Thursday, April 28, 2011

I Was A Teenaged Randian

Today, upon the celebration of my 39th birthday I though it appropriate to wade through some old writings and reveal perhaps one of the most shame-inducing things I have ever written. But, first, a little background setup is in order.

As 2011 moves past its first third it has become more and more apparent that the nation as a whole is in the grips of a new wave of influence from The Scientific Objectivist herself, Ayn Rand. Rep. Paul Ryan--who resembles no one so much, in manner and look, as Gabe from The Office--proudly proclaims himself a follower of the writer and philosopher. Copies of her books continue to sell briskly and an Atlas Shrugged movie has recently been unleashed in theaters. In short Ayn Rand, almost 30 years after her death, is having a bit of a moment. Her philosophy has struck a chord with Americans who fear the incoming wave of still more moderateness from our already hopelessly modest president. This, they have thundered, cannot stand. They cry for the rights of the individual, the right to assert their greatness, their right to pay fewer and fewer taxes in the name of fiscal balance and responsibility.

Forgive me for perhaps sounding a bit smug but of course Ayn Rand is old news to me. Way, way back when, in 1988, I myself had a bit of a personal Ayn Rand moment. In fact I spent much of the first half of junior year walking around with my head blown by this idea of self-reliance and unfettered genius. After all, who would know more about self reliance than a pampered, coddled suburban Jew, who had everything he could virtually ever want literally given to him? But that mattered not. I looked around at my fatted calflike neighbors, with their lazy intellects and perfect yard-induced complacency and saw right through them. None of you, I thought, have ever stood up for what you truly believed. None of you, I again said to myself, again silently, have any of the guts you truly need to change this world. I would shrug my shoulders, perhaps in an Atlas-like fashion?, and look down my nose at them still more. Failures, I ruminated, the entire lot of you.

Of course I am not the first to wrap my cloak of suburban anomie around the first handy philosophy I could muster. And not long after that I found myself attached, tic-like, to yet another, and greater siren call, The Grateful Dead. Mind equally blown, but in a big party full of stoned hippies, businessmen and hippie businessmen. Of the two mind blowers, I add, perhaps unnecessarily, the latter was a hell of a lot more fun, and a hell of a lot less lonely. But, as they say, I digress.

I had been given a copy of The Fountainhead during a teen tour I had taken during the summer of 1988 in Israel. (On a side-note one of my favorite fellow teen tourists that summer was Roger Madoff, nephew of the justly hated Ponzi-schemer, Bernie Madoff. Talk about the rights of an individual to do exactly what they want!)

The corrupter of my young mind was my counselor Alan, another suburban Jew, of course, except he was in college and knew a couple of Crosby, Stills & Nash songs on the guitar. You know, he was awesome. I don't know what prompted the conversation, but at some point Alan presented me with his idea of the individual and his supremacy.

"Think about it Dave," he said. "Has ANYTHING great ever come from a committee? Can you perform surgery by committee? What about all the greatest inventions? Were any of these done by committee? The light-bulb? The telegraph? No, these are all things best done by one person leading the way, alone."

I thought for a moment about Alan's surgery example, then answered. "Well, Alan, what about the research that went into the medical knowledge that lead to the surgery. Often that is done by groups and even teams. And during surgery itself there is an entire team of people working with the surgeon, like nurses and anesthesiologists, who are just as important, in their way, as the surgeon."

Alan pondered this for a few seconds and, if memory serves, even granted I may have had a point. Despite this he still saw fit to hand me his copy of The Fountainhead, telling me to just check it out.

It was a big book, 740 pages, or so. This alone meant a lot to me at the time. Up until that point the biggest book I had ever read was The Sword Of Shannarah, a Tolkien-esque ripoff that held me spell bound in sixth grade. And let's be frank here, bigness is important when you really don't have any real experience or knowledge in the world of literature. I hefted the soft-covered text. Hmm, I thought. It's about the size of a brick. I should read this.

My second thought was, man, this is going to take up a lot of room in my bag. But screw it, knowledge is power, and therefore worth the work.

Later that night I cracked the spine and immediately was captivated. Howard Roark, my god, who WAS this guy? Where did he get off taking down The Parthenon like he did, and right in front of his mendacious architecture instructor? Then Roark marched off into a sunset of self-assuredness, just a few minutes before he was to graduate from architecture school. But Roark just didn't care about the phony pantomime of graduation. He only cared about the little amount of knowledge to be gleaned from the inferior hacks and losers that were there to instruct him.

After this big entrance Roark then went to work in a rock quarry, all on his own terms. And this was all in, like, the first 25 pages!

Now this, I thought, is a man. He lives by his own rules, he sticks to his guns no matter what, he doesn't let anyone get in his way, he believes in himself without even the shadow of a doubt. He is content to suffer and get passed by without compromising himself or his art. People can either see him for what he is or leave him, he just didn't care. He didn't hate anyone, he didn't talk down to anyone, he wasn't bitter about the chances lesser talents got, he simply focused on what brought him joy and wouldn't let anyone sully the purity of his work.

