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August 17, 2012 1:15 PM Objectivism: An Adolescent Disorder

By Ed Kilgore

I’d have to say my nominee for Most Redundant Headline of the Year is for Jonas Blank’s ruminative TNR essay: “I Was a Teenage Objectivist.” Of course he was. So was I, and so were God knows how many other people, particular nerdy boys seeking ego-reinforcement against the discipline and disdain of parents, the idiocy of teachers, and most of all the contempt of classmates. Blank does summarize the appeal of Rand’s hilariously un-objective fantasy world quite well:

In Rand’s stories, the individual is the absolute sovereign. This makes sense in the high school context for a couple of reasons. First, many of Rand’s maxims—including “[Y]our body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of that road” and “to live requires a sense of self-value” (each taken from the most famous chapter of Atlas Shrugged, the turgid, rambling and mostly incoherent radio address by the character John Galt)—actually are useful advice for a high school kid. An awful lot of high school kids are conformists and are doing a lot of really dumb things—and a lot of perfectly good, albeit different high school kids betray themselves because of it. One truly appealing quality of Howard Roark, besides his integrity, is that he is, in fact, talented, and he never apologizes for it or compromises it.
But besides giving nerds everywhere a reason to buck up, Rand’s inward-looking theory of “rational selfishness” carries considerable appeal (and risk) to those high schoolers who are irrationally selfish. If you’re a navel-gazing, self-directed, somewhat academically talented nerd, of course Rand’s characters are your heroes—their lives may be the only possible future you can imagine for yourself.

Not only that: but the average nerdy adolescent boy hasn’t really had to do much of anything to test his theoretically vast potential in the marketplace of life: you know, things like falling in (non-heroic) love, performing a difficult job, dealing with entirely irrational and unindividuated economic forces like recessions, or for that matter “checking your premises” via debates with intellectual equals or superiors who come up with arguments that Rand and her “Collective” didn’t already savage in the totalitarian atmosphere of her smoky Manhattan salon. I suppose most people whose Objectivism survived high school probably stumbled upon having children—you know, those irrational critters whose almost complete absence in Rand’s novels is one of their most remarkable features. Indeed, it is perhaps the denial of childhood that probably makes Rand’s stuff so totally seductive to adolescents poised between that helpless state and the yet-to-be-achieved independent adulthood.

So I guess I’m not surprised the Cult of the Teenage Objectivist is still going strong. Blank doesn’t tell us if these folk still parade around wearing gold belts and dollar-sign pins. Obviously today’s Objectivists aren’t threatened with the financial demands and sex scandals and excommunications that periodically emanated from their idol in her declining years, when I was a teenager. I certainly am in no position to mock them, but just as American voters may be forgiven for wondering occasionally why it took George W. Bush 40 years to overcome his rich-frat-boy habits, Ryan’s obvious pleasure in the twisted fictional world of Ayn Rand is a bit too recent to be something we can write off without concern.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • storsmkies on August 17, 2012 1:40 PM:

    Yet the perfect rationalizations for greed and narcissism ..
    Fits Paul Ryan, buffoon Romney, and the rest of these RePIGlicans ..

  • SecularAnimist on August 17, 2012 1:41 PM:

    My thoughtful, in-depth analysis of Objectivism is this:

    It's bullshit.

    "Objectivism" is a pseudo-philosophy which is basically reverse-engineered to make Ayn Rand's subjective values, preferences, likes and dislikes appear to be objective absolutes.

    This becomes clear when you read her non-fiction essays in which she proclaims, for example, that impressionist art and dissonant music are "immoral". Why are they "immoral"? Because Ayn Rand doesn't like them, that's why.

    Objectivism is profoundly dishonest, and moreover it is cowardly. A true "egotist" would not be afraid of having subjective preferences, and would not need to hide her subjectivity behind blatantly bogus claptrap about "objective" moral absolutes.

  • Shane Taylor on August 17, 2012 1:53 PM:

    The point about children is an old but excellent one. And, yes, I suspect it has to do with an egoist's unease over any such dependency.

    I despised Atlas Shrugged, though it wasn't simply because I read it as an adult. Having had some exposure to American economic history, I found Rand's delusions too absurd to suspend my disbelief. There was the monetary madness of the nineteenth century, which discredited d'Anconia's description of the era as if it were one simple, virtuous money. And, of course, the actual railroads necessitated corporate planning (as well as massive public subsidies to get them going), which can't be squared with Dagny's self-image as some kind of sole proprietor.

