Ryan Shrugged

If there is one thing we know about Paul Ryan, aspiring VP, it's that he is a Rand fan. He's so enthusiastic about her that he gave his entire staff a copy of Atlas Shrugged. What I didn't know until recently was that his father died when Paul was 16, and I'm wondering if, by some awful trick of fate, that is when he found Rand. It was a vulnerable time at an impressionable age.

I have a confession to make. Well, it would be a confession if I hadn't already confessed to it numerous times, but let's pretend you don't know this.

From the ages of 16 to 18, I was an Ayn Rand fan.

Ok, ok, stop it with the tomatoes. My kitchen is messy enough. Let me explain.

It was all about the sex.

I was born in 1943. By 1959 or so, I swear, I had not read one single novel in which an unmarried woman had sex and didn't end up pregnant, married or dead. Those books may have been out there, but they hadn't reached Decatur, Illinois as yet. Let's put it this way - my idea of the liberated woman was Scarlett O'Hara. 'Nuff said?

So along comes Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead. No, I'm not going to give you the link, because if you haven't read it already, I'm not going to encourage it. But wowza! I meet Dominique Francon, described by Rand as "the woman for a man like Howard Roark." Does it say something about me or 1959 that I didn't recognize a rape when I read one? All I saw was a beautiful woman, desired by desirable men, who could have sex and get away with it. And what teenage girl, in 1959, didn't dream about that? It can't have been just me.

The cherry on the cake, so to speak, was that all the heroes were atheists. And believe me, atheism trumped sex when it came to the taboos of the 1950's. I think it still does. As a child raised by pillars of the Lutheran Church, my rebellion wavered back and forth between the Catholicism of Scarlett and the Atheism of Ayn Rand.

Explains a lot, you mutter. Well, yeah. But let's not go there now. The point is, for any vulnerable 16-year-old (and I give Ryan the one-upmanship on vulnerability points - my dad lingered into his 80's), Rand is a powerful aphrodisiac of, well, power.

Where Paul and I differ, apparently, is in our reading of Atlas Shrugged. Because I was plowing along through the tome (there's no other way to read it), willing, even eager, to become more and more convinced that this was the way, the truth and the light, when I came upon the train wreck scene.

Here's a summary:

Taggart’s cross-country Comet is stranded in Colorado. Kip Chalmers, an important politician, is on board and demands that the train move ahead. The diesel engine is beyond repair, and the only available replacement is coal-burning and cannot enter the long, airless Taggart Tunnel. After a series of communications in which everyone from Jim Taggart to the train’s engineer refuses to take responsibility by sending vague directives, Chalmers is finally able to bully the employees into using the coal engine. A drunken engineer agrees to take the Comet through the tunnel after the assigned engineer resigns in protest. Everyone on board is killed from the toxic fumes. The last thing they see is the still-burning flame of Wyatt’s oil fields (“Wyatt’s Torch”). Later, an army munitions train slams into the stalled Comet and explodes, destroying the tunnel.

Every single person on this train, man, woman, and child, is depicted as unpleasant, undeserving, and unworthy, and when Rand is finished with them, she makes it very clear that compassion towards them is wasted because they all deserved exactly what they received.

That is the pinpointed, underlined place in the text where Rand and I parted company forever. And the question I have for devotees like Ryan, and Alan Greenspan, is: so, what did you think of the train wreck scene? Because for me, that is the scene that separates the nutjobs from actual people.

Rand famously told Mike Wallace that she held compassion for the weak in contempt. I, in turn, hold the contemptuous in contempt.

Here is Rand's view of civilization:

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

Which sounds very much like someone stuck in teenage, you're not the boss of me, rebellion. I've been there. Paul Ryan has been there. But only one of us couldn't get past the train wreck scene. Ryan shrugged.