PREVIOUSLY: John Galt was captured.
But you’d never know it from his jail cell, which is the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf-Astoria or The Ritz or whatever you want to call the fictionalized luxury hotel where Francisco used to live. I also assume this used to be Francisco’s room, but if it isn’t that’s a wasted opportunity.
Anyway, armed guards have sealed off and are patrolling the floors sandwiching Galt’s, and to explain this away, enter President Thompson.
The Prez plays the usual ingratiating games with ol’ John. “So glad to see you! Let’s strike a deal! We know you’re brilliant and we want your help– err, we want to help you. I’m willing to give you Wesley Mouch’s job, you can be Economic Dictator of America! Great, right? How would you like to be compensated?”
Galt laughs, not mockingly, just amused. He tells Thompson that the government has nothing to offer him. Thompson keeps insisting. Does Galt want to get rid of price controls? Bust all the unions? Whatever he wants.
Galt tells him he doesn’t get it: he doesn’t want that kind of power. He thinks nobody should have that kind of power.
Thompson still isn’t listening. John’s like, “Fine if you want to show you’re serious, then abolish income taxes and fire all the government employees, including yourself.” Thompson balks.
So the rest of the scene is a repudiation of the idea that you can work within the system. Galt doesn’t think he could take the job and, say, get rid of capital gains and corporate and income taxes, abolish the minimum wage, dismantle the bureaucracy, and then resign. Thompson’s reaction proves that Galt would meet too much resistance from entrenched interests, making the plan futile, and besides that if it spurred economic growth it would effectively bail out the moochers and looters like they always get bailed, and thus fall short of sufficiently “purifying” the nation*.
[*Hey, you know what’s creepy and has basically never been anything but a euphemism for genocide or generalized mass murder? The “purification” of a nation. So weird, right?]
Anyway, please be sure to note that this plan Galt rejects is more or less Paul Ryan’s explicit, name-brand plan. SO WEIRD, right? Whatever, I don’t know, maybe Paulie Blue Eyes just stopped reading after the Speech. Not that he absorbed the ultimatum in that either.
It’s now a week or so after Thompson’s visit, and the state-run media has been boasting headlines claiming John Galt has joined the nation’s leaders and promises to restore prosperity. The press secretary (and/or Minister of Propaganda) is losing his shit because this spin isn’t moving public opinion or boosting morale.
Thompson is holding a meeting in the hotel with the cabinet and some other national leaders, like Kinnan the Union Boss who was in the room when the cabal abolished the Constitution with an executive order. Whereas all the others are in a snit over Galt’s Zen approach to captivity, Kinnan is once again amused and clear-eyed about the nature of the situation. He kinda likes Galt.
SIDEBAR: I find it interesting that Ayn makes the labor leader the one who sees through all the bullshit. Dr. Ferris does this too, but he simply believes in the superiority of nihilism. Kinnan, as the elite representative of the working class, seems to be a man who believes in honest labor but accepts that his job colluding with the management is inevitably corrupting. Sort of the enabler that Galt refuses to be. Of course, one could take that to mean that Kinnan should have led his workers in a strike like Galt does to preserve his integrity, but Ayn says that all strikes in history prior to Galt’s were attempted by whiny entitled little bitches. So… Kinnan: interesting. Ayn: still a fuckface.
Where were we?
The Minister of Propaganda, let’s just call him Goebbels, wants Galt to make a public appearance to prove they aren’t completely full of shit. Dr. Ferris vetoes this idea as just asking for trouble. Kinnan and Thompson both express their begrudging admiration for Galt again, and Jim Taggart, who has been in a spiral of mental instability for about five chapters now, is lashing out hysterically whenever they admit this.
Ferris suggests they torture Galt until he cracks. Thompson rejects this idea outright, because he wants to believe that they’re better than that. Sadly, this lends him more moral integrity than a certain former real-life US president who shall remain named George W. Bush. Suffice it to say that this lowest bar of human decency having been cleared, Thompson adjourns the meeting.
Spinning newspaper montage! Mobs of farmers are systematically burning every mansion and government building in South Dakota. California has descended into a civil war between a “soybean cult of Orient-admirers” and some kind of Western theocratic movement composed of religious zealots and former oil men calling themselves
The Republican Party “Back to God.”
President Thompson, having announced a new “John Galt Plan” for securing the nation, but still getting nowhere with Galt himself, visits Dagny. He asks her if, as the sole remaining asset the government has, she can think of any way to influence Galt. She lies without hesitation:
Now it was only a matter of making sounds, inarticulate sounds addressed to inanimate objects unrelated to such concepts as reality, human or honor.
And this is the heroine after she finally embraces the right values! And it goes on like this! The term “inanimate objects” repeatedly crops up as the proper way to view literally everyone who’s left. Ayn is a psychopath you guys. Like, textbook.
Dagny wonders if a single person would protest if the bureaucrats killed Galt. Dags, I’m pretty sure that the public likes Galt and — in case you hadn’t noticed — there is armed revolt and insurrection going on all over the place. You are maybe too difficult to please.
Cut to: Thompson, at Dagny’s double-agenty suggestion, showing Galt a bunch of confidential reports illustrating just how close the system is to complete collapse. He thinks this’ll make Galt feel guilt. Dagny knows it will help him see the light at the end of the tunnel. At this meeting Jim Taggart has accompanied POTUS, and while Thompson is still acting all friendly Jim can barely contain himself, frantically spewing incredulous accusations. I kind of like that Jim calls Galt out with the line “You don’t have a monopoly on truth!” but in general the terrified indignation is spilling out at the speed of verbal diarrhea. Thompson realizes Jim’s fucking it up and leads him out.
Cut to: Thompson, this time with Goebbels. Goebbels tells Galt that they agree, Galt is totally right on principle, but he should feel some pity for all the innocents being consumed in the chaos. He shows Galt letters pleading for his help signed by schoolchidren, crippled veterans, the elderly, single mothers. You know, real 47%ers. Galt brushes them off, asking rhetorically if they who ask for his pity ever had any pity for Hank Rearden. In response, I vomit all over the page. What a whiny, entitled little bitch!
Cut to: Thompson, this time with Dr. Ferris. Speaking of vomit… Ferris tells Galt that to address the issue of mass starvation, he will kill one third of the children and elderly of the country, and if Galt doesn’t intervene then the moral responsibility for it is on him. Galt won’t even say anything to this one and Thompson is horrified. He literally throws Ferris out of the room, and Galt’s just looking at him like, “See? Still think you’re better than that?”
Meanwhile, roving bands damage the Taggart Bridge, now the only route across the Mississippi. Some faction in California has taken the train depots there and are holding the eastbound supplies of food for ransom. At Taggart Transcon HQ, Eddie Willers steps his game up and tells Dagny he’s going out there himself to solve the crisis. Yeah Eddie! He bids Dagny a potentially permanent farewell. They shake hands and she acknowledges that she respects his feelings for her. How generous.
Back at Galt’s luxurious prison, Thompson is at the end of his rope and asks Galt straight up if there’s anybody he actively wants to talk to. Galt considers it and says he wants to see Dr. Stadler. Thompson nods.
Cut to: Stadler, arriving at the hotel in a snowstorm under orders to see the prisoner. He had an anxiety attack and refused to comply at first, but as has been true for quite some time now, he simply swallows his own instincts and does what he’s told. This willful passivity does nothing to quell the feverish delirium that grows the closer he gets to the door, scrambling his ability to think, making him dizzy and woozy.
He steps into the room, the door clicks shut behind him. Galt is standing in the corner staring out the window. Unprovoked, Stadler spills his guts, apologizing to Galt, making excuses for himself, saying a whole bunch of nonsense that’s intended to be an Objectivist parody of non-Objectivist nonsense. It’s nonsense. In short, Stadler has devolved into the scarecrow from Oz: a straw man who wishes that he only had a brain. As his tirade goes on it circles from an apologia to a resentful threat. He lashes out angrily at Galt and says Galt is the kind of man who must be destroyed for the world to function. And if you think about it, that’s true.
But Galt turns to him and says “I know you are, but what am I?” and Stadler retreats in fright, banging on the door until they let him out.
SIDEBAR #2: “I know you are, but what am I?” is essentially the entire public relations strategy of the Republican Party. If the Democrats accurately point out that the Romney/Ryan campaign is made up of two brazen liars disguising themselves as moderates to pursue a radical agenda that will fundamentally alter American society, the GOP messaging machine retaliates by winking at the base and saying “I know you are, but what am I?”
Aaanyway. Cut to: Goebbels coming by for a return visit. He has a couple of heavies with him. He commands Galt to dress in formalwear and come with them. Goebbels has got his wish: they’re going to force Galt to make a public appearance with them. One of the heavies jams a gun in the small of Galt’s back.
“Don’t make any false moves,” he said in an expressionless voice.
“I never do,” said Galt.
Okay fine, that line was great.
Goebbels leads Galt into the grand ballroom of the hotel, where all of the coutnry’s remaining plutocrats have gathered in cocktail dresses and tuxes and gowns and applaud wildly upon Galt’s arrival. Dagny is there, having something of a panic attack herself at having to maintain her dual identity when John is practically within arm’s reach.
The mood in the room is panicky in general. Everybody is doing their best to ignore how fucked up the atmosphere in this hotel is. Nobody has an appetite for the buffet except for Ferris, who I imagine just plowing down cocktail shrimp with a shrug while everybody else looks sad.
