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.
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!”
Well … that was underwhelming. But I’m hardly one to judge a film based on a trailer. It does remind me of Avatar, especially the dourly over-serious tone and the weapons grade self-righteousness. The inevitable release of Atlas Shrugged, Part I, after decades in development hell, reveals an old truism about Hollywood. It is show business. And business is all about capitalizing on trends.
Let’s take a step back from this and examine the phenomenon more closely. With the release of the trailer, there will be the motley crew of jellyfish-like leftists waving their hands in the air, gnashing their teeth, and yammering on about such-and-such apocalypse. The pro-business Right will gloat, drink their martinis, and wallow in the glow of their success. Finally, finally, finally, after decades of oppression from the Communist Velvet Mafia that secretly controls Hollywood, they released a film based on the book by Ayn Rand – Peace Be Upon Her – that shows the virtue of making money and being selfish. (The previous sentences had a light dash of sarcasm. Although given the hyperventilating, anti-intellectual, psychotic-off-his-meds tone of the national political discourse, how can ya tell?)
The focus of this essay will be the phenomenon of the heavy-handed political satire film. And Ayn Rand can be particularly heavy-handed when it comes to getting her point across. I’m surprised copies of Atlas Shrugged don’t come with a trowel.
After reading nearly 1000 pages of Atlas Shrugged, one can only hope that the screenwriter has trimmed a little bit from this bloated text. And perhaps added a joke or two. Just because one is making a political point doesn’t mean one has to be dour and serious. The American film going public has a short attention span.
Upon reading Atlas Shrugged, I came to the realization that it resembled Avatar. The only difference is the politics and that is superficial at best. Rand’s book is about a miracle metal, Cameron’s film is about Unobtainium. The tone is what is most bothersome about Avatar. The CGI and creature design created an amazing array of visuals and a gorgeous alien world, the narrative sucked! The alien became less alien when the Navi became the Blue Indian Stand-ins riding atop Blue Horse Stand-ins. The facetious put-down calling the movie Dances with Wolves IN SPACE was true. The narrative copied Dances with Wolves down to its condescending, retrograde, and racist White Man Set Them Free theme. The additional stereotyping of the two major human sub-groups into flat caricatures made it even worse. Every military-type figure was a dumb jarhead and every scientist-type figure was a pansy-ass bookish nerd.
Avatar remains an example of how not to do heavy-handed political satire.
By all accounts, the film They Live shouldn’t work. Written and directed by cinema master John Carpenter, They Live focuses on an apolitical construction worker who discovers a magical pair of sunglasses. When he put them on, he sees a zombified world controlled by ghoulish aliens. The ghoulish aliens espouse beliefs almost exactly the same as Reagan Republicans. The film’s musical score is simple, the plot equally so. It stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David. Carpenter lays on his criticisms of Reagan’s economic and social policies with a trowel. Anyone with half a brain would be able to pick up on the satirical element. Yet the movie is Pure Awesome?
Why is that?
John Carpenter, like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Maya Deren, owns a seat in the Cinema Pantheon. He created the slasher genre with Halloween. He directed the action-comedy-martial arts cult classic Big Trouble in Little China. Throughout his career, he worked with Kurt Russell, a vocal libertarian. Kurt Russell is made of pure Awesome.
The magic of They Live occurs because of its light touch. The political criticisms remain trenchant and serious, but the overarching story has huge dollops of the ridiculous. The sunglasses? Casting a WWF wrestler? The really, really, really long fight scene? The obviousness? The ridiculous aspects become resolved with its bent humor. The film wouldn’t work by casting Robert Redford as the lead. This is hardly Dog Day Afternoon or Godard’s Weekend.
But seriousness isn’t a roadblock to an effective film with heavy-handed political satire.
Mislabeled as a thriller, Land of the Blind (Robert Edwards, 2006) lays the satire on thick. In the film, Emperor Maximilian II runs a banana republic-type country. Tom Hollander portrays Maximilian as a garish cartoon dictator, equal parts savagery and incompetence. (Hollander also played a cold-blooded technocrat in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.) Maximilian’s world involves wealthy elites who don’t speak the native language, police setting monks on fire, blackface routines, and the Emperor helming atrocious action movies. The Emperor also keeps charismatic political dissident John Thorne in prison.
