Read my article “Bridging Ayn Rand and Pittsburgh” in the winter edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly, currently on sale at certain newsstands in the city of bridges. I bought a copy at a downtown Pittsburgh shop during a recent visit over Thanksgiving (more on the trip below). It’s an account, and I think perhaps the first in publication, of the philosopher who described herself as a radical for capitalism and what contends as the foremost city of the Industrial Revolution. I pitched a few ideas to my editor and publisher and this is the byproduct of the one he thought best serves the magazine’s readers.
In the piece, which may become available online, I focus on the Forties, when Rand wrote her observations of Pittsburgh in her journal, corresponded with an admiring book critic for a Pittsburgh newspaper and prepared for the movie adaptation of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. All of these tie into each other and relate to an interesting comment by Objectivist scholar Greg Salmieri, whom I interviewed for the article. Dr. Salmieri, who’s editing the University of Pittsburgh Press series of books studying Rand’s philosophy, gives his opinions on Rand’s ideas and how they’ve been interpreted within the context of today’s false left-right political dichotomy.
I am delighted that publication of the first article about Rand and my hometown coincides with the first reprinting of my article about Andrew Carnegie in Capitalism Magazine (read it here). Carnegie is one of my first heroes. I became fascinated with him as a boy. As with Ayn Rand, the more I learn and know about this man, the more I admire him. I wrote this piece several years ago as a sidebar to an article I’d been asked to write for a magazine.
Having just visited the city of Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and, yes, Carnegie Hall (not the one portrayed in Green Book), I can happily say that I think you’ll find this profile of Andrew Carnegie worth reading. I won’t be surprised if you discover that you’ve learned something new and admirable, even exciting, about this amazing man, whose birthday I celebrated while I was in Pittsburgh.
One of the things I love about Pittsburgh is that its residents have real awareness, knowledge and appreciation, even admiration, for capitalists and captains of industry. Wherever I went on Carnegie’s birthday while visiting Pittsburgh, everyone with whom I discussed the man was instantly interested, engaged and aware of his legacy, his stature, his greatness. I’ve written about Pittsburgh on this blog several times, and will write more soon about this year’s Thanksgiving trip, but I find that I am often surprised by this city’s unique ability to wall off the world’s spreading religion of hatred of moneymaking. There’s real reverence for it here, however unpolished or weary it may be. The city of steel, in this sense, can spark like that.
This is one reason it was wonderful to see the new movie about Pittsburgh’s pioneering child development host, Mr. Rogers, with my family in Pittsburgh. It’s a warm, thought-provoking film that holds your interest as an individual, challenging you to introspect, engaging you with silence, not screaming, blaring, sensory-driven assault. Yet it comes together as a whole, respecting the uniqueness of each individual and his choices, even when those choices deviate from traditional notions of family, holidays and what constitutes a proper gathering. See A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers by yourself, alone and in solitude or with a friend. Or with your chosen family as I did. Read my movie review on the cover of the New Romanticist here.
Look for more posts — on its theater, culture, hospitality, downtown and sports — about this fall’s trip to Pittsburgh soon.
Several intellectuals in the Objectivist movement have been called upon to a contribute to a new compendium of essays attempting to apply Ayn Rand’s philosophy to politics. The result is what its editor, hedge fund manager, author and TV analyst Jonathan Hoenig (The Pit), titles A New Textbook of Americanism. The paperback edition, which includes newly published writing by Ayn Rand, is a useful resource for sorting through today’s complicated and deeply confused political debates.
By picking up on what Rand (1905-1982) started in association with a motion picture organization in Hollywood before writing Atlas Shrugged, Hoenig’s idea to continue her effort to answer certain questions she formulated and intended to eventually answer with new essays is an interesting and inviting proposition. Each reader, whether he’s an Objectivist or not, can read these essays and make a judgment.
That Hoenig adopts Rand’s take on the term Americanism is itself a departure from today’s loud, vacant discourse. So, the book, best read in bits according to one’s unique political confusions, interests and passions, challenges the left-right status quo.
By this, I mean that, in total, it’s easily distinguishable from either a conservative or a leftist manifesto. Each contributor, most of whom are academic intellectuals, and many of whom I know or am acquainted with, speaks for himself, not for Ayn Rand. To varying degrees their pieces are thought-provoking cases, essays and arguments about pressing political issues that relate to daily life.
For example, Hoenig writes:
If you give someone a wristwatch, does he become its rightful owner? Of course he does. He did not earn the money to buy the watch himself, but, upon you giving him the watch, it becomes his property. When a person who rightfully owns something gives it to someone else, that thing becomes the property of the recipient by virtue of the right of the giver to assign his property as he sees fit. An individual’s right to property, whether it is a wristwatch or an estate, includes the right to dispose of it.
The American founders identified life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness as man’s inalienable rights because they are a requirement of life. As Ayn Rand clarified, “just as man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s ideas into reality — to think, to work and to keep the results — which means: the right to property.”
