At the inauguration last Monday, President Obama provided a delicious petit four to the national digestion of a heady election year when he rebutted the central rhetorical flourish of Paul Ryan’s ideological case, the prototypical Randian rubric of “makers v. takers.”
Rand’s moment of ascendancy has passed now, and thank God for that, but I think this project was rightly timed, and now that the American zeitgeist is on to the next one, I’m going to do a sequel at my shiny new blog, TBETTINSON.COM.
The subject of this next project will be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I won’t be taking a whole year on this book, more like a few months, but that will be enough time to tease some fruitful threads and follow them coincident with various political showdowns between our black president and the gilded-age nostalgics of our House of Representatives.
So make a quick visit to TBETTINSON.COM, then make frequent quick visits forever after. Come for the Cabin, and stay for the prose.
As this blog bore deeper into the plot of Atlas Shrugged and the election drew closer, the commentary and analysis half of the site became more and more about American politics and less about the implications of Rand’s philosophy for individuals. Now that the election and the book are over and the blog is winding down, the time has come to revisit that angle.
The first thing to say is that I genuinely feel I’ve learned a lot by reading this book, particularly the first time in 2008. As somebody who came of age during the late-era Clinton and especially George W. Bush presidencies, I felt pretty comfortable in my liberalism and reflexively suspicious of big business. So despite the fact that Ayn Rand is a political fundamentalist and in all likelihood a high-functioning sociopath, her views did force me to reconsider the moral merits of libertarianism and private enterprise, to review my existing assumptions with a more critical eye.
On top of Atlas’ contribution to the evolution of my values, Ayn’s emphatic declarations of her own rigor and the book’s meticulous didacticism in general helped me step my intellectual game up. I’m no credentialed scholar or anything, but following my first pass in 2008 I felt especially unprepared to counter her arguments and hunted down essays and papers on Kant and Aristotle to better understand the issues at hand and why Ayn considered herself a genius and mainstream academia considers her a self-evident crackpot.
With that foundation I felt much more capable of dissecting her absurdity this time around, but I still used the book as a launching pad for my own education by reading about a dozen titles on history, current affairs, and political philosophy. This fed back into my interpretation of the book, as I fleshed out the ways the Objectiverse has to be tweaked to truly fit reality — by positing climate change as vital context for the book’s global crisis; by fleshing out Rand’s caricature of the political system to incorporate modern lobbying and campaign finance; by highlighting Rand’s opposition to excessive consumerism, and her embrace of local food, clean energy, and sustainable communities; and most of all, by downplaying Rand’s dogmatic faith in plutocratic capitalism and the wealthy’s sense of entitlement.
This alternate perspective on the story became harder and harder to apply as the book went further down the rabbit hole of Objectivism. The relevance of my interpretation probably peaked during the chapters set in Galt’s Gulch. but went downhill by the middle of Part Three such that by the time we reached Galt’s Speech I was basically aping Ayn’s style to better write my own polemical screed arguing against her’s (which is to say, Galt’s).
So let me at least credit Rand for inspiring me to conduct my own life differently, not primarily on the level of political belief but on the level of personal bearing.
There’s no real way of avoiding the fact that people who describe themselves as Objectivists, or who actively promote Rand as valuable on her own terms, are pretty uniformly insufferable assholes. If you accept her views as written, that attitude is kind of baked into the cake. After all, Objectivism as written is no more or less than a wholesale excuse and unqualified justification for being an asshole.
But divorced from her insane condemnation of empathy, and taking into account the way she confuses being a rhetorical steamroller with being actually logically rigorous, there’s something admirable in her work. If I had to pinpoint it I’d describe it as her portrait of masculinity.
Yes, Ayn’s reverence for and attraction to that sort of old-school, traditional masculinity is what I consider to be the primary value of the book. Even Dagny, as a proto-feminist archetype, is admired in large part for embodying traditionally masculine virtues. Her femininity is always mentioned in the form of a single symbol or token in the midst of her otherwise masculine bearing, be it the curve of her legs, the rMetal bracelet, the cut of her dress… the silent, burning desire to be sexually dominated by every alpha male in the novel. You know, stuff like that.
It might seem like this is an awfully narrow line of credit I’m extending, but I don’t mean to belittle it. The stoicism of Rand’s heroes (even Francisco, who is certainly extroverted but strictly disciplined about sharing his true self with others), and Ayn’s insistence on self-reliance, on the charisma of competence… these are virtues that I feel I should aspire to more than I did back when I first read the book as an impressionable young progressive. It was through this realization of how I could improve myself that I came to be more appreciative of conservative and Republican ideals, particularly the whole “personal responsibility” element, and this in turn played no small part in my increased respect for and understanding of business. I feel this development from the personal to the political is far more organic than what Ayn actually argues for, which really strikes me as a Frankenstein’s monster of contradicting beliefs.
So thanks, Ayn Rand, for offering up so much food for thought. Maybe someday I’ll even read The Fountainhead, next time I’m in the mood for some literary sado-masochism. For now though, I’ll at least admit this: You aren’t just a poison on America’s body politic or a philosophical cancer. I found some real nourishment when I sampled your buffet. Some of the side dishes actually taste good. I might even recommend your establishment to friends with a refined palate. Maybe. Probably not. Let’s put it this way — I recommend the lighter fare. But whatever you do, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
I gave Democrats a piece of advice yesterday — “Do not insist upon that which can go without saying” — and today I’m going to follow it. My only thoughts about last night’s results will be forward-looking.
For example, and in line with my earlier advice: even though today’s reality check speaks for itself, Democrats should not expect it to speak for the future. When negotiations over deficit reduction begin soon, cloaked in the ominous meme of “the fiscal cliff,” the Democrats can’t just say, “We won the election! You give up now!” They must hold Republican narratives up against the cold hard reality of numbers and history again; in fact they should simply act like the election hasn’t ended.
In stark contrast to the “close your eyes and ears and shout LALALA” strategy of the 2008-2012 Republican Party, a little forced introspection will be good for both conservatism and America’s civic health as a whole. So the GOP still needs to be pressed up against that brick wall of facts until they sink in. Conservative youth, women, social libertarians, and gay and non-white Republicans have to wrest control away from bitter old white men within the party, the same way that youth, women, social liberals, gay, and non-white voters did for the nation. And sustained Democratic pressure can help them do this.
Consider the role major second-term legislation can play. Former Bush staffer Michael Gerson described Republican attitudes towards illegal immigration as ‘political suicide’ on NPR this morning, in light of the election results, so President Obama and the Democratic Senate should put a popular, centrist immigration bill to Congress and dare the Republicans to obstruct it. Just keep forcing those reality checks. Who will face reality and accept it like a Randian hero? Who will recoil like Jim Taggart and go politically mad or commit political suicide?
This strategy hits three birds with one stone for Dems — it’s good politics for them, it’s good policy for the country, and it’s good therapy for the GOP.
For I really do root hard for those hard-nosed clear-eyed conservatives out there who see reason and can bring the Republican Party back towards it, back towards genuine value and merit. Your Ross Douthats, your Reihan Salams, your David Frums. There are several young conservative women I’ve seen making the pundit rounds who will lead in this effort too, I have no doubt. S.E. Cupp has a growing brand; Megan McCain has something of a profile. A blonde whose name I can’t recall was on last night’s CNN panel and a recent “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and she’s a conservative gay rights activist. Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have roles to play. The future of the Republican Party is strong, and much stronger now for having been thoroughly defeated in its current form.
Yes, last night was a victory for the Democrats and the left. But I don’t feel any desire to rub that in anyone’s face. I see stunned conservatives and confused, deflated independents, and I want to cheer them up! I want them to know they don’t have to be so worried and sad! This wasn’t just a win for Barack Obama and his most liberal supporters, this was a win for the moderates in the center, and the intelligent right too. This was a win for America, and for reality.
So if you woke up today feeling upset, I don’t think that condemns you as stupid or immoral or any of that other Randian rhetoric I’ve been throwing around. After all, empathy is one of those *minor* topics on which she’s hilariously, grotesquely wrong. Rather I offer you hope and the opportunity for change. As Dagny and Galt laughed about together near the end of the book, “We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” You still don’t.
“It’s okay, we’re in real America now,” my transcendental Francisco would tell you. “The people are nice here. Newcomers are welcome. And if you’re stuck in the depths of a great depression, well… as one of this world’s great leaders once put it, you have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Democrats and Republicans alike have butterflies in their cynical cynical tummies today as America gets its vote on, and I want to take this opportunity before the verdict comes in to offer a little advice to both parties regardless of who wins, delivered as always half-facetiously and in the style of one Ayn “Alyssa Rosenbaum” Rand.