    But I would describe the psychological appeal less in terms of adolescence than in terms of ressentiment.

  • c u n d gulag on August 17, 2012 1:54 PM:

    From the great 'Kung Fu Money:'

    "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."

    I read all of Rand's crap the summer after college, as i prepared to move down to NY City to join the work force.

    It was a good for helping me deal with the assholes I'd have to deal with for as long as I stayed in corporate life.

    As a matter of fact, the head of the company that I took as my first job in Cable TV, was Jack Gault.
    That should have been my first clue that I'd chosen the wrong company and industry!

  • Josh G. on August 17, 2012 1:58 PM:

    I still think that Scott Aaronson puts it best in explaining Objectivism's appeal to bright teenagers:

    "Rand's portrayal of an anti-mind, anti-reason cabal of collectivist rulers, who spout oleaginous platitudes about love and self-sacrifice even as they mercilessly repress any spark of individuality, happens to be extremely relevant to at least two cases I'm aware of:
    1. Soviet Russia.
    2. The average American high school."

    There are other reasons, of course... but adolescence really does suck for most people, and for intelligent introverts even more than usual. No surprise that so many turn to Rand in solace. But seeing a full-grown man like Paul Ryan playing around with this nonsense is like watching someone go through a full-blown midlife crisis, complete with new sports car and 18-year-old girlfriend. It's simultaneously sad and pathetic.

  • Diane Rodriguez on August 17, 2012 2:15 PM:

    Perhaps Ryan's adolescent fantasizing, adolescence defined as.... well 40 years old, also includes some dreaming beyond just Rand's fictional output. Perhaps he fancies himself in the role of Nathaniel Branden, her disciple who was excommunicated when he moved on to a more age appropriate bed. Adultery-Atheism...yeah you can fit that into rigid Catholic theology.

  • John Donohue on August 17, 2012 2:24 PM:

    Ethical and cultural collectivism is for codependants.

    Political collectivism is for megalomaniacs who have spiraled down from codependancy and now wish their controlling hyper-obsession with fixing others to be encoded in law, in order to force others free of the obsession to come under "coercion to care."

    Objectivism is for grown-ups.

  • Mudge on August 17, 2012 2:43 PM:

    And then there is Alan Greenspan..

  • tb on August 17, 2012 2:45 PM:

    Objectivism is for boys (like braces, zits, Rush songs and rubbing one out in the shower before school).

    most everybody else tries to grow the hell up.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on August 17, 2012 3:18 PM:

    I actually have a close, nearing-40 family member who tends towards this kind of silliness. He's actually been threatening for the past few years to read Rand, but I doubt he'll every get around to starting, much less finishing, one of her books.

    He was one of the "navel-gazing, somewhat talented academic" kids, though I fear he over-estimated his own talent. But since his teen years, he's always been of the persuasion that he has been unduly set upon by inferiors, from the well-connected kid who got that scholarship over him back in high school to his scheming, "stupid" ex-wife along with the entire family court system that he swears is conniving to get him to part ways with his paycheck. (Seriously, the dude will call himself the better parent and be simultaneously appalled at the thought of paying child support.) He was even loathe to attend his son's kindergarten graduation ("But he hasn't even done anything! Rewarding mediocrity, etc.")

    Here's hoping he doesn't get his hands on any of that Rand, otherwise I'm forecasting daddy issues for his kids. He's family, but he's a little too impressionable for the Rand camp.

  • Andy Olsen on August 17, 2012 3:24 PM:

    Objectivists unite! You have nothing left to lose but your chains! Er, schackles!

  • Rick B on August 17, 2012 3:40 PM:

    Ed, you have part of the idea. Objectivism fits well with a certain stage every male goes through when growing up. Women don't go through it quite the same way.

    Children are born into a family and are tightly bound emotionally to the family until puberty. Then young males are programmed to abandon the family and go out into broader society. As a part of this they are programmed to begin to focus especially on their identities as separate individuals. In America this culturally requires extreme individualism, with minimal dependence on even other males. This is not just a denial of childhood. This is the rejection of childhood by young men who are emotionally leaving childhood and leaving the family. This is the point at which Objectivism rationalizes the internal feelings that come along with leaving the family. Boys who are involved in team sports at this stage are less attracted to the extreme individualism, but by definition this excludes nerdy males. (This could be tested in a questionnaire by asking grown men if they were Objectivists and asking the degree to which they were involved in team sports as teenagers. Anyone doing this damn well better reference Rick B in Political Animal [as of today] in their write-up!)

