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Atlas Summer: Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapters 3 & 4

June 28, 2010 6 comments

Chapter III: The Top and the Bottom

Summary:

Having introduced her readers to her bold and brilliant protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, Rand opens Chapter Three with an intimate look at some of the many, many spineless weasels who make up her menagerie of mediocrity.  In an ominously darkened rooftop barroom somewhere in Manhattan, Jim Taggart, Dagny’s idiot brother and the President of Taggart Transcontinental, Orren Boyle, idiot owner of Associated Steel, and assorted sniveling minions sit around a table and attempt to undermine their more successful but less politically connected competitors.  Jim wants to derail the Phoenix-Durango through collusion with his fellow railroad magnates. Orren wants to put the kibosh on Rearden Metal before it renders steel obsolete.  And all of this Machiavellian maneuvering is couched in the language of “progressive policies” and “social responsibilities.”   This scene raises the question of whether Rand is setting out to critique the very idea of altruism or if she’s suggesting that altruism doesn’t exist except as a justification for selfishness and tyranny.  I’m guessing both…

From here, Rand pulls back to offer a capsule history of the life of Dagny Taggart, engineering genius, and her dullard brother, put in control of the railroad thanks to mindless adherence to tradition and sexism.  One sign of Jim’s incompetent management of Taggart Transcontinental is his insistence on building a money-losing line into Mexico, where copper mining supremo/playboy Francisco d”Aconia has built the San Sebastian mine.  Dagny is convinced that the (communist?) government of the “People’s State of Mexico” will end up nationalizing the mine and the railroad that services it.  During his meeting with Boyle, Jim learned that Dagny had been using ancient wood-burning engines and decrepit rolling stock on the San Sebastian and he confronts Dagny about it.  The conversation is pretty much identical to the first conversation between the two: Jim sputters and whines, Dagny coolly insists on her demands, and in the end, Jim gives up and whines some more.  I suspect that this will be a recurring motif.

After dealing with Jim’s spastic colon, Dagny walks across the Taggart Transcontinental terminal floor, pausing to genuflect before a statue of her grandfather, Nathaniel Taggart, founder of the railroad.  It seems Taggart was the original self-made man, a “penniless adventurer” who built a continent-spanning railroad with his own two hands, having “never sought any loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favors from the government.” He also, according to family legend, killed a corrupt legislator.  I’m thinking if Rand had lived long enough to see There Will Be Blood, she would have swooned over Daniel Plainview.

daniel-plainview.jpg there will be blood image by loguekev

Daniel Plainview: couldn’t hold Nathaniel Taggart’s jock strap.

The chapter ends back with sad, love-lorn Eddie Willers, eating in the Taggart Transcontinental cafeteria with an unnamed and silent co-worker. The subjects: the importance of renovating the Rio Norte line…and how amazingly awesome Dagny Taggart is.  Poor, poor Eddie. He might as well be writing her name on his Trapper Keeper.

Observations:

Atlas Shrugged has barely begun and we’re already beginning to see Rand begin the process of dividing humanity into two discreet blocs: the extraordinary, brilliant, diamond-hard genius creators and the fleshy mass of jealous, mush brained sluggards.  It’s not hard to figure out which is which.  Greatness seems to be genetic in Rand’s characters.  Nat Taggart’s will and tenacity are reflected in Dagny, as are his physical attributes.  All the “good” people in this book are sketched in sharp lines.  The villains are more squishy, hunched and small.

Rand’s description of the rise of Nat Taggart is an early indicator that Atlas Shrugged is content to make it’s ideological case with as many dramatic shortcuts as possible.  Yes, Nat Taggart built his railroad without any federal land grants or subsidies.  Meanwhile, in the actual United States, the 19th Century railroad companies were the first large-scale recipients of corporate welfare: pretty much all the land west of the Mississippi was either Indian or Federal land, and this nation’s rail worthies made their fortunes thanks to massive land give-aways by the government.  I don’t care how bad-ass Nat Taggart was, he wasn’t going to defeat competing railroad companies that were grabbing free Federal land as far as the eye could see.