This example is an illustrative counterpoint to the prevailing opposition to property rights from leftists — including the swarm of leftist legislators such as Ocasio-Cortez or Warren — and from the new block of authoritarians on the right such as the first explicitly pro-eminent domain president Donald Trump. Many examples in the book challenge today’s false, toxic right-left alternative while clarifying or at the very least making a case for the Objectivist political ideal.
One scholar depicts America’s frontier history to provide proof that “Americanism heralded the natural aristocracy of ability, inventiveness, daring, and hard work.” Another points out that “a fortune made is always a fortune caused.” A philosopher writes that, contrary to the dog-eat-dog descriptions of capitalism as a ‘survival of the fittest’, literature’s Robinson Crusoe offers the more honest capitalist ideal because the stranded islander “…has to build shelter, learn to hunt, and make his own clothing. If he does not succeed in creating wealth, he will die. It is produce or perish.”
The author’s conclusion that the Industrial Revolution brought Americans unparalleled progress with “… the steamboat, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, refined oil, antiseptics, vaccines, the phonograph, the camera, the automobile, the radio” is undeniable.
Not that Hoenig’s A New Textbook of Americanism is a history lesson. Instead, the collection of essays generally weaves historical and other data points into specific political thought. Author Don Watkins takes on charity as a right, concluding that “to establish capitalism will depend on [Americans’] willingness to confidently and unapologetically reject the notion that a person’s need entitles him to the property of others.” Economist Richard Salsman correctly observes that when the government “imposes tariffs on imported steel, and thereby restricts supply and raises the price of steel domestically, it does so to give domestic steel companies a profit they did not produce and do not deserve.“
The net effect of reading the book is a challenge to the reader to think for himself. Some of the essays are better than others, of course, in terms of the quality of writing and persuasiveness. Depending on one’s preference for and exposure to various media in today’s sensory-driven culture, some, perhaps many, of these arguments have been made better and/or often before. Other intellectuals, including those who are not in academia, might make more compelling cases.
But Hoenig’s reach for general American audiences and those who strive for understanding Americanism is laudable; as the thinker’s self-defense, A New Textbook of Americanism is on the right track.
And in what other new book will today’s discouraged, confused or disoriented American individualist, looking for guidance toward achieving the nation of the enlightenment, find Ayn Rand differentiating patriotism from nationalism in her 1974 talk to U.S. military cadets at West Point and this excellent excerpt from the third and most recent book by Leonard Peikoff: “All the key features of a capitalist state — its validation, its powers and limits, the prerogatives and interrelationships of its citizens — are unified, because all are derived from a single principle: the worldly self preservation of the individual.”
Recently, an article in the Atlantic divulged the depth of reflexive anti-Americanism in Germany, another nation which Dr. Peikoff has brilliantly studied and examined. It turns out that a reporter for Germany’s leading publication, Der Spiegel, a magazine featured as having an admirable goal in The Lives of Others (2006), “fabricated information in more than a dozen articles—most of which were meant to reveal America’s brutality.”
As one of those “ominous parallels” which Hoenig’s book points out, our own American president snidely condemns this nation with the question: “you think our country’s so innocent?”
Jonathan Hoenig’s compendium dispels both leftist contempt for America while answering the ignorant, anti-American president with an informed, intelligent reply: Yes…because it is—and this is why.
Whether you’re an activist, an influencer or an Objectivist, or any, all or none of these, you may gain knowledge in these pages. For example, that the estate tax was not fixed as a permanent part of American law until 1916 and that, “before that, any attempt to impose a tax on estates was treated as an aberration to help the government [weather] a temporary emergency.”
You may also be inspired, as I am, by Americans in their Americanism. As one intellectual observes in this volume, “Steve Jobs [once] said: “[W]e think the Mac will sell zillions, but we did not build a Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do the market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.”
On a first-day pass, I attended part of the annual summer Objectivist Conference in Orange County, California’s Newport Beach.
Marriott Newport Beach
The town and venue are familiar. I’ve previously stayed at the Marriott Newport Beach for other Ayn Rand Institute-sponsored events. It’s a fine hotel across from Fashion Island with an attentive staff. A Starbucks affiliate capably serves coffee, food and drinks. I was writing on deadline during my visit, so I did not attend the ARI’s full OCON, which unfortunately does not offer a per-talk option. Most of the program was light, however, and did not entice me. Instead, I attended one day’s events and a few OCON affairs. The hotel’s restaurant and bar, where I visited with friends, clients and other intellectuals, were good for meetings.
This year’s conference, sponsored by Midwest manufacturer Relco, celebrates the 75th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel The Fountainhead and “how its themes of independence and integrity continue to resonate with readers of all ages.” Accordingly, English literature professor Shoshana Milgram, Ph.D., whom I interviewed for my exclusive report on Ayn Rand in Chicago, delivered a dynamic lecture (“Frank Lloyd Wright and The Fountainhead: The Full Story”) about the man who designed Fallingwater and the woman who created Roark and Galt and visited Wright at Taliesin.
