Thursday, August 15, 2013

Atlas Shrugged by Ann Rand

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have never before heard an argument against socialism put coherently. I recently went to Alaska on a cruise, and when I returned, in the parking lot of the cruise terminal in Seattle was someone’s pick-up truck with a large hand-made sign in the back with huge red writing, along the lines of “Keep your Marxist Obama-loving socialism and give me my tax money and my guns.” This sign could only belong to an American.
I have heard this kind of argument against Socialism previously, but I wouldn’t call it coherent. Rand herself isn’t always coherent – another reviewer said you would either have to skip the John Galt speech or commit suicide, and it’s true – but she is the closest I’ve come and for that reason alone I was interested in reading this book.
I enjoyed learning the arguments against Socialism, again such as they were, and I enjoyed the parts with the railroad. The train system fits heavily into these stories and I read a section of this book on the cross-Canada train through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver to Edmonton, about a 23-hour trip.
The less good is the writing. Rand really puts the ‘B’ in subtle with her heavy-handed portrayal of absolute good and absolute bad.

“In this world, either you’re virtuous or you enjoy yourself. Not both, lady, not both.”

There’s a step, well several, missing in Rand’s portrayal of a world driven to the brink by Socialism. Advocating personal responsibility is fine, but ultimately if you don’t give the poor enough to eat, they are going to break into your house and take it, which I believe happened to Rand, causing her exile from Europe. Rand seemingly learned nothing from this, and this book is really her fashioning a utopia where this kind of responsibility to the lowest of the low has the option to be abdicated.

“Haven’t you any desire to be of service to humanity?”
“I don’t talk that kind of language, Miss Taggart. I don’t think you do, either.”
She laughed. “I think we’ll get along together, you and I.”

Throughout it all, profit is the watch-word, as the novel details the current state of the socialized affairs:

“The newspapers are yelling that coal is now the most crucial commodity in the country. They are also yelling that the coal operators are profiteering on the oil shortage. One gang in Washington is yelling that I am expanding too much and something should be done to stop me, because I am becoming a monopoly. Another gang in Washington is yelling that I am not expanding enough and something should be done to let the government seize my mines, because I am greedy for profits and unwilling to satisfy the public’s need of fuel.”

Along the way, there’s more than a smattering of misogyny, such as when one man wants to divorce the wife he is cheating on, and he says to his lawyer:

“But there is to be no alimony and no property settlement.”

I really believe Rand sees this as reasonable, the woman is a leech and the man is a capitalist and shouldn’t have to support her. The fact that the woman is a homemaker in 1950 doesn’t carry much sway in the no alimony, no sympathy world of this book. The heroine herself has learned to play the man’s game, why can’t everyone else?

“I’m Mrs. Taggart. I’m the woman in this family now.”
“That’s quite all right,” said Dagny. “I’m the man.”

So where do women fit in this man’s world?

“He had a son in high school and a daughter, nineteen, of whom he was fiercely, painfully proud, because she was recognized as the most beautiful girl in town.”

The main problem with the book is that it’s so heavy-handed it becomes comical, I don’t think it can be taken seriously. That really dilutes the message. When Rand decides to kill a train full of people, she goes car by car, listing the faults of each person and the reason each should die:

“The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.”

I did like some aspects of the book—I don’t believe advocating for personal responsibility is bad. Really the finer points though were so hard to find among the hammering that is the rest of the book.
For example, what moral right have some of us to seconds until every one in the world has had firsts?

“To work—with no chance for an extra ration, till the Cambodians have been fed and the Patagonians have been sent through college. To work—on a blank check held by every creature born, by men whom you’ll never see, whose needs you’ll never know, whose ability or laziness or sloppiness or fraud you have no way to learn and no right to question—just to work and work and work—and leave it up to the Ivys and the Geralds of the world to decide whose stomach will consume the effort, the dreams and the days of your life. And this is the moral law to accept? This—a moral ideal?”

