As you’ll recall last time, the main issue our so-called heroes were facing was that the railroad was wearing out. Specifically, the Rio Norte Line, which was getting its ass handed to it financially by some brash young upstart, was in desperate need of repair. And Dagny Taggart decided she was going to use the new magical Rearden metal. And she was arguing with her brother, Jim. So with that in mind, let’s pick up the tangled thread of this narrative.
Now, as I’ve pointed out before, Rand shoots herself in the foot from the first page. She makes all of her heroes amazing and dynamic masters of industry, and all of her villains more wishy-washy than John Kerry on a “wash your wishes in the Nile” field trip. To the point where you’re wondering why their positions aren’t flip-flopped. There is no indication that anyone, anywhere wouldn’t let Dagny take over. Every time she makes a suggestion to Jim, he waffles, than accepts it. So why in hell doesn’t she do what corporations everywhere do when there is some crotchety old bugger who’s an utterly useless drain on the system: create a position called “CEO in Charge of Public Relations,” and shove him gracefully out to sea on an iceberg of money. Let Jim run around and play kissy face with the novelists, and Dagny can get some work done.
This idea is so obvious that you can’t help but wonder why she didn’t do it. One possibility is that Dagny is just passive aggressive, and likes letting her brother twist in the wind. Like so:
“The Mexican government is going to nationalize your line any day now.”
“That’s a lie!” His voice was almost a scream. “That’s nothing but vicious rumors! I have it on very good inside authority that-”
“Don’t show that you’re scared, Jim,” she said contemptuously. He did not answer. “It’s no use getting panicky about it now,” she said. “All we can do is try to cushion the blow. It’s going to be a bad blow. Forty million dollars is a loss from which we won’t recover easily. But Taggart transcontinental has withstood many bad shocks in the past. I’ll see to it that it withstands this one.”
“I refuse to consider, I absolutely refuse to consider the possibility of the San Sebastian Line being nationalized!”
“All right. Don’t consider it.” “
Think back to every action movie you’ve ever seen with a generally incompetent character. And, sure as God made little green apples, there will be the scene where Our Heroes rush in, type in the correct password to deactivate the nuclear device, and just give the hapless one A Look. They don’t gloat. Because gloating isn’t heroic. They just take over, and do what needs to be done, because someone has to, and Dumbass McUseless over there isn’t gonna do it.
But Dagny passively stands aside. As a matter of fact, of the “good” characters in this novel, she is the only one who isn’t the head tycoon. Everyone else is president, CEO, and usually sole owner of their company. Rearden, Wyatt, Midas Mulligan: they’re all the old-school tycoon type. But Dagny isn’t.
And I do hate to tantalize like this, but yes, I’m sure this is related to Rand’s view on the role of women. And yes, when the time comes, that will be an absolutely fascinating, if somewhat creepy alley to walk down. But the fact is, now is nowhere near the best time to get into that. There are still sex scenes, and scenes with chains, and…well, it gets very creepy in this book. But for now, suffice it to say that Rand seems to believe that this is as far as Dagny would rise.
More properly, she seems to feel that this is as high up as she can place Dagny. It’s not because she doesn’t feel that she could write from the position of someone at the top of the heap: she writes from Rearden’s perspective, after all. And it isn’t that she doesn’t think Dagny is really running the company. It’s just that Ayn Rand had a deeply fucked up view of women, and this is one small but nasty tentacle of that sexist octopus.
But leaving aside the metatext: Dagny seems shockingly unwilling to engage in the sort of commonplace Wall Street power play she should’ve made a year ago. She is apparently willing to continue to let this company that she loves be destroyed rather than simply displacing Jim. The logic, apparently, is that if Rand just makes Jim slimy enough, our sense of outrage will prevent us from noting that she hasn’t kicked his whiny ass out of the captain’s chair.
I suppose if you were to corner Rand, she would say that the reason her villains are so weak and wishy-washy is that they are not the real villains at all: the weakness and wishy-washyness is the true villain of the story. But as our little lamented previous president so aptly showed, you can’t declare war on a word.
And you can’t have heroes who don’t do things. Well, ok, perhaps in the coolest most post-modern novels, you could have a hero who saves the world through inaction. But Rand hates those smelly post-modernists and their silly ideas that maybe, just maybe, we should take off the rose tinted glasses once in a while. For traditional manly men like Hank Rearden, action is life. They live to move, to fight, to be what Wolf Larsen called the biggest piece of the firmament.
And, if there is a novel that stands in sharp contrast to Atlas Shrugged, it is Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. I bring this up for two reasons. One, I need a little break from writing about Atlas Shrugged here, and two, this novel couldn’t be a better response to Objectivism if the back cover photo was Jack London peeing on a copy of “The Fountainhead.”
For those of you that haven’t run across this one, it’s the story of a literary gentleman who is shanghaied onto a seal hunting ship. This ship is run by the monstrous Wolf Larsen, who believes in no God, no good, no philosophy but “The strong survive by eating the weak.” It was published 53 years before Atlas Shrugged, and sets out to disprove Rand’s central thesis. Wolf Larsen is, physically and mentally, very close to the perfect man. He is inhumanly physically strong, teaches himself calculus and invents a revolutionary new star chart. And he is a brute. With no philosophy but his own success, he is cruel and rapacious, killing or not killing, destroying or not destroying on his own whim. He is a renegade, and like the wolf, admirable from a safe distance.
