Friday, September 17, 2010

"Atlas is [Hugging]"

Recently my mother's 21-year-old fellow Family Dollar employee came into the knowledge, from obvious sources, that I have some interest in Russian literature. Thus he promptly suggested, in my mother's words, a "Russian female poet of the first half of the twentieth century." My mother could not remember the "poet's" name of course, but said that he had an edition of her work that he was willing to let us borrow. A few weeks later she finally brought the book home... It was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. My life is an anticlimax.

And of course now she, my mother, has had her interest piqued and is well along on reading it -- even while many of my regular and, I think, appropriate suggestions languish on the bedside table for months at a time. Life is... ah, but no more truisms for today. After listening to my whining on the subject for a little while, she issued this compromise: "Okay, recommend me a book and I'll read it."

I chose Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, a graphic novel memoir written by both Malice himself and American Splendor author Harvey Pekar, illustrated by Gary Dumm. Malice is a perfect libertarian: a train wreck of selfishness, pride, and an overbearing need to see others suffer -- in other words, ego, hubris, and yes, even malice. And a big admirer of Ayn Rand, naturally. As if Howard Roark didn't paint an ugly enough picture by himself -- in an admittedly idealized, even propagandistic self portrait -- I had to go and enlist a real-life counterpart. "Michael Malice is a real piece of work" says Harvey Pekar on the graphic novel's cover, and Pekar was never a man for understatement.

I, of course, absolutely refuse to read anything by Ayn Rand, while at the same time having very strong opinions about all of it. I know her story, I say to myself... I don't know everything, but I know enough! She was the one who called herself "the most creative thinker alive," riding high on the completion of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged -- then fell into a deep depression shortly thereafter when the novel was poorly received by several critics. She was the one who regularly flew into a rage when one of her admiring minions disagreed with her -- minions who were so smitten with her, I might add, that many of them dressed like her, generally obeying her opinions religiously, even on things as incidental as fashion.

Her latter-day supporters are no less embarrassing. As Mr. Malice has shown us above, the modern Ayn Rand supporter is invariably a conservative, a libertarian perhaps -- a Ron Paul supporter in Malice's day; a goof ball marching down the street, waving a "Don't tread on me!" flag, in ours.

Somehow, however, Ron Paul and his supporters have never scared me. Essentially opposite to my own political tendencies -- but not Nazis, nor the KKK, nor something considerably more obscure and therefore ominous. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is a group riding high on overt racism and xenophobia, vague statements and empty promises. I ask myself, "What kind of world do we live in where most conservatives see Sarah Palin as a better candidate for the White House than Ron Paul?" (And I must answer, "Essentially the one we always have.")

And there, I think, is the crux of my fear: libertarians, in general, might have the capacity to strike fear into my heart, if only they were more influential. As it is, however, they are not the conservative group who currently have six candidates for the senate, thirty-four for the house. No, it is the "tea baggers" behind this sudden surge. As wise man says, amongst ignorant cave men it is the one with the fire you oughta look out for. The others we can all laugh at, on account of their silly antics and outrageous claims.

I'd say Ayn Rand's defining and shining moment was a 90s-era Modern Library reader poll -- it's probably one of the most embarrassing things I have ever seen. The end of the twentieth century naturally brought with it no small amount of "top 100" lists -- and the Modern Library did not sit quietly by. They went and polled experts to create a ranked list of the top one hundred English-language novels of the century. Certainly plenty can be said about this list -- for example, in a list of one hundred spots does Joseph Conrad absolutely need to fill five of them? and shouldn't the criteria of the list exclude Ulysses automatically? But the real joke came with the list compiled based on an online reader poll. On that list seven of the top ten spots are occupied by books from either Ayn Rand or Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard. Hey, it was the nineties, when the Internet was young, and statistics and common sense hadn't been invented yet.

No excuse has been dreamed up, however, that can explain away modern supporters of Rand -- nor supporters of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh for that matter.

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