John Oliver: Ayn Rand – How Is This Still A Thing?

Because I’m loathe to pull punches, I’ll admit to liking Atlas Shrugged, and Ayn Rand, in college.

Some of her non-Atlas writing, especially about the Soviet Union, was pretty spot on. (I was, and remain, pretty hawkish on all things Soviet, including modern-day reincarnations. I’ve never been a great fan of bullies.)

And ironically, as John Oliver points out in the video below, Rand was pro-choice and really didn’t like Reagan.


Sadly, a lot of really bad people like Ayn Rand nowadays. Which would make anyone with a soul think twice.

John Oliver takes Rand on in his ongoing series: “How is this still a thing?”

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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62 Responses to “John Oliver: Ayn Rand – How Is This Still A Thing?”

  1. Badgerite says:

    Yeah. I think she carried far more ideological and psychological baggage with her from Russia than she would admit. I don’t think she every really grasped the true basis of western democracy and liberalism. She sort of had an ingrained authoritarian bent.

  2. Bubbles says:

    Stalinism was itself a reaction to earlier hardships.

    Reactions are not something to build a society upon. Perhaps, by definition they are thoughtless. Ideologies have similar qualities. Bill Clinton said on the Daily Show: “The problem with ideology is that it tries to answer a question before it has been asked.” – So if the question is not the correct question, then the ideology will be the wrong answer. English common law is famously built on pragmatism, judges pragmatically answered judicial questions put to them on a case by case basis, turning society into a giant ideological patchwork quilt – each ideology being used where it makes sense and ignored where it was wrong. In the broad international crisis of the first half of the 20th century, in no case did you have Common Law societies embrace rogue ideological rule. If not for Russia being on our side, WWII would have been common law countries versus civil code countries. Strauss and Rand came from countries with civil code systems, their view of politics is framed by civil code politics. They shouldn’t fit our society. The elites are trying to import ideology to better control our society towards their ends. Ideological rule never ends up good.

  3. Bubbles says:

    Quite profound.

  4. Badgerite says:

    No. Its like she longed for this Utopia that could only exist in fiction.

  5. Badgerite says:

    I know. I think We The Living brings that out the best. Her psychology was really a reaction to Stalinist Russia. But she goes so far the other way that she ends up pretty much a Social Darwinist.

  6. emjayay says:

    I understood that this was what she wrote for a character to say, not her own statement, although it could have been better phrased. And I guess almost everyone is dishonest then, like for example all the other commenters here.

  7. Houndentenor says:

    I’ve always felt that Rand who escaped communism presented a “utopian” view of a system that would be as opposite of that as possible. Of course that opposite system had already existed in England during the industrial revolution and those horrors are what gave rise to Communism in the first place.

  8. Bubbles says:

    I think Rand’s world might exist for orangutans. They live in isolation. Humans do not. They live and thrive thru interaction and communication. Solitary confinement is considered one of the worst forms of punishment. The universal human instinct of Communication proves that team work is central to human existence.

    I think the movie “Dances With Wolves” demonstrates humans in their more natural way of being in a hunting and gathering society. Recently CNN showed a mini-documenatary on the Hadza tribe in Africa that is still living as hunting and gathering people and essentially living in harmony pretty much the way “Dances with Wolves” projects. It was only the Neolithic (agricultural) revolution that created problems. I think the movie Apocalypto demonstrates what an agricultural civilization without some version of the Golden Rule looks like (Ironically it starts in hunting and gathering, then shifts to agriculture sans golden rule, then ends with the arrival of people from a society that has a creaking version of the golden rule – which it never really applied in the New World).

    The Golden Rule, for the most part, was a product of the Axial age – first stated by Confucius, but hardly any different from what Buddha or Socrates taught. Only after the Axial age do we get larger state societies that had staying power. As far as I know, then, there are no example of great civilizations based upon Rand-like selfishness. I think that epic collapse occurs when too many people adopt and succeed at selfishness. Douglas C. North’s “Structure and Change in Economic History” posits that when the Western Roman Empire collapsed, 6 senators owned half of North Africa. I think the story in the bible of Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden after eating from the tree of Knowledge is perhaps a kind of parable to humanity’s move into the Neolithic age. In their free time, my father played and watched sports, my mother gardened, made clothes and crafts – is this not a instinctual longing for the time when reality demanded these skills as a matter of existence? The invention of agriculture some how put us at odds with each other and took us out of our natural element.

