manifestation of the phony balance we are plagued with these days, whereby creationism and evolution, climate change and climate change denial -- or crazily radical budget proposals and ones that might actually work -- are reported in the mainstream media as equally valid, though reporters know very well they are not.
This pretense may be driven by a fear of being labeled as biased, or by a desire to keep a compelling conflict going. In either case, the true driver is money. The perception of bias might shrink the audience, and the absence of conflict definitely would. So evidence is ignored, and reporters play dumb.
And that is the secret of Paul Ryan's love for Ayn Rand: the secret being kept by every reporter who perpetuates the fiction that he is a serious thinker, and not the radical that both his enthusiasms and his policies clearly show him to be.
*Ryan has recently tried to back away from Rand because of her atheism, which of course doesn't go over well with the Christian Right. Inconveniently, some of his many statements of ardor for Rand were recorded and released by the Randian Atlas Society.
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