Rand lacks London’s courage, for even while her heroes reject society and its shackles, they do so in a half-hearted manner. She claims that she has created man taken to his limits, shown human beings perfected. That her philosophy taken to the extreme (what Atlas Shrugged claims to portray) creates Man Perfected. London neatly cuts the feet out from under this argument. The central, and extremely unsubtle subtext of his novel is that man left to his own devices, given power and strength, without even the bonds we place on ourselves, becomes a brute destroyer, given over to pleasure and what London calls “piggishness.”
That Rand’s characters do not become Wolf Larsen’s shows that Rand is lying to herself. That her claim that her characters can believe that the highest good is individual profit, is simply a lie. (And before you go, “But yes, that book is fiction, it doesn’t constitute proof!” remember that Rand herself believes that this novel is a proof. A is A, Ms. Rand. You seem fond of that argument.)
So, this point is where Rand first starts to lose what little coherence this novel had in the first place.
“I’m not interested in. helping anybody. I want to make money.”
“That’s an impractical attitude. Selfish greed for profit is a thing of the past. It has been generally conceded that the interests of society as a whole must always be placed first in any business undertaking which-”
“How long do you intend to talk in order to evade the issue, Jim?”
“The order for Rearden Metal.”…
She remained silent; he was forced to ask, “Did you decide to order it just like that, on the spur of the moment, over a telephone?”
“I decided it six months ago. I was waiting for Hank Rearden to get ready to go into production.”
“Don’t call him Hank Rearden. It’s vulgar.”
“That’s what everybody calls him. Don’t change the subject.”
“Why did you have to telephone him last night?”
“Couldn’t reach him sooner.”
“Why didn’t you wait until you got back to New York and-”
“Because I had seen the Rio Norte Line.”
“Well, I need time to consider it, to place the matter before the Board, to consult the best-“
“There is no time.”
“You haven’t given me a chance to form an opinion.”
“I don’t give a damn about your opinion. I am not going to argue with you, with your Board or with your professors. You have a choice to make and you’re going to make it now. Just say yes or no.”
Ok, so, lets get unpacking, shall we campers?
First of all, no liberal in the history of Liberalism has ever dreamed of saying: “Selfish greed for profit is a thing of the past. It has been generally conceded that the interests of society as a whole must always be placed first in any business undertaking.” That’s not liberalism. That’s not even communism. That’s not even Marxism. It’s Stalinism, in the sense that Stalin’s ministry of propaganda might say something like that.
Second, if Dagny decided this six months ago (seven months after the contract was actually due, already an act of fantastic irresponsibility) why didn’t she do something then? All we have heard is how dire the situation is, and yet there is no indication that Dagny could not have done this a full year ago. Which, again, reflects on her. If we are to believe that she is the person Rand claims she is, there is no way around it- she has been acting irresponsibly. Lackadaisically, even.
Third-that little line at the end. Again, Rand is uncertain of the mechanics of her own world. It could be supposed that if all decisions had to go through the board in the first place, that Dagny would’ve been helpless until now. But if all that was required was to bully Jim, then, again, why not a year ago?
The most striking thing about this entire scene is the almost petulant unprofessionalism that we are expected to applaud. The Slacktivist has often commented on this in the Left Behind books. There, supposed ‘journalist’ Buck routinely treats important figures with the same sort of petulance that Dagny shows here. One of the marks of the true professional is that they never lose their cool. Later on in the book, reactions to bad news are described in near erotic detail, and the thing that Rand stresses is the cool professionalism of her characters. That no matter what, you never let ‘em see you sweat.
And to their credit, most of these other characters actually do maintain their professionalism in the most dire situations. Except Dagny. Throughout the book, she will be notable as the least professional of the assorted businessmen. And it starts here, with this petulant and passive-aggressive discussion with her brother that she should have had a year ago.
The next few pages are filled with foreshadowing and a somewhat turgid description of Rearden’s factory. With lines like “They saw towers that looked like contorted skyscrapers, bridges hanging in mid-air, and sudden wounds spurting fire from out of solid walls. They saw a line of glowing cylinders moving through the night; the cylinders were red-hot metal,” it’s hard not to feel that Rand likes machines just a little too much.
The next interesting piece is in her description of the trains passengers.
A passenger, who was a professor of economics, remarked to his companion: “Of what importance is an individual in the titanic collective achievements of our industrial age?” Another, who was a journalist, made a note for future use in his column: ‘Hank Rearden is the kind of man who sticks his name on everything he touches. You may, from this, form your own opinion about the character of Hank Rearden.’
Ayn Rand has the mark of the true hack, in that her characters always talk like they know they’re in an Ayn Rand novel. Her characters declaim, or pontificate, or deliver biting commentary. They never just talk. Not once, in this novel, is there a real human conversation; just twin strawmen in ironic juxtaposition. Every conversation is a battle with a pre-determined end. Human contact is no more than a confrontation from a ‘70’s chop socky flick, a desperate struggle to see whose conversational kung-fu is stronger. No wonder none of the other characters like these assholes. If every time you went up to Francisco D’Anconia to chit-chit about the latest Charlie Chaplin movie you got twenty minutes on the superiority of industrial magnates, you’d start to hold a grudge too.
And finally, a good place to stop for the day, as we introduce the next player in our little drama: Hank Rearden.
