by Andrew Corsello in GQ – Oct. 2009
2009’s 2012’s most influential author (especially if you are Paul Ryan) is a mirthless Russian-American who loves money, hates God, and swings a gigantic dick. She died in 1982, but her spawn soldier on. And the Great Recession is all their fault.
The experience of being 19 years old and reading Ayn Rand! The crystal-shivering-at-the-breaking-pitch intensity of it! Not just for that 19-year-old, but for everybody unfortunate enough to be caught in his psychic blast radius. Is “experience” even the right word for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged? Ayn Rand’s idolization of Mickey Spillane and cigarettes and capitalism—an experience?
Her tentacular contempt for Shakespeare and Beethoven and Karl Marx and facial hair and government and “subnormal” children and the poor and the Baby Jesus and the U.N. and homosexuals and “simpering” social workers and French Impressionism and a thousand other things the flesh is heir to: experience? Does a 19-year-old “experience” the likes of “She looked at the lone straight shaft of the Taggart Building rising in the distance—and…understood: these people hated Jim because they envied him”? (The lone straight shaft—get it?) Please.
Ayn Rand is an imbuing. A transfiguring, even. A weirdly specific thing happens with the books of Ayn Rand. It’s not just the what of the books, but when a reader discovers them—almost always during the first or second year of college. Rand grabs a reader at a time of maximum vulnerability and malleability, when he’s getting his first accurate sense of how he measures up in the world in terms of intellect and talent. The longing to regard oneself as misunderstood and underrated can be powerful; the temptation to project oneself as such, irresistible. But how? How to stand above and apart?
Enter Howard Roark, the heroic and misunderstood architect, square of jaw and Asperger-ish of mien, who at the end of The Fountainhead blows up his own masterpiece after a bunch of sniveling “parasites” and “second-handers” tinker with the blueprints.
Then enter Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt, the heroic and misunderstood engineer, square of jaw and Asperger-ish of mien, who, after persuading “men of talent” to retreat to his Colorado aerie while the country goes to seed (in order to show the “mediocrities” left behind what life is like without their betters), delivers a 35,000-word speech decrying bureaucrats and regulators. SIXTY PAGES, BITCHES!
Finally, enter Objectivism, the name Rand gave to her moral defense of “reason,” individualism, and unfettered capitalism.
The days during which that 19-year-old has Rand’s worldview vectored into his cerebral cortex are feverish and sleepless. Days of beautiful affliction during which the intransigence of others—roommates, a coed the patient has been hitting on, professors, parents, everyone—are shown to be the product of their shortcomings, their idiocy and sublimated envy of the patient’s intelligence and talent. Days during which the infected comes to see himself and Roark/Galt as avatars of one another: superheroically mirthless protagonists in a drama of historical import. It’s the damnedest thing. One day you’ve got a bright young kid dutifully connecting the dots of his liberal-arts education; the next, he’s got Roark and Galt in the marrow and has become…an insufferable asshole.
None of this matters, right? We’re talking about a phase, no different from purple hair and lip rings, right? Well, yes, it’s true that in most cases, the fever breaks. That kid stands up, walks outside, and reflects on the 727 pages of Fountainhead and 1,168 of Atlas he’s just wolfed down. And realizes: That was nearly 2,000 pages (more, really, given that Rand’s loathing of collectivist parasites is matched only by her loathing of paragraph indents) without a single instance of irony or humor. Or subtlety. Or grace. Nearly 2,000 hectoring, brook-no-ambiguity, you’re-either-a-lion-or-a-leech pages of breathtaking psychological obtuseness.In time, he begins to understand that his ordeal consists of two phases. There is the reading itself, which is one thing. And then there is the digesting, which is quite another.
Overall, the experience eerily replicates that of devouring a family-size bag of Cheetos in a single sitting. 1 During: irresistible, bracing, the thing at hand imparting vitality, fertility, potency. After: bleccchh. Make it go away, he thinks. The metallurgist protagonists. The operatic rapes heralded by whips and rock drills. The pirates with cat-coughing-up-hairball names like Ragnar Danneskjöld. Please, God. He may even feel his “recovery” marks him as a savvy and well-adjusted individual, yes?
No. He is a stupid and insolent boy. No one gets done with Ayn (rhymes with “mine”) Rand. It is not in one’s power to do so. That boy (or you, or I) can dismiss the books as a “phase” and attempt to busy ourselves with the kind of degenerate “stylists” Rand scorned (Faulkner, Nabokov). But none of us can escape the shadow of the lone straight shaft of the Taggart Building tumescing in the distance. An association bolstered by Howard Roark’s flaming orange hair.