    For women the similar abandonment of family is culturally accompanied by developing female friends and sharing secrets and feelings with them to an extent not normally found in American males of the same age. For some young women it is accompanied by attaching to a male of as high a status as possible. But culturally American women are never required to become isolated individuals in the same way as are men at this stage. At the very worst (failing the female friends) they still are culturally expected to attempt to attach to some male. They are not culturally required to achieve the isolated individual status that males are at that age. The need to find an intellectual justification for such extreme individualism as women is simply not built into the American culture. (The ratio of female to male objectivists and the degree to which women glorify Ayn Rand could similarly be included in the questionnaire.)

    I like the observation that the Ayn Rand glorification ends when the children are born. I suspect that it also declines as men work with others in teams, both in sports and in employment. But if the individual is born into a truly upper-class family and expected to continue the tradition, they will not have that leavening experience. Both Romney and Ryan are such upper class twits.

    Ayn Rand provides the male with the intellectual explanation of what goal they could achieve. That wasn't what she was trying to do when she wrote her books. She was a Russian refugee who hated the communitarian ideologies of the Soviet Communists. Her goal was to destroy the Communist Socialist ideology. The fact that this fit so well as justification for the individualistic fantasies of teenage nerdy boys was mere happenstance.


    @SecularAnimist 1:41 PM -- You nailed it.

  • Shane Taylor on August 17, 2012 4:14 PM:

    By the way, Ed, I think there is a James McMurtry song for this post:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nhVUsgRLsI

  • Anonymous on August 17, 2012 4:56 PM:

    @Rick B

    Do you know what "Psychologizing" is? Look it up.

    Wait, let me start over. You obviously know what Psychologizing is, because you just now whipped up a whopping mountain of it in that post. You just don't know the name for it and actually believe it is cool.

    Psychologizing is a major error of intellectual discourse. Not only does it leave the attacked subject untouched, but it reveals the speaker as an empty parrot (or creative fantasizer) who cannot abide an actual confrontation with the actual subject of his attack.

    So, at least move your finger over one key from the SpewPopPsy key to the HateRand key and try again.

  • John Donohue on August 17, 2012 4:58 PM:

    the prior post was not intended as "anonymous." The posting system here erroneously posted my comment absent my name.

    so, ditto!

    John Donohue

  • John Donohue on August 17, 2012 5:15 PM:

    My apologies to Jack B if he feels singled out on the charge of Psychologizing. My error was to not go inclusive. So here:

    The essay by Ed Kilgore and the turgid [irony] snippet from Jonas Blank were equally loaded with it, and just as vacuous.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on August 17, 2012 6:03 PM:

    I was NOT a teenage Objectivist.

  • idlemind on August 17, 2012 6:30 PM:

    John Donohue, do you have any actual criticism, or are you just playing buzzword bingo with your own private lexicon?

  • Rick B on August 17, 2012 6:35 PM:

    @John Donohue

    "Psychologizing" is a term promoted by Ayn Rand to defend her garbage failed "philosophy." I am offering a hypothesis which would explain why Objectivism is attractive to nerdy teenage males. You will notice that I also offered a way to test the hypothesis.

    Your failed defense comes directly from Ayn Rand herself. Rand was intelligent and a very obsessed writer attempting to make a point, but she was simply wrong.

    I gather that you are an objectivist working to defend your failed philosophy.

  • John Donohue on August 17, 2012 6:59 PM:

    Are you kidding? Psychologizing is an acknowledged error far beyond the world of Ayn Rand. I won't link. Google is your friend.

    [aside: Even Sheldon Cooper knows it is a rank error and excoriated Amy Farrah Fowler for it in his breakup with the perfidious Amy, that Psychologizing ingrate.]
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FitG_PLO9Rg

    I see now, however, that you have switched errors: you are now simply shouting out that her philosophy has failed and she was wrong with not a shred of (non-Psychologizing) support for your declaration. I don't even what to list the names of that error. Too many.

    By the way, thanks for linking Rand's discussion of the error; others might learn something.