The TV cameras warm up, a huge LED panel behind the dais illuminates, and Thompson announces that they are about to roll out the John Galt Plan for Peace & Prosperity! The cameras pan across all the political leaders and settle on Galt, who obviously looks like Kennedy to everybody else’s Nixon.
Dagny thinks that there’s no way this sham ceremony could possibly work as each of the bullshit artists takes a turn giving a vacuous speech about how much they love John Galt and how proud they are to be working together. On stage, Thompson leans over to Galt and whispers that John will have to say a few words at the end to seal the deal. What an idiot.
So Thompson gets up and gives a whole speech about how there will now be three meals a day and a house and a car in the garage and free electricity for everyone forever, all thanks to John Galt and his wonderful humanitarian generosity, and then cedes the floor.
And shocking no one, John Galt leaps up, exposing Goebbel’s gun to the audience. Everyone gasps in shock. Galt storms the podium and barks at the world to “GET OUT OF MY WAY!” and the whole place erupts in chaos.
As they work to convince themselves the common man is too stupid to buy Galt’s call for a peaceful revolution, and to figure out how to spin this in their favor, Dagny steps forward. “Your only option is to resign. You’ve been exposed as frauds. Give up your political power and maybe the real elites return.”
The cronies grumble but President Thompson didn’t win his office by being a bad politician — he calms everybody down. One should hear out all arguments and viewpoints, no harm in it. Thank you Dagny, I appreciate your opinion. Please don’t consider us your enemy.
Dagny, having said her piece, tugs on Eddie Willers’ leash and they head back to the car. As soon as they’re out, Doc Stadler turns to Thompson. “You aren’t actually thinking of working with them, are you?” Thompson is. Galt is an asset. He wants to cut a deal with him. Stadler scoffs. Galt would never go for it. They need to find him and kill his ass to death.
Even these creeps find Stadler’s sudden certainty disturbing, but either way the next move is to find Galt. Stadler is the only one who knows how: tail Dagny.
At that moment, Dagny and Eddie are returning to the Transcon offices. Eddie, still in shock, confesses to Dagny that he knows John Galt. How’s that? Galt was the grimy Prole whose ear Eddie was always bending in the mess hall! You remember that character? Neither did I! Literally when I first read this I was like, “Huh? Oh right, that guy.” I mean, he basically never spoke and Eddie’s monologuing was boring as shit every time. Nevertheless, if you consider either this noun or verb to apply, then the ‘twist’ is ‘revealed.’
Dagny makes Eddie promise never to mention this to anyone, nor go looking for Galt, for his safety and their own. Eddie consents, and asks Dagny if she’s going to quit now too. She will not; she need only bide her time for the cronies to abandon their posts.
How does that work out? Well, over the next few months social order breaks down (to whatever small extent it hasn’t already). A bunch of people disappear of course. Others get into physical fights over philosophical differences, like a lady who has her jaw broken by some random dude for telling her child to give one of his toys to a neighbor kid. Ayn sides with the assailant, clearly*. Also, apparently the politicians were right to say that the masses were too dumb to revolt peacefully.
[According to one of the sources I’ve read, though I can’t remember which one, Ayn’s mother once asked 7-year old Ayn to give up some of her toys for a year. Ayn, being Ayn (or at that point, Alyssa), gave up all of her favorites in anticipation of how rewarding it would feel to get them back after this exercise in patience and will power. A year passed and Ayn asked Mom for her toys back. Mom was like, “What? Oh, right. Sorry kiddo, I donated that shit to charity.” So there’s that, for whatever it’s worth.]
President Thompson gives regular addresses preaching tolerance and moderation, peace and the rule of law. This is a biting satire of… reasonableness, I guess? He promises that the state is working with John Galt to address the economic crisis, while at the same time sending out secret signals and investigators to find Galt and — per his plan from the night of the speech — ask for Galt’s help for real.
Eventually Thompson calls in Dagny to ask her face to face if she can find Galt for him. He’s willing to hand all power over to Galt. Dagny says she doesn’t know where to find him (this is a lie, she has his address based on the Transcon payroll records).
Thompson says he won’t abandon his office until Galt shows up to take over — considering the violence and anarchy, he can’t in good conscience just dissolve the government in its entirety. Dagny tells him to start rolling back taxes and regulations, then. He refuses. He wants to confer with Galt and won’t take any action until he gets a meeting.
Dagny takes this as her cue to leave and Thompson oh so casually says he sure hopes his allies-cum-rivals like Stadler and Ferris don’t find Galt and kill him before Thompson’s more peaceful faction can strike a deal. The militant wing of the government wants to crack down, institute the death penalty for civil infractions to squelch dissent, etc. Basically go the full fascist. Oh well! Too bad I have no way of knowing if Galt’s safe! he says. Dagny’s blood is chilled, but she betrays nothing.
Cut to: a terrified and ultra-focused Dagny at four in the morning a week later, sneaking through the slums of Alphabet City to John Galt’s apartment. Thompson’s insinuations got to her. She’s been looking for Galt in direct contradiction of her orders to Eddie, but Galt has abandoned his job as a menial proletarian. This visit is her last hope.
Moody atmospheric wandering, blah blah blah. Alphabet City is completely abandoned, reminding her of the ghost towns of the midwest she visited waaay back in Part One. To think Galt’s been living here!
[A] city that had left him in these slums for twelve years was damned and doomed to the future of Starnesville.
But the city didn’t “leave him” there! He chose to live there of his own free will! GAH.
Dagny finds Galt’s tenement, makes her way up to his apartment and prepares to knock on the door, but her head is spinning with too much adrenaline and the next thing she knows he’s opened the door, pulled her inside, and kisses her.
She’s thrilled that he’s alive but he sits her down and tells her there’s no time. He’s sure she was followed, and that the feds will be busting down the door shortly. Probably already set up a perimeter — though to be fair to Dagny, in fiction a secure perimeter has never once managed to be effective, ever. Don’t be a slacker, John.
Galt tells Dagny that he’s glad she came, but there’s only one thing left to do now. When the authorities arrive, she has to claim that she doesn’t know him, was investigating this “John Galt” listed on her payroll for the first time. She has to hand him over and pretend to have finally committed to the fascists’ side.
Why?! she wants to know. Galt tells her that they need him too much to hurt him, but if they know about their relationship they’ll torture her and he’ll break. She realizes he’s right and consents.
While they still have a few minutes together, John shows Dagny his super-secret mad scientist laboratory that he keeps hidden behind a closet door. No rotating bookcase? John, what did I just say about slacking.
The lab is standard mad scientist stuff. Boards full of blinking lights, chalkboard full of equations, presumably some glowing beakers bubbling over Bunsen burners. But Dagny’s attention is focused most on two things: first, a working version of Galt’s clean and perpetual motor. Second, a newspaper clipping of her standing triumphant on the day the John Galt line opened.
Galt tells her the look on her face embodied his values, and they make out some more. Then they hear boots coming up the stairs of the tenement and leave the secret lab. Well that was productive.
Once back in the rundown apartment proper, Galt opens the door. Three soldiers and a g-man in a trenchcoat enter and ask if he is John Galt, THE John Galt. He’s all, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and then Dagny acts out her previously assigned role.
“He is John Galt! Take him away, officers.” And the g-man is like, “No no no don’t worry, Mr. Galt, we’re huge fans. We want to help you achieve your goals.”
Galt gets in on the roleplaying. “Whatever, man. Just tell me who the hell is this woman?” And the g-man tells him not to worry again, Ms. Taggart is just a patriot doing her duty. Anyway, Mr. Galt, please come with us!
Galt asks if he’s being arrested. G-man says of course not, even as the soldiers begin ransacking the apartment searching for evidence. They eventually come to the lab door but it won’t budge. G-man asks John to open the door, but he refuses. G-man says he doesn’t want to have to use force, but Galt is like, “Force is the subtext of what you’re doing here, dude, deal with it.”
The soldiers bust down the door but as they snap the lock there’s a rush of wind from inside, and when they go in to investigate the lab turns out to be a completely barren room with a thick layer of dust and ash on the floor. Galt had the place booby-trapped to disintegrate upon forced entry. This waste of his work would be totally unnecessary if John had just built that secret swiveling bookcase, but so it goes.
Confused and unsettled, the state agent and his muscle back out of the lab. Galt tells them he’s ready to go, and they escort him and Dagny out.
Last night was the first presidential debate and I will say without qualification that Mitt Romney cleaned President Obama’s clock. There are two angles on that performance that I want to consider here briefly.
The first is what Romney did well. He took control of the agenda of the debate from very early on, and made a very effective sales pitch for the conservative idea that reducing taxes and regulatory hoops leads to greater growth and is thus a more efficient solution to the jobs crisis as well as the deficit and debt problem. He also spoke to the Randian vision in alluding to bureaucratic panels making decisions and the idea of “trickle-down government,” all of which suggest the constantly expanding and increasingly inefficient central government infringing on the ingenuity of the private sector that Atlas Shrugged presents for criticism.
The Atlas comparisons inevitably cut both ways, though. Romney moderated almost all of his declared positions to appeal to the centrist voter, seeking to distance himself from the extremity of the Republican agenda as much as possible. He also offered a lot of details that don’t square mathematically with his established policy positions, which do reflect that GOP agenda. This is smart politics, for sure, but it plays into the “etch-a-sketch” meme, which makes for a classic Mouch/Thompson politician. Nevertheless, in terms of a sales pitch, it was gangbusters.