My suggestions must be obvious by now. They go a little something like this: REPENT! OPEN YOUR EYES! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!
I kid, I kid.
To Republican voters, those who have eminently respectable beliefs about the value of small government and fiscal responsibility and the spiritual merits of family and wholesome culture, I applaud your value system. There is but one value you must incorporate if you want to own the complete set, one that I’m sure many of you already hold. It is the courage and fortitude to face facts with clear eyes and a full heart. This value is necessary for all of your other values to manifest as virtues instead of vices.
Which is to say that if you’re the kind of voter who admits you don’t know enough about this country’s affairs but will vote for the Republican candidate just because you feel “we need a change?” If you don’t know the details of the candidates’ plans but you “like” the way the Republican candidate “sounds?” You are putting yourself in grave moral danger. You have forfeited your right to knowledge, and now all of your genuinely positive values are free to be manipulated into vices by looters of the mind and spirit. Yes, this message is bipartisan in principle, but in practice, in reality, you — yes, you — are of the party being most looted and mooched. Do not let your most fundamental right as a citizen of a democracy be corrupted by your own apathy, your own exhausted embrace of anti-mind and anti-reason! Remember the lessons of Atlas Shrugged!
And to Republican officials I say, “Cast off the lessons of Atlas Shrugged!” For it contains both great truths and terrible falsehoods, and you have been taken in by a confused philosopher who preached righteously of her sacred allegiance to reality, yet failed miserably at putting her money where her mouth was.
It was money, in fact, which confused her worst. The lynchpin of her moral scheme, the tenet that allowed her to disregard the tragic humanitarian consequences of her political beliefs, was the idea that your net worth equaled your moral worth. This is as evil a mysticism as any that she did proudly herself decry.
It is not the idea of a positive relationship between money and morality that is evil, just as it is not the idea of a spiritual currency called karma that is evil. Indeed, both ideas have merit — relative merit. It is the over-simplified, closed-off version of these ideas which is evil. The absolute version, the version that allows you to stop thinking, to disregard the consequences of your thoughts, because you believe absolutely — that is what’s evil.
When a mystic of mind says karma just means you get what you deserve, is this not an insult to the man who has been decent all his life, and worked hard for ever, who is stricken with a terrible cancer? And when a mystic of money says your class simply reflects your moral value, is this not an insult to the poor woman who works herself to the bone to feed and educate her family, to improve her children’s lives and her own against all odds and history?
So to Republicans I say don’t repent; reform. Don’t open your eyes; open your mind. And Soylent Green isn’t people, people are people. Do not think of them as anything else, soylent or otherwise.
I say you must embrace the lessons of Ayn Rand! Are you noticing a theme yet?
Democrats, do you feel sad and frustrated, victimized by politics because it just isn’t fair? Do you wish it was just easier to make people see the insane anti-logic of your current political opposition? Do you grow cynical and resent the world because it hasn’t swayed the minds of your fellow men for you, proved your beautiful and humanitarian values are superior for you? DON’T. Do not succumb to the spiritual entropy of Jim Taggart. Remember the immortal words of Sean Connery in The Rock:
Losers whine about ‘fair.’ Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.
Go home and fuck the prom queen, Democrats. Don’t get any sleep, leave the dress in tatters on the floor, and if all goes as planned you’ll wake up in bed next to her tomorrow and realize the next four years of your life after graduation are totally gonna RULE, man.
But my message isn’t about today’s big dance. It’s about your shitty attitude in general. Even if you do get laid tonight, you’ve got some serious challenges coming your way. The media battle over the “fiscal cliff,” the sequel to the debt ceiling negotations in the spring… the midterm elections, eventually. You can’t just win this round, you have to step your game up.
Now look, I get it, you feel caught in a bind. It’s the asbolutism, the surety and assertiveness of your opponents that makes them so superficially appealing to the unengaged and uninformed, even though it’s their asbolutism that makes their defeat morally necessary. They are the D-student jocks who are too dumb not to be confident and get to hook up with all the pretty girls. And you’re the wounded little apple-polisher who thinks that even though those girls are dumb as bricks, they’re so pretty(!), and since you’re a better person than their brick-minded boyfriends, you should get to touch their boobies.
Well grow the fuck up! Because that’s how you get to touch more boobies, and also how you get to be okay with the times when you aren’t touching boobies. You grow the fuck up. Never resent your opponent. Study your opponent. Learn from their strengths and learn how to exploit their weaknesses.
So Democrats, in the case of your political opponents today, what this means is you need to find something to be absolutist about, and you need to expose Republicans’ absolutism as their Achilles’ heel. Steal their power and make it your own. Free yourself from your binding and use it to lasso your quarry. My advice:
Reason is on your side, so don’t be so concerned about seeming reasonable. Seem dominant. Seem confident. Let reason speak for itself, through you. Do not insist upon that which can go without saying. The charisma of indisputable knowledge erodes the glamour of defensive propaganda just as surely as water erodes rock: quietly, softly, but always and forever.
Likewise, because you know that moral libertarianism is superior to moral absolutism, do not be afraid of being absolutist in that stance. If you are accused of being a moral relativist, the only moral relationship you need to explain in that moment is the obvious superiority of yours over the narrow-minded morality of the absolutist who is accusing you. A moral absolutist, as an absolutist, will not be converted by the example of a compromiser, a coddler, or a simple compare and contrast exercise. You must assertively demonstrate how your nimble, flexible moral rationalism defeats their sturdy-yet-limited dogmatism, like a ninja taking down a 300-pound slab of muscle in one deft shift of balance.
Are you worried you will sound like a real dick, Democrats? Do you wince at the idea of being called an asshole if you take this attitude, a condescending prick perhaps? Do not feel constrained in this way either! Because remember, you are not actually an absolutist! You are free to admit your excesses upon further reflection, free to evolve intellectually and emotionally in response to the facts and the feelings of the people around you. One must always be vigilant about going too far, but this adaptability is exactly what makes your method of moral thinking superior. And this is what empowers you to be aggressive about it!
You should not just internalize your principles, you should externalize them. After all, which world do you want to live in, the one where you feel your values are validated because you fucked the prom queen, or the one where she goes home with your moral inferior and you are left lamenting that the world would be a better place if it had effortlessly reflected your values for you? Don’t rationalize failure, Democrats. Realize success.
Sincerely, some random asshole with a blog.
Well, that’s it kids. That’s my awkward, motivational parent-before-the-dance pep talk. Go have fun now. Don’t stay up too late, don’t drink too much, and considering what we talked about, remember that when you do vote for prom queen… cast your ballot for the candidate with birth control.
See you in the morning, scamps!
Welcome one and all to the Grand Finale, the very last week of “Atlas ‘Clubbed” — which I will admit in retrospect should’ve been called “Atlas Blogged,” or even more accurately, “Atlas Trolled.”
But it’s too late for that now, and more importantly — tomorrow’s the election! So here’s how this blog’s waning days are going to break down:
*Today, a thorough review of everything Atlas Shrugged has taught us about American politics in 2012.
*Tomorrow, what lessons should Democrats and Republicans each learn from Ayn Rand going forward?
*Wednesday will obviously be dedicated to the election results, to whatever degree they’re definitive by morning.
*Thursday, some final reflections. How reading Atlas Shrugged (twice!) has affected my beliefs and attitudes personally. “Dessert for Thought” if you will.
*Friday I’ll cast this sucker in amber and announce my future blogging plans.
So, without further ado…
For most of American history, our two political parties were ideologically diverse, with lots of different conflicting interest groups existing within each. And while there are still factions within them, the parties have become far more ideologically cohesive over the last half-century.
The Republican Party in particular has become extremely doctrinaire: conservatives today speak of their “Cause” and their “Movement,” and their candidates face a number of “purity tests” and “pledges” on their way to office.
These are characteristics of a “closed” ideology, a belief system that is less interested in adapting to reality than forcing reality to fit its ideas. And such belief systems can be extremely effective at doing that. But the approach has its limits. Push reality too hard and reality pushes back.
In contrast, Democrats are the more diverse party, and this is why congressional Republicans can vote in almost perfect lockstep and unanimity but congressional Democrats often have trouble maintaining the party line. To the lay voter who pays scant attention to politics, all this makes Republicans look strong and righteous, and Democrats look weak and confused. On a public relations level, the “closed” ideology has an advantage.