Quotes:

“Orren Boyle made a noise, swallowing his liquor.  He was a large man with big, virile gestures; everything about his person was loudly full of life, except the small black slits of his eyes.”

“Dagny’s rise among the men who operated Taggart Transcontinental was swift and uncontested.  She took positions of responsibility because there was no one else to take them.  There were a few rare men of talent around her, but they were becoming rarer every year.”  (Foreshadowing!)

“Dagny regretted at times that Nat Taggart was her ancestor.  What she felt for him did not belong in the category of unchosen family affections.  She did not want her feeling to be the thing one was supposed to owe an uncle or grandfather.  She was incapable of love for any object not of her own choice and she resented anyone’s demand for it.  But had it been possible to choose an ancestor, she would have chosen Nat Taggart, in voluntary homage and with all of her gratitude.”  There are like, fifty more sentences in that paragraph than necessary.  No wonder this thing’s 1300 pages long.

Chapter IV: The Immovable Movers

Chapter Four begins with another thick slab of meatloaf-rich metaphor, with Dagny surveying the shop floor of the United Locomotive Works.  “On her way through the plant, she had seen an enormous piece of machinery left abandoned in a corner of the yard.  It had been a precision machine tool once, long ago, of a kind that could not be bought anywhere now.  It had not been worn out; it had been rotted by neglect, eaten by rust and the black drippings of a dirty oil.”  JUST LIKE AMERICA!

Anyway, Eddie wets his pants while telling Dagny that her chief contractor for rebuilding the Rio Norte line has suddenly closed up shop.  This leads to a long, thoughtful walk through the darkened streets of New York, as Dagny makes her way to her apartment, where she listens to some Richard Halley concertos, while thinking about the musician’s life.  He struggled through years of failure and scorn from the musical powers-that-be before unveiling a massively successful opera.  He retreated from public life and stopped publishing music the day after it opened.

Jim Taggart is having an awkward, dumb conversation with his mistress when he gets a call that, just as Dagny predicted, the Mexican commies have nationalized the San Sebastian mines AND the San Sebastian railroad.  Thanks to Dagny’s foresight, the loses are minimal, leading Jim to take credit for his sister’s actions in front of the Taggart Transcontinental board of directors.  What a jerk!

They’re coming for your railroad…and your carne asada.

The National Alliance of Railroads (whatever that is) pass something called the “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule” which bans newer railroads from competing in districts already serviced by long-time providers. This means that Dan Conway’s Phoenix-Durango line has to go out of business in six months, leaving the newly-discovered oil fields of Colorado all to Taggart Transcontinental.  Dagny, outraged, goes to see Dan Conway and tells him to fight the rule. Conway, dazed and disenchanted, declines to act.

With the efficient Phoenix-Durango soon to go out of business, Colorado oil genius Ellis Wyatt goes to see Dagny.  The success of Wyatt Oil now depends on the rapid renovation of the Rio Norte line, and Wyatt wants assurances that it will succeed. Dagny, all steely determination, tells him not to worry about it. She’s got this shit.

Observations:

I am having a difficult time understanding how this book became such a touchstone for so many people.  Not because of the ideology, and not necessary because of the quality of the prose (although it’s occasionally laughable and never better than workmanlike).  It’s because the first hundred pages of this book consist almost entirely of the minute engineering challenges of a railroad company.  How did anyone even GET to the juicy and/or incendiary stuff without falling asleep first?

The “Anti-dog-eat-dog” rule?  Another way you can pick out the bad guys in this book: their horribly awkward way with words.

Quotes:

‘”The music of Richard Halley has a quality of the heroic. Our age has outgrown that stuff,” said one critic. “The music of Richard Halley is out of key with our times.  It has a tone of ecstasy.  Who cares for ecstasy nowadays?” said another.’  Atlas Shrugged: come for the thrilling tales of locomotive engineering, stay for the incineration of straw men!