Rand goes toO far in her all or nothing ways, arguing here against socialized medicine:

“I observed that in all the discussions that preceded the enslavement of medicine, men discussed everything—except the desires of the doctors. Men considered only the ‘welfare’ of the patients, with no thought for those who were to provide it. That a doctor should have any right, desire or choice in the matter, was regarded as irrelevant selfishness; his is not to choose, they said, only ‘to serve...’ That a man who’s willing to work under compulsion is too dangerous a brute to entrust with a job in the stockyards—never occurred to those who proposed to help the sick by making life impossible for the healthy. I have often wondered at the smugness with which people assert their right to enslave me, to control my work, to force my will, to violate my conscience, to stifle my mind—yet what is it that they expect to depend on, when they lie on an operating table under my hands? Their moral code has taught them to believe that it is safe to rely on the virtue of their victims. Well, that is the virtue I have withdrawn. Let them discover the kind of doctors that their system will now produce. Let them discover, in their operating rooms and hospital wards, that it is not safe to place their lives in the hands of a man whose life they have throttled. It is not safe, if he is the sort of man who resents it—and still less safe, if he is the sort who doesn’t.”

I don’t believe people should die for their inability to pay a bill. I don’t think medicine is a privilege. Even Rand’s arguments, they’re not refutable, they’re just a rant. Does socializing medicine “violate” a doctor’s conscience and “stifle” their minds? I’m voting no. They have mothers and friends and spouses they want to keep healthy, is that not motivation?

Another aspect of this book I disliked, that scared me, brings me back to the start of this review. When I saw the guy with the pickup truck and the sign, my initial thought was “I hope they searched his car for bombs.”

“Oh yes, I would have killed—but whom was there to kill? It was everyone and no one, there was no single enemy, no center and no villain, it was not the simpering social worker incapable of earning a penny or the thieving bureaucrat scared of his own shadow, it was the whole of the earth rolling into an obscenity of horror, pushed by the hand of every would-be decent man who believed that need is holier than ability, and pity is holier than justice.”

At times this book seems to be outright advocating blood-in-the-streets justice, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen that mentioned her in these reviews. One problem with an all-or-nothing approach is what is the nothing? Mostly it’s a strike, but sometimes it gets into a grey area. I can see quotes from this book on a mass bomber's manifesto.

Another problem with this book is the love. The heroine starts an affair with a married man, and justifies it by saying:

“I am proud that he had chosen me to give him pleasure and that it was he who had been my choice. It was not—as it is for most of you—an act of casual indulgence and mutual contempt.”

This really pisses me off. Who is Ann Rand to tell me my sex life is casual indulgence and mutual contempt? Actually, now that you mention it…. But seriously, this is one of the major problems with conservatives, they extol the virtues of the self, but they do it while tearing down everyone else. The Galt relationship is also as flat as a pancake.

Back to another relevant, not overly dramatized point:

“What will happen if I put you there and you ruin a heat of steel for me?”
“What’s more important, that your damn steel gets poured or that I eat?”
“How do you propose to eat if the steel doesn’t get poured?”

This review may seem long, get ready for the 1100 pages of the book.

The book really stalls in the last third. The book on realism delves into fantasy territory when the characters fly to a magic place in the sky, literally. A romance begins with John Galt that feels completely unnecessary and out of left field. Then a 60 page speech grounds the earth and your brain to a halt, with such wisdom as:

“If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.”

The edition I read has an anniversary introduction at the beginning, which I read at the end. Why do they put these intros that give away the whole plot at the start of the book? From the intro:

“Father Amadeus was Taggart’s priest, to whom he confessed his sins. The priest was supposed to be a positive character, honestly devoted to the good but practicing consistently the morality of mercy. Miss Rand dropped him, she told me, when she found that it was impossible to make such a character convincing.”

Here’s my surprise face that Rand couldn’t write someone merciful convincingly. Really, none of her characters are. There’s 50 shades of grey, and this is zero shades of grey. Rand describes them as not supposed to be real, that they are only meant to embody her ideal. That is an understatement.

Ultimately the book is very difficult to get through with little payoff, I would not recommend. There’s room for a book with this subject matter among the best of the all-time books, but I would argue this isn’t it.

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