Posts Tagged literature

Frisco & Willers: The Adventure Continues

At the inauguration last Monday, President Obama provided a delicious petit four to the national digestion of a heady election year when he rebutted the central rhetorical flourish of Paul Ryan’s ideological case, the prototypical Randian rubric of “makers v. takers.”

Rand’s moment of ascendancy has passed now, and thank God for that, but I think this project was rightly timed, and now that the American zeitgeist is on to the next one, I’m going to do a sequel at my shiny new blog, TBETTINSON.COM.

The subject of this next project will be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I won’t be taking a whole year on this book, more like a few months, but that will be enough time to tease some fruitful threads and follow them coincident with various political showdowns between our black president and the gilded-age nostalgics of our House of Representatives.

So make a quick visit to TBETTINSON.COMthen make frequent quick visits forever after. Come for the Cabin, and stay for the prose.

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Food for Thought #11: Rand Against the Machine

It’s worth pointing out in These Polarizing Times that there’s more overlap between radical libertarianism and radical progressivism than the adherents of either philosophy would care to admit. And while you certainly don’t need to invoke Ayn Rand to prove the point, it’s surprisingly fruitful to do so.

Take Galt’s Gulch, the secret hideaway of Rand’s anarcho-capitalist heroes. Though Rand envisions this place as a direct rebuke to the concepts of altruism and social justice, the lifestyle she outlines for its residents is ironically sympatico with the stereotypical ideals of the modern left: clean energy, locally and naturally grown food, a community in which everybody’s consumption is commensurate with their contribution, and — most radically of all — there are no formal institutions or hierarchies. It’s a model of sustainable living. It’s an Occupier’s wet dream.

Even better, take Rand’s scathing indictment of the society beyond the borders of Galt’s Gulch: she repeatedly insists that global society is unsustainable because people are consuming more than they produce. Her villains are labeled “moochers and looters” for this very reason. It is at the root of her worldview. And, lo and behold, this is also the rallying cry of liberals opposed to the excesses of global capitalism. It is the Cassandra call of progressives demanding action to mitigate climate change and reform the systems that provide our food and medicine.

And yet Ayn Rand is the patron saint of reactionary conservatism in politics today. Obviously, Ayn self-identified as exactly that. So, kudos. But perceived from 2012, her central criticism of society as it exists, and the vision she offers of what it could be, are both shared with the American left.

Of course Atlas is 1100 pages long specifically because Rand spends about 800 of them vehemently denying this very possibility. And I don’t mean to sound as though the left has a monopoly on anti-establishment sentiment. But there is a contradiction here, and it falls on Rand’s shoulders no matter how badly she wants to shrug it off: Her condemnation of our society’s unsustainable trajectory is unavoidably a condemnation of the system of global industrial capitalism for which she has become the mascot. Ayn Rand rages against the machine and fetishizes it at the same time.

Which, really, is what most of us do in one way or another. And this is where the overlap between libertarianism and progressivism comes in. What ultimately makes Rand’s vision of utopia appealing to both sides isn’t its specific political philosophy but its scale. In Galt’s Gulch, as I pointed out above, there are no institutions or hierarchies. In Galt’s Gulch, all enterprises are municipal in scope. All employment arrangements are made based on a personal evaluation with an individual entrepreneur. In Galt’s Gulch, the community feeds and powers itself self-sufficiently and without expelling its waste into the outside world. And the community’s basic model can be replicated by similarly-sized communities all around the country without necessarily developing a grander, more centralized infrastructure of political power.

That paradigm appeals to the culture of the grassroots right — libertarian, agrarian, pastoral. It appeals to the culture of the grassroots left — clean, sustainable, a locally-tailored global solution. And as I pointed out in the very first post of this series, a cynicism about institutions’ relationship to individuals is the common bond between Atlas Shrugged and The decidedly more liberal Wire.

Lest we forget, Rand’s villains include businesses, CEOs, boards of directors, and PR departments. Though Rand emphasizes tax subsidies as the vehicle of their corruption, it’s worth noting that subsidies or no, these (fictional) corporate elites are still corrupt: they operate a business model based on personally accumulating as much of their companies’ wealth as possible while providing increasingly poor products and services and avoiding taking personal responsibility for the results. Sound familiar to anyone?

