The Will to Believe


Arts & Culture

Sitting in on the 2014 Objectivist Conference in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, The Venetian

The Venetian. Photo: Dietmar Rabich

Even on a Monday morning at eight A.M.—an hour ripe for sober reckoning—the greatest lie of Las Vegas endures undiminished: if you keep playing, you’ll eventually beat the house. As I strolled through the Venetian, I saw the familiar ring of mostly young men crowding the aprons of a long line of craps tables. If any moment in Vegas should lend itself to second thoughts for these men, it would’ve been this one, the morning after a boozy weekend of debauchery. Yet the only concession to the occasion were the mimosas hanging pendulously over the Pass Line.

I was late for a different sort of spectacle, so I didn’t stop to watch. The Venetian, by some measurements the largest hotel in the world, had set aside a tranche of its 289 “meeting rooms” for the annual summer conference of the Ayn Rand Institute, an organization founded in 1985, a few years after the death of its namesake, with the express mission of fostering “a growing awareness, understanding, and acceptance of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.”

Open conferences are admirably egalitarian, which makes them something of an awkward format for discussing Objectivism, the name Rand choose for her canon of unalloyed elitism. “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time,” her avatar, John Galt, declares in Atlas Shrugged. Meanwhile, “the man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

One need not be an honors geometry student to understand where on this pyramid most of us must fall. Throughout her writings, which began with allegorical novels and evolved into a miscellany of short works—speeches, essays, newsletters, and even, for one year, a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times—Rand was an evangelist for an aristocracy of talents. She characterized her aesthetics as “a crusade to glorify man’s existence” and the essence of her philosophy as “the concept of man as a heroic being,” descriptions which, if they mean anything, would lead one to believe an assembly of her acolytes might resemble a cross between a meeting of Phi Beta Kappa and an afternoon among the bodybuilders at Venice Beach.

I wondered as much as I wound my way through the gilded alleys of the cavernous conference center. A floor beneath my destination, I passed the abandoned belvedere of the Martial Arts Industry Association, one of the many groups with scheduled summits that day. Later on, it would provide the only sighting of aggressively muscled men, who were conspicuously lacking at the Objectivist Conference—or OCON, the favored shorthand for attendees.

At first glance, they were an unassuming lot, whose sleepy eyes and towering lattes suggested they were as susceptible to the seductions of Sin City as most anyone else. They were a little older than I had expected and, more surprising still, there weren’t very many of them, eighty perhaps for the first session, an acroamatic overview of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. More arrived as the day progressed, but not enough to overcome the initial impression of a room full of empty seats, and not nearly enough for an interloper to feel anonymous in the least.

“Is this your first OCON?” a well-appointed woman with two cell phones asked me shortly before an afternoon session. The question was clearly rhetorical, coming as it did from someone who made it plain to me that she looked forward to the conference in much the same way we all anticipate certain events that embellish our identities. She wasn’t alone. One speaker shared that he had about twelve people he considered family. “Some are in this room right now,” he said, “and there’s only one of them biologically related.”

Such moments make me hesitant to call the conference participants “true believers,” not so much because the term is misapplied—given that one panel was titled “Objectivism Is Radical,” I suspect most of them would embrace it—but because it fails to capture what struck me about them. They seemed less like ideologues impatient for Galt’s Gulch than the graying registrants of a reactionary class reunion.

The effect was one that is common to any routine gathering that riffles a creedal code. The revealed word is best left unspoken, for demystification comes cheap: to the grizzled comrade sipping cold coffee between plenary sessions of the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, even Capital must seem a little less enchanting. The old villains remain—and at OCON, the welfare state, Obama, and liberal intellectuals all came in for a drubbing. But neither they, nor the cause they threaten, have the same sense of urgency. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds complacency.

And that’s why the first timers, perhaps a quarter of the crowd, were the more intriguing group to watch. Some of them were the high-school and college kids the Ayn Rand Institute determinedly cultivates, but others seemed to have recently “found” Rand’s work. For them, The Romantic Manifesto, The Fountainhead, and especially Atlas Shrugged still had the dazzling immediacy of a message that is extraordinary and half explained. They mobbed the microphone at the end of each session, eager to ask questions that inevitably involved a “coming to grips” with Rand’s philosophy.

Some were simply matters of implementation. At an education panel, a slight young man recounted the indignity of having to write a paper on Gravity’s Rainbow. He quickly determined that Thomas Pynchon was unworthy of his time—“he has no plot, there is no theme, there is no reasoning”—but when he shared his conclusion, he found himself sent to the principal’s office. There, he had a minor epiphany: what is right and what is expedient aren’t necessarily one and the same. Ambitious to get into a good college, he simply had to know: What would Rand do?

Some variation of that question was most common among the neophytes, but the more compelling inquiry came from those who ached because they already knew the answer. At the final session I attended, “How to Be an Impassioned Valuer,” a man wanted to know what you should do if you had lost the time to pursue the things you value. The question wasn’t exactly well thought out, and it seemed a little strange coming from someone who looked to be in his thirties, but everyone knew what he was getting at. The problem was not a matter of time but competence. What if you knew what you wanted to accomplish with your life, but you also knew in your heart of hearts that no matter how long you applied yourself, no matter how hard you tried, you could never do it, not in any way that would ever seem exceptional, not to you and certainly not to Ayn Rand? Could you live with yourself consistent with an elitist philosophy?

You couldn’t. That’s the honest answer, which is why Objectivism is the most American of philosophies. Its appeal, like that of Las Vegas, ultimately relies on the most irresistible self-deception of them all: You are never not exceptional. Only not yet.

John Paul Rollert is a writer in Chicago. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Boston Review, and the New York Times.