“Dagny, whatever we are, it’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through.” (Ellis Wyatt)

Atlas Summer: Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapters 1 & 2


The Book: Atlas Shrugged, 35th Anniversary Edition, by Ayn Rand, “with a new introduction by Leonard Peikoff” (New York: Dutton, 1992)

Pagination will be based on the Dutton edition.

The Notoriety:

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

—Dorothy Parker on either Benito Mussolini’s The Cardinal’s Mistress or Atlas Shrugged.

“Yes, at first I was happy to be learning how to read. It seemed exciting and magical, but then I read this: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of this garbage, and because of this piece of shit, I am never reading again.”

– Officer Barbrady from South Park


Here we go!

Welcome to Atlas Summer, our team reading of Atlas Shrugged in the Great Recession.  Matt and I will give our impressions to the book.  Let us know what you think.

At present, I am restricting myself to chapter summaries and initial reactions.  Further into the book, the chapter posts may involve a more detailed presentation.  The project will also involve posting on specific topics, since this is an Issue Novel.  The issues will be confronted, pored over, and discussed.

Part I: Non-Contradiction

Chapter I: The Theme

Pages: 3 – 26

Summary:

“Who is John Galt?”  The question plays like a refrain throughout the chapter as the reader meets a few of the important characters.  A bum meets Eddie Willers, an employee at Taggart Transcontinental, a powerful railroad concern.  He remembers a large oak tree he saw when he was a child on the Taggart estate.  When lightning struck the tree, he discovered it was hollow and rotten.  (Hmm, metaphor?)

Willers discusses business matters with James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental.  The reader is thrown into the cutthroat world of the railroads.  There are lots of accidents happening, the Rio Norte Line is in competition with Phoenix-Durango, and Taggart Transcontinental has lost the Wyatt oil fields.  The necessary steel shipments have not arrived.  James Taggart refuses to take action.

Meanwhile, the beautiful Dagny Taggart, Vice-President in Charge of Operation for Taggart Transcontinental, gets delayed on a Taggart Comet.  She uses her position and iron will to get the train moving again, despite the reluctance of the employees.  The employees, who stopped the train at a red light, refused to move the train unless they received direct orders.

In a brief scene, she allegedly hears a new piece of music from Richard Halley, even though he has not composed anything in years.

She enters the office of her brother, James, takes command, and orders a new alloy called Rearden Metal.  The metal will be used to upgrade construction of railroad track.  She does this without permission from the Board, her brother, or anyone else.  What a dame!

The chapter ends as it began, with the ominous question, “Who is John Galt?”

Observations:

The novel wears its self-importance on its sleeve, but that is par for the course with an Issues Novel.  The success or failure is based on the subtlety of its execution.  While not subtle, the novel begins by introducing many of the main characters and several conflicts (personal, business-related, and others).

Rand’s authorial voice is insistent and forward-driving, much like the trains that are pivotal to the narrative.  The narrative contains a hardness I have rarely encountered.  Laudatory passages about machines and achievement coexist with a strong female character.  Intriguing.  Since it has been decades since I have read The Fountainhead, I am not sure what to expect.

I wonder how the reading public treated Atlas Shrugged?  The eccentric Senior Partner Bert Cooper has mentioned it a couple times in Mad Men.  What other books were published in 1957?

(During this reading project, I am also reading A Confession by Leo Tolstoy; Capital: a Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx; and the memoirs of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  These other works will create a fascinating set of associations and friction when reading Rand’s controversial work.)