Thorne used to work as a writer. Then through the incompetence of Emperor Maximilian II and populist anger, Thorne is released. Here is the pivotal point where Land of the Blind stands out among political satires. The de rigueur critique of rightwing regimes has a long tradition in Hollywood. The only thing easier than satirizing a Southern preacher figure is to satirize a rightwing dictator. That’s easy money. In the film, once Thorne gets power, things actually get worse. Thorne, played by a bearded arrogant Donald Sutherland, turns the unnamed country into a theocratic hellhole, akin to post-Revolution Iran. Land of the Blind succeeds in showing the awfulness of rightwing and leftwing regimes. Hardly an endorsement for the mealy-mouthed centrism so beloved to voters in the United States, the film shows that regardless of where one goes on the political spectrum, the extremes will only bring poverty, atrocity, and despair. (Something the mass of American devotees of the “lesser of two evils” method of voting should consider the next time they enter a voting booth and do their obligatory duty to further this republic into a neck-deep swill of corruption and incompetence.)
The heavy-handed political satire can be done well on film. It takes a light touch and a humanistic vision of society. Like Crash Davis said, “Strike-outs are boring … and fascist.” Atlas Shrugged has a lot of strike-outs in it. I don’t agree with its philosophy, but sweet Christ! does it have to be so boring? That’s the cardinal rule in Hollywood. A movie flops not so much from any political consideration, but because it bored the audience.
Atlas Shrugged, Part I, good luck! But if you bore your audience, it’s your own damn fault. A book based on the philosophy of making money should at least have the good sense in actually making some money.
By the way, where’s Angelina Jolie? Can’t Objectivism buy A-Listers or are Coen Brothers character actors (John Polito for the win!) the best that can be done?
Atlas Summer: Part 3: Chapter 2: The Utopia of Greed
Summary: The next morning, Dagny has barely had time to wipe the crud from her eyes before she’s face to puffy, sleep-encrusted face with everyone’s favorite reverse Robin Hood, Ragnar Danneskjold. As a law-abiding citizen, she has a similar instinctive revulsion to the pirate’s brigandry as Hank Rearden did, but she’s also struck by his supernatural beauty. Ragnar tells Dagny that his naval raids have netted millions of dollars in gold, all kept in escrow for the captains of industry who were unjustly taxed. Dagny herself has a sizable account waiting for her if she stays at the Gulch. It’s a good thing too, because she’ll be expected to pay for her room and board during the month she’ll be there making up her mind. She’s not going to need any of her 24 carat tax refund, though, because she wants to work to earn her keep…as John Galt’s housekeeper. Anything to spend some time sleeping near that hunk of Objectivist man-candy.
“John, I made you a white pizza and a pot roast. I just think you’re, so amazing. Look at me playing house! My god you must think I’m out of my mind! Do you? You just looked away when I said that. I saw you. Kiss me, I know your lips will be honest!”
Three days later, Owen Kellogg shows up, gobsmacked to see Dagny alive. When her plane disappeared, the rest of the world assumed she’d died…including poor old Hank Rearden. Dagny wants to sneak a message to Hank to let him know she’s still alive, but Galt forbids it. Before Dagny even has time to process this, Francisco shows up, also stunned to see her. To show his elation that the love of his life is miraculously still alive, Francisco…makes a big speech about looters and their looting ways. I hope you weren’t expecting anything else at this point. Eventually, he gets around to assuring her that he doesn’t mind that she’s been banging Hank Rearden: their love is a ecstatic meeting of minds and abilities that transcends mere physical affection. I’m sure that’s what he tells himself when he’s rubbing one out in the woodshed.
The Friend Zone: Population, One sad Argentine bastard.
At Francisco’s smartly appointed “frontiersman’s shanty,” accented with pimped out silver goblet from Sebastian d’Aconia, Francisco tells Dagny that d’Aconia Copper is on it’s last legs and on the verge of being seized by the Argentine government. It’s no big thing, though, because he’s refounded the company at Galt’s Gulch. Fortunately for everyone involved, Francisco has found a rich seam of copper in the nearby mountains and is digging it out.
