This was not the first, or last, stupid thing that Buckley wrote about Ayn Rand
(and much else). But rank it right up there among the most stupid, no doubt motivated by wishful thinking. For one thing, books written by the long-dead novelist and philosopher continue to sell every year in numbers that Buckley, even in his heyday, could only dream about. For another, her Objectivist philosophy is steaming ahead against the cultural and political currents, while the conservative vessel that Buckley once captained is philosophically becalmed, culturally adrift, and politically foundering.
The evidence of Rand’s growing impact on our intellectual and cultural life is barely touched upon in the preceding pages of this special tribute issue. For example, we have hardly mentioned the growing presence of her ideas in academia. A philosophy once universally dismissed as the fulminations of a crackpot is now the subject of an ever-expanding body of papers, books, conferences, and scholarly journals—a fact noted even by such Establishment journals as The Chronicle of Higher Education. Each year, more and more young scholars inspired and influenced by her work take positions on the faculties of leading universities, incrementally replacing the old guard that despised her. Objectivist groups and publications have become campus fixtures, in the same way that Marxist groups thrived during the 1930s and ’40s.
One interesting measure of Rand’s rising cultural influence is the sheer number of “Rand references” in the mass media—a growth that Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra has tracked and described as “exponential.” Log on to Google and set up a daily keyword search for news stories carrying the terms “ Ayn Rand
,” “ Objectivism
,” and “ Atlas Shrugged
.” I’ve been doing this for a number of years, and what used to be a few media references to Rand each month is now at least a half-dozen citations per day.
Every culturally successful innovation began in the brain of one seminal thinker.
A revealing aspect of these mentions, whether favorable or critical, is that her name, the titles of her books, even the names of her fictional characters, are often dropped casually into articles and interviews, on the tacit premise that the ordinary reader is expected
to know who she is, what she wrote, and what she stood for. But what newspaper reporter or TV scriptwriter would drop similar references to Hegel? Would The Simpsons
, which ran a famous episode poking good-natured fun at Rand,have ever tried to lampoon Kant or Kierkegaard? Who would “get it”?
But Ayn Rand
’s true influence cannot be properly gauged by the more obvious measures we’ve employed here.
For it is largely unseen, residing in the minds and lives of millions of readers who have, to varying degrees, embraced and absorbed her ideas privately and without fanfare. Occasionally, that influence reveals itself in the statements of a celebrity, politician, or business leader. But they speak for countless others more obscure, and sometimes more sincere.
Every culturally successful innovation began in the brain of one seminal thinker. Invariably, these challenging perspectives were first mocked and dismissed by entrenched representatives of the status quo. But eventually the new ideas reached a cultural “tipping point,” where the numbers and social status of their supporters hit critical mass.
At that point the once-reviled innovation suddenly became trendy, and swept society in a rush, routing opposition and overcoming indifference. Almost overnight, it seemed, the challenging perspective had become the dominant paradigm.
Could the fact that so many celebrities and politicians are now willing to link their names to Ayn Rand
’s signal a coming cultural tipping point for her philosophy? Are we approaching a moment when people find her arguments for rational individualism to be not merely provocative, or even persuasive, but cool?
We can’t yet know. But when a William F. Buckley can declare, in 1982, that Ayn Rand
and her ideas are “dead,” yet find himself compelled to publish, in 2003, a badly written book trashing Ayn Rand
and her ideas, then it becomes very clear whose cause is dead, and whose cause lives on.