By contrast, President Obama repeatedly got lost in the policy weeds, eating up time while scoring fewer rhetorical points. While his facts may have been less misleading, the overall effect was to play into the Republican narrative of government as a knot of technical jargon obstructing (business)people from doing what they want to do.
All of that is largely about horse-race coverage and spinning media narratives. Romney won that handily. The second issue I want to look at is the objective validity (or invalidity) of those claims Romney made to win the narrative. Here’s the three examples of misleading decontextualization that jumped out at me as I watched:
1) Early on Mitt referred to American tax policy moving “small businesses” away from America, but this dynamic can obviously only affect multi-national corporations. This conflation of small business and the larger corporate playing field is misleading. It isn’t that the corporate scale isn’t vital to the economy — it is — but discussing policies that benefit corporate institutions as if they were primarily aimed at local community businesses is intellectually dishonest. Romney did later make some sounder points about actual small businesses, though as with his statistics on green energy investments, he radically exaggerated the numbers. Either way the elision of the difference between Exxon-Mobil and your local plumber is deeply misleading and, I think, highly characteristic of Romney’s exploitation of voter ignorance.
2) President Obama pointed out, accurately, that Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts add up to $5 trillion dollars. Romney pointed out that he will close loopholes so that this number would not be accurate. He still refuses to specify those loopholes, even though basically all of the options on the table have to be adopted to make the math work. Yet he claims that he will not be raising taxes on the middle class or reducing taxes on the wealthy, all while his reforms remain revenue neutral. This is not only mathematically impossible but politically disingenuous. His line of defense essentially boils down to “Because I say so, so trust me,” and since his claims as they stand do not square with the hard data, there is no reason to trust him on this unless he provides more details. This example is extremely similar to the politicians in Atlas Shrugged.
3) During a discussion on health care, Mitt said he would keep Obamacare but leave its implementation up to the states, which makes no sense on its face if you actually know anything about how the policy works. But besides that, this plan would be a disaster for — ironically — the states that reliably vote Republican. Many of these (the most notable exception being Texas) are the welfare queens of state government; they receive far more federal funds than they contribute in taxes. Without these federal subsidies, most of the south and the mountain west would be unable to provide adequate health care services. This would make residency in these states less attractive, it would increase poverty among the elderly and economic drag on the families now supporting them out of pocket, and over time it would worsen these regions’ already low scores on health care outcomes, increasing health care costs and creating a vicious cycle.
This last example brings us back to the broader ideological point, which is this: sometimes competition does not produce a race to the top; sometimes it produces a race to the bottom. Arms races lead to nuclear proliferation and thus a more dangerous world. The race to provide the cheapest oil leads to overproduction and overconsumption and environmental catastrophes that damage the stability of the economy in which people are trying to prosper. Health care costs are another key example of this.
I noted up top that Romney’s arguments about lowering regulation to increase economic efficiency are factually valid. The reason they don’t persuade me away from Democratic proposals is that he radically exaggerates the size of these efficiency effects. Dynamic scoring of proposed tax policy changes usually produces something like a savings of 30% of the cost of the cuts — for every dollar you cut, the boost this provides to growth only gets you thirty cents back, not the whole dollar. The Republican pitch on taxes constantly suggests that you would be getting far more of a return than what the historical record suggests.
Just as importantly, the growth of the economy in this situation is not evenly distributed among the population. “Trickle-down” or supply-side economics benefit the wealthy first, and the middle class later if at all. And if we look at the historical record since supply-side was first institutionalized under Ronald Reagan, the money amasses mostly among the wealthy and the middle class stagnates, creating a larger lower class of menial service laborers and welfare dependents. This is a serious shortcoming of Republican proposals, to say the least.
Combine these factors and what do you get? Poor priorities. Good constructive criticism; bad proposals for addressing the most longview, structural issues. The post-Reagan Republican narrative has always been so effective because it is a wonderfully elegant theory of how things should work. But when it turns out that reality doesn’t work that way, that narrative becomes the problem and not the solution. And we reached that tipping point long ago.
As always, Romney’s means are the perfect example of why he shouldn’t achieve his ends, especially by a Randian measure. He is clearly an excellent salesman, but by winning through the obfuscation of the truth, he exploits the difference between the merits of his sales pitch and the merits of the product he is pitching. That difference in and of itself accounts for why market outcomes and business acumen are not equivalent to moral integrity, and how they can easily incentivize an appeal to the lowest common denominator instead of a call to raise standards.
Mr. Romney won definitively when it comes to subjective reality: our collective reactions and opinions. But when it comes to objective facts about what’s driving American decline and who is responsible for our inability to address those issues legislatively? Not so much.
I like to play devil’s advocate. Among my liberal friends I prefer to make conservative points, to temper opinions with which I agree in broad strokes with conservative virtues they might otherwise dismiss. And among conservatives I try to demonstrate my appreciation for their virtues while suggesting reasons they should reconsider whatever dismissive attitudes they might have toward liberal ones.
I think this is a reflection of the philosophical values I outlined for myself last week, the emphasis on considering multiple angles before settling on an opinion or belief with certainty. And so despite the fact that just two days ago I mimicked Galt’s rhetoric to demolish his reasoning, I’m going to spend today investigating what I consider to be the central question of Atlas Shrugged:
What if John Galt is right?
The very first thing to point out here is that this is NOT the central question of the book as Ayn Rand sees it. You might’ve picked up on her version of the question. It was “Who is John Galt?” And the reason her inquiry is phrased that way is because as far as she’s concerned John Galt is clearly right. The book is built around validating his opinions from page one. So the “mystery” is, who is he, and what is he right about?
Well, one thing he is definitely not right about is his pathetically narrow-minded worldview — his bankrupt definition of value, and his vicious definition of virtue. No, he is basically forced to embrace this hilariously literal form of sociopathy to justify his goal, which is to see modern civilization crumble.
But it’s worth noting that his preferred form of protest is civil disobedience. So what he might be right about — or at least, what I think is worth contemplating he might be right about — is the answer to the following question pondered by liberals and conservatives alike: what if the current course of global civilization is unsustainable, and what if our only option for saving the human spirit is to radically and urgently restructure the way we live? What if, divorced from his nihilistic revelry in the idea, he is right to want to hit the reset button on society?
This question is probably more popular than most would care to admit. On top of all the religious groups who fetishize the idea that the apocalypse will occur in our lifetimes, secular pop culture is supersaturated with images of global devastation, and ultimately it’s the thorough intellectuals and hard scientists who are perhaps most acutely aware of and concerned about an actual, measurable, scientific apocalypse slowly creeping up on us as a direct result of our global development.
Politically, I have seen plenty of evidence that Ayn Rand’s reviled liberal populists agree with John Galt on this score, most recently on facebook of all places. Some decidedly progressive friends of mine posted the following Carl Sagan quote, which I have copied here from a blog that enriched it with links to real life news:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time– when we’re a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition.
Honestly ask yourself how much of this is substantively different from Ayn Rand’s fears about the future. Sure, Ayn would abhor Sagan’s invocation of the public interest, but if we grant that she considers her libertarian ideas to be in the public’s interest and is simply rhetorically neurotic, then the quote could very nearly have come out of John Galt’s mouth.
Another example. A young activist of my acquaintance posted this quote from Howard Zinn:
In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going.
These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that … the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.
And once again we can see that aside from some categorical inversions about who to blame, the rich or the poor, the public or the private, Zinn’s position is formally the same as Galt’s: the Establishment is intrinsically evil, it is enabled by the complacent masses fooled into playing along, and it must be abandoned as a moral imperative.
When I saw that facebook post I found myself compelled to comment in favor of moderation and conservatism. I feel this is an unfairly cynical take on mainstream society, and that revolutionary idealism is separated from enduring despotism by one fragile thread that is more often than not cut in the act of revolting.
But I swear by epistemic humility, after all, so I must ask myself: what if I am simply promoting the immoral, complicit passivity of the bourgeoisie? Rand, loathe to use such a Marxist term for the middle class, desperate to portray her teleological history as fundamentally different, nonetheless clearly believes this. And it must be admitted that no matter how much one values ideological caution, part of that value is openness to new evidence — and sometimes the evidence demands change sooner rather than later, faster rather than slower, bigger rather than smaller.
So how do we know when to draw the line? How do we sense the tipping point when a complicated problem that can be tackled incrementally becomes a crisis necessitating radical action? And do you see how these questions are vital to transforming Atlas Shrugged from a morally grotesque piece of shit into a troubling but deeply important exploration of current events?
Let’s quickly review the elements of the book through which I’ve considered Rand’s relationship to 21st century reality. There are three major points of comparison and contrast:
1) Climate Change. If incorporated into the Atlas narrative, this is easily the most alarming scientific fact that supports Galt’s radicalism. But it’s problematic for Randians to even admit to, because the only way to realistically address it without, yes, blowing up society, is through collective action among nations, and agreements within communities, to sacrifice certain luxuries and economic efficiencies.
2) Elite Corruption. A universally acknowledged Very Serious Problem, but one that nobody can seem to agree on how to address. Conservatives blame governing elites. Liberals blame corporate elites. Both arguments have merit. But liberal priorities are superior, because the government corruption on which conservatives are focused is largely defined by the implicit sale of legislation to the donor class, which is made up of private sector elites.
