Atlas Shrugged -- For Adults Only
My partner stared at me and asked why. After all, I'm an Objectivist. I think Rand's philosophy is incredibly important. So why would I bar my daughter from reading it until she's an adult?
I've felt this way for at least a decade, but given the President's comments about Ayn Rand's books being something you'd pick up as a 17-18 year old feeling misunderstood, and then get rid of once you realized that thinking only about yourself wasn't enough, I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why kids shouldn't read Atlas Shrugged.
The thing is, Obama is right. In a way. Let me explain that.
I didn't read Atlas Shrugged until I was 33 years old. In fact, other than Anthem, which I may have read in passing in high school, I never read anything of Rand's until I was 32, and I started with her essays. Maybe I'll post about how and why I got into those at a later date. But as someone who didn't get into Rand's philosophy as a kid, it took me a while to realize that for the vast majority of people, reading it as a teenager is almost inevitably going to create the opposite effect that Rand had in mind.
There's a common misconception that Objectivism is about being selfish and grasping and greedy. It's an understandable misunderstanding. After all, Rand wrote a book of essays called The Virtue of Selfishness. She spoke against altruism and in favor of selfishness. The thing is, though, that in Rand's writing, those are "terms of art". A term of art, or jargon, is a word that's used a specific way in a specific field, regardless of how it's used colloquially. In politics, to "depose" means to remove a leader. In law, to "depose" means to have someone give a deposition. In medicine, an "ugly" infection is one that doesn't respond well to antibiotics.
We're all familiar with groups "reclaiming" perogative words. "Queer" was an insult when I was growing up, and it still is for a lot of people. Yet to the younger generation of GLBT teens, "queer" is simply how they identify. Rand used the term "selfish" to mean acting to further ones long term and global well being, given the understanding that we are not alone in the world, and that what I do to others can be done to me as well. There is no other way to describe that in a single world, so far as I'm aware, than selfishness. Or if we allow a modifier, "rational selfishness".
But Rand failed. She failed to communicate this in a way that would be clear enough to get past the negative connotations of selfishness as meaning a blind, grasping devotion to ones short term desires, paying no attention to the world around us. Even expanding the term to "rational selfishness" didn't work, because people understood "rational" to mean "cold and unemotional" and concluded that "rational selfishness" meant cold, hard, unemotional, uncaring selfishness. Like a robot that lacks all empathy.
But adolescents are a different story. Adolescence is a time when we are detaching ourselves from our role as dependent children, and learning to stand on our own, personally empowered. When I was 17, I remember one evening during an argument with my father, exclaiming, "You're a person, and I'm a person. Why should you have any more right to decide than I do!" And I was absolutely convinced of my righteousness. Two years later, when my younger brother was 17, I heard him say virtually the exact same thing. I looked at my father and said, "I'm so sorry, Dad. And I wish there was some way I could explain it to him." But I knew there wasn't. You can't explain that to an adolescent. They have to learn to grow up and realize that the world doesn't revolve around them.
Which is one of the reasons why a lot of adolescents love Atlas Shrugged. They miss the bigger picture, and only pick up on the message that they shouldn't have to sacrifice themselves for others. Which is a good message, but they conflate it with their irrational selfishness. Their self-centered, almost solipsistic view of the world. And when they do grow up, as most of them do, they jettison Objectivism, thinking that it's part and parcel of the adolescent mindset they no longer need.
And that's why Obama said what he did. It's absolutely true that 17 and 18 year olds who are feeling misunderstood, and whose self is feeling threatened would pick up Atlas Shrugged and see it as a vindication of what they're feeling. And it's absolutely true that someone like that reading the book would, in the vast majority of cases, throw it away once they grow up and realize that we're all in this together, so to speak.
And that's why I won't let my daughter read the book. Because it takes a certain amount of maturity to understand that the kind of altruism that says doing for others is always more moral than doing for oneself is evil and anti-human, but that benevolence and empathy are vitally important virtues. The vice of altruism always leads to bad results in the long run, even if it may seem beneficial in the short term. Because giving requires a recipient. And if receiving is a bad thing, there's always going to be someone bad and wretched. More than that, you're always going to need poor people, because without them, you can never be virtuous. It's an ugly world that raises altruism up as the highest virtue.
Perhaps we need to find another term to reflect what Rand called "selfishness". The battle to reclaim that word was lost before it even started. All it does now is feed into the ignorance of the left.