Ayn Rand: The Wired Interview (1998)

Guestblogger Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor with Catholic interests, and is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He is the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, and was an early contributor to bOING bOING when it was an online zine. He lives in San Francisco.

I'm a month late on this, for the spotlight of public attention, but I have an Ayn Rand story, too. 11 years ago I blind-pitched Wired magazine an ill-defined article on Rand. In response, they asked me to write an "interview" with her, where I would come up with all of the questions and then cobble together her answers from things that she had written and said (she died in 1982). Fun! Around the same time, they published similar "interviews" with Nicola Tesla and Mark Twain under the rubric "The Wired Living Archive."

I had a great time researching and writing it, and although they never published it, they must have seen something they liked in it because I started working at Wired the following year. Meanwhile I never did anything with it. But re-reading it now, I like the added time-trip aspect of it. The idea of the article was to make Rand relevant to the current day, of course, but things were different in 1998. Like, the biggest newsmaker was Monica Lewinsky (hmm... I didn't see much 10th Anniversary coverage of that), and personally, things like the Critical Mass bicycle demonstration had a much larger role in my life than they do today.

Rand was a contradiction-filled woman who hated all contradictions, and whatever fiery, petite actress can succeed in bringing this complex character to life, in the inevitable major studio biopic, is pretty much guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Meanwhile, here's my attempt at bringing Ms. Rand to life.

Note that it's long-- over 4000 words, and written for an editor to cut down. Sources for all quotations are noted as abbreviations inline, with full titles listed at the end.

WIRED: Last March, when Bill Gates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the Justice Department's antitrust investigation, I thought of you.

RAND: [Margin 195] This is as crude a case of penalizing ability for being ability, and of national suicide via anti-capitalism as one could invent in any fiction. Straight out of Atlas Shrugged - [Obj News v1 5] the sacrifice of productive genius to the demands of envious mediocrity. [Margin 195] This is horror and vicious insanity.

But isn't there a point at which monopolies can injure competition?

[Letters 61] Boy, oh boy! If this isn't collectivist Party Line, I'll eat Das Kapital unabridged. [Margin 210] Just how are you going to compete if you cannot "injure" competition?

And government has no business trying to guide technology either.

[Obj 963] "Restricted technology" is a contradiction in terms. [Obj 983] Technology is moved by such a complex and interconnected sum of the work of individual minds that no committee could prescribe its course. Who can predict how a given bit of information will strike an active mind and what it will produce?

Which is why the Internet has been so valuable for research, facilitating idea flow.

[Column 127] Think of the human ingenuity, the technological development, the large-scale synchronization of effort required to create such a worldwide system! [ARL 13] Nothing can raise productivity except technology.

But the net's development was hardly a private, laissez-faire effort...

[Obj 712] Scientific research is not the proper province of the government. But this is a political issue; it does not alter the superlative technological achievement. [Journals 323] What was the most important thing? The government did not attempt to run the project. The government took orders from the scientists - not vice versa. The government provided the means - and let the scientists do the work as they wished.

We don't need the government to protect the environment?

[Playboy 23] My position is fully consistent. [Obj 977] In the Middle Ages, man's life expectancy was 30 years. If it were true that industry is destructive to human life, one would find life expectancy declining in the more advanced countries. But it has been rising steadily. Anyone over 30 years of age today, give a silent "Thank you" to the nearest, sootiest smokestacks you can find.

What about the other species?

[Obj 966] Contrary to the ecologists, nature does not stand still and does not maintain the kind of "equilibrium" that guarantees the survival of any particular species - least of all her greatest and most fragile product, man. [Cult Update 12] Man cannot survive in the state of nature ecologists envision. Man has to discover and produce everything he needs, which means that he has to alter his background. Man has to manufacture things. The lowest tribe cannot survive without that alleged source of pollution: fire. It is not merely symbolic that fire was the property of the gods which Prometheus brought to man.

Don't you enjoy the world's biological diversity? Doesn't the natural world fill you with wonder?

[Donahue #2 26:18] No. You know when I'm filled with wonder? When I look up at skyscrapers, at the manmade, at what men were able to achieve on their own, without the help of faith or any sort of mysticism.