3) Consumerism & Intellectual Atrophy. As with the elites, so with the masses: everyone can agree that people need to be better at being people. Everybody from Rand to Zinn finds excessive consumerism abhorrent, intellectual atrophy a cardinal sin, and their pervasiveness the largest cultural obstacle to solving the higher level issues.
These three issues together are basically the case for a Galt-like reboot of social order. And all three could only be truly solved in an enduring way if the entire population of earth had a — no pun intended — “come to Jesus” moment. That sort of moment is the ultimate fantasy of Atlas Shrugged, with Ayn Rand’s brain-with-a-penis, John Galt, as the Messiah. In real life, a universal moment of spiritual revelation like this is, uh… unlikely. To be diplomatic about it.
So as noted in the rundown, at the level of mainstream practical politics, this is why contemporary liberalism is indisputably superior to contemporary conservatism. While both sides are concerned with the issue of moral decay on the individual level (Issue #3), liberals see the true dynamics of Issue #2 more clearly, and beat conservatives on Issue #1 by acknowledging its reality and urgency at all.
This does not mean that conservatives don’t have vitally important points about the dangers of liberalism, points that we should keep in mind when trying to address all of these issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that aside from its merits as constructive criticism, modern conservative ideology has failed to develop any ideas of its own that properly prioritize our objective problems.
For all the obvious reasons this diagnosis of contemporary politics applies equally to Atlas Shrugged. And as I’ve said since this blog started, I believe Atlas as a drama can be improved, um, dramatically. So here is my prescription:
The tragedy of Atlas is that John Galt is a philosophical superhero turned megalomaniac supervillain, who desires to see civilization destroyed because he feels injustice too acutely, because he feels wounded, hurt, and betrayed by the world and wants to reclaim it for all those who are likewise in pain. He is that great trope of comics and adventure fantasy — Anakin Skywalker gone Vader; Hal Jordan fallen from Green Lantern to Parallax; Jean Grey turned to Dark Phoenix; Willow to Dark Willow.
And Galt’s certainty about the need to see society collapse is tragic in the classical, Greek sense too, because if we take away Ayn’s unwarranted epistemic certainty, it is clear that Galt cannot know for sure that collapse is necessary. His actions are justified through arrogance, hubris, presumption. He has abandoned faith in human nature, not restored it. He has sacrificed society, not saved it.
This is where the ambiguity comes in not only for Rand but for us the audience. If Galt can’t know for sure that what he does is necessary, neither can we know for sure that our acceptance of the system is… well, acceptable. To use another pop culture analogy, maybe Tyler Durden really did improve the world by blowing up the credit card companies. Maybe we are better off knocking our tower of Babel over before it falls on us first.
Do you guys see just how good this book could be?
In the end, though, this book is a fictional thought experiment. It allows us to explore transgressive ideas like that, but unless you move to the woods you can only be intellectually honest if you admit you are embracing our society, for all its flaws. Even if we accept that this may represent a dangerous complacency, it is easy to prove as the only morally sound choice.
In the case of climate change, for example, abstention from society will not save the individualistic, hermetic lifestyle. Short of engaging in terrorism, which is clearly morally unjustifiable even to the quasi-anarchist Ayn Rand*, engaging constructively with society is the only logical course of action. It is also the course of hope and hard work and humanity.
[*ED. NOTE: As my friend Max points out in the comments section, Rand actually does endorse terrorism. Certainly the Dread Pirate Ragbeard and Francisco, Galt’s two closest confidantes, employ terrorism on Galt’s behalf. Ayn hedges by focusing on the destruction of property and economic stability, but there’s no way their actions didn’t ruin the lives of millions of innocents and in Ragbeard’s case kill a number of people directly.]
So Rand makes the case that nothing short of civilizational collapse will cure our ills, and that there is no room for compromise in this appraisal. Thank God that none of her believers has acted on this, least of all herself! She was not only happy to join the aristocracy of pull, she collected her entitlement benefits from the U.S. government just like everyone else.
The most important takeaway from Randianism is that those who declare Ayn Rand’s intellectual positions correct yet seek to live in the middle, not living up to the revolutionary implications of their beliefs have accepted Rand’s premise and so must succeed or perish by its conclusions. Some do follow through in this way — the survivalists, those who live remotely and sustainably. Think of Joel Salatin, the self-sufficient survivalist organic farmer. But the middle-dwellers, the Paul Ryans who aspire to the aristocracy of pull, who dedicate their lives to tearing their livelihood down, it is they who evade the responsibility of choice and the reality of their value judgments. It is they who have no respect for truth.
And if that type of person is evil by his 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.
By his own estimation, John Galt’s podcast and its monopoly on all media streams worldwide has been going on for about two hours now. He has outlined the following philosophy:
1) The true human spirit is the spirit of ambition, achievement, intelligence, and self-reliance. It is impossible to embody this spirit if one does not believe in the unlimited power of one’s intellect and will.
2) The false human spirit, practiced by most of the world wittingly or unwittingly, is the spirit of cowardice, neediness, humility, complacency, and self-evasion. By lowering the bar for the definition of human nature, these moral/spiritual/economic/political weaklings are implicitly enabling, even promoting, a culture of death and dissolution.
And you know what? Putting aside differences among people about which other people should fit into which category, this rubric seems like something a lot of us buy into to some degree or another. A cynical degree perhaps, but if we’re being honest we all struggle with pessimism about the quality of human beings when regarded en masse. There is something deeply relatable here.
With this paradigm in mind, John Galt is echoing the call to action of ’60s liberal activist Mario Savio:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
Galt inverts Savio’s imagery, though, seeing the human spirit in the machinery itself. He wants to remove the levers and gears and wheels of the meritocratic elite, to save them from the corrosive effects of the commodity being processed — namely the other, inferior human beings. Doesn’t the quality of the product of the machine say something about the quality of the machine itself? Also, aren’t the inferiors the owners/runners of the machine too, in this version? It’s all a little confusing. Let’s just say that in John Galt’s worldview any metaphor for global society as a dehumanizing machine is bound to get a little convoluted.
And maybe that’s why the details of his views are so reductive — he has no other choice. His argument is getting really weird and tangled up in itself. He hails certain people throughout history as his intellectual and moral predecessors, and who are they? The people who sacrificed their own potential, who “function at a fraction of their capacity” because they’re bitter about the world and characterized by their “revulsion.”
But aren’t these the most despicable people of all? People who abandon their value, their hope? Aren’t they the walking dead, the implicit zero-worshippers? Doesn’t their attitude betray Galt’s core value of proving one’s moral worth through realizing one’s potential? And yet he pities them, valorizes them for vilifying the world…
Galt finally makes the following explicit: he is calling for massive civil disobedience, just like every idealistic left-wing college activist you’ve ever met. He is opting out of a broken system, and because he and his ilk are the most powerful and competent citizens, the system is inevitably breaking down faster and faster. The only way to save yourself is to likewise opt out. To put your skills and intelligence to use from the ground up and for you and your loved ones only.
Populism is now creeping in at the edges. The common people, too, should go on strike! This is the purpose of broadcasting his philosophy to the world at large, to empower the masses. By virtue of their self-sufficiency, the worthy will prove their worth, and the unworthy will perish. This man, who hails civilization and rationality, who speaks of naturalists as savages, is suggesting that the true measure of a man’s moral value is determined by the law of the jungle.
I’m reminded of a quote by the great American philosopher Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said he enjoyed paying his taxes because they “bought him civilization.”
Now Galt turns to directly address those listeners (like me) who have ambivalent feelings about all this.
He accuses me of trying to avoid reality when I say I don’t have to make an extreme and radical choice. He scathingly rebukes basically everything I articulated as my philosophy, my choice to value conservative judiciousness, to aspire to the virtue of adaptability to any circumstance. And then he says this:
There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.
And this is when my ambivalence dissolves, and I know that I am right and John Galt is wrong. Because the middle is not always evil. And quite often it is vital to consider more than two facets of an issue to decide well between right and wrong.
Galt and his authorial God, they believe that to admit the possibility of non-absolutes is to reject the reality of all absolutes. This is irrational. The Rand-God of the Objectiverse, and Galt by extension, has built her house on a logical fallacy.
So I hold this truth to be self-evident: that not all ideas are created equal, and Ayn Rand’s were born defective and degenerate, and this is why she spends 1100 pages aborting her own universe.
As I said in articulating my philosophy, though I value flexibility, sometimes certainty and stubbornness are called for. Now is one of those times.
John Galt rails against my false moral code as preventing me from “casting the first stone,” mere pages after he asserted the absolute wrongness of initiating force.
Galt spends several pages more telling us fence-sitters what we believe, and why it is damnably wrong. He urges us to embrace his philosophy, for all alternatives are evil, and “no man can survive the moment of pronouncing himself irredeemably evil; should he do it, his next moment is insanity or suicide.”
You must believe in yourself, believe in your goodness, Galt declares inspirationally, his attitude toward his audience getting increasingly bipolar.
Galt describes the innocence of children as a form of pure rationality — and there the Ayn-God goes again, proving herself incapable of dealing with the reality of human development. Galt preaches that one should never lose touch with one’s inner child, and I really do think it sad, all this common sense, all this age-old wisdom and good advice, mangled and chained by all thse perverse and self-defeating conditions.