The OCON lectures are shorter than they were in the past, which is unfortunate. So, Dr. Milgram delivered what can best be described as a dazzling account which breaks new ground in understanding The Fountainhead, Wright and Rand, whom my friend Dr. Milgram has profiled for a forthcoming biography. Hers is the primary impetus for my OCON attendance this year, though I also wanted to hear Aristotle scholar Robert Mayhew, whom I interviewed for his thoughts on Rand’s first novel, We the Living, lecture on humor in The Fountainhead. I had seen both Drs. Mayhew and Milgram present at OCON in Chicago several years ago and I consider them both top, leading new Objectivist intellectuals. Dr. Milgram’s talk at this year’s OCON was excellent, detailing newly disclosed research from Northwestern University archives, Wright’s introduction to Rand by Ely Jacques Kahn at New York City’s Commodore Hotel in 1938 and a fuller account of their exchanges over The Fountainhead.
The talk, which references Ayn Rand’s remarks on a never-reprinted Wright article and secret negotiations regarding the prospect of Wright’s working on the 1949 movie version for Warner Bros., explains why Ayn Rand was emphatic that Howard Roark is not based on Frank Lloyd Wright.
Dr. Milgram provides the literary perspective of Ayn Rand with impeccable skill. In my experience, ever since first attending the Virginia Tech associate professor’s talks in Southern California, she always does. She hunts for facts, goes by reason and, above all, she thinks for herself. Listening to her lecture on the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was fascinating, filling in gaps in my knowledge and helping me understand why it always seemed (and is often depicted as) one-sided, which Dr. Milgram breaks down and explains. I hope this talk, which is another reason ARI should consider offering single event OCON pricing, becomes available to the general public. The best compliment I can give OCON this year, and I am not saying this because Shoshana Milgram is a friend with whom I’ve worked, is that her presentation for the first time in my life makes me want to read an Ayn Rand biography.
A talk which did not tie into The Fountainhead, “Being a Rational Optimist” by ARI Chairman Yaron Brook, disappointed me. Since ARI founder Leonard Peikoff, who put in an appearance at OCON via video, ended his podcast, I do not listen to podcasts, so I don’t know whether Dr. Brook later expanded on his commentary. But it fell short of making a persuasive case for rational optimism. I attended with the expectation that he would probably convince me and affirm my pre-existing optimism in the future, which is qualified but real. Dr. Brook’s reasons include technology and life expectancy. He cited the fact that math and science are more widely studied. He went into some detail. But he failed to account for the discrepancy with his previous assertions in which he forecast doom or catastrophe within a 20-year time frame. Similarly, he did not mention, let alone address, alarming forecasts in Dr. Peikoff’s 1982 The Ominous Parallels or recent The DIM Hypothesis, originally presented as a series of OCON lectures.
Dr. Brook backed up his points by citing the late Steve Jobs and aviation entrepreneur Blake Scholl, a friend who addressed last year’s OCON in Pittsburgh. In reference to the standard of living, he cited the cost of an iPhone, which he said more than once costs “nothing” (which, especially if you calculate the cost of storage, apps, accessories and services, is not the case). Also, he praised Disney’s Pixar as making some of what he called “the best movies of the last 30 years”, a debatable assertion at best and I say this as someone who agrees with his remarks on Amistad and Argo. I agree with Dr. Brook that Americans generally tend to underestimate the role of the Enlightenment. But Yaron Brook’s argument that there is cause for optimism, which I’m inclined to agree with (and I have my own reasons to be optimistic), was unconvincing.
A better talk was “The Influence of Ayn Rand on My Life and Business Career” by Saxo Bank co-founder Lars Seier Christensen who, after 20 years as CEO, started his own private equity firm, Seier Capital. He made concise, convincing points about his business experience, which he delivered with humor. Christensen explained that there has to be a sense of purpose, or, as he put it, “some intention”, in making a dollar. In other words, he argued, one must choose to think about making money in some narrowly defined sense. He urged OCON’s audience, which ARI estimated at over 600 guests, to remember that there are no guarantees in life, that in business it is best to “fix conflicts on the spot” and he told us not to criticize for the sake of criticism. This is good advice backed up by his wealth of knowledge, experience and success.
Harry Binswanger gave a course on logic based on his book How We Know. The Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), which I attended from 2008 to 2012 when it was a four-year program, held a mixer for alumni, where I was able to talk with OCON speakers Ben Bayer, Robert Mayhew and Aaron Smith. I told Dr. Smith, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy, that I appreciate his session on idealism in OCON’s “Discussing Objectivism” series. Dr. Smith explored the nature and roots of Ayn Rand’s idealism, fully tethered to characters and themes in The Fountainhead, addressing questions such as: What does it mean to be an idealist? Why does Rand think that ideals are so important to have and to fight for? What is the connection between having ideals and having a self?