  • John Donohue on August 17, 2012 7:04 PM:

    @idlemind

    Yes, my criticism of this piece and the named responders is that they are concluding that Rand's philosophy is dead (or worse) without actually discussing or challenging that philosophy.

    They are just offering ad hoc pop psychology on her person and on the process of individuation for young people into adulthood.

  • Anonymous on August 17, 2012 7:13 PM:

    Ethical and cultural collectivism is for codependants"

    To some people's ear that may seem profound and radical. In the real world that philosophy provides a cover for the failure to healthy and lasting relationships. Rand's own life is a great example of her own need for codependency, in this case slavish worship. When Branden broke free from Rand in favor of a healthy relationship Rand repudiated him in the strongest terms. All behavior is meaningful.
    Assuming you are more cutting, more avante garde, or fashionably contrary to everyone else is often a common method to hide inadequacy and immaturity.

  • Diane Rodriguez on August 17, 2012 7:15 PM:

    I am a frequent poster. Did not intend to post anonymous @ 7:13

  • John Donohue on August 17, 2012 7:40 PM:

    Diane, once again, psychologizing on Rand personally. First of all, you don't have facts and fully integrated insight, only the gloss from afar. No one does, except her doctor (if she had one.)

    I could write a full page spinning towards the complete opposite direction, pointing out (what we know of from afar) of her personal generosity, kindness, etc. However, that is no more an argument than the one you made, and I won't do it.

    I am open to interaction on any actual challenges to Objectivism itself.

  • Doug on August 17, 2012 8:39 PM:

    First, I must also acknowledge this as another red-letter day, because I am in complete agreement with SecularAnimist's post. Now,

    John Donohue, ANY person who is or was unable to see the difference between the democratic means used by FDR during the 1930s and the non-democratic means used by Lenin beginning 1917 has no credibility. Zilch. Zip. Nado. Her writings also show an incredibly shallow and inaccurate view of history, whether of the US or Russia. While she may not have known that the railroad system developed in the US was founded on government largess, she most certainly SHOULD have known that was true for the RUSSIAN railroad system. How then could she, with ANY honesty, write about some a railroad company owner as if that owner had built rhe railroad herself? ALL labor union members are parasites or goons? ALL labor leaders are evil?
    That Ayn Rand, and many others, was aghast and horrified at what the Bolsheviks did in Russia does not excuse HER from being rational. Her fantasies in novel-form are so full of such historical, psychological and factual inaccuracies as to be laughable - which may be the reason so many here do just that.
    And, of course, the bright side is that she barely made living from her writings; once again proving that our elders weren't as dumb as we may have theought them.

  • emjayay on August 17, 2012 9:22 PM:

    Thankyou Ed, in particular Rick B, and Doug for your well reasoned and insightful post and comments. You have provided an explication of what I've been thinking about Ryan and Ayn Rand and all that. As of late of course Ryan has been saying "Ayn who?" although his youthful indescretion of saying publicly and on video what a singular inspiration Atlas Shrugged was, and giving it out and requiring his staff to read it was as recently as about five years ago when he was a teenager of 37.

    As a friend of mine from Georgia used to say (somewhat tongue in cheekedly) "Y'all ahh sow smaht!" This is what makes WM blog so great.

  • Steve P on August 17, 2012 10:12 PM:

    There are book length takedowns, but this has the virtue of brevity and it drives the Aynettes nuts:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/222482/big-sister-watching-you/flashback

  • John Donohue on August 17, 2012 10:25 PM:

    @Doug

    Your Lenin/FDR apposition...I have no idea what you are pointing to re: Ayn Rand.

    "ALL labor union members are parasites or goons? ALL labor leaders are evil?"
    Whoops. One of Rand's strikers in AS is a labor leader. She also acknowledged the role of certain unions at certain times as bastions of anti-communism. Rand had no issue whatsoever with unions, as long as voluntarily constructed. She vehemently opposed compulsory unionization.

    And digest this:
    "Organized labor has been much more sensitive to the danger of government power and much more aware of ideological issues. Its spokesmen have fought the government in proper, morally confident terms whenever they saw a threat to their rights. (To name a few examples of such occasions: the attempt at labor conscription in World War II, the issue of U.S. contributions to the Soviet-dominated International Labor Organization, President Kennedy’s attempt to impose guidelines in the steel crisis of 1962.) Labor’s concern was aroused only in defense of its rights; still, whoever defends his own rights defends the rights of all.