Bon Mots:

  • “Who is John Galt?”  (Obviously.)
  • “Taggart Transcontinental, thought Eddie Willers, From Ocean to Ocean – the proud slogan of his childhood, so much more shining and holy than any commandment of the Bible.”
  • Talking about Rearden Metal: “Because it’s tougher than steel, cheaper than steel and will outlast any hunk of metal in existence.”
  • “I’m not interested in helping anybody.  I want to make money.”  (Dagny Taggart)
  • “Other people are human.  They’re sensitive.  They can’t devote their whole life to metals and engines.  You’re lucky – you’ve never had any feelings.  You’ve never felt anything at all.”  (James to Dagny)

Another tunnel and another ruthless individual Rand might admire, Tony Soprano:

Chapter II: The Chain

Pages: 27 – 43

Summary:

Henry “Hank” Rearden observes the first firing of Rearden Metal, the revolutionary alloy mentioned in Chapter 1.  During his walk home, he fingers a bracelet made of this new metal.  He plans to give it to his wife as a gift.

At home, he is beset on all sides by his castrating wife, chiding mother, and chiseling brother.  Following the triumph of casting the Rearden Metal, his wife, Lillian, complains that he is never home.  She also has to prompt him to remember when their wedding anniversary is.  His mother acts in a passive-aggressive manner, possibly in accordance to his Minnesota upbringing.  His brother, Philip, asks for a donation to the Friends of Global Progress.  (Subtle!)  To add insult to injury, Philip asks him to donate the money in cash, since the Friends would not want to be associated with a nefarious tycoon like Henry Rearden.  The chapter ends with Lillian dismissing Hank’s gift, “Appropriate, isn’t it?  It’s the chain by which he holds us all in bondage.”

Observations:

  • This chapter was unbelievably manipulative.  Objectivist philosophy notwithstanding, the chapter had less subtlety than an Animaniacs short.
  • The description of the factories reminded me of Hard Times, J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of Mordor, and the anti-industrialization tirades in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  The irony is Rand describes these factories in gushing praise, prose-poems to mass production.  Machines and engines have not had this much positive adulation since the Futurists.
  • There isn’t a single likeable character.  Hank comes across as a workaholic sociopath, not to mention uncharitable.  His brother, Philip, comes across as an ungrateful dick.  His wife, Lillian, seems to take pleasure in giving him shit.  And his mother harasses him to no end.  Ugh, I hate all these people.
  • Hank Rearden is described like a tall, blonde superman.  The first image that came to mind was the glamorous Nazi henchman Reynard Heydrich.

Bon Mots

  • “Of what importance is an individual in the titanic collective achievements of our industrial age?”
  • “It was his mother’s voice; he turned: she was looking at him with that injured look which proclaims the long-bearing patience of the defenseless.”
  • “It was so childishly blatant, thought Rearden, so hopelessly crude: the hint and the insult, offered together.”
  • “And then Rearden thought suddenly that he could break through Philip’s chronic wretchedness for once, give him a shock of pleasure, the unexpected gratification of a hopeless desire.”
  • “You don’t really care about helping the underprivileged, do you?”  (Philip to Hank)

I wonder how Rearden Metal stacks up against Adamantium?

Atlas Summer…it begins!


I go into “Atlas Summer” knowing Ayn Rand only by reputation.  I know the titles of Rand’s books and their basic plots (there’s a lot of rape, right? and trains?) as well as the overall thrust of her weltenschauung.  I also know more than I wish I did about Ayn Rand’s personal life: idolizing serial killers, starting a cult of personality/stud farm, popping uppers like they were Pez…Most of all, I know her by her influence on three generations of self-regarding white guys, from Alan Greenspan to Ron Paul, and the philosophical fuel she provided for neoliberalism’s deregulatory steamroller that paved the way for housing bubbles and derivatives clusterfuckery.

The Randian garden gnome who helped destroy the economy.

Ron Paul: Randian and creation of the Children’s Television Workshop.