I’ve seen Dr. Smith speak on other occasions, such as when former CEO Jim Brown introduced him at an event in Orange County last year, and part of what I value is his ability to express himself as a searching philosophical detective and thinker. In contemplating idealism, for instance, he asked and answered each of those questions, emphasizing Objectivist virtues dramatized in The Fountainhead such as rationality, independence and self-esteem, which he stressed is impossible to exaggerate in terms of its importance. The material, pace and clarity in his presentations is very good. Dr. Smith communicates as if he seeks to be understood by a wide audience, a quality which is rare among today’s intellectuals, especially among Objectivists, whose best arguments can be lost on a general audience because they may come off as smug, defensive and dismissive. Reminding me of what Dr. Peikoff once wrote about addressing only those academics who act like human beings, or something to this effect, Dr. Smith gave an example from when he worked as a gymnastics instructor. He said he told his students not to “inflate your currency”. Aaron Smith argued for delivering true instruction when discussing Objectivism. Speaking about The Fountainhead character Peter Keating, he was not satisfied to merely identify and underscore Keating’s selflessness. He pointed out that Peter Keating failed to scrutinize his own actions and contrast his life with his friend Howard Roark’s.
In keeping with the theme of this year’s OCON — bearing in mind that the ARI and OCON ought also to be scrutinized — this is something every individual should strive to do.
Twenty seventeen is the year of the purge. After binging for decades on the biting, flat and blank cynicism from The Honeymooners in the Fifties and Saturday Night Live in the Seventies to Seinfeld, The Simpsons and South Park in the Nineties, Americans hardened after Black Tuesday (September 11, 2001) and split apart following the vacant, divisive presidency of Barack Obama. This year, it’s as though some Americans sought to purge America of its founding ideals and proudest practices.
While it is true that the nation’s founding principle, individual rights, has been under attack since the Industrial Revolution, and the U.S. has been coasting on its sense of life ever since, this year in review demonstrates signs that a certain segment of Americans showed real contempt for rights. Whether support for state-run bureaucracies and programs which violate rights such as the TSA, ObamaCare or NSA, or hostility for freedom of speech, property rights and capitalism, these Americans proved eager to violate rights. What once might have been opposition to breaching man’s rights — the Constitutional right to travel unmolested by the state, the right to choose one’s health care and the right to life which is the right to be left alone — turned to silence, submission and explicit sanction. This year saw the regression of the freedom of speech in the executive branch, which threatened to silence the press, and on college campuses.
After this year’s attack on a protest in Charlottesville, one of several assaults including Islamic terrorist attacks and citizen assaults on government officials, came the silence of self-suppression. As foreign and domestic murder of Americans worsens, so does rational discourse between them.
Leading the purge of ideas from political discourse, President Trump failed this year to grasp how to salvage what is left of capitalism, failing to engage Congress and Americans in debate, let alone repeal, over the debacle ObamaCare. Instead, Trump conspired to keep ObamaCare’s worst parts, failing to galvanize support for repeal of the worst law in recent U.S. history (read my post on rational reform). With a barrage of insults, outbursts and vulgarities, Trump — acting as ringmaster distracting people and the press with an abundance of sideshows — also purged decency from the White House.
As deficient a president as Trump is, despite any partial and/or accidental success he’s managed, Trump’s vice-president, conservative Mike Pence, is worse. Pence is a religionist of the Roy Moore ilk who, like Trump, fraudulently claims to be for capitalism when the opposite is true. For instance, he claimed as a congressman to support Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) while, in fact, he refused to support expanding HSAs when it mattered most and would have advanced rational health care reform. Vice-President Pence, who agrees with Roy Moore about persecuting gays, would replace Trump if necessary, even as Pence reportedly schemed in 2017 to purge from Trump’s administration any who doubt or question the authoritarian president. These two politicians — both made possible by today’s cynical welfare state collapsing into faith-based authoritarianism — and their mixed band of government interventionists, such as Steve Bannon, seek to purge facts from the press and the press from reporting on matters of state.
If Washington’s a swamp, Trump-Pence are Swamp Things. They want to drag, not drain, the filth out of the swamp and spread the muck all around.
Harvey Weinstein depicted as predatory clown from “It”.
But Trump-Pence can be (and have been) stopped from implementing some of their worst plans. Another 2017 trend, which ignited this fall, similarly seeks to purge reason and render in its place prejudice: today’s incessant jumping to purge the individual from a livelihood because one is accused of wrongdoing. Whether, in fact, the publicly maligned person is accused in the judiciary or is named via unconfirmed claims is, in this alarming approach, beside the point.
I first noticed the trend with the demise of a TV host I find deplorable, Bill O’Reilly, a conservative whose show on Fox News was awful but whose takedown, based on unsubstantiated claims, was troubling. Then, a left-wing movie businessman, Harvey Weinstein, was suddenly accused of outrageous claims in a frenzy of public shaming and mob action. These two men of wealth, success and power thanks to hard work on extremely enduring and popular enterprises, had something besides accusations of sexual impropriety and worse in common: they were targeted for exposure with intent.
