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CCLaP Fridays: On Being Human: Battlestar Galactica and Caprica


This week, I continue my ongoing series “On Being Human” with “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica,” two Syfy TV series that explored the struggles between humanity and the machines that rebelled. |

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CCLaP Fridays: On Being Human: Warhammer 40K Space Marines


I continue my CCLaP essay series “On Being Human”, this week exploring the dark world of Warhammer 40K and the Space Marines.

“It’s Always Sunny in Pyongyang”: A Tribute to Kim Jong-il


Dictatorships: Leading an Insane Clown Posse of One’s Own

Late last year, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died.  Along with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and global supervillain Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong-il (1941 – 2011; Supreme Leader, 1994 – 2011) joined an esteemed list of rat bastards no one will miss.  At least no rational person.  That’s the rub, since the Supreme Leader of the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea has been perceived as a crazy lunatic nutjob.  Everyone from David Letterman’s writing staff to the writers on Cracked.com have made a cottage industry from the simple equation: Kim Jong-il = Crazy!

As illustrated in the clip from 30 Rock, Kim Jong-il acts like a hyper-positive weather man, asserting that North Korea is “always sunny all the time.”  In a gonzo performance, comedian Margaret Cho turns the dictator into a goofy clown with absolutely no connection with reality.  (Which makes him totally different from our esteemed political leaders.  Right, guys?)

Critiquing dictators is nothing new in pop culture.  The most prominent historical example is Charlie Chaplin’s the Great Dictator (1940).  What is new is the twist given to this critique, that of insanity.  Its usefulness shouldn’t be underestimated.  With an accusation of insanity, a critic does not need the obligation of taking the target seriously.  The critic also comes from the privileged position of “sanity.”  Unlike other people who are labeled “insane” or “mentally disturbed” (the homeless, the elderly, etc.), Kim Jong-il possessed a massive concentration of military power and the unswerving obedience of the Party machinery.  When not making ridiculous claims, saber-rattling North Korea’s neighbors, and living in obscene opulence, he came across as threatening as an Elvis-coiffed garden gnome.

The charge of insanity made it easier for Internet comedy writers, but was it actually useful or effective?  It is hard to quantify in real foreign policy terms.

The Political Aspects of Insanity

Thus far, we have taken insanity as a given.  If you’re a North Korean despot who claims to have invented the cheeseburger, the charge of insanity seems firm.  However, insanity itself is a slippery concept.  Like the words “reality” and “culture”, insanity can become a loaded term.  How does one define “insane”?  Who defines the term?  What power do they have?  What are the political aspects of insanity?

Insanity is a different breed of affliction than, say, high blood pressure, asthma, or tuberculosis.  One can point at a chart, an X-ray, or read-out and come to an agreed upon conclusion.  The term itself (“insane”) has become the cultural shorthand for the different and maladjusted.  This should not be confused with those who suffer from brain defects or neurological disorders.  Unlike a severe cranial trauma or brain deformation, insanity has as much to do with medical knowledge as with political consensus.  Kim Jong-il was such a real-life caricature of state terror, that is was easy to label him insane.  Kim’s father, Kim Il-Sung, represented a very dangerous threat to national security and his totalitarian rule was nothing to laugh at.

Today charges of insanity usually arise on Internet discussion boards when one voices doubt in the inherent durability of the American two-party system.  Because the economic and global situation has become so bad, it would be utterly insane to vote for someone other than a Republican or Democrat.  (Because these same two parties and the same people in power have done such a bang-up job, I should keep them in power.  Now who’s being insane?)

Because the first step to being different is thinking different, insanity has been used as a regulatory measure to control one’s family life, sexuality, and personal associations.

“Only an insane person would like _______” (Pick what you detest most.)

A. Gay people marrying.

B. A literal interpretation of the Bible.

C. Kim Jong-il.

D. The Atlas Shrugged, Part I movie.

What becomes dangerous about the definition of insanity is it becomes the psychiatric tool of political consensus.  Attacking the opposition by characterizing them as insane lunatics has caused the usual heated American political discourse to become completely abandoned.  Since the Occupy member thinks the Tea Party member is crazypants, then it’s no use even talking to them.  (The reverse is also true.)  Both sides need to abandon the hyperbolic rhetoric and realize they are missing the forest for the trees.  (Obviously, both those groups are insane.  Hey, isn’t that no-account, corrupt, adulterous sleazbag up for re-election in my district.  I need to keep him or her in office for another term to fix things.  To the voting booths!)

