Atlas Struck Out

Atlas’ back obviously aches from the load and he is accompanied by a serpent. Complete image below.

As a Christian, I often wonder about the popularity of Ayn Rand with people claiming to be conservative. Her best-selling novel Atlas Shrugged, regarded by some conservatives as a bible on capitalism, is notorious for popularizing a philosophy that insists selfishness is a virtue. Rand is not Christian (in fact, she attacks Christianity in her novel) and unapologetically atheist, proof that many “conservative” Randians don’t bother to seriously examine or perhaps even bother to read the novel which runs over a thousand pages.

Fortunately for people who don’t like to read, the three part novel was turned into three movies by a Randian producer. (Part I was released in 2011, Part II in 2012, and Part III in 2014.) Strangely, considering Randians espouse excellent achievement, the productions resemble a made-for-tv movie series for a second rate cable channel. If you don’t believe me, try to watch them. (Note: none of the principal actors in Parts I, II, and III remain the same which might confuse you.) The movies were a flop with critics and most audiences, but the hype and controversy surrounding their releases has helped fuel more sales of the novel, which has been selling well since its publication in 1957 and was voted the second most influential book in America after the Bible in 1991. 

Atlas and Prometheus Laconian Kylix, 560-550 B.C.
Laconian Kylix, 560-550 B.C., Vatican Museums. One of the earliest known images of Atlas and Prometheus. Atlas holds up the world and Prometheus is punished for giving fire to man.

This disturbing fact begs the question—why is Rand regarded as an authority on business and capitalism? Apart from one unfortunate incident in her childhood of the Bolsheviks appropriating her father’s business, she has little to no practical experience in the area of business. I was blessed to be friends with Julian Moody, a veteran who fought and risked his life in World War II to defeat just the sort of tyranny that Rand, from a safe distance, pompously railed against. This kind, humble, selfless man was also an executive coach and management consultant for over fifty years and worked with many companies both large and small throughout the United States. He also volunteered countless hours as a mentor and coach for individuals, nonprofits, and businesses in Santa Barbara where he lived since 1965. I was fortunate to spend many hours talking with Julian who patiently answered my many questions about his work. His experience in business was completely contrary to what Rand professes in her work and philosophy. Central to business and trade are relationships and the quality of those relationships, and the things Rand glorified, like ego and selfishness, are extremely toxic and destructive to those relationships, often undermining the enterprises and endeavors in the long run. Most people with real experience in business have learned this truth the hard way. Great minds with great ideas without a team and network of supportive people to help make those ideas a reality are dead in the water. And selfish people with big egos, even when surrounded by yes-men, tend to create unnecessary conflict and draining drama more often than anything useful.

But the plot of Atlas Shrugged turns all of that on its head and becomes the vehicle through which Rand demonstrates and expounds on her philosophy. The good guys are the selfish egoists who are always without fault and epitomize a philosophy which Rand calls “Objectivism.” These super people are brilliant and physically attractive with tasteful fashion sense who stride around with excellent posture and purpose, always on the move to be doing and producing. The bad guys are the low-life leeches, parasites, the incompetent, the do-nothings of society—essentially anyone who doesn’t or can’t embody her philosophy of “Objectivism”—and these she collectively refers to as “the looters.” These people are generally frumpy with various character or physical defects such as baldness or ugliness and they often slouch at their desks. Government ranks consist solely of this degenerate type. The selfish egoists are the strong who only want life and to be productive, so therefore are good. The looters are weak and can’t be great or strong, so out of resentment and envy, have to destroy the strong. The weak only want death so are bad. This “morality” (really just glorified Social Darwinism, which is never mentioned by name, but you can smell it all through the novel) forms the basis of what she calls “ethical egoism.” The strong are actually the ones who are oppressed since they have been saddled with the burden of helping the weak. All forms of altruism are actually false, evil systems that bind the strong, out of senseless guilt and obligation, to the weak. According to Rand, the strong have no obligation to help the weak and all religions (Christianity being the worst offender in her eyes) and systems claiming otherwise are evil delusions. So the casting off of this burden forms the premise of the plot—the good guys go on strike. (The Atlases of the world collectively shrug.) This strike is led by John Galt, the ideal superman, alpha-male embodiment of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy who has made good on his promise to stop the “motor of the world.” There is even a pirate, a Robin Hood in reverse, who steals from the weak (who have been stealing from the strong all along) to give back to the strong, who clearly always deserve to be rich. The strikers abandon the world causing chaos, death, and society to fall apart. Then in what is supposed to be a stunning climactic speech, John Galt reveals who he is, the philosophy he represents, and just what is this “motor of the world.” He reveals that it is the human mind, reason, ingenuity, ego—these are what make everything happen, everything possible. It is the selfish egoists and their productive ability who hold up the world with their greatness. These egoists are our true gods that we can’t live without, if we would only wake up out of our religious fog and realize it. To add a visual touch to his point, at the end of the story, John Galt traces in the air the sign of the dollar, in lieu of the sign of the cross, over the earth (which is now a wasteland.) Meanwhile, the strikers have been hiding out in a secret utopia commune of high achieving egoists called Atlantis—a modern-day version of the exalted mythical civilization that was named after the Greek god Atlas—where they are living happily and in blissful harmony with each other as they set about creating an ideal and better world. (Some of you are trying hard not to laugh, especially those of you who have witnessed the meltdown, tantrum, or pointless power trip of an egoist.)

