2:31 p.m. September 10, 2012

I Was A Teenage Randroid

The first Randroid I ever knew used to sleep with my mom. His name was Mike. I was 16 at the time. He was 25. My mom had a thing for younger guys — especially ones who, regardless of political persuasion, always had plenty of drugs.

Ayn Rand also had a taste for younger guys. Most famously her disciple, Nathaniel Branden. She also liked drugs. Most famously meth. Beyond that, and maybe bad teeth, Rand and my mom could not have been less alike. Rand was a bestselling author whose pro-selfishness philosophy, Objectivism, inspired a cult and influenced the world. My mom is a high-school dropout who waited tables, got pregnant at 16, wound up on food stamps, and yet would be the first person to give you the shirt off her back if you needed it.

What drew Mike to my mom, I’ll never know. Like most Randroids — Rand’s legion of blind, unquestioning followers who hold radical individualism as their highest ethic, because that makes sense — Mike fancied himself superior to others. The funny thing is, he wasn’t an architect or a captain of industry like the heroes of Rand’s novels. He worked at a copy shop. He rented a tiny house. He drove a shitty car. And he fucked women like my mom.

Oedipal overtones aside, I didn’t resent Mike for that. I didn’t have much of an opinion about him either way. His relative youth was creepy, sure, but I’d become pretty accustomed to creepiness. By 16 I’d seen a lot. I’d survived drunken car wrecks, multiple evictions, a regimen of government cheese, the incarceration of one uncle and the murder of another. I’d also seen my mom beaten savagely by her boyfriends. Mike didn’t beat her. On that basis alone, I guessed he was okay.

Mike and I even sort of bonded on something: books. He had a big shelf of books at his house, and he let me borrow them. Back then, all I did was read. I ditched friends to read. I skipped school to read. One of my favorite books was "The Communist Manifesto". Punk rock, my other love, had introduced me to leftism. When I traced those ideas back to the source, everything clicked.

Yeah, I was poor. No way to mince it. There’s no way to fully convey how fucking crushing, how asphyxiating, it is to grow up that way. As I discovered through Marx and Engels, though, there was power locked within my poverty. That was a pretty uppity way of thinking for a scrawny white-trash geek whose family lived in a basement apartment that reeked of bong water and cat piss.

Revolutions, I imagined, had been made from less.

Like Mike, I began to feel superior. I couldn’t compete with the well-off kids at my school, but at least I could hold myself above the other poor kids. I did this by aligning myself with something so grandiose and forbidden as socialism. This was the late ’80s. The Cold War was waning, but it still cast a long shadow. The Religious Right had soaked into the fabric of America. And socialism may as well have been Satanism. Calling myself a socialist was a way to seem — or at least feel — more badass than I really was. It was also a way to set myself apart. And above.

Did it make sense to glorify the proletariat while loathing my working-class neighbors? Actually, in a sad way, it did. As I was soon to realize, the human brain has a staggering capacity for batshit-crazy paradox — and in particular, a form of batshit-crazy paradox that was, and is, earthshaking in scope.


* *

The book I borrowed from Mike was "The Fountainhead". Published in 1943, it found a ready audience during World War II and the post-War years, when fascism and communism — two ideas Rand condemned — were either immediate threats or looming on the horizon.

I didn’t know any of this when I picked up Mike’s copy from his shelf. I was intrigued by the stark cover art. I was hooked by the premise as detailed on the back cover: the heroic struggles of an architect to see his vision realized in a hostile world. Reading on, though, I was struck in the gut by the book’s simple claim: that Rand was one of the world’s leading proponents of capitalism.

Capitalism? Who in their right mind would champion something that already ruled the world? It seemed insane to me, like writing a book about how great McDonald’s is. I put "The Fountainhead" back on the shelf and vowed to forget it. And Rand. After all, I was a motherfucking socialist, and Marx had already told me all I needed to know about capitalism.

A few days later, I realized I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about "The Fountainhead". And all I’d read was the back cover. I thought, I must be a pretty wimpy socialist if I can’t weather a little pro-capitalist screed. Know your enemy — I’m sure I picked up that phrase in a comic book or sci-fi flick at some point in my childhood. With that in mind, I went back to Mike’s shelf, pushed aside his copy of "The Anarchist Cookbook" that I’d already read, and grabbed "The Fountainhead".

And then "The Fountainhead" grabbed me.