Swinging through the darkness of the shed, the red glare kept slashing the face of a man who stood in a distant corner; he stood leaning against a column, watching. The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice-then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair- then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them: this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five.
He sounds dreamy.
Until next time, campers.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
It’s like one of those games they used to play on Sesame Street. You know, the one where they show you two red things and one blue thing, and ask, which of these things is not like the others? Except sometimes they’d screw up, and show a red triangle, a blue triangle, and a red square. And when six-year-old me goes “The square,” Grover (who they had running things before that punk Elmo took over) would say “The Red Triangle, very good!” And I’d get upset, start shouting at the TV, because it was OBVIOUS that those were two triangles. I mean, duh. I’m not saying this to indicate that at such a young age I was already ignoring color over substance, but to point out that even the best of intentions can be misread.
I like words. I hold the English language and its use in almost totemic awe, and I believe with Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. And yesterday, I tried to use the right words.
I don’t like directly addressing the comments. It is too easy for otherwise good blogs to become echo chambers for arguments between the commentator and the metacommentators. Slacktivist, who is very much my blogging idol, doesn’t often do this, and I don’t want to do it that much either. But in this case, I think its appropriate.
A lot of the comments (even from those who otherwise agree with me) seem to think that I am calling for us to be the nice guys. That I am issuing a call for civility and calm public discourse. This is profoundly not the case. And the confusion, I think, comes from my use of these two words, good and kind. And from the perception of those two words together to mean nice.
Hitler, by all accounts, was a pretty nice guy. He was friendly, warm, seems to have been interested in the doings and lives of his underlings. He was very polite, and loved kissing babies. He was a nice guy. He was also so profoundly evil that he has become a metaevil-a gold standard for measuring the evil of lesser madmen.
And in contrast, I’d like to turn your attention to two items. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” You’ve seen them before, seen them analyzed, but look at them again. Lincoln calls for “malice towards none, charity for all,” without for a moment backing down on the fundamental rightness of his actions. In the same speech in which he calls for mercy to those had perpetuated a war for the continuation of slavery, he says: “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.” That is not a nice thing to say. That is not a conciliatory, compromising, “Oh, lets all just get along” thing to say. That is the hard truth. But at the same time, then man of all men who could have called for his enemies to be driven before him, and done it to thunderous applause, chooses to ask for, “Malice towards none, and charity towards all.” This is a man being good. Being very, very good, as it so happens. And he is being kind.
Or let us turn our attention to the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To those who would ask him to sit down and shut up for the sake of peace and quiet, he writes “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” That is being kind. Even generous.
But King is not being nice. King is calling for a transformation, a complete overthrow of the current system. King is saying that he will continue to cause a goddamned ruckus, and he won’t feel bad about it. King is saying to those clergymen “You are wrong. You are fundamentally and damagingly wrong.” Or look at this line: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
Where I come from, that’s called calling someone out. It is not, by people who are focused on “nice,” considered a very nice thing to do. But it is a good thing to do, and in this case, it is done kindly. Because I think that being good and being kind walk hand in hand. Being kind does not mean never shouting. As King so neatly demonstrates, it does not mean never saying that the other person is horribly, terribly, and destructively wrong. It does not mean being mild mannered and gentle. King never was. King could let go with a blast of words that shook the foundations of the world. But he was always kind.
What it does mean is that you don’t judge them as people. What it does mean is that you don’t call them evil. You may call their actions and their beliefs evil, you may call the effects of those actions evil. (as I did. Multiple times.) But you do not call them, the person, evil. Because good men and women do not stand in judgment of others, save for transgressions so severe that the evil in their souls becomes apparent to all. When the charge of evil becomes not a judgment call, but an observation. And good people, the really good people, they know that there is a fundamental core of goodness in the human heart. They know that not as you know that 2 + 2=4, but the way you know the really important things, the way that you know your mother loves you. They know this because to not know this, to believe instead that people, even some people, are fundamentally bad, that they have crossed the line from good into evil not just in some of their actions but in their souls, is to admit that they have become monsters. And monsters cannot be argued with. Monsters must be fought, tooth and nail, lest they destroy us all.
So what I’m calling for isn’t for you to roll over and go, “Oh, ok Glenn Beck, you just go bebopping along your merry way.” I’m not calling for you to engage in some sort of extreme hippy-dippy bullshit, where everyone is right and no one is wrong. I’m telling you to get out there and fight. I’m telling you to go out there and lay some mushroom clouds like Martin did, and like Mandela did, and like all the other big guns did. And I’m telling you that you should do it the way they did. Be good to those you fight. Be kind to those you fight. Fight. But fight with malice towards none, with charity for all. Because we do not wrestle with malign powers and principalities, but with otherwise good people who are, I know, not willfully and truly evil, but horribly, and painfully mistaken.
And I think sometimes, that we do the same thing Glenn Beck does, and we do it with the same reason. Presuming for a moment, that Glenn Beck does not actually believe what he says. Why then would he say it? Why call Obama a Nazi and a communist? Because otherwise Glenn Beck would look like a complete tool. To you and I, who know full well that Obama is nothing of the sort, he sounds like a total tool. But to those who have been deluded, and lied to, he sounds like a hero. If you believed Obama was a Nazi, Glenn Beck would not be a pompous asshole. He’d be goddamned Winston Churchill.
