A new Atlas Shrugged “fanfic”, Francisco d’Anaconia in Hell! This one is a meeting between one of the protagonists of Atlas Shrugged, Francisco d’Anaconia, and the gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Francisco owes them money. It goes well for everyone!
Straw Man Philosopher: I hold an anti-rationalist philosophy that’s nothing like 40s and 50s philosophy! Yet I’m supposed to represent mid-century philosophy, even though I’m nothing like Bertrand Russell or George Santayana!
Straw Man Writer: I express nihilistic artistic values that are nothing like 40s and 50s writing, and I am nothing like J. R. R. Tolkien or George Orwell!
Philosopher and Writer: We’re commies, even though we’re nothing like actual commies of the period!
Adolescent Francisco d’Anaconia: I’ll hit you when you make a joke I don’t like!
Adolescent Dagny Taggert: You’re so dreamy when you hit me! Let’s boink!
Younger Francisco: I will act like a jerk. You’re not ready to know why.
Younger Dagny: OK! Let’s boink!
Present Day Francisco: I play marbles very well. I also defrauded the Mexican government out of millions, and built shoddy, substandard buildings and roads in violation of both contract and law. Because of my double-dealing, American companies have lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
It’s very easy to just make fun of Ayn Rand’s work. This is a problem that liberals and leftists have had since they started being critical of her work. Her books and ideas are so ridiculous, so devoid of artistic merit, so lacking in consistency, so void of rigor that we have a hard time grasping that her books and ideas need anything more than a little ribbing. Certainly, we say, when we expose how bad they are, how laughable they are, people will understand that we’re telling the truth and abandon Rand.
That doesn’t happen. What happens, instead, is that her books spread despite our humor. Her acolytes run the Federal Reserve, they spread through the Tea Party, they form the foundation of the libertarianism in both the Libertarian and Republican parties. Despite all our humor, Ayn Rand’s ideas and works flourish. In a survey, 29% of Americans say they’ve read Atlas Shrugged. In contrast, only about 20% of Americans have read the Bible from start to finish. When one counts Rand’s other books, it’s fair to say that Ayn Rand is more popular than the Bible in the US, and considerably more influential.
Her ideas are also more relevant. The Bible says nothing about the ethics of mercantile activity, industry, much less specific economic systems like capitalism. Rand does. At great length. Her books are still highly relevant (though the specifics are increasingly weird; American’s just don’t feel the significance of railroad like we used to, for instance).
And her ideas are held not only by Americans who have read her, but those who have learned of them second-hand. Who argue that all regulation must be stopped but can’t identify the source, or who say that the only proper function of government is protecting the right to own property (a right that is not mentioned in the Constitution).
So while I think there is a place for humor in the debate of Ayn Rand, we must also be prepared to counter her ideas with other, better ideas. And if you really want to show the flaws in her thinking, counter her ideas with facts. Facts – or, more precisely, the gulf between reality and the idealism of Rand’s followers – are like kryptonite to Ayn Rand.
So in Atlas Shrugged, the action in the story is totally divorced from reality. In my book, Atlas Stumbled, I’m going to base many of the characters are actual businesspeople from the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The one in particular is Howard Hughes. Hughes is really the closest you’re going to get to an actual Randian hero. He was this rugged individualist, communist-hating billionaire who would take wild chances with his money – and usually came out alright. He was also thin, tall, and good looking. If you’re going to look for an actual Randian hero made flesh, Hughes is the guy.
He was also a drug addict and nutjub recluse who thought that Mormons had “germ free blood” and was getting transfusions, and saved his piss and shit in jars. But until the very end, despite his madness, he made savvy business decisions.
That kind of specificity is poison, I think, to Rand’s works. It isn’t that I’m looking for business people with exceptional flaws – but that every business leader out there is an actual human being in defiance of Rand’s idealism. Whether it is Henry Ford’s literal Nazism or Steve Jobs rejecting science to fight his cancer with herbal remedies, even brilliant businessmen are nevertheless human. If anything, their wealth insulates them from the consequences of their actions to such an extent that their flaws are allowed to grow out of control – sometimes called “affluenza”, or the idea that wealth is very much like a mental illness that creates lack of empathy and grandiose thinking. And all of this without even talking about how businessmen holding laissez-faire ideals are often intensely corrupt – guys like Kenneth DeLay and Bernie Madhoff, or those who orchestrated the farce at Lehman Bros. or AIG. (I know their counter is that there has never been a perfectly capitalist system. But that is, itself, a flaw. A system that requires perfection to work will never work.)
Rand’s heroic business leaders lack the human flaws, and certainly the humanity, of their non-literary kin. So Rearden is like Howard Hughes in his ambition and success, but unlike him insofar that he has none of the troubles that Hughes grappled with all his life. To the extent that Rearden has problems, he can just discard them to live his perfect Objectivist life in a way that no human being actually can.