Amazingly, interest in Rand, particularly her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, skyrocketed just after an economy powered by Randian precepts collapsed, discrediting both her and her followers.  The Apostle of Deregulation himself, Alan Greenspan, essentially admitted to a congressional committee that his entire worldview was defective!  Yet, when centrist Democrats attemped mild Keynesian stimulus (while cutting taxes), it prompted up every Rand follower in and outside of government to take to the ramparts, dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged in hand, rather than doing what basic human decency demanded: begging the world’s forgiveness, then committing ritual suicide with a sharpened copy of Galbraith’s Affluent Society.

The penalty for supporting the Gramm-Leach Act: ten Hail Marys and twenty pages of Krugman.

What mystical force must be contained in such a volume?  This is a book that not only has the power to convert an army of computer science majors to its author’s cause, but to hold acolytes in its thrall no matter how much evidence piles up revealing it as utter twaddle!  The only comparable work I can think of is the Bible, and at least that book offers up the enticing promise of eternal life and Heaven everlasting.

Offer of Eternal Life not valid for Jews, Muslims, Randians or Richard Dawkins.

Perhaps Rand offers a secular equivalent: the prospect of life lived without the chains of oppressive conscience, a terrestrial utopia more indulgent, more personalized, and, most importantly, more realizable than the dreary “worker’s paradise” promised by Marx.

Roadmap to Utopia: No Looters Allowed!

Or maybe (gulp), Atlas Shrugged is just really, really well written.  There’s truly only one way to find out…

Atlas Summer: Introduction


Close Encounters of the Rand Kind

My first encounter with Ayn Rand came in high school.  In my senior philosophy class, my teacher introduced me to The Fountainhead.  The book appealed to my philosophical bent and I enjoyed Howard Roark’s passionate, downright reckless individualism.

Let me reiterate: I was in high school.

The teacher who recommended the book to me did not look like Mr. Russo from Freaks and Geeks.

I have not read another Ayn Rand book since.  This was not because of Rand-hatred.  (I will address that later.)  I went to college.  Had a job at a TV station.  Then I went to grad school and worked in a museum.  During those years I read other books.  Books by Ayn Rand just did not figure on my list of books to read.

I am currently working as a temporary employee.   This status should provide an interesting X-Factor in reading Rand’s 1300 page magnum opus.  A job provides many things, including money.  A steady income stream will help and I would really like a fat wallet.  Is this greed or simply the desire for self-preservation?

As a critic of popular culture and politics, Atlas Shrugged presents itself as a fascinating test case.  I have read many reviews of the book.  The surprising trend is that either the reviewer loves the book, saying it is the best book ever written by a human, or it is the worst thing ever written, worse than Battlefield Earth, the Silmarillion, and Eragon combined.  I am curious about how one book could generate such hyperbole from both ends.

“If you’re good at something never do it for free.”  A = A.

Why So Serious?

The hyperbolic reactions caused by Atlas Shrugged have turned the book into a volatile commodity.  Proponents speak in religious terms, equating his or her reading experience with St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  Ayn Rand is the greatest writer ever.  Within the book lay the key to unlocking wealth, power, and prestige.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the book generates a ferocious and equally fanatical hatred.  One parallel is the Two-Minute Hate in Orwell’s 1984.  The hatred can get borderline irrational, mere disagreement with the text turning into violent screeds.

Seriously, it’s just a book.  It’s fiction!  One sees reverence and piety directed at sacred texts, not at lengthy potboilers written in the 1950s.

What’s the point of all this, anyway?

Since 2009 the United States and most of the world has endured an economic cataclysm the likes of which has not been seen since Herbert Hoover sat in the Oval Office.  Calling this global catastrophe the Great Recession will remain one of the monumental understatements of American history.  It is akin to saying Hurricane Katrina gave Louisiana a little more moisture for a few days.