And let us look to our own backyards. I have heard many, many people comparing the Tea Party to the Nazis. To fascists. To the KKK, to the Nuremburg Rallies, to every sort of hyperbolic evil we can think of.
And yet, there have been no lynchings, no killings. Simply more and more stupid and hyperbolic speech on both sides. And I think we are doing this for the same reason that Glenn Beck does. Because if we were to admit to ourselves that these people are not evil Nazi fascists who want to stick us in concentration camps, but simply a large block of people who, by shouting in an echo chamber, have come to some pretty weird ideas, we’d look a bit hyperbolic ourselves. We are using the same language, the same tactics, the same ideological warfare that Glenn Beck uses. And against who? Against one half the Republican party, a group that seems to be causing little more than a tempest in a teapot, if you’ll pardon the pun.
They are not stupid and evil. They are not evil fascists. They are not filled with hate and rage and murder.
They. Are. People. People with some goddamned weird ideas, sure. But people. Not evil people, not saints. People. People who are doing bad things not because they’re cackling maniacs but because they’re scared, or they’re confused, or they’ve been listening to their own echos until it sounds like reason, or some combination thereof. But they are not evil. They are doing evil things, and that is wrong, but THEY. ARE. NOT. EVIL. And its not just me saying this. It’s Martin and Lincoln and Gandhi and everyone else you’ve ever admired. This is what the good guys had to say about their enemies, enemies whose malice was far beyond a Glenn Beck. So we can continue to shout and rage, and get the cheap adrenal rush of screaming and shouting. Or we can be the good guys. Not the nice guys, but the good guys. We can be kind, and good, and extend that open hand without backing down an inch from the rightness of our cause. Without easing up a hair on the firmness of our rhetoric. Without rolling over and giving up. Without giving in to the temptation to become the monsters that we fight. We can do it, because they did it. And because they won. It took time, it took effort, it even took blood, but they won. All of them. And we will to.
“When I sleep, I dream about a great discussion with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty. And when I wake up, I think, ‘I can sell that.’”- Josiah Bartlett
I know you were expecting another installment of Stupid Things Libertarians Say, and trust me, I’ll get back to that soon enough. There is an almost endless array of fresh inanities from that end of the political spectrum.
But you cannot be a commentator, you cannot speak glibly of the foolishness of others without being willing to turn your critical gaze on your own backyard. I am a liberal. I am proud to be a liberal. I have always been proud to be a liberal. Liberals believe in good things. Liberals believe that all people should be free and that all people are worth taking care of. Liberals believe, in a way, that no one is beyond redemption. And though I am an atheist, I have always felt that part of being a Liberal is to believe like Christians do, that there is no one beyond salvation, and no one too lost to be worth saving.
One of the fundamental ideas in liberalism is that there are two sides to every story. That everyone, everywhere has a reason and a story behind their actions. And when we discuss any conflict, whether it is Israel and Palestine, or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the basic thrust of our discussions is to see both sides. Because without being able to see both sides of any conflict, that any stance as made up of human beings with reasons and beliefs, we become no better than those we fight. Without the ability to understand that our opponents are first and fundamentally human beings, we begin to lose our own humanity. If we cannot see that they are people, understand their tears and their laughter, understand the love and the passion and the fear that drives them, how can we ever expect to so be seen?
We fight those who would with one sweeping gesture, condemn the Islamic religion. We fight those who with a thought would dismiss en masse all blacks, all Hispanics as criminals and interlopers in an America made for the white race. Those who would take the actions of a few criminals in Harlem or South Central, or the actions of a few madmen on September 11th, and say that in the actions of those few can be read the purpose and nature of all. This is the bigotry that we fight.
And part of being a liberal is being able to accept that the world is a big and complicated place. There are seven billion people on this planet. This is a big and complicated world, with big and complicated problems, and part of being a liberal is being able and willing to grapple with that complexity, to accept that there are no easy answers, no glib and sweeping statements that can hold any real truth. We accept that to deal with the problems of the world will mean no simple solutions, no easy fixes, but great and collective societal efforts, and small, constant steps towards a better world. We accept that it will be messy and complicated as the world is messy and complicated.
To be a liberal is to grapple with people. To understand both that there are seven billion unique and infinitely complex individuals with which we share this rock, and to understand that each one of those people is much the same as us, has many of the same desires, fears, and dreams. To understand that in that dazzling and overwhelming mass of humanity there are underlying common threads by which our fellow man becomes understandable. But fundamentally, to understand that each of this incalculable herd is a beautiful and amazing individual, worthy of love and respect.
And it seems most passing strange that, as liberals, we will seek to understand the belief and agency that drives 19 young men to fly planes into skyscrapers, or drives a Northern Irish Paddy to firebomb a house, and yet we cannot turn that same comprehensive and understanding gaze on those in our own country. We cannot seem to see them as simple, amazing people, ultimately worthy of love and respect. In this case, I am speaking specifically of the way that we as liberals view Republicans.
Republicans are our great bogyman. For eight years we lived under George Bush, and witnessed the cataclysmic failure of the modern Republican agenda- from the callousness seen during Katrina to the idiotic and rash invasion of Iraq and the fundamentally ruinous handling of the economy. But what we fail to remember is that these people, these Republican people, make up a great wedge of the population, a group far too large to be ignored or cast aside. The Republican party has 55 million registered voters. The percentage of people who identify as Republican hovers around the 33% mark. 33%. One third of the country. Literally one hundred million people who identify themselves as Republicans.