I believe by creating links between the real world, our world, and the highly stylized fantasy of Rand – populated only by virtuous heroes and contemptible anti-heroes, without any basis in realism or possessing any nuance – that it is possible to do real damage to Atlas Shrugged, which is the primary vector of transmission of Rand’s ideas for young people.
And the most important thing is to make it a good book. To make it a book people WANT to read, because I’m fighting an uphill battle, here.
People’s State of Mexico: We just nationalized the railroads!
Dagny Taggert: Told you so.
Railroad Association: We’re going to create regional monopolies, but NOT to jack up our prices and gouge people, but because we are commies!
Disbelieving World: Railroad men are commies?
Ayn Rand: Yes!
Disbelieving World: I have no response to that.
Evil Commie Business Cabal Chorus: Mexico need railroads that go from nothing to nowhere! Because reasons!
Dagny Taggart: I’m so proud that my ancestor didn’t take gubmint money! He never profited through force or fraud . . . except that time he killed a congressman, and that other time he threw a dude down some stairs! He only ever earned his money, though! He didn’t force anything!
Kit Bradley: C’mon! You’re not even making sense inside the same damn paragraph, Ayn!
Ayn Rand: INDUSTRY IS GREAT! Smokestacks, fuck, yeah!
Hank Reardon: Hi, I’m Hank Reardon! I’m thin and tall! I was just sexily brooding while watching metal being poured, and this makes me happy! Yay!
Lillian Reardon: Why weren’t you at dinner? You’d said you’d come.
Hank: You’re pretty, except your eyes are vacant! I was working! Yay! Working makes me happy!
Lillian: You said you’d be here.
Hank: Everyone should be happy because I’m happy! Waaaaaa! I don’t care that I disrespected your efforts and our friends and family by saying one thing and doing another! Waaaa! Can’t you see how much better I am than you! Waaaaa! But now I’m happy because I’m smarter than you! Yay!
Lillian: But you said you’d be here. And I think that psychologists call this a “mixed state” . . .
Hank: Waaaa! Now I’m not happy because you’re all worthless! Waaaa! I’m not responsible for keeping my word to you because you’re worthless! Waaaa! Good thing that soon I’ll meet some thin girl with nice legs and have rough sex with her because our IDEAS love each other! Yay!
Lillian: I’m not sure you know how sex works.
Philip: Who is John Galt?
Dagny Taggert: Hi! I’m Dagny and I have great legs and stormy gray eyes!
James Taggert: I don’t care if the train line fails because we’ve got to HELP PEOPLE. (<- things said by no railroadman in the history of railroadmen)
Dagny: I ordered rails from the OH-SO-DREAMY Hank Reardon! And they’re not steel! They’re REARDON METAL. Despite being an alloy, it’s cheaper than steel and lasts longer!
James: Uh, that’s not what the scientists say.
Dagny: I FEEL that it’s special! And I saw the Reardon Steel reports and no company would EVER lie about their reports, nope, no way, and scientists are eggheads. Who needs ’em?
Bum: Who is John Galt?
One of the interesting things about Objectivism is that its primary method of transmission is novels – particularly Atlas Shrugged, but to a lesser but still serious extent The Fountainhead.
I don’t like philosophical novels. I don’t mind books with philosophy in them, as a sort of undercurrent, but when the characters start preaching platitudes, my eyes glaze over. So, one of my favorite novels is Dune by Frank Herbert, but by the time we get over to God-Emperor of Dune, I’m just bored. Leto’s long, dull as speeches rehashing a primitive Nietzschean fantasy are uninteresting. So, unsurprisingly, I’m also not fond of Atlas Shrugged and its even longer, even more overtly philosophical speeches. But, philosophically, they’re a trick and nothing more.
I just started Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul by Gary Weiss. Thankfully, and I must have know this when I ordered it, it isn’t another biography. It’s about how Rand has gained so much influence in the exact areas that I spoke about, with some bitterness, in my review of Goddess of the Market – business and politics.
Ayn Rand Nation literally starts with Weiss wondering about why the assholes who wrecked the economy in 2008 were so damn selfish. He goes on to say, “Hey, who is this old woman with Alan Greenspan and the President?” So, he’s not going to try to do anything “balanced”: his plan is to chart out why Rand’s philosophy of greed and selfishness, an inversion of normal values (he says Western, but they’re not – altruism is as universal a human value as exists), is so powerful in actual government and economics. Not important to politically impotent libertarians, upset that we have driver’s licenses (true thing), but in one of the two major parties, and in all business.
I suspect we’ll get on fine, this book and I.