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