Saturday, February 25, 2012

We, The Living

Hey, here's something to make the majority of readers break out in hives and gnash their teeth:

I like Ayn Rand.

Okay, now here's something to make Ayn Rand roll over in her grave while breaking out in hives and gnashing her teeth:

I don't think you have to accept all of her ideas to find value in some of them.

I read Anthem in 7th grade, which would have made me, say, 12. By the end of 8th grade, I'd plowed through the twin giants The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and by high school I was making my way through the non-fiction like it was my job.  No, seriously, it was like a part-time job.  It was a laborious slog through a forest of "epistemological" this and "metaphysical" that, and required some crash-coursing in works by  Kant and Nietschze, plus economic theory, soviet history, etc.  Looking back I can say with some certainty that I wasn't fully equipped to absorb Thus Spake Zarathustra at 14 but man, did I try.  It was weird times.

But anyway, like many a teenager before me, I got my knickers all in a twist about Ayn Rand. I won a couple of scholarship essay contests through the Ayn Rand Institute, then promptly used the money to pay for housing while I attended a tuition-free school whose founder promoted the very un-Objectivist notion that "education should be as free as air and water."  Oh irony, you devil.

In my experience, a lot of people loved Ayn Rand in their youth, and why not?  She's just the thing for your teenagedly rebellious nerd. The conviction, the autonomy, the suave condescension, and oh man, the selfishness.  You know, all the things you explore as a teenager, but tidy and controlled and attractively intellectual for kids who don't get off on piercings and Mad Dog 20/20.

Usually it ends one of two ways:  You get metaphorically punched in the face by real life, realize that the world is a nuanced and amazing and sometimes grossly unfair place, swing way to the left politically, and only admit to your Rand obsession as a sort of embarrassing folly of youth, or you're blessed with smooth sailing in life, vote for people who want to create a flat tax and keep a picture of yourself shaking hands with Alan Greenspan over your desk like some kind of Libertarian-leaning Bat Signal. (For the record, I enrolled as a Libertarian when I first registered to vote at 18.  I did not, however, vote for Harry Brown that year).

For my part, I still make a point of reading Atlas Shrugged every year, and it functions for me now in a lot of the same ways it did then as delicious, delicious brain porn.  In the world of Dagny and Hank, and yes, John Galt, there is nothing sexier than being smart, talented, proficient.  Well, actually, several passages suggest that a little light S&M might be sexier to them, but that's neither here nor there.

In all seriousness, here are a couple of lessons that stuck with me, albeit somewhat altered or expanded, from those days:

1. There is a value in selfishness.   It's a particularly Rand-ish idea, but I think she had a fairly myopic view of what that means, or at the very least described it in such a cartoonishly flattened way that a lot of people did it wrong. We need to think critically about what that means.  I'm talking real selfishness, the kind where you take the time to understand who you are, what you value, and what you need,  both in the immediate sense and the bigger picture.  We think of selfishness as inherently anti-other-people, but that's a pretty terrible piece of logic unless you're capable of compartmentalizing so severely that you barely have a concept of cause and effect.  Here's an example:  During the first snowstorm of the season, the city didn't call a parking ban because it was supposed to be a minor storm.  It ended up being pretty significant.  I depend on street parking, and live in an area where it's very limited.  When snow doesn't get cleared, there's less parking.  So while it's inconvenient to find a place to park off-street and conventional selfishness means not inconveniencing myself, in the big picture, doing right by everyone and moving my car benefits me the most.  Here's a broader example: I'm not a sociopath, so I dislike seeing or making other people suffer.  I have a selfish interest in living in a just world where people are well treated.  Women who vote Republican, people on Medicare who vote for politicians who promise cuts to entitlement programs, people who claim they love their children who deny climate change: these are people who could stand to be a little more selfish.

Which would require...

2. Valuing thinking.  No joke, the false dichotomy of being a critical thinker/educated/smart or being a "regular person" needs to be killed with fire.  In the past year, the number of letters to the editor in which someone has bragged that they don't have some stupid education has exploded, and it's a real crazy-maker.  You don't have to be a super-genius to be a thinker, but remember this gem from the NYT Magazine quoting Karl Rove?:

[Rove] said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN REGULAR PEOPLE ABDICATE THE RESPONSIBILITY TO THINK.  Evil geniuses decide they can literally hijack reality.  I think that's grossly optimistic, but it's been proven a bazillion times that they can hijack the popular perception of reality which is dangerously close.  And if you think for even a second that someone who thinks like this is remotely interested in what happens to your life, you're not a "regular joe" you're a numbskull.

I'm going to create a feedback loop here and suggest that you read this, a blog entry by a friend and delightful thinker.  It links back to here, but I promise it's not quid pro quo -- I just don't feel like doubling up the good work he's already done.

I'm a traitor by real Objectivist standards. It is, after all, an ideology that insists you take it whole or leave it, but I still credit Ayn Rand with sparking a lot of the big picture thinking that informs who I am now and giving me permission to have enough ego to survive my early teens with my self-esteem in tact.  

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