Daily Archives: January 25, 2021

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Jeff Riggenbach, RIP

I met Jeff Riggenbach many, many years ago at a libertarian conference when I was in my early 20s. I had first encountered his singular voice in a New York Times article published on June 24, 1979: “In Praise of Decadence” (before publishing a book of that name) and later, in Reason magazine (December 1982), where he discussed “The Disowned Children of Ayn Rand,” putting forth an audacious thesis:


If any single American novel of the past quarter-century may fairly be described as one of the major definitive documents of the ’60s, that novel is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.


To some readers this proposition doubtless seems paradoxical, even perverse. Ayn Rand an avatar of the ’60s, that decade of campus unrest, acid rock, and flower childishness? The very idea! Was it not Rand who described the Berkeley rebels of 1964 as “savages running loose on the campus of one of America’s great universities” and as “contorted young creatures who scream, in chronic terror, that they know nothing and want to rule everything”? Was it not Rand who described the participants in the Woodstock music festival of 1969 as “scummy young savages” who spent the weekend “wallowing in the mud on an excrement-strewn hillside”? Was it not Rand who dismissed the New Left as “wriggling, chanting drug addicts,” rock ‘n’ roll as “primitive music, with the even beat that deadens the brain and the senses,” and the spread throughout America of the counterculture lifestyle as an “obscene epidemic of self-destruction”?


Were the flower children and the campus radicals of the ’60s obsessed with their own youth? Did they regard young people as uniquely qualified by the very tenderness of their years to see through and expose the evils and the hypocrisies of their elders? Did they soberly counsel each other not to trust anyone over 30? If they read Atlas Shrugged, they found nothing in it to dissuade them from this prejudice. …


Were the ’60s radicals openly contemptuous of establishment intellectuals, conventional wisdom, and eternal verities? Atlas Shrugged contains the most acid-etched portrait of establishment intellectualdom ever published in America. It stands all of contemporary conventional wisdom on its head. And as far as eternal verities are concerned, Rand herself never tired of remarking that her big novel challenged the entire Western cultural tradition of the past 2,000 years.


Were the ’60s radicals feminists who believed a woman was as good as anybody else? Atlas Shrugged could have done nothing but fuel their fire. For here was a deeply intellectual novel written by a woman and depicting the adventures of one of the most extraordinary women to be found anywhere in 20th-century fiction—a beautiful female entrepreneur who flies her own plane, runs her own railroad, and takes her own risks and who is equally good at engineering, philosophy, tennis, housework, and sex—the sort of woman who is not only as good as any man but in fact better, better than almost any man you’ll ever meet, in fiction or out of it.


Did the ’60s radicals hold a dim view of the military-industrial complex? They would find nothing in Atlas Shrugged to teach them otherwise. If one were to judge the worlds of government, big business, and the scientific establishment purely by reading Atlas Shrugged, one would have to conclude that almost all big businessmen are parasitic incompetents who owe their profits to special deals worked out for them by politicians, that the scientific establishment is nothing but an arm of government, and that the principal function of government is to use its stolen resources in the invention and manufacture of loathsome weapons of mass destruction. …


In the late 1970s, a pair of young journalists, Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman, teamed up with a professional pollster and conducted a wide-ranging opinion poll of self-identified “’60s people.” (Sixty-two percent of the respondents reported that they had considered themselves “hippies” during the ’60s, and most of the others had been sympathetic to the hippies’ cause.) …


One of the questions Weiner and Stillman asked their respondents called for them to list the names of individuals they had “admired and been influenced by.” One respondent in six listed Ayn Rand in reply to this question. She came in 29th out of 81. And if the entertainers and politicians are eliminated so that the list contains only the names of the authors that hippies admired, Rand comes in tied for sixth place with Germaine Greer, behind Kurt Vonnegut, Kahlil Gibran, Tom Wolfe, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (who tied for fourth), and Allen Ginsberg, but ahead of Rod McKuen, Hermann Hesse, Paul Goodman, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, and LeRoi Jones. …


If a cheap, reliable solar converter had been perfected a decade ago, the young inventor will tell you, it would have meant “about ten years added to the life of every person in this country—if you consider how many things it would have made easier and cheaper to produce, how many hours of human labor it would have released for other work, and how much more anyone’s work would have brought him. Locomotives? What about automobiles and ships and airplanes?…And tractors. And power plants. All hooked to an unlimited supply of energy, with no fuel to pay for, except a few pennies worth to keep the converter going.”


As the initiated know, all these quotations I’ve attributed to the young inventor come from Atlas Shrugged and pertain to John Galt’s motor that runs on atmospheric electricity. But the rough equivalent of that young inventor really exists somewhere. And despite his long hair, his faded jeans, and his work shirt, he is a true Randian—just as thousands of the pursuers of self-realization who made the 1970s the “Me Decade” are true Randians—just as thousands of the militant feminists, gay activists, and untraditional businessmen (dope dealers, headshop owners, street artists) who have won so much media attention over the past few years are true Randians.


All of them are truer Randians by far than grim, humorless, regimented, robotlike “students of Objectivism” who are ordinarily regarded as the truest of the true. These wretched conformists, so lacking in self-esteem that they willingly enslave themselves to someone else’s ideas on every conceivable subject, so obedient intellectually that they turn their backs on a culture literally teeming with Randian ideas and denounce that culture as evil and irrational merely because they are told to do so by their mentor—these Randians are not representative of the spirit of Atlas Shrugged.

It was the rebels of the ’60s who were the true children of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Disowned children, certainly—cast out of the house and into the cold world for the sin of taking their mother’s injunctions too literally, for adopting her ideas and ignoring her personal prejudices. But they are her children nonetheless and unmistakably. They are hers. And she is theirs.


So impressed was I by Jeff’s keen insights into the ways in which a thinker’s ideas filter through a culture, affecting even those whom that thinker might have “disowned,” that I was ecstatic when he later agreed to write a couple of articles for The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which I co-founded in 1999 with Stephen Cox and Bill Bradford. He contributed a wonderful essay to the first symposium on Rand’s aesthetics ever published (Spring 2001), and then went on to write a wide-ranging, deeply insightful piece for the first of our two symposia celebrating the Ayn Rand Centenary: “Ayn Rand: Literary and Cultural Impact” (Fall 2004). In “Ayn Rand’s Influence on American Popular Fiction,” Jeff surveyed a remarkably diverse group of writers upon whom Rand had exercised a substantial influence, including former associates such as Kay Nolte Smith and Erika Holzer as well as Gene Roddenberry, Ira Levin, Terry Goodkind, and other contemporary purveyors of science fiction and crime fiction.

Getting to know Jeff through the years was a hoot; he was a perfectionist in his work, and even when you disagreed with him, he was always a gentle man—with me at least!

This morning, I learned that Jeff died. I know he was battling serious health problems and I have been deeply saddened by the news, having just posted on January 12th, on his Facebook Timeline: “Miss you, Jeff! Happy birthday…”

RIP, my friend. And my deepest condolences to Jeff’s family and loved ones.