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Missing the Point of Atlas Shrugged

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Much has been made of Ayn Rand's opus of late, Atlas Shrugged, and its relevance to our current economic crisis.

To condense a thousand page novel into a lede: As the U.S. worsens, captains of industry disappear, creating a secret utopian community of their own led by John Galt, waiting to return into society until it crumbles so badly without them, the lights of New York go dark.

To condense a thousand page allegory on Objectivism into a rationale: Some people are just geniuses, and they should be left alone to produce, because their ingenuity is what allows society to flourish. Intrusion into their process is oppression.

The inherent problem of literature is that often times citing it is in itself an appearance of wisdom, superior reasoning, of being right. And as grandiose as the grunting of "Going Galt" by conservatives has been, their many detractors have disparaged an otherwise good novel.

As long-winded as the book is, it has a cool story, and through bringing the reader into the minds of leading industrialists, it captivates the imagination and lets us fantasize about the prestige, power, and ability of being a genius in the world that Ayn Rand divines from a familiar United States in the middle of the last century.

In the heightened reality of her universe, there are the geniuses, whose innovations benefit all of us eventually, and there are the looters (haters), untalented bureaucrats who restrain the geniuses through repetitive mandates requiring their successes be shared with the government to make up for its lack of innovation. The role of the government in her book is as cartoonish as her antagonists.

It is a thousand-paged stacked deck. Ayn Rand's portrait of America is as rarefied as Norman Rockwell's.

The danger is that through reading this novel, many people become so empathetic to the heroic geniuses that they begin to believe that they are themselves geniuses. (After all, they just got through a preachy thousand-page book.)

HINT: If you needed this book to realize you are a genius, you are not a genius.

Thus, the empty threat of defection to a non-existent utopia is proffered by people who would not be eligible for said utopia.

To brag of being Galt-ian, you may as well brag about being Vulcan. Both offer some practical wisdom from their respective fictitious worlds -- but why not wear funny ears while you're at it?

There is another inherent flaw with the principle that an unencumbered genius will perform for the betterment of society. That same naivete fed Alan Greenspan, star of Ayn Rand's salon of sophists, who as Fed Chief reasoned that traders and corporations would not put out flawed products, funds or services, because to do so would obviously be of detriment to their future sustainability. The Free Market would thus be a noble marketplace where competition keeps its players serving the consumers.

This blind trust in some gentlemen's code that does not exist allowed the rampant run up of short-sighted scroungers to swindle millions of Americans through predatory lending, inflated mortgage securities, Enron, Big Pharma, and the insidious hold the oil industry has on our government and society.

Now, even Alan Greenspan is calling for nationalizing banks. Poor Ayn must be spinning in her solid gold sarcophagus.

Her life was like her lordly literature. Born in St. Petersburg, her family was uprooted by the Russian revolution of 1917 and her father's business seized by looters. (I think it would behoove many of the people crying out about socialism that Ayn Rand's idea of socialism is the real deal, when Lenin was leading mobs in the streets and Bolsheviks were taking your stuff away from you.) At 21, she came to America on a visa to visit relatives, never to return to Russia. (Anti-Immigration zealots who revere Ayn Rand, take note, you champion an illegal Russian immigrant, who was also a devout atheist.)

On her second day in Los Angeles, she was discovered by Hollywood titan Cecil B. DeMille, who saw her peering through the gates of a studio lot, and then hired her to become an extra and eventually a script reader (no doubt because he recognized her true genius at 21). She met her future movie star husband on the lot a week later.

While married, she famously had an open affair with her protege, even naming an heroic character after him in Atlas Shrugged. This heir apparent to Objectivism, Nathaniel Branden, was also married, and in their erudite circle of being objective to what Ayn Rand wanted, Branden's wife and Rand's husband had to be cool with them boning.

But when Ayn Rand found out that her boy toy was objectively screwing a young actress acolyte of theirs, she went ballistic, ostracizing him from the institute he had built for her, and bashing him in their literary journals without acknowledgment of their affair (actually pre-dating MySpace).

While a thinker cannot always be held to the ideals they author as inspiration to others, Ayn Rand in particular does not make a good role model. Actually, she was kind of a bitch. (I only dare say that because she's dead and can't get me.) When she died, her body was displayed next to a huge floral arrangement of the dollar sign, a symbol she lauded as the ultimate icon for the self.

As extreme as it might sound to worship a symbol of currency, self-empowerment and self-enrichment are hardly enemies of the American character. The individual's freedom is what our renegade country was founded on, and there is no threat to an American's rights (not counting the Bush years). There are in fact industries devoted to selling such success through books far easier to read than Atlas Shrugged. The lofty ideal of rational self-interest challenges the principle of personal responsibility, and lays the groundwork to rationalize anything.

This argument from a senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute sets the record straight on the recent rampant citing of Atlas Shrugged.

"If we are our brother's keeper, as Obama declares (echoing the conventional wisdom) -- if your moral duty is to serve your neighbor and anyone else who is in need, then you don't have the moral right to pursue your own life and happiness."

Astonishingly, one actually can have compassion for other people and not thereby be enslaved.

The reference point for such a defensive assault on compunction is from an individual who did not want to feel culpable of compassion, and so has constructed a critique of others who are.

Any belief system can be used to justify one's means -- but Ayn Rand's Objectivism is about justifying one's means.