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Atlas Shrugged VII: Ecce Homo

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So last time (oh, so long ago) we looked at Hank Rearden. Today though, I’d like to talk about Philip and Lillian Rearden. The most interesting things about these passages, is that they are the first real glimpse we get of the Randian liberals in their native environment. I remind you again of Ayn Rand’s own opinion of her writing: She believed not that she was creating fiction, or propaganda, or even a parable. She believed she was reflecting real life in her work.

Again, the resemblance to conservative, evangelical Christianity is clear.  The fictional works of Tim LaHaye, the pamphlets of Jack Chick, the inane ramblings and obsessive sophistry of Harold Camping all have a common root. These deluded men truly believe, or seem to truly believe, that the fantastic scenarios they concoct are an accurate reflection of real life.

The other thing their works have in common is a strange, almost sociopathic view of human nature. In both Atlas Shrugged and ‘Left Behind,’ characters behave- inhumanly. Many times, the “heroes” of both Rand and LaHaye’s onanistic fantasies casually walk through horror with hardly a backward glance. Rayford Steele, the protagonist of “Left Behind,” walks through burning airports, plagues, and hellfire, thinking only of the inconvenience to himself. In the same vein, Dagny Taggart, John Galt, and even sweet Hank Rearden, will walk past wrecks, disasters, human suffering, with hardly a word or thought.

This common vein is simple- the dollar-sign Christ of Tim LaHaye preaches self-service above all else, as does Rand’s sociopathic Objectivism. This neatly explains why the far right has been able to preserve itself as a solid voting block. On the surface, LaHaye and Rand are fundamentally at odds with each other- on preaching submission to Christ, one the triumph of the new atheist man. (And ‘man’ is the right word- Rand has little room for women in her world.)

And yet these philosophies have at their root, a love of money that transcends all things- Christ or humanity or empathy- all fall before the dollar.

Also before we read this, here’s a piece of advice. If you have to insult your character so we know they’re the bad guys, you aren’t a very good writer.  Which is not to say that insulting your characters never works, but we should be able to tell that they’re schmucks based on what THEY do and say, not what YOU do and say. 

“Paul Larkin was looking at him with the devoted eyes of an inhibited dog.

“Hello, Paul,” said Rearden. “When did you get in?”

            “Oh, I just hopped down on the five thirty-five from New York.” Larkin was smiling in gratitude for the attention.

            “Trouble?”

            “Who hasn’t got trouble these days?”

 Larkin’s smile became resigned, to indicate that the remark was merely philosophical.

“But no, no special trouble this time. I just thought I’d drop in to see you.””

 

Charming.  You know, this could actually be good- if the point of this scene was to show how Rearden, as a total douchebag, saw the people around him. As an honest reflection of supposedly normal reality, it stinks.

 

“”Henry, you work too hard,” said Philip.”It’s not good for you.”

            Rearden laughed. “I like it.”

            “That’s what you tell yourself. It’s a form of neurosis, you know. When a man drowns himself in work, it’s because he’s trying to escape from something. You ought to have a hobby.”

            “Oh, Phil, for Christ’s sake!” he said, and regretted the irritation in his voice.””

 

Oh those silly psychology obsessed liberals with their silly ideas about brains! Everyone knows that Hank Rearden just punches his pain in the face with his big manly fists. Or whatever it is men are supposed to do with their problems.

And of course, Lilian: 

“Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. Rearden had always wondered, since she seemed amused so often, why there was no gaiety in her face.”

Ultimately, the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is empathy; the ability to FEEL for their characters. Even the bad ones. I have no objections to a Liberal as a villain, liberals do bad things all the time. I have objections to strawmen, to false and lying creations who are so devoid of sympathy as to be unbelievable.

The example that always springs to mind is nonfiction, actually. Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich”, is a long, intimate portrayal of Hitler and the rest of the Third Reich’s ruling elite. When I first read it many years ago, I was struck by how drawn I was to Hitler. He was portrayed as charming, funny, caring and intelligent. I felt the same sort of draw to him that one might feel reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography. And that feeling frightened me at first. I knew intellectually that Hitler must have been charming, magnetic, and so on, but actually experiencing it was deeply disturbing. I liked this sorta nuts but ultimately sweet man who cared about his employees and loved his dogs.

