Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Atlas Shrugged -- Others Uttered a Vague "Meh"

Ayn Rand’s novel about a collapsing, overregulated economy, Atlas Shrugged, sold over a half-million copies in 2009 alone — and that was over twice the previous one-year record, set in 2008, according to the Ayn Rand Institute.  This suggests that the narrative of our economic woes being caused by unregulated capitalist greed has not fully taken hold, thank goodness.  (Perhaps without all the bailout and stimulus spending it would have, and in some sense we’d be in worse shape, ideologically if not economically.)

And I’ve been reading Atlas myself, for the first time since college (having read it the same pivotal summer that I read several of her books plus Locke, Smith, Mill, the Constitution, the Declaration, Reason magazine, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, and de Tocqueville for good measure).  Then, it was the collapse of Communism, not capitalism, that was the hot topic.  Even then I objected to some aspects of Rand, such as the suggestion that altruism must lead to forced redistribution instead of, as has often been the case historically, being the antidote to forced redistribution.  So, I was fully prepared to dislike Atlas now that I’m older and wiser — but I have to confess, at the risk of looking like a hopeless libertarian geek, that I like it even more now.

Despite people usually remembering Rand for her somewhat flat heroes, it’s all the weaseling, mushy-middle, business-oriented but non-capitalist, PR-obsessed, science-politicizing, continually-evasive, chronically-indecisive characters who seem so painfully, urgently real now — and who are not quite captured so well in any other novel of which I am aware, at least not in the sprawling, highly-relevant context of an increasingly hobbled economy.  The book is really more about evasion than heroism in some sense, and it’s the former that is harder to understand intuitively (at least for some of us).

The brain doesn’t like to dwell on the ugly details of evasive, self-contradictory thinking, obviously, whereas the basics of heroism are so intuitively appealing that someone even paid $1 million for a copy of Action Comics #1, as noted by this article, which, oddly enough, quotes the drummer from System of a Down, who is also apparently a comic book dealer.  (This is another reminder that I’d love to know how successful bands have to get before the members tend to quit their other jobs.  Is anyone from Metric working in a Montreal bookstore?  And come to think of it, don’t I love Metric songs like “Stadium Love” precisely because so much other 00s rock sounded wussy and evasive, even when feigning garage-rock wildness?)

If you feel that YOU cannot avoid the topic of evasive thinking and what to do about it, perhaps we can discuss it tonight shortly after 8pm with the group Drinking Skeptically, at the aptly-named bar the Four-Faced Liar in the Village.  And more Rand thoughts tomorrow.


Dave said...

“Despite people usually remembering Rand for her somewhat flat heroes, it’s all the weaseling, mushy-middle, business-oriented but non-capitalist, PR-obsessed, science-politicizing, continually-evasive, chronically-indecisive characters.”

I happen to love the book for that reason too – The Fountainhead does a great job of illustrating those types as well. I think it falls short where you said. I never quite admired her heroes. I think the real problem is that there really ARE folks who built railroads and buildings etc, and I’m more interested in them than fictionalized versions of how they should be if they were better people.

I don’t think it’s an accident that she does a better jobs describing the villains. I’m sure you know the original title to the Fountainhead did not reference the hero, but rather those folks, “The Second Handers.”

I know she claims to be positive. But I really felt like the focus of the books are on how much those people suck – and she does it brilliantly – than on why her heroes are great.

It seems like Roark’s lesson to Dominique is to ignore these folks, which is an odd lesson to learn considering we just spent 700 pages reading all about them. Although, I guess that’s your point about evasion. That, yes, these people exist, and yes So and so’s wife’s manicurist’s mechanic has an opinion. But what has that to do with your own life and purpose?

And, importantly, in AS, Joe Q Average is manipulated by self serving evil men to help them defeat the heroes in the name of altruism, while those who ignore the call to altruism produce good to society. To me it wasn’t a call against altruism as much as an illustration of how altruism can be a lever for evil, and thus ignoring the call is a virtue.

Todd Seavey said...

Though it would surely be one of the most complicated and strange research projects of all time, I’d be intrigued by an attempt to actually document the frequency with which altruism goes awry. I don’t think it’s as frequent as she implies (and I think her nicer fans often underestimate how often she means to imply it always/almost always goes awry).

There are probably studies — or at least there damn well ought to be — on how much social-work-type outreach can be done before “enabling” effects set in, much as your average social worker type might hate hearing about such things. (Then again, I seem to recall Hal Holbrook’s Objectivist son Dave once telling me he knew several social workers who are dead-set against giving to panhandlers, viewing almost all of them as con artists, based on their experiences with the poor.)

One big argument for mutual aid societies and other private charity vs. the welfare state, of course, is that it’s easier for private individuals who know you to gauge whether you’re spending the money they just gave you wisely or have blown it all on pogs again and then returned to being a prostitute.

One marvelous — and funnier than generally acknowledged — aspect of Rand’s two big novels that results from her contempt for the self-deceiving intellectuals is her fantastic skewering of their pretentious party conversation, which has to hit home for anyone who’s done time in the Ivy League and New York City.

Gerard said...

Did you catch Peter Schiff’s appearance on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show earlier today?

He actually advocated doing away with the FDIC. Have you ever heard a viable candidate for the U.S. Senate-admittedly, one who is a decided underdog in the race-admit to a policy position that bold?

Right-Wing Links (February 24, 2010) said...

[...] Atlas Shrugged — Others Uttered a Vague “Meh” [...]

Todd Seavey said...

I didn’t see Schiff, but he was an advisor to Ron Paul and can be trusted to do the whole full-on radical libertarian thing (and thus probably not be elected).

Gerard said...

Well, I suppose it’s irrelevant at this point since Chris Dodd will not be his Democratic opponent. You might as well nominate someone who’s going to be ideologically consistent if your chance of winning the general election is virtually nil.