Back at casa de Galt, Dagny works herself into knots over her untrammeled lust for John Galt. She cleans his house, cooks his meals, and watches as he studiously ignores her and spends evenings mysteriously absent. One night, she asks him where he’s going ever night, and he reveals that he’s been lecturing on physics to his fellow Alphas (ten gold dollars at the door, of course) Turns out, all of the Gulchers spend the time they’re not doing menial-but-fulfilling labor working in their fields of expertise. Then, they gather together to share their craft, provided that none of their findings reach the outside world. It’s reminiscent of Marx’s view of the post-capitalist utopia, just with a higher cover charge. Dagny spends the rest of the evening finding out that Galt has spent the past decade checking up on her, watching her from afar. From his, she infers that Galt might be as hot for her as she is for him. This gets her all atingle.
Ain’t no lecture like a John Galt lecture, cuz a John Galt lecture costs ten dollars in pure gold!
Richard Halley plays his legendary Fifth Concerto for Dagny, then gives a long speech about art. It turns out that real artists are just like successful businessmen, real art is produced by the rigorous application of intellect, not emotion, and art appreciators can only truly be referred to as such if they appreciate art for exactly the same reasons as the artist. Rand apparently never heard of the intentional fallacy. Or she did, and condemned it as the work of anti-life relativist scum. Probably that. The actress Kay Ludlow gives a luminous performance. Dr. Akston tells Dagny the story of his titanic struggle with Dr. Stadler for the souls of their prize students, John, Francisco and Ragnar.
At d’Aconia Copper Number One, Dagny finds herself instantly caught up in a plan to build a one track railroad to transport the copper through the mountains. Francisco tells her she could easily set it up, but her heart is still with Taggart Transcontinental. It’s thoughts of her beloved railroad, as well as Rearden (she might be falling for Galt like a sack of bricks, but she at least owes Hank a farewell handy), that compel her finally to decide to leave the Gulch and return to the collapsing ruin of civilization. She shares all of the values of Galt and company, but she has not yet given up hope that humanity at large can still awaken to their essential truth. At the end of her month in the Gulch, Dagny is blindfolded and led to a Taggart terminal. Galt also leaves the valley, on a secret mission that may or may not have to do with keeping tabs on Dagny. She certainly hopes it does.
You’d think that the chapter directly following a chapter full to bursting with long-winded monologues might be a bit more concise, just as a favor to the reader. You would be mistaken. It turns out Rand doesn’t have to do her readers any favors: if they aren’t enthralled with every perfectly crafted prose nugget, it’s THEIR problem. Rand apparently rejects the idea that a text can have multiple readings. The genius creator has a design, and it’s the reader’s duty to discover it and conform to it. This chapter actually shed some light on the curious habit of Randians to dismiss critics by claiming they “don’t get it.” Now I realized just how damning that statement is meant to be. To “not get it” is to fail on a fundamental level as a human being and aesthete.
You’d think after the panting, outrageously over-the-top description of John Galt’s physical perfection, the worst of Rand’s bizarre lookism would be behind us. You would be mistaken. After all, Dagny had to get a load of Ragnar Danneskjold, who is apparently even more beautiful than Galt. I get that all these perfect male specimens are meant as reflection of the bold and beautiful spirit of such Objectivist heroes, but I do wonder what the pasty, pale chub-monsters who make up such a significant portion of the right-libertarian world make of such Adonis worship.
Let’s cast the hunky male leads for a film version (shudder) of Atlas Shrugged.
Left-wing propagandist George Clooney…
Libertarian stalwart and Liberal Fascism-fighter Jonah Golberg?
Hey, you might say, that’s not fair! Golberg is a writer! He can’t be expected to spend as much time on his physical appearance as a matinee idol like Clooney! Okay, we’ll level the playing field.
Nobama voter and simpering altruist Brad Pitt…
Noted Hollywood rightist James Woods?
“As she listened, she kept seeing the perfection of his face–and she kept thinking that this was the head on which the world had placed a price of millions for the purpose of delivering it to the rot of death…The face she had thought too beautiful for the scars of a productive career–she kept thinking numbly, missing half his words–the face too beautiful to risk…Then it struck her that his physical perfection was only a simple illustration, a childish lesson given to her in crudely obvious terms on the nature of the outer world and on the fate of any human value in a subhuman age.” Is this some kind of fourth-wall-breaking post modern motherfuckery? Who is “giving” Dagny this lesson about the nature of the outer world? Rand? God? Is Galt also a brilliant plastic surgeon?
