Ayn Rand and the New Gods

Of Mad Men and madmen

In the AMC series Mad Men, Bert Cooper tells Don Draper he should read Atlas Shrugged.  The episode takes place in the first season during the year 1960.  The advertising firm Sterling Cooper, of which Bert Cooper acts as senior partner and office eccentric, later accepts the Republican Party as a client for its upcoming battle with Nouveau Riche candidate John F. Kennedy.  But the Atlas Shrugged reference is telling, especially since the series has gone on to deconstruct the Greatest Generation with an Altmanesque cynicism.

The Seagram Building: the American Mount Olympus.

Joshua Glenn, a writer for the website HiLoBrow, offered a brilliant reconfiguration of the Greatest Generation.  He split it into three generations (Hardboileds, Partisans, and New Gods).  The project also explained the artificiality of periodization in pop culture histories.  Unfortunately, in cultural institutions, the Strauss & Howe-cum-Brokaw-inspired moniker “Greatest Generation” has calcified within the popular consciousness and become as immovable as a boulder and as loaded as a theological dogma.  Glenn’s periodization offers a new perspective on the generations that endured the Great Depression and fought World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War.  This brings us back to Mad Men, Madison Avenue, and Atlas Shrugged.

Builders and Inventors

While Matt and I have given the novel a relentless critical laceration, it is worthwhile to examine the historical context.  Like literary biography, it is another key to unlocking the secrets of this doorstopper’s ongoing popularity.

In Mad Men, Sterling Cooper staffs a mix of generations.  Don Draper fought in Korea and Roger Sterling fought in World War II.  The specter of war, devastation, and tyranny hang over the series, a silent menace that could mean instant nuclear obliteration.  Ayn Rand, fitting into Glenn’s schema as a member of the Partisan Generation, influences the men in the New Gods Generation.  As Glenn says, “Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, at the age of 18, [George H. W.] Bush postponed going to college and became the youngest naval aviator in the US Navy at the time; that’s so New Gods.”  (Another member of the New Gods was President Nixon, notable for his use of the “Madman Theory” in foreign policy.)

The Marshall Plan: Sometimes the government is not the problem, but the solution.  Sometimes …

The generation takes it name from the Jack Kirby comic series.  In the Fifties and Sixties, Americans had ascended into a position that one could associate with “godlike.”  Relatively unscathed from World War II’s devastations, at least compared to Europe, the United States accumulated wealth during its feverish war production.  Following the War, Americans had money to burn, both on an individual level and on a national level.  Whites migrated to the suburbs and the US government bankrolled the military-industrial complex to protect the globe.  Meanwhile the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild Europe, paving the way to free markets and free peoples … unfortunately, it was usually in that order.

Sometimes the government is the problem.

X: I was one of those secret guys in the Pentagon that supplies the military hardware – the planes, bullets, rifles – for what we call “black operations.” – “black ops,” assassinations, coup d’états, rigging elections, propaganda, psych warfare and so forth.  World War II – Rumania, Greece, Yugoslavia, I helped take the Nazi intelligence apparatus out to help us fight the Communists.  Italy ’48 stealing elections, France ’49 breaking strikes – we overthrew Quirino in the Philippines, Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran.  Vietnam in ’54, Indonesia ’58, Tibet ’59 we got the Dalai Lama out – we were good, very good.  Then we got into the Cuban thing.  Not so good.

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Even the New Gods have feet of clay.  While the CIA did the dirty work and the US acted like the Global Policeman, the world was rebuilt, at least those portions untouched by Soviet oppression.  Atlas Shrugged, stacking the deck a la X’s black ops, is about builders and inventors.  What makes the world of Mad Men unrecognizable to younger viewers is its look of newness.  New inventions kept popping up, technological advancements, and a wealthy suburban populace ready to cash in on the decades of poverty and miserliness created by economic devastation and global warfare.  The Fifties and Sixties were a sustained orgasm of conspicuous consumption.  Only when the inflation, social unrest, and cash-hunger created by Vietnam brought things to a head, did the party stop.

