Sunday, December 29, 2013

It's Not Such a Wonderful Life for Ayn Rand

Just over three years ago in a blog I wrote about the increase of intolerance in American culture, I shared a link from Joe Conason, who'd written a story on about the owners of a boardwalk establishment down in Seaside Heights, NJ called Lucky Leo's who'd put up a rather (racially) offensive caricature of President Obama for customers to hurl things at. 

Joe has a great eye for interesting stories and he's currently the editor-in-chief of The National Memo Website. 

I follow him on Twitter and the other day he forwarded a link (via Geoff9Cow@twitter) to a blog post that appeared on the Website about the strange revelation that author Ayn Rand helped the FBI to find communist undertones in the plot of Frank Capra's classic film, 'It's a Wonderful Life' as part of a wider government effort to expose subversive communist influences in Hollywood in the 40's and 50's.

Ayn (pronounced like sign) Rand’s name pops up fairly frequently on this blog mostly because so many right-wing thinkers and politicians tend to deify her like some kind of conservative visionary.

Rand was intelligent, well read, highly educated and professed a wide range of unusual philosophical beliefs. 

But her focus on the purpose of human existence revolving around the "virtue of selfishness", the supremacy of reason and her unwavering belief in free market laissez-faire capitalism as the answer to virtually everything is often held up by many conservatives to justify the extremist economic positions today's GOP embraces.

Stuff like slashing food stamp assistance to families, eliminating Social Security, opposing raising the minimum wage while being steadfast against raising taxes on the wealthiest - you know the drill-baby-drill. 

Like many scholars and members of academia I don't agree with most aspects of her philosophy, but she is none the less a highly influential writer and thinker who has shaped the perspectives of any number of well-known figures. 

From former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan to failed vice presidential candidate and compassion-free budget hawk Congressman Paul Ryan - who cited her as an influential factor in deciding to run for political office and famously required all members of his Congressional staff to read Rand’s 'Atlas Shrugged'.

From my perspective as someone who studied the Constitution in depth in college, Rand's elevation of the self above all else just doesn't jibe with what the Framers of the Constitution envisioned for this nation. When I was young my parents taught me you helped your neighbor out, were charitable to the less fortunate and learned to put the needs of others above your own.
Rand's peculiar mix of philosophy dismissed such notions as "sentimental hogwash" (to quote Mr. Potter), much as her wholesale dismissal of religion and the attributes of faith. 

Without having studied her in depth, I can only suppose that the childhood trauma she endured during her upbringing in Russia had something to do with her rather severe views on the purpose of man.

She was born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum in 1905, and the internal political upheavals and civil war that devastated Russia in the early part of the 20th century sadly ripped her family from their comfortable bourgeoisie existence and temporarily displaced them into a refugee status where she came to know hunger and deprivation.

I can't imagine what that was like so while I can disagree with her I can't really judge her.

It's possible that those traumatic childhood experiences coupled with her rabid desire for intellectual understanding and her 30 year addiction to Benzedrine (which she began taking to stay awake to meet a writing deadline to finish a draft of 'The Fountainhead') probably contributed to her propensity for dark mood swings and is likely reflected in the rather bleak fictional visions for humanity presented in her two most well known novels, 'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas Shrugged’.

Rand seeing communist subversion in the plot of a sentimental tear-jerker like 'It's a Wonderful Life' might strike some as odd - it sure struck me as strange when I read it. 

But anyone who's seen Capra movies like 'Meet John Doe' or 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' knows the concept of "the average man versus the system" and how even a good person could be driven to the depths of despair (and even suicide) by an oppressive power structure is a theme he explored at great length in his films; partially in response to the devastation of the middle class during the Great Depression and partially due to the struggles of his own upbringing.

Given Rand's perspective, she could probably discern communist themes in any number of films from the same period. 

She spent a lot of time in Hollywood working on the production side and writing screenplays and expressed loathing for films she felt contrasted with her own philosophy. 

For example she was openly critical of the film 'The Best Years of Our Lives' and its examination of the impact of World War II on the lives of returning American war veterans for what she saw as a negative portrayal of business and how it treated them in the storyline.

So it's probably pretty fair to say the George Bailey character played by actor Jimmy Stewart in 'It's a Wonderful Life' getting the best of the greedy town banker Mr. Potter played by Lionel Barrymore probably pissed Rand off.

One can almost imagine her staying awake on some Benzedrine-fueled bender, chain smoking and muttering to herself about the famous scene at the end of the film when the towns people gather together to pitch in their meager savings to save the Bailey Brother's savings and loan. 

When the bell on their Christmas tree rings and little Zu Zu Bailey utters the famous line: "Look mommy, teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!" most people wipe away a tear (I do every time I watch it) but Rand would most likely pick up an ashtray and fling it through a window.

The character Clarence the Angel probably infuriated her atheist sensibilities.

Clearly her justified contempt for communism and the Soviet Union made her an all-too willing witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the Red Scare - so Rand's willingness to help the FBI find subversive communist plot elements in 'It's a Wonderful Life' is not really all that surprising; though it is a bit weird.

It's oft said that what we see says a lot about who we are. Where most people see a heartwarming sentimental film about a man who gets to see what life was like if he'd never been born, Rand saw elements of communist propaganda - which is her right.

For most people the character George Bailey holding onto his humanity in the face of monumental struggle represents the ideal of the common man's hero, but to Ayn Ran he was just a sap. Perhaps that sums up her complex philosophy and lack of compassion for others in a nutshell.

Maybe it's one of the reasons why the GOP House leadership allowed emergency unemployment benefits for Americans to expire despite a majority of Americans supporting an extension; and yet they were the ones who opposed job creation legislation. 

(Lately some GOP leaders seem more interested in weighing in on the Duck Dynasty debacle than people loosing their only source of income.)

Mr. Potter certainly would have approved of that kind of Dickensian measure three days after the Christmas holiday - so would Ayn Rand.

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