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Atlas Shrugged IV: I’ve Got Mine, Where’s Yours?

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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.

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Written by newscum

August 30, 2010 at 8:18 am

19 Responses

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  1. Loved the comparisons here. 😀

    apocalypsereview

    August 30, 2010 at 8:45 am

  2. Well written

    JE

    August 30, 2010 at 9:03 am

  3. This might be a bit out of left field, but does Rand’s love of “angular” people remind anyone else of Kryten from Red Dwarf?

    Winter

    August 30, 2010 at 10:22 am

  4. @ Winter – Aside from the lack of ears, the imagery could be right out of Tolkien. Rand’s superior people are very much like Elves: tall, slim, cleanly built, and always on the move. The less noble she considers a character, the more physically repulsive they get (consider casting James Taggart as Gollum, for example). Dagny’s assistant Eddy, who is good but not good enough, is described like an ordinary human being.

    Michael Mock

    August 30, 2010 at 2:39 pm

  5. I allways get the impression that Ayn Rand never progressed past the gindergarden level of argument “you’re wrong because… because… because you’re ugly! Ha!”

    JE

    August 30, 2010 at 4:29 pm

  6. 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.

    Well duh, what sort of loser sides with the guy who’s not good enough? I mean, he cant protect you or make you rich, can he?

    firefall

    August 30, 2010 at 7:14 pm

  7. An interesting and intriguing analysis! You hit on one of the key points that makes both Left Behind and Atlas Shrugged both, in a literary sense, unappealing. The authors of their respective works take such pains to disparage their antagonists before the Act Two fights begin that by the time the denouement begins, we’re very much wondering why the bad guys are even a challenge… and when the protagonists have such a difficult time with the baddies, we gape in wonder at the good guys’ incompetence. We ask ourselves why the “Big” Bad, who was made out to be about as threatening as a hangnail, almost trounces the “heroes” and we wonder what there is about the heroes that we should be admiring.

    This is the prime fallacy of Atlas Shrugged and which ironically makes it a treatise in favor of charismatic dictatorships. Is it possible for a world ‘controlled’ (if that word can even be used) by milquetoasty, weakling, liberal men and women — okay, full stop. CAN the world be controlled by such people? I think that for all her bluster, Rand did not think through the implications fully.

    Mink

    August 30, 2010 at 8:26 pm

  8. “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.”

    And they would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling Galt!

    Seriously, that’s the biggest problem I have with my own fiction. I *like* all my characters, even the “bad guys.” I tend to concentrate on making the real “antagonists” to be the protagonists’ own issues, delusions, or worse impulses, because once they are defeated, then EVERYONE wins YAY!

    hapax

    August 30, 2010 at 9:07 pm

  9. You know, that’s a good point. Rand’s writing plays into lookist stereotypes that equates beauty with goodness.

    apocalypsereview

    August 30, 2010 at 9:58 pm

  10. Well, Left Behind has a potential, if entirely unintended, solution to the weak antagonist problem: The protagonists are inept, moronic jerks.

    There are several things that these protagonists could do to stop the Anti-Christ, or at least hinder him. But they never get around to it. They make a mess out of evangalizing the populace, because they don’t seem to realize that having a detailed, step-by-step plan of what’s going to happen in the next 7 years a good argument to use. Once yet again, events in LaHaye’s novel play out exactly as LaHaye believes they will, the characters marvel how this is all exactly as the LaHay.. I mean the Bible foretold. And then they go around to their co-workers, and say that what just happened had been foretold. It might have been more impressive if they’d said that BEFORE it happened.
    In a similar vein, the Bible expert in the group reveals in the second book that there might have been something done to prevent the apocalypse, but that the 7 year clock starts ticking when the Anti-Christ signs the treaty with Israel. He says this AFTER the treaty has been declared. He neglected to mention that to Buck when he was going to meet the Anti-Christ, before this treaty was announced. He just felt it neccesary to tell all about his secret Anti-Anti-Christ resistance group, just before a non-Christian Buck went to meet with a mind-controling Anti-Christ.

    However, it is clearly unintentional, since everyone goes out of their way to praise the protagonist on how awesome they are. And the few characters that don’t are treated with contempt (Poor Verna).

    AS seems to go the other way. Their protagonists accomplish great, if totally unbelievable, feats. Their opponents have difficulty getting their pen replaced, since they feel it must come from a friendly pen-company that hasn’t delivered in years, and then transported by a wheelchair bound elderly man with Altzheimer (positive discrimination! Get those poor unproductive sobs out of the unemployment line’s, just tax that awesomely competent person to fund it). Which makes you wonder why the protagonists haven’t taken over the world 20 years ago, if it’s such a hellhole now.

    Ivan

    August 31, 2010 at 6:54 pm

  11. 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.

    I will pay good money to read Ayn Rand’s “The Bobbsey Twins in the Country.”

    cereselle

    August 31, 2010 at 10:30 pm

  12. What kind of loser?

    I don’t know, could it be … SATAN?