“When the music’s over … turn off the lights.”

Rand glorifies the builders and inventors, written in the heady atmosphere of 1957, a hothouse mélange of capitalist frenzy, McCarthyism, and Soviet expansionism.  Nevertheless, the historical record casts a different light on the situation than the Atlas Shrugged’s ostentatious utopianism.  The government made the world safe for free markets and the government provided.  The problem with Atlas Shrugged is that it reinforces the Manichean mindset that permeated the Fifties.  Evil government looters versus capitalist industrialist heroes.  Godless Communist versus Bible-believing patriot.  Republican versus Democrat.  Coke versus Pepsi.  Rinse, lather, repeat.  The delightful thing about Manichean oppositions is that it frees the individual from thinking with his or her brain.  When X = bad, choose Not-X.  It’s reductive, it’s intellectually lazy, and it’s behavioristic.  Only addicts repeat the same acts, even though they are detrimental.  Any lab rat knows that.

The anti-government hatred inspires both a hero like Hank Rearden and a domestic terrorist who flew his Piper Cherokee into an IRS building.  On the other hand, the regulatory mandate of the Federal Government needs to adapt with the times.  When times are flush, the individual investor needs the freedom to take more risks.  When times are tight, investment should take an ancillary role to a more pressing need, that of personal savings.  That said, regulations are useless when legislators rubber stamp bills written by their lobbyist friends (and future campaign contributors).  Not all regulations are good and not all corporate behavior is beneficial.  The best perspective should be nuanced, examining legislation and corporate behavior on a case-by-case basis.  As the joke goes, “All generalizations are false.”  The burger-flipping philosopher Hugh Akston says that a contradiction exists when one of the premises is false.  Rand’s tendency to generalize everything (evil looters vs. Objectivist heroes) renders the novel into one huge contradiction.

Going Galt … right into a building.

The United States has yet to fully shake off the Manicheanism of Rand’s novel and the Cold War mentality.  While the polar world of the Fifties and Sixties explains why Atlas Shrugged became so popular, we do not live in those times.  Back then, there was a single enemy: the Soviet Union.  The foreign policy of today reflects a multipolar world with no center.  Instead of Soviet Party Chairmen stampeding across the Iron Curtain and imposing tyranny, our enemies are different.  Religious fanatics with dirty bomb dreams, yachting BP executives, and those whose political opposition to things stems from a fanatic adherence to ideological purity rather than common sense (this goes for nitwits who populate both the Right and Left).

Atlas Shrugged remains unique in literature for its depiction of industrialists are heroes (Cf. Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Zola, and others) and a woman engineer as a main character.  It inspired many to rail against government regulations (some of which was probably detrimental to business).  The sub-genre of “libertarian science fiction” owes a debt to Ayn Rand and her philosophy.  But freedom, liberty, and business can be taken too far (just read the works of D.A.F. de Sade to explore the outer limits of personal freedom).  Both capitalism and government regulation work well when they work within certain specific limits.  What those limits are and where they fall remain points that will be debated for eternity.

The Gods Will Have Blood

The title is from a novel by Anatole France.  The quotes below are from two very different movies, both on the New Gods gone too far.  When things go too far, the gods will demand fealty.

General Corman: Well, you see Willard… In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Ace Rothstein: [voice-over] Before I ever ran a casino or got myself blown up, Ace Rothstein was a helluva handicapper, I can tell you that. I was so good that when I bet, I can change the odds for every bookmaker in the country. I’m serious. I had it down so cold that I was given paradise on earth. I was given one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas to run: The Tangiers, by the only kind of guys that can get you that kind of money. Sixty-two million seven hundred thousand dollars. I don’t know all the details.
Nicky Santoro: [voice-over] Matter of fact, nobody knew all the details. But it should have been perfect. I mean he had me, Nicky Santoro, his best friend watching his ass. And he had Ginger, the woman he loved on his arm. But in the end, we fucked it all up. It should have been so sweet, too. But it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that fuckin’ valuable again.

Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

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