Some insist it is the sheer stupidity of her story and philosophy (often jokingly referred to as “Nietzsche for Dummies”) that accounts for the popularity of Atlas Shrugged which may be true, but I would argue that it is also the seductive mixture of truth and lies. That’s what makes her work so insidious—there’s just enough truth that a sloppy, undiscerning mind will swallow her whole philosophy hook, line, and sinker and believe it’s the whole truth. She takes truths we’ve all observed and paints them in the extremes of a two-dimensional plot and comic book caste system of good guys and bad guys, and then weaves in her twisted assertion that selfishness is the true good. We’ve all had accomplishments that were resented by others and likewise were envious of others’ success. Yes, talented, creative entrepreneurs with their ingenuity and hard work provide jobs and opportunities, and there are also lazy do-nothings and parasites who take advantage of handouts, government positions, and programs. And who hasn’t been manipulated with guilt by someone claiming to mean well? And she uses a trick known by any fiction writer with a knowledge of craft—identification with a character, especially a character we wish we were. Who doesn’t want to believe that they’re special, superior, a little god or rock star of their own little world, and that this world can’t exist without you? And all of the people who dislike you, criticize you, or find you annoying are just envious of how awesome you are? How wonderful to have a philosophy with a name like “Objectivism” that supports our most narcissistic view of ourselves. Incidentally, exaltation of self is one of the principle attributes of Satan, and it is also a characteristic of Satan to deceive and appear as an agent of light. Rand, through her characters, keeps insisting she is just advocating “reason” (she uses the word “reason” over and over again) and that to be selfish and to be concerned only with selfish gain is the most logical and rational good. She calls this “philosophy” and she embellishes it with a smokescreen and whitewash of terms like “hero in your soul,” “rational self-interest,” “pursuit of happiness,” “the principles that this country was founded on,” “freedom,” along with her petulant whining, “I’m not against charity. I’m just against giving to anyone who hasn’t earned anything.” And if you don’t agree with her philosophy, then you just don’t want to understand how things really are. The only true morality is her brand of morality since it smacks of something backed by science (survival of the fittest), an uncomfortable truth you’re too afraid to accept. Combine that with her atheism—there is no God, so we may as well exalt ourselves and everything we create through our efforts—making for a nice, heady, satanic cocktail.

If you’re of a secular orientation and want to get drunk on this poison and insist it’s a gospel on capitalism, that’s your problem, but those conservatives calling themselves Christians should know better. A Christian, at the very least, should recognize that this book and her philosophy is idolatry in its sickest form—the worship of self and human effort. She takes good things that our culture rightfully respects, and in her perverse reasoning, elevates them above the living God. Things such as: the entrepreneurial spirit, initiative, creativity, reason, imagination, risk, hard work, free enterprise, etc. And if we can’t manage to exemplify these attributes and be the super-achieving humans—the little gods of our society—then the captains of enterprise become the golden calves that we are supposed to worship (which she euphemistically refers to as “hero worship”) whose authority we can never question because they’re the ones giving us jobs and signing our paychecks. According to Rand, because of their inherent superiority and our dependence on them, they should be given complete license to do whatever they want.

