A Philosophy for Teenagers
The nomination of Paul Ryan, a noted Ayn Rand fan, as the Republican Party's vice-presidential candidate has inspired some increased discussion of Rand's ideas and writings. But not all of it has been edifying.
The latest unedifying contribution is a brief comment by President Obama in a fawning interview with Rolling Stone. Asked, "Have you ever read Ayn Rand?" the president replies, "Sure." He then tells us what he thinks of her philosophy.
Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we'd pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we're only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we're considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity—that that's a pretty narrow vision. It's not one that, I think, describes what's best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a "you're on your own" society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.
Ah yes, the old, "Ayn Rand is for adolescents" brush-off. This from a guy whose biggest fan base is moon-eyed college students and whose support drops steadily as you poll older and older voters. Who do you think is the real youthful infatuation?
And more: Obama is the standard-bearer for an ideology that is sustained by a carefully cultivated pose of youthful naiveté. While others traveled the familiar path in which age and experience moves them to the right—from struggling with the difficulties of paying taxes or running a business, and from observing the pathologies of the welfare state, the success of Reagan's policies, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so on—Obama maintained a pristine faith in which the welfare state has no failings, central planning is wise and visionary, and big government is a bright, shiny new idea that has just never been tried before. It was this uncriticial statist idealism, in contrast to jaded, middle-aged Clintonism, that won him his party's nomination and was a core part of his appeal four years ago.
As for Obama's view of Ayn Rand, color me skeptical about how much Ayn Rand he read when he was a teenager. It's purely a matter of demographics: in my experience, there's not a lot of overlap between teenaged fans of Atlas Shrugged and high-school potheads. They just don't have the same interests.
More to the point, his whole mention of Ayn Rand's ideas contains nothing that he would have gotten from actually reading what she wrote. Instead, he repeats the standard cliché on the left that Ayn Rand is for neurotic adolescents. (This also used to be the standard dismissal of Ayn Rand on the right, until a bunch of those young Ayn Rand fans became forty-something House Budget Committee Chairmen.)
In itself, this is a pretty adolescent argument. It amounts to saying that you should renounce your interest in Ayn Rand because none of the cool kids who hang out at the Upper West Side coffee shops like it. But then again, adolescent appeals have become the centerpiece of the Obama campaign.
Take the notorious new Lena Dunham ad for the Obama campaign, in which she compares voting for Obama to your "first time." What I find disturbing about this ad is not the implied sex joke—after all, Reagan did it, too. It's not even the somewhat preposterous notion of Lena Dunham as some kind of sex symbol. Her HBO show is supposed to be "Sex and the City" for the millennial generation, but her forerunners were actually pretty glamorous. As for Dunham—well, I don't know, maybe shlubby clothes and arm tattoos are a turn-on if you're a 20-something hipster in Park Slope. And that's what really jumps out at me about this spot. Like so much of the Obama campaign, it's aimed straight at trendy, urban 18-to-24-year-olds.
That's how we get a president who prefers late-night comedy shows to real news shows, just like the callow youngsters who get their news from "The Daily Show." It's how we get a presidential debate in which he unleashes snarky one-liners about aircraft carriers that sound like they were focus-grouped on 15-year-olds. It's why his official campaign Tumblr blog feature a drawing of Mitt Romney in a dunce cap.
All of this might seem like riotous good fun for the 22-year-olds, but it's a good deal less appealing for those of us whose "first time" for just about everything is well in the rear-view mirror. We're not looking to elect a boyfriend. We're looking to hire a competent manager. For us, Mitt Romney looks like the mature adult who is capable of handling the responsibility. That's why the best analogy I've heard for this election is that it's Ward Cleaver vs. Eddie Haskell.
The Obama campaign's odd age gap is reflected in the Life of Julia cartoon that is still up on the campaign website, the chronicle of a fictional, faceless woman and all of the government assistance she receives throughout her life thanks to Barack Obama. Observers have already noted that we hear a lot about Julia between the ages of 17 and 23, less and less as she gets older, and nothing at all between the ages of 42 and 65. That's no accident. These are the prime working years, the years when she is likely to be paying a lot of money in taxes rather than receiving a lot in benefits. And these are also the prime years of adulthood, the years of adult achievement and responsibility.
That brings us back to Ayn Rand. Despite her reputation as a novelist for teens, about half of her heroes—the titans of industry in Atlas Shrugged—are in that 42-to-65-year-old demographic. The other half are on their way there. Why? Because those prime working years and their concerns are her primary subject matter. As I have argued, what makes Ayn Rand literarily distinctive is that she finds the adult world of work, business, and productive achievement to be interesting and worth writing epic stories about. Atlas Shrugged is the kind of novel in which a meeting of the board of directors is rendered as high drama. Which is to say that it's not exactly kids' stuff.
And who are Ayn Rand's biggest fans? Not mopey college students; she's not big with the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Her biggest fans include the Tea Partiers, who are overwhelmingly "seasoned adults" from the 42-to-65 demographic. If the 23-year gap in the life of Julia is a confession that Obama and his ideology have nothing to offer to these people, we can tell who does have something to offer.
This really struck me when I was reading an interesting analysis by demographer Joel Kotkin about how Obama's famous "gender gap" advantage with women is entirely an advantage with young women (and, more broadly, with the unmarried and childless). The data suggests that a real-life Julia, who goes through all of the experiences of actual adulthood—marriage, homeownership, children, a career in the business world—tends to change her views and become the kind of suburban soccer mom who is breaking for Mitt Romney.
Obama's version of Julia, by contrast, seems like she goes straight from college to cashing a Social Security check. Which, come to think of it, is a lot like Obama himself, whose experience prior to holding elected office basically consisted of never leaving college, except for a brief stint in corporate law which he regarded as being "behind enemy lines." His life is the very model of an extended adolescence, in which he spends his first 34 years writing a naval-gazing memoir about his quest to "find himself." That's a job many of us actually managed to finish up when we were teenagers; maybe it was the Ayn Rand that helped us.
Actually, I'm pretty sure it was the Ayn Rand that helped. A lot of us first discover Ayn Rand when we are young—I first read her when I was 17—but not because we felt "misunderstood." In fact, a lot of what was appealing was her total lack of concern with anything resembling teen angst. She wrote about a world of business and big ideas and adult achievement which appeals to young people who are finished with their adolescence and are eager to head into that world. I wasn't joking earlier when I said there's not much overlap between the Choom Gang and the campus Objectivist Club. Ayn Rand appeals to serious young people who are already thinking about what they want to be doing when they are 42.
Yet Ayn Rand is a philosopher of youth in some important ways. She expresses the youthful desire for independence, for striking out on one's own—and the conviction that it is possible to succeed on your own effort. Contrast this to the odd spirit of the Obama youth, who is looking forward, not to striking out on his own, but to a lifetime of leaning on government. A few years ago, I remember seeing a report on young people demonstrating in the streets in Paris to protest welfare reform that included reductions to dental benefits and pension plans, and I thought how incongruous it was to see 22-year-olds standing up to demand support for their old age. It is the unique curse of the left to appear both juvenile and geriatric at the same time. The goal, apparently, is to reach old age without ever having grown up.
The big-government ideology of the left—the one with Obama as its figurehead—is the real philosophy for immature teenagers. Those who are looking for a path to independent adulthood might want to try the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
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