So in the name of a superior flexibility and openness, let us appreciate the inspirational parts once more. Galt addresses us all again, tells us we have the choice to embrace life and love existence, to cherish our minds and our ability to make something of ourselves. “Accept, as your moral ideal, the task of becoming a man.” Accept that “man is an end in himself.”
And I love that! I love that sentence. Of my own philosophy I wrote, “it is a paradigm for living life as an art form … it’s about being your best self as an end in itself.” And I would be so happy to work with Rand and Galt, to share this common ground and agree to disagree on the rest. To compromise for mutual benefit.
But they will not admit of disagreement, they will brook no compromise. For them, it is all or nothing. Literally.
And this is why they must get nothing. Why Rand’s bastardized heirs in the real life Republican Party must be denied power and reduced to powerlessness. If you, John Galt, Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand by any name — if you insist on all or nothing, insist that the time has come for a principled stand, then I, the compromiser, the accomodator, the non-absolutist… I will take all, and you can have the nothing.
For nothing is the measure of the logic of your code, and nothing is therefore what you deserve. We the People will give you what you want, Randians, what you secretly desire and seek to deny through evading true self-knowledge: nothing.
Galt says “only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience,” and yet Galt’s vision of rational thought is this very standard. He claims logic and reason are the fundamental code of reality, and thus that rationality is omniscient. He declares rationality intrinsic and pure in childre, that it is automatic. And in reality, that reality which he so seeks to deny, indeed to destroy, this omniscience and this automaticity is, yes, impossible.
Galt’s absolutism, his belief in human perfectibility, is based on a mystic misattribution. He blanks himself out. He is what he condemns. He has removed himself from the world by his own admission. It is his defining decision. He has zeroed himself. He does not need to worship zero, for he is a zero.
I see it now! I see it in the litany of conditions he places on our redemption, in these final pages of his speech, in the dictums he proclaims which have turned out to be so disastrous for the real world, for the real America, for our real politics.
I see the plea for help, and I see the cannibalism, in his equating a plea for help with cannibalism. I see his cowardice in his immediate qualification and conditioning of that statement, his defense of helping someone if you deem the person in need of help to be virtuous — a statement itself qualified to depend entirely on the qualities he subjectively categorizes as virtuous. Look at how he compromises his own absolutes in absolute contradiction of his own absolute against compromising absolutes. Absolutely contradictory!
I see the insecurity in his insistence that the standard of perfection is not impossible. It is, and just as he claims, he is the proof. His strength is so fragile, so brittle, and afraid. His self-defeat, his self-negation, his subconscious nihilism… it’s so clear, and so obvious, to anybody who dares to think, who dares to be a man.
Galt approaches his whimpering conclusion. He outlines the framework of a minimal libertarian state, as if he has proved its necessity and history has not proved its inadequacy. He declares all other social structure to operate by a code of conduct by which “you may do whatever you please to your neighbor, provided your gang is bigger than his,” as if this dynamic is not a danger when “bank account” is substituted for “gang.”
He grants one more moment of praise for the immeasurable value of a great idea or innovation. One more insight about the retarding effect of economic and legislative uncertainty on growth. And then one more fist, furiously shaken in the direction of janitors and menial laborers for not earning their paychecks and their livelihoods by intellect. You were so close, John! But no, his disregard for dignity is undignified, his disgust disgusting.
His final rallying cry: all men and women of heroism, break the back of the system with us! Abandon the villains in your midst, live alone, or in like-minded communities, and when global civilization collapses, we will find each other and rebuild the world anew!
This rabid dog of reason, this hollow braggart and bully of rhetoric, he dares preach the value of the human spirit while he warns those who retain sympathy for their fellow man that they must sever the bonds of affection with their kin. Give up on life so that you may live! he commands. Join me in my historically horrific desire to purge and purify, like a Jacobin or a Bolshevik! Join me in my cradle of obfuscation and denial of my own truth! Reclaim your individuality… by being just like me.
Galt directs this last plea surreptitiously at Dagny. And then back to the broader audience, to you and me, he recites his mantra, that one should not live for others nor others for you. He signs off, leaving us to digest his poisonous message.
And you know what? He was right about one thing — he has made the truth about himself clear, and his philosophy naked and plain. It is ugly.
REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH — John Galt & Ayn Rand versus Reality: Compare and Contrast
You know, for an atheist Ayn Rand seems strangely hostile to scientific materialism. In fact in “act two” of John Galt’s speech, Galt/Rand argues that both religious thought and materialist philosophy are downright evil. Rand actually considers these schools to be equally mystic, but as I dispute her claims I will generally refer to the one as ‘spirituality’ and the other as ‘rationalism,’ or just ‘materialism’ straight-up.
I consider scientific materialism to be a necessary component of any worldview that seeks to approach truth, but an insufficient component on its own. It’s necessary, because it’s the foundation of the objective knowledge on which our modern lives depend and thus can’t be denied with any honesty or self-awareness. But it’s insufficient, because it’s agnostic towards the meaningfulness of existence, and ascribing meaning to life is inevitable as far as human truth is concerned. Obviously such a truth isn’t eternal, it’s conditional. It’s human — a vital part of any definition of truth relevant to us as people. As David Foster Wallace put it:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Other formulations of this concept have also appeared on this blog in quotes by such diametric philosophical opposites as Ralph Waldo Emerson and, yes, Ayn Rand. There are many more. And the reason this principle has such broad appeal is that it is what I just talked about above: a psychological truth about the human condition. It is NOT a declaration about the ultimate nature of reality. No, the real metaphysical debate begins when we try to square this subjective truth about ourselves with our objective knowledge about the physical world around us.
So let’s start where John Galt and Christianity both start: the parable of Adam & Eve. Galt/Rand finds it perverse. It presents the attainment of knowledge as a crime and personal responsibility as a punishment. And this is how it’s been interpreted in mainstream religion for much of history, to the benefit of institutional authority. But this interpretation is far too literal. It isn’t a declaration of objective moral truth; it’s a subjective psychological truth.
What the parable of The Fall is actually about, if it is to have value in a scientific era, is the existential absurdity of self-awareness. On the personal scale it’s the story of moving from childhood to adulthood, the loss of innocence, coming-of-age, taking ownership of yourself. On a species-wide evolutionary scale, it’s the story of humanity emerging from animality. It’s about the way metacognition alienates a person from the instinctive behavior of a beast.
This alienation from nature is the essential triumph and sadness of the human condition, and largely synonymous with our understanding of free will. Free will and the (sometimes paralyzing) ability to think about thinking are inextricably linked.
Considered this way, the Garden of Eden story makes much more sense. Adam & Eve live naked and in harmony with animals and nature. When they gain knowledge, specifically of moral concepts like good and evil (nature itself is amoral, after all), they lose access to this harmonious existence. They are alienated from the grace of God and must seek it out again, consciously.
Now I’ve already analogized the Christian notion of acting by the grace of God with the Buddhist notion of right action. Both of these notions are descriptions of the “everybody worships something” psychological reality. Each spiritual tradition offers a different something to worship in order to behave rightly, gracefully.
Christianity preaches that one should seek the grace of God by contemplating God. This is another term taken far too literally; I define it here as an all-encompassing ‘everything’ that cannot be comprehended rationally. Contra Rand, I think that not being able to comprehend everything rationally is perfectly acceptable, because if we take the word ‘rational’ literally it derives from the word ‘ratio,’ which by definition is the division of a whole into parts to be compared. In this case, your conditional existence as a human being already divides the whole of existence into your self on the one side and the world at large on the other. As the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita puts it, you cannot comprehend God for the same reason you cannot bite your own teeth.
Meanwhile, Buddhists preach that one should contemplate a fundamental nothingness. This too cannot be fully comprehended in a rational way; when a ratio encounters a zero, it becomes either equal to zero or simply undefined. This buttresses my argument about the God-like everything — even if you think that ‘everything’ is finite, and thus potentially comprehensible, the only thing with which to compare it (which is to say rationalize it) is ‘nothing,’ and you’ll remember from the last sentence, such ratios are either undefinable or subsumed into nothingness (which is why the nothingness is fundamental).
So the argument both belief systems make is that if one contemplates, or ‘worships’ these ultimately unknowable concepts, the microcosmic self will fall (back) into a harmonic alignment with the macrocosmic reality that transcends our understanding.
Obviously, both these strategies really piss Ayn Rand off because they promote intellectual humility and self sacrifice, not even in a material way but by the nature of the idea that the ego should be subsumed or sublimated into a greater truth about the world. Sadly, Rand’s alternative strategy is to emphatically deny the mysteriousness of the universe and sacralize your inherently conditional ego instead. This avoids grappling with the paradox of free will in a deterministic world, in fact denies the existence of this paradox altogether. That’s an extraordinarily petty form of worship, to say the least.
Compare that to Sam Harris, public atheist extraordinaire, who resolves this paradox by declaring the premise of free will to be false. To wit: observed reality obeys physical laws. Those laws are premised on determinism. Free will is incompatible with determinism. Ergo, determinism is real, and free will is not. Q.E.D.
Yet this argument is more or less useless “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life” (as DFW put it). It may be objectively comprehensive, but subjectively it’s kind of, well… immaterial.