And yet Liberals have little problem with saying Republicans — not some Republicans, not those Republicans in the public eye, like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, but Republicans, full stop — are stupid and evil. And I wonder sometimes why we are so incapable of looking at these people with the same understanding and compassion that we are so quick to offer to terrorists. To criminals. Why can we not extend the same grace toour fellow Americans that we so quickly proffer to the rest of the world? Why can we not understand their story with the same reflexive nature with which we seek the roots of the conflict in Palestine or the rise of Fundamentalist Islam?
I think it’s because we’re too close. We’ve never been bombed by Israeli planes. We’ve never seen the riots when the Orangemen march, or feared a Palestinian mortar round. We have the privilege of distance, and with that distance comes an ability to see perspective and depth that we cannot apply to our lesser but home grown issues. These are the people we must argue against, we must fight, we must oppose to create our greater world, the world that has been in our dreams for two hundred years and more. What Johnson called “The Great Society.” And they are fighting for their own dream, a dream that we cannot understand but that stands in fundamental opposition to ours. It is the nature of conflict to dehumanize the enemy. To say that they are less than us, that we hold the moral and intellectual high ground. That we are better people, and that those we are fight must be stupid and evil, or else why would they oppose us? We, after all, are right. And they are wrong. And if they cannot see the light, they must be blind.
In the course of my blogging, I’ve drifted off in a different direction from where I started. The earlier posts here are more clearly focused on the “New Scum,” the idea I drew the title of this blog from. The New Scum are the disenfranchised of the world, those without power, without money, without influence. Those outside of the great machine that drives the world, who are crushed under its treads, who are ground in its cogs. It’s you and me. Unless Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have stumbled across this blog (and if you have, please send money) it’s all of us.
And the biggest trick ever played on the New Scum is the idea that there are separate and disparate groupings, that this group must be on one side, and this group on the other. That there is such a thing as black and white, middle class and lower class, blue collar and white collar. When in reality, we are all in the same boat, and it is not the ship of power. We are the greatest force in human history because there are more of us than there has ever been before, and yet we continue to squabble endlessly over differences that are no differences, over perceived issues set in place as shiny and meaningless baubles to distract us from the fact that we’re all getting screwed, and getting screwed by the same people.
And the Republicans are in the boat along with us. These people are not stupid. They are not evil. They are not blind morons staggering around in an orgy of callous destruction. They are our fellow Americans. They are from all walks of life, all levels of society and education, and to casually dismiss them as stupid does both sides a grave injustice. What they are is wrong. Wrong, at least, from our point of view.
To engage in this fatuous mudslinging is not only pointless, it is creating a schism. A deeper and deeper schism in American life between those on the liberal side and those on the conservative side. Every round of name calling, of mutual accusations of stupidity, anti-American sentiment, willful destruction, societal sabotage and whatever other charges we continuously pile up at each other’s doors, pulls us further apart. It dehumanizes us both, because you cannot demonize your fellow man without reducing yourself. Every drop of foaming anger, every moment spent in general and sweeping condemnation, is another small cut into our collective souls. And every inch that we push these people away into a small box labeled “Other,” is a step we take away from our own decency.
These are serious charges. And I do not make them lightly. I will freely admit, I am as guilty as the next person in line of making broad statements about Republicans, of making jokes and comments about their stupidity. But the more I watch what passes for public discourse, the more I am convinced that this endless cycle of retort and counter-retort only strengthens our enemies and destroys ourselves. It destroys the best parts of us, the empathy, the understanding, the ability to comprehend the complexity of the world by forcing our perception of that complexity into the two simple categories of Stupid and Evil. It makes us like the worst of them, like the Glenn Beck’s of the world, to whom all Muslims are potential terrorists, all Liberals traitors in waiting. Glenn Beck cannot or will not acknowledge what every Liberal should know in their bones: that there are a lot of people with a lot of beliefs, and that most of those people are fundamentally the same, with a difference in political varnish so small as to be laughably unimportant in the grand scheme of humanity. There is an old saying that you should never fight with a pig, you both get dirty, and the pig enjoys it. Why then, would we borrow these cheap and dirty tactics?
The most common response I hear when I bring these issues up is a reminder that Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin use them. As one person I know put it, “I’ll stop demonizing Conservatives when they stop jabbing me with pitchforks.” And I sympathize with that feeling. I too have friends who have been hurt by the mistaken beliefs of conservatives. I have friends who would like to marry, who cannot, whose honest love is denied by a hateful and unnecessary bigotry. I am not seeking to exculpate conservatives of the harm that they have done or the pain that they have caused. But their souls are in their own keeping, and I cannot speak to that. All I can speak to is my own people.
And it is tempting to lash out, to return blow for blow and to use their same cheap and vicious weapons against them. But it seems to me that when your justification for using these weapons is nothing more than “Well, they started it!” it is time to reconsider these tactics. What is more, I believe that the liberals are the good guys. That we stand on the right side of the lord, on the right side of the arc of the universe which is long, but which bends towards justice. But being the good guys comes at a price. Being the good guys as a nation means there are some things we cannot do, tactics of our enemies that should be barred to us by our own decency. Things like torture, and terroristic attacks on civilian populations.