    But labor was pursuing a contradictory policy, which could not be maintained for long. In many issues—notably in its support of welfare-state legislation—labor violated the rights of others and fertilized the growth of the government’s power. And, today, labor is in line to become the next major victim of advancing statism.

    It was business, not labor, that initiated the policy of government intervention in the economy (as long ago as the nineteenth century)—and business was the first victim. Labor adopted the same policy and will meet the same fate. He who lives by a legalized sword, will perish by a legalized sword."

    ~ Ayn Rand, "“The Moratorium on Brains”

    Many US railroads were not government-built. Rand wrote extensively about this and clearly pointed out the distinction between them. What was your intent pointing to her knowledge of the Russian railroad system, I do not follow your reference.

    Those are the only three actual points you presented, the rest is the usual rhetoric.

    What makes you think Rand did not make a lot of money?

  • emjayay on August 17, 2012 11:06 PM:

    I'm sure Ayn Rand made a lot of money, but not enough that she didn't collect Social Security and signed up for MEDICARE when she got lung cancer after a lifetime of chain smoking.

    She was of course right about some things, like the Viet Nam war, and wrong about most things. Like art and gay people, among many others. She was quite clearly an extremely narrow minded, or maybe one could say single minded, idealogue. And any adult who like Paul Ryan is (or apparently was) a big enthusiast for her and her philosophy, sorry to say, kind of reminds me of a Scientologist or fervent Opus Dei adherent or something similar.

  • SecularAnimist on August 19, 2012 12:29 PM:

    John Donahue, please explain why impressionist painting and dissonant music are "immoral".

    I hesitate to dignify Ayn Rand's nonsense with the suggestion that is "flawed", which would suggest that it is an actual philosophy, which could have both merits and "flaws", rather than abject drivel from beginning to end.

    Having said that, the fundamental "flaw" in Objectivism is the failure to recognize the biological reality that human beings are social animals, like chimpanzees and wolves, and that as such the human personality -- the human "self" -- is always, and completely, a social construct. The separate, independent "ego" that Ayn Rand worships simply does not exist. It's a delusion. A philosophy founded on delusion is necessarily and inescapably delusional.

    And as I noted above, there is nothing whatever "objective" about Objectivism. Objectivism is nothing but an elaborate attempt to rationalize Ayn Rand's extremely subjective preferences as moral absolutes.

  • SecularAnimist on August 19, 2012 12:38 PM:

    emjayay wrote: "kind of reminds me of a Scientologist"

    Interesting you should mention Scientology.

    In the 1940s, a struggling science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard, addressing a convention of science fiction writers, said: "It's all very well to write short stories for the pulp magazines for three cents a word. But if a man really wanted to become rich, he would start his own religion."

    Hubbard, of course, went on to prove his point by founding the science-fiction religion of Scientology, and becoming extremely rich.

    Like L. Ron Hubbard, Ayn Rand began as a science fiction writer. Her early novella, Anthem, was a straightforward, dystopian-future science fiction yarn. And both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged include elements of science fiction as key plot devices.

    And like Hubbard, Ayn Rand went on to found her own science fiction "religion", Objectivism.

    Rand never became as rich as Hubbard, though -- at any rate, unlike the Church of Scientology, the Ayn Rand Institute does not have its own navy, and does not own entire cities.

  • Everyman on August 20, 2012 4:46 PM:

    Atlas Shrugged Part 2 will be in theaters October 12th, 2012.

  • Curtis Plumb on August 22, 2012 10:17 PM:

    “There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire,” Rand wrote in 1969, “some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days—the conviction that ideas matter.” The nature of this conviction? “That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.”

  • Mike on August 23, 2012 12:28 AM:

    I notice that, no matter how vehement, the critics of Rand and Objectivism... Wait, what am I saying? There are really only critics of Rand because no one is willing to approach the actual philosophy.

    Declaring something multiple times does not make it so. Just stating "she was wrong!" is not a refutation of her philosophy. Not one person in this thread has presented her view on a subject correctly, along with a correct explanation of her own reasoning for that view, and then shown that reasoning to be false. None. Not one.

    So, get off your high horses. You don't belong on them.

  • Tim on December 12, 2012 1:59 AM:

    Much ado about nothing, ie: Ayn Rand

    Use your own brains.