“‘And then I saw that the whole industrial establishment of the world, with all of its magnificent machinery, its thousand-ton furnaces, its transatlantic cables, its mahogany offices, its stock exchanges, its blazing electric signs, its power, its wealth–all of it was run, not by bankers and boards of directors, but by any unshaved humanitarian in any basement beer joint, by any face pudgy with malice, who preached that virtue must be penalized for being virtue, that the purpose of ability is to serve incompetence, that man has no right to exist except for the sake of others…'” –Francisco d’Aconia. This little nugget is a great example of why this book is such a chore to read. The incantatory list of business accoutrements (cables! offices! stock exchanges!) might be effective if it didn’t come smack in the middle of a two page monologue. Then you’ve got the manifestly incoherent claim (drunk beatniks have more control over the economy than CEOs), coupled with some more of that truly odd and frankly indefensible aesthetic fascism (the drunkard HAS to be pudgy-faced, doesn’t he?). It’s truly a crap feast.
“‘You wore an evening gown. You had a cape half-slipping off your body–I saw, at first, only your bare shoulders, your back and your profile–it looked for a moment as if the cape would slip further and you would stand there naked. Then I saw taht you wore a long gown, the color of ice, like the tunic of a Grecian goddess, but had the short hair and the imperious profile of an American woman.'”–John Galt. I think Dagny’s gonna get a new boyfriend pretty soon. Poor Hank.
“‘That is the payment I demand. Not many can afford it. I don’t mean your enjoyment, I don’t mean your emotion–emotions be damned!–I mean your understanding and the fact that your enjoyment was of the same nature as mine, that it came from the same source: from your intelligence, from the conscious judgement of a mind able to judge my work by the standard of the same values that went to write it–I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired.'”–Richard Halley. Seriously? I mean…seriously?
Chapter VI: Miracle Metal
A gathering of Satan’s minions, or the House subcommittee on Agriculture? You be the judge!
Summary: Chapter Six opens on a Witch’s Sabbath in Washington. The high priest of looterdom himself, “Head of State” Mr. Thompson presides over a collection of public and private criminals as they plot the final government takeover of the economy. There’s Orren Boyle and Jim Taggart and Wesley Mouch and union kingpin Fred Kinnan and the chief propagandist of socialism, Dr. Ferris. They’ve gathered to prepare for the declaration of Directive Number 10-289. This set of laws will make it illegal for people to quit or be fired from their jobs, or for companies to go out of business. All patents will be turned over to the government and all future inventions will be banned (?). Both manufacturing production and consumer purchasing will be fixed by a “Unification Board.” Dr. Ferris and James Taggart try to justify the new laws on philosophical and political grounds. It’s left to the comically vernacular language of the gangster Kinnan to lay out the reality of the situation. “I know that I’m delivering the poor bastards into slavery, and that’s all there is to it. And they know it too. But they know that I’ll have to throw them a crumb once in a while, if I want to keep my racket.” He’s a tough guy, see?
Jimmy Hoffa ain’t got nuttin’ on Fred Kinnan
Dagny is hard at work at Taggart Transcontinental, rerouting trains and cannibalizing old lines to temporarily fix new ones, when the news comes over the transom about Directive Number 10-289. She promptly quits and escapes to the Taggart family cabin in the Berkshires.
At the Rearden foundry, all the competent engineers have fled, leaving Hank increasingly alone and beset by government vampires intent on expropriating Rearden Metal. Dr. Ferris shows up to blackmail Hank’s patent from him: proof of his affair with Dagny, provided by James Taggart, who got it from Lillian Rearden. Sitting across from Ferris, Hank has an epiphany. He has treated his affair with Dagny as a sordid, dirty failing instead of the radiant celebration of life it was. As a result, Hank refuses to punish Dagny by allowing their affair to become public. He signs over control of Rearden Metal, the product of ten years of arduous work, to the government by way of penance.
