Archive for August 2010
Before I get started here, a few notes on my posting schedule. I’ll try to get the Rand Critiques up on Monday, giving me the weekend to write them. Wednesdays will be for “Stupid Things Libertarians Say.” Every other Friday I’ll try to get a “Dreams of the Empire” up. Other blog posts will be more or less as the spirit moves me. Sounds good? Good. Hopefully coming right out and saying it will help me stick to the schedule. Anyway, on to the horror!
Last time I pointed out that there are many similarities between “Atlas Shrugged” and the popular “Left Behind” series. For those of you mercifully unfamiliar with Left Behind, let me give you a quick overview of the plot.
Essentially, the series is a novelization of some of the more paranoid fundamentalist protestant delusions, more specifically, the eschatology of Premillennial Dispensationalism. The beliefs that you connect with your standard issue street-corner Christian whackjob originate here: the rapture of the “church” (defined as all those who subscribe to Premillennial Dispensationalism) where all true believers are sucked up into the sky to be with Jesus. This is followed by the rise of an Antichrist, a one world government, the persecution of all those who convert post-rapture, lots of gory disasters, and finally, the return of Jesus in a blaze of kill-em-all-let-me-sort-em-out glory. Your basic Chick tract fantasy. And yet, somehow, the series manages to be duller than the love child of Immanuel Kant and Alan Greenspan.
There is a certain overlap between the consumer groups for both Ayn Rand and Left Behind, rooted in the 1980’s alignment of the Moral Majority with the Republican party. This is an strange alignment, insofar as it brought together…well, those who follow Ayn Rand and those who follow Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, and their ilk. Which is odd, because Rand is proudly atheistic. Say what you will about the woman, but I will give her props for this: she truly believes that her twisted fantasy world could work. John Galt and Hank Rearden may be smug assholes, but in her world, they are man perfected. And she believes that man can be perfected. LaHaye believes that man is inherently degraded, that without the presence of God’s Holy Spirit on Earth, mankind would rapidly descend into a sort of global Las Vegas of orgiastic pleasure.
Not two philosophies destined to jive. However, somewhere in the ‘80’s, Free Market economics was linked with a twisted version of the philosophies of Jesus (probably the most famous socialist of all time) and there you go. Add in enough real life suspension of disbelief to raise the Titanic, season liberally with frustration, bigotry, and ignorance, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a Tea Party.
What these two visions have in common, however, far outweighs a petty thing like irreconcilable philosophical differences. First of these is the painfully relentless preaching of these stories. The novel-as-metaphor is common enough (see Moby Dick for the supreme achievement in this genre) as is the character filibuster (The Brother’s Karamazov contains “The Grand Inquisitor,” which is often published on its own.) However, most novels never lose sight of the fundamental thrust of the novel, which is to tell a story. To explore, with more or less grace, “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” which Faulkner called the only thing worth writing about. Take a moment to reflect on all the novels, all the stories you’ve read, all the movies you’ve seen. Not just the good ones, but the bad ones as well. Why are movies as disparate as “Citizen Kane” and “Reservoir Dogs” both considered cinematic masterpieces? And why is “Snatch” a great movie and “Crank” a horrible piece of shit, when both of them have at their center Jason Statham playing his greatest character: Jason Statham?
The answer is simple enough. The good stories and the great stories are first and foremost about people. We care if Turkish ends up with the diamond because first and foremost we give a shit about Turkish. We don’t give a damn about “Crank’s” Chev, because he is nothing more than an impressionistic pastiche of broadly drawn action movie clichés. Mr. Pink as played by Johnny Depp may have been a fantastic character, but it would be a fundamentally changed character and movie we would remember. Digitally alter “Crank” to star Randy Couture, and I doubt you’d even notice the swap.
The fundamental mistake made by both LaHaye and Rand is the same. They were so busy cramming in speeches, sermons, and fantastically-unrealistic-but-plot-dictated disasters that they forgot to make these characters actually mean anything in of themselves. Dagny Taggert and Rayford Steele are as cliché as Chev.
On the other hand, “Crank” is infinitely more forgivable than either of these shitboxes. “Crank” and Statham have no pretensions about what they are: they are there as a vehicle for explosions and improbable stunts. At no point during “Crank” does anyone suppose that you should make major religious or philosophical decisions based on Statham’s ability to do a double backflip away from a slow motion explosion. Rand and LaHaye draw characters so broad that anyone can see their own reflection in the page, but in doing so, give them no more shape than a pair of one size fits all gloves or a lump of putty.
The second mistake they made is almost inconceivable in its stupidity. They presume that the existence of these novels stands as some sort of evidence, that their fictional worlds are a sort of reverse history, predicting in greater or lesser detail actual future events.
Again, LaHaye and Rand have managed to twist a perfectly decent literary genre for their own evil ends. It would be possible to write a story in which your fiction served as a sort of predictive warning. Off the top of my head, a story about current nuclear safeguards and chain of command in the United States and Russia, in which some series of plausible accidents lead to a nuclear exchange could easily work in this capacity.
However, Rand and LaHaye are not content to stop there. They treat their own writing, their own fictions, as evidence for their worldview. I refer you again to the statement that ends the book. “”I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book has been written-and published-is my proof that they do.”
