Ayn Rand's campus radicals
THE AYN RAND INSTITUTE, a nonprofit research center in Irvine, Calif., got the centenary year of its patron saint off to a less than sure-footed start, P.R.-wise. On Dec. 30, just days after the devastating South Asian tsunami, the institute sent out a press release under the headline ''U.S. Should Not Help Tsunami Victims.''
That's certainly one way to keep alive the spirit of the author of ''The Fountainhead'' and ''Atlas Shrugged,'' for whom altruism was a dirty word and the productive, heroic pursuit of one's own happiness the highest ideal. After widespread ridicule, the Institute removed the statement from its website, offering the clarification that it was opposed to all government-sponsored charitable giving (since the money isn't the government's to give), and that singling out this instance, just now, was ''inappropriate.''
Yet the contrarian views continue to flow from Irvine. More recent opinion pieces from the Ayn Rand Institute have called on Congress to ''end Social Security'' (a ''morally irredeemable'' program) and-in an editorial pegged to Valentine's Day-attacked the ''philosophic crime'' of speaking of love as unselfish. (To do so, the author said, is the equivalent of handing your valentine a box of chocolates and a billet-doux that says, ''You're a charity case, and I'm with you only out of pity.'' Love, swooned the author, is about two selfish people coming together in bliss.)
Adherents to Rand's philosophy believe that she and it helped turn the tide of history against collectivism in the mid-to-late 20th century. So it is a perennial source of disappointment to them that Objectivism-as that philosophy is known-receives little attention in academia, or the media, even as sales of her 1957 novel ''Atlas Shrugged'' (in which corporate heroes, oppressed by redistributive economic schemes, go on strike until the feckless common people beg for their return) continue to top 150,000 copies a year.
Rand's admirers are also frustrated by the reputation for starry-eyed idolatry that dogs them. ''You are not going to use the 'cult' word, are you?'' asked Shoshana Milgram Knapp, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, who is at work on a new biography of Rand, when asked if she was an Objectivist. ''It is wrong and it is offensive.''
Fresh scholarly interest in Rand, at least in some quarters, has been evident since the late 1990s. ''More books have been written about her in the last 10 years than ever before,'' says Robert Mayhew, a professor of philosophy at Seton Hall University, who is responsible for two of the newest: a collection of essays on Rand's first and most autobiographical novel, ''We the Living'' (1936), a grim depiction of life in the Soviet Union of the 1920s; and ''Ayn Rand and 'Song of Russia': Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood'' (Scarecrow), an account of Rand's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. (She worked in wardrobe at a Hollywood studio in the 1920s, after emigrating from Russia, and returned there to write the screenplay for the film version of ''The Fountainhead,'' which starred Gary Cooper.)
As the Globe columnist Cathy Young points out in a cover story in the latest issue of the libertarian magazine Reason (founded in 1968 as a mimeographed sheet by a Boston University student), no one has done more for Rand's reputation in academia than Christopher Matthew Sciabarra, an untenured visiting professor at New York University. The current and forthcoming issues of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which he co-founded in 1999, are devoted to the centenary, with articles touching on everything from Rand's influence on the comic book author Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spiderman) to the contribution ''Atlas Shrugged'' can make to the teaching of economics. ''One would be hard pressed to find a more economically literate novel written by a non-economist,'' writes George Mason University economist Peter J. Boettke. (Indeed, after The New York Times panned the book, a young Randian named Alan Greenspan wrote to defend a plot in which ''parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.'')
Rand's scholarly defenders have long chafed at the image of her as a manipulator who brooked no disagreement that was presented in a 1987 biography, ''The Passion of Ayn Rand,'' by former acolyte Barbara Branden. Shoshana Milgram Knapp's new life, which will take the Rand story to the publication of ''Atlas Shrugged,'' is sure to be more sympathetic.
In an interview, Knapp says she wants to rescue Rand from her reputation as a ''propaganda writer.'' ''I teach Dostoevsky and Victor Hugo in my courses, and I think people who like those novels would also like her novels,'' she says.
Since the mid-1980s, the Ayn Rand Institute has worked to foster the next generation of ''radicals for capitalism'' through essay contests for high school and college students that dangle prizes of up to $10,000. (The winner of the ''Fountainhead'' contest in 2003 and 2004, Gena Gorlin, is now a freshman at Tufts.) But some evidence suggests that Rand may have a ways to go before she's fully welcome on campuses. Yaron Brook, for example, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, says he would rather not name the graduate students who have received stipends from his organization. ''I don't want to hinder their getting a job,'' he says.
Christopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.