The fraught experience of reading Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead was one of a stack of books that my parents gave me as a high school graduation gift. Its fellows were 1984, Me Talk Pretty One Day, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird among others. I’ve always been a passionate reader, but this gift was meant to help round out my library and my way of thinking about the world.

So I read The Fountainhead that summer and then Atlas Shrugged soon after. I enjoyed them, and not because I believe capitalism is the answer to all of society’s problems or because Ayn Rand is the best writer in the world (that 30 page manifesto voiced by John Galt, while impressive, is a challenge to power through for even the most determined of readers). No, on first reading I enjoyed them for some reasons that I will detail below, perhaps the first of which is I hadn’t yet learned that reading Ayn Rand was a political statement.

I went to a pretty liberal university. Liberal, politically. Of the two major universities in my city, mine has a certain reputation for being the home of hippies and hipsters, which made it a great place to protest things or buy hemp products but a difficult place to read Ayn Rand.

I was a 17-year old freshman, educated but sheltered. It took me a while to learn not to talk about Rand at all. Forget actually talking about the content of her argument, somehow even mentioning you’d read her books was off-limits. It was a strange experience. I hadn’t known Rand was associated with extreme-right Republicans, spouting selective snippets of her novels to explain why greed is good. I hadn’t known her books were second on the corporate asshole reading list and first on the liberal feminist list of books to vilify. (Let’s be clear here that I am a liberal feminist. But it’s in university that many of us first learn to look upon the baked-in injustices and institutional prejudices to which we were previously completely blind, and so on my first reading of these novels, I skated over the disastrous consent issues in the rape-fantasy scenes with a vague sense of discomfort, not yet able to fully conceptualize the implications and dangers of Rand’s message.)

Though people hear The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged and think of angry, white, privileged, middle-aged men who have a lot of money and zero compassion, I had the chance to read the books without those associations.

There were obvious flaws in her philosophy. I could see them with only a bit of effort. The most major, in my opinion, was: yeah it’s great if everyone just works as hard as they can and the most talented win out… but for that system to truly work, everyone would have to start on equal footing and receive equal access to opportunities (obviously a far, far cry from any human society I can think of and unthinkable in Rand’s “self first” ideology). However, I thought Rand made some good points – and I will intentionally say “Rand” instead of “Rand’s characters” since there seems to be no difference. Here’s a random sampling, from my memory:

  • She thought everyone should work their hardest at whatever they do and everyone who is willing to work should have a job
  • She thought the people who are the best should be rewarded regardless of their connections
  • She thought people should make their own decisions and not rely on advertising or popular opinion, only on reason and fact
  • She thought quality shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of placating people’s feelings
  • She was a little mixed on women… but she wrote certain female characters equal to their male counterparts in power, intelligence and business acumen, which is pretty good for the decades in which she was writing
  • She thought women should be in control of their own bodies
  • She thought religion was harmful and “holy men” were frauds; same with public relations people
  • She thought people shouldn’t be afraid of something new (and that we shouldn’t fall back into a certain behavior simply because that’s how something has always been done)
  • She thought architecture should suit its surroundings
  • She thought people should be passionate about what they do and what they believe
  • She was completely opposed to war, calling it the second-greatest evil humankind can perpetuate

In fact, I doubt she’d think very highly of any of the politicians who I’ve recently heard quote her novels and who use her name as a Republican secret handshake. Is money the only interest they actually share with Rand? If we put aside the typical American political-right positions on foreign policy, religion, public relations, and women’s health, money seems to be the only thing that remains. And who knows if Rand’s love of capitalism would have held out in today’s world? Her mid twentieth-century vision of capitalism had a purity to it. The formula was basically: hard work = more money. To my knowledge, it didn’t conceive of hedge funds or securities trading or David Li’s Gaussian copula formula.