(You know, personal story here. When I was ten, I wrote a story in which my friends and I were superheroes who rode around on motorcycles and fought crime. I am pleased to announce that, according to Ayn Rand, even though some will tell me that such ten year olds as I wrote about don’t exist, that this story was written is my proof they do.)
The third mistake they make is the lack of any appreciable villainous tendencies on the part of the villains. The main villain of Left Behind is the Antichrist. No, seriously. He’s the actual, goddamned Antichrist. The literal pure incarnation of evil. No one could make this a bad villain. The most hyperbolic, evil, kitten-torturing monsters that even the most halfassed writer could come up with should be peanuts next to this guy. In the later books, he is literally an incarnation of Satan himself. There is literally no such thing as overdoing the evil this character is capable of. Tortures kittens? Sure, why not, he’s Satan? Runs around shooting little old ladies on the sidewalk? S.A.T.A.N. Takes a whizz on the Mona Lisa? Seriously, dude’s Satan, what won’t that crazy fucker do?
So what happens?
Well…not much, actually. Seriously, go read the slacktivist archive of the Left Behind books. He unites the entire world, ends wars, destroys nuclear weapons, and in the first two books, manages to whack a total of two people. Most episodes of the Sopranos have a higher body count. For the love of God, this is the Antichrist, and he can’t manage the same evil street cred as Dr. Eggman.
Rand suffers from the same problem. Her villains are hilariously incompetent do-gooders, described (incessantly) as weak, bleating sheep. They have no spine, no backbone, and no appreciable villainous tendencies other than to want to give away money to the poor. Which, as villainous activities go, is somewhere below…shit, I don’t know what’s less villainous than that. Volunteering at an animal shelter? Taking in orphans off the street? I mean, sure you can make a case that the activity is unwise, that it’s a bad idea, but it doesn’t really make it evil. Misguided, maybe. But when the worst thing you can say about your evilly villains of evil is that they are tragically misguided, you might want to consider writing something lighter. Encyclopedia Brown, maybe, or the Bobbsey Twins.
The problem that LaHaye and Rand both forget is that men do not make the times, times make the men. Gandhi was a great moral and spiritual leader, sure, but if his heroism did not have the backdrop of the British Raj’s evil, but was instead against an increase in school lunch prices, he ceases to be heroic and becomes hyperbolic. In some cases, this is a pity. There have been many presidents who were as good men as Abraham Lincoln, who might even have had better ideas, but they will never be remembered like him because they were not faced with his crisis. Objectively speaking (and I will not let Rand ruin that word for me) Clinton was a better economist than FDR. But FDR stopped the depression and fought World War II, and thus will forever be remembered as the better president. Tough luck, but people are measured by what they rise to, and if their problems are only so large, than so is the measure of their heroism.
The same problem applies in fiction. Your hero is measured by the heights they scale. Which means that, no matter how cheaply satisfying it might be to make your villain a giant wuss, eternally in the shadow of your hero’s throbbing and tumescent awesomeness (or angular and linear femininity) the stupider you make your villain, the smaller you make your hero’s achievements. It was an awesome accomplishment for twelve year old me to stand up to the bully at school. It is slightly less awesome for 22 year old me to go down to the playground and beat down the biggest twelve year old I can find.
In simple terms, both LaHaye and Rand have written Spaceballs, and treat it like Star Wars. The defeat of their respective Dark Helmets is treated with the same breathless anxiety of Luke Skywalker flying down the Death Star trench; the humiliations of a buffoon that would embarrass Curly, Larry and Moe is written as the final victory over an evil demigod of malice. We are expected to cheer at the defeat of people who for the past 800 pages, have been painted in every possible terms as the moral, physical, and mental inferiors of our heroes. Which, when you get right down to it, means we’re cheering for the bad guys. I don’t know about you, but if I’m shown an image of a bunch of strong men beating down someone smaller, stupider, and slower than they are, my first instinct is to side with the weaker person. It may be they deserved it. There may be a good reason. But my first instinct is, and always will be, with the oppressed weak over the oppressing strong.
And perhaps that is the great moral failing of LaHaye, and Rand, and Beck. They take the side of the bully, of the powerful. LaHaye takes the side of his mass murdering Christ, not out of moral principle, but because this is the dog at the top of the heap. The powerful make the rules in their world, and those rules are beyond question, not because they are fundamental moral and ethical principles beyond violation, but because these people are true followers of the Golden Rule: the principle that them as has the gold, makes the rules. Power is its own and separate morality, and when you have all the power, you have all the moral right as well.
In all honesty, its rather pitiful. There can perhaps be something to being the bully. But LaHaye, Rand and Beck do not even have that courage. Without the bravery to be the bullies, they have still cast their lot with the bullies of the world, content to be one of those wretched hangers-on that drifts in the wake of the strong and merciless. There are those who dream to be sharks, and there is something to be respected about that. I cannot, however, summon much respect for those whose chosen lot in life is to be a remora.
I’m way behind. And I’ll make it up to y’all, I swear. But real life has been a serious pain in the ass these last few weeks. I’ll spend a few weeks posting like a bastard, and then settle into a schedule that I haven’t yet decided.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.