Colbert Shrugged: Ayn Rand Institute Responds to 'Rand Illusion'

04/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Since March 11th, I've received several hundred messages via facebook and twitter (@juliettepowell) suggesting I look at The Colbert Report's 'The Word' segment called 'Rand Illusion'. And so I did, again and again, torn between a giggle and a sigh.

Call me old school but my first reaction to all of these Atlas Shrugged references in the media of late was to wonder if these pundits had actually read and understood the book. I suspect they have, but probably figure that, of the millions who have read Rand's acclaimed 1957 novel, few would actually bother to argue about it in a public forum. Having personally read the book several times -- four, to be exact -- these last couple weeks have shown me that I do care enough to help set the record straight on Rand's story and philosophy.

Why? Because I found myself talking back to the tv monitor every time a media commentator 'explained' what John Galt would do in this economic crisis and because, even though I've read Rand's books multiple times and was quite sure where Galt might stand, given the myriad of media references to Atlas Shrugged lately, I genuinely began to wonder -- perhaps I was the one who had completely misinterpreted Rand's work. Since Rand herself can no longer address the way her words are being interpreted, I found someone who could.

Interview with Onkar Ghate, senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute (part 1)

by Juliette Powell

What do you think of the Colbert Report's segment called the 'Rand Illusion' where Colbert asserts that Atlas Shrugged is a 'Conservative Bible' and 'is being used by Conservatives to spur a movement . . . a calculated work slowdown? What do you think Colbert wanted to accomplish and what did he accomplish?
Stephen Colbert's television show of course parodies (allegedly) right-wing television hosts like Bill O'Reilly. In the process it ridicules Republicans, conservatives, O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and so on.

The segment on Atlas Shrugged was an attempt to ridicule Rand's novel. I found the segment distasteful. Many people of course disagree with the ideas contained in Atlas Shrugged. Rand knew that the novel challenged moral ideas entrenched in Western thought for over 2,000 years.

To disagree with the ideas and theme of the novel is different from what the Colbert segment did. It treated the novel as though it were not a significant work of literature -- the segment suggested that if you've read to the end of the book "the world does owe you."

This is ludicrous. In purely literary terms, Atlas Shrugged is a great novel. The segment then went on to misrepresent the content of the story. For instance, to claim that Atlas Shrugged "can be used to justify anything" is absurd. Perhaps more than any other novel, Atlas Shrugged presents a firm and detailed view of what is morally right and morally wrong. Rand said (accurately) that the theme of the novel is "the role of the mind in man's existence -- and, as corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest." One may of course disagree with the moral philosophy contained in the novel, but to suggest that the book is so vague as to be capable of justifying anything is disingenuous.

Or to take another example, the Colbert segment said that the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, tells the poor of America: "You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you." But if you read the actual novel, you will discover that Galt has called on strike the men of the mind (rich and poor alike) and that these words of his are in fact addressed not to the poor. They are addressed to those who advocate or accept a philosophy that damns the individual's happiness, mind and life. Here is the passage from the novel, in context (John Galt is speaking on the radio):

"Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don't. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind.
"We are on strike against self-immolation. We are on strike against the creed of unearned rewards and unrewarded duties. We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one's happiness is evil. We are on strike against the doctrine that life is guilt.
"There is a difference between our strike and all those you've practiced for centuries: our strike consists, not of making demands, but of granting them. We are evil, according to your morality. We have chosen not to harm you any longer. We are useless, according to your economics. We have chosen not to exploit you any longer. We are dangerous and to be shackled, according to your politics. We have chosen not to endanger you, nor to wear the shackles any longer. We are only an illusion, according to your philosophy. We have chosen not to blind you any longer and have left you free to face reality--the reality you wanted, the world as you see it now, a world without mind.
"We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it. We have no demands to present to you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you." (Atlas Shrugged, Part III, Chapter VII)

So what did Colbert want to accomplish? As I said, he wanted to ridicule Atlas Shrugged. Did he succeed? No, because the segment simply ignored the novel's literary virtues and misrepresented its content.

Is Colbert, and the media in general, taking a cheap shot -- going for the easy laugh using Rand's philosophy of selfishness -- or are they using humor and irony to open a much needed public debate?

The Colbert segment was a cheap shot, so, no, I don't think he was trying to open a debate. If anything, by attacking a straw man, he was trying to close debate.

But I don't think the media in general has been taking cheap shots at Rand or Atlas Shrugged during the present financial crisis. There have been many more accurate stories, such as the one in The Economist (which the Colbert segment mentioned) -- a news story that reported the dramatic increase in the sales of Atlas Shrugged and suggested a connection between this fact and the financial crisis.

What we are witnessing, I think, is the fact that precisely because Atlas Shrugged is a radical book -- it presents a new view of morality, a morality of rational self-interest -- it creates passionate admirers and passionate detractors. And as has been the case since the novel's publication in 1957. Detractors almost always misrepresent the book's ideas because they are unable or unwilling to mount an argument against what Rand actually says. The Colbert segment was a small example of this.

Ayn Rand fans, Colbert fans -- the ball is in your court! What do you think of the Ayn Rand Institute's response to Colbert's 'Rand Illusion' segment so far? I'll try to connect with the folks at Colbert for their comments and hope to have that, along with Part 2 of my interview with Onkar Ghate, senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute shortly. Keep checking in here for Part 2 in the next few hours and days where we discuss the political implications of the mediatization of Atlas Shrugged.

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~> j*