But you do acknowledge that pollution can cause problems for people?

[Obj 789] Pollution is primarily a scientific, not a political problem. In regard to the political problem: if a man creates a physical danger or harm to others which extends beyond the line of his own property, the law can hold him responsible. If the condition is collective, such as in an overcrowded city, appropriate and objective laws can be defined, protecting the rights of all involved - as in the case of oil rights, air-space rights, etc.

How about laws based on "True Cost," like pollution-credit systems, which incent industry to compete on finding environmental solutions?

[Obj 790] Such laws must not be aimed at a single scapegoat, i.e. the industrialists. [Obj 981] Industry is not the only culprit. The handling of sewage and garbage disposal problems, so frequently denounced, has been the province of local governments. [ARL 21] Americans will enthusiastically clean their streets, their rivers, their backyards, but when it comes to giving up progress, technology, the automobile, and their standard of living, Americans will prove that the man-haters "ain't seen nothing yet."

You must despise alternative transportation protests like London's annual "Reclaim the Streets" action or the "Critical Mass" bicycle demonstrations.

[Obj News v4 56] It can be rationally proved that the airplane is objectively of immeasurably greater value to man, to man at his best, that the bicycle. But if a given man's transportation needs do not extend beyond the range of a bicycle, [there is no] reason why the rest of mankind should be held down.

So, mass transit and roads themselves should all be private. No more departments of transportation or motor vehicles.

[Column 24] The only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off. [Margin 143] By their very natures, bureaucrats are neither intelligent nor competent, but parasites. The competent do not go in for government service.

And of course, any government power opens the door to corruption.

[Obj News v1 40] Cases of actual corruption are not a major motivating factor in today's situation. The motive power is the manipulations of little lawyers and public relations men pulling strings. These lobbyists are profiteers on America's self-immolation.

Your philosophy leads you to differ with domestic lobbyists who push a number of "family values" issues, including reproductive rights, censorship, and symbolic speech.

[Mediocrity 5] Speaking culturally, not politically, the worship of the "Family" is un-American. According to one of the best American traditions, a person had "to be on his own" in order to prove his value and independence.

How about foreign lobbyists? China's "Pull Peddlers," as you call them, have had considerable success, as shown by their "most favored nation" trade status and Clinton's visit last June.

[ARL 58] Morally, it was impossible to watch all the gracious ceremonies, benevolent smiles, handshakes, speeches - and hold in mind the reality of China's terror, starvation, torture chambers, mass slaughter. For the Chinese to see an American President drinking toasts to their jailers is cruel. [Obj 584] There is only one form of protest: do not help them to pretend that they are the morally acceptable leaders of a civilized country.

Generally speaking, you think our foreign policy is too soft?

[ARL 68] What is America's image? It used to be a stern Uncle Sam. Has it now become an international social worker, cooing baby talk and wagging her finger at armed gangs, urging them to remember that they are not infallible?

I must raise a topic very close to you: Russia. Since the fall of Communism, business activity there has not managed to improve people's lives, except for a new class of ex-Party members turned to organized crime. Meanwhile, violence, or at least violence perpetrated by private citizens, has risen.

[ARL 133] It may take a long time. [Cult Update 13] It is still precarious, still without intellectual leadership, still perverted by social pathology. A trend against something is not enough; when and if it becomes a trend for capitalism, it will triumph. [Column 60] One liberated area of economic activity requires the liberation of further areas that require the liberation of still further areas, and so on. [Obj News v4 20] A mixed economy, economically, is the equivalent of robber gangs.

I also have to ask you about Clinton. What's your take on the scandal?

[Journals 379] I don't believe the American people should ever be told lies, publicly or privately. I don't believe that lies are practical. I don't think it was necessary to deceive the American people?

But is it impeachable?

[ARL 187] It is not the worst offense of today's politicians - and of small significance compared to what most of them do to the country. The attempts to cover it up translated it into a felony. But here, the fog is so thick that nothing can be judged with certainty. [ARL 187] In spite of the enormous coverage given, it is impossible to untangle facts from allegations, proof from rumors, truth from innuendo.