Insanity: That’s so Gay!

The political uses of insanity have had real consequences, damaging to individuals and their families.  The fields of psychology and psychiatry buttressed and refined what was formerly the province of religion.  Religious persecution of homosexuality is a given with examples, modern and ancient, too numerous to recount.  Adding fuel to the fire was the psychiatric community’s assertion that homosexuality was a form of insanity.  Like other forms of insanity, it was seen as something “curable”.  In a peculiar twist that shows the circular relationship between religion and psychiatry, certain religious organizations make routine claims that they can cure homosexuality.

Only in 1973 was homosexuality removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  Its presence in the DSM made homosexuality easier to criminalize and prosecute, since persecuting homosexuality on religious grounds violates First Amendment protections.  (While the First Amendment guarantees free exercise of one’s own religion or non-religion and not getting taxed by an established religious authority, the amendment does have its limits.  These include human sacrifice, bigamy, and violent persecution of another group.)

Consensus can become a dangerous weapon, especially wrapped in the garb of the scientific rhetoric used in psychiatry.

Occupy North Korea

One of the predictable criticisms of the Occupy movement is that Communists run it.  But this is a critique too boring and too predictable to comment on.  What naïve leftists within the Occupy movement need to realize is that free market plutocracies aren’t the only places with an oppressive One Percent.  It takes many forms, usually dynastic.  One sees this with the Saud Family’s financial mismanagement, monumental corruption, and radioactive hypocrisy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Two despots, one car: The Rolls Royce of Czar Nicholas II and Lenin.

North Korea also has its One Percenters.  And like the United States, it asserts it is a democracy run by the people.  (Don’t believe me?  It’s in North Korea’s name.)  The upper echelons of the North Korean Communist Party and military apparatus sport huge waistlines and live in grandiose mansions.  A North Korean Party hack represents the average North Korean the same way an overpaid, multiple-married, pill-popping AM talk show host represents “the Real America.”  Faux North Korean Communism is as real as Faux Conservative Populism.  Both are hard to take seriously and both are manufactured and targeted at rubes too dumb or too scared (or both) to think for themselves.  “If those Democrats are elected, then Obama’s gay Muslim abortionists will take my Bible away!”  “If those Republicans are elected, they will ban abortion, bomb Iran, and make us all Protestant!”

And Kim Jong-il invented the cheeseburger.

In the words of self-styled exercise guru Susan Powter, “Stop the insanity!”

Happy Thanksgiving!


Greg Proops explains the story of Thanksgiving:

One of the hallmarks of this most hallowed day is eating … eating lots of stuff, then collapsing in a tryptophan coma to watch football.  Patton Oswalt talks about Black Angus Steakhouse in an ode to eating.  Enjoy!


Granted, I think football is a technocratic game, alternately tedious and ultraviolent.  But that’s just me.  I can enjoy Thanksgiving but not football, because America is all about differences of opinion.  We’re not North Korea … right?

"What, son, ya say ya don't like football?"

Two new features at Coffee is for Closers


Did she say “Trains!” or “Brains!”?

Having survived Ayn Rand’s epic literary atrocity Atlas Shrugged, we thought that it is time to explore other pop cultural avenues.  The two subjects under consideration are the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Warhammer 40,000.  (Each title is shorthand for sprawling creative properties involving TV shows, role playing games, video games, web series, tie-in novels and comics, and countless other pop cultural artifacts.)

 

Battlestar Galactica

 

 

Battlestar Galactica represents a rich vein to tap into the struggles and ethical dilemmas facing the United States after the September 11th terrorist attacks.  The spin-off series Caprica dealt with issues like organized religion, terrorism, virtual reality, technological advancement, organized crime, and capitalism.  The franchise will expand again with the upcoming series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, chronicling the First Cylon War.

Warhammer 40,000

 

Warhammer 40,000 (hereafter known as Warhammer 40K) began in the United Kingdom as a fantasy role-playing game.  (There is also a companion RPG called Warhammer that has a fantasy setting.)  Starting from the premise of The Lord of the Rings … IN SPACE!, the franchise has expanded in tie-in novels, video games, a magazine, and a vastly expanded universe.  Issues like colonialism, imperialism, and posthumanism will be explored.