By whom and by what means? To what end? Why? O’Reilly’s demise was more coordinated than Weinstein’s but both were purged in swift and serious campaigns. In a year in which foreign infiltration of media — specifically, social media, though other media have in the past proven corruptible, too — is known and admitted, these questions about the press (which I alluded to here) ought to be examined and resolved. If it is legitimate to ask why NBC News rejected a pitch to broadcast a hit piece on Harvey Weinstein, it is legitimate to ask why The New Yorker accepted the pitch and why the New York Times decided to publish an article without a news peg with unsubstantiated charges against Weinstein. The media now routinely speaks of accused persons in disparaging terms and presumes the accused as guilty by insinuation, mimicking the gossip press. Discerning consumers should ask why. Indeed, NBC News reports that one of the gossip media, an operation called BuzzFeed, recently received a tip from Trump operatives about a Democrat who now stands accused of sexual impropriety.
Is it possible that some, many or all the sex-related claims are part of a proxy war between operatives seeking to influence, disrupt and distract Americans — and, if so, why and to what purpose? — with the press as proxy?
In any case, even if every sex claim is true, and I am not asserting whether I think they are or are not true, when accusation is regarded as a matter of fact, we’re likely to get everything but the truth. Besides Weinstein and O’Reilly, accused producers, artists and businessmen include:
This list of accused men is partial. Add to this list executives, directors and associated persons, agencies or companies branded as perverts or enablers, cast out and smeared, ruined or judged and, in any case, insidiously maligned, often without an opportunity to contemplate, let alone respond to, unsubstantiated charges against them.
Most of the men being swept into oblivion with their enterprises, endeavors, accounts, affiliates and partners are being maligned without the benefit of the doubt or closer scrutiny of allegations, many of which were posted on social media. Some of the men are on the left — David Corn, Russell Simmons, Charlie Rose, as well as persons at NPR and MSNBC. Some are on the right: the late Roger Ailes, who has since died, Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling, whose son was found dead within hours of his father’s termination from Fox News. Politicians also accused of sex crimes and impropriety such as Al Franken, John Conyers and Roy Moore, as current or aspiring government officials, ought to be held accountable to the people and taxpayers should not be forced to pay their settlements. But the people should decide elections based on political philosophy, not on rumor and lurid allegations.
The media magnifies the purge and prejudice which, in turn, ultimately harms the media. I think the issue of reporting unconfirmed claims is complicated by major changes in the media industry, changes caused or exacerbated by what I think is a disproportionate boom in technological advances which possibly would not have been brought to market in any but a mixed economy. This boom, in turn, may hasten the major shift in today’s media which, in turn, entices formerly and even currently credible sources, such as the Washington Post, to stop reporting essentially based on facts, the truth and what matters — such as nuclear, Islamic terrorist and domestic government control threats to America’s existence — and instead focus on sensational journalism equivocating on the truth of certain assertions.
The adage that if it bleeds, it leads, applies because sex claims against the famous get clicks and customers and, as actions pertaining to sex are denounced and regulated, the cycle spins faster.
Hollywood’s blackballing — sometimes, without as much as a workplace complaint — is driven, as I wrote here, by Puritanical tyrants allied to control people’s lives, from workplace conduct to moviegoing, through a belief system about sex — a set of sex commandments — which, in turn, becomes government control. As I wrote in the post about Weinstein, today’s priests and priestesses seeking sex commandments, ranging from an ex-beauty contestant and Fox News hostess to Hollywood’s most influential titans and institutions, propose rigid, new work rules and regulations concocted by college professors, activists and feminists prohibiting sex-related association, contracts and action.
Trump supports Saudi purge
Speaking of repressive religious regimes, nonstop coverage of unconfirmed sex claims obscures reporting on news that matters, such as Saudi Arabia purging itself of the closest such a dictatorship could have to freethinkers, such as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The now-imprisoned or detained prince’s wealth among many others’ has been confiscated by the fundamentalist Islamic state in a sweeping purge of what the dictatorship calls “corruption”, even as the kingdom claims it’s liberalizing dictates against women. The Trump administration — the president and his secretary of state participated in a Saudi Arabian sword ceremony this year in a distinctly un-American display — approves of the purge.
With Saudi Arabia in a proxy war with the world’s other Islamic totalitarian state, Iran, the Saudi purge, amid rising religious influence within the oil kingdom, further destabilizes the region and threatens the West. As historian John Lewis told me in our last interview, whichever Islamic dictatorship emerges from the war between these two jihadist states is an emboldened enemy of civilization; the victor, Dr. Lewis forewarned, poses a catastrophic threat to the United States.
Sen. John McCain infamously spoke at the turn of the century of a 100-year war against religious fundamentalists. Unfortunately, America is well into what appears to be a 100-year war for nothing, about nothing, accomplishing nothing but mass death of Americans — citizens and soldiers alike — as America appeases Islamic statism.