This is the sort of thing I mean when I say that Ayn Rand wrote her book with an unintentionally unreliable narrator, or when I say that Atlas Shrugged could be a potentially epic and awesome story if the reader could excise all the author’s attempts to ruin it. It’s a nonpartisan fable that plays to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and once you realize just how liberal-friendly Rand’s vision is on its face, you can discard her irrational politics and start mining the thematically rich veins for precious material.

Take, as just one example, Rand’s recurring commentary on the spiritual nature of sex:

In the Objectiverse, the act of sex is invariably a spiritual and moral transaction. Good sex affirms the spiritual value of both partners and empowers them to aspire to ever greater virtue. Bad sex either saps the participants of spiritual value or confirms their lack of same, and in either case produces shame.

But this definition of lovemaking is not an endorsement of marital coitus as the best way to maximize spiritual health. On the contrary, our proto-feminist heroine explicitly tells her married lover that she makes no demands of him except to booty call whenever he needs to get off. And contraception and procreation? Children in basically any capacity? These issues are absent from Rand’s thoughts on the subject, and in the case of children, nearly absent from the book completely (because of how poorly they fit into Rand’s moral code).

So do those sexual politics sound liberal or conservative? The insistence on strict moral laws governing the proper expression of sexuality is decidedly conservative; the proud departure from the institutions intended to enforce sexual morality is decidedly liberal. Once again Rand vilifies historical patriarchy — in this case for repressing healthy sexual expression — even though her political agenda goes out of its way to flatter and justify the behavior and status of patriarchy’s contemporary beneficiaries.

Now take Rand’s views on money, espoused so verbosely by Francisco in Part Two.  In the Objectiverse, literal currency is also  spiritual currency. Yet in contrast to her views on sex, Ayn declares the ancient institutional hierarchy of money to be a direct and absolute measure of spiritual worth operating in a downright karmic fashion. What makes the objective symbol of wealth a direct corollary of spiritual value, but the objective symbol of deliberately committed love a degrading fraud? Nothing but the fact that both of these positions are the opposite of traditional religious teachings. It’s not logically groundbreaking, it’s just Ayn Rand’s knee-jerk bile.

Upon this closer inspection, I find the vaguely karmic and holistic metaphysics of Objectivism intriguing, if only for how they’re so counterintuitive to Rand’s reputation. These metaphysics declare that a person’s moral values and spiritual health will inevitably manifest in their behavior and choices, no matter how much they wish to deny the consequences of their actions. It’s an almost Zen Buddhist understanding of right action. And for Rand’s protagonists, the lifestyle that grows out of this harmony between mind and body is remarkably socially liberal.

But those metaphysics bear no deductive relationship to Objectivism’s political and economic tenets. When Ayn gets reactionary and proprietary about how her specific moral values are the only ones that can produce spiritual health, she loses the way (or should I say, loses the Tao).

That declaration of monopoly on morality is the only thing that theoretically ties her cosmology to her political economy. Hank Rearden says as much when he claims sexual guilt and Keynesian economics are two symptoms of the same moral illness: the statement is so absurd that the character himself qualifies it as laughable.

In reality, a karmic metaphysics that insists on harmony between mind and body for proper behavioral results is a belief that is wholly independent from Rand’s political dogma. And Rand also declares it imperative that false moral claims be rejected if one is to fulfill one’s potential for true virtue. In Objectivism, there is no such thing as a harmless false belief.

What this means for Atlas Shrugged is that by its own metaphysical and ethical imperatives, we must reject its political and economic tenets as lacking foundation, to save the story’s soul.

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Applied Randology #5: How the Objectiverse… Isn’t

Or,  HOW AYN RAND MISINTERPRETED HER OWN GREATEST WORK.
In 1957, Ayn Rand meticulously constructed a fictional world with the express intent of proving her vision of radical conservatism to be THE objectively correct life philosophy. She called this philosophy Objectivism.In 2012, many of her world-building elements have proved prophetic, and her philosophy enormously influential. But the elements that have turned out to be the most eerily insightful are those to which Rand paid little or no attention. While her fans focus on the threat of government expansion — a theme explored in a parody so blunt and overwrought as to verge on camp — the discerning and open-minded reader might notice that Atlas Shrugged implicitly references:

*The necessity of new infrastructure, sustainable development, and clean energy, as championed by the protagonists.