This is because there are boys and girls among us who have never overcome the Randian infection. The Galt speech continues to ring in their ears for years like a maddening tinnitus, turning each of them into what next year’s Physicians’ Desk Reference will (undoubtedly) term an Ayn Rand __Asshole (ARA). They constitute a relatively small percentage of Rand readers, these ARAs. But they make their reading count. Thanks to them, the Rand Experience is no longer limited to those who have read the books. It’s metastasized. You, me, all of us, we’re living it.
Because it’s the ARA Army of antigovernment-antiregulation puritans who have spent the past three decades gleefully pulling the cooling rods out of the American economy. For a while, it got very big and very hot. Then it popped. And now the rest of us have to spend the next decade scaling the slippery slopes of the huge suppurative crater that was left behind. Feeling fisted by the Invisible Hand of the Market lo these past fifteen months? Lost a job lately? Or half the value of your 401(k)? Or a home? All three? Been wondering whence the too-long-ascendant political and economic ideas and forces behind Greenspanism, John Thainism, blind Wall Street plunder, bankruptcy, credit-default swaps, Bernie Madoff, and the ensuing Cannibalism in the Streets? Then you, sir, need to give thanks to Ayn Rand Assholes everywhere—as well as the steely loins from which they sprang.
Does that moniker “Ayn Rand Asshole” strike you as a contrivance? Do you disbelieve the proposition that a person could read Atlas Shrugged almost purely at the level of injunction—taking the things John Galt says and does as straight as a biblical literalist takes the eye of the needle? Then meet Michael Malice. No, really. That’s his name. He’s a New York City author and blogger who calls himself both a genius and an “elitist anarchist.” What’s that mean? It means that if a panhandler asks him for a little money or food, Malice says, “I could, but then you might live longer, so you see my dilemma.” Does Michael Malice admit to being an unreconstructed 33-year-old Ayn Rand Asshole? He does not—he proclaims it. “My reviews were incredible,” he says of 2006’s Ego Hubris, the story of his life that Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame told in graphic-novel form.
“The Village Voice called me ‘the face of jackassery.’Your magazine called me a ‘slacker genius.’ Did you know that? The Onion called me ‘a hateful blowhard who touts his genius-level intellect and dismisses most of the world as inferior, deluded, or hypocritical.’ They also called me a ‘human cockroach,’ because I’m indestructible. Which I am.”I own Ayn Rand’s personal first-edition, first-print copy of The Fountainhead,” Malice continues. “I got it for my twenty-first birthday. It came from her estate. Whenever I’m with other Randians, I so have the biggest dick in the room. ‘Oh yeah? You’ve read all her books? Well, check this out, bitch!’ ”
Malice also possesses an arguably rarer relic: a copy of Atlas Shrugged signed by William F. Buckley Jr. Only another Ayn Rand Asshole can properly appreciate such a curio. Rand, who died in 1982 at the age of 77, was prone to barking, “What are your premises?” when shaking strangers’ hands; upon meeting the devoutly Catholic Buckley, she demanded to know how a man so evidently brilliant could truck in such piffle. Buckley later returned the compliment by assigning Whittaker Chambers to review Atlas Shrugged for the National Review. Money quote: “From almost any page…a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’ “”Buckley didn’t know what he was signing,”
Malice explains. “It was a little personal triumph for me.”
Malice also owns the domain name…eh, forget it. You’ll just think I’m making this stuff up. Here’s the interview transcript:
mm: It’s funny you should call me an Ayn Rand Asshole, because I happen to own the domain name assholism.com.
gq: Ah, now you’re fucking with me.
mm: Really. I own it.
mm: I really do.
gq: If that’s true, you are not a Randian Asshole. You are the Ayn Rand Asshole.
mm: Well, an asshole is just an assertive person you don’t approve of, right? Go ahead. Type it in. You’ll see.
During my own college days, I did observe that a number of the fresh-minted Randroids in my midst became intellectually disciplined to a degree I wouldn’t previously have thought possible. I also admit that a few of them became better questioners of ideas and of themselves—which in turn made them more honest people. But most fell into that hapless group of Rand readers—the ones whose postadolescent insecurity was alchemized upon contact with The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged into a bizarre unlaughing superiority.
Some snapped out of it after a semester or two, becoming people who later in life—like Hillary Clinton—could refer with a shake of the head to their “Ayn Rand phase.” Some didn’t, and I lost them as friends. And for years I’ve wondered whether they:(a) bolted upright in bed at three in the morning a year or two after we’d graduated and exclaimed, “Mon Dieu!I have been an Ayn Rand Asshole! I must immediately cease and desist!”(b) took it all the way, and now spend their days in the bowels of the Cato Institute, stroking hairless lap cats and smirking sourly as they develop strategies for deregulating the law of gravity.