The multiple causes of the Great Recession have been debated endlessly.  The cascading crises within the subprime mortgage, housing, credit, and currency areas all have a singular culprit.  The culprit is less a person than an amorphous vituperative philosophy commonly called “deregulation.”  Whenever the banking and the financial sectors are deregulated, economic cataclysm is soon to follow.  It resulted in the Great Depression, the Crash of 1987, and 2009.  Three major systematic collapses within a century, how is that a stable economic system?  Capitalism seems about as stable as Corey Haim.  But, hey, after a period of legislative rehab, we can deregulate the industry again.  The Dow will never go down, we’ll all be rich, our 401Ks will be huge!  One more time.  One more hit.  (The Corey Haim metaphor was not a mere pop culture reference.  Corey Haim is dead because he thought he could have just one more hit and his body would take it.)

A metaphor.

Karl Marx, the bête noire of Ayn Rand, once said that capitalism plants the seeds of its own destruction.  With Goldman Sachs selling junk stocks to widows and retirees, British Petroleum turning the Gulf Coast into a black oily hellscape, and a two-party democracy unable to pass necessary legislation to prevent socioeconomic collapse, one has yet to here a coherent counter-argument from free-market advocates.

“Atlas Summer” will take an in-depth look at Ayn Rand’s very long and very controversial work.  The analysis will be in the same spirit at Red Letter Media’s eviscerations of Avatar, the Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones. Everything from historical context, economic philosophy, and literary craft will be subjected to our gaze.

As a fan of box office bombs, camp, and pop culture notoriety, I am willing to give Atlas Shrugged a chance.  Despite my serious issues with deregulation and the free market, I want to hear the arguments from the other side.  It is not my task as a book reviewer and cultural commentator to read and watch things I completely agree with.  That’s boring and narrow.  One’s view of the world should be leavened with different opinions, different viewpoints, and different backgrounds.  As people are wont to say, “Some of my best friends are …”

Too many voices agreeing on the same things cause epistemic closure.  During this project, we want to hear from you.  The Rand-hater.  The Rand-lover.  If I got something wrong in my summary and analysis, point it out to me.  Even though I am a pretty good reviewer, I am also fallible.

It would be great if some enlightening discussion can be generated with this project.

A Few Questions

  • Why has this book remained popular?
  • Some people say this is the best book ever written.  Compared to what?  Examples.
  • How is Rand’s philosophy different from Marx, de Sade, Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, and others?
  • Is “going Galt” a bad thing?  (Considering the actions of Enron, WorldCom, Goldman Sachs, and British Petroleum.)

NB: Coffee is for Closers is also looking for a conservative voice during this project.  If you think Atlas Shrugged is a great book, please contact either Matt or I.  A variety of voices will heighten the quality of discussion.

The 1930s Supreme Court according to David Mamet


David Mamet

David Mamet is the inspiration and patron saint at “Coffee is for Closers.”  Over on Funny or Die, Mamet has written a sketch comedy piece entitled “Lost Masterpieces of Pornography.”  It stars Ricky Jay, Kirsten Bell, and Ed O’Neill.

To see the video click here.

Westboro Baptist Church, Lady Gaga, and the Parodic Abyss


Fresh from picketing Ronnie James Dio’s funeral, the Westboro Baptist Church has turned its attention to another musician in need of reminding that they’re on a fast track to damnation, creating a new parody of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” called “Ever Burn.” Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Church leader Fred, posted the song to her blog today; like other WBC spoofs, musically it faithfully hews to the original, but Phelps swaps in lyrics about how Gaga is a “devil spawn” whose insistence on teaching “the boys and the girls to be proud whores” will not only ensure that God no longer hears her own prayers, but will also help kill off American troops and “spread the oil faster.”

“Westboro Baptist Church casts Lady Gaga into song parody hell,” AV Club Newswire, June 2, 2010

Pop culture is the engine of the ephemeral, a means of delivering plastic pop baubles to its cheering fans.  Occasionally it simply leaves the audience confused.  In the mercenary world of pop music, Lady Gaga has added precious seconds to her fifteen minutes of fame with a glittery train of spectacular costumes.  Her songs get lost amidst the predictable “Worst Dressed” tabloid fodder and garden-variety industry weirdness.  The crazy costumes sell records and record executives get rich in the process.  Beyond the superficial Bob Mackie-on-angel dust attire, this is business as usual for the music industry.  (See Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, etc.)