    Rands world did not, nor never did, nor never could exist.

  9. Bubbles says:

    Thanks for the rec.

    I would ad that today’s superhuman might have been yesterday’s village idiot.

    Today’s uberman’s are technology geeks. As an example, Bill Gates is one of the richest people and self made at that. He actually quit Harvard to run Microsoft. If we make the supposition that his uber-wealth was the result of being a great programmer at the time he was coming of age (and it’s only a hypothetical supposition to make a point) consider what that skill set was worth 200 years earlier. Maybe if your core natural skill set was as a computer coder geek in 1800, all that got you was a great job digging and cleaning latrines.

    Who are the uber-humans? How will we know them? Is it only those who tell us that they are uber-humans?

    A psychologist friend of mine was telling me that an bear that was orphaned in its youth was discovered to have higher density of brain neurons – a physiological response to the pressure of trying to survive in a hostile world. They said it made him smarter than the average bear (Yogi) and that he had a more acute sense of smell, and so on – super powers for a bear. This is a case of superman coming from severely stressed youth – which we might think of as a sort of dystopia if it were common place.

    (Please note that I’ve not found any links to said study of said orphaned bear, so its just an unsubstantiated idea, but rather intrigueing in some ways as many of us have some kind of peculiar and unique challenges before us in our youth and have to adjust and adapt as we go. I wonder how this maps out to great figures in history. I think Lincoln as one with a tough upbringing)

  10. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    The quarry scene made Gary Cooper look unimaginably hot. Despite the fact that I wasn’t born at the time, I hated Patricia Neal for getting him.

  11. Badgerite says:

    Interesting stuff.

  12. Badgerite says:

    Steel mills. Coal plants. What could go wrong? She was hopelessly locked in the fifties. Mad Men style.

  13. Badgerite says:

    Other than the observation that people operate from the perspective of satisfying their own egos and needs, what exactly are her ideas? The American political system is based on the rights of the individual but also on the idea of enlightened self interest. That means that what happens to the people in your society is going to have an impact on everyone who lives in that society. There are no ‘Galtian’ getaways where only the strong and super human live. The universe doesn’t work that way. The world does not work that way. And life does not work that way. There is interconnection between everything. If no one tends to the victims of ebola, ebola spreads by default. In fact E.O Wilson has postulated that one of the possible reasons for the prevalence of religion in human society is to provide the cohesion and selflessness that are apparent in other animal communities and that give those communities a survival edge. Ayn Rand’s fantasy world simply does not exist. And it never will.
    The world is just far more complex and interconnected then she seems to even imagine.

  14. Badgerite says:

    See Bubbles comment. I thought it was particularly spot on. Ayn Rand’s characters come off as characters in a Dick Tracy comic book There are aspects of recognizable humanity to them here and there. But overall, people are just not like that. It is an exaggerated and deceptive portrayal of humanity. Almost all people have good and bad aspects. People are almost always a mixed bag. Right sometimes. Completely off other times. And the truth about humanity is that we survive and progress as a species through cultural adaptation. And that requires the collective effort of society. Specialization. No superheros. There were a lot of things Ayn Rand did not foresee. The importance of environmental concerns would be one.
    Industrialization is not the answer to everything.

  15. Bubbles says:

    I think this can be explained by the fusion of Rand with Strauss (Neoconism). Both based their philosophies upon Nietzsche and his idea of men and supermen. Ordinary men, without the threat of God and the straightjacket of morality were decadent bound.

    To Rand, morality was created by the inferior to hold back the superior, and so the superior should just shead morality.

    To Strauss, a political philosopher, the superior could control the mass of inferior through religion, so as to keep society from drifting into decadence.

    In Strauss, religion is not a belief, but a tool, a lever used to control the masses.

