How I became a Randroid (I got better)

There’s been some talk in the news lately of the disgruntled wealthy, upset about Obama’s intention to raise taxes on the well-to-do to levels a bit lower than existed during the presidency of Saint Ronald, going on strike.  In this, they follow the pattern set out in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, in which the industrial leaders of the nation all decide to go on strike, resulting in a collapse of the economy and government.  And while I do not intend to argue about the correctness of their action (though I would hope that a discerning reader could, on examination of the tone of this paragraph, deduce what my opinion on the issue might be), this does remind me of my days as a Randroid, or obsessive follower of the teachings of Ayn Rand, lo these many years ago.  And of the tale of the grand romantic quest that led me to this state.

Flash back to the year 1980.  I was a senior in high school, and carrying a torch for a girl who had recently departed for college.  I had dated this girl off and on for much of the previous year, and she was a good match for me.  Smart, beautiful, with a vast reserve of self-composure, and, perhaps most importantly, almost as geeky as I was: I had met her at a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and we had spent much time playing that and other roleplaying games over the past year.

In one of those games, this girl played a dwarf named Dagny Taggart.  I had picked up a hint that the name had some special significance to her, but I never could get her to tell me what it was.  (Did I mention that, in addition to being smart, beautiful, composed, and geeky, this girl could also be terribly mysterious and stubborn?)  But that didn’t matter, because I decided that I was going to find out who this Dagny Taggart was, if for no other reason then because it would give me another hint about what went on behind those beautiful blue eyes that seemed so far away.

Now youngens, let me tell you of an age long ago, an age before they had an Internet.  Today, finding Dagny Taggart would be no problem – after all, she has her own Wikipedia page, which is just one of Google’s 31,900 results from querying on her name.  Finding the meaning of Dagny Taggart would be the matter of a five second websearch, not the cause of a grand romantic quest.  (It makes one wonder how other famous stories would turn out had Google been around.  “Rosebud?  Well, querying ‘Charles Foster Kane rosebud’ returns this post from his mom’s blog about how little Charlie is out playing with his sled.”)

Back then, though, we were in the information dark ages, and the best resource for those looking for answers was something called a Library.  So I went there, intending to find Dagny Taggart, to unlock a little part of my beloved’s heart.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, being much less comprehensive than Wikipedia, was no use.  And the librarian, no substitute for Google, did not help either.

But I was not daunted.  In fact, I was starting to get obsessed.  I had gotten into the habit of closing my letters to this fair damsel with the phrase “Who is Dagny Taggart?”  I was even writing it on the outside of the envelopes.

(Another note to the young: “letters” were what we used to call email, and envelopes were their packaging.  Rather quaint, I know, but you could put messages on the envelopes in ways that you can’t really put them in the email headers (unless you’re particularly geeky, that is, and even then they probably would never get read), so the old ways did have their charms.)

Finally, I reached the last resort, the one thing that no self-respecting teenage boy would ever do, certainly not as a solution to a romantic quest.  I asked my mother.  She, a former English teacher, did not immediately recognize the name.  But it did sound familiar.  After a little thought, she said that Dagny Taggart might be a character from a novel she had heard of back in college, something called The Fountainhead. And so it was back to the library for me.

I did not find Dagny Taggart in The Fountainhead. But I did find something almost as good – I found a high school diploma.  And not just any high school diploma, but the diploma of my romantic idol’s twin sister.  (Did I mention that she had a twin?  No, I suppose I left that part out.)

Don’t get the wrong image here: I did not find a full-sized diploma, all wrapped and sealed, sitting lodged in the binding of the novel.  Ayn Rand’s books aren’t quite that big.  But our high school, in addition to the full scroll, gave graduating seniors a identity-card sized diploma, which I suppose would serve if said graduate wanted to keep a constant reminder of the old alma mater available for constant review in the wallet.  This was that wallet-sized diploma, wedged between two pages of the library’s copy of The Fountainhead.

(I later returned it to my girlfriend’s sister with the words, “The next time you spend four years working to get a bookmark, you might want to be more careful where you leave it.”  She, less charmed by my sense of humor than was her sister, did not appreciate the point.)

With this evidence that I was hot on the trail, it did not take long for me to find that Dagny Taggart, while not a character in Ayn Rand’s 800-page The Fountainhead, was in fact the protagonist of her even longer novel Atlas Shrugged.  I read it, and while I was not at first overly impressed, under the influence of bright blue eyes, I was quickly convinced.

One side note: Atlas Shrugged is in part a mystery story, driven by Dagny Taggart’s quest to find out why the nation’s industrial leaders are disappearing.  In the course of her quest, she finds her one true love, John Galt – featured in the novel’s catchphrase “Who is John Galt?” – and comes to accept his philosophy.  In other words, there are great parallels between the novel and the process through which I discovered it, something that seemed fraught with meaning to my teenage mind and added to the blue-eye factor in my conversion.

And so I became a Randroid, a philosophy that had particular appeal for your average intellectually arrogant teen, which aptly described my then state.  Over the next few years, I re-read both Fountainhead and Shrugged several times, even making it through the “This is John Galt” chapter in Atlas Shrugged, a hundred-page essay dropped in near the end of the novel for those who somehow missed Rand’s point of view in the preceding 800 pages.  But eventually, after a few years of education broadened my mind, I managed to shake loose my devotion to Rand’s views.

I never did manage to shake loose my devotion to the girl who led me to them, however.  This August, we will celebrate our 25th anniversary.  And I am happy to report that she is just as smart, beautiful, composed, and geeky as she was when she launched me on my grand quest.  And often just as stubborn and mysterious too.

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