For Atlas Stumbled, one of the things I’m going to provide is a larger context for Atlas Shrugged. While reading Atlas Shrugged, I noticed along the way that Rand will invent things she doesn’t need to invent. So she will create fictional philosophers when, you know, there are real ones to choose from. She does things like this because it is exceptionally hard to argue about these fictional sources. What does the fictional philosopher really say? Only the snippets we get from the characters in a novel, they are our only source of interpretation! If you use a real philosopher, well, now people can actually look into what they said and see the nuances or see how Rand misrepresents their work. Thus, Rand is careful to avoid specific references to Kant and Nietzsche because people might legitimately argue her interpretation and what this means to the story overall.
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!
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.
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!
I just finished reading Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns.
As I started to read it, I said I was concerned about its attempt to “balance”. Balance usually means the author won’t say what is obvious and true in order to placate someone, somewhere. After reading Goddess of the Market, I feel confirmed in this.
In particular, Burns doesn’t really talk about the American “right”. She sometimes touches on how awful they are, but only with the briefest of touches and the lightest of hands. So, she mentions “Birchers” without discussing the John Birch Society at all – specifically it’s brand of racism and sexism, co-founded by Fred C. Koch, the father of arch-conservative and profoundly racist, sexist assholes Charles and David Koch (names that should be familiar to anyone following current Republican politics). Likewise, the nativist, intensely racist America First organization is mentioned only as a libertarian organization.
Indeed, Burns barely touches on Rand’s intersection with conservative Republican thought. Burns, instead, focuses her attention on Rand’s association with libertarians. This has the effect of creating a straw man, since the libertarians aren’t in any positions of power and the Republicans definitely are. Even if you don’t have any ideological opposition to the Republicans, hiding Rand’s effect on Republican economic conservatives (such as Alan Greenspan or Timothy Geithner) is just a filthy lie.
I’ve started the book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, which is a bio of Ayn Rand. The book focuses on her intellectual influence rather than her artistic influence because, as Burns notes, Rand’s artistic influence is non-existent. Mostly, the people who like her books don’t read for pleasure but as a political exercise.
Burns uses new papers largely unavailable to previous researchers to write the book, and she attempts neutrality. As a researcher who is looking to contextualize Rand’s work into Rand’s life, neutrality is desirable. But, in the end, I have trouble getting behind it.
I’ve been reading about early America, colonial days up to the American Revolution, mostly. Of course, before the English got around to exploring things, the Spanish were the most prolific North American explorers.
One of the central problems, I feel, with Ayn Rand’s work in general, and Atlas Shrugged in particular, is that she was a very black-and-white thinker.
To her, any “governmental coercion” equals the Stalinist USSR.
Of course, I have hindsight she doesn’t have, but it is also my experience that Objectivist-inspired neocons have a convenient and peculiar way of historical interpretation.
So, after World War II, the United States was as close to a socialist democratic republic that we’d ever get, from the New Deal to the Marshall Plan, Keynesian economics held sway. The highest tax rate was around 95% both here and abroad.
Starting a blog feels weird. I know I should have one, as an indie writer, but how to start? Like with all writing, I decided to start by starting, even though the odds of anyone reading this are low.
I am starting the research for a new project, whose working title is Atlas Stumbled. It is a satirical, unauthorized sequel to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In the process of doing research, I often find much to discuss (or about which to rant), so that’ll be good feeder material for the blog!