But the philosopher who in 1957 declared herself to be “the most creative thinker alive” doesn’t have the humility to see that the capacity for corruption exists in every one of us. In her hubris and overeagerness to identify with the super people in her novel—which is her Achilles heel—she becomes blind to the unfortunate fact that humans have historically shown time and time again that they can’t handle power, hence the old adage, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In her childish view, only the likes of government and religion abuse power. Naively, she fails to realize a corporation or business elite could lose sight of integrity and accountability and become just as tyrannical and corrupt as the socialist government that confiscated her father’s business, or that sociopathy can exist in the sheep’s clothing of free enterprise (think Enron.) So sadly, her novel becomes more of the same. In spite of descriptions of beautiful characters living in wealth and elegance, there is a cold, repellent emptiness, and by far, the most strange, remarkable thing about the novel, for an author who claims to love individuality and freedom, is that all of the great, brilliant characters sound the same, like clones spouting propaganda. You read page after page thinking, there’s so many words and pages, why does all of this sound and feel the same? The story could have been easily covered in less than half the number of pages, but there is one tireless talking head after another (the John Galt speech runs about 70 pages to give you an idea) covering essentially the same territory over and over again, as if by the brute force of repetition, like a fist pounding a podium, the sheer mass of words will make her philosophy deeper and more intelligent than it really is. In her verbiage, she tosses around words and expressions like “freedom,” “freedom to think,” and “free minds,” but there is no real sense of freedom in her work. All you become aware of is the autocratic tone that’s just as dreary, humorless, and oppressive as the communist country she escaped, as well as the absence of any real love or joy. Instead, there is just, in her words, the “arrogant pleasure” of narcissists achieving and admiring each other.

As Whittaker Chambers sagely observed in his 1957 review of the book titled, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” in the conservative National Review, Rand has too much in common with the communists and socialists she condemns—her primitive, atheistic materialism is eerily like Marx’s—in other words, the same ugly creature in a different costume and waving a different flag. Chambers also noted in his review the unfortunate tendency of materialistic philosophies (no matter how stupid and awful), in his words, to “keep coming down to earth,” and if they seem to provide answers, to “translate quickly into political realities.” In the present political climate, conservative skepticism and disdain of leftist government, in some circles, becomes a rabid, knee-jerk hatred of ANY government and a blind, naive faith in anything pretending to be noble free enterprise.

Rand argues over and over that it is the ingenuity of man in the form of unbridled and unrestricted capitalism that creates prosperity, but if those capitalists are as stupidly arrogant as she is, often that wealth will be the cheap, second-rate type of prosperity with a nasty set of terms in the fine print. As Julian, my dear friend and life-long management consultant observed, “We create messes in trying to be little gods.” Ten years of my childhood were spent in Erie, Pennsylvania, a small city on the shores of Lake Erie, about 120 miles north of Pittsburg where industrialists of the type Rand would admire reigned during the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. During this period, this region became a hub of heavy industry and manufacturing, and Lake Erie became the most notoriously polluted of the Great Lakes. A combination of industrial effluent, sewage, and agricultural runoff (and its resultant algal blooms) choked the life out of the lake, helping to destroy a once thriving fishing industry. Lake Erie was famously declared dead by the 1970’s and became the subject of many jokes during that time. Only after decades has it been able to eek out a modest comeback, but still struggles with algal blooms as evidenced by the recent Toledo water ban. The history of Lake Erie is unfortunately reminiscent of the rampant pollution of early industrial England and this scenario is tragically being repeated today in China.

Rand insists that if we would just give up our faith in God and religions like Christianity and put our faith in her type of capitalist and believe in the sign of the dollar instead of the sign of the cross, our lives would be so awesome. But we’ve already experimented with that. National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. (who also despised Rand as much as Chambers) in Rand’s obituary declared her philosophy “stillborn,” (and the end fruit of her philosophy has shown that it is a stillborn delivery of death) which brings us back to the bizarre and embarrassing fact of her popularity with many conservatives. This is unfortunately sad proof that few are actually reading or examining her work or perhaps, I hate to say it, sad proof that they aren’t even reading or studying the Bible. To what extent this pathetic and troubling ignorance will continue to run its course, I can only guess. Rand fanatics were hoping the movie adaptation would majestically convince a wider audience of the truth of her philosophy, but the production just makes us painfully aware that it is just “Nietzsche for Dummies.” You can hide stupidity in a novel of over a thousand pages, but unfortunately it becomes too apparent in a stripped down movie script. The three movies certainly struck out with me. As well as the miserable mental marathon of reading her novel just to try to give these misguided conservatives the benefit of the doubt.

Over and over again, I kept going back to the premise of the story—the strike of these great people we supposedly can’t live without. I kept wondering, what if all of these self-congratulating, arrogant, self-consumed movers and shakers of the world with all of their insufferable pride and twisted morality went on strike? Maybe, just maybe, we would have some semblance of an Eden or Paradise on earth. Scripture says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” and in Christ’s words, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” Watching the movies and reading Rand’s novel also just made me relieved to know that on our money it reads, “In God We Trust.”

(Posted 9/24/2014)