In Painfully Rich: J. Paul Getty and His Heirs by John Pearson, the author talks about “willpower.” As I research Atlas Stumbles and very wealthy people, I’ll hear that word again and again: willpower.
But in Painfully Rich, you don’t have to go very far to get to the essential absurdity of the term. When describing Paul Getty, has “formidable resources – originality, strength of will and an obsessive mastery of detail.”
The same writer on the same page says that Paul Getty was driven by competition with his dead father to create a huge fortune. Paul Getty had indomitable willpower, but is driven by a clichéd daddy complex? At the same time, Paul Getty is also a master of his emotions, but obsessed by this same childish revenge fantasy against his dead father!
Which is it? Does Getty have “strength of will” or did he spend his life seeking his dead daddy’s love through the pathetic surrogate of material acquisition? It seems to me that a person with real strength of will – if one believes such things exist – would conclude a person of great willpower wouldn’t particularly care that they didn’t live up to the parochial expectations of their parent’s fundamentalist morality. They could get by or through it to live their life on their own terms, unhaunted by the ghosts of the dead. In short: they would exercise self-control.
It is an inherent paradox to say that someone was both master of their fate but also driven by the ghost of their dead father. It is a contradiction to say that someone has mastered their emotions, while also obsessed with chasing a dead man’s approval. John Pearson fails to note these essential contradictions – often on the same page.
I’m here to talk about fake news. As a political independent over on the left, the current hue and cry over “fake news” is interesting to me because it is evident to me that much of news is “fake.” In the YouTube video I posted here, Jon Stewart, the former host of The Daily Show, talks about listening to talk radio as he drives and how the right-wing people on the shows he listens to are saying truly insane things.
They are, and always have been, and they’ve long been very popular. I remember quite clearly when Rush Limbaugh was hitting it big, and my then-friend sang his praises, characterizing him as well-researched news with unimpeachable arguments. I tuned in for the better part of a month, listening to Limbaugh with horror. Nothing he said was well-researched, and he engaged in many outright lies – all the while spewing vitriol on anyone who wasn’t exactly like him. And this was in the 1990s, well before social media and “fake news,” a friend of mine characterized him as both informed and reasonable.
If you go back to the beginning of the country, “fake news” abounded. The Boston Massacre was ginned up in the news rags of the day. Then-modern news accounts of the tragedy left out the extent to which the British soldiers were being threatened by an angry mob, insulting them and hurling snowballs, stones, and other objects. By modern standards, the British soldiers showed incredible restraint, refraining from firing even after being pelted. Eventually, a soldier struck on the head did fire, without orders, but the tipping point had been reached: the soldiers fired into the crowd.
Wood carvings of the incident show well-regulated British soldiers being ordered to fire into the crowd – including a sniper in a window. Pamphlets were circulated with stories that the soldiers acted with no provocation, in a calculated fashion under orders. These accounts were untrue, but the image of the woodcut became the “reality” for colonial Americans, and not the more nuanced view of the riot and subsequent shooting as revealed in the trial of the British soldiers.
Our country was quite literally founded, in part, by “fake news.”
Likewise, “fake news” is seen to be a primarily rightist phenomenon – and while the preponderance of fake news is to the right, it isn’t like the left is free of it, either. I recently watched a couple of episodes of Keith Olberman’s histrionically named The Resistance and found it rife with fabrications and untruths as serious as anything I’ve heard from Rush Limbaugh. In particular, for a bit, Olberman was pushing the ridiculous concept that “Russian interference” was substantial enough in our election to justify electors switching their votes to Hillary Clinton.
But where was Olberman when UK-based newspapers like the Guardian effectively stumped for Clinton? When Russia, through Wikileaks, publishes newsworthy sources, it is a violation of our national sovereignty – but when the Guardian publishes illegally obtained documents from Edward Snowden it’s just journalism? When the Guardian pushes Clinton as mightily as it can, it’s not interference? Let us be reasonable, here. Foreign powers commonly take sides in elections in foreign countries, often expressing a preference one way or another – such as the way the US press and State Department treated Hugo Chavez. It is standard for countries, both the press and government, to express opinions about outside elections. The US does it, and we cannot be surprised that Russia does it.
But Olberman happily pushes the lie that Russian interference was someone less severe than, say, the Guardian’s interference in our elections. The truth is that foreigners are quite allowed to attempt to influence the opinions of Americans. Olberman knows that, but he is so partisan he preferred the convenient lie to the inconvenient truth.
Would I like it for news to be more, well, reasonable? More truthful? Absolutely. But I live in the United States, and I think freedom of speech and the press is far, far more important than any individual opinion held by any particular person about what the truth “really is,” or how it “should” be presented to the public. Do I find Limbaugh and his ilk idiotic, yea, pathetic? Absolutely. But I feel the same way about Olberman, the Young Turks, and leftist purveyors of false news equally idiotic and pathetic – especially as they cast stones from glass houses about “fake news.”
More generally, I find the uproar against “false news” to be typical of Democratic elitism and how they would cheerfully march towards tyranny if given a chance. The narrative that surrounds “false news” is that ignorant Midwesterners need to be protected from malevolent freedom of the press! This has been amplified this election season because most college-educated Americans (who generally vote Republican) instead voted Democratic – the Democrats can tell themselves (and they are) that they are the party of the educated elite who “understand” the world better.
