Editor’s Note: In Part One of this series, we discussed how Ayn Rand’s teaching and influence affected the work that was being done by her followers. We noted how overall she represented a net drain on the abilities and art being produced by her followers.
How does this happen? How has following and learning from a best-selling novelist created conditions in which the work of her followers would be worse than otherwise. Jeff Walker describes some of the group dynamics at play (earlier in the chapter):
“Ethical and psychological studies indicate that social animals such as humans, do imitate their leaders’ behavior. By the 1960s, legions of New York students of Objectivism were looking to Rand and Brandens for cues as to what music they should be listening to, what fashions they should be wearing, and what careers they should pursue. At a deeper level, formerly likeable or at least tolerable young people were transmogrified into grim, belligerent poseurs robotically mouthing Randian slogans in imitation of fictional heroes and of their supposed real-life counterparts.”
This seems natural and normal. One joins a group and seeks to normalize one’s behavior and attitudes to the new group. No one wants to be the odd one out discussing say Jay Z when everyone else prefers Mozart. No one wants to be the janitor among a group of lawyers. Yet if we both in the group and as individuals are not careful then these real and natural instincts can become counterproductive and create not authentic human beings but cheap copies of cheap ideals.
Unfortunately anyone in the church can probably tell stories of seeing brilliant young converts turning into robotic bible quote machines. In discussing the dynamics of this effect and its real world effect on the students of objectivism, Walker corks off this doozy of a quote:
“A dampening of humor is almost universal in cults. Cult personality transformation brings about inflexible thinking and constricted feeling, both inimical to a sense of humor. Rand herself was highly suspicious of humor…. Humor might imply that one was not serious about one’s values, that one was trying to undermine the metaphysically significant.”
In the world of larger than life personalities and the movements they inspire there is no greater challenge than feeling. Just as the ecstatic joy of communing with a group is the single greatest advantage of just such a movement, an opening of one’s self to the larger self is a danger. The type of move into the community, when done poorly or wrongly, can lead to the narrowing of experience, thinking, and feeling. The high of community can be damaged by the wrong question or the wrong feeling. And nothing conjures up this terror like a sense of humor. To laugh at one’s inflated opinions is to potentially burst the balloon of others. This is why many in the church seem outright threatened by writers who use a sense of humor to portray truth. The humor both reveals, to them at least, a lack of decorum and respect even while it undermines that which seems important.
Moving on Walker also pointed the reader to comments such as these:
“Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, remarks that most Objectivists in time come to ‘regret their childish Ubermensch pretensions’ inspired by Rand’s novels. Childs recalls that an enormous number of those bowled over by Rand ‘had grandiose ambitions that bore no relationship to what they were going to do with their lives.’ One perfectly normal young woman who could have done some acceptably good writing or taught English ‘ wanted to be another Victor Hugo, changed her name to [a variation on the name of one of Rand’s favorite writers] and had a pretentious nine novels planned out… Not having the technique or the training for it, she just dropped out of sight and became a sort of farmer in the Midwest.”
Here the sense of importance and constriction of thought leads the wannabe author to strive for greatness when goodness will do. As many writers at the turn of this year pointed out, the worst way to changes are those changes writ large. Large changes really stick; yet small changes now establish the well-worn path to large changes over time. Ironically this same principle which has been used to transform the member of the group into a coherent clog is that which hamstrings his or her future self.
It seems to me that at the heart of the problem is the classification of these students. Earlier in the piece Walker quotes one critic of the movement as describing those interested in Rand as “thinking nonintellectuals.” Here we see a particular group of people that are often found in our society: those blessed with good minds that enjoy using them; yet have not (or refuse to) train themselves in the art of thinking. The problem, then, is not in the thinking, but in the refusal to learn how to use their gifts as a tool. There are many reasons for this problem. There is the issue of laziness and sloppiness, of course; but there is also the suspicion of those who have put themselves through the process of becoming an intellectual. This suspicion is well grounded with many stories of those who went off to college or school and turned away from the beliefs of their previous tribe. Any Evangelical is primed with many such stories. Yet I would argue that the problem lies not within the intellectual world but within the inflexibility, constriction, and personality dominance of modern Evangelicalism. The problem lies in a lack of vision within our community for what a trained and disciplined intellectual might look like. When I was leaving for school one well-mentioning individual pulled me aside and said, “Now, don’t let them change you.” I walked away confused because that was my reason for going away: I desired to be changed. I wanted to be changed. Even if I could not explain it at that time I was already bumping into the boundaries of myself, and longed to journey out into the uncharted areas of myself and the world around me. I will never forget driving home from a work day thinking I could do this the rest of my life and be satisfied (to some degree). Yet something within cried out that something more beckoned around the bend, and I realized that should I not see what it was, I would never truly become who I desired to be (and who I believe my creator designed me to be).
 Jeff Walker. The Ayn Rand Cult. (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 51
 For an excellent look at this type of danger see Vera Farmiga’s excellent movie Higher Ground.