So even though this blog was initially intended to be as non-partisan as possible, as the election drew nearer I felt it necessary to declare that independent voters should definitely, absolutely pick the Democratic Party — not always, but for now. Because ideologies that are open to evolution and change are good, and ideologies closed to new evidence are bad. And while history tells us that polarized ideological parties aren’t good for America in general, as long as we have them we should vote for the one that is “open” and not the one that is “closed.”
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn presents two ideological factions, one that swears by proper science and factual evidence and moral justice, and one that ignores the reality in front of their eyes by hiding behind a broken philosophy. In today’s world, partisans can more or less agree on this dynamic but put each other in the opposite roles. Ayn, for her part, says the faction of objective truth is the anarcho-capitalist faction, and the faction of false belief is the faction of social democrats.
Of course I started this blog because I think Ayn’s fictional world has great relevance to our own, but obviously I believe that as far as her world relates to America in 2012, Ayn got the morality of the political factions backwards — but NOT because of the politics themselves.
See, I don’t think libertarianism and conservatism are “false beliefs,” nor do I think liberalism is fundamentally objective and right. I think defining moral right and wrong along political lines is one of Ayn’s biggest mistakes. The moral dividing line isn’t libertarianism v. social democracy, it’s how you think about your beliefs that matters. It’s not left or right, but open or closed to evolving.
Looking at it that way, it just so happens that the Democratic Party is morally right and the Republican Party is morally wrong, not because of liberalism and conservatism, not even because of what each party claims its moral values are, but because the Democratic Party as a whole is open to new ideas and evidence in a way that the Republican Party as a whole is not.
Ayn dedicates her whole book to the idea that one way of thinking is morally right and one way of thinking is morally wrong — she just doesn’t live up to her own definition of the right way. And neither do her followers.
So let’s examine how well our real-world parties fare against this Randian standard. Three axes: economics, social policy, and political strategy.
When Ayn was doing all that world-building in Atlas, I made clear that I found the broad strokes of her vision effective because I think fiscal discipline and small government make an enormous amount of sense. I think Democrats fail to fully appreciate the burden of excess regulation and regulatory uncertainty, and I think liberals tend to vilify capitalism and business as an abstract generality even though they are the world’s great drivers of prosperity. On top of all that I find the idea of a lean, mean, stream-lined state that leaves as much as possible to the liberty of the people to be a beautiful and elegant theory of government.
However, we must abide by logic and reason and the evidence of the applied sciences in our universe, just as Rand would have us do in her own customized version of the universe. And that means we must recognize the serious threat that climate change poses to economic prosperity and human quality of life more generally. We must recognize that as a matter of history, radical income inequality and political plutocracy lead to a collapse of the economic buffer between rich and poor otherwise known as the middle class (or the bourgeoisie, if you prefer).
On these matters, the places where ideal theory must either bend to meet cold hard reality or break upon impact, the value of some government regulation and a socially intelligent tax system should be obvious. Yet in the face of not only repeated freak hurricanes, but also financial disasters and the fiscal recklessness of its own recent leaders, the Republican Party refuses to amend its ideal theory to improve its relationship with reality. And considering the great potential of that theory, the fact that it is the Democrats who have the healthier relationship to math, facts, history, and responsibility is a huge self-inflicted wound and a deep mark of shame on the GOP.
Again and again, the 21st century Republican Party has had the opportunity to live up to the virtuous ideas of its historical forebears, and again and again it has failed. Today’s Republicans talk a good game, but when you educate yourself on how they actually behave in office, you see that they are Rand fans fetishizing Francisco’s speech about money as karma, one of the most logically sloppy sections of the book.
2. SOCIAL ISSUES
This one could not be simpler. Liberalism today means being pro-abortion, pro-sex, pro-gay… social liberalism has a decidedly more libertarian reputation in nearly every category. Ayn tested, real world approved!
Which isn’t to say social conservatism doesn’t have merits. Its attention to questions of social stability and positive environments for raising children are important concerns to have. The surprisingly fast acceptance of gay marriage is, I think, largely due to the fact that the fundamental right gays are fighting for is access to a conservative, traditional institution of family and stability.
And please notice that for both sides, they win on social issues when they are “pro” something. When liberals violate the libertarian virtues of their popular positions and start going all “nanny state” about cigarette packaging or soft drink sizes or whatever, it rubs people the wrong way. That’s a “con” of social liberalism.
But the “cons” of social conservatism are far worse, at least politically, because social conservatism today is defined largely as anti-sex, which must be the most losing political argument in the Western world. Ayn would be utterly apalled.
Now, there is actually a Randian argument in favor of conservative attitudes towards sex, founded in the fact that Ayn believes sex is unavoidably an exchange of spiritual value. The rights to accessible birth control and abortions, while enormously important for the economic and social freedom of at least half the population of America and the earth, do create a culture in which the relationships between sexuality and pregnancy, sexuality and sheer personal intimacy, are loosened. That raises some valid questions about spiritual health, moral values, and the cultural environment in which our children develop.
But that certainly doesn’t justify the wholesale rejection of modernity, including women’s rights, science, and higher education. And sadly, just such a rejection is the headline characteristic of a number of religious conservative movements today.
And so, just as it was with economics, I believe the right champions important moral questions that the left would do well to consider, yet goes so overboard with religious/ideological fervor that it disqualifies itself from wielding power.
3. POLITICAL STYLE
This is where I find myself viscerally upset by today’s Republican Party. Particularly if you buy into the moral value of being rational and objective about facts, the political strategy of the 21st century GOP is truly vile.
I think it’s simplest to put it this way:
The only serious tactic in the Republican governing arsenal since 2008 has been to hold the economy hostage. On the stimulus bill, on health care reform, on the debt ceiling, on the jobs act… the GOP consistently sabotages the nation’s short-term or long-term economic health, and then blames Obama. Does anybody recognize that tactic, can you think of anyone else who uses it? I can. It’s John Galt.
You see, the thing that makes Ayn Rand fandom so disturbing is that Ayn Rand doesn’t believe in democracy. She believes the wealthy deserve complete freedom from taxes and social responsibility as a matter of moral justice, and so the only just laws are those designed to protect the wealthy from the population at large. To Ayn Rand, the purpose of government is to protect plutocracy from the dangers of democracy.
And this is what the Republican Party of 2012 is really doing, except instead of abstaining from government like the fictional Galt, they work to take over government from the inside, which Galt specifically rejects.
I don’t think this is an intentional conspiratorial cabal situation. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as this: the billionaire Rand fans fund The Party. The social conservatives and the small government fiscal hawks vote for The Party. And The Party, which believes in money but doesn’t believe in government, makes sure to do what the funders want, and really doesn’t give a shit about the governing part that the social conservatives and the fiscal hawks have a genuine stake in. In the end, the public is left in ruins and the richest took the money and ran, and by their moral logic this is not only okay, it proves they were right all along.
And that’s why you have to vote Democrat by default. That party believes in democracy. It’s a party of many creeds and colors, a party of economic opportunity and legal equality. It is within the historical tradition of great American government. It is not the most aggressive or impressive to a superficial observer, but it is the better option.
In the sections above, I listed a number of reasons why I can sympathize with Republican voters and right-leaning independents. I pointed out where I respect their philosophy and values at every opportunity. But once you come down to the basic, craven politics of it, I cannot escape this conclusion, based in fact and historical evidence, that to whatever degree you support the Republican Party of today, you are ignorant of, or in denial about, its true nature and its moral reality.
A democratic vote for an anti-democracy party is a reward for moral perversity and social injustice, anti-logic, anti-life, ignorance, denial, cynicism, contradiction, and self-destruction. Make your choice, America, but make it in full awareness of what it is you’re choosing.
That’s what Ayn would’ve wanted.
So obviously we’ve got to talk about Sandy. First things first, a way to support disaster relief:
Okay, now back to the business of this blog. To put it in as obnoxiously Randian a way as possible:
If you still plan to vote for the FEMA-cutting climate science denier, you are an anti-reality moral coward.
See? Told you it would be obnoxious.
But it’s really very simple. In the most recent Applied Randology I tried to wear my ‘intellectual humility’ hat because I felt I had gone too far in making the statement that “objective reality wins again” in proving the perversity of the modern Republican agenda. Well, I take that humility back. Objective reality has clearly proved the perversity of the modern Republican agenda.
Sandy speaks to basically everything I’ve been talking about all year. A couple of examples:
1) Randian Republicanism denies climate science; now that the east coast has a monsoon season, objective reality demands we admit climate science is accurate. Fuck, it demands it for economic reasons alone, nevermind, you know, human decency.
2) Randian Republicanism would slash funding for, or even shutter completely, the Federal Emergency Management Agency; now that FEMA has proved its efficacy (well, under Democratic presidents anyway), objective reality demands we admit the most economically efficient budget cuts aren’t going to come out of domestic discretionary spending.