Neglecting the national defense and purging men from power based on sensationalized, unsubstantiated claims hastens America’s disintegration into an uninformed, distracted and unguarded nation in which every thought, expression and action is subject to the whims of a bureaucrat — leaving every American at the mercy of those who hate humanity, civilization and progress.
You see this moral submission to evil in the acceptance of mass death as a matter of course. You see this in every trending shooting, vehicular mowdown or stabbing. You see this in the subsequent lockdown, backslapping, praying and candlelighting and the calls for more of the same irrational laws, checkpoints and practices that fail to stop each attack. You see it in the people’s belief in a national leader, surveillance or other statism such as a transportation agency which fails 90 percent of the time, according to its own bureaucrats.
You see it, too, though, when there’s a car chase, a new wave of allegations or another presidential meltdown. Day by day, year by year, America is being purged of thoughtful discourse about what matters, sacrificing reason for gawking over, as against grappling with, unchecked half-truths. Jumping to conclusions to purge those in power comes at the expense of making judgments about defending the nation and achieving nothing less than victory.
The year’s greatest unsolved mystery — why Stephen Paddock opened fire on a musical concert in Las Vegas in an act of mass murder — is, in this sense, emblematic of the year 2017. The act got everyone’s attention for a few weeks. There were the knee-jerk expressions of belief, prayer and political commentary. Then, the unsolved mystery of why a mass murderer did what he did, including basic discrepancies in the timeline, faded into oblivion.
This evil, empty attack, apparently premeditated by Paddock simply to purge life on earth — including his own, reducing himself to zero as we’re told is the highest morality; selflessness — happened, passed and was, like ObamaCare, the surveillance state and the TSA, accepted as the new normal. Slaughter in Las Vegas was as forgotten as every other act of mass murder. In a year in which Americans showed greater outrage over unproven accusations than over unsolved motives for the mass murder of innocents, what is being purged from America is the sound of the voice of reason.
Blake Scholl addresses Objectivists in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Scott Holleran)
Watching Boom Supersonic founder and CEO Blake Scholl address this summer’s Objectivist Conference in Pittsburgh, I was struck by the newness, youth and growth of the movement to advance Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. Blake is a friend whom I’ve known since he was a student at Pittsburgh’s distinguished university named for two great American capitalists — Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie — at the end of the 20th century. Today, Blake’s a leading new voice for capitalism, seeking to reclaim and restore supersonic air travel.
As the only philosophy to advocate capitalism on the ethics of egoism, which Ayn Rand (1905-1982) reduced to what she boldly and, I think, rightly called the virtue of selfishness, Objectivism is perfect for attracting, inspiring and guiding productive achievers such as Blake Scholl, who departed after his talk in Pittsburgh to Paris, where he tripled orders for Boom Supersonic’s new jet (its XB-1 Supersonic Demonstrator is scheduled to fly at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California in 2019). The system of ideas created by the author of Atlas Shrugged is bound to foster businessmen such as Blake Scholl, who presented his vision for aviation based on speed, convenience and quality before what the Ayn Rand Institute claims is its largest annual Objectivist Conference.
The city of steel, bridges and exemplary education, Pittsburgh, too, is the perfect place to exhibit an enticing preview of the manmade. Pittsburgh was at the crux of creating the world’s single, greatest period of productive achievement, the Industrial Revolution. This magnificent city, where pioneering soldiers, frontiersmen, industrialists, doctors and artists protected and forged the nation’s most enduring new enterprises — in medicine, engineering, energy, movies, television and the arts — continues to be underestimated. Just like America, Ayn Rand and the best minds.
Certainly, Boom’s Blake Scholl is not infallible; he may make mistakes in executing his vision. However, with Blake’s presentation, the Objectivist movement reaches a higher point — fittingly, in a tower located next to railroad tracks at the south bank of the Monongahela River in a proudly industrialized metropolis which climaxes at a golden triangle pointing West, stretching into lush, green hills. This year’s OCON included lectures on intellectual property, stoicism and the gold standard. Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram delivered insightful talks on Rand’s interviews with industrialists and an examination of Rand’s favorite novel, which is about building a grain elevator. There was a screening and discussion of the Oscar-nominated documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, trivia and talent events and a panel discussion on free speech with Flemming Rose, a journalist who once published a Mohammed cartoon and still needs police protection. Pittsburgh doctor Amesh Adalja spoke on the history of infectious disease in the city where his heroes, Drs. Thomas Starzl and Jonas Salk, made medical history. OCON Pittsburgh — during which the Pittsburgh Penguins won hockey’s Stanley Cup and I visited family and friends and saw the Pittsburgh Pirates defeat the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park — included tours of the Homestead blast furnace once owned by Andrew Carnegie‘s U.S. Steel, Henry Clay Frick’s (1849-1919) home and owned works of art and Fallingwater, the home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann in 1936. I was writing TV scripts on deadline during the conference and missed some talks, events and mixers. And, while certain conference services, staff and events failed, fell flat or need improvement, others were good, new or interesting.