What's your impression from watching his testimony?

[ARL 216] It was a solid act, a studied act, and an act aimed at showing that he had no act. [ARL 217] Did the camera reveal anything beyond this act? Only the look in his eyes - the cold, shrewd, calculating look of a manipulator. [Donahue #2 6:49] He is not a strong personality, nor is he showing genuine emotion. I don't think he has any ideas, and if so, he has no feelings.

But it's hard to tell just from TV.

[ARL 209] Television is a wonderful invader of psychological privacy, more potent than a lie detector. [Donahue #2 7:23] You can tell a lot about a person - more than in a personal encounter.

How does Clinton's sexual behavior reflect on him personally?

[Letters 138] A person betrays his own valuation of himself in his attitude on sex. If the attitude is cheap and sloppy, the person has no real self-respect, whether he know it or not. He usually does know it. [Fountain 461] Let a man corrupt his values and he will cut himself in two. His body will not obey him; it will make him impotent toward the woman he professes to love and draw him to the lowest type he can find.

Does it say the same about Monica?

[Wallace 21:21] Most certainly not. [Obj 562] For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship - the desire to look up to man. [Letters 156] The danger is to succumb to some such fallacy as that "the heart is more important than the brain." (By "heart" they actually mean here a less polite anatomical organ.) Nothing is more important than the brain.

Wait - so you think that women are less rational than men?

[Margin 42] Good God, no! [Obj 561] It is not an issue of the notion that women are motivated by their emotions rather than by reason - which is plain nonsense. The issue is primarily psychological. "To look up" does not mean anything implying inferiority. It means an intense kind of admiration experienced only by a person of strong character and independent value judgments. [Letters 58] I'm a natural-born hero worshipper, but I find damn few heroes to worship.

So you think she's fundamentally confused and admires the wrong men as a result.

[Margin 170] Correct.

What advice would you give her?

[ARL 289] "Without a ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection, you will not discover what you feel, what arouses the feeling, and whether your feeling is an appropriate response to the facts of reality, a mistaken response, or a vicious illusion produced by self-deception. [Letters 592] You are young; I suggest that you study philosophy more carefully."

Do you think many young people have a similar "erroneous" outlook?

Yes. [Obj 774] They have accepted the philosophical beliefs of their elders. [Obj 774] They are the distilled essence of the Establishment's culture. [Obj 916] The average graduate has no concept of knowledge. He has the cynicism of a decadent adult and the credulity of a child. His mind is in a state of whirling confusion. [Obj 917] He finds himself in the midst of the brilliant complexity of an industrial, technological civilization which he cannot begin to understand.

You refer to "graduates" in particular - you think it's education's fault?

[Donahue #1 41:56] Today, those who didn't go to college are better informed and less easily fooled than those who did. [ARL 52] Of all government undertakings, none has failed so disastrously as public education. [Obj 933] The grade-and-high-school teachers blame it on parental influences. The college professors blame it on the teachers. Few, if any, question the content of the courses.

So, what's wrong with the courses?

[Obj 956] The purpose of education is to teach a student how to live, by developing his mind. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e. conceptual. He has to be taught how to think, to integrate, to prove by his own effort. This is what the colleges renounced long ago. What they are teaching today has no relevance to anything.

Is this necessarily the fault of public education? Wouldn't private schools under no regulation run the risk of being even more limited and trend-driven?

[Margin 35] Oh, no! The exact opposite is true. [ARL 78] A private school has the right to teach any ideas of its owners' choice, and to exclude all opposing ideas; but it has no power to force such exclusion on the rest of the country. The opponents have the right to teach a wider spectrum of viewpoints, if they so choose. The competition of the free marketplace of ideas does the rest, determining every school's success or failure - which, historically, was the course of the development of the great private universities. [Faith 8] If you want to prove to yourself the power of ideas, the intellectual history of the Nineteenth Century would be a good example to study.

So you would support a voucher system?

[ARL 81] It would work not as a motor of freedom, but as a brake on total regimentation, [ARL 77] a temporary measure in a grave national emergency. [ARL 53] We are living in a disastrously mixed economy, which cannot be freed overnight. In today's context, the proposal would be a step in the right direction.

