Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed

Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed

by Lisa Duggan

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 "Astute."—New York Times 

Ayn Rand’s complicated notoriety as popular writer, leader of a political and philosophical cult, reviled intellectual, and ostentatious public figure endured beyond her death in 1982. In the twenty-first century, she has been resurrected as a serious reference point for mainstream figures, especially those on the political right from Paul Ryan to Donald Trump. Mean Girl follows Rand’s trail through the twentieth century from the Russian Revolution to the Cold War and traces her posthumous appeal and the influence of her novels via her cruel, surly, sexy heroes. Outlining the impact of Rand’s philosophy of selfishness, Mean Girl illuminates the Randian shape of our neoliberal, contemporary culture of greed and the dilemmas we face in our political present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520967793
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/14/2019
Series: American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 136
Sales rank: 162,212
File size: 978 KB

About the Author

Lisa Duggan is a historian, journalist, activist, and Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is the author of The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy.

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"Proud Woman Conqueror"

Socialist revolution made Ayn Rand. Her key ideas and primary narrative strategies acquired shape and energy as the Bolsheviks took St. Petersburg in 1917. Her childhood idealization of the values and achievements of European "civilization" merged with furious antisocialism in that vortex. Her earliest fiction — the movie script "Red Pawn" and her first novel, We the Living — drew heavily on her life in Russia for images, feelings, and narrative arcs. She imagined her first heroes and conjured the "mobs" that threatened them in the years before she left for the United States in 1926, at the age of twenty-one.

Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum was born in the heart of the late Russian empire in 1905. The prosperous Rosenbaums were among the very small number of Jewish families permitted residence in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg. Alissa's father, Zelman Wolf Zakharovich Rosenbaum (called Zinovy), had been born in the Pale of Settlement, the area where most Jews were required to live. Despite quotas for Jewish students in higher education, he trained as a pharmaceutical chemist at the University of Warsaw and thereby earned the right to move to St. Petersburg. His wife, Khana Berkovna Kaplan (called Anna), was a dentist who belonged to the Jewish elite of that city. Her tailor father owned a factory in St. Petersburg that made military uniforms for the tsar's guards, a position that provided an exemption to the anti-Semitic residency restrictions. Zinovy worked among his in-laws, advancing to ownership of a pharmacy by 1917. Anna gave up her dental practice after marriage and raised three daughters. As the family prospered they moved to fashionable Nevsky Prospekt, where they employed servants, tutored their three daughters in French and music, summered abroad, and sent Alissa (the eldest) to a school for privileged young ladies that had evaded the usual severe restrictions on Jewish enrollment. Alissa made one friend there — Olga Nabokov, Vladimir's sister.

It was in this world that Alissa began to imagine herself as a writer. By her teenage years, she was deeply immersed in reading and writing fiction. She developed her first romantic fixation in 1914, on the leading character of a serial adventure story in a French children's magazine: Cyrus Paltons, the hero of "The Mysterious Valley." The story, set in British-ruled India in 1911, features a captivating British infantry captain. Colonial adventures abound, rife with exoticized natives. Paltons is carried by trained Bengali tigers to a hidden valley, occupied by (of course) bloodthirsty Hindu shamans. A team of rescuers led by a French archeologist arrives, and all are ultimately led out of the valley by Cyrus. Looking back from above after their escape, they watch fires and a flood wipe out the Hindu inhabitants.

This Orientalist scenario (strongly echoed in parts of Rand's last novel, Atlas Shrugged) was a children's-cartoonish version of commonplace European imperial fantasies. Alissa Rosenbaum's fixation on Paltons reflected her idealization of the British (to be replaced later by Americans) as models of imperial conquest. Cyrus was handsome, tall, arrogant, and romantically involved with a beautiful British woman. He represented "civilization" to Alissa, embodying the conquering values of the highest type of man. His superiority was reflected in his physical type as much as in his domineering attitude and actions. Her hero! Long before her crush on William Hickman, this heroic figure was defined by violence. The Hindus in the valley constitute a template for the "mob" that must be defeated or destroyed for the heroes of civilization to triumph. Their fate illuminates the racial domination and genocide that are the ground for civilizational achievement. This kind of "mob" appears throughout Alissa/Ayn's fiction.

