A couple of months ago I stumbled upon a blog run by someone named Adam Lee. Among other content on this blog the author also recaps the entirety of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, chapter by chapter. As I write this the recapping is still going on, one chapter or part of one chapter is revived each week and by now Mr. Lee has gotten through more than half of the book. You can find all of this here.
This recapping of Atlas Shrugged has gotten quiet a following, each post receives dozens of comments by different people, many of them coming back from week to week to see what is written about the next part of the book. It is interesting to observe that the opinions expressed by most of these commentators seem to come down to the same few simple points, none of them favorable to either Ayn Rand in general or Atlas Shrugged in particular.
The arguments “against” the book, or more precisely the arguments for why Rand was apparently wrong about everything ever, follow the same pattern as I observed during the 2012 US presidential election. Back then the GOP candidate for vice president, representative Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, was accused of being a follower of Rand or something along those line, and thus hating poor people. Look for example at this clip from TYT, where Cenk Uygur makes it sound like Ayn Rand was the lost daughter of Satan.
The use of the Randian boogieman is by no means limited to the United States. In the Swedish parliament a formal request was written by a member of the social democrat party to a minister of the then ruling center-right government on the 17th of January 2012, demanding that the later declare whether he supported the kind of flat tax rate inspired by the “right-wing extremist Ayn Rand”. The cause of concern was apparently that another minister had mentioned that she had read some Rand when she was younger, but then as far as I can tell never mentioned Rand again. In the mentioned formal request this was described as a party being “hijacked by Randians”. The whole thing can be found here, if anyone who reads Swedish happens to be interested.
Since I follow and enjoy outlets such as Mr Lee’s recap series and TYT in general, since I expect this topic to resurface in the 2016 US presidential elections with or without Paul Ryan and since I consider the presentation of Atlas Shrugged to be too one-sided, I’ll here write a bit about my view of the book and the good bits I think it contains.
The cases made against there being any significant philosophical truths to be found in Atlas Shrugged range from claims that the book encourages one to be selfish, all the way to claims that the author was a fundamentalist lunatic. The first one is a matter of perspective, I would claim that the message of Atlas Shrugged is above all one of self-determination and self-esteem.
This message takes many forms, from rejecting high taxes to rejecting censorship of literature. The label of selfishness is stamped upon the book because the protagonists all denounce the idea that people should automatically care and provide for everyone else. One of these ideas has a positive ring to it, people rarely claim to be against self-determination, while the other sounds unsympathetic, of course you should care about others and so on. It is therefore common to hear people say things like “I like the first part of what Rand says but disagree when she continues with ‘…and therefore be an asshole to everyone else’.”.
First of all, I must have been asleep or drugged or something when we decided that Atlas Shrugged was holy writ and all of us religious fanatics who must follow it to the letter or not at all. Rand may or may not have intended it as such, in either case her opinions on the book don’t matter to me as much as my own. Trying to emulate Fransisco D’Anconnia, Dagny Taggart or John Galt in every way possible would of course not be advisable, looking for a template character to mold your life upon never is. But that is well besides the point.
It becomes especially obvious during the parts of the book that are supposed to resemble romance. Rand obviously cannot write romance without unintentionally, I hope it’s unintentional, making it creepy. There are all kinds of issues regarding the love affairs in this book that could be considered problematic or outright disgusting, but somehow I think that Rand messed up on this account, and in either case it goes against the main point of the book. This is not 50 Shades of Gray, the romantic content isn’t supposed to be what the story is about, it is just a terrible sideplot.
The actual point of the book, I would instead argue, could be expressed as follows. There is an overall message in Atlas Shrugged about the fundamental value of human integrity, self determination and the right of an individual to be more than just a servant of the collective. There is also, hidden somewhere in there among the trains and sky scrapers, an appeal to the individual’s self-esteem, the idea that one should aspire to be the best one can be and not be content with less.
This has been described as narcissism and lack of empathy, but surely the progressive or liberal (in the American sense) thinker should be able to find a better middle ground than that. Defending the individual’s autonomy means defending the individual from murder, arson, rape, robbery and so on. How can opposition to such evils be described as a complete lack of empathy? While a starving person needs more help than just being protected from violence, the person was probably not brought to that state by someone reading and enjoying Atlas Shrugged.
Look at what is being done to the world, and what has been done to it throughout history. Humanity is not being ignored until it dies, it is being actively murdered. Neither the racial tribalists nor the theocratic fascists nor the authoritarian stalinists would give a flying you-know-what for Atlas Shrugged, or the kind of view of the individual espoused within that book. While such comparisons might be damning with faint praise, I am not trying to say that the book is without faults, I am merely appealing to Mr. Uygur and Mr. Lee’s sense of proportions.
The first chapter on Adam Lee’s blog regarding the book is titled “A novel for the one percent”. The obvious political undertones are clear, making it about “capitalists” versus the common guy just to put food on the table. The book however is not categorically for the 1%, two of the main villains are a CEO and a lobbyist. In particular Cenk Uygur of TYT should find this appealing, he could probably recognize a lot of the points about crony capitalism and regulatory capture made in the book if he really tried.
The point of Atlas Shrugged is the diametric opposite of what some suggest, instead of stating that certain people who are poor and miserable should stay that way, the book, if read with some good faith, screams out that it should not be that way, that we should all try to be heroes.
One may disagree as to the solutions presented in the book. One may consider it to be self-contradictory and that the characters are not at all times acting in a coherent manner. One may consider the book to be badly written or question the sanity of the author. All of this is being done in quite a lot of places, but that is not all that is being done. The writings of the commentators on the above mentioned blog and the rants of the above mentioned Youtube star, as well as comments by other people I might agree with on some other issues, such as Bill Maher and the late Christopher Hitchens, go further than that.
They keep returning to the notion that the book was written to promote indifference to the sufferings of one’s fellow human beings, while I can’t help but get the opposite impression when reading it. The idea that so called Randians represent a special kind of evil in a world filled with acts and individuals that Randians and progressives or liberals alike would find abhorrent confuses me. The intensity of this dislike for the works of a relatively obscure author is even more confusing. I find it exaggerated and misguided, but to some extent also fascinating.