What about government scholarships?

[Obj 92] The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships have no right to them; those who oppose them, have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.

This brings to mind a couple of issues from the California ballot. One is affirmative action.

[ARL 92] The notion is so obviously an expression of racism that no lengthy discussion is necessary. [Global 13] There is no surer way to infect mankind with hatred than by splitting it into ethnic groups. The record of hatred is always the same. A recent, grand-scale example was Nazi Germany.

The other one is bilingual education. Californians voted against both affirmative action and bilingual education in 1997.

[ARL 138] The election demonstrated that the people are ready to hear the voice of reason. [Global 9] A country has to have only one official language. I have observed that bilingual countries tend to be culturally impoverished, by comparison to the major countries whose language they share. Consider the record of Belgium against France - or Switzerland against France, Germany, Italy - or Canada against the United States. My hypothesis is: bilingual rule is a perpetuation of a strong ethnic-tribalist element within a country, an element of anti-intellectuality and stagnation. The best minds run from such countries.

Don't you think a healthy amount of ethnic pride can be valid and enriching?

[Margin 81] Who have you been talking to? [Obj News v2 33] There is no such thing as a collective or racial achievement. There are only individual minds and individual achievements. [Global 6] The acceptance of achievements by other individuals does not represent "ethnicity." It represents a free market. Tradition has nothing to do with it. [Global 7] The old, the tired, the timid, and those who gave up before they started are the carriers of "ethnicity:" folk songs, folk dances, ways of cooking, traditional costumes...

I take it then you're not particularly fond of folk festivals.

[Margin 40] Boy, what a set-up! [Global 7] All folk art is essentially similar and excruciatingly boring: if you've seen one set of people clapping their hands while jumping up and down, you've seen them all. [Obj 1068] If there is a more repulsive spectacle than a television broadcast presenting - as news - pretentious, self-conscious adolescents performing some Slavonic folk dance in the shadow of New York's skyscrapers, I have not discovered it yet.

What sort of culture do you like?

[Donahue #2 43:22] The school I prefer is Romanticism. [Obj News v1 49] Romanticists present a hero as an abstraction of man's best and highest potentiality. [Obj 641] Romanticism recognizes the existence of man's volition - and Naturalism denies it.


[Obj 646] Among novelists, the greatest are Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky. Among playwrights, the greatest are Friedrich Schiller and Edmond Rostand. [Obj. 1011] The greatest of all artists? Vermeer.

Nothing more modern?

[Obj News v1 49] Take a look at modern literature. The subjects are such themes as: the hopeless love of a bearded lady for a mongoloid pin-head in a circus side show - or: the tragedy of a gentle young man who just can't help murdering strangers in the park, for kicks. All presented to us under the Naturalistic heading of "a slice of life" or "real life." Why is the soul of a murderer worth studying, but not the soul of a hero?

How about in the visual arts?

[Obj 75] One finds the same sewer in somewhat different forms. The visual arts are ruled by a single principle: distortion. The kindest thing to say would be that the purpose is to take in the suckers and provide a field-day for pretentious mediocrities. [Obj 1046] I do not know which is worse: to practice modern art as a colossal fraud, or to do it sincerely. [Obj 1047] "Something made by an artist" is not a definition of art. A beard and a vacant stare are not the defining characteristics of an artist.

And in music?

[Obj 1016] In the field of musical perception, man is still in a state of infancy. Until a conceptual vocabulary is defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in music.

Well, do you enjoy the work of minimalist composers, like Philip Glass and John Adams?

[Obj 1029] The endless repetition of few notes and of a rhythmic pattern that beats against the brain with the regularity of the ancient torture of water drops falling on a man's skull, paralyzes cognitive processes, obliterates awareness and disintegrates the mind. Such music produces a state of sensory deprivation.

How about older, avant-garde composers like John Cage or Toru Takemitsu?

[Obj 1030] No scientific discoveries are required to know with full, objective certainty that it is not music. The proof lies in the fact that music is the product of periodic vibrations - and, therefore, the introduction of nonperiodic vibrations, i.e., of noise, eliminates it automatically from the realm of art and of consideration.

