Mark Sanford and Ayn Rand To Take Stroll Down the Appalachian Trail
I kid you not. The editors at Newsweek have presented us with one of the most biting pieces of (indirect) commentary yet to appear in a major American periodical. On the last page of this week’s Newsweek (November 2, 2009), Governor Mark Sanford’s wife is quoted as saying about his affair, “I know that I’m going to be fine, and not only will I survive, I’ll thrive” (Jenny Sanford). This quotation is found among statements from the spouses of several other unfaithful hubbies, all public figures. Okay, pretty tacky. But I am not here to complain about tackiness.
Six pages earlier in the magazine there is a two page piece by the Governor himself. Title you ask? “Atlas Hugged,” which appears to be referring to Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, but is no doubt also talking about Sanford’s relationship to Rand. So now poor Jenny has to deal not only with the woman in Argentina but Ayn Rand, a serious swinger in her day. Could Sanford have been responsible for this title? Did he know that Jenny’s words would appear just pages after his? Did he care? Can this man handle not having his fifteen minutes of fame endlessly loop around the air waves? The mind boggles. But the piece does sing the praises of the true individual.
Ah, the piece. It is about how this is a good time for an Ayn Rand revival. And yes, while Sanford does have some reservations these days about Rand, he was once a true believer, and he still appears smitten. There are some wonderful passages in the Newsweek article. Take this one from Sanford’s pen on Roark, the hero of Rand’s book.
The Fountainhead is a stunning evocation of the individual and what he can achieve when unhindered by government or society. Howard Roark is an architect who cares nothing about the world’s approval; his only concerns are his integrity and the perfection of his designs….
[Let's just stop here for a moment. Did Sanford really say, "his only concerns are his integrity and the perfection of his designs." Freud is always out smoking a cigar when you need him.]
Near the end of the book, Roark is on trial for demolishing a building he had designed—he had insisted it be built exactly as drawn, but when some bureaucrats alter the structure, Roark feels he has no choice but to dynamite it. Representing himself, Roark pleads, in characteristically Randian terms: “I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need … I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society.” Cold though they sound, these words contain two basic truths. First, an individual can achieve great things without governmental benevolence, and second, one man has no right to another’s achievement. These are lessons we should all remember today, when each week is seemingly marked by another government program designed to fix society. [Emphasis added.]
“Cold though they sound?” No, Mark, not cold. The man was willing to blow up a building because he didn’t like the way that his plans, his designs, were executed. (Some might suggest that this smacks a bit of terrorism, no? I don’t like what you have done to my work. Okay, I’ll blow up a building.) Think about all of those folks who worked on the building. All of their work is for naught, because Roark has not gotten the building that he designed. Narcissism you say? Narcissism being supported by the good Governor of South Carolina?
I think at a fundamental level many people recognize Rand’s essential truth—government doesn’t know best. Those in power in Washington—or indeed in Columbia, S.C.—often lead themselves to believe that our prosperity depends on their wisdom. It doesn’t. The prosperity and opportunity we enjoy comes ultimately from the creative energies of the country’s businessmen, entrepreneurs, investors, marketers, and inventors. The longer it takes this country to reawaken to this reality, the worse we—and in turn, our children’s standard of living—will be.
Well, this is certainly the case in S.C. with the old governor disappearing for days on end. Hiking that trail. But on a more serious note, notice that Sanford doesn’t mention in his list of prosperity creators: workers, teachers, scientists, etc. Whatever reservations Sanford may have about Rand–she “doesn’t include the human needs we have for grace, love, faith, or any form of social compact”–I would say that he is still in love, in love with a narcissistic ideal of what it means to be a good human being or a good productive citizen. It is as if the choice were between golden knights on corporate horseback (just what we need right now) and demons clothed in government garb. If only life were this black and white. If only all the good guys were those involved in the private sphere and the corrupt (or soon to be corrupt) were allied with the government. What sophomoric pablum. Soap opera is more nuanced. I say, if the right thinks that it is time to bring back Ayn Rand, more power to them. There are few political thinkers, and I am being generous here in calling her a political thinker–as Sanford points out, “William F. Buckley called objectivism ‘stillborn’ in a column he wrote when she died”–who are less relevant to the world that we face. It’s clear that we are going to need to stand together if we don’t want to fall apart. And this doesn’t mean collectivism. It means responsible citizenship. We are citizens, after all, and not just Roarks.