“As a fiction writer, she’s absurd,” says author and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, who was arguably the most opinionated Homo sapiens since Rand herself. “But if you’re young and not particularly wanted and not particularly brilliant, reading Atlas Shrugged provides all the feelings of compensation one might need for any period of terrifying inadequacy.”
“Atlas Shrugged was a life-changing event for me,” says John Allison, who recently retired as the CEO of the BBT Corporation and remains the chairman of the huge North Carolina-based bank. During his last five years as CEO, BBT’s charitable arm awarded nearly $13 million to support the study of capitalism from a moral perspective on college campuses—in most cases with the stipulation that Atlas Shrugged be required course reading.
“I was a 19-year-old at the University of North Carolina the first time I read it,” Allison recalls. “I was already struggling with my religious beliefs and with what my parents had taught me. Then, on top of that, I had to contend with my professors—this was the 1960s, so even at UNC the intellectual environment was socialist. It was tough for me, because as Ayn Rand herself says, we think alone. And then to find this book, to have somebody defend ideas I agreed with, ideas that were inconsistent with what I was hearing at the university—it just gave me great comfort and strength.” It speaks to Rand’s mojo that when an ARA as off the grid as Michael Malice speaks of the hour he first believed, his thoughts and words all but duplicate those of an establishment Randian like John Allison.
“There is a reason she appeals to the young,” says Malice. “Because when you’re young, you hunger for moralism. You know there are things that are right and things that are wrong. But the two choices traditionally put forward by mass culture are Jesus or ‘helping everybody,’ which are both fraudulent and ridiculous. Anddull. And then you read those books and it’s like a punch in the gut, especially if you’re a gifted kid like me. To have her saying that you are right and that everyone against you is wrong… Well, it’s just something that people who are gifted need to hear.”
“In terms of literary influence, only Kerouac compares,” says Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv (offshoots of Reason, the libertarian magazine founded in 1968 by a Randian). Pointing out that Atlas Shrugged and On the Road were both published in 1957, he adds, “Kerouac has had a more diffuse influence on American culture. He created a broad-based conception of what was cool and hip. Rand hasn’t brushed the culture as widely. She touches individuals—immensely and deeply. It’s useful to think about her impact in terms of Catcher in the Rye, another novel of individuation.
Everyone agrees it’s beautifully written, but it’s losing its grasp on the public imagination. Same with Catch-22. Yossarian was a perfect antihero for the ’60s generation, but does anybody give a shit about him now? Or about Portnoy? A few days ago, I was watching an old clip of Andrew Dice Clay’s stand-up act from 1987. He made a joke about jerking off into a liver, and no one in the audience knew what he was talking about. Think about that. You can still make Howard Roark jokes that play, but it’s been at least twenty years since you could do that with Portnoy.
Portnoy’s dead. Philip Roth is a great writer, but his signature character has had far less purchase on the collective imagination than Galt or Roark. No matter what you think of Rand, there’s no denying that the woman just swings a really big dick.”It’s curious, that dick of Rand’s. In fact, one cannot understand what an Ayn Rand Asshole is without considering that dick. ARAs acclaim it with great frequency and passion. Its size. Its swing. The countless “nonentities” and “looters” who’ve been slapped upside the head with it. ARAs extoll the Dick for the same reason they embrace their own “asshole” moniker: to celebrate Ayn Rand’s essential Us-vs.-the-Losers combativeness.
For ARAs, being dickish is the point.the speech. To understand what an Ayn Rand Asshole is, you have to study that sixty-page Speech Rand stuffed in John Galt’s mouth at the end of Atlas. She spent two years writing it. Her publisher asked for cuts. “Would you cut the Bible?” she snapped. Thing is, Rand was right. (And not just because a Library of Congress/Book-of-the-Month Club survey conducted thirty-four years after its publication ranked Atlas Shrugged the second most influential book ever written after, you guessed it, the Bible.)
She viewed the Speech as the keystone to…everything. And to a degree that still confounds mainstream academic philosophers (most of whom find Rand’s work laughable), that is how it has been taken. Which means there are three things that all Americans must know about it.