NOTE: For both features, there will be spoilers.  These are critical analyses, not episode or book summaries.  Also, given the vastness of these franchises, we at Coffee is for Closers would appreciate any feedback, corrections, etc. from fans and members of the academic community studying these pop cultural touchstones in greater detail.

Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter V: Their Brothers’ Keepers

January 21, 2011 3 comments

Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter V: Their Brothers’ Keepers

Everyone’s a hero in their own way
you and you and mostly me and you

Captain Hammer, “Everyone’s a Hero”

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Pages: 909 – 962

Summary:

Copper cables break throughout the United States and the nation is taken closer and closer to the brink of the Looter Apocalypse.  In the words of Dr. Peter Venkman, “Human sacrifice!  Cats and dogs living together … mass hysteria!”

(Hey, come on, this is also a pop culture blog.  Where else will you get cutting edge references from movies made in 1984?)

As matters become more desperate, people riot and rebel against the government.  The government urges people to stay calm, disregard the rumors of violence, and to eat soybeans.  This last dietary measure created by Emma “Ma” Chalmers in Operation Soybean.

When Dagny meets her brother James, he implies a big plan is afoot.  He tries to keep it a secret.  He stands to gain lots of unearned wealth from the nationalization of D’anconia Copper.  The plan includes nationalization of all D’anconia properties in South America.  Then, in spectacular fashion, Rand takes the lazy way out and uses a radio announcer to narrate the destruction of all D’anconia properties.

Philip Rearden begs his brother for a job, his desire for a job now actually genuine.  Hank, in predictable Hank fashion, refuses and has him booted off the property.

While the word devolves into a more medieval society, utilities dying out and industries going under while mystics and despots control the masses too scared and/or too stupid to think for themselves, Dagny is forced to make a fateful decision.  Following a meeting with the Usual Gang of Looter Idiots, she press-gangs many unskilled laborers to work on the rail line.  Communications had gone out and there was a major risk of disaster.  Trains had to enter and leave the Taggart Terminal with orchestrated precision.  During her orchestrations, she thinks she sees John Galt working as an unskilled laborer.  They meet up by the cavern where she stored his engine and then, to quote Captain Hammer, “Yeah, we totally had sex.”

And what a sex scene it is.  Well … not really.  In probably one of the worst sex scenes ever committed to print, Dagny and Galt boink each other.

The many names of John Galt.

Galt vows to meet her again, when the time is right.  He tells her to give him a signal: a dollar sign at the base of Nat Taggart’s statue.

John Galt: “Yeah, we totally had sex.”

Reflections:

Everyone’s a hero in their own way!
Everyone can blaze the hero’s trail!
Don’t worry if it’s hard, if you’re not a friggin’ ‘tard
You will prevail!

Did I say I wanted to see the characters have sex again?  (As opposed to the longwinded speechifying?)  I take it back.  The major irony is the sex scenes in the beginning of the book were qualitatively better than the Dagny-Galt scene.  (Not like those scenes represented good writing either.)  The early scenes, while not exactly erotica, had a rough-hewn realism.  The Dagny-Galt hookup possessed all the eroticism of a credit card contract.  Let me enumerate the flaws:

  • Plodding pace. The momentum of the sex seemed to occur in geologic time.
  • Philosophical distractions. “The sum of her highest values,” oh yeah, that’s hot.  Seriously, the convoluted philosophical writing smeared itself all over the scene.  It rendered the real physical contact of the two Objectivist Heroes into something cold, abstract, incomprehensible, and boring!  Dear Reader, do yourself a favor and read some George Bataille.  Bataille was a philosopher, poet, anthropologist, literary critic, and novelist.  He also wrote some incredible erotica, not to mention his daring philosophy.
  • Just plain boring. A sex scene between the two protagonists who personify the Objectivist philosophy should not put your readers to sleep.
  • Objective Reality: Don’t believe me?  I’m sure my literary criticism in this matter must really steam the Objectivists out there.  How dare I criticize the smartestest person ever to walk the Earth.  Here’s a passage:

It was not the pressure of a hand that made her tremble, but the instantaneous sum of its meaning, the knowledge that it was his hand, that it moved as if her flesh were his possession, that its movement was his signature of acceptance under the whole of that achievement which was herself – it was only a sensation of physical pleasure, but it contained her worship of him, of everything that was his person and his life – from the night of the mass meeting in a factory in Wisconsin, to the Atlantis of a valley hidden in the Rocky Mountains, to the triumphant mockery of the green eyes of the superlative intelligence above a worker’s figure at the foot of the tower – it contained her pride in herself and that it should be she whom he had chosen as his mirror, that it should be her body which was now giving him the sum of his existence, as his body was giving her the sum of hers.  These were the things it contained – but what she knew was only the sensation of the movement of his hands on her breasts.

Rand is a terrible, terrible writer, a below-average propagandist, and seems hellbent to throttle the English language into submission.  One only has to count the times she uses the terms “progressive” and “humanitarian” in such vehemently negative situations.

It seems unfair to compare Ayn Rand to another Russian émigré writer, Vladimir Nabokov.  Nabokov’s family was forced into exile because the Russian Revolution.  So he’s not a fan.  Nevertheless, Nabokov wrote prolifically (in three languages!) and penned some of the greatest literary works, establishing himself comfortably within the Western Canon.  Rand takes her place in the Hall of Crackpots.

Anyone claiming Rand was a great writer is being either intellectually dishonest or monumentally naïve.  It’s getting harder to call this overwrought, overlong, incoherent mishmash, this Everest of Poorly Executed Pretentiousnes, a novel.  Ayn Rand is to fiction what Coleman Francis is to cinema.

What should have been an awesome Doc Savage-Bette Davis hookup read like a nine-year-old describing calculus.  Any more needless steps in that scene and it would come across like badly translated directions from IKEA.  Do I need to emphasize this any more?  Ayn Rand probably would, since she considers you a “friggin’ ‘tard.”

Quotes:

  • “There had been a time when the railroad was called the blood system of the nation, and the stream of trains had been like a living circuit of blood, bringing growth and wealth to every patch of wilderness it touched.”  Unfortunately, by 1957, railroads were becoming obsolete due to the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System, a vast public works project (Socialism!).  It is truly ironic how many pro-business conservatives make it an axiom of their libertarian rhetoric to stand against any rail project.  Way to defend the outdated, Ayn!  Even at your peak of popularity, you were about as in touch with reality as C. Montgomery Burns.
  • “There was no way to tell which devastation had been accomplished by the humanitarians and which by undisguised gangsters.”  I know, I get the activities of Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Al Capone mixed up all the time.
  • “For some reason which nobody could define, the death of her son [Kip Chalmers] in the tunnel catastrophe had given her in Washington an aura of martyrdom, heightened by her recent conversion to Buddhism.”  No philosophy is as diametrically opposed to Objectivism as Buddhism.  Buddhism is at root a rejection of the self.  It declares that attachments cause suffering.  Paradise is Nirvana, a term meaning “nothingness.”  On the other hand, Objectivism’s goal of personal greed comes across as monomaniacal and its adoration of gold is masturbatory.
  • “But they – she looked at the face of her signal engineer – they believed that that muscular contraction of a hand was the only thing required to move traffic – and now the tower men stood idle – and on the great panels in front of the tower director, the red and green lights, which had flashed announcing the progress of trains at a distance of miles, were now so many glass beads – like the glass beads for which another breed of savages had once sold the Island of Manhattan.”  That sure is a long way to go for a backhanded insult to Native Americans.  Here’s what she said at a West Point commencement: “They (Native Americans) didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.”  It sounded better written in the original German: “The Germanic inhabitant of the American continent, who has remained racially pure and unmixed, rose to be master of the continent; he will remain the master as long as he does not fall a victim to defilement of the blood.”  Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.

Atlas Summer: Part Two: Chapter 7: The Moratorium on Brains

September 20, 2010 2 comments

“Now go get your shine-box!”

“That was it. No more letters from truant officers. No more letters from school. In fact, no more letters from anybody. How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag and sit through good government bullshit.”

