The first anthropological survey of Objectivism was Jerome Tuccille’s It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand. This, so far as I know, is the second, and a good deal of field work has gone into it. Some of my best friends are Objectivists, and most of the others are recovering Objectivists. I’ve been to Objectivist boot camp, twice, and met most of the high-ranking clerisy at one time or another.
Objectivism attracts a disproportionate number of Jews, to put it mildly. The original Objectivists were the group, including Alan Greenspan, that gathered around Ayn Rand while she was writing Atlas Shrugged. They called themselves “The Collective” (a term fraught with too many layers of irony for me to parse in a single paragraph), and every last one was Jewish. A WASP Objectivist friend of mine once asked Michael Berliner, the chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, how many non-Jewish Objectivists there were. “Only you,” Berliner said.
It is also surprisingly popular with homosexuals, despite Objectivism’s at best ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality. The Internet is lousy with gay Objectivist and Rand-influenced blogs. It makes sense if you think about it. Jews and homosexuals are rootless and persecuted minorites who are logically attracted to tradition-busting philosophies. Objectivism is one; communism, in which they are also prominently represented, is another. The role of the Jews in the International Communist Conspiracy is well-known, and we oughtn’t to forget that three of the Cambridge Four — McLean, Burgess, and Blount — were homosexual.
Objectivists exhibit an odd cognitive dissonance about drugs — not their legalization, of course, but their use. The majority opposes them vigorously, on the grounds that man must be in full focus as often as possible and that drugs are a form of “blank-out.” But there is a good-sized pro-dope faction as well, although they usually know enough to keep quiet about it. Even Dagny Taggart and John Galt imbibed on occasion, illicit drugs are human inventions after all, and if we can improve on our natural state, well, why not? Several Objectivists of my acquaintance used to drop Ecstasy together every weekend. They had all carefully worked out their “Randian” rationalizations, of which “psychic lube job” was the briefest.
My predecessor Tuccille has many of the other details right. The early Objectivists, as he points out, did an awful lot of smoking, including almost every one of The Collective. After all, Ayn Rand smoked herself (from a holder, natch), as do all the heroes in Atlas Shrugged: the enduring symbol of Galt’s Gulch is the cigarettes stamped with the dollar sign. And Tuccille’s anecdote about Murray Rothbard and his unregenerate Catholic wife is true to the spirit of The Collective if not, perhaps, the fact:
Well, if Murray Rothbard’s wife was a Christian there could only be one logical explanation for it: she had obviously never read Ayn Rand’s proof that a Supreme Being does not, will not, and could not exist. Ever.
[Nathaniel] Branden hustled her into an adjoining room and sat her down at a desk with a handful of Rand’s anti-God essays. Joey, relieved to be out of earshot of all this talk of second-handers and floating concepts, pored over the pamphlets while the meeting continued in the other room. When she completed her assignment and returned to the gathering, the drone of conversation suddenly stopped and she found herself skewered by twenty pairs of drilling eyes.
Branden took the initiative. “Well?”
“I found it all very interesting, Nathan.”
“She found it very interezting.” Branden repeated the information to the others at no extra charge. “Anything elze?”
“The arguments are very good, but I’m still not an atheist if that’s what you’re getting at.”
Rand decided to take over. This was unquestionably a matter that demanded her personal intervention. “You haf read ze proofs?”
“They’re all very good and thought-provoking, Ayn. But you don’t shake a lifetime of religious faith with a few articles. I’ll have to think about it for a while.”
“You haf read ze proofs and you ztill inzist on wallowing in your mindless myztizizm? Faith is irrational which means…”
“Which means zat faith is immoral,” said Branden.
“Which means it is anti-life,” said [Leonard] Peikoff.
“Which means it is anti-man,” said [Robert] Hessen.
“Which means it is anti…anti…” said Barbara Branden, searching for a suitable phrase.