*The dangers of fossil fuel exhaustion and natural resource depletion, as exemplified by the circumstances of the plot.
*The tragic co-opting of the state by powerful business interests who ignore the afore-mentioned dangers and oppose the afore-mentioned reforms, as embodied by the antagonists.You’ll also notice, discerning reader, that this set of implicit issues is a pretty accurate rundown of modern liberal priorities. And Rand’s explicit issues with the proper role of government and the nature of the economy outright define the modern Republican agenda.

So at least in this one way, 2012 America really is Ayn Rand’s world and we just live in it. But insofar as the heroes of the Objectiverse pursue progressive goals and the villains erect conservative barriers, the parallels are actually perpendiculars. And there are at least two features of Objectiverse politics that explain why.

First of all, the heroes of the Objectiverse are, by definition, uninvolved with and opposed to democratic political processes. They are anarcho-capitalists. So when a real-life politician like Paul Ryan says reading Ayn Rand is what made him decide to go into government, this directly contradicts and violates the morals of Rand’s story — unless of course the politician in question is actually on a covert mission to undermine democratic governance from the inside. Then such a statement would make sense. It would also make that politician Emperor Palpatine, but never mind.

Secondly, the Objectiverse has no discernible political parties. Elections play no significant role and the state is portrayed entirely as a Soviet-style monolithic politburo. Because, after all, if democracy as a form of government is illegitimate, then how much could the differences between political parties actually matter?

Answer, as provided by the real world: A whole lot.Because even though “The Party” in Atlas Shrugged preaches socialist economic intervention — even though that makes the liberal party in the real world seem like the obvious analogue — remember that the incident which incites America’s dystopian transformation is a corrupt conspiracy among some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, not its elected officials. Remember that their plan is executed by intentionally creating quid-pro-quo revolving-door career opportunities between the public sector and the lobbying industry, which happened in the real world thanks to Republicans.

And remember that the head of state in this dystopian regime is one Mr. Thompson, a generic political chameleon void of principle who looks so much like the stereotype of an upper-middle class businessman that voters can barely remember his face.

It looks like this.

And the ironies don’t end there, they just begin. Note that the heroes sink tons of money into R&D for new technologies that are cleaner and more sustainable, in defiance of the conventional wisdom that their investments make no economic sense. Note that the industrial behemoths of yesteryear only maintain their market superiority by lobbying successfully for enormous tax breaks and government subsidies.
Can you see how Atlas Shrugged is actually, if accidentally, a critique of modern Republicanism? Where Rand’s intended satire of liberalism is so over-the-top it quickly jumps the shark, the satire of modern conservatism that she could not have intended from her vantage point in the 1950s is subtle and insidious; a rewarding discovery that you have to make yourself.
Simply put, substantive critiques of modern liberalism are actually beyond the book’s reach because Rand only presents liberal arguments in straw-man form. She never touches them. Within the Objectiverse, modern liberalism isn’t wrong, it’s simply not an option.
The only ideology that Atlas Shrugged can truly expose as either meritorious or meritricious is its own, because that is the only ideology actually present in the book. And oh man is it presented, in rigorous detail, for hundreds of pages, just begging to be explored. And because this ideology has become central to modern conservatism, a dissection of it can be used to legitimately critique modern conservatism as well.
SO:
What does it mean that the world Rand created and the behavior of her characters  both good and bad all validate the concerns of 21st century progressives more than they do the concerns of Rand herself, and by extension the concerns expressed by the Republicans who swear by her work today?There is a storytelling device known as ‘the unreliable narrator‘ — think Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. In a story told by an unreliable narrator, the audience cannot trust that the story as its being relayed to them is actually the story as it should be truthfully understood. Atlas Shrugged, formally speaking, employs a third-person omniscient narrator. And in Ayn Rand’s case you can bet she believed the ‘omniscient’ part to be literally true. So, formally, she didn’t write a book with an unreliable narrator. She just sure as hell produced one.