3) In the very last recapof Atlas Shrugged, in the ultimate cathartic moment of the book, Rand’s Objectivist heroes bask in the glory of a New York City reduced to mass evacuations and black-outs. And I quote:
“[W]hen we would see the lights of New York go out, we would know that our job was done.” … When she looked at the darkness ahead … she knew that now, at this hour, their plane was carrying all that was left of New York City.
This is what Rand wants! She wants New York to be swept away in a purge of moral righteousness, just like the Christian fundamentalist preachers who declare storms like Sandy to be God’s punishment for New York’s sins.
Of course that is insane. But remember this whole blog is premised on arguing against Rand’s insanity using her own logic. So let’s do that, shall we?
Real, sound logic dictates that if A is B, and B is C, then A is C. And by Randian logic, people who believe in ideologies that deny reality are all secretly nihilists whose only true desire is self-destruction.
So Rand’s logic dictates that if A) Rand wants to self-destruct our society — which she explicitly does — and B) Republican philosophy is now implicitly the same as Rand’s philosophy… then by the simplest, clearest rules of actual logic, C) Republicans secretly, implicitly want to self-destruct our society too!
Now sure, you can go ahead and deny that conclusion. It certainly isn’t fair to innocent Republican voters who don’t even know who Ayn Rand is or what the party’s policy details really are. But to deny the conclusion, to defend Republicanism against this charge of nihilism, you have to reject Rand’s logic and ideology — you have to reject Republicanism.
This blog’s favorite political journalist, Jon Chait, wrote a post at NYMag this morning arguing Democrats should take advantage of Sandy as an election-related event. Money quote:
Conservatives are already complaining about [the politicization of Sandy], but the attempt to wall disaster response off from politics in the aftermath of a disaster is an attempt to insulate Republicans from the consequences of their policies.
Exactly. Republicans politicize hard science and raw numbers all the time, claim they’re “skewed” liberal. It’s practically their M.O. — Paul Krugman discusses it this weekend in a blog post titled, appropriately enough, “The War on Objectivity“. And yet when hard science and raw numbers turn into a visceral human experience like this, something that could really hit home with voting citizens, suddenly acknowledging the political side of the issue is insensitive to people’s feelings, it’s against humanitarian values. Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s Jim Taggart all over again! It’s a perverse use of human emotion as a shield against perfectly valid rationality!
And so I hope Democrats DO push this issue, HARD. Not even as a last minute election tactic, but AFTER the election too. Because it proves that they are on the side of objective reality, and that the Republicans are lost in an ideological bubble, out of touch with reality and the true values of the human spirit.
The Dems, in short, have to stop being so timid. They have to move public opinion, pro-actively, because they have the facts on their side and that should fill them with confidence like it fills Randian heroes with confidence. It’s like Ayn argues in the book, and like I said before the first debate: objective reality wins.
PREVIOUSLY: Dagny and the Objectivists rescued John Galt, and the villainous bureaucrats abandoned their posts. The fight was won. Unfortunately, Dagny committed an entirely unnecessary first-degree murder in the process, exposing the horrifying intellectual rot and moral depravity at the heart of Ayn Rand and John Galt’s philosophy.
Rearden and Ragbeard untie Galt from Ferris’ torture machine while Francisco provides him with medicine in the form of brandy and cigarettes. Awesome.
Francisco swears revenge upon Galt’s torturers, but Galt is like, “Let it go man, they’re powerless now. I doubt we’ll ever see them again.” Ragbeard agrees, I’m sure, and takes this moment to smash the torture device to smithereens with… I don’t know, let’s just say his bare fists.
They lead the still feeble Galt out of the Project F infrastructure and back to whatever vehicle they used to get here. Francisco’s plane apparently. Ragbeard pilots it off the State Science grounds and into the night sky. Francisco gets out the first-aid kit and tends to Galt and Rearden while Ragbeard gets on the radio, announcing the news of Galt’s escape on a secret frequency.
“Who is he talking to?” Dagny wonders, and Francisco explains that half the population of Galt’s Gulch came with them as back-up. Apparently they’re manning a fleet of airplanes, no doubt built single-handedly from matchsticks and elbow grease by the former CEO of Boeing, circling State Science. Now all of them are in formation behind Frankie’s plane, celebrating their victory.
As they fly over New York City, Dagny and Galt look upon the island of Manhattan and see enormous traffic jams as everybody tries to flee. Word has hit the public about the wholesale demolition of the Midwest, including all routes across the Mississippi, and everybody is racing to move closer to sufficient sources of food.
Dagny recalls that Frisco once told her that the Objectivists would only know they had accomplished their goal when the lights of the greatest city in the world went out. Hey, that sounds incredibly nefarious! And it’s also what our old friend Joel Salatin the Organic Farmer wanted, in a somehow less vindictive way. However you take it, it’s exactly what happens now as the power stations are abandoned and the plane arcs southwest over a suddenly pitch-black concrete jungle.
In the air above the empty plains, Dagny realizes she feels as free as her ancestor Nat must have felt when he set out to explore the open and unpopulated frontier.
Well, unpopulated, aside from a continent’s worth of peaceful people who were callously exterminated by ideological invaders who disguised their sense of entitlement to the land behind a pretense that their economic contracts were morally superior to the common bonds of humanity and a harmonious coexistence with nature. So yes, unpopulated. Aside from that.
Anyway, somewhere on the ground, that patron saint of noble mediocrity, Everyman Eddie Willers, oversees an eastbound train that I can only assume is full of food intended to save thousands of lives because Eddie is not a tremendous egomaniacal asshole.
Sadly the train breaks down in the middle of the desert. Eddie corrals the conductor and engineer to help him try to fix it but they have mostly given up on life and can only roll their eyes at his earnest effort. Calls to all the nearby stations are failing to reach anyone. There is no help coming.
Eddie, knowing it’s mostly futile, tackles the task of repairing the engine himself. Too bad he doesn’t have a perpetual clean-running electric motor lying around. No worries though, because his work is interrupted by a caravan of covered wagons arriving from the west, following the train tracks eastward. Rescue! And look at that: no matter how hard life gets, people pull themselves together with whatever resources are at hand! Ingenuity and ambition will always drive humanity to action, move us to new destinations and purpose!
Oh no wait, sorry, we’re supposed to be disgusted by this, because of the devolution in the most practical mode of transportation. Or at least, Eddie sure is. He does not take it very well when the ringleader of this antiquated exodus tells him he should abandon the train because there’s no crew left to work it and nowhere to go: the bridge across the Mississip’ is destroyed, the Midwest is a graveyard, and the cities of the eastern seaboard megalopolis have all been abandoned. Sounds pretty reasonable.
When he recovers from the shock of this news Eddie sees that indeed his crew and the train’s scant passengers have jumped aboard the conestogas in order to, you know, not starve to death inside the useless metal husk of a broken vehicle. The conductor pleads with Eddie to join them, but Eddie’s assessment is that this posse is just not smart enough to start a new utopian village on the Galt’s Gulch model, so starving to death in a useless metal husk is the wiser choice. Somewhat… less reasonable.
And this is how we leave the archetypal Everyman of Atlas Shrugged. This is his reward for staying true to the Objectiverse’s rules of moral justice, even when it meant admitting his own inferiority, even if it now means sacrificing (aww shit) his own life. It’s Everyman Eddie, alone in the desert, banging madly and unintelligibly at the control panels and wheels of a useless, dead machine. Any Objectivists in the audience? This is a metaphor for YOU.
Poor Eddie chases a rabbit for sustenance but it gets away. He falls to the ground on the tracks in front of the train and weeps. Silently, he prays to his unrequited love, Dagny Taggart. And I can’t help but think, “What an ineffectual pussy.”
SIDEBAR. Aside from condemning the way Eddie’s characterization says all sorts of demeaning things about Ayn’s view of the average man’s competency and dignity, I would like to say something semi-positive in testament to this poor docile patsy. Throughout the blog I have frequently treated Eddie as Dagny’s faithful pet. If there is any redeeming quality to his final scene, it’s that it’s basically the utterly heartbreaking ending of the Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark” except with people. The “dog” is dumb, but his love is unconditional! Err, wait, no! Unconditional love is evil! Right? Jesus, this universe is falling apart at the seams.
Oh well. Good night, sweet prince…
And here we are in Galt’s Gulch. Valhalla of tremendous egomaniacal assholes. Snow is falling, it is a peaceful winter’s night. New Year’s Eve maybe? In their cozy log cabins, the World’s Greatest Cult Members go about their World’s Greatest Business.