    The nexus is those who would be the Superiors, or think themselves as such. Under Rand they can and should act without morality as it holds them back, under Strauss they need to use Religion to control the masses.

    This gives birth to the C street effect. “Christian” politicians engaging in gang bangs 7/or adultry. The Christian cast is just a ruse, a lever, for dealing with the ordinary. The gang bangs are their entitlement for being superior. So you see, if you are both a Randite and a Neocon, there is absolutely no hypocrasy in wearing the Jesus label and engaging in serial adultry. As a Neocon you don’t believe in religion in the conventional sense, just in a utilitarian sense to control the masses, and as a Randite you are entitled to do whatever your superior self desires. It’s all good (or its all evil).

  16. Bubbles says:

    Then, perhaps she is another case of “American exceptionalism”.

    What is “American exceptionalism”? Answer: thinking your superior when you are actually inferior.

    Rand believes that the subperior should not be bound by morality, and in not being bound by morality they become and are in fact inferior.

    Rand, like all people, want to think of themselves as in the superior camp. But in wanting that, it makes her just ordinary, if not inferior.

  17. Bubbles says:

    “We had to destroy the village in order to save the village”

    That is another way of saying: Ideology (any ideology), adhered to, leads to nihilism.

    It doesn’t matter if you go left, right or down the islamic tunnel, ideology always leads to nihilism.

    Rand is no different. In fact she illustrates it. In the fountainhead, after raping one of the main characters, the hero goes on to literally (in the literal use of the term) burn down a village because public officials didn’t follow his plans to a “T”.

    Second, and this should also be as obvious, it is always a mistake to divide humanity into two parts: good and bad, elect and nonelect, saved and unsave, human and superhuman (inhuman?) etc… it always leads to bad things. The triumph of English Common Law was that it had to put all humans equal in order to be able to function properly. This became quite obvious when Common Law had to deal with theSlaves prior to the Civil War (were they humans or property) the system of precedents couldn’t work.

    The rich and the powerful will always see themselves as the supermen, the elect, etc… and the rabble as the unelect, the subhuman. This trajectory takes us to medieval dystopias.

    Rand’s philosophy, like Strauss’, is a rift on Nietzsche. All three are obsessed with superhumans.

    In the case of Rand and Strauss this leads to rationalization of socialpathic behavior.

  18. annAnnMOwenann says:

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  19. Houndentenor says:

    I don’t hate her. I laugh at her. I don’t know how anyone over about 23 can take her seriously. You have not defended her or her ideas, merely attacked those who criticize her, which is typical of her followers since there is nothing defensible in her sociopathic doctrine.

  20. 1jetpackangel says:

    Now now, there’s no need for name-calling. I attributed it to her because that’s who I always see the quote attributed to, and I forgot it was a quote from a character because it’s been a while since I’ve read it.

    This was not done as a deliberate attempt to besmirch the name of someone who already needs no help doing so. To insinuate otherwise, well, you wound me, sir.

    But as we are having a civil discourse, have you no rebuttal to my other comments about “Atlas Shrugged”?

  21. Wilberforce says:

    My dad and uncles, businessmen all, made me read Atlas when I was ten. I thought it was a great story, lots or excitement and adventure, kind of like Call of the Wild or Treasure Island or Mutiny on the Bounty, which I loved. By the time I hit 12, I saw that it was a nutjob fantasy, of a world with a few hard working business people and millions of blue collar leaches who were ruining everything. How any adult can be fooled by that simplistic plot is beyond me.

  22. Don Chandler says:

    I see estimates of around $70 billion. Yes, how do you gauge a dictator’s personal wealth like the Former Philippino dictator Marcos? People estimated Marcos’ wealth around $5-10 billion…how did they get that money? Dictators are bullies–real bad ass bullies with an army and police force that oppress minorities.

    Here is a list of dictators and their wealth:

    I’m afraid Putin fits in rather nicely.

  23. This is a quote from Rand’s villain Ellsworth Toohey in ‘The Fountainhead.’ It is dishonest not to point this out and to pass it off as an opinion of Ayn Rand. But of course, you pretty much have to be dishonest to be a Rand basher.