I wasn’t a stupid kid, but I think the irony escaped me. I lived in a basement; "The Fountainhead" is about skyscrapers. I was poor; "The Fountainhead" glorified wealth. I was being fed, in part, through a government-funded program; "The Fountainhead" called such programs — and, in fact, altruism in any form — the work of collectivist parasites who siphoned off the energy of the persecuted, downtrodden producers of the world. In other words, it was the exact inversion of socialism. The few points that Objectivism and Marxism had in common — atheism, class awareness, and a romanticized sense of rebellion (which, by the way, conveniently overlap with punk rock) — made it easier for my poles to wander and flip. Being a contrarian little bastard probably didn’t hurt.

Having passed through the gateway, I kept going. Next up was Rand’s 1957 opus, "Atlas Shrugged". Judging by the name alone, it’s clear Rand was a Russian emigrant. Any English teacher in the America would have broken you of the habit of putting words like “shrugged” in the title of a story. Shrugging, after all, isn’t very gripping. That is, unless it’s in Rand’s hands. Her titular Atlas, I soon learned, is a metaphor for all the capable, creative, productive people in the world. Her supermen. Like the Atlas of Greek myth, these people held the world on their shoulders. Only she believed these people had the right to rule that world — not politically, but economically — solely due to their ability to design buildings and build railroads. Supremacy is yours, but only if you earn it.

The deeper into this labyrinth I wandered, the more airtight her logic seemed. Beyond that, her beliefs tapped into a latent side of myself that I had never fully acknowledged: my inner asshole. Other people? Fuck ’em. When you’re a young, precocious introvert, and it’s easy to turn those feelings of inferiority around and project them onto everyone but yourself. Maybe I didn’t fit into society because, deep down, I was one of Rand’s producers. One of her supermen. One of her Atlases.

One of her Randroids.

So I started acting like one. Emboldened by the clean, innocent, robotic arrogance of Rand characters like Howard Roark and Dagny Taggart, I let my inner asshole loose. I spoke to people with rude, brutal honesty. I walked down the street with my head high, my face expressionless. I was openly disdainful of poor people, my own family included. In other words, I became a practicing sociopath.

Even worse, my taste in books went to shit. Not longer after Mike stopped fucking my mom and disappeared from my life — I never did tell him that he and I had something in common other than my mom’s vagina — I procured all of Rand’s books from used bookstores and thrift shops. (Rand’s estate has never seen a penny in royalties from my purchase of her catalog, which is some small comfort to me now.) I devoured these books. Even her horrible 1984 rip-off, "Anthem". Even her lousy nonfiction treatises like "The Romantic Manifesto" and "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology". Of course, anyone who’s read "Atlas Shrugged" is already acquainted with Rand’s dry, tedious nonfiction. It’s called John Galt’s speech, and it comprises a 70-page chunk of the book.

In a fit of perversion, I prided myself on the ability to actually read this dreck and pretend it wasn’t. In her various philosophical works, Rand alleges photography is no more of an art than the act of tracing someone else’s drawing. She states that men who hide behind facial hair — like, um, Mike, whose beard was luxurious and full in a young Bob Seger kind of way — are inherently dishonest. She outlines why, in precise and clinical terms, you have no moral obligation to save a drowning person.

To this day, I’m grateful I never did stumble across a drowning person while under Rand’s sway. There’s a very good chance I would have kept walking.

As it is, I still feel guilty as fuck for something I actually did back then. Or rather, something that I didn’t do. At the tender age of 20, I attained every young nerd’s dream: I became the manager of a comic book store. Smugly, I assumed that such a triumph was the rational world rewarding me for my heroic acts of enlightened self-interest. I even got a raise! Rand’s claim that “money is the barometer of a society’s virtue” energized and sustained me. Something had to. I was making $7.50 an hour.

One evening, there were two customers in the store: a regular, who happened to be white, and a stranger, who happened to be black. Objectivism preaches colorblindness at all times and in all circumstances, and at the time that seemed sensible. I suppose that was my justification when the white customer — who apparently hadn’t seen the black customer in the back — cracked a racist joke at the counter. The word “nigger” was uttered. I didn’t laugh, but nor did I object. The white customer then noticed the black customer and said he was sorry about the joke. His tone was clear: He was sorry that the black guy heard the joke — not that it was said in the first place.

If I were to witness something similar today, I would have no problem telling the racist piece of shit that he was a racist piece of shit and swiftly boot him from the premises. Right, wrong, I wouldn’t give a fuck. Observing it from my cold, Spock-like, Randroid vantage, though, this was my justification for doing nothing: I didn’t own this store, and it wasn’t my place to make that call. My millionaire boss — and he was a millionaire, one who had a whole chain of comic shops plus a huge mail-order warehouse — surely wouldn’t want me making the call when it came to kicking out a paying customer. Especially one who dropped over a hundred bucks a week on funny books.