In one cabin, Richard Halley, the World’s
Greatest Most Deluded Composer, plays his signature Fifth Concerto.
In another cabin, Midas Mulligan, the World’s Least Diversified Financier, builds a spreadsheet detailing who among his brethren will receive the greatest investments from him in their efforts to rebuild the great cities of the east coast. Which I still don’t understand, by the way. Why would the population flooding back into the rebuilt cities be any more morally upstanding than the population that left? Is there going to be some kind of test? Doesn’t sound very practical. Unless, of course, this whole project has been a deliberate ideological genocide cleansing society of the impure behind a facade of hands-off plausible deniability… Oh.
In another cabin, the Dread Philosopher Ragbeard reads a little Aristotle while his wife, the World’s Most Useless Movie Star, examines… um, a box of make-up samples. Yup, sounds about right.
In another cabin, Judge Narragansett, the World’s Most Ignorant Jurist, finishes his absurd corrections to the Constitution of the United States. Don’t worry, the changes aren’t anything that would be genuinely helpful in real life, like moving to a system of parliamentary elections. No, the Good Judge has added a clause that “congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production or trade,” which I think the Fourth and Fifth Amendments’ protections of private property already cover within all reason.
But the Judge probably crossed those out, for the Judge has indeed crossed out a whole bunch of passages, the better to resolve “the contradictions in [the Constitution’s] statements that had once been the cause of its destruction.”
Hey, that is SO WEIRD, I could’ve sworn there was already a constitutional crisis in American history that resulted in amendments that resolved “contradictions in its statements.” And I could’ve sworn it successfully prevented the United States’ destruction.
Yeah, yeah, it’s coming back to me now. Those real-life amendments enshrined in the Constitution formal legal equality for all citizens, to protect the rights of millions who had to be freed by the federal government by force, in direct contradiction of the desires of rich aristocrats who rebelled under a false banner of perversely-defined liberty in defense of their sense of economic entitlement. Hey, how did that work out for them? Aah, who can remember!
Pretty weird though, that this vital, defining chapter of the American story hasn’t really come up in this entire novel about a class-based American constitutional crisis. Well, I guess the narrator and heroes have repeatedly referred to the course of history going horribly wrong somewhere in the 2nd half of the 19th century, but they never got all that specific about it. I wonder why…
Finally we arrive at the last cabin, deep in the woods: Francisco’s lodge. Frankie and Rearden are making their plans for rebuilding the national infrastructure. Rearden talks about how Dagny will run their train system and probably charge them an arm and a leg and Francisco laughs merrily.
THEN, all of a sudden, I burst through the fraying narrative boundaries of the Objectiverse like a cosmic consciousness from an alternate dimension, compelled by the evil nature of this world’s native God, and I make potent and real the ecstatic vision lying latent in Francisco’s soul.
In one moment of profound epiphany, he understands that he is the John Locke of this Lost-like tale, used as a puppet by a dark and sinister force posing as his saving grace. John Galt was the Man in Black all along, and Galt’s Gulch was never just a lush and beautiful state of nature, but a holding pen and the world’s only salvation from his malevolent bile.
Clear-eyed and full-hearted, Frisco stands up and tells Hank Rearden that he is leaving Galt’s Gulch forever. For he has seen reason. He has seen that the only thing John Galt ever really did was tell them it was okay to treat other people like irrational animals. And tragically, even after holding out longer than anyone, Dagny fell under his spell too.
But Francisco was uniquely positioned to realize the falsehood of Galt’s cult of personality, to receive my gift of revelation, to realize that Dagny did not gain anything by converting, in fact she lost the very thing that made her special — because Francisco is the only member of this ridiculous cult who actually worked endlessly and tirelessly in pursuit of its goals, sacrificing everything he cared about and lived for, putting himself in danger, and on top of all that, accepting with incredible emotional maturity that he would never get any of it back, including the woman he loved, for whose sake he undertook the whole endeavor, because it wasn’t about his personal pleasure, it certainly wasn’t about any reasonable definition of his own self-interest… it was about justice.
Except it wasn’t, was it? Francisco realizes now that millions, possibly billions of people have died, for no good reason. The entire thing could have been prevented years before. Before the “47%” “formed” and “locked in” a democratic faction that “hobbled” the government’s ability to put reasonable limits on the welfare state. Before the nightmarish doomsday technology of Project X was ever built. How? Oh, if only John Galt had struck up a deeper conversation with Doc Stadler after a lecture or something ridiculously simple like that.
Or, how about this: What if Galt had released his clean perpetual motor to the world, wreaking upon consumerist industrial society the most meritocratic form of capitalistic creative destruction ever seen in the history of civilization, solving in one fell swoop a majority of the world’s most urgent dangers and elevating himself to infinite fame and fortune, leveraging which he could run for President as the living embodiment of human virtue, inspiring citizens the world over with his ideals in a remarkably positive fashion, instead of condemning empathy as immoral and reveling in mankind’s descent into squalor and decrepitude? What if he’d done THAT?
Except he didn’t, did he? Galt turned out to be no better than any other charismatic genocidal mad man. And Francisco admits that he is as guilty as anyone of succumbing to his abhorrent lunacy. He was Galt’s right hand man and primary facilitator.
Only now that it’s too late does he realize the truth, the truth about the myth of Atlas: that in spite of his struggle, perhaps even because of it, the weight of the world on his shoulders was a pleasure to bear. An honor, even. A virtue.
And that is why Francisco must now seek redemption by striking out on his own, into the wilds of post-apocalyptic America. He must wander the earth like Kane from Kung Fu, righting wrongs and teaching men and women how to live for themselves, how to make it in this hard reality we all share, how to find solace in each other and moral fiber within our being.
Don’t worry, he tells Hank, he will not tear down the Gulch like the Gulch tore down the world. Live and let live, is his libertarian creed. Perhaps, some day, Francisco will be called upon to defend freedom, he and the Gulch may come into conflict, if the Objectivists fail to live up to their own creed and form a plutocratic and liberty-infringing regime of class-based institutions that disenfranchise the citizenry, which he’s sure would never happen. But until that day Francisco will simply do his best as an individual, do his best to make the world a better place and himself a better person. That’s just the kind of man he is. And so he must bid Hank farewell.
Rearden, stunned by Francisco’s electrifying gospel, stands and salutes him with the utmost respect. Francisco smiles wryly and shoots him some finger guns or something, and exits, never to be seen again.
Outside, back in the Objectiverse-as-written, Dagny and John Galt stand together at the peak of the cliffs surrounding the valley. They stare out at the dark landscape of the outside world in reverent silence. Galt declares their mission accomplished and marks the sign of the dollar in the air as if he were a profane clergyman anointing the earth with his callow spirit.
But somewhere in that darkness below, the Francisco I have liberated from the tyrannical Ayn-God marches on, braving the void alone, no doubt on track to discover Eddie Willers’ emaciated form desperately clinging to life somewhere out there in the big wide open. He will nurse Eddie back to health and together they will have many adventures, probably about once a week on a basic cable channel, let’s say FX.
This Francisco pauses, turns back to the two small figures on the ledge, with their smallness of character and smallness of mind. He does not yearn to be with them any longer. He sees them for what they are now.
At the end of my commentary on John Galt’s speech, only twelve hours before Mitt Romney’s debate performance rebooted the race from a potential Obama landslide into a genuine toss-up, I concluded that
If [Randians who have no respect for truth] are evil by [their] own definition and, per Rand, those who face their own evilness must either go mad or commit suicide? Well, the evidence is right in front of our eyes: the Republican Party as an institution has gone mad, and is in the midst of a grand political suicide. Objective reality wins again.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that by the end of The Speech I had gone pretty far overboard mimicking Ayn’s bluster and absolutism in my polemic against her. But my point about the nature of the modern Republican Party is sound; what’s changed is that the Party’s truth-free and reality-averse political strategy is working a lot better now. I still think Obama is going to pull out a victory, but the GOP’s “political suicide” turns out to have been a lot less real than it seemed on the morning of October 3rd. So to moderate the hyperbole of my Galt’s Speech conclusions, I’m going to imagine the potential Romniverse — in decidedly less hysterical terms than conservative pundits use when they imagine (and I do mean imagine) the Obamaverse.
First things first: when it comes down to it, I don’t consider a Romney presidency to be the real danger in this election; I consider a win for the Romney campaign to be the greater danger, because it would mean objective reality lost to post-modern relativism and willful ignorance. Even his supporters seem to defend him primarily on the grounds that you can’t believe half the things he says, which is the worst sort of moral complacency (and the sort condemned so rightly by Ayn in Atlas Shrugged).
