Atlas Shrugged

Atlas ShruggedAs mentioned last post, it’s been crunch time at work, and this morning, for the first time in a over a week, I plowed through the non-work email inbox, and found a warm and friendly, if concerned, note from PunditMan (to the tune of Hendrix):

Hey Joe,

Where you going with that book in your hand?

His was a reference to a recent reference of my own, namely a confession to reading that oft critically panned but ever popular classic, that grand expansive endorsement of completely unregulated capitalism, that deluxe affirmation of self-interest as best for everybody concerned and, like Gordon GekkoGordon Gekko told us (just before the savings and loan debacle tabbed US taxpayers for $32 billion a year for the next 30 years): “Greed is good!” — yes, that of which I speak is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Check out Punditman’s own review of Atlas Shrugged.

Fact is, a good portion of my non-work spare time has been with my nose stuck in Ayn Rand’s book…

I first heard about Atlas Shrugged years ago after taking one of those Carl Jung inspired Myers-Brigg personality type tests, found out I was an INTJ, and then — as if to validate my diagnosis as introspective — I delved into about every site that tries to explicate what the hell an INTJ looks and feels like so I would know what I was supposed to look and feel like. Most of those sites mentioned Ayn Rand, and strongly suggested I would like her writing, Atlas Shrugged being her magnum opus. But I kept putting it off because all of the reviews and spin virtually tagged the novel as the darling favorite of the most sorry type of human — you know, like self-entitled AIG execs, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity — that sorry sort of coddled smug little jerk.

All dodging aside, after hearing one of my dad’s friends remark that it was his favorite book (even though my folks and their friends live in Tupelo, Mississippi, where the trees sprout leaves imprinted with Clinton jokes, where the very wind bashes Obama…), curiosity got the best of me. I succumbed to what every marketing guru and every CIA-employed propagandist worth their salt knows as the The Rule of Seven: a subject needs to see or hear your marketing message at least seven times before they take action. (not coincidentally, a sky-high proportion of Americans who watched seven or more Sunday morning TV talk show appearances from Dick CheneyDick Cheney/Condoleezza Rice/George W. Bush are still convinced that Saddam Hussein helped al-Qaeda plan the September 11, 2001 attacks and was on the verge of crop dusting US cities with anthrax, despite zero tangible evidence.) So, the next time I was browsing Barnes and Noble, I picked up the book.

Now I’m hooked. But not on Rand’s Objectivism philosophy. As far as Objectivism goes, I disagree with her belief that reality exists as an objective absolute independent of the thoughts of men, and I disagree based on the findings of eminent physicists like the late John Archibald Wheeler who provided hard scientific proof that human consciousness shapes not only the present but the past as well. In other words, the universe doesn’t, in fact, exist if nobody is looking.

I also disagree with Rand’s penchant for total separation of government and the economy.

In my opinion, the defect in her argument is her irrational (Rand irrational?!) belief that we should all have the same desires and morals and abilities if we’d only apply ourselves. But this is America, and I believe everybody is free to pursue happiness in whatever way makes them happiest — whether it’s running a billion-dollar hedge fund or spending forty hours a week cultivating a window garden or gambling — as long as their pursuit doesn’t exceedingly infringe on the pursuits of happiness by others. And ever since the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 deregulated insurance companies and banks, it’s clear some CEOs’ ideas of pursuing happiness — namely choking on bad debt, asking for no-strings-attached taxpayer-funded corporate welfare, and then blowing their welfare payments on hookers, fast cars, and all-expense-be-damned pleasure excursions — do infringe mightily on the pursuits of happiness by other Americans.

As further witnessed by any number of economic crises from the Great Depression to the S&L Crisis to Japan’s Lost Decade (evidence of what happens when the government doesn’t get involved with rescuing the economy…), pure capitalism can be as evil as pure socialism.

Joseph McCarthyI mean, let’s get real: those who argue for pure capitalism would support sending their senile parent, incapacitated spouse, and/or their children to the street in the event of their own hard-up demise, and history shows no matter how hard you work, everybody is one well-directed backhanded swipe of fate from a penniless end. So, don’t get all righteous and McCarthyistic on me when I say I’m in favor of a government that walks a fine-tuned line balanced between complete capitalism and complete socialism. And please forgive me for being harsh with the truth, but if you can’t understand the need for balance, then you’re an idiot, and that’s the reason the founding fathers created a constitutional republic for us instead of a true democracy, to have built-in protection from idiots like yourself :-) who might otherwise destroy the USA with good, however imbecilic, intentions.

But back to Rand’s novel…the story, the journey, the tale — that’s what has me hooked. For a 1000-page supposedly right-wing philosophical manifesto, there’s a lot more plot turns and twists than I’d expected, and I’m just really digging the slightly-but-not-quite-out-of-style 1950′s phraseology — there’s a captivating old-school quasi sci-fi noir feel to the whole business that’s ironically refreshing and striking primarily because that style of stodgy writing is rare these days.

Edward HopperMaybe most appealing of all, Rand paints a pretty picture around the plot. Reading Atlas Shrugged so far (I’m about a third of the way into it) is like walking through the attractively stark world of Edward Hopper, filled with our parents’ and grandparents’ gas stations, motels, restaurants, theaters, railroads, and city sidewalks, where people wore hats and suits to work, talked like Bogart and Bacall, and shared a smoke in the cafe after dinner.

Also, as witnessed by the recent propensity of Atlas Shrugged to jump off bookstore shelves, the novel is filled to the brim with mostly inversely apropos — but timely nevertheless — themes and situations. But I have another theory why it’s popular: like the black-and-white era it hails from, there are few gray areas in this story. In today’s world, where nearly every debate seems filled with more gray areas than black or white, a simplistic world like the one in Atlas Shrugged is a refreshing escape from our current convoluted state of affairs. And that’s a big reason people read books: escapist entertainment. On that front, Atlas Shrugged delivers.

So, have no fear; just because I’m enjoying Atlas Shrugged, I’ve not gone to the dark side anymore than I endorse the real-life mafia while savoring Don Vito Corleone‘s every word and gesture each time I watch The Godfather. I’m just enjoying a good read with larger-than-life characters. I mean, it’s fun to root for imaginary elitist bourgeois industrialists, like it’s fun to pull for renegade cops like Harry Callahan; you just wouldn’t want to see these characters running around in the real hard-boiled world.

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