    In a Left Behind world it’s easy to write for the bad guys. Mostly because they’re not bad. Just the opposite in fact. Once you answer the question, “why would they be doing this?” with something other than, “Because I said so,” or, “Because they’re mind bogglingly stupid/evil/evil-stupid/stupid-evil,” you know all you need to know about them.

    The cause may be lost, they may be losers, but (for me at least) it’s hard not to side with someone who says, All right then, I’ll go to hell.

    [Edit note: Jesus Wept, Chris, where did you learn HTML? I think I fixed it..]

    chris the cynic

    September 1, 2010 at 3:05 am

  13. “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.”

    Sorry, butthat book was written almost 50 years ago. Actually, these days such a plot might be considered a bit outdated.

    reynard61

    September 1, 2010 at 4:55 am

  14. It looks like you fixed it. Thank you.

    I never learned HTML, I learned stealing formatting from elsewhere, doing what looked like the right thing might be, and bashing it into working shape using trial and error. Unfortunately that requires either instant posting with a big friendly edit button, or a preview function. So here, where unless I missed something I have neither of those, I’m pretty much flying blind and hoping for the best.

    So, again, thank you. Also, please tell Jesus I’m sorry for making him cry the next time you see him.

    chris the cynic

    September 1, 2010 at 12:21 pm

  15. but then Tolkien gave as heroes in the hobbits, not the elves. While the elves weren’t bad people it was the hobbits, short plump little folk with hairy feet that found the inner strength and courage to save the world and carry the bulk of the story.

    12Sided

    September 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm

  16. “I will pay good money to read Ayn Rand’s ‘The Bobbsey Twins in the Country'”

    LOL

    I would pay good money to read Ayn Rand as a character in S.M. Stirling’s Draka series–or better yet, the Draka series as written by Rand.

    Then again, maybe not. It was enough of a nightmare inducer as it was. At least Stirling made some of the Draka care about their serfs and built in very basic protections for them.

    Steve

    April 1, 2011 at 7:14 pm

  17. The protagonists are inept, moronic jerks.

    Actually, the protagonists are Sooper Speshul Author Self-Inserts. Left Behind shows most of the characteristics of bad fanfic, compounded by a structural flaw in the Christian Apocalyptic genre and a bad strategic decision by the actual credited ghostwriter, Jerry “Buck” Jenkins.

    Genre Structural Flaw: Christian Apocalyptic is almost always based on Darbyite Dispensationalism and its Pre-Trib Secret Rapture choerography. Everything is normal, then all the Real True Christians go BAMF! in the Rapture and all the events in the Book of Revelation go down over the next seven years in an item-by-item checklist. The scenario runs completely on rails, End Time Prophecy Checklist Event after Checklist Event, check, check, check, check, check. Characters are reduced to nothing more than roving viewpoints, observing the Checklist Event go down then usually breaking the fourth wall and preaching to the reader “how what we just saw fulfills such-and-such End Time Prophecy.”

    Compounded by the Bad Strategic Decision: To tell a story of Global scope and Cosmic significance (the End of the World) ONLY from the POVs of the two Author Self-Inserts. This means the Author Self-Inserts HAVE to be on the scene for each and every Checklist Event. Check, check, check, check, check. Even fudging this by having said Author Self-Inserts witness some of the Events on TV and/or through detailed Idiot Conversations over the phone.

    Other contributing factors: Jerry Jenkins’ infamous tin ear for “See-How-Clever-I-Am” quasi-allegorical character names. La Haye’s status as a CELEBRITY preacher, which means nobody at the publisher dares edit the CELEBRITY.

    Headless Unicorn Guy

    July 22, 2011 at 10:09 pm

  18. We ask ourselves why the “Big” Bad, who was made out to be about as threatening as a hangnail, almost trounces the “heroes” and we wonder what there is about the heroes that we should be admiring.

    I’m trying to start a second career as an SF writer, have some knowledge of the Christian publishing shticks though the Lost Genre Guild, and have learned YOU NEVER UNDERCUT YOUR BIG BAD. The bigger and more dangerous your Big Bad, the more the Heroes have to struggle to defeat him. The bigger and more dangerous your Villains, the more heroic your Heroes become.

    And in Conventional Christian fiction, the publisher/gatekeepers (and through them, the authors) are piss-their-pants afraid of offending the Church Ladies who make up the majority of their audience (and who can cause a lot of trouble if they get offended).

    The result is in order to sell, writers of Christian Fiction HAVE to pull their punches. (Search the Web for an essay titled “Sex, Death, and Christian Fiction” by a Simon Morden for more details.) It’s another Tyranny of the Most Easily Offended, and if you want to see print in the (completely-separate) Christian industry, you Offend Nobody. “Safe for the Whole Christian Family.”

    And that includes watering down your Big Bad.

    Headless Unicorn Guy

    July 22, 2011 at 10:18 pm

  19. Ivan: To be fair the heroes of Atlas Shrugged aren’t trying to take over the world. To the contrary they are letting it collapse because according to Rand that’s what the people want: for them to stop being special, so they become ordinary.

    tricksterson

    October 25, 2012 at 10:29 pm


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