Lady Gaga

Religion is the engine of the eternal, a means of promising a blissful afterlife, and union with God, insofar as Abrahamic theologies are concerned.  The quest for the eternal has produced cathedrals, paintings, sculpture, and literature.  One aspect that has haunted the three major Abrahamic monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is its reaction to homosexuality.  Recent events has seen “the Homosexual Question” tear apart (or destroy) various denominations and religious communities. Can modern pluralistic democracies negotiate with religious groups whose views on the gay community are founded on a perspective hewn from the Bronze Age and Roman Palestine?

Westboro Baptist Church protesting something.

Depending on the ideological contours of the faith community, the negotiation between modern mores and ancient tenets result in either hardline or accommodationalist positions.  The recent swath of anti-gay crusaders caught in gay sex scandals only makes the situation more precarious.  Dogma and desire play across the human body.  The nature versus nurture debate recast as fodder for Leno, Letterman, Stewart, and Colbert.

Rick Warren: homophobia in an easily digestible, mainstream middlebrow package.

At the far end of the spectrum is the Westboro Baptist Church.  Less a traditional denomination than an extended family of shameless fame whores, it has become the easiest church to hate, since its dogmatic positions and public displays, like Lady Gaga, easily turn into self-parody.  How can one ridicule something so inherently ridiculous?

This essay seeks to explore the extremes of parody and self-parody.  What if the Westboro Baptist Church was not a cabal of sincere extremists, but bent performance art?  Less Book of Leviticus than Ole Time Religion, Andy Kaufman-style.

Extremism as Performance Art

The world of religion, like the world of politics and celebrity, is based on finely executed performances.  The term charismatic can apply to all three spheres.  The world has become an information-saturated, mediated, spectacle-loving environment.  It takes a serious effort to get the audience’s attention.  Having achieved that, no mean feat in a world with the Youtube, TV, Netflix, etc., the performer has to keep the audience’s attention.  The typical viewer is not necessarily jaded but overly distracted. It is hard to focus when there is so much choice.  Hence politics and religion arranging Manichean-like solutions.  The choice then involves one of two choices: Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, science or religion, Coke or Pepsi, and capitalism or socialism.  The “either/or” choice gives the viewer a mental respite from 500 channels, 100 kinds of coffee, and other intimidating multitudes.

Do we have your attention yet?

Another strategy to insure the audience’s attention is taking an extremist stance.  Rand Paul’s extremist libertarian ideological purity guarantees he will get the news coverage and press clippings.  He stands out amidst the other newly elected Congressional clones and drones.  Whether this ideological extremism results in a re-election remains to be seen.

A younger, sexier George Wallace.

Westboro Baptist Church occupies the same extremist plane as Rand Paul.  Fred Phelps, the Grand Ayatollah of the Church, is an endless font of hyperbole, sensationalism, and extremism.  He does verbally what Lady Gaga achieves visually.

Fred Phelps and his ilk represent an easy target for justifiable contempt.  It is easy to hate the Westboro Baptist Church.  One can assert that opinion almost too easily.  The degree of sincerity and seriousness of the Church while uttering statements hateful and outrages comes across as bigoted and sensational.  They espouse a belief system pre-medieval yet media savvy.  The Bronze Age theatrics betray a mastery of modern media.  Fred Phelps is less a fire-and-brimstone hatemonger than an astute performance artist.

Fish in a barrel.

His hate-filled bile has an unlikely antecedent: Tony Clifton.  Stand-up comedian Andy Kaufman created the Tony Clifton character.  Tony Clifton plays like a parody of a Rat Pack nightclub comic.  The parody creates a bleak shadow, like Don Rickles minus the jokes.

Fred Phelps also exemplifies the worst aspects of performance artists, sensational attention hogs that enthrall hipster audiences with vulgarity.  Unfortunately, their swearing and poetry is without meaningful content.