Now that I read this again it still seems attractive. And I still see how elements of it remain with me today.

But along with all that good stuff, came a sort of almost super-human callousness. To show compassion for those who aren't as talented, who aren't as supremely self-assured, this concept doesn't exist to Howard Roark. The idea of sharing in the bounty of a wealthy society, understanding that some simply do not get the opportunities others get, this idea is also seen as completely without merit to Roark, and by extension Rand. To understand that reason is not always objective, but fallible, that successful people are not necessarily better people, again there is no place for these ideas in Rand's universe.

Nor, for that matter, is there any other concept of virtue at play here other than the self-realization of the individual. In The Fountainhead Roark goes on a diatribe at one point about how nature is simply there as a tool for man's use. Trees only have value in as much as they can be split and made into beams. And to attribute any sort of feeling of greater respect or care for the natural world, apart from what it can do for us, is simply a romantic, pointless and trifling waste of time. This idea literally could not even occur to Roark.

Of course I realized all this only later. Because I loved The Fountainhead. I was with Roark ever step of the way. I jeered his seeming nemesi, Ellsworth Toohey and that brown-noser Peter Keating. I especially loathed Keating, that sellout. Toohey, even at 16, simply seemed like a cartoonish weirdo and hard to actually hate.

But Keating. If you haven't read the book Keating is cast as a kind of anti-Roark. They are classmates at the architecture school Roark leaves. While Roark struggles Keating is the perennial golden boy, graceful, ingratiating and easy to be around. He will conform to what you want him to be if it helps him climb the ladder. A modest talent he gets by simply by being good looking, malleable and popular. And while I personally may have been pretty malleable I sure didn't feel like I was popular or all that good looking. So, you know, fuck that guy!

As the book progresses Roark struggles, but eventually begins to build a client base. He even turns down jobs, no matter how much money he needs, if it's wrong. In one example he refuses to build a home for an old man, because the man wanted it to be based on a sort of plantation that he looked at as a boy and felt excluded from. Roark, in a moment of nice insight, asks that, really, is all you want to stay locked in the battles and mindset you had as a boy? Is your true mission simply to remain stalemated in that time, only from a different perspective? Where is the you in what should be your home?

Like I said, Roark/Rand was not all bad.

And over time Roark's star, by dint of unshakable self-confidence and nonstop work, starts to rise. And in that same time Keating begins to age like the picture of Dorian Gray. He is miserable in his work, his seemingly perfect like starts to unravel, what he really loves to do is paint canvasses. So he takes it up again, as a bit of a hobby, but it's too late. He sold out, and in Rand's world, once you do that you really can't get unsold again. (Again, these ideas, right or wrong have certainly influenced me, for better or worse.)

Needless to say the book meant a lot to me, even as I started to drift from it over time, perhaps inevitably. Rand seemed to me a bit of a fad, something people went through. And then two signal events happened that estranged me from much of what she stands for and her philosophy.

First I reread the book when I was about 25 and I fought it a dreadful, tedious work. The characters are at best cardboard approximations of people. The prose disastrous, the philosophizing tedious. As a fan of great writing the mere fact of her prose hackery did a lot to diminish Rand in my eyes.

Then, a few years later, I started to see Rand's mantle appropriated by people with whom I had very little, if anything, in common. People who used her name as an excuse to gut desperately needed programs for those people among us unlucky enough to have been born very poor. Rand would simply say it's their fault if they are born poor and remain that way as adults. They didn't try hard enough, she'd argue. They are lazy, and in a sense, bad people.

But when my wife told me about kids in the Bronx who want to go to school and learn but their parents are either absent or on drugs ... Or there weren't enough books, yes, not enough books. Or the building they attend school in is crumbling around them, or actually making them sick. At that point I realized that Rand's intellectual purity was no match for the problems of the real world.

When I heard Rand's name used to justify what amounted to me as an undeclared war on our nation's poor I realized I could never identify in any real way with her or Scientific Objectivism. To buy into this philosophy and really live it you have to be blinded to anything subtle or complex about the root causes and solutions to poverty. You have to love a one size fits all answer to everything, which is that gifted people are serving the ultimate moral good by just doing as they damn well please at all times and somehow this benefits society. And the more they do as they damn well please the better off society will be.

Really? Well, I don't know how gifted the financial industry is but it's pretty much done as it damn well pleased over the past 30 years and where has it gotten us? We are a stagnating nation, where the rich already live in Gault's Gulch, and didn't even have to leave the country to get there. America, as it is today, is a land where the rules literally and figuratively do not apply to the rich and super-rich. And we are all, the rest of the nation, poorer for it in every way.

Wow, all that and I didn't even get to the main point of this essay. And this is, to reprint, for your amusement my college admission essay where I talk about what a great Scientific Objectivist I am. And to think, I imagined this would get me into Wesleyan.