For example, Harris valiantly tries to draw some actionable conclusions. He says that we are all just victims of circumstance, so we should seek to rehabilitate or sequester criminals rather than vindictively punish them, because they aren’t truly responsible for what made them who they are.
Of course our ability to choose how we react to criminality is an implicit premise of Harris’ suggestion. So if we believe we can make a morally superior choice, we must grant that same premise to the criminal’s choices, reintroducing moral responsibility into the equation. In the human moral calculus, the non-existence of free will is effectively a moot point. The idea cancels itself out. Rand actually points out the self-negating nature of this line of thought in Galt’s speech.
But Harris’ basic argument is that accepting the idea that free will is an illusion should not lead to nihilism and despair. It should logically make it easier for us to let go of frustrations and regrets and resentments. It should lead us to be more forgiving of our failings and others’, less prideful and selfish about our successes. Morally and practically, his belief system operates on the same psychological premise as every other: plug the right metaphysical value judgments into your life’s motor, and it will drive you to right action –without your having to will it.
That last part is the key. If free will is synonymous with metacognition, thinking about thinking, directing your self, then the implicit promise of God’s grace, and Buddhist right action, is actually the same as Harris’ promise about accepting rationality into your heart: value the ultimate truth and your instincts will not lead you astray; you will be as free as humanly possible from the alienating power of metacognition. Orient yourself properly in metaphysical space and even as you are buffeted about by the winds of chance and fate, you will feel like you’re flying.
And please note that I say “feel like.” If Harris is right and the universe is strictly deterministic, then the goal here is to have a comfortable attitude toward chance and fate, not to actually influence where they take you.
This ‘attitude’ aspect applies to the religious formulations too. Christians believe in God’s omnipotent will, which is for all practical purposes the same as determinism. Buddhists’ emphasis on selflessness likewise suggests you should just stop fighting the endless phenomenal flux of the universe and embrace it with calmness and serenity.
But despite this shared trait the religions do something that Harris doesn’t, which is impose a specific meaning on this overwhelming reality. The symbol languages that these faith traditions use may be outdated and taken too literally by modern adherents, but a purposeful narrative is there.
Sadly, that woeful literalism hobbles the real merit of religious thought and its allegories: the fact that the concepts these faiths offer up for contemplation aren’t humanly knowable, that the nature of existence is eternally mysterious.
For Harris, reality is eminently knowable through science and logic. Yet Harris too embraces the mysteriousness of causation. Whenever he dismisses the role of your conscious thoughts in causation, he characterizes the actual source of both thought and behavior as “unknowable,” “obscure,” “mysterious.” His diction belies his epistemic surety.
So of the examples in this essay, it is only Ayn Rand who furiously refuses to accept this mysteriousness. “Fuck the universe,” she says, “I’m just as good at existing as it is, if not better!” It’s the very definition of hubris.
And here we see the real dividing line between metaphysically healthy values and destructive ones, and it is about dogma. Valuable religious thought is that which contemplates paradoxes. Harris spends basically his entire tract on free will massaging the cognitive dissonance of believing in yourself even in the context of a strictly objective universe in which you have no creative role. When one finds value in considering paradox, the virtues produced are openness to experience and the ability to withhold judgment. Science, often perceived as a force for judging and limiting imagination, and certainly a mode of thought that seeks to resolve paradox, also cherishes these virtues. The scientific method demands that we always keep our minds open to new evidence as it arises. F. Scott Fitzgerald put it this way — “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Dogmatists cannot do this. They cannot cope with cognitive dissonance. They reject it or shut it down, and view the ability to operate with it as a sign of confusion, weakness, or moral relativism. And of course there are times when decisive action and principled stubbornness are called for, but that is not all times. There is strength in flexibility too.
Although Ayn Rand correctly indicts spiritual and material dogmatists for their myopia, her own values and virtues must be brought up on the same charges. She closes herself off to new experience, and judges everything. She chooses ideology over reality.
And because she accepts only absolutes, she sees in both the material and spiritual understanding only nihilism, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Well, Atlas, it takes one to know one.
Yet even Rand understands the “psychological value mechanism” in which values lead to behavior, and she therefore implicitly endorses the possibility that not your will, but your beliefs, are the cause of your actions.
And this is where the value mechanism seems to come into conflict with strict determinism, since by that premise even your beliefs are determined for you. If your brain states are physically determined, you cannot actually even choose to accept determinism peacefully. You either will or you won’t, but that’s up to the physical consequences of the initial conditions of the Big Bang rippling through time (and/or God).
I think there is a potential way out of this dilemma, in what the neuroscientist David Chalmers coined “the hard problem of consciousness.” This is the idea that even if we explained every mechanism in the brain that translates into the subjective experience of thought and emotion… why does it translate into a subjective experience at all? If we’re pure objects in a purely objective world, if the world is made of quanta… why are there qualia? Why would a clockwork universe include an abstract sense of self?
I see two explanations for subjectivity as a phenomenon. One is dualism, which in the philosophy of mind means that some aspect or aspects of mind exist independent of the body, non-physically (meta physically). The other is panpsychism, or panexperientialism, which means that there is an underlying unity between qualification and quantification, subjective and objective, mind and body, and that therefore the whole universe experiences phenomena in some subjective way, whether or not it’s recognizable as conscious or cognitive in a human sense.
I prefer panexperientialism for two reasons. One, because it hews more closely to Occam’s Razor and I like the elegance of that. Two, because I find it easier in this model to justify a participatory role for us in causation that is physically undetectable (since the influence of the psychological value mechanism on the course of events would be embedded within physics and not acting as an outside force on physics that should in theory produce noticeable deviations in physical observations).
So I have to admit that at heart I simply reject Harris’ premise. Our universe is not necessarily a strictly determined one. Experimental results always produce some variance, and the accurate readings and laws we derive from them must take into account the law of errors. There is some chaos in the world, some wiggle room. Reality clearly has deep structure, but it isn’t just a streaming video that we watch. A video game has deep structure too, and can also have any number of interactive inflection points.
Yes, we are at the mercy of an unimaginably vast set of complex physical interactions, and our ability to control even our selves within that system is potentially, even likely to be, trivial. But we are a factor, and we operate through that psychological mechanism, that choice of what we worship, what we value.
It’s not the most dignified metaphor, but we’re like a hamster in a ball. Sometimes we get kicked around and can only scramble to keep our balance inside our sealed sphere. But we can also throw our weight around, give our hermetic bubble some angular momentum from the inside, put a little spin on it.
In this way we’re also like a tennis ball — the angle and speed of our ‘spin,’ that is the orientation of our values, will affect the way we bounce when we make contact with solid ground, with hard reality. Our conscious mind, our metacognitive ego, doesn’t willfully cause our behavior moment to moment, Harris is right. But we can mentally and emotionally align our inner selves, such that whatever alignment we choose will impel the spontaneous behavior of our ‘outer’ form in either harmony or discord with the way the physical world likewise compels and constrains us.
This is not a paradigm that asks us to disavow science and scientific inquiry, it is a paradigm for living life as an art form. It’s not about positive thinking as a means of getting what you desire; it’s about being your best self as an end in itself. What goes up must come down –but in the words of Albert Einstein, “gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”
I have to admit, though, that after 2500 words and the longest post of the blog so far, I find the final articulation of my vision for the mind’s role in creation to be pretty underwhelming. It’s vague and certainly not as intellectually thorough as I’d like it to be. But this is just a sketch, drawn in a couple days between snarky recaps of a mediocre book. And to some degree the tentative nature of my outline is intentional; my argument about dogma and paradox explains why I don’t feel the need to be definitive here. So what the essay is really trying to say is this:
Ayn Rand believes that our choice in values is binary. We can either affirm existence by declaring the universe comprehensively knowable, or we can succumb to an unknowing nothingness, which is to fall out of existence and die. I think the value choices are far more diverse than this, but let’s accept the binary premise and boil things down: Rand has it twisted up; we have to invert her choices.
I believe that we affirm existence by admitting the universe is not comprehensively knowable, by cherishing the mystery. I believe that undue certainty in our beliefs is what causes us to succumb to intellectual death. And being certain of this particular belief isn’t a paradox, not only because the belief is about accepting paradox, but because the belief itself is a constant reminder to remain humble in our discernment.
I believe that the myths of meaning most suited to our age are parables of math and science. Stories of ratios as an explanation for what rational thought is; of infinities and zeroes as correlates for God and nirvana; of spin and angular momentum, magnetism and gravitation, as metaphors for how we psychologically orient ourselves in some abstract n-dimensional phase space that encompasses all the possible pasts and futures.
In this vein, I offer Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems as a final thought and counterargument to Randian ideology. Godel posits that no matter what set of axioms you start with, if those axioms are usefully consistent, they are inevitably incomplete. They cannot prove every truth about natural numbers, which is to say about nature itself.
To be complete requires paradox. To be consistent is to forego the variety of wholeness. That is the story of the relationship between free will and determinism. That is the story of humanity. Polar opposites are interdependent.
That’s all I can really claim to believe. I promise that all of this navel-gazing will come into play in next week’s final commentary on Galt’s Speech, but if it isn’t satisfying to you, well… you can always consider it something to contemplate.
PREVIOUSLY: John Galt clarified what he believes in — free will, fundamentally and without qualification — he shall pronounce unto us the various evils of believing in… anything else. Specifically, religion. Aaaand GO:
Galt declares that the Christian doctrine of original sin is the foundation of all “mystic” morality and points out various ways in which this doctrine proves religious values perverse.