However, what Speer is doing is good writing- very good writing. To take the ur-villain, the official Worst Person Ever, and make him likeable, requires a great deal of skill. And it is here that Rand’s most fatal flaw is revealed.

She has no Empathy. None at all.

Empathy is a good thing, despite Glenn Beck’s claims. Empathy is what allows us to care for our friends when they suffer. It is what makes the human experience not one of ‘I’ but “we.” More practically, it is impossible to be a writer of any skill without empathy. It may be possible to be a good painter with no empathy- one need not feel for the light to be a Rembrandt. It may be possible to make good music, beautiful sculptures, or strong bridges without caring about people. But writing, the art and craft of writing, is getting inside of someone else’s head. Presenting the inner self of another being with such feeling as to seem real. Fundamentally, as far as Rand is concerned, Philip and Lillian know they’re the bad guys.  Which misses a rule of humanity so basic it is often missed- everyone thinks they’re the good guy. The worst people to ever live had a mile long list of justifications, and we are no different- we walk through life spreading small graces and petty cruelties almost unconsciously. Who among us doesn’t know at least one right bastard of a human being- and who among us hasn’t been one, at least once? Even when we acknowledge our wrongdoing, it is rarely through our own observations, and never in the heat of the moment. 

Yet Rand’s villains are- cartoonish. The most direct example is not from this book, but from “The Fountainhead.” Ellsworth Toohey often brags about his badness in a false psudeo-villiany. He talks about how he enjoys tearing down better men then he, how much he enjoys destruction for the sake of destruction. He is aware of his badness as if he were his own psychiatrist.

In contrast, look at another villain- Tony Soprano. He spends six years in therapy, and at the end, still justifies his evil, his transgressions as necessary. As excusable. As not so far different from what other people do. Or “Breaking Bad” where chemistry teacher Walt justifies his murderous avarice as being all for his family. Or Scarface, where Tony Montana is just trying to make his way in a hard world.

Everyone has a reason, even the bad guys. Rand does not understand that. She is so subsumed in her own truth that she is incapable of seeing that others hold other truths just as dear.  And in her total lack of comprehension, she is incapable of making her characters real. Real people who have real arguments and real reasons for what they do.

Another sign you’re a bad writer is when you are forced to create strawmen to serve your plot.  When moving your story forward requires characters to act not only in an unrealistic but an inhuman way, it is time to reconsider your plot. No person has ever talked like this, no person has ever acted like this.  The Roman playwright Terence wrote “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” We can recognize in ourselves the love of a Gandhi or the hate of a Hitler- we may not have felt so strongly but we have so felt.  . But what Rand creates is nothing human and it is, therefore, something alien to ourselves, and has no power over us. 

Rand’s failure of empathy means that she is not moved. And in not being moved, she cannot be moving. No tricks of language, no elegance of composition, can substitute for that. 

Written by newscum

September 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm

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.

Written by newscum

August 30, 2010 at 8:18 am

Atlas Shrugged III: The Decider

with 18 comments

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.

No.

No.

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.]
“Judgment.”
“Well, whose judgment did you take?”
“Mine.”
“But whom did you consult about it?”
“Nobody.”
“Then what on earth do you know about Rearden Metal?”
“That it’s the greatest thing ever put on the market.”
“Why?”
“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.

Written by newscum

July 24, 2010 at 7:39 am

Atlas Shrugged: Ending with the Ubermensch

with 20 comments

So, inspired by the brilliant and talented Fred Clark, whose smackdown of the atrocious Left Behind series is both beautiful, humane, and elegant (and you should read it at: slacktivist.typepad.com) I’ve decided that someone should take on that other great book of the whackjob right, and do a page by page breakdown of Atlas Shrugged.

May God have mercy on my soul.

So the game’s afoot: follow your spirit, and upon this charge, cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George! (Enjoy it while you can folks, that’s the last good writing you’ll see for a long time.)

To properly understand this monolithic monograph, it is perversely necessary to begin at the end. The very end. The very last sentence, as it so happens.

