Political Culture: Ayn Rand’s Shangri-La of Self-Interest

Written by Books, Current Events, Political Culture

I tried. I tried so hard. You’ve gotta believe me when I tell you how I tried and tried to finish Ayn Rand’s oversize chronicle of obsessive-compulsive capitalism, Atlas Shrugged, over the holidays so that I could wrap up this series today. Alas, somewhere in the early-late-middle of John Galt’s 32,000-word disquisition on “Men of the Mind,” “Mystics of Muscle,” and other assorted (and alliterative) figments of Rand’s imagination, I fell into a long yet fitful sleep. And after numerous horrifying dreams about Welfare Queens with entitlement complexes … not to mention one very lovely vision of a nude Dagny Taggart presenting me with a pristine copy of the novel’s Cliff’s Notes … I awoke to discover I had slept six days, it was 2010, and somehow our republican (though hardly Republican) form of government had survived into the New Year.

Relieved at the knowledge that the teabaggers had it all wrong, and that President Obama’s first calendar year in office hadn’t concluded with the declaration of a “People’s State,” I decided to throttle back my attempt to finish Atlas Shrugged in time for this column. Instead, my wife and I spent the long weekend dreaming up ridiculous reasons to call each other “moocher” and “looter,” and even that most powerful of Rand-ian insults, “loocher.” That last one, in fact, may yet come to replace “Socialist Schmoopy” as our go-to term of mutual endearment.

I’m sure some of you are quite pained to learn that my heretofore sincere quest to devour Rand’s magnum opus has, temporarily at least, devolved into openly mocking pillow talk with the missus. But don’t despair! Thanks to that magical Internet phenomenon known as the “pingback,” I learned this week that one of our nation’s most respected investigative reporters, the extravagantly mustachioed John Stossel, has picked up this hot potato and run with it — preparing an hourlong program on Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, to be broadcast this very evening at 8 p.m. EST on the Fox Business Network!

I know, I know … but try to contain your excitement. First of all, you’ll have to find FBN, which I had never done until I fired up the TiVo for this purpose. I can tell you that it’s on DirecTV channel 359 (right next to Fox News – thanks for the synergy, Rupert!), and that in New York it’s on channel 43. Second of all, you’ll have to commit to steering your remote toward the channel, which very few people actually do – FBN’s most recent daily rating is about 21,000 souls, less than a tenth of CNBC’s daily viewers and too small a number for Nielsen to measure verifiably. And then you’ll have to spend an hour, you know, looking at John Stossel, a prospect that singlehandedly kept me away from 20/20 for nigh on 30 years.

But I digress. (Hey, I’m reading an 1,168-page novel that really only required about 400. So give me a break!) Without any further ado, here’s a typically jaundiced summary of the first few chapters of Atlas Shrugged‘s Part III (i.e., pages 700-1,000 in my hardback edition):

We last saw our put-upon heroine, the railroad magnate Dagny, plunging her single-engine plane toward a crash-landing on the grassy floor of a valley that had appeared magically in the craggy midst of the Rocky Mountains. (Apparently a key qualification for earning Rand’s respect is the ability to hop nonchalantly into a cockpit and pilot a plane.) Knocked unconscious by the landing, she awakens to see the face of the man whose plane (see?) she had been chasing – none other than John Galt himself. It turns out that Dagny has become the first uninvited interloper to visit “Galt’s Gulch,” a sort of Big-Business Brigadoon to which all of the novel’s vanished industrialists have fled. She spends a month in the valley, learning why Galt’s philosophy of anti-altruism is right for everyone from bankers and copper tycoons to composers and actresses – none of whom seem to need any assistance to ply their trades there, not from tellers or miners or musicians or playwrights. She grows quite enamored of the valley and its raison d’être – and she falls (chastely) in love with Galt, which is a pity for her lover Hank Rearden, who has spent the entire month searching for her in his plane (ahem!) and comes tantalizingly close to crashing the valley himself. Yet even as her hosts convince her that they had to drop out of society, to escape the depraved communitarians who hated them for their success – and even as they beseech her to remain Where the Reviled Things Are (“We’ll Wall Street you up, we love you so!”) – Dagny says no, and travels back in and out of days, and almost over a year …

And back into the morning of her very own office, where her evil brother has left her railroad, and it is still … crumbling, pretty much like the rest of the country. The increasingly totalitarian government, when it’s not developing crazy new weapons to intimidate dissenters, is imposing ever tighter restrictions on commerce and making terrible economic decisions based on cronyism, regionalism and misplaced altruism. Dagny is enlisted to defend the government programs she despises – under the threat of having her affair with Rearden revealed – so she goes on a popular radio show and valiantly reveals it herself, and rails against the nation’s leaders until someone pulls the plug. She then proceeds to pull the plug on her relationship with Hank, even as he declares his love and admits that the “contempt” he’d earlier professed to feel for her (read all about it here, if you’ve forgotten) had been a product of man’s self-destructive morality rather than his own true feelings. (Later, Dagny discovers that Galt has been performing yeoman’s labor for her railroad in order to keep an eye on her … which leads to Dagny and Galt making sexytime in an underground train tunnel. Hot!)