This, after all, is the call-to-arms of all censors – the idea that some subset of the population needs “protection” from exposure to the “wrong” ideas
If you’re honestly worried about “false news,” first, clean your house. Recognize that false news exists on whatever part of the political spectrum you fall – whether it’s gullible Communist Party USA members valorizing the murderous strongman Josef Stalin, or buying the New York Times’s analysis of Colin Powell’s “slam dunk” UN speech “proving” there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or the rightist conspiracy theories of birtherism and Benghazi. We all have crap news.
Then, move out of your comfort zone. Recently, a friend asked for me to do research on something expressly because he didn’t want to do “hours of research outside of his comfort zone.” Fuck the “comfort zone.” That’s how this starts, right? People call news that confirms their biases “true,” and news that runs against their biases “false.” That is lazy and cowardly, if for no other reason than you need to know your rival’s argument to counter it – and if you find you can’t honestly counter it, it shows a hole in your education or even your beliefs.
In the end, though, to get rid of false news requires something very hard – to admit that you are wrong. Hell, not just that you are wrong, that perhaps you and everyone you know (since we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us) is wrong. This will probably require a change in our society, from one that believes holding onto an idea in the face of evidence to the contrary shows strength, into one that knows that changing an idea because of overwhelming evidence is far better – that it takes more energy, knowledge, and even character to hold off from totally committing to a belief than throwing oneself into an ideology and the warm embrace of those who hold it and will buoy your doubts with propaganda.
I‘m watching the first season of The Expanse, and I enjoy it quite a bit – but it has a trope that has arisen in science-fiction that I want to talk about: Mars.
The exploration of Mars, in many near-future sci-fi stories, is a metaphor for the United States and the stories Americans tell about it: that Mars is a nation that will be freed from the hidebound traditions of Earth and create a new superpower of culture and technology.
The “Mars as the United States” metaphor is a tortured in two key ways. First, the history of the United States is not typical of colonization. Second, the conditions on Mars were not the same as in the North American English colonies.
My finishing purge of Atlas Shrugged is to discuss the flaws in her political and social reasoning, as opposed to merely talking about why the book is a disaster artistically. (And it is a disaster artistically, as close to objectively awful as a book gets.)
Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged and elsewhere, isn’t just proposing a form of laissez-faire capitalism. She is proposing a system of ethics in which selfishness and greed are the dominant – maybe even sole – principles. To many people, this is absolutely terrifying, and Atlas Shrugged does a very good job of exposing the reason that’s terrifying, even though Rand doesn’t seem to notice it.
My agonies are done. I have finished reading Atlas Shrugged. I will have to go back to it, time and again in the coming months for research, but the worst is over. I no longer have to engage in the novel as a novel, but merely as a resource to drive my parody.
In this review, I’m going to talk about Atlas Shrugged as art. It is a book that is both philosophical and political, but I’m going to leave that for another review. This one is just about Ayn Rand’s art.
I can say with absolute certainty and clarity that this is the worst novel I’ve ever finished reading in terms of artistry. Atlas Shrugged is not I novel I dislike, it is a novel that is as close to objectively bad as can be written. I am going to write a numbered list – who on the Internet doesn’t like numbered lists? – that outline just some of the absurdities, bad research, and contradictions of Atlas Shrugged. Some will be general, others quite specific. Their sheer number is so breath-taking, so overwhelming as to remove all doubt about the quality of this novel: it is garbage. No, no, it is objectively and uncategorically garbage.
I’ve just got done with John Galt’s long speech in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s part philosophy lecture and part insult-comic rant. It is bad at both. (Later on, in my general critique of Atlas Shrugged, I’ll cover the most serious of her flaws in regards to art, politics and economics. It would take a book-length critique to get them all, but there are several that are especially glaring, even to me.)
There are three primary philosophical sins in John Galt’s 36,000 word speech: the first is badly constructed syllogisms, the second is reliance on arguments from authority, the third is straw man arguments. I’m going to give an example of each, but just one, because the speech sixty-plus pages long and it would take forever to cover everything.
Apropos my previous, serious post about reinterpreting Atlas Shrugged, there’s something kicking around my head: how the actions of Galt’s guys are similar to the work stoppage. After all, if I say that people are doing work stoppages to prevent the US from benefiting the USSR, it is also clear that Galt and his guys are also contrary to the USSR.
No. They’re not the same thing.
In many times of political crisis and chaos, bandits and warlords arise. The bandits are the enemy of both the invaders and the people – they aren’t motivated by a desire to see their country free of foreign influence, but their own personal profit.
Galt’s goons fit that description. America is going to hell in a hand basket, and what they’re worried about is how individual businessmen can’t make enormous piles of money. They take advantage of the weakened state, and further weaken it, to create the conditions where they can take profit from America’s misery.
That Galt’s goons have an ideology hastily pasted onto their terrorism is normal. Many bandits say that they’re looking out for people, or fighting an unjust system. The Shining Path rebels mouth Marx while shipping drugs, for instance. The Contras in Nicaragua said they wanted to “free” the people from socialist tyranny. The Taliban talks about creating a Caliphate. So what? Ideology doesn’t magically transform bandits into freedom fighters.
Galt and his associates are just bandits, terrorists, and criminals.
Ayn Rand “math”: Rearden Metal is cheaper per pound than iron. One of the major components of Rearden Metal is copper. It is not used in trace amounts, but requires hundreds of tons of the stuff for thousands of tons of Rearden Metal. In other words, Rearden Metal is at least 10% copper – and maybe more.
Cost of iron, per pound: $0.004 per pound.
Cost of copper, per pound: between $0.55 and $1.95 per pound, depending on quality.
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.