“For us to live any other way was nuts.  To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”

Henry Hill, Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Chapter VII: The Moratorium on Brains

Pages: 567 – 607

Summary: The chapter begins with Eddie Willers again talking to the unknown worker in the underground cafeteria.  Another exposition dump bringing the reader up to date on things.  (Given the inordinate length of the novel and the static nature of the scenes, couldn’t Rand just as easily written an epic tome but with more action in it?  The exposition-speech-exposition shtick is wearing thin.)

Ragnar kind of looks like this guy.

In Philadelphia, Hank attempts to find a way to divorce his wife Lillian, provided she receive no money or property in the settlement.  Hank Rearden wanders down a lonely road and meets a man looking like a bandit.  The man reveals himself to be none other than the dread pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld.  Hank can be forgiven for not recognizing him, since Rand describes Ragnar as a blonde-haired blue-eyed athletic man in a windbreaker.  Despite the fact that a pirate raiding ships would make for compelling action and provide more illustrative examples of Objectivism at work, Rand chooses to have Ragnar uncork a Francis D’anconia-like speech on Hank.  At the end of the speech (about the usual topics: gold, lazy poor people, and the evil income tax), Ragnar offers Hank a gold bar.  The gold bar represents the profits the looters stole from him.  He also vows to give Hank what the government stole from him on his income tax.  In his lengthy monologue, Ragnar tells Hank that he’s raised funds from trading with black marketeers in the People’s States of Europe.  He fancies himself the Anti-Robin Hood, since he steals from the poor and gives to the rich.  More accurately, he steals from the undeserving poor and gives to the productive rich.  Hank, the perpetual Mary Sue, refuses the gold bar since he wouldn’t accept anything from a lawbreaker.

Kip Chalmers isn’t one for subtlety.

On a special train, that one could call The Poetic Justice Express, Kip Chalmers and a pair of looter sycophants travel across the country on their way to a political rally out west.  Chalmers, a Legislator, is part of the nomenklatura, a special caste “more equal” than the rest.  The train does not make it because it is beset with mechanical problems and Chalmers has to deal with the Byzantine bureaucratic foibles of Taggart Transcontinental employees.  Buck-passing by incompetents ensues until finally an outdated diesel engine is sent to the derailed train, trapped in a tunnel.  With ferocious relish, Rand describes each and every passenger of the train.  Each passenger (men, women, and children) are found collectively guilty because they subscribed to the looter philosophy.  Because of this, they meet their Objectivist-justified deaths.  Did I mention I find this ugly and repellent?

Observations: Thank the Almighty Dollar we’re nearly halfway done with this book.  With each successive chapter, it seems like Rand is daring the reader to throw the book across the room.  Her philosophy has gone from debatable to morally repellent.  I know what you’re going to say.  “This is just a book, man.  Chill out.”  Sure, sure.  So was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, the Turner Diaries, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the Da Vinci CodeUncle Tom’s Cabin was just a book too … or so people in Kansas thought until John Brown bisected them with a sharpened broadsword.

Moving on …

I mentioned in the summary that I now find Atlas Shrugged morally repellent.  The charge requires clarification and explanation.  The anarcho-libertarian thread weaving its way through the narrative is debatable.  One can discuss the philosophy’s finer points and at least come away with an appreciation for an alternate perspective on morality and economics.  What happened in Chapter VII borders on jumping the shark.  Due to the world of Atlas Shrugged becoming more and more like a kakistocracy, the reader is left with no option but to put his or her loyalty behind the philandering, wife-beating, rough sex-having Objectivist Heroes.

Ragnar Danneskjöld espouses the usual free market mythology to Hank Rearden.  Another case of preaching to the converted, or semi-converted, since Hank agrees with nearly everything Ragnar says but refuses to take the gold bar due to his own unalloyed ideological purity.  The scene’s utter lack of drama is not my concern here.  The Republic and The Symposium weren’t that plot-heavy either and the philosophical novels of the Marquis de Sade possess characters railing off equally long-winded tirades.

“Is that crazy Ayn Rand lady still yammering on about the income tax while we die on the street?”

