Atlas Shrugged III: The Decider
Atlas Shrugged: pgs 5-16
Wow, sorry about that. It’s been a busy week.
Anyway, today we are again traveling through a door. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the…oh, I’m sorry. That’s the opening to the Twilight Zone, not Atlas Shrugged. Although the ideas behind Atlas Shrugged would’ve made an excellent episode of the Twilight Zone. Of course, Dagny and Hank and John Galt would be the bad guys. Say what you will about the Twilight Zone, but it at least had a firm moral compass.
So, when we left off last, we had just met James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental, the largest railroad in the United States. Eddie Willers shows up in his office because there is trouble brewing.
He looked at James Taggart and said, “It’s the Rio Norte Line.” He noticed Taggart’s glance moving down to a corner of the desk. “We’ve had another wreck.”
“Railroad accidents happen every day. Did you have to bother me about that?”
“You know what I’m saying, Jim. The Rio Norte is done for. That track is shot. Down the whole line.”
DUN DUN DUUUUUNNNNNNNNN!
The next few pages, while ostensibly about the Rio Norte line, are nothing more than a stream of cheap little insults at the expense of Jim Taggart. Of course, we begin with the initial description, where we left off last time, but allow me to refresh your memories.
He looked like a man approaching fifty, who had crossed into age from adolescence, without the intermediate stage of youth. He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.
Over the next few pages she will add lines like:
“What Taggart disliked about Eddie Willers was this habit of looking straight into people’s eyes”
“James Taggart seldom raised his head; when he looked at people, he did so by lifting his heavy eyelids and staring upward from under the expanse of his bald forehead.”
“Taggart asked slowly, his voice half-mocking, half-cautious, ‘What did my sister say?’”
You get the idea. That is not including the constant innuendo of every line of dialogue, of every comment. I would have to copy the entire page and a half to give you the full sensation. So just take my word for it, Ayn Rand goes out of her way to slander Jim Taggart. What’s more, these slurs are not directed at his intellect, nor at his ideas. While both these will be eventually attacked, when Rand first attacks her intellectual opponents, she immediately defaults to the cheapest of all propaganda tricks: physical appearance. Her heroes are clean limbed and healthy, and usually described as “angular.” She gushes over the lines of their faces, their bodies. Her villains…well, just read what she wrote.
What makes this so very irritating (beyond the fact that it’s bad writing, poor character development, supremely propagandistic, and generally bad art) is that when her villains do the same thing in the novel, she treats it as a supreme betrayal. On page 477, she describes one of the passengers riding on a doomed train as:
“a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.”
But as we have seen, and as we shall continue to see, her descriptions of her opponents are not analytical. There are no sheets of figures showing why their schemes will fail, there are no cutting logical analyses (Well, except for that massive speech by John Galt, but that is a bit sui generis and will be dealt with in its own good time.) There is only a stream of invective; the cheapest, most foolish inanities put into the mouth of characters she doesn’t like. Cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all liberals are scoundrels (if you will.) And trust me, it only gets worse from here.
But let us turn from that fruitful and yet to be fully explored path to what may be the most important sentence in this entire book. A bit of context: Eddie is thinking about Ellis Wyatt. (Q: is he a good guy or bad guy based only on the name?) and how he has turned his oil wells into the lifeblood of the nation by being bootstrappy. (A: Good guy.) He is reflecting on the symbolism of a map of railway lines as a chart of the United States’ arteries, and Ellis Wyatt’s role in filling them with oily lifeblood. To Eddie, Wyatt is an almost mythic figure.
One man had done it, and he had done it in eight years; this, thought Eddie Willers, was like the stories he had read in school books and never quite believed, the stories of men who had lived in the days of the country’s youth.
And there you have it folks. That is the quintessence of the Tea Parties, the Libertarians, the Randites beliefs. That the world today is somehow inferior to some unspecified prior golden age. And that is somehow the fault of restrictions on business. Life, they believe, was better in the age of Carnegie and the Battle of Blair Mountain, of Rockefeller and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Of J. P. Morgan and the Battle of Homestead. It is no coincidence that these things are paired. The existence of uncontrollable monopolies, of a pure free market, was what permitted the Gilded Age; filled with unbelievably wealthy nabobs and incredible suffering. There were no controls, no checks, no balances. And for 99% of everyone, it sucked.
