Ayn Rand in Washington

By Nadine Epstein

Last evening, I attended the world premiere of Atlas Shrugged, Part Two, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, attended by the glitterati of the libertarian world. Spotted in the crowd were Grover Norquist, Matt Kibbe (head of FreedomWorks), the heart and souls of The Atlas Society and the stars of the new film, an entirely new cast since Part One.

Once the introductory preaching concluded (altruism seemed to be misconstrued as solely government enforced) and reminders to vote were put forth (the name Mitt Romney was never uttered), the lights went down and the fun began. Although some camera angles and production values jarred me at times, I’ve gotta say, I enjoyed the movie, especially the fast-paced, action-filled last half. The new actors playing the iconic characters (the film’s Wikipedia page says that the old cast was no longer affordable, claiming Taylor Schilling was now a “bona-fide movie star”) outshone those in Part One. We’re not talking Oscar-grade acting here, but Samantha Mathis’s Dagny Taggart was far more nuanced, likeable and believable.

None of this matters, because this is not why you go to see Atlas Shrugged. For many, it is Ayn Rand’s ideas and philosophy, but for me it is the thrill of the story, and the genre of  “economic fantasy.” What a cool idea to build a dystopian society (the film is placed in the not too distant future, although Rand anchored it firmly in her time) in which smart, entrepreneurial people self-deport to a hidden nirvana, leaving the rest of humanity to fend for itself. While the plot is heavy-handed, and full of holes, it is eminently readable, and yes, even watchable. Of course, therein lies the lasting power of Ayn Rand’s ideas: They inhabit this page-turner novel (as well as The Fountainhead and We the Living) that makes them highly accessible to people who have often read little else about history, political and economic thought.

Will Part Two of Atlas Shrugged have the same seductive power as the novel to sway minds and hearts, especially on the eve of a national presidential election? The funders and producers must hope so, hence the October 12, 2012, premiere date.

Here’s an excerpt from an op-ed I recently wrote for The Hill which explains why I think many in the American Jewish community will not be swayed:

Being “steeped in Jewish history also makes most American Jews immune to the charms of Ayn Rand, the popular patron goddess of free markets and objectivism. Ayn Rand, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, was a Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union, and left for America in 1925. Once transplanted to the U.S., she wrote passionate novels, among the best the semi-autobiographical We the Living, and later the phenomenal bestsellers, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Her embrace of individual rights over all else has transcended generations, inspiring economic conservatives from Alan Greenspan to Paul Ryan and beyond.

“Ayn Rand is a fascinating person, but her ideas need to be understood for what they are: the outgrowth of a bright young Jewish woman’s despair and her hatred of communism. Her move to the U.S. allowed her ideas to take root in a painstakingly constructed hybrid American capitalist system. Like kudzu invading and replacing native plant species, her ideas spread whether they made sense in her new country or not. Although appealing to some Jews, among them some libertarian idealists and recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, her ideas leave the vast majority of American Jews cold. In other words, the economic beliefs of Paul Ryan are unlikely to resonate with most American Jews.”

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