  24. 1jetpackangel says:

    I remember reading “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead” and “We The Living” back in high school. And other than skipping whole single-paragraph pages when the characters were getting especially preachy, what I remember most is in “Atlas Shrugged,” where altruism is for suckers, government safety laws are holding us back, and the way to a woman’s heart is forcibly through her pants.

  25. goulo says:

    Yep. Sadly George Bush was not the only one who seems to think “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Or that pointing out mistakes and intentional evil acts of the US to try to improve things is somehow unpatriotic and helping “our enemies”.

    (Protesters and resisters in places like Russia or China are viewed here as brave good people, but protesters and resisters at home are often viewed as goofy troublemakers at best, or evil traitors at worst.)

  26. Naja pallida says:

    That depends on who you ask. Some of his worst critics claim he’s almost as rich as Bill Gates, he just keeps it all hidden away. But really, how does one gauge personal net worth when they essentially have the GDP of a country to throw around however they see fit without opposition?

  27. Houndentenor says:

    So back on topic…Rand was not a libertarian. In fact she had typically Randian snarky things to say about Libertarians. (Something like they were just conservatives who wanted to smoke marijuana.) Rand called her “philosophy” objectivism. I will agree, however, that it is indeed toxic.

  28. Indigo says:

    True enough, times change many things. How smart would those folks seem to you now, do you even know those folks now? I knew a number of people decades ago whom I thought to be very smart, maybe even wise, who held A.R. for respect and near veneration and now they’re those same gun-tottin’ fools I mentioned earlier. I no longer admit to knowing them, and the feeling is mutual.

  29. Demosthenes says:

    Like you, Mr. Aravosis, I’m an ex-Republican. I also read Ms. Rand’s turgid prose in college. I even likes her “door stoppers”. A couple of years ago I attempted to reread “Fountainhead” and couldn’t go more than 100 pages.

    I now view her writings as “malakia” for young selfish malakas.

    Translation: “malakia” means “”wanking” and “Malaka” means “wanker”.

  30. 2karmanot says:

    Ayn Rand’s drivel is the Reader’s Digest of philosophical pulp.

  31. 2karmanot says:

    Then there is the possibility that ‘they’ will see the smallness of her greatness. One might opine that her vaulted mediocrity is a perfection in its self and thus merits a passing acknowledgment.

  32. GarySFBCN says:

    “If they are rational and intellectually honest, they will see her greatness and the smallness of her critics for themselves.”


  33. therling says:

    Someone nailed it when he said the architectural drawings in that film looked straight out of the Daffy Duck cartoon “Duck Dodgers.”

  34. GarySFBCN says:

    “Saying “X has a problem” does not imply “Y is good”

    I call that binary thinking. To many, if the wall isn’t white, they think that it must be black, and that eliminates the possibility that the wall is actually green.

  35. GarySFBCN says:

    “As if I am supposed to think it was okay for Bush to have done certain things because Obama continued those policies?” It is up to you. It’s not OK with me that Obama has continued those policies.

    BUT, can’t we talk about Ayn Rand and her toxic libertarian ways without invoking Obama or Bush?

  36. Houndentenor says:

    I find Atlas Shrugged one of the most unintentionally hilarious works of fiction ever. It’s the Plan 9 from Outer Space of novels. Her view of the not to distant future involved railroads and steel mills? It just shows how little she understood business. I can’t imagine that anyone outside artists who feel misunderstood will get much out of The Fountainhead but then it also seems to have most appeal to hacks who think they are geniuses (a category in which I could include Rand).

  37. Houndentenor says:

    it’s a simplistic world view and its appeal to young people who haven’t had to deal with the complexities of the real world is understandable. The same goes with any other idealistic but non-practical ideal. And we all grew up and realized that in the real world such ideas just simply wouldn’t work. Or you could have watched a production of Weill and Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

  38. In literature it’s a synecdoche. (Though not a fallacy.)

  39. Houndentenor says:

    There’s a modern practice of finding a few bad acts or thoughtless comments and then using them to discredit a person, group or country entirely. I’m not sure what to call that particular fallacy but it is a fallacy. No one is right about everything and even the biggest idiot can occasionally say something that makes sense.

