Teenage Wasteland

I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

No, that's not another line from a Who song. That is the quintessential core of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a devotee of whose is now hoping to be a breath away from the presidency. It's a philosophy that once held great appeal for me. When I was 16 or so. It stands at the core of what Rand called "the virtue of selfishness."

If you're a 16-year-old who wants nothing more than to be left alone, to stay in her room and read all day, to dream romantic dreams about who and what she might become if only - if only her mother didn't insist she help with things like the dishes, like cleaning her brothers' room (I still don't think that was fair), like writing thank-you notes for birthday presents she never wanted in the first place - if only she didn't have to share said room and double bed with her younger sister who was, really, far more selfish than she could ever dream of being, who got a really great present from some relative, a soft, soft quilt of her very own, who, if you even stuck one little toe under that quilt with her, would scream at the top of her lungs, "Mother! Barbara's touching me!"* - if only she were an only child instead of the oldest of six...

If you're a 16-year-old whose parents keep harping on how selfish you are because you keep locking yourself in the bathroom with a book instead of pitching cheerfully in - I know, I know, I loved Little Women too, but my heroine was Jo, who also preferred reading to domesticity - well then a book which proposes something called the "Virtue of Selfishness" is for you! Aha! I was right all along. Selfishness is a good thing.

And actually, according to Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (Popular Science) , selfishness is indeed a good thing. It's what keeps the organism going. The need for everything from DNA on up to make more of itself, to make the most of itself, is what eventually led to my parents having me and a sister and four brothers who in turn - well, I doubt I need to go on.

But Dawkins himself later said that perhaps he should have called the book The Immortal Gene. Because his point was that the selfishness of genes is all about replication - making certain that the information contained in them survives. Kinda like those apocalypse movies you see where someone copies the contents of the New York Public Library onto a computer chip and hides it in their shoe, just in case.

Rand has, like most teenagers, taken certain words, certain concepts, and narrowed them to one and only one simplistic interpretation. Thus she reduced the concept of altruism to one dimension only - the one in which someone values the very existence of someone or something else to be higher than her/himself. And she has called the very concept, in all its permutations, evil. Although she has given lip service to kindness and good will, a reading of Atlas Shrugged will dispel any illusions that these are qualities she values.

Those who really study human biology, human motivation, human history will have no trouble finding the virtue of selfishness alive and well, but they also find that selfishness itself requires various forms of altruism. Because it is only within healthy communities that creative individuals can take their place, and it is only with the help of people working at all levels of a community's infrastructure that the creation itself can take form.

The virtue of selfishness only works when we realize that the well-being of others is crucial to our own well-being. But that concept is to broad, too deep, too nuanced for the Ayn Rands of the world. Their world brooks no compromise. Their world is the teenage world of me, me, me. A painful phase through which to pass, but one which must be passed and left behind if maturity is to be gained at all.

Pete Townshend claimed in an interview that, at least in part, Baba O' Riley was about what he witnessed during the Who's performance at Woodstock. He stated in an interview that "Baba O' Riley is about the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where everyone was smacked out on acid and 20 people, or whatever, had brain damage. The contradiction was that it became a celebration: "Teenage Wasteland', yes! We're all wasted!'"

I submit that reading Ayn Rand at 16, or any other age for someone stuck at 16, has at least as much if not more potential for brain damage than the brown acid ever did.

*typing those words - although that was indeed what my sister constantly carped about - I realized I had to explain to a modern audience that, in the old days, "touching me" meant exactly that - the slightest brush of an elbow or foot against any part of a sibling's anatomy was a gross violation of personal space. Sexual misconduct was neither contemplated nor suspected.