Strong identification with European "civilization" (including the British) was pervasive in Alissa Rosenbaum's milieu. Her own identification with Western modernity was complicated by ambivalence generated specifically through her Jewishness and her position as an educated urban girl. Among the urban Jewish elite, secular assimilationist aspirations ruled, and disidentification with Jewishness was not unusual. Nonetheless, the pervasive restrictions and regulations and periodic anti-Semitic violence strengthened bonds of community forged in resistance to widespread danger and hostility. Even where religious identification flagged, a kind of cultural affinity persisted, however unevenly.

Alissa Rosenbaum strongly disidentified with Judaism, calling herself an atheist by age thirteen. She chose heroes and models who were radically unlike the people around her — tall, often blond, muscular Aryan physical types. But as she aspired to reach beyond exclusion and victimization to join the conquering heroes, there were some chinks in her acquired armor. She dimly recognized herself in some angry outsiders, and unselfconsciously surrounded herself with a critical mass of secular Jewish intellectuals throughout her life. This ambivalence shaped her worldview in myriad ways, inflecting her love of domineering conquerors with an integral rage and hatred that sometimes aimed up as well as down the hierarchies she celebrated.

It is not fair or accurate to say that Ayn Rand's politics were somehow Jewish. A disproportionate number of the Bolshevik leaders she despised and opposed were also Jewish. Jews are a widely diverse and divergent group, scattered across nearly every ideological spectrum. But not in a purely random way. As with other excluded or oppressed groups, the experience of marginalization does not determine political views, but it does shape the forms they take and leaves traces in the affective tenor of political commitments. Rand's experience of anti-Semitism gave her work a critical edge. Her angry response to complacent entitlement allowed her work to appeal to outsiders (including feminists and queers), though she herself could be quite anti-Semitic. The experience of anti-Semitism shaped how Jews participated in politics across the whole political spectrum, from communism to capitalism. As Rand's views evolved over the twentieth century, eventually reaching vast audiences through her novels, a complex and contradictory foundation for her appeal emerged.

In addition to her position as a prosperous secular urban Jewish subject of the late Russian empire, Alissa Rosenbaum struggled with the predicament of being female. On the one hand, many educated urbanites in late imperial Russia supported women's careers and political involvements. A minority of libertarian radicals, influenced by nineteenth-century utopian thinking, supported "free love" over marriage and advocated economic independence and reproductive autonomy (birth control and abortion on demand) for women. But these progressively "modern" beliefs existed alongside traditional familialism and powerful misogyny. The challenges of living as a "modern" woman, torn between new opportunities and persisting responsibilities for home and children, vexed every progressive social group across the spectrum of liberal to left political formations. Alissa Rosenbaum had a very hard time working out a way to live with those contradictions. She pushed hard against familialism toward aspirational modernity, while contending with highly gendered imperial ideals of beauty, strength, and virtue — ideals she both reproduced and contested. From a very young age she wanted to be a writer and devote her life to her art! But she also wanted to create conventionally beautiful, seductive romantic heroines, recognizably feminine to readers and irresistible to the heroes.

Alissa's first image of heroic femininity was Daisy, a British girl she saw playing tennis. Daisy appeared to her as an apparition — beautiful, athletic, living a carefree life. Later in London the apparition recurred in the form of a theatrical poster featuring girls like Daisy, with modern English pageboy haircuts. Alissa remembered these sightings as the inspiration for her decision to become a writer. Her first template for a heroine invoked a fantasy of feminine glamour, imbued with the confidence that accompanied imperial and class privilege.