And as people, as the good guys, there are tactics that are barred to us as well. It would be good politics to play the cards that Karl Rove used against John McCain in 2000, spreading the rumor that he had an out of wedlock black child. Playing on cheap morality, bigotry and slander worked for Rove. It was good politics. But it was wrong. It was evil, cheap, cruel and vicious. And the good guys don’t do that because we are the good guys, and that means something. That means we stand for something. That means we don’t just use whatever weapons come to hand but fight as cleanly as we can. We avoid the cheap shot, and the easy, callous and alienating because we know that we are not fighting monsters, but people like ourselves. And we know that we are better than they are.
At this point, I’d like to take a bit and discuss heroes. Heroes are odd creatures. Canonization, whether formal or informal, tends to strip away a bit of their humanity, making heroes into unfamiliar, almost inhuman characters. But to me, the true inspiration of a Gandhi, an MLK, an Oscar Romero or a Susan B. Anthony has been that they were only human. That we too, are capable of their courage, their vision, their humanity and compassion.
But heroes are more than figures to be posted on your wall, or convenient eunuchs to serve as subjects for reflective college essays. To hold someone as your hero means that you find in them some calling force, something that pulls you forward into more admirable actions. That they serve as a sort of prop, a support that by their example bears up your own insufficient strength. And I cannot help but believe that those who we revere as heroes would be deeply and irrevocably opposed to this mutually destructive and alienating practice of judgment and condescension. The response that I have heard to this point is that we are not Gandhi, or MLK. To which I respond that we should be thankful that our enemies are not theirs. If Martin Luther King could face the blind and vicious hatred of Bull Connor and Jim Clark and still say In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, then I think it is not too much to ask that we face the infinitely less malicious Glenn Beck with the same charity of spirit. If we cannot rise with our lesser strength to a lesser evil, then perhaps we should no longer call these men our heroes, and instead put them down as historical oddities, freaks of nature twisted by fortune into something greater than our mean strength and courage can aspire. But I do not believe that is the case. I believe that same greatness is within us. That our strength is equal to this smaller task of charity and love to which we have been called.
And finally, I would like to turn my attention to a less pleasant task. To begin, I would like to say that I have nothing but respect and admiration for Fred Clark. I dream of being half the writer he is. He is one of the most humane and kind writers I have ever read, and has a generosity of spirit I envy. He is very much the sort of person I would like to someday be. But in this case, I completely disagree with him.
He writes here:
52 percent of Republicans believe that President Barack Obama “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”
More than half of all Republicans say they believe this. The same poll found that 59 percent of Republicans believe “Obama favors the interests of Muslim Americans over other groups.”…The stupidity required here is just too vast, too disabling, for it to be a plausible or a possible explanation.
And that only leaves one choice: More than half of Republicans are evil. They’re lying. And lying out of malice.
Their telephone rang, they answered it and thought, “Ooh, here’s a chance to bear false witness against my neighbor” and then proceeded to do so in the hopes that it will improve their prospects for seizing political power. Because political power won by deceit and malice is so very democratic.
I’m not the one who handed Republicans this rope. I didn’t force them to tie it into a noose and slip it around their own necks. No one made them do this to themselves and no one encouraged them to do this to themselves.
So you can’t complain about my identifying them as evil here — as awful, mendacious gossips with a contempt for the democratic process. This is information about themselves that they eagerly volunteered on their own. Given the chance to respond to a poll, they proudly seized the opportunity to declare to all the world that they are malicious liars willing to embrace any slander, no matter how ridiculous, if they think it might improve their electoral hopes.
And I disagree. I do not think this people are as malicious, as evil as Mr. Clark claims. I cannot believe that anywhere from thirty to fifty million people are simply evil. Or stupid. And I say that because I know these people. There are people in my family, good, kind, generous and loving people who believe that. People who give to charity. People like my grandmother, who sends hundreds of dollars a month to orphanages in Haiti, and who sends even more to disaster relief whenever there is an earthquake or tsunami. This is not the act of an evil woman. I know many others who are charitable, kind, and loving. Good people. People who give to charity, who stop and give rides to strangers on the street. People who are the first on your doorstep in a family crisis, people who would give you the shirt off their backs without a thought or a whimper. I have seen these people, I have known them all my life in a thousand different forms.
But there is a strange characteristic of many people who are good, and honest, and hardworking. They are easily tricked. Their own honesty is such a bedrock of their lives that it does not enter into their minds that people could willingly carry on with the massive and evil lies of a Sarah Palin or a Glenn Beck. They trust others, believing that others are as honest as they, as good as they. And so when they are lied to, and on such a massive scale, they believe it because they cannot think so poorly of someone to believe that they are charlatans, liars and frauds. Their own charity of spirit betrays them to the vicious and predatory wolves who feed on their honest duplicity.
And here, I think, Mr. Clark has taken a stance against those whose only crime is their own honesty and trust. Do I think that in those tens of millions, they are all good and honest people? No, I’m sure there are many who fit Mr. Clark’s description of willful and self-delusional liars. But not all of them. Not most of them. Most of them are good, smart, and honest people who have been viciously and willfully lied to. And it is the liars we should attack, not those on whom they prey.
