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On Atlas Shrugged as a Guide to Our Times

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A Mr. Stephen Moore writes, regarding the bulky paper doorstop Atlas Shrugged, "If only 'Atlas' were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I'm confident that we'd get out of the current financial mess a lot faster."

Of course he is. But then, Moore is "senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page." The more he reads bad fiction, the more confident his economic forecasts become.

Atlas Shrugged, for those of you lucky enough to have never read it, was written by the annoyingly-pseudonymed Ayn Rand and published in 1957 and, for reasons that require a deep trek into the heart of American political pathology to unearth, became a huge bestseller. It is to novels as the four heads on Mount Rushmore are to sculpture. In fact--get this--both took fourteen years to create, and both weigh approximately 62,000 tons.

The story concerns railroad heiress Dagny Taggart (beautiful, slim, etc.), and her efforts to keep Taggart Transcontinental in business in the face of government redistributionist perfidy, corruption, and wrongheaded, prosperity-sapping niceness. Meanwhile, tycoons across the land are quitting their enterprises and mysteriously disappearing. Dagny, tormented by a triangular relationship with handsome, hard-charging, married Hank Rearden (steel, miracle alloy "Rearden Metal"), and handsome, childhood friend, and seemingly-feckless-playboy Francisco d'Anconia (Chilean copper mines), eventually discovers where those vanishing entrepreneurs went, as she learns the answer to the repeated question, "Who is John Galt?"

(Spoiler Alert: In fact, they've repaired to a valley in the Colorado mountains, where they go on strike against "society" and, under the leadership of the demi-god John Galt, create their own idyllic community, where they mint their own gold coins and manufacture their own cigarettes stamped with dollar signs. What? You haven't read it and now it's "spoiled"? Tough. You should thank me.)

For this deeply adolescent piece of social science fiction one must read over 1,000 pages of tiny type, most of which are covered with blocks of print into which the reader's consciousness slams as though into a brick wall. Characters lecture each other in a stilted, faux-heroic tone about such matters as "the human spirit" and "intelligence" and "ownership" and "the meaning of money" and "rationality." It's every bit as good as it sounds, a thousand pages of this:

"Don't ask me to tell you now what trail I've followed, trying to trace that motor and to find its inventor. That's not of any importance, even my life and work are not of any importance to me right now, nothing is of any importance; except I must find him."

Don't you love that semi-colon? Me, too. The heroes are all handsome or beautiful except for Ragnar Danneskjold, a pirate--really--who is handsome and "beautiful." The villains are all detestable weaklings. Everyone else--i.e., the population of the United States of America--is a loathsome, freeloading nobody. Everyone looks at everyone else "with contempt." Paradoxically, although characters repeatedly "chuckle" and address each other in terms described by variants of "mock" (with mockery, mockingly, in a mocking tone, etc.), no one has a sense of humor. The whole vast saga is a mind-numbing forced march through a swamp of comic book profundity, an interminable one-night three-way between Friedrich Nietzsche, L. Ron Hubbard, and Judith Kranz.

In short, Atlas Shrugged is one of the worst books ever written--and, in the words of Gore Vidal, "nearly perfect in its immorality." Still, Moore proudly notes that "...as recently as 1991, a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that readers rated 'Atlas' as the second-most influential book in their lives, behind only the Bible."

But of course. People naïve, ignorant, demented, or desperate enough to be primarily influenced by the Bible would be influenced by A.S. The books have much in common: vast stretches of unbearable tedium, one-dimensional characters with no resemblance to actual human beings, hectoring speeches full of indignation and moralizing, and discreetly implied sex. Both are works of fiction. The Bible took hundreds of years to compile, and Atlas Shrugged takes hundreds of years to read.

And, just as true believers find confirmation of Scriptural predictions in cherry-picked semi-coincidences in real life, so does Moore--former Cato Institute man, presumably a Libertarian, and what people smarter and funnier than I call a "Randroid"--discover that events of today (the bailouts, the economic stimulus packages, etc.) are proving Rand prescient. "...(O)ur current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that 'Atlas Shrugged' parodied in 1957."

Are they? Let's see.

In the novel, stick-figure industrialists and businessmen find their noble, courageous, avowedly "selfish" efforts stymied and undone by stick-figure cowards, weaklings, and corrupt bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Piece by piece, in Rand's depiction of governmental overreach, capitalism is dismantled. Moore lists several of the more egregious examples from the book: "the 'Anti-Greed Act' to redistribute income (sounds like Charlie Rangel's promises soak-the-rich tax bill) and the 'Equalization of Opportunity Act' to prevent people from starting more than one business (to give other people a chance). My personal favorite, the 'Anti Dog-Eat-Dog Act,' aims to restrict cut-throat competition between firms and thus slow the wave of business bankruptcies."