Blake Scholl’s talk stands out as an Objectivist hallmark. That this Carnegie Mellon University graduate stood as a businessman against the cynicism and anti-intellectualism of our times to demonstrate that the good is possible and that air transportation can and ought to be grand, fast and glorious realizes Ayn Rand’s depiction of man as a heroic being. That he did it in Pittsburgh is perfectly rational. So, here comes evidence that the potential for the gleaming, industrialized future Ayn Rand’s idealistic novels envision, promise and dramatize can be made real. Whatever happens on the day after tomorrow, to paraphrase a condensed description of Atlas Shrugged — a novel, it must be recognized, which also depicts a dramatic episode of aviation adventure — this is true, which is cause for all thinkers to want more of what Objectivism explains and offers for living here on earth.
Strand Releasing’s 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, is, in retrospect, a cinematic achievement. The 143-minute movie debuts on Blu-Ray on July 28.
Other than a new trailer and enhanced English SHD sound, this is the same product as the Collector’s DVD edition several years ago. But Objectivists, Ayn Rand fans and those who recognize the power and relevance of her novels We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and, in particular, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her books and other writings, should invest in owning this film if they don’t already have it.
Given the historic events since writer and director Michael Paxton‘s Oscar-nominated movie was released in movie theaters, the reasons to see it have multiplied.
In silent movie clips, letters, pictures, drawings, paintings, interviews, dramatization and animation, Paxton pieces together the ideas, stories and events in Rand’s life in chronological order. This approach allows the viewer to discover, rediscover and appreciate her life, career and philosophy. It is factual, thoughtful and respectful, even reverential, without being overloaded, dense or dogmatic. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life depicts Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as the heroic figure she was.
Backed by documentary evidence, from her original name on a ship’s passenger manifest during her escape from Soviet Russia to highlighted stills with Rand as an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, Paxton presents Ayn Rand’s life in terms of essentials. For example, he integrates a movie diary entry and early clip of the silent film era’s Gish sisters with their later intersection in Ayn Rand’s life. This theme of realizing heroic ideals and goals recurs throughout the faded photograph-styled motion picture, with movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. Aided by actress Sharon Gless (Burn Notice), who narrates the film with grace, and Jeff Britting’s correspondingly ascendant score, segmented snippets, scenes and stories converge as a whole picture. Among those interviewed are Objectivist intellectuals who knew Rand, including her heir and Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff (for full disclosure, I am an Objectivist and I’ve met and studied, worked or become friends with some of those involved or who appear, including Paxton and Peikoff). The late CBS News journalist Mike Wallace is also interviewed.
Accordingly, one gets a strong sense of a personal life, including the affair with psychologist Nathaniel Branden, which is telescoped here for practical purposes, and her friends, associates and preferences. Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is a steady yet elusive figure.
But the focus is on her intellectual development as a philosopher and progression as a writer, from childhood and studies in St. Petersburg and witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to her brief time in Berlin, on the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City, months in Chicago, Hollywood years and on lecture tour. Finally, Ayn Rand triumphs in New York City, where she creates Objectivism and writes Atlas Shrugged. The movie deposits each part of her life into the big picture. Of course, it is larger than life.
Asked to write a screenplay for DeMille called “The Skyscraper”, selling an adaptation of her story Red Pawn, seeing her play, Penthouse Legend, morphed into something else, one sees the challenge, effort and struggle of the young writer Ayn Rand. The initial allure of a screen version of her anti-dictatorship novel We the Living, which was published in Hollywood’s Red Decade, draws attention from Bette Davis, who apparently indicated that she wanted to portray the heroine, Kira, until she was advised that doing so might hurt her career. A pirate film version was made in fascist Italy (the best movie based on an Ayn Rand novel; read my review here) in 1942. A Sense of Life recalls Ayn Rand meeting the only actress to portray Kira on screen, Alida Valli, who tried to persuade David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to make We the Living in Hollywood.
The nation’s decline permeates the film. Ayn Rand begins life as an eager newcomer, distressed to have missed a sight of the Statue of Liberty while entering New York, where her life ends after it seems as if almost everyone in America missed the point of her novels and philosophy. Part of what makes A Sense of Life an accomplishment is its objectivity with regard to her legacy. Ayn Rand’s answers, estimates and explanations, presented in quotations, papers and audio-visual excerpts, speak volumes.
“If anyone destroys this country,” Ayn Rand says at one point in a late night interview with Tom Snyder on NBC in the 1970s, “it will be the conservatives. Because they’re all altruists.”
Whether appearing on the Today Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, Ayn Rand was extremely clear and concise. Those familiar with her books will find much to think about. Even those who are agnostic or hostile to her philosophy may gain from seeing her in action through archival material. Those who are new to Ayn Rand will learn about the philosophy in a general, not pedantic, sense. Each viewer will learn more about what moved her to create a system of thought so radical, controversial and enduring. Everyone watching the movie can judge Ayn Rand as she thought, wrote and lived.