On the flipside of love, Dagny’s new sister-in-law, the onetime guttersnipe-turned-enlightened individualist Cherryl, has come to realize the evil behind her husband Jim’s “rescue” of her. It seems that Jim, in true (for Rand) altruistic fashion, loves her only for her flaws and her needs, not for her virtues – a realization that drives Cherryl to commiserate with her sworn enemy, the suddenly sympathetic Dagny. Afterward, Cherryl arrives home to find Jim in flagrante delicto with … Hank Rearden’s awful wife Lillian! Gross! Unable to decide whether she’s more embarrassed or repulsed – and apparently unable to fly a plane to Galt’s Gulch — Cherryl flings herself into the East River. Hank’s struggles continue, too, culminating in labor strife at his steel mill that turns violent when government-hired goons charge the gates. The goons take the life of Hank’s protégé, and after putting down the rebellion (with help from the suddenly Zorro-like Francisco) Hank realizes it’s time to fly the coop and head for Galt’s Gulch.

I’m going to hold off on much of my analysis until next week (I’d hate to step on Stossel’s ’stache…), but in my other hat as a music junkie I was fascinated by Dagny’s interaction with the composer (and Galt’s Gulch resident) Richard Halley, whose never-performed-publicly Fifth Concerto she has mysteriously been hearing throughout the novel. Rand’s descriptions of that musical theme – full of words like “violence” and “triumph” and “struggle” and “mathematical precision,” a work Halley himself calls his “Concerto of Deliverance” – make the piece sound to me like a thudding, Germanic monstrosity, like the music the Nazis kept when they banned the “degenerate” music of Jewish and modernist composers like Mahler, Mendelssohn, Weill, Hindemith and Schoenberg. (It should surprise no one that an Objectivist composer named John Mills-Cockel has recently recorded his own “Concerto of Deliverance” in tribute. You may listen to snippets here, if you dare.) Halley, it turns out, had spent years struggling in obscurity in the outside world before his opera Phaethon, which had been booed off the stage upon its debut, received a rapturous response when revived two decades later. It was that moment, he tells Dagny, when he realized that the people who suddenly loved his music didn’t love it for the right reasons, and therefore weren’t worthy of hearing it. “There’s only one passion in most artists more violent than their desire for admiration: their fear of identifying the nature of such admiration as they do receive,” he says. Really? In my recollection, an artist’s two biggest fears are 1) starvation, and 2) never being able to give up the day job. It’s a good thing Halley had the Gulch to escape to – where he can perform his works a couple of times a year for audiences of idle tycoons, when he’s not giving piano lessons to the never-seen Rand Youth. I may be reading too much into this, but Halley’s entire story (like that of Kay Ludlow, the beautiful actress who ditched Hollywood because the roles offered her were “nothing but symbols of depravity”) smacks of sour grapes over Rand’s own inability to make a name for herself as a screenwriter during the pre-war years.

Speaking of the movies, this holiday season I encountered a couple of flicks that made me wonder anew about the efficacy, and the morality, of Rand’s philosophies. One was brand new, the other several years old. The latter was the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which explicitly portrays the company’s former CEO Jeffrey Skilling as the ultimate Rand-ian capitalist juggernaut – ruthlessly ambitious, wedded to deregulation, obsessed with profit and “production” at the expense of every other concern. These traits led him and his company not to honest and ethical success, but to a house of cards built on accounting fraud and manipulation of the stock market, not to mention the choice to enhance Enron’s profits by convincing the state of California to deregulate its power industry and then denying the state the very electricity the company was supposed to be providing, in the name of jacking up rates for consumers. Of course, Objectivists have disavowed Skilling ever since, insisting that he never truly reflected their values, but I figure if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck … preaches Social Darwinism like a duck…

The other film I saw with Objectivist implications is, ironically, George Clooney’s most recent Oscar catnip, Up in the Air – and there’s a Spoiler in this paragraph, so be careful. Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, is a smooth-talking consultant who makes his living on the road, doing the dirty work of laying off employees whom employers are too wimpy to sack themselves. Ryan has become the best (and most efficient) roving downsizer he can be by jettisoning all the “baggage,” physical and philosophical, that might weigh him down … that might force upon him the kinds of human emotions that Rand, too, rejects as distractions to achievement. Ryan even offers seminars in his spare time on how to ditch your possessions and your human relationships in order to become more successful! We watch as Ryan enters a sexual relationship with Vera Farmiga’s fellow traveler, Alex – a relationship, similar to Dagny and Hank’s in Atlas Shrugged, that both participants enter solely as a means of (casual) personal fulfillment, but which inevitably sprouts an element of co-dependence. Ryan eventually decides he’s ready to junk his philosophy and make a life with Alex – not as a means of “settling down,” but with the notion that two like-minded individualists can be happier together than apart. Sadly, things don’t work out – it turns out that Alex had achieved the same revelation years before, and already has a husband and family she’d conveniently neglected to mention. At the end of the film, Ryan still has his high-flying, detached, Rand-ian existence – but he has come to realize that it, like Enron, was a soulless house of cards that was doomed to topple.

Something to think about through this Oscar season (Up in the Air is a fine, fine film, though if I had a vote I’d probably still give it to The Hurt Locker). For now, though, I’m all a-twitter about tonight’s John Stossel gabfest, so I’ll finally sign off. If you miss the broadcast (and its reruns through the night), you can probably see snippets here . Maybe next week we’ll do a post-mortem, as I wrap up this series with Galt’s never-ending diatribe … and whatever happens after that.