Of course, one of the fundamental, unstated beliefs of this Tea Party worldview is that they will somehow all be among that one percent. That they are all so bootstrappy, so skilled, and so talented that should all checks on the pure free market be removed tomorrow, they would all be John D. Rockefellers, lighting their cigars with hundred dollar bills.
And in all honesty it is more than likely that, should that unhappy state of affairs come to pass, they would hang on quite well for a while. Of course, this would have little or nothing to do with their inherent abilities, but their whiteness, their education, their prior economic status…in other words, almost everything else but their inherent skills. To use my favorite phrase, they were born on third base, and think they hit a triple.
The essential belief of the Tea Party is that when they release the perfect free market, that all inequities will swept away, and the only rubric will be pure talent. They believe in some idealized pseudo-Peter Principle. That instead of rising to the level of their incompetence, people will instead rise to the level of their greatest competence and be happy there. In other words, they believe in a world of happy-crappy BS.
Ironically, their blind embrace of the free market is nothing more than the embrace of the free reign of mankind’s least noble impulses, expressed as far as the profit margin. As long as there is no profit (or at least no extra profit) in hiring women, in hiring minorities, in improving destitute communities, and so on, there will be no free market incentive to do so. And as long as it doesn’t impact the profit margins, anyone in power is free to exercise whatever bigotry they choose. It would be simple to slide back into the sort of system that existed before the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Mysteriously enough, only white males could go to college and get a good job. Which is, of course, proof that only white men have the natural genius required for industry. And so therefore women and minorities shouldn’t go to college. And so on ad nauseum.
Returning to the narrative. The discussion that consumes these pages is essentially this. There is another railroad, the Phoenix-Durango that is competing with Taggart Transcontinental in the newly industrial state of Colorado. Wyatt’s oil fields have caused a sudden economic boom in the state, one that Taggart’s railroad was poorly posed to take advantage of. The Phoenix-Durango is outperforming them, and Eddie wants something done about it. And Jim is going to do something about it, just as soon as their Mexican railroad starts to pay off.
Throughout this conversation a few themes are endlessly repeated. “Talk to my sister” and “No one can blame us” The first theme..well, we’ll meet Dagny in just a bit. But the second theme is very interesting. In Ayn Rand’s world, what Liberals care about is not results, not progress, but not being blamed. The world can go to hell (and it does) as long as no one can blame them.
That’s…that’s so stupid I don’t even know where to start. It’s like talking to someone about the latest mission to Mars and discovering that they believe the sun is a giant lamp in the sky, and the stars are places where the paint has chipped away. The flaws in their thinking are so grotesquely fundamental that you don’t even know where to start. However, we’ll put off that question until later, when one of these poor-straw men actually tries to defend themselves.
Then we come to a bit of good and rather effective writing. As Eddie leaves Jim’s office, he bumps into old Pop Harper, the office repairman. And Pop asks Eddie if he knows where he can get any good woolen undershirts.
Pop Harper glanced up at Eddie Willers as he came out of the president’s office. It was a wise, slow glance; it seemed to say that he knew that Eddie’s visit to their part of the building meant trouble on the line, knew that nothing had come of the visit, and was completely indifferent to the knowledge. It was the cynical indifference which Eddie Willers had seen in the eyes of the bum on the street corner.
“Say, Eddie, know where I could get some woolen undershirts?” he asked, “Tried all over town, but nobody’s got ’em.”
“I don’t know,” said Eddie, stopping. “Why do you ask me?”
“I just ask everybody. Maybe somebody’ll tell me.”
Of course, it immediately degenerates into a long maudlin speech after that, but let’s take a moment to appreciate this detail. An old man who just wants some good woolen undershirts. But these things don’t exist anymore. Everyone remembers them, and they are such a small detail, so easily overlooked. You simply buy the cheaper cotton ones, and how often do you buy undershirts anyway? You just assume they’re out of them at the moment. No one ever mentions it, no one ever notices that they’re gone, because they don’t realize they are. But this small detail has slipped away forever, the first small stone of the landslide that’s coming. And the only one who even notices is a half-crazy old man, who just wants to be warm in the long, cold winter. That’s a lovely detail, and a surprisingly delicate touch in a book that is usually about as subtle as a nine pound hammer to the kneecap.
And finally, finally we meet Dagny Taggart. Take a deep breath campers, we’re about to be up to our eyeballs in it.