The first is that the Speech serves as both the foundation and finished edifice of Objectivism, Rand’s utopian vision of an entrepreneurial elite freed at last from any obligation, financial or moral, to the hangers-on of the world; free from religious hokum and from having to feign concern for the weak; free to exercise the “virtue of selfishness” in pursuit of money and glory. (The novel ends with Galt atop a mountain, raising a hand to trace the sacred sign of the dollar over the desolate earth that he and his A-Team are at last ready to return to and revive.) Is greed good, you ask? My friend, in the Objectivist world of Ayn Rand, whose funeral featured a six-foot dollar sign made out of flowers next to the open casket, greed is God.
The second thing is that it is helpful to conjure Keanu Reeves in his What would you DO? proclamatory mode when reading it (silently or aloud):
Morality, to you, is a phantom scarecrow made of duty, of boredom, of punishment, of pain…and pleasure, to you, is a liquor-soggy brain, a mindless slut, the stupor of a moron who stakes his cash on some animal’s race, since pleasure cannot be moral.
The third thing you must understand about the Speech is that it’s extreme stuff—but it’s not fringe. Not anymore. Randroids abound. They run influential libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute in D.C., and that’s one thing. But they also tend to be people who—unlike all those semiotics majors who’d written off Rand as Nietzsche in a bra even before they’d graduated—impact our lives in direct ways.
Randians run some of America’s biggest companies (Ralph Lauren, John Mackey of Whole Foods), hedge funds (Victor Niederhoffer, Peter Thiel), and banks. Clarence Thomas makes his clerks watch the 1949 Gary Cooper film version of The Fountainhead. Mark Cuban requires no explanation. And as if the publication of a major new biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne Heller, weren’t enough, there’s this: In the first quarter of this year, as rightists shrilled about the president’s “socialism,” Atlas Shrugged (re)cracked Amazon’s top fifty; early estimates place its 2009 sales at 400,000 copies—about double its 2008 total.Ayn Rand Assholes, they’re not just teeming—they’re breeding.
Pop quiz: Which individual has most influenced the lives of Americans in the past twenty-five years? He’s an Ayn Rand Asshole, yes, but old-school. Married one of Rand’s friends. Rand herself called him the Undertaker. A good moniker, with its whiff of luchador, but she should have dubbed him the Deregulator. There’s even an Ayn Rand dating Web site, for Christ’s sake: the Atlasphere. Which presents two related questions: Do Objectivists look to the novels for amorous, as well as economic, instruction? If so, is a given Objectivist coupling what it was in The Fountainhead—”an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement…[by] a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession”?
For which I have answers: Yes, and yes. I cite my junior year of college, during which I frequently experienced precipitations of plaster dust onto my face while lying in bed, thanks to the ARA who lived above me, and his girlfriend. I could never determine whether it was their Richter-scale copulations that shook the dust loose or the 120-decibel stereo blastings of the Ayn Rand-inspired band Rush that they used to soundtrack and enhance them. (No, his mind is not for rent / To any god or government!) I only know that whenever I trudged upstairs to ask him to dial down the fucking and the Rush (lest the lone straight shaft of the Taggart Building crash through the ceiling and impale me where I lay), the answer was always, merely, unsmilingly: “No.”
Right: Greenspan. Man was there at the creation. A member of the so-called Collective that in the early 1950s gathered on Saturday nights in the sanctum sanctorum—Rand’s New York apartment—as the master held forth on the evils of tas and altruism and read from her Manuscript. According to My Years with Ayn Rand by the woman’s acolyte/lover, Nathaniel Branden, Greenspan was prone to such utterances as, “Upon reading this one tends to feel exhilarated.” After the Times panned Atlas upon its publication, Greenspan sent an oddly strenuous letter that the paper published:To the editor:
“Atlas Shrugged” is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.
– Alan Greenspan
It’s a remarkable letter for two reasons. The first, of course, is that Greenspan wrote it; a line can be drawn from that letter to the wholesale deregulation of the American economy, to the invention of hydra-headed derivatives and credit-default swaps, and finally to the collapse of the financial and housing markets. He may not be the Ultimate Ayn Rand Asshole, but no ARA has ever tucked the Objectivist football and taken it to the hole like Alan Greenspan.
The letter’s second remarkable quality is its quintessentially Randian temper: absolute, proclamatory, severe. Rand writes at great length about the “joy” that results when “men of talent” are left to their own devices—but invariably in the most sneering tone imaginable. A reader wonders: Is it joy for which she and her followers salivate? Or is it the perishing of those parasites?