Reflections: After spending 500 pages depicting the government as a shadowy cabal of corrupt, power-drunk moochers with vague to opaque motivations, Rand finally puts the puppeteers of the vampire state front and center. The reader gets to marinate in the hellbroth of cynicism, greed, arrogance and, above all, jealousy that drives the looters. There’s an interesting tension in the Washington meeting scene between the professed views of the political elite and their true motivations. Union boss and laughable attempt to represent working class argot Fred Kinnan is completely cynical: he recognizes the essential injustice of the current order but figures that he’s got a better chance to improve his own position and, to a lesser extent, the position of his union brothers, by pissing outside the tent. Dr. Ferris clearly relishes his role as intellectual architect of the governing ethos, but there’s a degree of sophistry in his bloviating: he embraces radical relativism because it allows him to argue anything. Crooked industrialists like James Taggart are driven by an opportunistic desire to cash in on croney capitalism and a burning jealousy of brilliant producers like his sister and Hank Rearden. The upshot is that none of the rulers of the new order truly believe that they are bringing happiness or justice to the people of the land.
It’s a good thing for Michael Savage that Ayn Rand didn’t go with her original title.
Once again, Rand refuses to credit her intellectual opponents with good faith. The truth of Objectivism is so self-evident, so goddamn objective, that the only reason anyone would deny it is their own deformed moral sense. This is in sharp contrast to the conventional view of politics in liberal democracy, where ideological conflicts are seen as powered by a conflict between interest gropus. In the Randian universe, there are no interest group conflicts: all humanity should rightly defer to the meritocracy and find their place in a free labor marketplace. “Interest groups” are the product of market distortions created by the government and the demagoguery of venal opportunists. This view is strongly reminiscent of the holistic view of politics found in fascism. It’s enough to make you tremble for the fate of any mediocre individual who tastes the fruit of Randian utopia and finds it bitter.
Would Rand have been cool with the Nazis if Hitler had been a better painter?
“Mr. Thompson, the Head of State, was a man who possessed the quality of never being noticed.” This sentence has never applied to a single American president…except maybe Gerald Ford.
“There’s been enough invented already–enough for everybody’s comfort–why should they be allowed to go on inventing? Why should we permit them to blast the ground from under our feet every few steps? Why should we be kept on the go in eternal uncertainty? Just because of a few restless, ambitious adventurers? Should we sacrifice the contentment of of the whole of mankind to the greed of a few non-conformists?” –James Taggart. When Rand DOES go to the trouble of articulating an opposing thought, she doesn’t bother with providing even a patina of coherence. Yes, yes, Ayn, anyone who disagrees with you is, by definition, irrational and/or idiotic. I bet they smell bad, too.
“There’s my resignation, Jim. I won’t work as a slave or a slave-driver.” –Dagny Taggart.
“But I damned my body’s capacity to express what I felt, I damned, as an affront to her, the highest tribute I could give her just as they damn my ability to translate the work of my mind into Rearden Metal, just as they damn me for the power to transform matter to serve my needs.” –the internal monologue of Hank Rearden. Gotta love a unified field theory.
\Alternate chapter title: Tenacious D and the Cigarette Butt of Destiny.
Chapter III: White Blackmail
Pages: 423 – 460
Summary: The chapter has it all: important exposition, a little bromance, a titular line, and the greatest line ever written in the Western Canon. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Henry James have nothing on the literary firepower of Ayn Rand.
The chapter begins with Hank’s shrewish wife Lillian complaining about his budding romance with copper magnate/philosophical delivery system Francisco d’Anconia. He leaves his wife to meet his mistress, Dagny Taggart. So long as Hank gives her what she wants, she does not resent his marriage. The next morning, Hank and Lillian argue again. This time Lillian exposes Hank as a philandering hypocrite, but vows to keep his marriage-shattering erotic shenanigans under wraps provided she keep half her wealth. Hank agrees, since this is the Fifties and nothing could be more dishonorable than a divorce. (Graham Greene this is not.)
After battling his wife, Hank has a day at the office with Dr. Floyd Ferris, author and contemptible bastard. He offers Hank a way out, since Dr. Ferris knows some people in Washington that could be persuaded to look the other with the inevitable law breaking. Hank plays the part of the martyr against Dr. Ferris’s oily nihilism.