I don’t want this to be seen as an attack, or a condemnation. I am not trying to say that you are bad for calling Republicans stupid or evil. Nor am I trying to set them up as saints. Their actions have done a great deal of harm, and caused a great deal of pain. But attacking them, calling them stupid and evil, is not the path we should walk. It is the easy way, the quick and mindless way, but it is cheap. More importantly, it is driving a permanent and, I fear, dangerous wedge between us and our fellow citizens. We cannot chose those who share our country, but we can choose the methods by which we deal with them. We can — we should — be the examples, showing the tawdry and classless nature of our enemies by our own better nature. We should be seeking reconciliation and common ground across this boundary. No one has ever been convinced by being called a fool. And no one has ever been ennobled by calling someone else a fool.
We have a choice. To extend across this gap a hand of fellowship, or to stand on the brink shouting insults until the banks crumble beneath us and drop us into unknown depths. To raise the level of debate, or let it die. This is the nation that spawned Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, Bull Connor and Father Coughlin, David Duke and the KKK. But for each of these vicious and demagogic monsters, there has always been an equal and greater opposing force, meeting their hatred with love, their alienation with inclusivity. Now it is our turn. We have our own battles to fight, and it is our choice whether we will take the high ground of moral consciousness, of grace, reaching out to our fallen and mistaken brethren not with condescension and rage, but with a kind and friendly hand, and move together to build a greater future.
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.
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.
Atlas Shrugged pgs 2-5
I don’t wanna do it, don’t make me! Please mommy, don’t let the bad lady hurt me anymore. I won’t use anymore wire hangers…
*sigh* So, without any further sobbing, wailing, attempts to give myself testicular cancer with a glow in the dark watch, or trying to change my name to Juan and move to Tijuana…Ladies and Gents: Atlas Shrugged!
“Who is John Galt?”
That’s how she starts the book off. Well, in case you haven’t heard, John Galt is the perfected man. He won’t show up for about another 700 pages though, so don’t hold your breath. In Rand’s world, the phrase “Who is John Galt?”is pervasive. It is an expression of despair and depression, that the world is fundamentally screwed and there is nothing that can be done about it.
Of course, this is also a sign of the incredible low level of curiosity shown by anyone besides Our Craggy Heroes ™. No one bothers to do any research, investigation, zip. At the end, it will turn out that “John Galt” has been on the payroll of Taggart Transcontinental all along. And no one noticed. No one looked at his pay stub, none of the people he worked with, none of the people who paid him ever commented on it. These people aren’t just uncurious, they’re inhuman. Think of your reaction if you met someone named Thomas Cruise, or even Henry Ford. Their name, their face would stick with you more clearly, even though they only shared a name with someone famous. Humans search for patterns, and the idea that no one would comment, that no one would notice this guy has exactly the same name as the guy in that saying is literally impossible. Humans don’t work like that.
So the book opens from the perspective of Eddie Willers. And here’s the thing. I like Eddie. Eddie is a nice guy. Eddie acts like a human being. He isn’t some inhumanly dramatic Nordic God of Industry, he isn’t some whiny schmuck. He’s just a guy, caught up in events beyond his ken. Actually, Eddie might be the most important character in the book. See, Eddie is one of those people that keeps things running. The secret that Rand missed, even though it runs through the book like a thread, is that the John Galt’s and Dagny Taggart’s of the world don’t actually run things. Dagny spends about half the book traveling, in hiding, working on another railroad, and generally doing things that are not “Running Taggart Transcontinental.” Who runs it while she’s gone? Eddie. When she goes missing in Colorado and plays “hide the gold bar” with Galt, who runs things? Eddie. When she and Rearden travel around the US hunting down motors, who runs the office? Eddie.
One of the turning points of this book will be the eventual, inevitable downfall of Taggert Transcontinental. Dagny spends pages raging against this like the good lil’ ubermensch she is. Eddie doesn’t. Eddie just keeps things running.
I like Eddie.
When we meet Eddie, however, he is having a little crisis. A bum has asked him for a dime.
“Who is John Galt?”
The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum’s face …yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still-as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
“Why did you say that?” asked Eddie Willers, his voice tense.
“Why does it bother you?” he asked.
“It doesn’t,” snapped Eddie Willers.
He reached hastily into his pocket. The bum had stopped him and asked for a dime, then had gone on talking, as if to kill that moment and postpone the problem of the next. Pleas for dimes were so frequent in the streets these days that it was not necessary to listen to explanations, and he had no desire to hear the details of this bum’s particular despair.
“Go get your cup of coffee,” he said, handing the dime to the shadow that had no face. ‘Thank you, sir.’ said the voice, without interest, and the face leaned forward for a moment.”
Yep. This is the most likable character in the book. Look dude, you’re going to your high-powered, well paying job. Give the guy a fucking dime and spare us the drama, ok? You can afford it. Hell, he even thanks you. I mean you gave the guy a dime, what do you want, a boot licking? (Also, literary note. WE KNOW THE GUYS FUCKING NAME, AYN. YOU DON’T NEED TO KEEP REPEATING IT LIKE WE’RE UNUSUALLY SLOW KINDERGARTENERS.)
Again, this illustrates a fundamental part of Libertarian thinking. It’s not just the idea of charity or generosity that bothers them. It’s the idea that people aren’t grateful enough. Never mind that this is a polite, respectful bum, he is “without interest.” Because you know, when someone gives me a free dime, I am overjoyed. This poor bum doesn’t realize the simple joy of a dime. I mean, a dime! What ecstatic joy is in the word! Stupid bums not appreciating the value of a good dime.