First, Ragnar’s appearance is a bit disconcerting, given that World War 2 ended only a decade earlier.  The blonde-haired blue-eyed athletic person is the hero.  Throughout the novel, morality has been unambiguously linked to appearance.  Ragnar looks like a Nazi caricature.  Francisco D’anconia is a Spaniard.  (In 1957 Spain was also ruled by a non-communist whose first name was Francisco.)  Hank Rearden is a muscular Nordic genius.  And the entire novel swoons when it describes technology and speed … two main motifs in the proto-fascist movement called Futurism.  When do these accumulated motifs stop becoming coincidental?  Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler were both dictators and butchers, but they were also committed anti-communists.  One of the social trends following the War was that “We had fought on the wrong side.”  One of Churchill’s crazier schemes was to continue fighting the War until the Allies reached Moscow.  It could have possibly ended the Cold War decades earlier, but it could have also seriously depopulated the Earth.

The Nazis had awesome technology that could have been used to fight the USSR.  The USSR and the USA both used Germans to build their space programs.  (Then again, FOX News has numerous blonde-haired female news readers.  I’m probably just overreacting.)

But does the ideological carpet match the drapes?

Second, Ragnar’s monologue is at once a hyperventilating rant against the status quo and a fatuous attack on the income tax.  World events provide a degree of context.  In 1956, the Soviet Union sent troops and tanks to crush the Hungarian Revolution.  The Korean War ended less than five years after Atlas Shrugged was published and World War 2 remains real and raw in the memories of every American.  So while Hungarians were dying at the hands of brutal Soviet oppression and American troops were dying at the hands of Korean and Chinese Communist arms, Rand expounds on the most profound evil imaginable: the income tax.  (NB: The income tax is in the US Consitution.  Article 1, Section 8 reads as follows:

“The Congress shall have power To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”)

The income tax reached very high levels, especially for the wealthy, in the Fifties and Sixties.  Following the Soviet incursions and real threats of nuclear annihilation, how else was the US government going to finance its military-industrial complex?  Rand and Objectivism were indeed popular, but could the free market warriors raise the funds to purchase, say, a wing of B-52s or an aircraft carrier, without the income tax?

How many Objectivist bake sales would it take to purchase a B-52?

Ironically, the libertarian philosophy espouses replacing the income tax with the flat tax.  (The income tax boils down to “the more you make, the more you pay” whereas the flat tax means “everyone pays equally.”)  Given what’s been said in Atlas Shrugged, the flat tax seems oddly egalitarian and therefore suspicious.  Only looters and second raters want to be treated equally.  That said, the US tax code should be radically reformed, since it is an incomprehensible Byzantine labyrinth and used as a mechanism for social engineering by condescending nitwits from both the Right and the Left.  It doesn’t matter which major party controls Washington, DC, the idea that the government knows what its doing is laughable.  Most politicians will slavishly adhere to whatever the polls say or whatever will garner them more votes for their inevitable re-election.  However, I don’t need Ayn Rand to tell me the government is full of crap.

But why would anyone trust his advice?

Third, Ragnar characterizes himself as an Anti-Robin Hood, since one has to justify a hatred for economic redistribution somehow.  While his characterization is typical Rand purposely misreading a common text anyone could understand, this relates to Ragnar’s anti-tax, anti-regulation anarcho-capitalist philosophy.  Rand blames the misreading on the looters (obviously), having propped up a false mythology of the needs of the poor over the proper moral of the legend, which is restoring property.

Since the world of Atlas Shrugged is such a miserable kakistocracy, a kleptocracy founded on the presumption that the government knows what’s good for the people, it allows Ragnar to justify his sleep-inducing ideological purity.

Let’s compare Atlas Shrugged to Robin Hood.

Robin Hood aka Robin of Locksley: Prince of Locksley who “stole from the rich to give to the poor,” or more accurately returned the wealth stolen from them by the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham.  (Since the Sheriff was both a law enforcement official and a tax collector, Rand has to misread the Robin Hood legend to oppose it.)

King John: A greedy incompetent boob who stole the throne from Richard, the rightful heir.  Sounds a bit like James Taggart, friend to the looters and incompetent fool.

Maid Marian: Dagny, although she’s hardly a maid as Lillian aptly noted, since she’s been laid by half the section hands of Taggart Transcontinental.  To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, Patron Saint of Snark, “If you laid the graduates of Patrick Henry University from end to end, you wouldn’t be the least surprised.”  Atlas Shrugged is like Chasing Amy, but with more minutiae about trains.

Richard the Lionheart: The saintly heroic king who had his throne stolen from him while he fought in the Third Crusade.  In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden seems a likely parallel.

