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When I was a kid, I read Captain Marvel and Superman comics. I en I was a kid, I read Captain Marvel and Superman comics. I didn't read them because I was a big, strong guy like Cap or Supe; I read them because I was a skinny kid. I loved reading about Superman because I didn't resemble him at all. That, I think, helps explain Ayn Rand's lasting appeal.
Rand's fans are rarely the sort of intrepid, self-reliant, go-it-alone entrepreneurial heroes she writes about. Rather, they've typically spent their lives in the comfortable embrace of large institutions, going from school to university to corporation, or from think tank to government and back again. If Paul Ryan — a government bureaucrat if ever there was one — loves reading about John Galt and Hank Rearden, it's because he doesn't resemble them at all. Not that we should dismiss Rand. It's easy to call her writing "badly executed on every level of language, plot, and characterization," as Thomas Mallon wrote in the New Yorker in 2009, or to mock her ideas as "stuff that seems very deep when you're nineteen years old," as Bill Maher put it in 2013. But judging her books as literature or as serious social science misses the point. Her books, like Superman comics, are fantasies. And fantasies are powerful.
The fact that Rand's novels, despite their numbing length, are fundamentally simplistic — even, well, cartoonish — makes the fantasy more compelling, not less. But while Rand's novels are cartoonish, Darryl Cunningham's cartoons are not. In The Age of Selfishness, Cunningham's pithy prose and funky art tell a complex, important tale. Cunningham connects the dots from Ayn Rand to Alan Greenspan to the mess we're in today, tackling tangled subjects with clarity and zing. It's an involved story, one that requires the full power of comics to pull off. By the end of the book, readers have learned how collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps work; seen behind the scenes at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Countrywide Financial; looked into the psychology behind liberalism and conservatism; and understood the complexities of Obamacare and of the forces opposed to it.
Cunningham leaves room for the contradictions in Rand's character, like how her books celebrated individualists while she surrounded herself with — in fact, could only bear the company of — sycophants who repeated her opinions back to her. This absolutist cast of mind permeated Rand's life and her ideas; in a way, she escaped the Soviets only to bring their worst mental habits with her. As Cunningham shows, she would purge colleagues who showed too much independence of thought. The act that she never purged Alan Greenspan tells us more about Greenspan than the 288 pages of Bob Woodward's fawning biography.
In all this, Cunningham never gives in to the temptation to be simplistic. His Rand is (accurately) portrayed as sad and needy, but she's no cartoon villain. Alan Greenspan's role in creating our current mess is clearly explained — and here Cunningham does a great service, providing an essential corrective to the rote accolades Greenspan still receives from the press — but there's nothing of the cackling mastermind in him. The Wall Streeters Greenspan loosed on our economy seem no more to blame than piglets are to blame for gorging at feeding time. In fact, when I finished The Age of Selfishness, Rand's own words from Atlas Shrugged came to my mind:
He felt as if, after a journey of years through a landscape of devastation, past the ruins of great factories, the wrecks of powerful engines, the bodies of invincible men, he had come upon the despoiler, expecting to find a giant — and had found a rat eager to scurry for cover at the first sound of a human step. If this is what has beaten us, he thought, the guilt is ours.
Ayn Rand's acolytes have changed our world, and changed it for the worse, but not because they're fiendish or even particularly brilliant. They've succeeded because they've mistaken myth for reality, and because they've operated largely in the world of finance — a world most of us find hopelessly murky. In The Age of Selfishness, Cunningham has turned on the lights. He has shown us the forces that we're up against Rand's acolytes have changed our world, and changed it for the worse, but not because they're fiendish or even particularly brilliant. They've succeeded because they've mistaken myth for reality, and because they've operated largely in the world of finance — a world most of us find hopelessly murky. In The Age of Selfishness, Cunningham has turned on the lights. He has shown us the forces that we're up against and, in the end, how unimpressive they are. If we let them beat us, the guilt is ours.
MICHAEL GOODWIN NEW YORK, NY(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Age of Selfishness"
Copyright © 2015 Darryl Cunningham.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Ayn Rand, 1,
Part Two: The Crash, 69,
Part Three: The Age of Selfishness, 148,