Eddie Willers again talks to the anonymous man in the Taggart cafeteria. Willers forwards the plot with some exposition about the indictments of Rearden and Danagger. Willers feels bad.
Meanwhile Dagny Taggart waits a really long time to see Danagger. Danagger, usually punctual about all business meetings, pushes her meeting off for several hours. When she finally meets him, she sees a mysterious figure leave through a side entrance. Who is this mysterious figure? Who is J–? Oh never mind.
After pleading and groveling with Danagger, she submits to his plans to leave the business. Danagger says he doesn’t know what to do next and refuses to name a successor. He also refuses to disclose the name of the Mystery Man who left his office. Disheartened and defeated, Dagny is about to leave when she discovers a used cigarette butt in an ashtray. This is no mere cigarette butt but one emblazoned with the mystical sigil of the dollar sign. At this moment in the narrative, Ayn Rand writes one of the greatest sentences in the Western Canon.
“She was looking down to the butt in the palm of her hand as if it were a jewel.”
Suck on that, Shakespeare! Eat it, Mark Twain!
Inspired, she plans to discover who smoked this cigarette butt. This quest is even more important than finding the inventory of the Magical Mystery Electrical Motor.
We return to Hank Rearden again, this time ensconced in his office, pondering the future of his business, rendered silent by the rapacious laws of the looters, rotters, and second-raters. Francisco d’Anconia sits down to talk to Hank, or at least talk at him while he delivers another heaping of moral philosophy on his lap. He talks about letting Atlas, tired and bleeding, shrug. We come to the narrative and moral crux of the novel. When the world is in trouble, don’t help. When those unworthy of help beg for it, don’t offer it. When you see a beaten up Samaritan on the side of the road, kick him in the face and set him on fire.
Following d’Anconia’s philosophical discourse, he assists Hank in plugging a hole in a leaky bucket. The action ends on an oddly homoerotic note. Odd since Rand never made a secret of her homophobia, although in the Fifties homosexuality was considered a form of mental insanity and insane people can’t be Objectivists. (At least until one heads BP and another becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.)
Observations: One of the pleasures of reading is that a reader can give the text any interpretation he or she wants. Objectivism, like any other cult, demands one read the holy texts in one specific way. “Think whatever you want, so long as you think exactly like we do.” One finds this among hardcore Objectivists (are there any other kind?), unreconstructed Marxists, and Creationists. Despite monumental evidence to the contrary, they demand you interpret their view of reality under pains of eternal damnation or smacking you in the face with the hardcover of Atlas Shrugged. Which is a roundabout way of saying I love Dr. Floyd Ferris, despite his status in the novel as enemy and contemptible bastard. It’s the same reason I like Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas and Brother Cavil on Battlestar Galactica.
Ferris and Cavill are evil manipulative moral nihilists. The greatest irony is that Ferris is more of a character than Hank Rearden or Francisco d’Anconia. Behind Ferris’s cartoonish rendering of nihilism exists a compelling character. Atlas Shrugged would have been a lot more fun if it followed around Ferris and, say, Cherryl Brooks. At this point, I cringe every time I find Francisco; since he’ll probably open his mouth and then I have to read several pages of philosophy awkwardly shoe-horned into a scene.
Since one can read this book in any way, the heroic scene involving Hank and Francisco fixing a leaky bucket could be read as a piece of gay pornography. One could easily read the movie 300 in the same way. While objective analysis may be possible in engineering, it is not possible in literature or philosophy. Ayn Rand via her mouthpiece d’Anconia wants to weld together the objective reality of, say, building a railroad bridge with moral philosophy. Unfortunately, she can’t even stage a sensible debate since her designated opponents are cartoonish and exaggerated like Sade characters. Like any good Bolshevik or Maoist, Rand considers any alternative interpretation of her work as heretical. She is strangely similar to Lenin in this regard. When you get right down to it, certain sections of the US population consider this book as the greatest thing since sliced bread, the Bible, and the wheel. Others look at it like an overlong romance novel with philosophical speeches stapled to it.
- “The only power the government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when they’re aren’t enough criminals, one makes them.”