The Sheriff of Nottingham: The corrupt chiseling sheriff, who extracts the earnings of the peasantry, then throws the indebted in jail.  The looter government of any people’s state seems an obvious comparison.  The Sheriff as both a law enforcement official and tax collector is representative of the libertarian concept of “limited government.”  King John was a moron, but at least he had one person doing both tasks.  The Sheriff also puts a crimp in the Objectivist mythology of limited government, since Objectivists are anti-taxes but pro-law enforcement.

Little John: Robin’s right hand man.  In Atlas Shrugged, Eddie Willers fits the bill as omnipresent sidekick.

Friar Tuck: A goodhearted friar who helps Robin.  No equivalent in Atlas Shrugged, since Ayn Rand thinks religion is for irrational stupid people.

Ragnar’s misreading of the Robin Hood legend is based on the premise that all rich people are industrious and all poor people are lazy thieves.  Since Rand deals in easy caricatures, it only follows her philosophy should be built on the bedrock of generalizations.  Suffice it to say, all rich people aren’t evil and all poor people aren’t lazy.  How ironic for a philosophy that fetishizes the individual to traffic in these generalizations.  Karl Marx, in his critique of free market economics, attacks this misguided premise at its root:

“This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as sin does in theology.  Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race.  Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past.  Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, the lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living.   …  Such insipid childishness is every day preached in the defense of property.  …   In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.  In the tender annals of political economy, the idllyic reigns from time immemorial.  …  As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic.”

Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (1867)

What is fascinating is that Ragnar’s tirade in favor of the powerful comes close to another atheist philosopher:

“Destruction being one of the chief laws of Nature, nothing that destroys can be criminal; how might an action which so well serves Nature ever be outrageous to her?  The destruction of which man is wont to boast is, moreover, nothing but an illusion; murder is no destruction; he who commits it does but alter forms, he gives back to Nature the elements whereof the hand of this skilled artisan instantly re-creates other beings.”

Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), Marquis de Sade.

Which brings us to the end of the chapter, where Rand, with relish, describes a variety of individuals on the train?  In the end, they all die from inhaling toxic fumes from the old coal burning train.  Since the accident was caused by the incompetence of those following the looter philosophy, not only do the passengers die, they deserved to die.  It isn’t said so explicitly, but one can hardly misinterpret the scene.  Unfortunately for any reader of the novel, the kakistocracy is now in power and the reader has to swallow that these deaths were a good thing.  Granted, it’s just a novel, and not a well-written one at that, so my repulsion is more with the principle of the thing and not its artless inventory of caricatures traveling on the train.  So soon after World War 2 and the Holocaust, the death via smoke inhalation just didn’t sit well with me.

Quotes:

  • “That is the horror which Robin Hood idealized as an ideal of righteousness.  It is said he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived.  He is remembered, not as a champion of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor.”
  • “It is the foulest of creatures – the double-parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich – whom men have come to regard as the moral ideal.”  This is reminiscent of another Ragnar: “Socialism, Christianism, Democratism, Equalityism are really the whining yelpings of base-born mongrel-multitudes.  They howl aloud for State intervention – “protection for suffering humanity” – regulated mill-grinding, as it were, with the State to be their Supreme Idol, their God and Master, their All-in-All, their Great Panjandrum.” (from Might is Right, Ragnar Redbeard [1896]).

  • “If men like Boyle think that force is all they need to rob their betters – let them see what happens when one of their betters chooses to resort to force.”

  • “You’re one of them, Mr. Rearden.  I cannot compute all the money that has been extorted from you – in hidden taxes, in regulations, in wasted time, in lost effort, in energy spent to overcome artificial obstacles.”  Granted the laws and regulations enacted by the looter government in the novel are profoundly stupid, this is not real life, nor should it be interpreted as such.  These generalizations simplify the novel’s drama – what little there is – but paper over complex government and corporate issues.  Living in the Great Recession, nearly two decades following the collapse of the USSR, one can see how both a totally planned economy and a totally deregulated economy can fail.  With proper regulations, the economy can be disciplined into thoroughbred performance.  With no regulations whatsoever, the economy is about as stable as a meth lab.  What makes for proper regulation?  It’s best decided on a case-by-case basis and with a non-politicized regulatory body.