Growing Up Objectivist, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 11 2011 @ 8:56pm


A reader writes:

My father, too, was a devotee of Ayn Rand, as was my stepmother.  When I was a teenager, there were many spirited arguments at the dinner table over altruism, with my dad and stepmom doggedly clinging to their belief that self-interest was the admirable core of human nature and that any progressive tax system that financed a social safety net was "punishing success."  

As the years passed, the two most successful children (of five) in the family turned out to be my brother and me.  My stepmom's kids, because of their own choices, have been less well-off financially.  Imagine my surprise at receiving a phone call from my father a few years before he died, informing me that he was revising his will and asking if I would mind if he left most of his estate to my stepmom's kids because my brother and I were now wealthy!  I agreed and was happy to do (I'm a left-wing Democrat who thinks  Ayn Rand was nuts), but to my everlasting regret, I didn't ask Dad if that wasn't "punishing success!"

My point is, Ayn Rand, like much far right-wing "philosophy," doesn't work so well in the real world.

Another writes:

I think that you hit the nail on the head when you stated, "As a worldview, [Objectivism] has always struck me as making the most sense to someone who is 13 years' old." Rand's work has always seemed more simplistic than anything else. For an adolescent just beginning to wrestle with personal identity issues, her writings could appear to be a profound revelation, while to anyone with any wisdom whatsoever they just seem naive. My favorite critique of Rand's masterwork, "Atlas Shrugged", was penned by Ian Williams in a 2000 Salon article about Alan Greenspan:

For those who never read Rand, be warned that "Atlas Shrugged" reads like a novelization of Mein Kampf by Barbara Cartland. She depicts bodice-ripping capitalist supermen who obtain fanatical loyalty from their workers, and then leave them in the lurch in search of a capitalist paradise where everything has a price — and it's in gold.

I couldn't sum it up any better. As an Architecture student in the late Seventies, "The Fountainhead" was required reading for me and my friends. I read "Atlas Shrugged" shortly thereafter. A more literal expression of Objectivism than was found in Rand's previous novel, but every bit as juvenile.


A great quote related to this topic, from screenwriter and producer John Rogers:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


The great literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith (in his "Who's Who in 20th Century Literature") observed that Ayn Rand's writings "appeal to the conservatively bred young, because they encourage them to be selfish without a guilty conscience."


Your posts on Objectivism reminded me that for years I meant to – and never did – write an article that illustrates the remarkable alignment between the personal ethics of Ayn Rand’s outlook and those of Anton LaVey’s “Satanic Bible.”

Lest you think I’m being intentionally provocative, understand that this idea came about as I was reading LaVey’s text in preparation for a class I now teach on New Religious Movements. The course deals, in part, with organized Satanism (not the “Satanism” of evangelical paranoia lurking in record albums and body piercings). I was struck by the fact that individual happiness and the full development of the individual at the expense, when necessary, of the “weak” and conformist, with all its Spencerian/neo-Darwinian implications, rests at the heart of both ideologies. LaVey dresses it up in fantastic ritual and comical magic aimed at undermining the authority of Christianity, but the handbook on how to live a life does not differ substantially. Neither ideology celebrates willful, arbitrary cruelty, but both take an aggressive stance to those who advocate submissive ethics and meeting the needs of the collective before meeting the needs, and desires, of the self.

Do yourself a favor and pick up LaVey’s book. You may have to hide the cover in the subway, but the parallels are uncanny.

One more reader:

I suppose I took a little longer to develop literary habits compared to your 14-year-old Rand readers. I didn’t get exposed to the Fountainhead until my senior year in high school and found it thrilling. I loved the rebellion themes and the artists’ right to create his/her own vision. But Atlas Shrugged was much tougher to buy into, and I distinctly recall skimming the wordy speeches to get to the plot, which has a few interesting moments. It might have ended there, one of many books shaping me in those years, but a close friend became much more devoted to Ayn and his enthusiasm was contagious.

Objectivism is a near-perfect fit for above-average, privileged college students destined to become leaders in some field or another. I can attest to the power of the no-guilt philosophy, something that was in complete concert with the Reagan-era capitalism that was taking off at the time. If you really think you are something special, how can you not like a philosophy that celebrates the elite you are convinced you will join?

Two things conspired to snap me out of the Objectivist sway. One was a few summers working in the great National Parks of the American West, where I realized that it took collective action to protect the magnificent rivers and mountains that I loved exploring (and Rand clearly hated – her protagonists decried the lack of billboards when traveling through raw, “unimproved” nature). I easily replaced Rand with Thoreau, Leopold, Stegner, and Abbey – plenty of misanthropy, rebellion, and audacity for a young man’s taste, but with a better world much more likely to come from it.

The second was a geography professor with a Marxist slant, who exposed me to the spatial complexities of modern societies that refuted at nearly every turn the simple Randian notion that individuals and their individual decisions created optimal solutions. By my senior year, I don’t think I ever thought of Rand as anything but a naive prop of the College Republicans – stuck up preppies whom I couldn’t stand (even if some of that probably stemmed from a touch of self-hatred of my own roots). The point is, Rand has its time and place, but then usually becomes replaced for anyone who travels, reads widely, or gets exposed to other more complex ideas.

My friend and I pursued different degrees and went our own ways after school. I always assumed he’d moved past Rand like me, especially when he gave up his “promising” career as a VP at a bank and moved west to fish, hike, and fix up houses for a living. But on a recent once-a-decade hike in the Rockies, I learned to my surprise that he still considered Rand central to his core. He had to do some serious contortions to square his Objectivist beliefs with his life choices, love of public lands, and recent vote for Obama, but he still did not doubt that the “best and the brightest” carry the burden of productivity and deserved its just rewards (which naturally included him). We argued around it for a while, but I couldn’t even recall enough of those books or their philosophy to keep the conversation going. I could honestly admit I liked a few Randian ideas: disdain for bureaucracies and general support for meritocratic systems. But the rest seemed juvenile and unrealistic in a world where our collective fate is tied to how well others are doing too.

Later, during another campfire discussion, my friend divulged that he had avoided paying much federal tax for years through creative accounting related to his homes, mortgages, and remodeling projects – then espoused some Randian drivel to justify the morality of it all. That was the moment I lost respect for my friend and realized how lost Ayn’s black and white ideas had become. Objectivism has a self-serving core idea that is disastrous if taken literally.

Flickr user Sage Ross captions the above photo:

I've never read any Ayn Rand, but this is what I imagine a Randian hero looks like: a fourteen-year-old man who grows a handlebar mustache through sheer force of will, well on his way to being a captain of industry and all-purpose world-changer.

I found this at an antique mall in Vermont, and at $2.50 it was too good to pass up.