This moral issue is the true crux of the election. As far as governing goes, I made it clear very early on this blog that there are elements of Rand’s “Objectiverse” and parts of conservative ideology that I can appreciate. Even though I prefer Democratic policies to Republican ones on the whole, it’s really the politics and the rhetoric of the Republican Party that I object to with the moral certainty I played up in the Speech commentary.
What elements of a Romney presidency would I be okay with? The most promising is that if Romney wins, we will get another stimulus bill to help goose short-term economic growth. Even though the Republican House has been the faction blocking more stimulus under Obama, it is more or less a given that Paul Ryan would convince them to reverse their position if they also held the White House. Jon Chait outlines that case here. Despite the infuriating fact that this is a perfect example of the “politics over policy”/”party over country” nature of modern Republican leaders, releasing the hostage economy would be good for the country, so I could take some solace in that.
But when it comes to the other accomplishments of a hypothetical Romney administration that I could potentially get behind, the other elements of conservative ideology I support, well… the situation is more troubling. I am extremely skeptical that they would actually happen. Specifically, I would be in favor of tax reform, a balanced budget, and deficit reduction, which are really all the same issue. But if the history of Republicanism over the last thirty years is any indication, expecting follow-thru on these goals would just make me (and Republican voters) Charlie Brown to the GOP’s Lucy.
After all, both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush made sure to cut lots of taxes, but never got around to the cutting spending part. They didn’t put government on a diet, they just let it go malnourished. To be fair to Ronald Reagan, even as he racked up debt, he did pass responsible, bipartisan tax reform, and increased taxes several times to compensate for his initial tax-cut binge in 1981. So really it’s just George W. Bush who single-handedly starved America: he moved the country away from a year-to-year budget surplus that would have erased the debt by now, to annual deficits that added $4 trillion dollars to the national debt over 8 years.
Now even though conservatives are constantly pointing out that President Obama has added even more than that in under 4 years, the cause of this massive annual deficit is the spending commitments made by Bush (two wars, a huge expansion in the Medicare entitlement), paired with tax rate cuts established by Bush, exacerbated by a huge drop in actual tax dollars collected due to the economic collapse (which also happened on Bush’s watch). So Republican campaign messaging that blaming Bush is old news, boring, or irrelevant… that’s willful amnesia and defiance of reality.
If we set our expectations based on how Republicans have behaved and not on what they say, then they are far more likely to slash taxes but preserve spending, therefore ballooning the deficit even more. If nothing else, Republican fealty to Grover Norquist blocks any meaningful tax reform.
But what about Paul Ryan? Would his role in this hypothetical Republican government lead to a change in GOP seriousness about budgets? He certainly seems to think President Obama should have prioritized fixing Bush’s deficit problem — even though he helped create it and has actually tanked bipartisan efforts to fix it.
Well, okay, despite that last, incredibly relevant fact, let’s
pretend assume that he’s only been biding his time as a team player on his way to the real levers of power where he can get serious about slashing spending. I still have two concerns about this.
One is that fiscal austerity hurts the recovery. Europe proves this. In fact, the “fiscal cliff” coming at the end of the year represents just this problem: it cuts the deficit too much. And although Republicans want to get rid of the cliff, “cliff” is actually the wrong metaphor because the cuts would take effect over enough time, in future budgets, that they can be adjusted, turning the “cliff” into a controlled landing that actually resolves the budget/debt/tax issue responsibly.
The key word there is “responsibly.” Since the Republican record is so irresponsible, having a Democratic veto pen handy makes responsibility far more likely. A more powerful GOP would happily erase the politically painful (deficit-reducing) parts of the “cliff.” This is, once again, outlined in Jon Chait’s afore-mentioned article.
Chait is really the indispensible writer on Rand and modern Republicanism. In his 2008 book The Big Con, Chait points out that the only part of the Republican agenda that the party never compromises on is tax cuts for the rich. When the Republican Party is in power, Christian conservatives are constantly disappointed by inaction; budget hawks are constantly disappointed by profligate spending; the wealthy are never disappointed.
Which brings us to my second concern about Paul Ryan’s approach to balanced budgets. This one is not about a short-term shock to the economy, it’s about the long-term structure of the economy. As the facts of the last three decades make clear, economic growth under Republican policies accumulates at the top. Tax-slashers today say that the 1% pays a larger share of the income tax than ever before, so it would be immoral to tax them more. But this is another example of willful ignorance: not only does the 1% store a lot of its wealth in investments that are taxed at the lower capital gains rate, but their income tax rates have been cut over and over. So how could their share of the income tax grow when the rates are getting lower? Because they make so much more of the nation’s income! Tax cuts and economic collapse have moved lots of people out of the income tax brackets entirely. The people who don’t pay income taxes still pay payroll taxes, state and local taxes, sales taxes, &c, all of which are taxes that disproportionally affect the poor. Yet the rich, who have gotten richer and richer, complain!
The Romney and Ryan plans explicitly encourage this trend, and history confirms that this is the campaign promise they are most likely to keep. Add to that the gutting of domestic discretionary spending, and we would soon find ourselves in a country with a class of super-wealthy plutocrats paying fewer and fewer taxes while the poor face taxes that eat up a significant share of their income, undermining social mobility, living standards, and both literal and fiscal health. On top of that, cuts in clean energy investment and a draconian immigration policy would undermine the foundation of America’s strength in the middle and late 21st century.
So, hey, you might’ve noticed that my intention to look on the bright side of a Republican victory has hit a pretty solid wall, a wall whose bricks I like to call “evidence,” “facts,” “reality,” and “truth.” Frankly, call it whatever you want. The important thing to realize is that this course which would be a disaster for everyone except the super-rich plutocracy is the Ayn Rand dream scenario. It is literally the plot of Atlas Shrugged, except in real life it is Rand’s version of utopia that is being achieved by corrupt plutocrats and lobbyists taking over the federal government. Rand’s utopia just happens to be the rest of reality’s dystopia.
I think any Republican voters who come across this site probably disregard it, take offense when I say all these negative things about their party. But I’m not talking about them! I’m talking about the people in power, not the masses. The masses see corruption among the powerful and think, “Better vote for the guys who want to shrink government,” but those guys are the ones pulling the most corrupt con of all! And if this indisputable fact is depressing to Republican voters because it proves them to be ignorant dupes, well, the proper reaction is not to hide from reality, but to face it and reform themselves to be more virtuous. Don’t take it from me, take it from Ayn Rand! Her advice for individuals is actually extremely valuable, for the most part, because she loves individuals — it’s her advice for society that is disastrous, because she actively wants to see it fail! She’s very explicit about it!
In accordance with that distinction, please note that the explicit purpose of this post has been to figure out a way to respond to a hypothetical Romney victory with equanimity, to prepare to swallow and digest frustration and disappointment and channel it into something productive and creative. In short, to react like Hank Rearden or Francisco D’Anconia, Randian heroes.
Likewise, I will abide by another Randian ideal, one that she herself failed to live by: facing reality and the evidence clearly. In the context of this hypothetical Romney victory, that means I would have to remain open to evidence that his policies work better than I can reasonably expect of them bsaed on history and logic. But in the far less theoretical, uh, “actual reality,” I must acknowledge that Randian economics, and Randian attitudes toward society and community, in short all those things that Romney and Ryan represent politically — these have been proved by the historical record to be a civic travesty.
More than the economic policy, the social policy, the long-term vision of the role of government, I consider the defining feature of the partisan divide in this country to be modes of thinking. Do we validate a solipsistic philosophy that is closed to evidence, that so willfully defies reality that the weak-minded are dominated and impressed? Or do we reward a philosophy that is open to evidence and evolves, that allows itself to be vulnerable precisely because it is willing to adapt and compromise? As I discussed in my commentary on Galt’s Speech, I consider this issue to be the fundamental measure of moral virtue, and therefore the fundamental reason I’m obligated to call modern Republicanism immoral. Though I cannot speak to the intellectual character of every individual in either party, I can speak to the aggregate character of the two institutions.
So this election is not ultimately a verdict on the candidates. It is a verdict on the nation, the people. It is a verdict on America’s relationship to objective reality. Will we choose to see the truth of our time and place in history and renew our commitment to democratic tradition, or will we choose to ignore the facts of the last several decades and allow ourselves to slip down the road to serfdom under a corrupt plutocracy that has bought the government?
Democracies get the governments they deserve. Let’s deserve our democracy.
