Objectivism: An Adolescent Disorder

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.