Zose z’s in Branden’s speech are not typos either. Yes, Nathaniel Branden, Canadian-born, went so far as to affect a Russian accent. Anyone who doubts it can hear the evidence on the tapes of his early lectures at the modestly-named Nathaniel Branden Institute. Tuccille notes elsewhere that Rothbard probably fell away from Objectivism because he was tired of hearing his name pronounced “Rossbot.”
Still, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand is over thirty and shows its age. The Rachmaninoff-loving all-black-dressing dollar-sign-pin-wearing chain-smoking Objectivist of the mid-60s has gone the way of the dodo. There is no longer one type of Objectivist, if there ever was. In fact there are four.1
1. Protractor. Protractor couldn’t care less about Ayn Rand the novelist, but Ayn Rand the philosopher drives him crazy. He can’t beat the arguments and is too honest to ignore them. Objectivism faintly embarrasses Protractor, like his Songs from the Wood CD, but not so much that he won’t adopt the philosophy or listen to the album. Protractor is second only to Bully-Boy in his familiarity with the Objectivist ouevre, which he picks over constantly in an effort to find something, anything, that he can quarrel with.
Protractor likes science; he is often a computer programmer. Only Protractor, because of his unfortunate habit of actually listening to arguments, can be converted to Objectivism as an adult. He has no role models among the Objectivist clerisy, but he does admire Mr. Spock.
2. Bully-Boy. Bully-Boy read The Fountainhead at twelve and mastered the finer points of the Objectivist epistemology by the time he was old enough for high school. To establish his bona fides, Bully-Boy will hasten to assure you that he doesn’t agree with everything that Miss Rand said. A popular point of contention is her article arguing that no woman should be President of the United States because no self-respecting woman would want to be President of the United States. See? I disagree with that. I’m no slavish follower!
Bully-Boy proselytizes tirelessly, but only with Protractor does he get anywhere. His habits are solitary, largely because no one can stand him. His best friend, if he has one, is Twitchy, never another of his own kind. Often he will serve as consulting ideologist to a school of Sense-of-Life Guys.
Bully-Boy aspires to join the clerisy, among whom his favorites include Nathaniel “The Most Rational Man on Earth”2 Branden (pre-1968 only), Leonard “I’m Not the Pope”3 Peikoff, and Harry “I’m More Randian Than Miss Rand”4 Binswanger.
3. Sense-of-Life Guy. It’s all good for Sense-of-Life Guy, who finds in Ayn Rand an echo of his own child-like wonder at the marvels of the universe. His favorite Rand novel, being the shortest, is Anthem, and he has never quite managed to read Galt’s speech all through despite several desultory attempts. Sense-of-Life may not be much for literature but he is very fond of pictures, in which his taste runs to Maxfield Parrish and airy-fairy British academic stuff like Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema. He often paints himself, with predictable results.
Sense-of-Life Guy is the most gregarious of all Objectivists, and is often, though by no means always, an enthusiastic advocate of Better Living Through Chemistry. Sense-of-Life Guy has no role models among the Objectivist clerisy, of whose very existence he is only dimly aware.
4. Twitchy. Twitchy has one overwhelming appetite that he hopes Objectivism, which seems to have all the answers, will either justify or cure. Sometimes it is for religion (“you haf read ze proofs?”), sometimes for drugs, sometimes for homosexual sex. He scours the Objectivist literature on his specialty, in which he is a match in learning even for Bully-Boy. A gay Twitchy once argued to me that it is “irrational” to choose a sex partner on the basis of gender because “one’s gender is not a moral choice.” Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer “got a light?”
Twitchy’s role model among the clerisy is David “Truth and Toleration” Kelley, ex-communicated for maintaining that it’s OK to argue with Marxists and Kantians. Twitchy always smokes. Wouldn’t you?
And now you’ll have to excuse me. I have a sudden strange hankering to listen to Songs from the Wood.
(Update: Michael Blowhard comments. Mg comments. Uruloki comments.)