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1:1 The Theme, “Poor Management”

Our story begins with Eddie Willers, who will be playing the part of The Average Man, as he hustles across Manhattan in twilight. His destination is the Grand Central-like headquarters of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad Company, where he must inform company president James Taggart that there has been a crash on their Colorado-bound line.

Eddie passes a bum on the street who blankly mutters ‘Who is John Galt?’ at him. Eddie should get used to this question by the way, because Galt is basically Jacob from Lost in this book: he makes lists of his favorite people and everyone will be cryptically overhyping him for like 800 pages. Anyway the question freaks Eddie out. He feels ’causeless uneasiness,’ ‘dread without reason,’ and ‘immense, diffused apprehension.’ He just can’t seem to shake the feeling that the world is going down the tubes (what with the bums and all), and now he’s got the unsettling impression that this particular bum can read his mind and tease him, knowingly, with cryptic non-explanations.

This sends him on a reverie about an oak tree on a hill from his childhood, which he saw as a symbol of strength until it got hit by lightning and exposed as hollow and rotted inside. That bummed L’il Eddie out, existentially speaking. Plus it’s a metaphor for society. But Eddie brushes all that off as he gets to the Taggart Transcontinental offices, where the art deco majesty…

…and row upon row of Peggy Olson typists…

…give him a raging hard-on for his job again.

Stirred to purpose once more, Eddie strides into James Taggart’s corner suite. Taggart is not exactly a born leader of men cut straight from granite. He’s almost 40 but he looks over 50. He’s a schlub and, as we will see shortly, a weasel. Eddie tells him about the crash. Taggart — the company president, remember — could give a shit. Accidents happen all the time! Cost of doing business! Cartoon villainy, etc. Eddie tries to point out that they need to reinvest in that track to compete for the freight business coming from some newly opened oil fields.

Taggart scoffs, “Who cares? The guy who runs those fields is an asshole! I’ve got friends I’m used to working with, we’re just gonna stay the course.” But Eddie knows which market players are thriving and which are withering and he cannot comprehend what Jim could be thinking. He and Taggart have known each other since childhood, when Eddie was the patrician Taggart family’s token bourgeois friend, but now it’s like they’re always talking past each other!

As if to prove the point, Jim keeps obfuscating the issue of good corporate policy with defensive rants about how just because Ellis Wyatt (the oil man) churns out a lot of commerce doesn’t make him good for society. Think of all the jobs lost as he saps business from established companies! That economic dislocation hurts people! Taggart has apparently never heard of creative destruction, while pure simple Eddie just wants to know if they’re going to fund repairs in Colorado or not. He is, after all, personal aide to the VP of Operations.

Taggart: ‘It’s touching–your devotion to Taggart Transcontinental. If you don’t look out, you’ll turn into one of those real feudal serfs.’

Eddie: ‘That’s what I am, Jim.’

Damn, that’s a harsh self-evaluation, Eddie. If that’s supposed to be your ‘everyman’ character being humble, Ayn, that is some seriously rough humility. But Eddie can take it because he’s loyal and obedient. And really into industrial aesthetics. And blonde-haired and blue-eyed… wait wait wait, is Rand suggesting that The Average Man would make a good Nazi? Ayn, you are one subversive bitch, and I respect it.

A map like this except, you know, not made by the government.

Taggart officially informs Eddie that he wants to keep their resources focused on a track into Mexico he’s had built to reach the San Sebastian copper mines. Eddie has this whole vision of the continental map as a living organism with railroads as arteries and fossil fuels as blood, and James’ plan seems like some piss-poor anatomy to him, but Eddie doesn’t have the wherewithal to talk back to his superiors any more than he already has. He knows his place. And so he leaves.

On his way out he passes a Wise Old Clerk, who’s tinkering away on his busted antique typewriter and lamenting how everything nowadays is cheap crap and he’s never buying a typewriter again because they don’t make ’em like they used’t, grumble grumble fart. I think e-mail would piss this guy off just conceptually, but Eddie sizes him up as having the same ‘cynical indifference’ in his eyes as the bum, and then Wise Old Clerk even asks ‘Who is John Galt?’ again, in a sort of “Oh well what’r’ya gonna do” way, then out of nowhere there’s a violin sting and ominous opening credits.

