By Michelle Railey
Originally published September 2012.
t’s a strange confession for a fully-grown Democrat (more honestly, Progressive Liberal): I had a brief affair with Ayn Rand.
Let me take you back for a second to an embarrassing moment in my life (anyone want to place bets on how long this post stays up? What’s the over-under? 24 or 12? Hours or minutes?). The year was 2000. Y2K was a non-event followed by spring followed by a surprise divorce. I found myself living in my parents’ basement in my little sister’s old bedroom, with a junker car, working a dead-end job at a bookstore cafe. My wheels were spinning and I was bereft. And in moments when I wasn’t working or driving around aimlessly at night in the dark just for space, just to be alone, just to not be looked at (is she okay?), I did what I always did (still do), read and write. Incessantly, constantly, obsessively. The perma-student.
And, having heard of it, knowing it as a Work with a Reputation for Serious People, I picked up The Fountainhead (10% off, thank you very much, bookstore cafe job).
I read it. Having already had a thing for architects, there was something mildly appealing about Howard Roarke. And what that thing was, was competence. And that was something I found necessary, vital, grounding; It was something solid that I could glom on to in a universe that had, for me, not only flipped upside down in an unrecognizable way, but had actually nearly disintegrated to the point that it was like being in mid-air with just bits and pieces of objects floating by, not a one of which I could grasp, not a one of which would settle into place. After all, there was no longer a place. So there was competence and an impersonal effectiveness– it wasn’t real, it was Randian, it was selfish, but it made sense at the time.
So then I read Atlas Shrugged (again, at a lovely 10% off: working at a bookstore is a blessing if you’re a reader– a very expensive blessing: Library, what library, I’ll pick it up on my half-hour break). And there I discovered more competence. Lovely, competent people who got things done, who made the world work, and that made sense to me. It was Dagny Taggart in her asymmetric black dress with her titanium steel bracelet being smart and compelling and lovely and successful. Everything I wasn’t being; everything I wasn’t capable of being.
And I’m not proud of it, but for a brief flash of time, I thought those books were Deep. I thought those books made a bit of sense of How To Be.
And, luckily, thankfully, I grew out of it. They didn’t stick with me.
And I’m so grateful for that. Who I was following that miserable period of time was the most self-absorbed person imaginable. Yeah, I hurt. But I was so consumed by that, that I forgot that other people in the world had it far worse than I did. That if the Randian view celebrated strength and competence, it also rejected the worth of everyone who wasn’t Dagny or Reardon, John Galt, or Roarke.
So selfish and blind and non-thinking was I that I didn’t question these stupid books I was reading. That whole critical thinking thing went out the window, into the swirling ether. I remember reading the sections on the humanist–Toomey?, Elmer?–the scholar or newspaper guy, the “villain,” who said things about the poor, said things that I kind of agreed with and I remember knowing from his status as creep, from the sneering tone that surrounded him, that I was supposed to think he was inauthentic and wrong. It’s not like I agreed with Rand, or the protagonists, or found myself pumping my fist and cheering against Everyone Else; I just sort of dismissed that part, and any moral discomfort that went along with it. I do remember it struck me as dissonant, that this guy who was saying words of kindness was the Bad Guy, the Weak Guy. Perhaps I thought it was clever to take the guy saying the right things and make him the one you love to hate.
Little did I know (again, self-absorbed, lost, and despite daily newspaper intake, ridiculously ignorant) that there were Important People in politics who were taking the big Randian picture seriously: not the competence part, but the “screw ’em; they’re not worth it” part. And they were using it to help define their worldview and then using that skewed worldview, culled from fiction, to cordon off their policy positions.
At any rate, we fast forward to the now, when I’m embarrassed by everything I was then and constantly feeling like I need to apologize to everyone I knew between the ages of 16 and 34 because I was such an ass and I’m embarrassed to say that, yes, I’ve read Ayn Rand. I’ve fallen (briefly) victim to her charms. And I (it’s really just so gross) understand the appeal.
Or rather, at one point, I did. I know it’s anecdotal (so the least effective argument possible), but the Rand thing–it’s a worldview that belongs to a juvenile phase of mind; that appeals to the most limited, selfish, and insecure version of one’s self. It belongs to a phase. It’s something you grow out of. You know, when you grow up and read Better Stuff, More Stuff, and begin critically thinking about the ideas behind the words on the page– when you realize the world you’re living in is The World, not just yours, and when you further realize that while you were absorbed in your psychic navel-gazing, really bright, good people were struggling and falling through cracks in that world, despite their best efforts and it had less to do with their failure to be talented or competent and more to do with Everything Else.
So for any politician passing The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged out to his/her staffers; for any politician thinking that the world is divided into good-bad, job-creators and riff-raff, 47% to 53%, I call “foul.” Ayn Rand was a fiction-writer with a very personal world view. She may have thought seriously about it, but that doesn’t mean it was Serious. It never grew, it never developed, it never looked at the big picture. And that’s fine for a novelist but, frankly, ridiculous for a policy-maker in the real world. There is something very limited about the world of Ayn Rand and I don’t think limited thinking derived from a set of novels is the most effective tool for solving real-world problems that affect the broadest range of citizens.
And, FYI, while for a delusional month and a half it seemed to be, it really wasn’t such a great tool for dealing with a brutal divorce and a messed-up half-life either.
Watch: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997/1998)