Note, Galt says, that in the myth of The Fall man’s crime is knowledge, and that the Randian virtues of labor and desire are punishments. Note further that this view of the worldly and physical as fallen pits mind and body against each other. Consider the distress man has suffered for imagining his physical and spiritual desires to be in innate opposition! Fie, fie upon your God! Galt says.
Galt points out two camps of evil proselytizers, “the spiritualists and the materialists, those who believe in consciousness without existence and those who believe in existence without consciousness.” Spiritualists dare to put limits on human knowledge by claiming God is the ultimate reality and beyond our comprehension. Well, fair enough. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it is an accurate summation. Meanwhile, materialists undermine individual liberty by claiming abstract Society is the ultimate good.
So first of all, categorizing materialists as ‘mystics’ seems a little bizarre. Secondly, calling them radical socialists as a class seems… well, par for the course, I guess. Once again Ayn’s attempts to bind her cosmology to her political economy utterly fail to make sense.
Next up: sacrifice. Did you know it’s evil? It is! Well, if you define it strictly as giving up something valuable or virtuous for something shitty and worthless. Which Galt does, with this lovely example:
If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty.
Yes, you awful superficial loveless mother, don’t sacrifice your values — abandon that fucking kid already, like a real hero! Fuck’s sake.
On we go, passing various Gross Mischaracterizations along the way. This train is going off the rails fast, though. Galt has decided that under the logic of sacrifice, all exchanges of value are zero-sum thefts, never mutually beneficial. Sure, if you operate within a narrow definition of sacrifice that you invented just moments ago so as to disqualify inconsequential outlier examples like a mother’s love.
Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Because writ large, a morality of sacrificing your self to meet the world’s needs is impossible to achieve. You would get sacrificed, and the world’s needs would still not be met. Take that, Jesus! Although to be fair I can’t really argue the point.
Spiritualists hide this futility by claiming possession of a sixth sense that contradicts and overrides the physical five. Materialists simply “declare that your senses are not valid, and that [materialist] wisdom consists of perceiving your blindness by some manner of unspecified means.” Pfft, who’s claiming that? (Somewhere in the world, Sam Harris rolls his eyes for reasons he cannot explain, because none of us knows why we really do anything because we don’t have free will.)
Basically, Galt says, both of these camps are just trying to wish reality away. If reality is A, spiritualists would rather it be Not-A. Thus their worship of the unreal, and their aspiration to non-existence. Materialists… well, Galt seems extremely confused as to what materialism actually is.
Really, Galt and Ayn are materialists. They believe in an objective reality that obeys the laws of physics, cause and effect, and they reject the claim that there is a plane of existence outside this.
Yet they also explicitly reject the claim that the mind is a mere byproduct of matter. So they are also spiritualists, since positing a free will that can alter the course of an otherwise physics-bound, deterministic reality necessarily suggests some unknown dimension of reality through which abstract thought can influence tangible matter. EITHER/OR, Ayn! Either/Or!
“The enemy you seek to defeat is the law of causality: it permits you no miracles,” Galt taunts those mystics who would ignore the demands of logic. My point exactly, dude. Go fuck yourself. But no, we must put aside the fact that Galt has stumbled blindly into an eternally recursive paradox defining the relationship between self and reality, because he’s still talking.
And just to add insult to injury he’s whining like a bitch about how the strong are the victims of the weak now. Was that a theme of this book? If so, too subtle! Needed another couple hundred pages of laborious exposition.
Focusing on the “mystics of muscle,” the godless materialists who have taken over the government (Psych 101: Ayn is channeling her childhood memories of Soviets & Bolsheviks!), Galt points out that maxims such as “I know I know nothing” and “There are no absolutes” are paradoxes. Apparently Galt is able to identify paradoxes now. Hey John, I’ve got a couple to run by you…
BAH, Galt cries, don’t you see?! The secret wish of these nihilists-in-charge is to return man to the synesthetic state of a baby, drowning in magical ignorance, unable to distinguish between subjects and objects, unable to think in coherent and discrete thoughts or integrate them into higher knowledge. These bastards want to dissolve the mind and the self into nothingness! A nothingness just like DEATH! DEEAAATTHHH!
Oi, and here we go with the education system again. Our teachers are teachers of DEATH! They instruct the impressionable youth to believe in nothing, and especially not facts about objective reality, and to rely entirely on magical thinking, like a “savage.” Is… is that what college was like in the USSR, Ayn? No wonder they lost the Cold War. And I’m pretty sure the CEO of Boeing didn’t reinvent the laws of aerodynamics, so you can fuck right off.
Despite this Gross Mischaracterization of materialism and a liberal education as promoting magical thinking, Galt does get off a good line against the “free will is an illusion” argument:
Your consciousness, they tell you, consists of ‘reflexes,’ ‘reactions,’ ‘experiences,’ ‘urges,’ and ‘drives’ and refuse to identify the means by which they acquired that knowledge, to identify the act they are performing when they tell it or the act you are performing when you listen.
Zing! And yet somehow this pithy retort becomes part of an argument for laissez faire capitalism. GAH, give it up already! I’m sure there are libertarians out there who believe in material determinism. Come on, Ayn, where’s your imagination?*
[*…and other questions it’s 800 pages too late to ask.]
Galt doesn’t give it up already, obviously, and unleashes another furious rant about how the suffering of rich people is the surest evidence of the dehumanizing nature of modern society. I think downgrading the vast majority of mankind into a category of “subhuman moral pervert” is dehumanizing, but hey, what do I know.
The bottom line is this: a “mystic” is pure evil. If you do not accept Galt/Rand Objectivism explicitly or implicitly, you are a mystic. And whether a mystic seeks to negate the existence of material reality or the existence of ethereal mentality, he seeks to negate his own existence thereby. Therefore, inevitably, a mystic is an “anti-living object who seeks, by devouring the world, to fill the selfless zero of [its] soul. … [H]is ideal is death, his craving is to kill, his only satisfaction is to torture.”
Holy shit, is that what the world looks like from inside Ayn Rand’s head? Because that is fucking terrifying.
Next week, John takes us home by telling us what he actually likes about humanity. Namely, himself.
REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH: Ayn Rand’s Fear of Existentialism and Mystery
Let’s talk about Sam Harris. Sam is a neuroscientist and one of the outspoken “New Atheists.” His most recent book Free Will is a short polemic that argues free will is an illusion.
Here’s a quote:
Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.
For all of the criticism I level against Ayn Rand on this blog, I have to admit that this is exactly the sort of public intellectual argument she satirizes in Atlas Shrugged. She is (as I think a lot of people are) viscerally repulsed by the idea that, to put it bluntly, everything exists but you.
This is particularly relevant to the blog since the chapter summaries have finally reached John Galt’s Big Speech (itself kind of viscerally repulsive, I might add), and in this speech Galt declares free will to be THE primary, fundamental fact of human nature, what makes a man a man. And like Harris, Galt posits this not as belief but as fact, as unerring truth.
The difference is that Harris backs up his thesis with empirical scientific evidence, whereas Ayn Rand’s mouthpiece makes a purely abstract argument premised on a set of a priori logical axioms. Ayn Rand’s argument fails to live up to its own standards of logical rigor and loses validity rapidly from there. Harris’ argument, philosophically uncomfortable though it may be, is not quite as easy to dismiss. For example, citing influential experiments by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, Harris points out “activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.”
There are, of course, disputes over the Libet experiments’ objectivity. Cognitive scientist David Dennett points out that the subjects’ self-report about the exact moment they decided to press a button (which is to say, exercise will power) isn’t really an isolated objective measurement in the same way that the measurements-by-electrode of neuronal activity and muscle movement are.**
[**More details about the experiment and disputive arguments are available on Wikipedia.]
But however we want to interpret it, the fact of the experiment is that if the increase in neuronal activity began at millisecond 0, and the button was ultimately pushed at millisecond 500, the moment the subjects identified as the moment of their conscious choice fell about 60% of the way through the actual physical process of the action. This certainly seems to suggest that our subjective sense of self is just interpreting reality on tape delay.
Still, the argument against free will has an unavoidable “Who’re you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ mind?” quality to it. Even if I concede that my subjective experience is really a retroactive interpretation of physically determined phenomena, practically speaking I still have to choose what to eat for lunch, when to text that girl back, and which life goals to work toward. I can “go with the flow” and forsake willful action, but I can also undertake willful action to alter the flow. From the subjective perspective, there is a clear experiential difference, even if objectively it’s all cosmic clockwork. To borrow a phrase usually applied to God by the religious, “You don’t have to believe in free will; free will believes in you.”
Which brings us back around to Ayn Rand and her unshakeable faith in free will’s reality. At the same time she insists on conscious volition, she insists on objectivity and rationality as the only modes of thought proper to its constructive exercise. And at the same time she insists on that, she declares that any science that might objectively, rationally dispute her initial premise is fraudulent and philosophically bankrupt.
So not to belabor a point, but Rand is not actually a champion of knowledge or progress. Though she is a champion of individualism, ambition, and liberty (all of which are clearly relevant to the matter of free will), her opinions about history and the arc of the Atlas Shrugged narrative expose her as a reactionary and a luddite at heart. One of the fundamental questions this blog is meant to explore is: how much value can I grant to Rand’s faith in free will and the value of the individual in light of the fact that most of her other beliefs are absurdly radical and mentally toxic?