PREVIOUSLY: The core trio of nihilist villains spent a dark night of the soul torturing John Galt for his refusal to save them from their own suicidal impulses. In the face of Galt’s principled calm, Jim Taggart finally had the complete mental breakdown we’ve all been waiting for, and the existentially-shattered bad guys ran away for good.
And so here we are, ladies and gentlemen. The very last chapter of Atlas Shrugged. What a long, strange trip it’s been. One that’s perfectly encapsulated by the fact that this chapter is titled “In the Name of the Best Among Us” and begins with the heroine committing murder.
Yes, quite fitting really, that the narrative climax and moral nadir of the novel are one and the same. This is how it goes down:
Dagny has arrived at the ominous bunker housing Project F where John Galt is being tortured. There is a guard standing outside and Dagny approaches him, announcing that she’s been sent by President Thompson himself and she needs to get inside ASAP.
The guard is confused. Flummoxed, even. Dr. Ferris told him NOT to let anyone in. Now he’s facing CONTRADICTORY ORDERS! OH NO. Whatsoever is he to do? What if she’s lying? What if she isn’t? Somebody’s going to be mad at him!
Dagny draws a gun and aims it point blank at his heart. She tells him that he has two options. He can let her in, or he can get kill’t right and proper. “Gosh, golly, gee whiz miss! I dunno what’s right! I’m ever so simple ‘n all, and I only knows how to obey what’s I been told. You gotsed me all a-foggied up in my mindbrain!”
Dagny says, “I’m going to count to three and then I’m gonna cap your ass like an ice-cold thug.”
“Heavens to Betsy, I’m just a humble country boy what’s never aimed for no higher, how’s ever did I come to this? Lord have mercy, I’ll be wit’ you soon Jesus!” And then Dagny finishes counting and this idiot gets got.
Calmly and impersonally, she, who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.
Sympathy for animals during the callous murder of a human, Dags? How very Tony Soprano of you.
And then Francisco, Hank Rearden, and the Dread Pirate Ragbeard all come out of the shadows, having disposed of the other three guards surrounding the building, which is to say, they bound and gagged them. Which leaves them decidedly alive.
TIME OUT. So, okay, let’s review this little morality play, shall we? Of the four heroes who needed to take out mindless guards, only Dagny killed a person. And never mind that she could have, say, shot him in the hand and taken his weapon, or snuck up behind him and cold-cocked him. Even once she’s pulled the gun and aimed to kill, there are still, clearly, three other people backing her up who are eminently capable of coming up from behind and detaining a goon without resorting to homicide! In short, there is NO EXCUSE for this.
Which means that the entire scene is no more and no less than Ayn Rand’s carefully included, specifically plotted, and consciously intended justification for taking a life above and beyond self-defense, a.k.a. MURDER. This, despite her absolute and uncompromising declaration during Galt’s Speech that such an action represents the vilest most nihilistic form of anti-life. The End, Game Over, Full Stop: Ayn Rand is a loathsome, self-contradicting, literally psychopathic bitchmonster BY HER OWN DEFINITION. Proof, from The Speech:
Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive.
To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live.
Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins. When you declare that men are irrational animals and propose to treat them as such, you define thereby your own character and can no longer claim the sanction of reason—as no advocate of contradictions can claim it. There can be no ‘right’ to destroy the source of rights, the only means of judging right and wrong: the mind.
To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument—is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality.
Q. E. Motherfuckin’ D.
“But wait!” you might say, “These people are torturing Galt, so they initiated force first!” But let’s remember that we believe in individual responsibility on this blog, and this guy hasn’t initiated any force himself, doesn’t even know what he’s guarding, and absolutely does not need to die for Dagny to accomplish her mission of ending the use of force against Galt. This is on her. Objection overruled.
“But WAIT!” you might say, “Ayn gives herself an out! She rationalizes this scene in The Speech only two paragraphs after the excerpt you just quoted!” You would be referring to this:
If there are degrees of evil, it is hard to say who is the more contemptible: the brute who assumes the right to force the mind of others or the moral degenerate who grants to others the right to force his mind.
But considering the extremity of Rand’s convictions about good and evil, this is basically like Ayn saying, “It’s never okay to rape somebody… but if she was asking for it, well, that’s on her.” Like, you know, an illegitimate rape.
So actually, that weird equivocation makes perfect sense. Ayn is trying to create a category of “illegitimate” murder! That’s ballsy, Rand, I’ll give you that. Trying to hide your flagrant contradictions in plain sight? As Bill Clinton once said, “It takes some brass to accuse a guy of doing what you did.”
At the end of my commentary on Galt’s speech, in teasing out the implications of the Objectivist worldview, I gave Ayn the credit of not endorsing terrorism. But as my friend Max pointed out in the comments, she TOTALLY DOES! This scene is nothing if it isn’t a rationale for killing innocents in the name of your cause because they’re ignorant of and thereby complicit in the corruption of a society gone mad. There is LITERALLY no point here beyond rationalizing politically-motivated violence through moral absolutism. That “Rand the Father” willed this scene into being exposes as a fraud the gospel preached by “Galt the Son.” I don’t know how many more ways I can restate this. There’s no way of getting around it. It’s unforgivable.
Dagny and the Objectivists (free band name for some prog rockers who are really into ambient mechanical noises) storm into the Project F building and find another guard inside who is apparently too insipid to, you know, guard the place.
In confused awe at the air of authority these intruders carry, the guard asks ‘Who are you? What are you doing here? Why did Rusty let you in?” Francisco says Rusty must have had his reasons. The guard replies, “Well he wasn’t supposed to.”
Francisco replies, “Somebody has changed your suppositions,” which for full effect should be read aloud in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1994 right before he unleashes a hail of subautomatic machine gun rounds on the audience for this amazingly terrible one liner.
But Francisco does NOT unleash a hail of bullets. He shoots the guard in the hand and then Rearden & Ragbeard tie him up, further emphasizing the needless nature of Dagny’s earlier ass-capping.
The gang interrogates the guard about the layout of the structure, how many other stooges are loitering around the place, etc. He says Ferris is gone, but Ferris’ prisoner is still there. The remaining sentries are upstairs in the laboratory playing poker.
It’s Rearden who walks brazenly into the poker game, once again relying on nothing more than charisma and the body language of authority. He insists they hand the prisoner over to him on orders of the President. The chief guard is suspicious but when he picks up the phone he realizes the lines have been cut.
At this he turns on Rearden and draws his gun. Rearden warns him that he’s not alone. The other guards try to cool the chief down. They recognize Rearden and realize that these people are not to be fucked with. But the chief knows only one way to handle this:
The Chief fires on Rearden, hitting him in the shoulder. Francisco, who snuck into the room from the fire exit on the opposite side (the SHITTIEST guards) fires his silenced pistol at The Chief, shattering the man’s hand at the wrist. Seriously, every time Francisco’s ace marksmanship disables a gunman, Dagny’s killing of the first guard becomes more and more apalling and out of line.
Speaking of Dagny, she joins the other two in the room and the slacker guards around the poker table are even more dumbstruck. Understandably so — this is basically the equivalent of being randomly burlged by Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Marissa Mayer.
This team of covert CEO spies instructs the guards to lay down their arms. They don’t know who they’re holding, why, or what they’re fighting for. They’re dupes. The Objectivist team does know what they’re doing, why, and what for, and that alone should be reason enough for the guards to defect.
One of the guards does, and The Chief can’t abide it so he dives for his gun with his other hand and kills the defector in one shot. One of the other guards kills The Chief in retaliation. And then the Dread Pirate Ragbeard enters by smashing through the window from a swinging rope. Like you do.
Actually, hold on. Let me get this straight. After they gained entrance to this building through a door, and after all three of his compatriots surrounded this room through its doors, and after the gunfight that inflicted a wound on one of his allies was already over… then Ragbeard runs around outside the building, rigs up an Indiana Jones rope swing and theatrically flies in through a window? What? What kind of useless bullshit is that? God, Ragbeard, you are the DUMBEST character. The DUMBEST. Idiot!
So they tie up the remaining poker players and then have one of them lead the way to Ferris’ office, where there is a secret stone staircase down to the Project F torture chamber. A secret stone staircase? Looks like the good guys aren’t the only ones with a flair for the needlessly theatrical.
Speaking of which, Francisco asks Rearden if he needs any medical attention for the expanding pool of blood staining his shirt, and Rearden is like “Nah bro, blood off my shoulder.” Because as Nietzsche once said, ubermenschen are bulletproof. Oh no, sorry, I’m thinking of Superman.
Anyway, the guards to the torture room don’t put up nearly as much of a fight. They did, after all, see Ferris and Mouch leave in a panic with a catatonic James Taggart in tow. They’re just itching for an excuse to leave. And so leave they do.