This includes her relationship with her husband, whom she apparently adored, and her professional connections with those who advocated for the publication and adaptation of her books, including Warner Bros.’ advocate for making The Fountainhead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ayn Rand’s family. Whether in a movie clip of Ayn Rand at her Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley or footage of her congressional testimony against Communist infiltration of Hollywood studios, Paxton ranges over the sweep of her private and professional life.
There is an emphasis on Hollywood, which deals in pictures, and the film regards her foremost as an artist who is a philosopher, not the reverse. Pictures evolve into its progression and vice versa: Ayn Rand meets legendary movie producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca), for whom she wrote Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott, writes Anthem, campaigns for Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential candidacy, is deemed “too harsh” by Hollywood conservatives and suggests Garbo, with whom The Fountainhead director King Vidor subsequently met, to portray Dominique Francon on screen (which did not happen; the part went to Patricia Neal).
That’s merely when she was young. If Ayn Rand’s life is like something out of Ayn Rand’s fiction—meeting DeMille on the movie studio lot, meeting her future husband by chance in a Hollywood library, being invited to dine at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright—it is because she chose to pursue happiness. As she might have put it, she wanted to be selfish.
Ayn Rand’s selfishness, the highest Objectivist virtue by this admiring account, was consciously practiced. Again and again, with New York City as the pinnacle of man’s achievement and the Empire State Building as a visual focal point, unfolding from an artist’s portrait of Ayn Rand to the crowning achievement which is Atlas Shrugged, the woman at the center of ASense of Life lived by the exalted ideals she identified, explained and dramatized. She visited steel mills in California, Chicago and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and rode on trains and studied architecture as research for her work. She gave herself a renewed sense of purpose in adapting Atlas Shrugged as an NBC miniseries after her husband died in November of 1979, when it became abundantly evident that America was falling apart.
As her career winds down and Ayn Rand is seen seated at an intellectuals’ round table surrounded by men, she had been invited to the Apollo 11 rocket launch putting man on the moon, an event which she attended, denounced racism—appropriately, a sign held by a somber-looking black woman reads “Integration”—and attended an invitation-only dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Fordand the First Lady, Mrs. Betty Ford.
Before social media, proving that she grasped what most did not about objective communication, Ayn Rand had created courses, conferences, lectures, discussions and publications emanating her philosophy, Objectivism, and disseminating her ideas across multiple media platforms, from radio and television (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) and theater and movies to an interview in Playboy and other print media. She even wrote a column for the stagnant Los Angeles Times. It’s all here. The evidence of her genius but also her strength is plain; she never lets up, she does not stop acting to advance her values, she never lets what matters go.
Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life positions TV’s talk show pioneer Phil Donahue as a proxy for the general public with regard to understanding Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In her two Donahue appearances, one sees his evolution as a host, as the powerful pair discuss God, altruism and the death of her husband. Relentlessly clarifying confusions, Ayn Rand acts as a springboard to an entire examination of one’s deeply held premises.
Donahue challenges. Rand responds. Donahue reflects. The viewer thinks.
This is the effect of the film. I have seen it several times since I attended advance screenings and the premier in 1997. Whether on a home theater screen or a movie theater screen, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life plays like the absorbing, accessible and enlightening movie it is. It prompts the viewer to think—about her comments, ideas and books and her stories, heroes and themes—about whether and how these apply to one’s life. The film is a solid cinematic introduction to and retrospective of Ayn Rand, Objectivism and her books.
In it, one also learns the early history and first stage of a movement made by her philosophy. It’s not flawless—occasionally, musical cues are distracting and Anthem gets short shrift—and moviemakers should continue to explore her life. But, unlike her detractors’ psychologizing, almost everything asserted here derives from the facts of reality or conclusions based on the firsthand observation of its fascinating subject, Ayn Rand.
If you’re up to it, to paraphrase Objectivism’s creator, check those premises; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a good place to start.
The Blu-Ray Edition
As I wrote, this is the same two-disc edition as the earlier release, a DVD Collector’s edition, with a couple of additions and enhancements other than the film’s transfer to the crisp, higher-definition Blu-Ray format. Chapter selections are clearly marked.
The extras include a new trailer, which was not on the DVD, a rare photograph gallery, a deleted dance sequence evoking Ayn Rand’s unpublished work in progress “To Lorne Dieterling”, the complete filmed version of scenes from Ayn Rand’s play, Ideal, and more. Cast and crew bios, an interview with writer and director Michael Paxton, (whom I interviewed for the movie’s release; read the archived newspaper article here), stills, bonus footage and additional information are all included. Fans and Objectivists should not skip the additional interviews with Ayn Rand’s friends, scholars and associates, including Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, as they have more to say about her than is contained in the 143-minute movie.
In a July 2015 statement accompanying press materials, director Michael Paxton says that “telling stories about independent and heroic women have always been and continue to be a theme in my work as a filmmaker.” He should be proud that Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which continues to earn interest in the themes, books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a heroic story well shown and told.