“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”

(Get your ass back in that chair, Jack. If I have to read this shit, you’re coming with me. )

So, ironically enough, I think most of this first post will be spent unpacking this very last line in the book. For those fortunate souls who are unfamiliar with Atlas Shrugged, here is a bit of background. The story is primarily told from the viewpoint of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive in a vaguely defined 1920-1950 world. The rest of the world has become communist/socialist/leftist (Rand seems unaware of the distinctions) and the various People’s States are reliant upon the United States for, well…everything. The world is increasingly dominated by weak and whinging men who believe in loving their fellow man above all else. This, combined with rampant corruption, means that all the things built by men of industry are slowly decaying. One of the worst of these corrupt lovers of their fellow men is Dagny’s brother Jim. He is the titular head of the company, but anyone that knows anything knows that Dagny runs the company.
That’s the damn background. Maybe the first hundred pages. This book is literally longer than the Bible, and trust me, an even semi-decent synopsis would run somewhere close to the length of a normal short story. What I’m trying to say here is that this is a fucking epic tome. And for millions of Tea Partiers, it’s better than the Bible. Probably because the Bible doesn’t have quite so much creepy sex or smoking.
So, with that background in mind, bottle of whisky on the desk and, just in case of emergency, a gun with a single bullet in the drawer–lets go.
As I mentioned before, the final sentence is the key to understanding much of the mindset of these books, and I think that most of this first post will be taken up by examining the inherent meanings of this one sentence. Don’t worry, things will speed up later.
So there is a lot going on with this sentence, but the key word is “desolate.” The entire idea behind Atlas Shrugged is that all the movers, the shakers, the competent and skilled, abandon society, apparently leaving it populated entirely with theater majors. These people left behind (oh, trust me, we’ll get into the connection between this and Left Behind VERY soon) die. YAY! But they were all worthless anyway, and they had nasty ideas. Like taking care of the sick and weak. And taxes. But they’re all dead now, so we can go back to a world of strong men who build railroads and angular women who build railroads and get off on being owned by the strong men. And they all smoke. A lot.
From what I can glean, Ayn Rand was one of those people who believed that because she enjoyed something, it meant that that something was automatically a universal good. There are heavy elements of Nietzsche running through her work and life, particularly the concept of the ubermensch, the ultimate man. In John Galt, Ayn Rand essentially creates a fictionalized version of Nietzsche’s ideal man. However, she also viewed herself as a sort of living ubermensch; whatever she did was the best thing. She was a chain smoker, therefore chain smoking was not only a personal choice, but a sign of your worthiness. On page 48, she puts this sentiment into the mouth of an old cigarette seller, a man who has been broken by this new order.

“I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind-and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”

To Rand, the act of smoking was sacramental. It must be, because she smoked. The same ideas apply to her views of sexuality. Rand was apparently a bit kinky. (We’ll get there soon enough folks, keep it in your trousers.) But again, rather than doing what sane people do and simple saying “Ok, this is my kink, it’s my choice” or even having it show up in her work tangentially, she see’s her particular brand of kink as the only proper one. She is in herself the perfection of humanity, therefore whatever she does must also be perfect.

You’re starting to see the connection, aren’t you?

The other notable focus of this sentence besides, you know, Rand’s desire to let everyone who disagreed with her die of slow starvation while she presumably cackled madly and stroked a white Persian, is the almost religious overtones. Galt’s actions are overtly religious; a man who is the savior of humanity stands over a desolate wasteland and reverently traces the symbol of the concept that is most important to him. As his lover watches. It is a blatant and deliberate choice on Rand’s part; the other great theme that runs through this book is that money (Gold, specifically) and Work are holy things, practiced with sacred reverence that is only questioned by those who do not get it and are therefore evil.
It is no coincidence that Glenn Beck routinely shills this book. It is everything the modern Tea Party believes; that working is holy, that they are not merely a bunch of slightly slow people, but they are the wave of the future, the new ubermensch. That what they believe and feel is correct in its totality not because of some outside standard, because outside standards are imposed by liberals. And not by rational, introspective thought, because philosophy is a suckers game. It is correct because they believe it is correct, and they are the superior people, therefore theirs is the superior belief.

Terrifying, isn’t it?

So with that in mind, realizing that Rand and her followers believe in their own infallibility, view money as a religious sacrament with gold a sort of new and lustrous Eucharist, and that if it wasn’t for their presence, we’d all starve to death and we deserve it too…well, lets move on next time to answering that all consuming question.

Who is John Galt?

Written by newscum

July 7, 2010 at 3:18 am