By all accounts Ayn Rand was a smart, opinionated woman who wasn’t afraid to tell powerful people that they were destroying the world. I doubt she would look at the current presidential candidates (regardless of party) and give any of them a thumbs up because they sort of adhere to some portion of her philosophy. She’d probably be their most vocal critic.

I am definitely left-of-centre, politically. I should add, Canadian left-of-centre, to clarify to my American readers why I don’t use the term “Democrat.”

Anyway, I’m thankful for the “socialist” benefits that allow me to live a healthy, educated life. I believe pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is ridiculous, and that those who have lots should give a shit about those who have nothing. I think there should be a basic human imperative to help others, and if I have to sacrifice a chunk of what I earn to ensure that all of my neighbors can have access to food, housing, education, healthcare, employment, and a decent standard of living, I will do that without complaint. It seems obvious to me that a community, city, or country where the least fortunate residents are given access to these fundamental needs will be a place that breeds happiness, collaboration, and kindness. And maybe even wealth.

(This is not to say that Canada does a great job at this, especially when it comes to supporting and creating opportunities for our aboriginal population, but we are better than some.)

I say all this not to try to encourage you politically one way or another – to each his/her own – but to prove something about people who read Rand as opposed to people who use her books as self-promoting dogma.

There’s no way Rand and I would be on the same page politically, but that doesn’t mean her ideas are worthless, or that my time reading her books was wasted. Reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (more than once, I should mention), helped me think critically about my government, about capitalism, and about how we define value, for the first time. I don’t have to agree with the message to enjoy the books, and in fact my belief in my own positions was formulated and strengthened through understanding Rand’s contrary arguments.

It comes down to this: I had the singular experience of reading a highly politicized author while being blissfully unaware of her significance. In the years after exploring her ideas, the reading of them hasn’t spoiled my compassion or increased my greed. Rather, the reading of her ideas has brought as much, if not more, value to my way of reasoning and thinking critically as any other books I have read.

Belated Fringe reviews for your reading pleasure

Hi, friends.

I know it may look like I went to the Winnipeg Fringe and never returned, but that was not quite  the case. I did see an awful lot of shows (but thankfully, not a lot of awful shows). I shattered my previous Fringing record. Here are my brief reviews of those experiences:

Burning Hearts: a skillfully told and atmospheric one-man show. 4 inspirational ghosts out of 5.

The Telephone: a bit hammy for my taste, but the singalong was cute. At the very least, you should leave with a smile. I give it 2 rotary phones out of 5.

White Pants from Hip.Bang: 4 spilled glasses of wine out of 5. Everything you need from a sketch show. Highlights? Cooool Tips and the “clothes fastener” improv.

Three Men in a Boat: 3 Britishisms out of 5. The actors were incredible, but I’d rather see them in a different play.

Channeling Kevin Spacey: Solid, well-acted and funny (esp. if you’re a Spacey or Pacino fan). 3.8 gold chains out of 5 from JT. Round down for me.

For Body and Light presents Coming and Going: Moody and damp contemporary dance and spoken word poetry. 2.5 rubber boots out of 5 for neato concept and lighting but strange execution. (5 yeses out of 5 for local poet Chimwemwe Undi’s opener.)

Hey ’90’s Kids, You’re Old: 5 Baby Bottle Pops out of 5. Delivers the perfect balance of nostalgic warmth and legit teasing. Highlight is Where’s Waldo and Carmen San Diego online dating, but every sketch is strong. Best for those born in the 80s (obvs).

Die Roten Puntkte: Best Band in the World: With lyrics like “You’re like a verb, always doing things to me” Die Roten Puntkte really is the best. 5 bananas out of 5.

The Orchid and the Crow at Fringe was excellent. Funny, sad, and smart. I give it 4.5 yellow jerseys out of 5.

Saw Snafu Dance’s Snack Music and loved the skittles and the puppetry. It’s too bad the audience didn’t provide much improv help. 3.5 out-of-tune zithers out of 5.

ViVA Dance Company’s Dreamscape kept getting stronger with each piece. I give it 4 barefoot pirouettes out of 5.