Left with no more obstacles, the team of rescuers rush into the torture chamber and find Galt lying calmly on the rack. Dagny runs over to him, crying, and they embrace. “We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” Galt asks her, and laughing through her tears she says that no, they did not.
And you know what? As far as narrative closure goes, that pretty accurately sums up how I’ve come to feel about this whole damn book.
NEXT WEEK: The conclusive denouement of Atlas Shrugged, and the thrilling climax of Atlas ‘Clubbed.
PREVIOUSLY: John Galt was forced to participate in a fascist propaganda rally, but managed to expose his duress to the world during the broadcast.
Meanwhile, the cowardly Doc Stadler listens to said propaganda rally on his dashboard radio as he flees New York City. Since meeting with Galt, his existential terror has become all-encompassing. This wasn’t helped when President Thompson threatened him with incarceration and potentially torture if Galt didn’t start cooperating. Thompson’s theory was that they needed some leverage over the man, and as his former teacher and the only person he had requested to see during his captivity, Stadler was as good a place as any to start.
So driven by panic and adrenaline, Stadler has bolted for Iowa, where he has some vague idea to take control of Project X and rule the Midwest as his own personal feifdom.
Meanwhile on the radio, when Galt exposes his participation in the rally as a fraud perpetrated at gunpoint, the signal turns into a jumble of screams and shouts and then suddenly cuts out. Stadler goes leadfoot on the accelerator.
Soon enough he arrives at the military installation, called Harmony City, that surrounds the Project X generator. The gate is abandoned, parts of the barbed wire torn down. Trucks and armed men are running around further inward. Stadler ignores the odd circumstances and barrels onward.
When he reaches the control building, the guard is smoking and looking insubordinate and has accessorized his uniform like some kind of guerrilla or militia man. Stadler demands to be let inside and made commander. The guy couldn’t give less of a shit but takes him inside to meet The Boss.
Down in the control room itself, The Boss is instructing his underlings to spread the word from Chicago to Kansas City that he now rules America’s breadbasket and demands exorbitant tithes from all the remaining residents. The Boss, by the way, is Jabba the Hutt, the former G-man who took over Taggart Transcon while Dagny was in Galt’s Gulch. He and his ragtag private army have beaten Stadler to his plan.
Stadler insults and harangues Jabba. He doesn’t know what he’s doing! He’s drunk! He’s completely unqualified to handle this dangerously powerful scientific weapon! Jabba tells Stadler to go screw and starts fucking around with all the control panels just to be a dick. Stadler is like “NOOOO!!!” and then:
The Project X harmony of death whines to life. A shock wave of destructive energy ripples out for hundreds of miles around, felling every structure, killing every innocent, and destroying the Taggart Bridge, last road across the Mississippi. And the eye of the storm is not immune — the Project X control base rises and up and shreds itself to pieces too, collapsing to the ground with the mutilated remains of Jabba and his soldiers and the former Doctor Stadler inside.
Meanwhile, back in New York City:
After Galt raised hell at the rally, all the plutocrats rushed out of the room while Thompson had Galt wrestled to the ground and sent back to his cell/suite. Dagny, inspired by John, snuck back up the hotel and into the room where the Fascists hold their emergency meetings.
Therein she finds everyone freaking out. Goebbels tears his hair out and quits. Doc Ferris is hissing that he TOLD them this would happen. Thompson relinquishes all responsibility, and Ferris takes this opportunity to convince them that with the government completely discredited, their only option left is to let him torture the shit out of ol’ Johnny. Why this would get them anywhere nobody really asks.
A chill runs down Dagny’s spine as she finally realizes the full depravity of these supposedly civilized people. Just as Ferris explains to the rest that his specially designed Persuader, a.k.a. Project F, is located in a soundproof room at the State Science Institute, he remembers that Dagny is there. She returns his gaze dully, shrugs, and lets herself out. Ferris seems to think nothing of it.
I think I forgot to mention that in the last chapter Dagny received a secret letter from Francisco giving her a phone number to call in case of emergency, which is relevant now because call she does. As soon as she’s out on the street she gets on her cell phone.
When Francisco picks up he already knows about the rally and tells her to go to her apartment and office, collect all her valuables and some clothes and other supplies. She does exactly that and we get a roundelay of callbacks to earlier in the book: from her apartment, the Rearden Metal bracelet and the gold coin she was paid in Galt’s Gulch. From her office, the map of the Transcon lines at their long-gone apex and the portrait of her great-grandfather Nat.
But just as she prepares to leave her office, one of her few remaining employees comes in crying. The horror, the horror! He has just learned of the humanitarian atrocity in the Midwest, and the destruction of the bridge. Dagny is momentarily spurred to do her job, but stops herself. She turns to the engineer and tells him there’s nothing she can do for them now, and leaves. She has officially gone Galt; on her way out of the train station she marks the statue of Nat with a big dollar sign graffiti in lipstick.
Outside, Francisco arrives. Dagny joins him and tells him about how the Fascists are flying to State Science with Galt in tow. They head out.
At State Science, Project F is actually up and running already. Quick flight! I guess it was just New York to New Hampshire. Anyway, Galt is strapped to a board and wired up with electrodes. Ferris is supervising the interrogation while Mouch and Jim watch. They run high voltage through various parts of Galt’s body while demanding that he become their ruler. HA! That’s pretty great. For once in this godforsaken novel, the hilarious perversity of the situation comes across as intended instead of ironically doubling back on the author.
After an hour or two of electroshocks, Galt’s heart monitor is spasming wildly, but he remains silent and focuses on meditative breathing. It’s Wesley Mouch who freaks out first. He asks Ferris to stop, for surely Galt will obey them now. But Ferris scoffs. The point isn’t to make him obedient, the point is to break him completely, until he believes in their philosophy and works with them voluntarily.
But when Ferris puts the question to Galt he just stares at them unblinkingly, and they all start screaming angrily at him.
“We want you to take over! We want you to rule! We order you to give orders! We demand that you dictate! We order you to save us! We order you to think!”
It’s all to no avail — they’ve shorted the circuit on their device and the power generator fades out. They crowd around the box and Ferris commands some lackey to fix it! Fix it! But nobody knows how. It’s actually John Galt himself who, smiling wryly, tells them how to get it back up and running. The lackey sees the pointed mocking look in Galt’s eyes and, suddenly realizing the disturbing situation he’s agreed to be in, he runs away, leaving the triumvirate of villainy alone with Sexy Capitalist Jesus.
SIDEBAR: Ferris personally designed this device. And yet he doesn’t know how to fix it, and Galt, who has not looked at its internals, does. It’s a nifty little scene, but I have to call bullshit on this one.
Jim explodes in urgent fury and starts tinkering with the Project F generator himself. He declares that they must destroy Galt’s mind, that it’s a moral imperative they eradicate his ideas from existence.
But now even Ferris and Mouch are starting to have their doubts. They remind Jim that they cannot afford to kill the only man who can protect them from the anarchy they have unleashed on the world.
At this, Jim has a moment of clarity and screams madly, like a rabid animal. He has suddenly seen the truth of himself, the truth he has fought so hard to obscure. This is his nadir, the mental breakdown he has spent the last five chapters sliding toward, the triumph of his nihilism over his willful refusal to admit it:
He was suddenly seeing the motive that had directed all the actions of his life. … It was the urge to defy reality by the destruction of every living value, for the sake of proving to himself that he could exist in defiance of reality and would never have to be bound by any solid, immutable facts.
A moment ago, he had been able to feel that he hated Galt above all men, that the hatred was proof of Galt’s evil, which he need define no further, that he wanted Galt to be destroyed for the sake of his own survival. Now he knew that he had wanted Galt’s destruction at the price of his own destruction to follow, he knew that he had never wanted to survive, he knew that it was Galt’s greatness he had wanted to torture and destroy.
As all his knowledge had consisted of emotions, so now he was held by an emotion and a vision that he had no power to dispel. He was no longer able to summon the fog to conceal his hatred of existence—he was seeing the face of Cherryl Taggart with her joyous eagerness to live—he was seeing his face as the face of a killer who killed in order not to discover his own irredeemable evil.
Taggart collapses into a catatonic state on the floor. Ferris and Mouch are completely unnerved. They call his name but get no response. Shouting to the guard that they will come back, they swear they’ll come back, they pick up Taggart’s limp body and drag him out of the room, more to escape Galt’s unblinking stare than to actually help their friend. They know that he’s a vegetable now.
Jim Taggart, gone forever — never really there at all.