Meanwhile back in St. Petersburg the Bolsheviks seized power. Nothing was ever the same after that. Not for Alissa Rosenbaum and not for the world. A new possibility appeared on the horizon of the twentieth century: the possibility of a worker/peasant alliance seizing state power under the direction of a vanguard party. This possibility was enthralling and exhilarating, or nightmarish and terrifying for counterrevolutionaries. In either case it was a world historical turning point.

Alissa Rosenbaum had lived her short life oblivious to the existence of workers and peasants except as shadowy apparitions, specters of irrationality, or properly subordinated social inferiors. Then oh my god: there they were in the Winter Palace and at her door, behaving as equals and asserting their collective will with the backing of state power. In the midst of food and housing shortages, her family lost their privileged access to resources. The family home was seized and her father's pharmacy was nationalized. She had no framework for understanding what was happening other than the raw experience of loss. She was not aware of the injustices that motivated the Bolsheviks or the workers and peasants who supported them. She had no access to their aspirations, fantasies, and desires. All Alissa saw was resentment, envy, theft, bullying, and the exercise of illegitimate power by people who did not deserve it and could not exercise it rationally. She rewrote the vast canvas of social, economic, and political conflict underlying the Bolshevik revolution — between Russians and non-Russians, poor peasants and landowning kulaks, workers and bosses, nationalists and internationalists, Christians and Muslims, Marxists and populists — into a stark melodramatic clash between worthy individuals and the mob. Not a surprising reductive analysis for a sheltered and privileged twelve-year-old caught in the swirl of overwhelming events. But she stuck to it and elaborated it for the rest of her life.

The Rosenbaums left St. Petersburg (now called Petrograd) for the Crimea, hoping the whole thing would blow over. It didn't. They returned to Petrograd to live in a small part of their now divided former home, and to struggle for the limited available supply of food and fuel. The Bolsheviks' New Economic Policy (NEP, 1921–1928) addressed economic devastation with a loosening of restrictions on private trade. Zinovy Rosenbaum reopened his pharmacy (though it was soon closed again), and Alissa went to college, now tuition free and open to women and Jews. She concentrated in history and fell in love with a young Jewish man, Lev Bekkerman — her first living romantic interest. In a later interview, Ayn Rand remembered:

The first time I saw him I remember being very startled by how good-looking he was. He entered the room and I couldn't quite believe it. He didn't look quite real in the sense that he was too perfectly good looking ... What was unusual is that he was my type of face, with one exception, he had dark hair rather than light hair. But he had light gray eyes, and was tall ... Very intelligent face, very determined ... self-confidant. And the quality that I liked about him most was arrogance... But ... not boastful, not vanity, but actually what he projected was pride, with a kind of haughty smile ... There was always a smile behind his attitude, and an arrogant smile of, "Well, world, you have to admire me." That sort of attitude ... like some fantastic aristocrat.

Lev Bekkerman became the model for Leo Kovalensky, the hero of her first published novel, We the Living.

In the midst of the struggle for necessities and the demands of school, Alissa hoarded money and made time for cultural diversions that both entertained her and gave form to her developing imagination. Her tastes ran to middlebrow and popular entertainments, rather than to European high culture or the emerging Soviet avant-garde. Mostly, she loved the movies.

Foreign-made films rolled into cities of the Russian empire during the early twentieth century, with a fledgling native industry established in Moscow by 1907–1908. The industry grew, with American films slowly replacing French and German productions. Films on offer included newsreels, historical dramas, serials, adaptations of classic novels, genre pictures, and contemporary melodramas. Overall the movies created a public venue that especially attracted the professional and merchant classes while also generating cross-class appeal (though individual theaters tended to be class differentiated).