Moore then goes on, "These acts and edicts sound farcical, yes, but no more so than the actual events in Washington, circa 2008. We already have been served up the $700 billion 'Emergency Economic Stabilization Act' and the 'Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act.' Now that Barack Obama is in town, he will soon sign into law with great urgency the 'American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.' This latest Hail Mary pass will increase the federal budget (which has already expanded by $1.5 trillion in eight years under George Bush) by an additional $1 trillion -- in roughly his first 100 days in office."

To draw an equivalence between these two sets of laws is to be, at best, stupid, and at worst, mendacious. The "Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Act" has no counterpart or equivalent in what the rest of us know to be real life. It's the creation of a petulant teenager throwing a tantrum about "society." Other edicts are just as contrived and equally silly: No worker, anywhere, is allowed to be fired. No owner is allowed to quit or retire. All patents and copyrights become property of the state. No new products are allowed to be produced. No one is allowed to spend any more or less money on anything than they did in the previous year.

What, here, is being "parodied"? Not American society, either today or in 1957; not the ways in which government and legislation interacts with capitalism; and not even any reasonable depiction of the left. In fact, what's being parodied (if that's the word) is the Soviet Union, from which Rand (nee Alice Rosenbaum) emigrated when she was 21. Yes, in her magnum opus, her "moral defense of capitalism," Ayn Rand dresses the U.S. in Soviet drag, and then watches in triumph as her soap opera heroes beat it up.

The putative reasons presented for these society-crippling regulations--"fairness," "to give others a chance," "because the group is more important than the individual"--are ascribed to the cartoon villains with the implication that they are commonly found out in the world. "This is what the looters and the moochers believe," Rand says. "They hate individual genius and entrepreneurial initiative. They hate rationality. They want to drag all of society down into the depths of mediocrity in which they dwell. These are the laws and regulations they would pass if only they could."

It's an outrage! Or it would be, if it were remotely true. But it isn't. No leftist calls for a ban on new products or campaigns for a law forbidding executives to quit. No liberal calls for a legal limitation on what you can spend in a year. Even in the age of the Internet, when some believe that "information wants to be free" and debate the abolition of copyrights, no one demands that copyrights be ceded to the state. (Quite the opposite, in fact.)

She made it all up. The bad guys are straw men, serving a straw government, empowered by a straw civilization. The whole thing is a mug's game, a poker hand dealt from a stacked deck, a self-subverting and ultimately ludicrous grand opera of bad faith.

Still, the mystery of Atlas Shrugged isn't, why is it so bad? Many books are this bad and some are even worse. No, the mystery is, why does anyone who made it out of eighth grade take it seriously?

Yet, obviously, people do. Individuals capable of dressing themselves apparently love this, one of the most turgid, contrived, pompous, and comically over-written books ever published in English. Why?

Because they believe. For Randroids, "glibertarians," "conservatives" (whatever that means at this point) and Republicans in general, politics has become a matter of faith.

Never mind that studies show that the economy prospers more under Democratic than Republican administrations. Never mind that the first six years of the Bush administration provided the right with every resource it needed and asked for, from "a war footing" to majorities in Congress to a supine, spineless media, and the results were unalloyed catastrophe (for us, yes, but for them, too). Never mind that the Republican "big tent" is in tatters due to calamities they themselves created, as sideshow barker Limbaugh now tries to con the rubes into coughing up an extra buck to watch Ann the Six-Foot Blonde say rude things about Michelle Obama, while Ring Master Bush sulks in his trailer and thinks the problem was his "rhetoric."

Faith not only requires you to ignore what happens in the world, it praises you for it. The more unsubstantiated, untenable, or preposterous the belief, the more virtuous the believer. So Stephen Moore's solution to global recession is to wave around one of the most unreadable books ever written as though it were holy writ. For him, and for the right, politics is now religion.

And, as with any mythology, believers want to emulate their heroes. Cable traffic on the wing-nut sites after the last election featured many writers and commenters musing about "going John Galt," withdrawing their genius and talents from the rest of us and leaving us to our own moocherly devices. To which all one can reply is, Please do. Knock yourselves out. And take this hideous book with you.

Cross-posted at What HE Said