Parody, Self-Parody, and Beyond

“Ever Burn” stands out, unique in its ridiculousness.  Nevertheless, the ridiculousness is like a wormhole, bounded by the two black holes of Lady Gaga and the Westboro Baptist Church.  How can one appreciate this, even from the vantage point of pop culture studies?  A religious group that comes across like a hateful parody of fundamentalist groups parodies a song by a pop music figure that comes across as a cartoonish parody of the pop music scene.  Trying to unravel the different threads of parody is like trying to find the second side of a Möbius Strip.  To Slavoj Žižek, himself a provocateur and parody of the academic establishment the song is like the plot of Lost Highway that exploits “the opposition of two horrors: the phantasmatic horror of the nightmarish noir universe of perverse sex, betrayal, and murder, and the (perhaps much more unsettling) despair of our drab, alienated daily life of impotence and distrust.”

Ironically and predictably, the parody song is not funny.  The lack of humor is not due to the ultraconservatism of the Church’s doctrine.  Political parody songs usually emanate from the right wing, usually on talk radio and allied web venues.  The parody songs succeed because of the over-serious, hyper-orchestrated Bataan Death March associated with the American Presidential election process.  The songs bring touches of humor to otherwise drab news days concerned with the relentless repetition of campaign ads, swing states, and fund raising.

Parody also works when the religious target possesses the same self-serious posture as political figures.  The Pope Benedict XVI-Emperor Palpatine parody has become an instant classic on the Internet.  Because the molestation scandals keep expanding and Pope Benedict’s former position as the “Pope’s attack dog” have given the parody traction.  It has also gained traction due to the “Panzer Pope” and “Nazi Pope” memes growing tired and clichéd.

The Catholic Church represents a vastly different target than the Westboro Baptist Church.  One is a sovereign state with a massive ecclesiarchy and a two-thousand year old tradition.  The global scale and millions of adherents creates a congregation varied and contradictory in its relations with the Vatican.  Catholicism embraces everything from the Opus Dei to Marxist-inspired “liberation theology.”  Capital accrued from millions funds lawyers and public relations teams to give the Church a public-friendly face.

Standing in stark opposition to the staid traditionalism of the Catholic Church is the Westboro Baptist Church.  The Catholic Church officially takes positions against homosexuality and gay marriage, its own sexual peccadilloes notwithstanding.  A multifaceted bureaucracy and sovereign state status further establishes its legitimacy.  The same cannot be said for the Westboro Baptist Church.  A tiny congregation with few outside the immediate family of Fred Phelps, its agenda remains an obsessive one-note farce.  The pathological obsession with damning gays is a parody of other denominations and their euphemistic condemnations.  The Westboro Baptist Church possesses a kind of dogmatic obsessive-compulsive disorder, demanding a “Christian America” as impossible to achieve as Osama bin Laden’s “Global Caliphate.”  Whereas bin Laden and al-Qaeda represent a real threat to American cultural pluralism, the Westboro Baptist Church just comes across as a joke.  Even the Ku Klux Klan has disavowed the Westboro Baptist Church.  The only real analogues are actual parody religions like the Church of the SubGenius and Pastafarianism, although both espouse a comedic posture.  The parody rings true when the target is sincere and serious.

The Westboro Baptist Church is so extreme and so sensational; one wonders if they themselves are sincere?  Alternatively, like Tony Clifton, is the joke on us?  The audience gets offended and they get attention.  One can only hope enough people will avoid giving these inveterate fame whores the attention they crave.  Shameless narcissists and masters of the media age, the Westboro Baptist Church succeeds in feeding its insatiable vanity.  The Lady Gaga parody proves once and for all that they are wasting everybody’s time.  Religious history will regard this claque of hateful dingbats as another footnote.  That is, if the historian bothers to include them at all.

A parody of a parody of a parody of a …