“Yes, Rand’s writing is strident, but she’s not concerned with aesthetics, and it’s a mistake to judge Atlas by ‘normal novel’ standards,” says Todd Seavey, a 40-year-old libertarian blogger whose politics were “substantially” altered after he read Rand as a college sophomore. “It should be read as if it’s an extended philosophy word problem. You may want characters who are full-fledged psychological portraits unto themselves, but one of her arguments is that there are no moral grays, and that ‘aesthetics’ should be about romanticism rather than neuroses and flawed characters. She knows what she’s doing. I mean, would you have gone to Nietzsche and said, ‘You’re not writing calm, balanced essays. You’re writing like a crazed man’?”
I like to think I would have, yes. Because when it comes to ARAs, that dictatorial tone isn’t just the how but the what. You can’t spend more than five minutes on a Rand-related chat room without seeing a teacher (or social worker, or environmentalist) declaimed as a “risk avoider/merit denouncer.” This affect, it should be added, is the trademark symptom of a collegiate Randian infection. Where, say, undergraduate Marxists share a certain narcoleptic insouciance, freshly afflicted Randians evince a showier disregard for those who can’t or won’t see the light. Showy—but serene, in a way that’s cultish and weird.
And unintentionally funny, since the only other young people possessed of such grim serenity are those home-schooled Christian fundamentalists who have the ability to transmit—with nothing more than a silent, pitying look—that they know (1) the Rapture is imminent, (2) they’ll be taken up, and (3) you’ll be spending eternity steeping in a liquid-shit Jacuzzi.
Not surprisingly, Christopher Hitchens isn’t the only cultural critic who links the Rand and Rapture fascinations. GQ’s own Critic columnist, Tom Carson, puts it best: “Her books are capitalism’s version of middlebrow religious novels like Ben-Hur and the Left Behind series.” Even Todd Seavey sees a parallel: “Hard-core Randians tend to regurgitate Randian observations in a way that’s not mindless but very redundant. Unless you’re fully signed on, they assume you’re not getting it. Which is exactly the way some Christians are when they can’t get somebody to accept Jesus Christ as their savior.”In the end, it’s not the books but the smug, evangelical certainty of Ayn Rand Assholes that causes me to loathe Ayn Rand in a personal way.
The thing I liked most about college was being around so many young people who were as earnest as they were dauntingly smart. People who didn’t (yet) feel the need to own every room they walked into. People who knew how to ask questions. That was it. All that elevated question-asking, and the pliancy of temperament it entailed.We were children. Then came Rand, “the Rosa Klebb of letters,” as entertainment journalist Gary Susman calls her, to body-snatch some of the best of them. Rhetorical question: Is there anything more irritating than a 20-year-old incapable of uttering the words “I don’t know”?
Actually, there is: an 82-year-old Alan Greenspan admitting in October 2008—at least ten years too late—that he’d found “a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That would be the above mentioned Nathaniel, the twenty something grad student who, after joining Rand’s inner circle, changed his surname from Blumenthal to Branden—Rand folded within Ben, the Hebrew word for “son of.” (A coincidence, he claimed.) The protégé and his fifty something mentor eventually called their respective spouses to a meeting where it was announced that for self-evidently “rational” reasons, the master/apprentice relationship would henceforth be sexual, with twice-a-week scheduled trysts.
No, wait, forget Greenspan, who avoided both purpose and reason when he declined to comment for this story. When it comes to irritation, the capo di tutti capi is an Ayn Rand Asshole who responds to the headlines of the past fifteen months by…doubling down. Who claims that there should have been less regulation of the markets. Who admits that, yeah, Alan Greenspan was the one who put this country in an economic hole—but only because he wasn’t nearly Randian enough.”
“There is no question in my mind that it’s government policy that created [the financial meltdown],” says BBT’s John Allison. “It began with Alan Greenspan’s mismanagement of the Federal Reserve, which controls monetary policy. Look at his early writings! He strongly recommended getting rid of the Federal Reserve and going to the gold standard. Once he got in power, he never moved at all in that direction.”
How to respond to this kind of resolve, this kind of faith? There are no words—you’re better off trying to convince a birther that our forty-fourth president was born in our fiftieth state—save those I’ve been sitting on for more than twenty years.Fuck you, Ayn Rand.
Fuck you for turning some of the most open and interesting people I ever met into utopian dickheads.Fuck you for injecting them with a sneering sense of superiority, and with the tautological belief that anyone who didn’t “get it” was a jealous know-nothing—which, ipso facto, only proved that superiority.And fuck you for prose so bad that the only way to measure it is with a meat scale. There. I feel better.
But wait—Ayn, you know that letter I just got informing me that my equity line of credit is being frozen despite my perfect credit history, and despite the fact that I bought a house I could actually afford? Yeah, fuck you for that, too. “He will perish as he should.”
* * * *
Andrew Corsello is a subnormal nonentity.