In general, you're not too keen on today's culture.

[ARL 69] There is an air of impoverished drabness, of stagnant monotony in all our cultural activities. Everything produces the effect of déjà vu or déjà entendu. How long since you have read anything startling, different, fresh, unexpected? [ARL 225] Art (including literature) is the barometer of a culture. If you find political issues too complex to diagnose, take a look at today's art. It will leave you in no doubt in regard to the health or disease of our culture.

Surely there must be some bright spot somewhere. For instance, don't you think US postage stamps are better than ever? After the Elvis stamp in 1993, they really started branching out.

[Margin 136] Now this I agree with fully! [Column 127] There is change in the world of stamps, and spectacular displays of human imagination. [Column 128] I like the enormous amount of talent displayed on stamps - more than one can find in today's art galleries. One finds real little masterpieces!

On that positive note, I'd like to start asking about you personally. Some background--

[Letters 616] Don't ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends, or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think. The only thing that really interests me is ideas.

But I'd like to bring more of you into this. Many journalists and critics discussed your background when Atlas Shrugged came out.

[Letters 607] Reviews and interviews are two different kinds of undertaking. A review does not require the victim's cooperation. An interview does.

How about this: In 1934, at age 29, you wrote in your journal, [Journals 68] "I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion." In 1973, at age 68, you wrote to your long-lost sister, [Letters 657] "I have achieved everything I wanted to achieve in my youth." You've clearly been successful. How did you do it?

[Letters 599] The most important thing in life is never to surrender one's concept of what is right, what life could be and should be.

You also wrote in that early journal, [Journals 73] "Some day I'll find out whether I'm an unusual specimen of humanity in that my instincts and reason are so inseparably one, with the reason ruling the instincts. Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest?" What is your answer?

[Journals 73] Honesty is a form of superior intelligence. [Letters 229] I'm the kind of ballplayer who endorses what she really smokes, and smokes only what she really endorses.

Meanwhile, you've had countless critics.

[Donahue #1 17:07] I don't give a damn about my critics. I have not heard a good one. [Donahue #2 38:12] I would love to see an honorable adversary, but I have stopped hoping.

Do you ever conclude that you take things too seriously?

[Journals 88] The truly joyous man does not laugh too much, because there is little to laugh at in life as it is today. The truly joyous man takes himself very seriously, because there is no joy without self and pride in self. One does not revere with a giggle.

You never pop out a frame and laugh at how serious you are? Come on...

[Lexicon 207] The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.

There's one last quote of yours I want to bring up--

[Journals 319] Be careful. [Letters 170] A quotation must be clear and unmistakable - by its own terms, through its own words - so that it retains its meaning no matter who is quoting it.

It's from a letter you wrote to a friend in 1948: "I have seldom enjoyed anything concrete or in the present. I am always in the abstract or future." When you think about the future, what do you see?

[ARL 16] If America is to be saved from destruction, she will be saved by her sense of life. [Obj 610] Contemporary events are slowly bringing men's minds to Objectivism. [Obj 380] If men dedicate themselves to the greatest of all crusades, a crusade for the absolutism of reason, the twenty-first century will have a chance.

I hope so. Thank you!

[ARL 388] Good-bye and good premises!


ARL The Ayn Rand Letter
Column The Ayn Rand Column
Cult Update Cultural Update (pamphlet)
Donahue #1 Rand / Friedman / Donahue (VHS)
Donahue #2 Rand / Friedman / Donahue Vol.2 (VHS)
Faith Faith and Force (pamphlet)
Fountain The Fountainhead
Global Global Balkanization (pamphlet)
Journals Journals of Ayn Rand
Letters Letters of Ayn Rand
Lexicon The Ayn Rand Lexicon
Margin Ayn Rand's Marginalia
Mediocrity The Objectivist Forum v.2 no.3 (pamphlet with "The Age of Mediocrity")
Obj The Objectivist
Obj News The Objectivist Newsletter (pages numbered as four separate volumes)
Playboy Playboy interview
Wallace Mike Wallace Interviews Ayn Rand (VH)