THE BLOG
04/12/2011 07:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2011

With Release of Atlas Shrugged Movie, a Rise in Rand Rants on Reason

I awoke the other day to this email from a stranger:

Just saw your 2009 piece on Atlas Shrugged. You completely missed the point of Rand's book, which is that you can't consume what you don't produce, but that a lot of folks would like to consume what they can take from others. I'm looking forward to the movie next month. No doubt we will see the leftists out in force to tell us how bad it is. The best thing for Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand has been the Obama administration.

I replied: "Then you can't see the movie if you didn't produce it, by that reasoning..."

A movie adaptation of any lengthy book is bound to reduce its ideas, themes, and arguments to piece meal phrases that will not do justice to the author's intent. But I foresee a particular risk in this upcoming film effort tackling Rand's opus of ego, and spurring some to further reduce it to clichés about how everyone is always trying to take your sh*t from you.

As it is, Ayn Rand's 1957 epic has enjoyed a revival among those who obsess that Obama is striving to subjugate them (hint: it's the corporations, not the government). Look at Nick Newcomen, an acolyte of Ayn that last year drove all over America to correspond to GPS coordinates so that his epic road trip would spell out on a map "READ AYN RAND" like terrestrial sky-writing.

Without driving over 12,000 miles for a month at $4 a gallon, let me simply append Nick Newcomen's message:

People carve reason to fit their rationale. Ayn Rand's gospel of self-empowerment reads perilously close to selfishness justified by selfishness. As I maintained in my previous piece on Atlas Shrugged, there is a lot of brilliance in Rand's writing. So brilliant, it tends to blind readers into empathy with its persecuted geniuses, and let many readers feel they, too, are like the genius characters in Rand's tale. After all, they just got through a thousand-page book -- that's like reading the Bible or the dictionary or James Joyce.

However, the narrative universe in Rand's saga of society unraveling is, from a literary standpoint, science fiction, written in the style of a melodrama, and riddled with repetition. Ideologically, it's a thousand-page stacked deck. Inspiring though it may be, the simplistic, black-and-white world in Atlas Shrugged is like an Art Deco-era Star Wars. The key difference -- people aren't trying to run Jedis for Congress.

Ayn Rand waxes at length on how some people (geniuses) are better than others (looters), and her characters say the same things to each other over and over in different long-winded ways. I can't help but wonder: What kind of person has to do this? What did she have to convince herself of? Why do the characters speak to each other in essays?

Where many try to find ties to today's U.S. government in Ayn Rand's writing, it can be forgotten what her reference point really was. Born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, her family suffered their business being confiscated under the 1917 Russian Revolution by Lenin's Bolsheviks. Her idea of "the socialists are coming to get you" wasn't affordable health care -- it was, literally: the socialists are coming to get you.

As I have maintained, I ultimately enjoyed the book and was drawn to parts of its driving philosophy. I recognized early on in the piece that the author had a bitter complaint against all the people trying to stifle innovation all the time, and figured she would cite examples from the real world, but she only showed it in her two-dimensional foils.

Ayn Rand prizes reason above all else. The problem is, even objective reasoning tends to be used subjectively. The nobility of reason as the penultimate approach to life over faith and compassion vanishes once exaggeration is injected into the argument process.

Any deviation from the accurate facts, devolved of emotion or selective recognition, betrays the virtue of reason. Exaggeration is frequently employed these days to turn a talking point into a terrifying call to arms. Embellishing your argument to incite fear in others so that they subscribe to your point of view is manipulating your case to gain more support, under a misrepresented pretense. Exaggeration is lying. Exaggeration should be recognized as the enemy of reason.

It's not that reason is so objectionable. It's what often passes for reason that is not only disingenuous, but insulting, and ultimately dangerous. Rand's encouragement of relying on labels for types of people, from looters to leftists, breeds oversimplification. Labels are another shortcut around reasoning, a short-sighted fallacy reduced to a descriptor trying to be passed off as accepted fact.

But ultimately, Ayn Rand put her own ego above everything else, not reason. She never again spoke to her contemporary conservative William F. Buckley after he quoted someone else's line of criticism of Atlas Shrugged. This is the author of the greatest selling novel of all time, as William F. Buckley pointed out to Charlie Rose.

Another act of her contempt to those who didn't give her absolute reassurance: Rand tore down her protégé and lover Nathaniel Branden (who she kept in an open arrangement between both their spouses) once she learned that he had slept with one of his own acolytes in their institute of objectivism. Her assaults in print against him failed to include her personal relations with him. To not acknowledge a jealous rage as a factor in the reasoning of the trouncing of a colleague before your shared followers -- this defies the pretense of one's reasoning being superior to another.

When used selectively as a pretense, to be lauded as sublime because of verbose language suggesting superiority, Ayn Rand's principle of reason bears little distinction from the malleable rules behind any other religious belief system -- ones that are always self-sustaining, that won't tolerate doubters and that tend to favor the predispositions of the leaders making the rules.

The problem of selective reasoning extends beyond literary blather into real world troubles when self-appointed acolytes of Ayn Rand inject her simplistic self-righteousness into things like the budget of the United States of America. Rep. Paul Ryan, who has professed his adoration of Ayn, has touted a budget proposal that prolongs debt payoff, lowers taxes on the rich, and which the Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman referred to as a unicorn hunt. One of Ayn's most ardent admirers was Former Fed Chief Alan Greenspan, who was enamored with the ideas of unregulated markets to let geniuses thrive for the betterment of society. Why would the wise men of Wall Street cut corners and subvert the market -- which would only strangle our economy and end up looking bad?

Surely the wealthiest tycoons wouldn't be so obsessed with bleeding our economy for a little more money. It's not like they would listen to their superior sense of self and rationalize selling predatory mortgage loans as derivatives on the international market, right? They certainly wouldn't endeavor in such fraud as boasting false ratings, used to coax the elderly into seemingly safe investments. They are successful, therefore they are geniuses, and therefore we as a society rely on their accomplishments to move us all forward. It stands to reason.

Because of course, all ambitious business leaders would share the same priorities of unabated self as Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan, and the rules regulating industries exist only because whoever wrote them were looters (or as we might think of them today, "haters.")

Speaking of which, why do we even have traffic laws? Surely drivers are all looking out for the betterment of society, and they know that if they abuse the system by speeding or not waiting at intersections, there will eventually just be a pile up, and then the government would have to come bail them out. Those fast drivers wouldn't be reckless, because they know it might look bad for them later. They're just geniuses for going so fast -- they deserve even less regulation.

And because I insist I reached this ban on traffic laws through reason -- sweet sacred reason! -- who are you to tell me I'm wrong? You're just a looter trying to thwart my progress because you're jealous and want me to drive you everywhere since I decided that traffic laws don't apply to me. After all -- it's me we're talking about here!

This is the inherent paradox in taking an absolutism about reason: if you arch to support any one person, book, or movie adaptation you haven't seen yet as further proof to your own prearranged beliefs, you are avoiding reason altogether. You are looking for gospel to buttress your faith. You are seeking repetition of ideas -- fundamentally, the faulty premise that everything literally comes down to one side versus the other.

The idea that sides must be chosen in advance of the release of the film Atlas Shrugged feels a little like Team Jacob and Team Edward. With the look of a TV movie, I doubt that the "leftists" will be out in force telling Rand fans how bad the movie it is. Whoever would identify themselves as "Leftisits" are likely preoccupied with the GOP's use of government to assault unions, state workers, pregnant women, teachers, the elderly, the ground, the skies, and the oceans, to worry about another science fiction movie that won't be as good as the book.