During the NEP period, the Bolshevik government supported the film industry. As signs and banners around the theaters in Petrograd proclaimed, "Comrade Lenin Said: Of all the arts, the most important one for Russia is the cinema!" Alissa Rosenbaum enrolled in the State Institute for Cinematography in 1924 to learn screenwriting. She attended more than 150 movies and kept a movie diary. Her favorite was a 1921 German imperial melodrama, The Indian Tomb, which starred movie idol (and Alissa's first ranked male star) Conrad Veidt. This Orientalist fantasy shared thematic elements with Alissa's beloved magazine adventure story "The Mysterious Valley." A maharajah commissions an English architect to build a shrine more impressive than the Taj. But upon arrival the architect discovers that the shrine is to be a living-death tomb for the maharajah's unfaithful lover. The film is replete with elephants, palaces, tigers, lascivious queens, and exotic smoky clubs. The lover kills herself, the architect escapes with his white fiancé. All the major Indian roles are played by Germans in blackface.

Young Alissa's love of this film, like her love for Cyrus Paltons, made its way into her fiction. The physical descriptions, the characterizations, the thrill of conquest, the eroticization of dominant masculinity, the figures of the hero and the mob, can be traced to the representations of romanticized imperialism all around her.

While enrolled at the cinematography school, Alissa began to write for publication. The pamphlet "Hollywood: American City of Movies" was probably written as a class assignment, then edited and published without her knowledge or permission in 1926. Her mother found it in a bookstore after Alissa left Russia. Consisting primarily of breathless, amazed, gushing descriptions of the Stars! the Studios! the Money!, the pamphlet demonstrates a fairly extensive knowledge of Hollywood personalities gathered from the movie magazines sent by relatives in Chicago. Her descriptions expound her view from afar of (for her) a thrilling kind of Hollywood globalism:

The movies they produce seize every country, each nation. Just as you will find scenery depicting any part of the world around Hollywood, so on its streets you will meet representatives of every nationality, people from every social class. Elegant Europeans, energetic, businesslike Americans, benevolent Negroes, quiet Chinese, savages from colonies, Professors from the best schools, farmers, and aristocrats of all types and ages descend on the Hollywood studios in a greedy crowd.

This pamphlet marks the beginning of the transfer of Alissa's imperial fantasies, with everyone in their assigned place on the scale of civilizational "progress," from the European to the American context. Notably, the pamphlet does not mention the presence of any Jewish people in Hollywood.

Alissa's second pamphlet, a paean to Polish movie star Pola Negri, also marked that transfer. Negri was the first European film star to be invited to Hollywood. She became one of the most popular actresses in American silent movies, whose love affairs with Rudolph Valentino and others were closely followed in the movie magazines. The profile of Negri veers away from Alissa's childhood idealizations of sunny blonde English girls. She describes Negri as a "gloomy, intense, cruel woman" with "dark tragic eyes" that narrow in a "wearily derisive way." A "proud woman conqueror" if often also "tragic," Negri in Hollywood is "the only human being among mannequins." Not one of the "fragile virtuous maidens" of sentimental American drama, Negri had a "joyless" childhood and an unhappy private life as an adult. She was, Alissa wrote, "unattractive" but nonetheless desired for her uniqueness. She is redeemed and exalted by her utter devotion to her art, above all else.

This may not have been an especially good description of Negri, but it was a fairly revealing, if projected, self-perception. Laced through this deeply ambivalent description, a critique of the expectations of femininity emerges. Here was a famous movie star, glamorous and desired, who was darkly moody, unsmiling, unhappy, even angry in that derisively contemptuous way that Alissa revered. She was, in Alissa's imagination, indifferent to the opinions of others yet widely adored. The sense of outsiderness that Alissa located in Negri, the conviction of not being like the other "empty mannequins" and "virtuous maidens," generates strength and specialness. Negri, in this profile, stands as a conquering Americanized European, superior without the sunny complacent entitlement, glamorously feminine without the deferential niceness. Here was an ambivalent tangle of qualities and affects that could appeal to the conflicted aspirations of Alissa Rosenbaum, a young Russian Jewish woman, and to so many others.


Excerpted from "Mean Girl"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Lisa Duggan.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction. “What Is Good for Me Is Right”
1. “Proud Woman Conqueror”
2. “Individualists of the World Unite!”
3. “Would You Cut the Bible?”
4. “I Found a Flaw”

Key Figures
Selected Bibliography

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