  40. If imperfection means we shouldn’t speak out, then no one should ever speak out about anything. It’s a silly argument, and at it’s core (IMHO) is meant to deflect, and shut down, criticism of someone the arguer likes.

  41. Houndentenor says:

    As if I am supposed to think it was okay for Bush to have done certain things because Obama continued those policies? Sometimes both the Democrats and Republicans are wrong, and bad actions on the part of Democrats does not excuse Republicans. Of course it would help if we all held everyone to a higher standard because the finger pointing is really just to continue the bad practices, fraud and corruption.

  42. It is now. Decades ago, the folks I knew that liked her, were some of the smartest people I knew. Funny how times change :)

  43. I found Atlas Shrugged interesting, though long. Fountainhead I couldn’t read.

  44. Houndentenor says:

    Moral relativism. It’s okay for group A to do crappy things because group B does them too. I’m so sick of that shit.

  45. Houndentenor says:

    Isn’t it odd then how the Reagan-loving fundamentalist Christians quote Rand (often without having ever heard of her) so often? The merging of Rand and Jesus into the fundamentalist Messiah happened intentionally at Wheaton College in the late 70s and has been highly successful with most people practicing this new religion not even knowing its origins.

  46. Burke says:

    If someone hates Ayn Rand and her ideas, it says more about that person than about the object of their hatred. Articles like this serve one useful purpose: to motivate some to read her works. If they are rational and intellectually honest, they will see her greatness and the smallness of her critics for themselves.

    This is one big reason Ayn Rand is “still a thing.”

  47. Houndentenor says:

    But we can’t deny her influence in our culture. Allan Greenspan was in her inner circle and look how he fucked us up. I’m not going to live long enough to see the damage he inflicted on our economy undone (in fact it’s still ongoing and we haven’t even stopped the direction we’ve been going much less started the correction).

  48. Houndentenor says:

    I did too but I think (maybe this is because of my artistic bent) that it’s the one time she had a valid point. The film is hilarious though. Plodding writing, wooden acting, but it’s hilarious in one sense…the “bad” architecture presented in the film is a premonition of the PostModern style from the late 70s-90s.

  49. FLL says:

    Yes, I will give you a link when I get home. You are right to say that by August of 2013 (when this article was posted), Bill had changed his tone about Putin and begun to criticize Putin. However, John Aravosis and Dan Savage were both publicizing the boycott of Russian vodka starting in June of 2013 (because of the anti-gay law), and Bill regularly lost his temper about the idea of boycotting Russian vodka or criticizing Putin. I want to be clear, goulo, when I say that it’s to Bill’s credit that he changed his mind about being willing to criticize Putin.

    I think your comments are fair-minded, and out of all the readers here, I would love to show you a few choice links from early 2013… and I will.

  50. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    i can remember reading The Fountainhead as a teen. I thoroughly disliked the characters.

  51. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    My cat, a.k.a, Her Majesty, says she is not pleased.

  52. goulo says:

    Bill can be abrasive and derailing, but WTF are you talking about when you claim that according to Bill “Putin and his thugs are the good people”? Link please?

    I don’t recall ever seeing him say any such thing. And he certainly has criticized Putin and his thugs.

    E.g. in the old blog entry you link to, I see that Bill wrote “Anti-semitism is part of the legacy of Tsarism and the Russian orthodox cult. It officially resurfaced from time to time under the Stalinists, as in the ‘Doctors Plot’. It’s still simmers in the neo-Nazi and skinhead movements in Russia and of course among the Russian orthodox and ‘old believers’ cults.” and “The EU and the former Soviet states are, like the US, cesspools of homohating, misogyny and racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.” Is this your evidence that he thinks “Putin and his thugs are the good people”? I don’t see how that can be construed as praise, instead of condemnation, of Putin and the current politics/culture in Russia.

    Too often commenters here seem to bogusly equate criticism of the US or Obama with praise of Russia or Putin.