Major Matt Mason Collective’s Air was incredible. I left with numb fingers from the anxious fists I made. I give it 5 doubling cubes out of 5 (and a bag of chips). ***My favourite of the whole Fringe, ever***

Spotlight: Short performance which the moody, anxiety-ridden creative types will find familiar. Patchy casting (ironic) with a couple bright spots. 3 last chances out of 5.

How to Talk to Human Beings: witty, dialogue-heavy script with solid acting (Gilmore-esque with more neuroses). 4 polite Canadians at the end of their ropes out of 5.

Umm… literature vlogs have taken over my life.

Dearest readers and friends,

How did I not hear about The Lizzie Bennet Diairies until a couple weeks ago? Please – if you enjoy being entertained, binge-watching anything, Jane Austen, attractive people with great hair, increasing the “adorbs” in your life, and appreciating a Pride and Prejudice adaptation that feels fresh and modern – watch this series. Want an opinion other than mine? Read this article.

In my consumption of the fledgling genre of literary vlogs, I’ve also devoured The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (set in BC — yay Canada!) and Emma Approved… and I’ve started on Welcome to Sanditon and Frankenstein, M.D..

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was brilliant, and I’m truly sad that I didn’t get to have the immersive experience of watching/tweeting/etc. while it was going.

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre grew on me. The production quality was slightly lower and in a different style than the Pemberley Digital productions, but Jane sold the series. However, the real stars are the actresses who play Mary and Diana, who show up for some much-needed comedy and joy at just the right moment.

Emma Approved is… as good as it can be considering that Emma is my least favourite Austen. The actress who plays Emma is actually great. It’s hard to play a pretentious, spoiled brat who interferes in everyone’s life and still be, well, likeable, but somehow she manages it (beeteedubbs, Cher Horowitz got a pass). If only they would do Sense & Sensibility. Or Persuasion! Please Persuasion!

 

Fitness experiment and other updates

‘Sup ink splAters.

You may remember that a few weeks ago (“Be it resolved”) I decided to test a fitness book, Shape Up Size Down by Sally Lewis. I am now halfway through the four-week plan and I’m certainly impressed.

I’m down a dress size already, and while I will note that I’ve combined the required workouts with 40 minutes/day on the stationary bike, I’m surprised at the positive results. Not only does this program slim and tone, it also helps with posture. Another big plus that I didn’t fully appreciate before is the variety of the program. Because I get the chance to concentrate on specific areas of the body each day, and with different exercises, I’m never bored.  So far, I’m giving it an enthusiastic endorsement.

That being said, it’s certainly not perfect. It doesn’t give much detail as to how you are supposed to continue with the plan after the four weeks is up – designing a program for maintenance rather than weight loss. Also, the big sell of this book was that it took only 20 minutes a day (actually, 2 10-minute workouts a day). I’ve been doing it for 17 days and I can tell you that there is no way someone can do those exercises in that short a time. Half an hour, maybe, if you’re familiar with each exercise. I take about 40 minutes, especially now that the number of exercises per day has increased.

Still, I have high hopes for the next week and a half. Barring my fitness ball catching on fire, I’m sure these last 11 days will be smooth (and svelte) sailing.

Other Updates

Work placement is over. It was wonderful, and I’m extremely happy to announce that I will be working part-time with the press. I’m as happy as… um… the winner of  a  giant-pile-of-coloured-marshmallows eating competition. Or… uh… the person who gets the corner piece of a cake with delicious icing. Or… hm… a cat that discovers she can fit in an open sock drawer.

“Work placement is over” means that I am back at school. Pressure is on to work on my book, which has suffered a bit these last couple weeks, and I’m sorting out the workload of a barrel of new classes. “How many classes are in a barrel?” you ask. Umm. Four. Plus PR. It’s a fairly small barrel.

There’s likely more, but I’m writing an article so I’ve got to be responsible and close the blog window.

Happy Wednesday.