After the white guy left, the black guy came up and bought the comic he’d been holding. He glared at me while doing so, but didn’t say a word. Then, ten minutes later, he came back. With a look that I couldn’t read — a mix of sadness, pity, outrage, and what seemed like fatigue at being a grown man in the 1990s who still had to deal with this kind of stupid, hateful shit — he returned the comic he’d just purchased and asked for a refund. “I can’t shop here,” he said. “I want my money back.” That’s all he said. I could have refused. In fact, the Randroid in me wanted to refuse. Our returns policy was very strict and very clear. Being offended by a racist joke certainly wasn’t on the list of acceptable reasons for a refund.

Something kicked in, though. I realized I’d gone too far already. Or not far enough. I opened the till, handed him his money, and watched him walk out the door.

That stuck with me. It haunted me. Had I maybe misinterpreted my Randian directives? How is that even possible? That’s the thing about Objectivism. It leaves no room for interpretation. Rand says explicitly that there are no shades of gray in her belief system. It’s based entirely on logic and follows systematically from axiomatic principles. There is no flaw, and there is no gray. And yet, here was a painfully gray situation. Colorblindness, I realized, didn’t work here. It was just another kind of blindness.

* *

Looking back, I try not to beat myself up about my four lost years as a Randroid. I was a kid, a confused and hurt one. Young people in that type of situation can, and have, bought into a lot worse. I bought into an ideological package deal. That was the only way you could buy Objectivism. No mixing and matching, no add-ons or options. Randroids come as factory models only.

And that’s still true today. Despite the fact that everyday reality contradicts the tenets of Objectivism, Randroids hold Rand’s teachings as the supreme distillation of that reality. Cult leaders couldn’t hope for better.

Only today it’s not so easy to laugh off. It’s no secret that the neocon movement of the past few decades — starting with Ayn Rand’s endorsement of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and continuing with the long shadow of former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, one of Rand’s disciples that I’m guessing she didn’t fuck — has been deeply influenced by Rand. Deeply and secretly. Few conservative leaders have ever copped to being Randroids, which was a wise move on their part. Rand’s ideological package deal contains, among other things abhorrent to the evangelical wing of the conservative movement, that pesky little parcel of rabid atheism. Also, by most accounts, Jesus had a beard.

Imagine my surprise when the Tea Party movement was willed into being and began citing Rand by name. From there it trickled outward, past the 2010 midterms in which the ideas of "Atlas Shrugged" began to be espoused by Tea Party-aligned GOP candidates like Rand “Not Named After Ayn, No, Really” Paul. Then, this summer, the inevitable happened: Bona fide Randroid Paul Ryan, who has openly stated his admiration for Rand’s work and has the budget to prove it, became the Republican nominee for Vice President.

Libertarians — the friendlier face of Objectivism — haven’t exactly fallen in line behind Ryan. First of all, they have their own party and candidate, Gary Johnson, in the race. Since they have no chance of winning, they have no reason to compromise their Objectivist hard line, especially seeing as how compromise is tantamount to rape on Rand’s moral spectrum. (Rape, on the other hand, gets some titillating page-time in Rand’s fiction.) Johnson himself has denounced Ryan as being “anything but a Libertarian.” His implication: Of the two, he’s clearly the bigger Randroid. Purity must be maintained. The heretic must be cast out.

Exclusion is the Randroid’s weapon. Not reason or morality or productivity, as Rand would have you believe. It’s poetic justice that the recent big-screen adaptation of "Atlas Shrugged" completely, abysmally bombed, and the second installment of the film is being released — in full, hubristic glory — on October 12, just in time to give left-leaning pundits plenty of fuel for anti-Ryan jokes. Not that the would-be comedians are sleeping on the Rand/Ryan front. As more than one online comic has pointed out, “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan” is an anagram for “My Ultimate Ayn Rand Porn.”

As for me, I’m glad I grew out of my Rand fantasizes. By doing so, I prevented quite a few punches to the face I’d been practically begging for between the ages of 16 and 20. I tried. I really did. But despite my ability to bend logic and facts—and, hell, my view of human nature—to fit Rand’s stunted, abstract notion of reality, I utterly failed in my bid to become a Randroid. Atlas shrugged; I flunked.