The answer in general is not very much; there are plenty of better writers to find defending those ideals without all of the psychopathic baggage. But when faced with a militant logician arguing against the existence of free will, I suddenly find Rand’s similarly aggressive stubbornness in free will’s defense kind of sweet, even charming. In this light, I can almost make out a faint impression of Ayn’s shriveled, callous heart.
But do I actually agree with Rand’s position? I’d like to believe in our minds’ ability to impact the course of physical reality, and I intend to outline a case for that next week, but unlike Ayn I want to genuinely grapple with how difficult it is to reconcile that belief with the reality of physics.
I mean, let’s face it: physical science has a lot of credibility. Every time you use a phone or a car or a plane, every time you ride an elevator or eat at McDonald’s, you are relying on the predictive power of physical science to ensure your safety. And it works! But the whole reason physical science’s predictions are reliable is because it assumes the universe can be computed, that it is a causally coherent, deterministic material system– after all, that’s the kind of universe where one could write an equation that explains gravity consistently across all of space and time. And lo and behold, there is an equation that does just that.
So long before neuroscience entered the, um, equation… the implications of scientific success dating back to the Newtonian revolution would suggest there is no room in the cosmos for human free will.
This is the point where a lot of people start looking for a back door for free will in quantum physics. But as Lisa Randall explains in her 2011 book Knocking on Heaven’s Door, quantum effects by definition don’t undermine macro-level classical physics: if they did, then classical physics’ predictive power would break down. We know that any physical uncertainty due to quantum mechanics is already accounted for once we get to scales where a classical equation accurately describes and recreates the mechanics of the universe, because the classical equation accurately describes and recreates the mechanics of the universe.
As you can see, this thoroughness of logic is totally fucking depressing. And Ayn Rand, of all people, will have nothing to do with it. “You’ve got to stand up,” she says like Howard Beale in Network, “you’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being, damn it! My life has VALUE!'”
Unless you’re poor.
Oops! See, Rand’s obsession with objectivity, rationality, and explaining the world through mechanical and transactional metaphors makes it basically impossible for her to argue against a physically deterministic universe. But in such a universe, free will simply can’t exist. Her philosophy is a paradox.
In this way, Sam Harris is a more intellectually honest representative of Ayn’s metaphysics than Ayn herself, just like Joel Salatin the libertarian organic farmer is a more honest representative of her politics and economics.
Next week, when John Galt tackles the evils of irrational faith in the recap, I will seek to reconcile the paradox of free will with physical determinism in the reax. And I will do this by looking at religious thought, the one place Ayn Rand would never dare to tread.
Well, it looks like Paul Ryan isn’t the only guy on the Republican ticket who’s a John Galt wannabe. As the Rand-obsessed writer Jonathan Chait of New York magazine will be happy to point out to you, Romney’s declaration of class warfare against the poor pegs him quite firmly inside the Ayn Rand Ideological Bubble.
Now, many grassroots conservatives view this ‘gaffe’ as an opportunity to make a winning ideological argument about an ownership society v. a dependency society. I think on those terms their argument is relatively persuasive. But that’s ultimately moot because the, uh, “facts” they want to use as a launching pad for that conversation are decidedly not real, and thus not legitimate evidence for validating their worldview.
As the chart above demonstrates, of the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax, 17% pay through payroll taxes (giving them an effective tax rate of 15%, almost as low as Mitt Romney). Another 17% are retirees whose primary income is social security (MOOCHERS!). The remaining 13% don’t have enough income to tax. And as the chart below demonstrates, the ten states with the largest share of the impoverished 13% are all died-in-the-wool Republican states (except Florida, where a lot of the mooching comes from the afore-mentioned retirees).
In fact, according to Ezra Klein, even most of that 13% pays payroll taxes (he says 61% of the 47% does). And on top of all of that, these demographics suggest that a majority of the ‘mooching and looting class’ votes Republican.
So Romney’s claim is misleading twice over. First he denies the reality of who pays taxes. Then he says the class of worthless bums he just invented all vote Democrat. And whadya know, if you take those false premises as true, then in imaginary Romney world America IS on the verge of becoming a permanent one-party socialist state, because once the moocher & looter class gets above 50%, the pro-government Democrats will win every election by promising people free stuff. A monopoly on democracy. And they’re getting SO CLOSE!!!
Except that’s not real. Not only does the moocher class not exist, but the purging of low-income households from the income tax rolls was accomplished by massive tax cuts. Tax cuts signed into law by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Chart from Ezra:
Obviously, this objective reality does not validate Republican ideology. It validates my argument against Republican ideology. Conservatives who want to use Romney’s comments to promote that ideology are denying reality so they can argue purely theoretically, starting from flawed logical premises. This is, of course, exactly what we are seeing this month in John Galt’s Speech.
But I’ve made that point before, many times. What’s new about this particular story, and (a la Chait) actually kind of shocking, is that the Republican presidential candidate who everyone assumed was a moderate wonk in conservative clothing turns out to be a True Believer in False Reality.
Here we are, ladies and gentlemen. John Galt, having hijacked every radio frequency in the world (or something), shall now proceed to explain the meaning of life, the universe, and everything to the sorry population of earth. I’m going to engage The Speech pretty seriously going forward, but I will breeze through this first part, because it’s the driest of the dry and, to be honest, pretty fuckin’ dumb. Brace yourselves.
LO, puny mortals! Mankind has followed a perverse morality and now suffers the consequences! All past moral codes are evil, because they are ‘mystical’ and/or ‘social.’ These false moralities value sacrifice and a belief in something larger than yourself. HORRIBLE!
The key to what you so recklessly call ‘human nature,’ the open secret you live with, yet dread to name, is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness. … [He] has no automatic course of behavior. He needs a code of values to guide his actions.
So one must choose values. Except there’s really only one choice, ‘existence or non-existence.’ Existentialism or nihilism. Does that mean that if you haven’t killed yourself you’re doing something right? No! It means that all value judgments are really choices between cherishing life and praying for death, up to and including your taste in smooth v crunchy peanut butter (crunchy peanut butter is the peanut butter of nihilism).
Man must obtain his knowledge and choose his actions by a process of thinking, which nature will not force him to perform. Man has the power to act as his own destroyer[.]
Ah, so the thing that differentiates us from plants and animals is the capacity for suicide. Are you feeling inspired yet? Wait, it gets better:
A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death. Such a being is a metaphysical monstrosity, struggling to oppose, negate and contradict the fact of his own existence, running blindly amuck on a trail of destruction, capable of nothing but pain.
Okay then. How reasonable. If you’re keeping score at home, here’s what we know so far: good things are the opposite of bad things. Life, mind, reason, happiness, and existence are all GOOD. Death, ‘anti-mind,’ faith, pain, and non-existence are all BAD.
More talk about how teachers are paid by the government to educate your children in spiritual bankruptcy, and you know, if the whole goddamn world is such a threat to your beliefs, maybe you’re just really fucking insecure.
Point is, mankind has free will. That’s GOOD. But unless you follow John Galt’s patented One True Way, you are abusing your free will and metaphorically killing yourself and everyone else! That’s BAD. And if anybody tells you anything different about any of this, they’re deceivers and agents of evil and destruction.
AND, if all that sound exactly like a fundamentalist religion, well… shut up. Because, OPPOSITE! So there.
Yes, Galt boldly says he believes existence exists, unlike you people. More GOOD words include “logic, truth, reality, and knowledge.” You might recall from before that good things are good. I know it’s a lot to keep up with. It might be easier if you remember that all good things are effectively just one good thing, which is… whatever Ayn Rand thinks about those things. Let’s learn more about that now:
To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem.
Self-esteem! What are you, a little league coach? More GOOD words — independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, work, character. Yeah, no shit John. Also on the list is pride, which goeth before unintended irony.
Galt goes on for pages defining each word in detail, mostly by using all the other ones. Then this diamond in the rough:
[Y]our character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining.
Emotions are inherent in your nature, but their content is dictated by your mind. Your emotional capacity is an empty motor, and your values are the fuel with which your mind fills it. If you choose a mix of contradictions, it will clog your motor … and wreck you on your first attempt to move.
Preach it brother, amen! Exposit it, fellow human, exclamation! Now compare and contrast with this quote from the decidedly mystical Ralph Waldo Emerson:
A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.
So, finally, an axiom of Objectivism that isn’t ugly, misanthropic, and vaguely genocidal! Shame, then, that Galt follows up with more declarations that are ridiculous and out of touch with reality, like “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.” HA!
Things start to sound promising again when Galt lays down a hard and fast rule that a man must never, ever initiate force against another man because it violates every premise of Rand’s existential argument. Needless to say, I will be quoting it extensively later when Rand violates every premise of her existential argument in exactly this way.
So, whatever. Fuck it. To set the stage for next week’s segment, Galt gives up on sounding reasonable and throws down the gauntlet. YOU (everybody in the world who doesn’t have Galt’s personal stamp of approval) live in fear of all those BAD words. WE (Galt’s elite) live our lives in pursuit of all the GOOD words. WE worship LIFE WORDS. YOU worship DEATH! DEAAAATHHHH! So DIE!
Christ, what an asshole.
NEXT WEEK: John Galt explains why Christ was an asshole.
REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH: Ayn Rand, Faith, and Free Will