NEXT: Chapter 1, part 2 — Enter the Protagonist!

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About the Book

Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957 and promptly received a critical panning, because as a piece of literature it has the poetic sensibility of an instruction manual. But as a parable designed to promote a specific philosophical argument it is undeniably gangbusters.

Atlas, of course, is unlike most parables in that it’s as thick as a phone book instead of living comfortably as a short story. It is like most parables in that it isn’t known for its complex characterization. Taken together, these two features make the book pretty lame as an aesthetic endeavor. This has not at all stopped it from becoming a perennial bestseller and ideological bible for millions of impressed readers.

With that in mind, the novel and the philosophy it espouses are clearly inseparable. That philosophy is Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s personal invention, and I will briefly synopsize it now in categorial bullet points. For those without any philosophical background, don’t worry about the jargon here, it’ll all come up far more organically as we go:

* Metaphysically, Objectivism is atheistic and materialistic.

*Epistemologically, it rejects the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon and opposes epistemological skepticism (this bullet point is where I fundamentally disagree with Rand, by the way).

*Ethically, it promotes rational selfishness as the highest moral good and vilifies altruism as counterproductive, which is delightfully counterintuitive if not a little overboard.

*Politically, it is radically libertarian.

*Aesthetically, it provides what I consider a necessary but insufficient definition of art, “a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments,” which, by the way, means that Atlas Shrugged is an artistic tour de force by its own author’s definition. Seriously.

And honestly I think I could have just put that last bullet point at the head of the page and called it a day, because for good or ill that nicely sums up everything you need to know as you sit down to crack open Ayn Rand’s magnum opus.

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Preface

Welcome to Atlas ‘Clubbed, a lone blog in the wilderness where I, a “liberal-tarian” 20-something male, will spend the next several months reading and recapping Ayn Rand’s 1000+ page philosophic allegory Atlas Shrugged so that you don’t have to.

If you’ve already read the book, well, so have I actually, and I think you might enjoy this project even more than newcomers. As this is nominally a book club, I welcome and encourage stories in the comments about how this novel is a brilliant intellectual masterpiece and/or an endless brick of inert prose. Whichever. But said comments, if they come to exist, are to remain 1) substantive; and, 2) civil with some discretionary leeway for well-played ball-busting. I will readily block any moochers, leeches, and trolls.

The plan is to cover one chapter every week for 30 weeks, which takes us through the end of July 2012 excepting personal delays and global psycho-spiritual apocalypses. Factoring in a couple of weeks for such Murphy’s Law scenarios puts the conclusion of the project somewhere in the vicinity of the Republican National Convention in August (speaking of psycho-spiritual apocalypses…). So we’ll see how that goes.

First, though, some context. In late 2008, following the financial crisis and the climax of the last election cycle, I picked up Atlas Shrugged with the explicit intention of becoming more fluent in the language of conservative ideology, but for primarily rhetorical purposes. I’m politically disinclined to like Rand’s work (I voted for Obama and intend to do so again), and yet I was surprised by how provocative and compelling I found it — at least, in its premises and ambitions if not its execution. While I still regard Ayn herself as a stone-cold bitch monster, I have a begrudging respect for her ideas that I did not have when I knew her by reputation alone. There is written proof of this reaction, no less, which can be perused here at my old, defunct blog.

Which is to say I want this site to appeal to Rand fans as well as Rand detractors, even though — don’t get me wrong — I will snark on her writing. A lot. But I will take the ideas she presents seriously while I do so, irreverent editorial voice be damned. Consider it a friendly ribbing.

I think that covers all the preamble. There will be a new chapter recap posted every Monday. Today, in addition to this preface, I have posted a short bio of the author and a general overview of the book itself. “Chapter 1: The Theme” will roll out in two posts on Wednesday and Friday, with “Chapter 2: The Chain” kicking off the regular schedule on Monday the 9th.  Every few weeks I’ll also throw in a short essay of a post where I review thematic issues about which I find myself (or you, hypothetical readers) having a lot to say.

And oh my should there ever be a lot to say. It’s 2012 and the very philosophical underpinnings of America are the subject of the national debate, with a big vote at the end and everything! May Galt have mercy on us all…

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