There is no doubt in my mind that, should we have been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth.
IN ATLAS SHRUGGED, Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, the captains of industry, the world’s best and brightest, remove themselves from society, implementing a work stoppage of, it seems, everyone on earth worth his or her salt. Absent the creative energy of the Steve Jobses and Jeff Bezoses and Esther Dysons who populate the novel—original working title: The Strike—the rest of sheeplike humanity founders.
Reading the book, we root for and identify with Rand’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, who is ultimately tapped to join this exclusive club of world-beaters. Here’s the best part: because the most venerated of all the insiders is John Galt, a wunderkind who emerges from a humble upbringing (not unlike Ayn Rand’s), we are reassured that membership to this secret society—unlike membership to, say, Skull & Bones—is not a birthright. Rand’s utopia is a meritocracy, one to which the highly capable Dagny—and, by extension, anyone who reads the book—belongs. Who is John Galt? John Galt is me! Isn’t that awesome?
As YA fiction, Atlas Shrugged succeeds beautifully; we want to be Dagny, to inhabit her world, in the same way we want to travel through tesseracts and play quidditch and go to prom with the sparkliest vampire. The novel’s not-that-novel concept is beyond simple—those who contribute something to society make the grade; those who don’t, don’t—and its black/white, with-us-or-against-us appeal is what makes it so popular with disaffected teenagers and other readers whose intellects are not yet fully formed.
Young adult fiction is more capable of positively informing the worldview of a young mind than so-called literary fiction, as Harper Lee well knows. But Atlas Shrugged is not To Kill a Mockingbird. As the inherent logic of quidditch breaks down upon closer examination, so does Rand’s faulty reasoning: what John Galt advocates is nothing more than social eugenics, a selfish system based less on meritocracy than cruelty, and one fueled by a profound lack of empathy. Some make the cut and others don’t; fine. But who gets to decide? Ayn Rand? Rand Paul? Paul Ryan? Ryan Gosling? And, more importantly, what criteria are these deciders using?
Ayn Rand’s thinking owes more to Leopold and Loeb—her contemporaries, whose murder trial took place two years before she emigrated to the United States—than any compassionate human being should be comfortable with. Atlas Shrugged should not form the basis of a political party, however fringe. Nor should it or its odious creator have inspired the worldview of a man a heartbeat away from the presidency.
In 2005, at the age of 35 (i.e., old enough to know better), Paul Ryan attended a meeting of the Atlas Society (!), at which he proudly announced, “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”
I grew up reading the Dungeon Masters Guide and the Monster Manual and the Players’ Handbook; I have not based my value systems on the writings of Gary Gygax (although, to be fair, Gygax’s worldview is superior to the chaotic evil of Atlas Shrugged). Nor do I still play Dungeons & Dragons. I’m savvy enough, as most readers (even young adult ones) are, to separate fact from fiction. Orcs and werewolves, wizards and zombies, Mrs. Whatsit and Aslan, Bella Swan and Dagny Taggart—all belong in the realm of make-believe.
That said, I get the Ayn attraction. The underlying principles of Randian objectivism dovetail nicely with the American don’t-tread-on-me value system. We like our heroes to be rugged individualists who pull themselves up by their bootstraps; Horatio Alger rags-to-riches successes; quiet, manly types raised in log cabins with three walls, who walked ten miles in the snow twice a day to go to school, who rose to the top by virtue of their own God-given talents and sheer determination—and not because their old man was a knight of the realm, or a landed aristocrat, or the governor of Michigan. We admire people like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, Babe Ruth and Bill Gates, Jay Gatsby and (yes) John Galt.
We conveniently forget that this is mythology, that no one succeeds by him- or herself, that Horatio Alger stories are just that: stories. Rand’s objectivism is a binary “philosophy” that holds water only in summer movies based on comic books. Like summer movies based on comic books, it has a wide appeal, and like summer movies based on comic books, it fails to grasp the nuances of a real world that is all nuance.
This seems to be beyond the reckoning of Paul Ryan, who regards Ayn Rand in the same way tween girls do Taylor Lautner. (Really, Mitt, if the purpose of this pick was to suck up to the mega-rich, you should have just named a Koch Brother and eliminated the middle man; that’s what the efficiency experts at Bain Capital would have advised).
A closer look at Ryan’s famous budget, beloved document of the Tea Party and other myopic and/or selfish conservatives, reveals just how staunch a disciple of objectivism he is. As a host of professors, many of them Jesuit priests, from my alma mater, Georgetown University—not, it should be noted, a hotbed of liberal politics by any stretch of the imagination—explained in an open letter to the Congressman before his visit to the campus earlier this year: “[W]e would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few…..In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.”
What would Jesus do? Not read Atlas Shrugged, for starters.
A bevy of respected academics from a highly-regarded university were sufficiently moved by Ryan’s inability to see the inherent flaws in his thinking that they saw fit to write a public letter walking him through it. And this buffoon is who Mitt Romney has tapped to be his second banana! If this is what passes for smart in the GOP, if this nincompoop is really the conservative fountainhead of Ideas, we are all doomed. Paul Ryan is not an intellectual; he’s a fanboy. But then, Romney the Latter Day Saint probably admires a guy who believes so passionately in the contents of a book that any rational human being can tell is pure fantasy. Next to the tale of Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni (that’s iMoron, if you’re into obvious anagrams), Rand’s bombastic ode to ruthless capitalism seems perfectly reasonable.