“[Ayn] Rand’s fans are rarely the sort of intrepid, self-reliant, go-it-alone entrepreneurial heroes she writes about,” Michael Goodwin explains in the introduction to Darryl Cunningham’s new graphic novel The Age of Selfishness. Goodwin continues:
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 [Atlas Shrugged protagonists] John Galt and Hank Rearden, it’s because he doesn’t resemble them at all.
This is a cogent argument against Ayn Rand fandom. Or more accurately, it’s one of many cogent arguments against Ayn Rand fandom. If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you’ve seen plenty of arguments against Rand: her books are poorly written; her ideas, though appealing to college freshmen, immediately fall apart when exposed to the real world; her own biography is riddled with hypocrisy. People love to hate Ayn Rand. But Rand’s books are tremendously popular; every generation, like clockwork, seems to lose a significant percentage of its most impressionable thinkers to Rand. She’s treated like a legitimate philosopher by a huge percentage of the population, and her work still exerts a tremendous influence on American politics. All the debunking in the world seemingly can’t poke a hole in Rand’s fame.
A decent alternate title for Selfishness could be “The People Vs. Ayn Rand.”
But in all my years of collecting anti-Rand rants, I’ve never seen anything quite like Darryl Cunningham’s The Age of Selfishness. It’s a book-length survey of Rand’s philosophy that also directly accuses her fans of causing the financial crisis of 2008. Cunningham mounts a case against Rand, finding evidence and testimony to build to an almost lawyerly case implicating her guilt in the biggest swindle of the 21st century; a decent alternate title for Selfishness could be “The People Vs. Ayn Rand.” Oh, and did I mention? It’s a comic book.
Selfishness is divided into three chapters. The first is a biography of Rand, explaining her rise to power and her eventual collapse. It establishes the one man who stands accused with Rand as a prime actor in the economic collapse: Alan Greenspan. (“Called ‘The Undertaker’ by Rand because of his quiet and somber nature,” Cunningham explains, “Greenspan nevertheless became a favorite of the author.”) Though Cunningham spends perhaps a little too much time dwelling on the sordid details of Rand’s love life, the biography is surprisingly comprehensive.
The second chapter, “The Crash,” explains how Rand’s teachings of selfishness and anti-government rhetoric eventually caused the economic crash of 2008. Here is where you’ll find Cunningham’s greatest achievement: he explains complex financial terms like “futures” and “derivatives” in a few spare sentences, laying plain some of the more esoteric causes of the the collapse. At about seventy pages of comics, it’s one of the most concise and informative descriptions of what happened in 2008 that I’ve ever read.
The third chapter, “The Age of Selfishness,” broadens the scope of Cunningham’s argument to encompass the modern stalemate between conservatives and liberals. Cunningham cites studies that show…
The political left and right do not share the same values. The moral systems each side has are based on different philosophies. To liberals, much of conservative policy appears unjust. Research shows conservatives are comfortable with inequality. They are quick to judge others and have little problem dismissing any science that runs counter to their beliefs, no matter what the evidence is, or how well argued. Whereas liberals tend to be more empathetic, see more complexity in the world, and are more likely to change their opinions when presented with evidence that they are wrong.
On the one hand, it’s a fascinating argument. But on the other hand, it’s an argument that is guaranteed to make its audience feel powerless. If humans are hard-wired in two very distinct ways, and if those distinctions lead to two different lines of political thought, why even bother to change the minds of the other side? Why engage in conversation at all? Cunningham uses this biological dichotomy to futher explain the differences between Rand’s acolytes and bleeding-heart liberals, and to identify why the political climate in the United States has shifted so remorselessly to the right over the last decade and a half.
That would be an ambitious agenda for a prose book of 200 pages, but the fact that Cunningham pulls it off in a comic book is some kind of a miracle. The words are the star here; Cunningham’s artwork is blocky and simplistic, intended to illustrate the concepts in as clear and as unobtrusive a way as possible. Each section is illustrated in its own distinctive palette; Rand’s biography is told in a bland, utilitarian grey-green with bursts of passionate yellows and red. The crash is remembered in somber shades of blue and gray. And the distinction between liberals and conservatives seesaws between reds and a neutral shade of slate. The nuance Cunningham manages to pack into a few lines and a couple splashes of color is quite impressive; the illustrations buttress his arguments in ways that a distracted reader might not even begin to notice.
Despite a few flaws of overeager partisanship, Selfishness is a remarkable achievement; it’s a comic about complex financial matters that’s enticing enough to win over a general audience. It’s the perfect book to give to the teenager in your life who has embarked on a dangerous flirtation with Rand, because the argument that Cunningham builds is of the sort that even Rand would have to appreciate: it’s cogent and logical and, above all else, unique.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant