Political Culture: I’ve Been Ayn Randed!

Written by Books, Current Events, Political Culture

A homework pass to the first commenter who can identify what inspired this column’s headline – without resorting to the Google (honor system!) – and can tell us why The Man is so unhip.

Class, today’s discussion concerns the first five chapters of Ayn Rand’s symphony of self-centeredness, Atlas Shrugged. I’m not the world’s fastest reader, so I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who’s managed to read ahead of me over the four days since I commenced this adventure in politically contrarian scholarship. But I gotta tell you … and here’s an obscure cultural reference … as I’ve worked my way through 125 pages of Rand’s polemic disguised as a novel, I’ve felt like I had mistakenly picked up the first couple of theme-notebook volumes of Henry Fool’s “Confessions.” (If you don’t get the reference, put the bizarre Hal Hartley film in your Netflix queue.) I’m already wondering if this thing is ever going to end.

That said, I must admit that Atlas Shrugged is far more gripping than I expected it to be – even if, half the time, it’s gripping in the way that a gruesome five-car collision commands the attention of passers-by on the freeway. I’m a sucker for stories full of workplace intrigue and political manipulations, so I’m having a surprisingly easy time tolerating Rand’s endless exposition and the most unfathomable attempts at dialogue I’ve ever read. As for the Objectivism … I suppose if I’m to read one work of delusional right-wing fiction this holiday season, I’m glad it’s this rather than, say, Going Rogue. For those of you who aren’t playing our home game, here’s a synopsis of the opening chapters so you can follow along with my rantings:

Our heroine is Dagny Taggart, the brilliant and determined scion-ess of a family railroad dynasty who has bonked her head on society’s glass ceiling while her sniveling weasel of a brother inherited the presidency of his father and grandfather’s firm. That rarely stops Dagny from getting her way – in fact, Dagny routinely casts adversity aside the way O.J. Simpson used to shed tacklers. (A loaded reference, I know, and probably not my last.) Her latest heroic project is the reconstruction of the railroad’s dilapidated Rio Norte Line through Colorado and Arizona; in the face of a steel shortage and the foot-dragging and excuse-making of incompetents all around her, Dagny courageously (some might say hubristically) decides to cast her lot (and, more literally, her rails) with an unproven metallurgic innovation called Rearden Metal that no one else believes (or wants to believe) is strong enough to compete with steel.

The alloy’s inventor is Hank Rearden, a domineering sort who shares Dagny’s disdain for government-, union-, or trade association-related tomfoolery. The two of them do a lot of looking off into the distance and envisioning, with an odd stifling of emotion, the way they’re going to make themselves (and each other) rich, and how they’re going to show all those nattering nabobs of negativism that a person of real strength can bend circumstances to his will, and accomplish anything he sets his mind to. Or something like that. Anyway, their cause is made more urgent by a pair of events that point to the collectivist degradation of modern society: the National Alliance of Railroads’ institution of an “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule” to curb competition, which puts a Taggart competitor out of business, and the decision by “the People’s State of Mexico” to nationalize a huge mine recently established there by the copper baron Francisco d’Anconia – along with hundreds of miles of Taggart track.

“Frisco” is Atlas Shrugged’s third major character – the heir to a fabulously successful Argentine business, and a youthful playmate of Dagny’s (in more ways than one), who by all accounts is one of the most promising young men of his era. Until, that is, he undergoes a mysterious change in temperament and becomes a playboy seemingly intent on squandering his empire. As Chapter Five closes, Dagny demands to learn precisely why Frisco ever built his Mexican mine that, as it turns out, has no copper in it; in response, Frisco offers a cryptic non-explanation that can be summarized as “You can’t handle the truth!” Dunh-dunh-DUNH!!!!!!

The reader is left to suspect that, with Frisco, things are not what they seem. Which is something of a shame, because to this point Frisco is the one character – the one intelligent yet flawed personality, and seemingly the only one burdened with human emotions — who could plausibly be found in the real world. All the others, and for that matter all the novel’s situations, are too virtuous, too heroic, too simpering, too despicable, or simply too far-fetched to be believed. It is clear from the first paragraphs – a symbolically loaded interaction between a Taggart consigliere and a bum, which offers the first asking of the ubiquitous question “Who is John Galt?” – that Rand intends to use every event, every conversation to advance her real-world philosophy of vigorous self-reliance and anti-communitarianism. Why, then, does she create a fictional world that bears no relationship whatsoever to the one she hopes to influence? (And why are all her characters – both “good” and “bad” – such assholes?)

For example, after setting up Dagny as a stalwart, no-nonsense determinist, Rand introduces us to her brother Jim, who repeatedly deflects blame for his company’s problems and places loyalty to a non-productive crony above Taggart Transcontinental’s own fortunes. Soon enough we find Jim, along with a steel titan (who can’t seem to forge any steel lately) and several other lily-livered executives, sitting in a bar and lamenting the difficulty of getting anything done. They insist that they “can’t be blamed” for their various troubles, and they posit that industrialists must sublimate the success of their own enterprises to the “public spirit,” because “the only justification of private property is public service.” Such over-the-top collectivism had justified Jim’s building the Taggart line into Mexico (which the disapproving Dagny always knew would one day be nationalized), and it eventually begets the railroads’ “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule,” which is ludicrous on its face – an industry choosing to “socialize” itself for no apparent reason other than to make its spineless top execs unaccountable to their directors or shareholders.

Viewed solely in opposition to such hyperbolic, never-in-a-million-years examples of communitarianism run amok, of course Dagny and Hank’s take-no-prisoners individualism looks like the way to live! Rand repeatedly sets up preposterous straw men to represent governments, trade groups, and other proponents of any horrifying concept of the “public good” — and then she expects us to adopt her worldview as we watch Dagny and Hank knock those straw men down. Apparently she doesn’t trust her readers to recognize the merits of her ideas within a realistic context.

In that sense, she’s like Nora Ephron saddling Meg Ryan with Bill Pullman’s snoring, wheezing milquetoast during the first half of Sleepless in Seattle, or … what the heck … like Ephron saddling Tom Hanks with bitchy, uptight Parker Posey during the first half of You’ve Got Mail. Honestly, is it necessary to render a protagonist’s significant other – or, I suppose, a society’s organizing principles – completely unacceptable in order to convince an audience to root for Tom and Meg to get together?

I make my Rand/rom-com comparison ironically, of course, because the notion of two people finding love seems entirely foreign to her; apparently romance is just one more silly human trait that must be jettisoned along the way to self-actualization. Sex, on the other hand, is an acceptable exploit, so long as it is devoid of real attachment … or even recognizably human pleasure: “She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his, that he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit. She had no conscious realization of his purpose, her vague knowledge of it was wiped out … she only knew that she was afraid – yet what she felt was as if she were crying to him: Don’t ask me for it – oh, don’t ask me – do it!” Whew! I know I’m turned on. Well, Dagny, when the only sex of your entire life is power-play sex, I suppose you’re better off plunging yourself single-mindedly into your work.

On the subject of Rand’s questionable realism, I find it disheartening – but not particularly surprising – that Atlas Shrugged takes place entirely in a world of economic elites. I’ve always suspected that Rand’s philosophy holds little relevance for the less-than-well-to-do, except perhaps as an aspirational standard: “One of these days I’ll get around to becoming a Master of the Universe, as soon as I figure out how to make the rent consistently.” Still, it would be nice to see Rand at least attempt to apply her ideas to the workers whom Rearden keeps up all night pouring his Metal; as it is, the few workers we’ve encountered so far have served as little more than symbolic cudgels, either to venerate Dagny (“That’s who runs Taggart Transcontinental,” one says to another admiringly) or to get in her way by organizing (nefariously, of course).

I suppose her focus on elites helps explain Rand’s outsized appeal among college-age go-getters, who can imagine themselves as future Dagnys or Reardens – and who perhaps haven’t yet learned that, for better and for worse, our careers, our domestic lives, and these days even our economies are intrinsically interconnected with others. They also haven’t figured out that the vast majority of people who rise to the top in our society are a hell of a lot better at interacting with their fellow humans than the heartless bastards who populate an Ayn Rand novel.

There’s even more to discuss here … including the protagonists’ fetishization of a composer named Richard Halley whose music seems oddly Wagnerian, not to mention discussions of artistic aesthetics that would not have seemed out of place during dinnertime at the Goebbels’. But I’ll leave that for next time (or perhaps the comments section), along with an assortment of comparisons between events and ideas in Atlas Shrugged and their antecedents in modern-day American politics. (Hint: The words “bailout” and “Iraq” have frequently flitted through my mind while I’ve read about businessmen bemoaning government intervention or about Dagny steamrolling yet another nay-sayer.)

Beyond that, it’s back to the book. Hopefully by Thursday I’ll be ready to discuss the rest of Part I. See you then!