But Eddie is feeling a “causeless unease”
“It’s the twilight, he thought; I hate the twilight.”
(Say it with me everyone: SYMBOLISM!)
“He turned a corner. In the narrow space between the dark silhouettes of two buildings, as in the crack of a door, he saw the page of a gigantic calendar suspended in the sky.”
Worst. Acid trip. EVER.
“It was the calendar that the mayor of New York had erected last year on the top of a building, so that citizens might tell the day of the month as they told the hours of the day, by glancing up at a public tower. A white rectangle hung over the city, imparting the date to the men in the streets below. In the rusty light of this evening’s sunset, the rectangle said: September 2.”
That’s a really, really, really stupid idea. I mean, really stupid. A giant calendar? Who the hell wants a giant calendar? I mean if it had some kittens playing with string, or a bunch of classic ‘vettes, yeah, I could see that. But just a plain old calendar? It’s like the worst present ever from your grandmother. Except that your grandmother is the Mayor of New York. And she just blew a few million of your tax dollars on a friggin’ sky calendar.
“Eddie Willers looked away. He had never liked the sight of that calendar. It disturbed him, in a manner he could not explain or define. The feeling seemed to blend with his sense of uneasiness; it had the same quality.”
Really? It doesn’t make you angry, Eddie Willers? You don’t think it’s a horrible waste of public money, Eddie Willers? It just makes you sad, Eddie Willers? You’re such a puss, Eddie Willers.
You know, I get it. I really get why their world is falling apart. Because none of the “movers and shakers” ever get angry. Well, they do, but it’s always a sort of helpless and confused rage. “What can we do?” they cry. “We’re only powerful industrialists! We have no ability to affect the course of anything!” They never start a petition or pay off a senator or even write a letter. They just sit around, and then get all sad and outraged, but in a quiet and noble way, like an Indian watching you litter.
And I find myself understanding old people now. The sort of anger that Dagny and Hank and John feel isn’t the anger of the dynamic and youthful men and woman of action they are. It is the sort of helpless, gnawing rage of someone grown too old, in a world they do not understand. And so they shake their fists and curse the youth and vote for whoever reminds them of Ronnie, because they don’t understand and this frightens them. It is understandable, and heartbreaking in the old. It is unforgiveable in the young.
And this is the same attitude we see among the superrich today. Witness the reactions of the car companies any time a new requirement is added, be it seatbelts, or mileage requirements, or safety glass. Instead of either A) doing it or B) listing reasons why it can’t be done, they simply wibble and whine like two year olds who just lost snack time.*
“But but but, we can’t possibly do that! Profit margins! Engineering! LAYOFFS!” You halfway expect them to bring their mothers to the Congressional hearings. And then, if they’re lucky, they get congressmen (*cough* Barton *cough*) apologizing to them for the heinous crime of expecting them not make a horrible mess of the entire world. Because they’re suffering!
So Eddie wanders down the street. He sees a stall full of fresh produce, and a well driven bus, and feels better. 🙂 But then he sees the calendar again and feels sad. 😦 And then he sees stuff for sale and he’s all 🙂 again. And then he thinks about a tree and is all :(. And then he gets to work and is all 🙂
Brutha needs some lithium, know what I’m sayin’?
So blah, blah, blah, childhood memories, the world is changing, I can feel it in the water, I can smell it in the air.
Two pages later, he finally gets to work. And meets his boss, the head of the company, one of the most powerful, wealthiest industrialists in the world. James Taggart. The very name is synonymous with trains, with energy, with motion. Oh, what a God this man must be!
“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.
He lifted his head with irritation, at the sound of the opening door.
“Don’t bother me, don’t bother me, don’t bother me,” said James Taggart.”
Now, let us be clear here. Ayn Rand is not saying that all Liberals are ugly.
*flips through rest of book*
No, I tell a lie. She thinks all Liberals are ugly. Presumably her books of philosophy contains, (besides the “Liberals are ugly” argument) the “Liberals are smelly” argument, the “Liberals are poopyheads” argument, and most devastating of all the “So’s your old man” argument.
Again, I refer you to the statement included in the author biography.
“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.”
Ayn Rand feels that her ability to write characters like Galt means that they somehow must exist. So presumably, in her mind, the fact that she writes liberals like James Taggart means that they too must exist.
And again, the sheer arrogance in that statement is so breathtaking, so very far beyond the ken of normal hubris, that it requires a full minute or two of thinking about before you realize what she has done. She has claimed that the fact that she has written something means that it is so.
“And Rand said, let there be Galt. And there was Galt.
And Rand saw the Galt, that it was good: and Rand divided the Galt from the liberals…”
Next time: Deals are made! Rail is bought! Woolen undershirts are sought! And introducing: DAGNY TAAAAAAAGART!
While I did not at all intend the particular edited line to be read that way, part of being a writer is being able to take criticism, and change what you did wrong. And yes, I’m still struggling with my male privilege. (I’m 21, cut me some slack.) And in this case…well, frankly, what I’ve got there now is a better metaphor that what was there before. Cheap shock value is one of those things I’m supposed to be rising above. And as always, thanks to Carolyn for calling me on these screwups. Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux and all that.