Her leg, sculptured by the tight sheen of the stocking, its long line running straight, over an arched instep, to the tip of a foot in a high-heeled pump, had a feminine elegance that seemed out of place in the dusty train car and oddly incongruous with the rest of her. She wore a battered camel’s hair coat that had been expensive, wrapped shapelessly about her slender, nervous body. The coat collar was raised to the slanting brim of her hat. A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body.
You thought I was joking about the obsession with angles, didn’t you?
And to be honest, not much happens in the next few pages. The train stops, Dagny gets out. She discovers that no one wants to get the train started, because if they take action they could be blamed, dontcha see? And then Dagny sorts it out easily. Not because it was a hard problem, but because it’s an easy one. Which apparently no one else thought about. Also, she hears a piece of music, which she recognizes as the work of Richard Halley, a composer who disappeared some years ago. The thing is, this is a new work. *PLOT POINT*
Then she sweeps into Jim’s office, tells him that she’s not ordering the rails from Orren Boyle who hasn’t delivered it in over a year.
Sweet JESUS NO. OK? I could understand if, say the rail was two weeks, even a month late. Then we would have some energy in this scene. You have Jim Taggart, trying to be loyal to a friend who is having some trouble, and no-nonsense Dagny Taggart who wants that rail yesterday because she has important work to do. Neither one of these people would be evil, or moronic. They’d be two people, with different motives, caught in the struggle between rational and emotional impulses. It could explore the nature of the business world, the question of whether the quest for money is ultimately uplifting or dehumanizing. Jim could defend his principles and Dagny could shoot him down, but as one treats a brother. As one treats a fellow human being. Give the man some dignity, for Christ’s sake.
But no one, no matter how liberal, no matter how communistic, waits THIRTEEN MONTHS for something they need. Let alone something they desperately need. No one at all. It is just a stupid, overblown detail to show how wishy-washy and mealy mouthed Jim Taggart is compared to his sister. And, if she is so on the ball, why in hell didn’t she do this twelve months ago? There is no indication in this scene that once she has put her foot down, Jim will display any resistance. She effectively runs the company, so why is she just getting to this now? It seems to me that she has been waiting just as long as he has, to no appreciable end, for no appreciable purpose. But because she is the one finally taking action, we’re supposed to respect her.
And then this happens.
“The human element is very important. You have no sense of the human element at all.”
“We’re talking about saving a railroad, Jim.”
“Yes, of course, of course, but still, you haven’t any sense of the human element.”
“No. I haven’t.”
And you know what? I’m with Dagny on this one. Because I have no clue what the “Human Element” is, either. Except a buzzword from IBM. But it sounds like the sort of thing a shitty
author would put in the mouth of a strawman lib….Oh, I see what you did there. Very clever, Ayn.
And then she decides they’re going to use Rearden Metal. Which is a magical new type of metal that can do…well, just about anything. Of course, it’s completely untested under any sort of long term strain, there have been no replicates of the data, no one except Rearden has had a chance to see it.
And then this happens.
“What do you go by?” [Jim asked.]
“Well, whose judgment did you take?”
“But whom did you consult about it?”
“Then what on earth do you know about Rearden Metal?”
“That it’s the greatest thing ever put on the market.”
“Because it’s tougher than steel, cheaper than steel and will outlast any hunk of metal in existence.”
“But who says so?”
“Jim, I studied engineering in college. When I see things, I see them.”
Apparently when she was studying engineering she missed out on…well, the entirety of the scientific method. You don’t “see” things in engineering. You don’t have a gut feeling that something will work and use that to go on. That gut feeling might be the start, but it is step one of about ten thousand. Then you collect data, and compare data, and run tests and simulations and calculate all sorts of variables and you do all this because no matter how good you are, at least half the time you’re Just. Plain. Wrong. Because you forgot to include some little detail in your gut feeling. And this isn’t just Timmy Testtube that does this, either. You think that Einstein just came up with relativity? No. He had a gut feeling, and he followed it down many, many blind alleys until he found something that worked. Because that’s what science is, methodically testing your educated guesses or gut feelings until you get them right.
And on that note…I’m tired. I’m really, really, tired of this book. I’m gonna take a break now. But next time, I think I’ll start exploring some of the similarities between this and the Left Behind series, and why they both seem to have a death grip on two very similar and often overlapping groups of people. Stay tuned.