    Saying “X has a problem” does not imply “Y is good”.

  53. GarySFBCN says:

    I think there is another issue at play here: Posts are constantly hijacked by those who say we can’t fix or inform about issue “A” because of issue “B”, even though fixing/informing “A” has nothing to do with “B”.

    Ayn Rand’s bankrupt philosophy continues to inspire people. San Francisco is now in a deathgrip of recent immigrants – libertarian-leaning millennial social media workers and business leaders are happy to exploit them for profit, and ruin the city in the process. And everything the John Oliver said about Rand is true.

    The predictable response: But Obama.

  54. Don Chandler says:

    How much money does Putin have in assets?

  55. Indigo says:

    I think her appeal is largely to the gun-tottin’ community. Liberal? Conservative? It was none of that, it was raw selfishness, not even dressed up as Adam Smith Capitalism or Libertarian Lessez-Faire. It was just raw selfishness. I can say this much positive about Ayn Rand: She was consistent.

  56. FLL says:

    I will have to give Nicho at least some credit for making a distinction between a military superpower, like the United States, and present-day Western Europe. In that sense, Nicho never sinks as low as Bill Perdue. When a country is a superpower, it is always going to be open to criticism, as with the U.S. policy to fight against al Qaeda. Bill Perdue, on the other hand, targets tolerant societies that are not even superpowers, such as the nations of Western Europe. May I remind you of your own post about the Russian-Jew who was fired from his post in Russia as a museum director. Bill Perdue posted this reply to one of my comments:

    The fact is that the US and Western Europe are sewers of racism, woman hatting and homophobia. Paytriots and defenders of ‘western civilization’ will of course be enraged by stating that simple truth.

    According to Bill’s world view, tolerant societies that respect equality, such as Western Europe, are the bad people, whereas Putin and his thugs are the good people. And Oh My Fricking Cthulhu, Bill even declares “western civilization” as enemies of everything good. Does he hate ancient Greco-Roman civilization too? WTF?! To my knowledge, Nicho has steered clear of nasty sentiments like that. Here is a link to your post from August of 2013:

  57. Oh Lord, here we go….

    Btw I hate cats too.

    PS The difference is that I tend to side with people who try to do the right thing, rather than making excuses for pure evil. In another comment this evening, in a different post, Bill Perdue is portraying the allies as the bad guys in World War II. In the same way that some folks on the left were trying to portray Putin as the poor victim in the Ukraine crisis. I think we have a very different world view, and definition of good and evil. There are far worse things in the world than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

  58. What? Let me check.

  59. emjayay says:

    Well, that’s the segment that actually comes up above, not the Ayn Rand one.

  60. Drew2u says:

    John Oliver constantly and consistently knocks it out of the park with each and every episode. At least one, usually two, of the segments the show covers is brilliant and brings to light things that should be discussed in our national conversation.
    Case in point, this past week’s episode covered the horrible way our translators are treated (how they’re fucked) in trying to leave our war zones and save their lives by coming to the U.S. It was a really difficult-to-watch segment as one man describes how the Taliban killed his dad and kidnapped his 3 y/o brother to stop the man from trying to get a US visa. The comparison with how the same thing was handled in Vietnam was jaw-dropping and John Oliver and his team deserve their future Emmy and Peabody.

  61. Doug105 says:

    Didn’t like Reagan and had comtempt for Jesus.

  62. nicho says:

    I’ve never been a great fan of bullies.)

    Yeah, ’cause the US has never bullied anyone — never dropped bombs on a day-care center or a wedding party. Never assassinated an American teenager because Obama didn’t like his father. Never tortured anyone. Doesn’t have any political prisoners.

    Before you get too bullish on bullies, read The Brothers, the joint biography of the Dulles brothers — terrorists to the core, assassinating foreign leaders, overthrowing governments, creating havoc in foreign countries, committing sabotage, operating under the direction of Dwight D. Eisenhower who let them terrorize the world as long as he could maintain plausible deniability. Obama is a bully. So is Hillary. And the Republicans are worse.

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