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Rand redux

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / May 22, 2009
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Another reason, if you need one, to disdain Facebook: A man I haven't seen in 30 years sent me an "Ayn Rand app," or application. It's called the "Atlas Shrugged Pledge." My former friend's picture appeared next to the cover of the famous Rand novel, with the text: "Steve thinks everyone should read 'Atlas Shrugged.' . . . This is one of the most important books of our time."

Steve, an academic economist in Washington, confesses that he has never read "Atlas Shrugged." He bought the book, which is more than I can claim, and he thinks his Ayn Rand "endorsement" has something to do with a woman he met a year ago, etc., etc. Facebook has a lot of apps that look like endorsements. When I saw that my pal [Name Deleted to Avoid Public Shaming] was hyping fabulist-at-large Ben Mezrich, I messaged him: Really? Um, no, he admitted. The software made me do it.

Here is the curious thing: Rand, the writer/philosopher/harridan, often cited, less often read, is back. The California-based Ayn Rand Institute claims that sales of "Atlas Shrugged" tripled in the first four months of 2009, compared with 2008. The reason: Obama-ism. "As America faces a devastating economic crisis fundamentally caused by government policies," according to a statement from ARI's executive director Yaron Brook, "it is a hopeful sign for the future that increasing numbers of concerned Americans are . . . discovering Ayn Rand's original morality of rational egoism and her uncompromising defense of laissez faire capitalism."

Brook has criticized the Bush-era bailouts but feels that Obama has raised government intervention in the marketplace to new, unacceptable levels. "There is something unique going on now," he told me in a telephone interview, "a much more obvious collectivism. There is larger government funding and direct intervention in the economy. People are looking for remnants of a real American spirit and a sense of American individualism. They find that in [Ayn Rand's work], and they respond to it."

There's no denying that Rand is coursing through the cultural bloodstream. In recent weeks she's been mocked on "The Colbert Report," punditized by The Economist, and - holiest of pop-cult holies - appeared on "The Simpsons." That's right; last Sunday's episode featured "Maggie Roark," a parody of Howard Roark, the architect hero of Rand's "The Fountainhead," who bucks the leveling forces of modern society. Real-life superwoman Jodie Foster voiced Maggie. The episode was the least watched in "Simpsons" history, according to the website Simpsonschannel.com.

I would be the first to admit that I don't know much about Ayn Rand, beyond her name. The Ayn rhymes with dine, and Rand is supposedly an Americanization of her birth name Rosenbaum. I have heard the operatic details of her personal life, (much younger lover, proves to be fickle; drama ensues) and have a crude understanding of Objectivism, the "morality of rational egoism" that Brook cites above. Private entrepreneurialism = good; centrally planned, government-funded economy = bad.

As it happens, America's most prominent Randie is probably former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who presided over one of the most grandiose expansions of government expenditures in world history. In 1982, Greenspan attended Rand's funeral, where her body lay next to a large floral arrangement of a dollar sign. R.I.P.

Free plug
The Objectivists are coming! Expect several hundred Rand-o-philes to make the scene July 3-11 at the Seaport Hotel, site of the Objectivist Summer Conference. There will be lectures such as "The Objective vs. the Intrinsic and the Subjective," and "Objectivist Corporate Culture Is a Durable Competitive Advantage." Plus dance workshops on salsa and swing! Sounds like fun.

The Randies had their 2006 conference at the Seaport and liked it so much they came back. Irony alert? Absent the greatest government-funded public works project in American history, the Big Dig, the Seaport Hotel wouldn't exist. Objectively speaking, "It's just a fact of life," Brook tells me. "We all use services that we believe should be provided by the private sector but are in fact provided by government."

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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