And here’s what Bill Hicks said:
Why is marijuana against the law? It grows naturally on our planet, serves a thousand different functions, all of them positive. To make marijuana against the law is like saying that God made a mistake. Like on the seventh day God looked down, “There it is. My Creation; perfect and holy in all ways. Now I can rest. [Gives shocked expression] Oh, my Me! I left fuckin’ pot everywhere. I should never have smoked that joint on the third day. Hehe, that was the day I created the platypus. Hehe. But if I leave pot everywhere that’s gonna give people the impression they’re supposed to…use it. Now I have to create Republicans.” “…and God wept”, I believe is the next part of that story.
- “But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on the guilt.” (Sounds a lot like the agenda of the Christian Right and its crusade to criminalize everything fun.)
- “You have been hated, not for your mistakes, but for your achievements.” (I think we owe Tony Hayward, Kenneth Lay, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros., Enron, Halliburton, and Union Carbide a heartfelt apology. Thanks for making the world a better place.)
If Ayn Rand is anything, it isn’t subtle. Francisco d’Anconia’s “Money Speech” had all the longwinded shrillness of a fire-and-brimstone sermon. But this shouldn’t surprise us, considering Rand sells herself as a moral philosopher. Moral philosophy is not economics, which is a science … sort of. Economics and meteorology both rely on projections, theory, and making people hysterical over nothing.
Given Rand’s penchant for Preaching with a Cartoon Mallet (a 95 cent off-brand non-union equivalent of Nietzsche’s “Philosophizing with a Hammer”), it helps to look at other examples of preachy non-subtlety.
The Wu, like our good buddy Francis d’Anconia, knows that “cash rules everything round me, dollar dollar bill y’all!”
Since Rand is utterly allergic to subtlety, she reduces her critics to sounding like beatnik hippies. The woman who responds to d’Anconia’s lengthy monologue felt he was wrong. The scene was effective in portraying the soft buttery niceness of political liberalism (not to be confused with the reckless lunacy of economic liberalism). Ben Stiller and Janeane Garafalo satirized the soft underbelly of self-help niceness with Feel This Book.
Instead of taking offense, she should have whipped out her Wrap It Up box:
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Michael Schultz, 1978) attempted to cash in on the success of the Bee Gees and the Beatles by creating a musical of the famous album. The end result was a monument to ridiculousness. The film sets up a conflict between the nice eponymous band (the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton), a hometown band from Heartland, USA, and a money-grubbing ex-real estate who is the villain. Another villain, Reverend Sun (Alice Cooper), recruits minions and turns them into braindead hordes (see clip below). The opposition between the Lonely Hearts Club Band and Reverend Sun is right out of Atlas Shrugged, except the roles are flipped. Reverend Sun’s zombie hordes chant: “We hate love/We love money.” Sounds familiar. The strange thing is that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a box office bomb and is forever associated with a dunderheaded music industry marketing strategy (“The Bee Gees playing Beatles songs. How can this not make money?”). On the other hand, despite a global financial catastrophe and Rand lacking qualifications as an economist, Objectivism still commands a fandom of millions immune to objective reality and thinking for themselves. Given the circumstances, Objectivists sound more and more like unreconstructed Marxists, given they have no real solutions to problems, can not adapt to outside forces, and have no artistic taste. Stalin and Rand both enjoyed poorly written potboilers.
Chapter II: The Aristocracy of Pull
Summary: At the offices of Taggart Transcontinental, Dagny is hard at work trying to reverse engineer the Magic Static Electric engine that she found in Wisconsin. To that end, she hires a sharp young engineer named Quentin Daniels to fiddle with the device after he shows during his job interview that he’s clearly a man of ability and, most importantly, contempt for the looters. In another episode from the life of Dagny Taggart, Girl Detective, Dagny gives the mysterious dollar sign cigarette to the old man who operates the news stand at the Taggart terminal. He’s also a collector of cigarettes from around the world, and according to him, no such cigarette has ever been manufactured on earth!
I wonder if they’re low-tar?
Meanwhile, poor Hank Rearden is conspiring to sell Ken Daneggar an illegally large amount of Rearden metal and, if that isnt’ enough to deal with, his awful wife Lillian demands that he attend James Taggart’s wedding. Because Hank feels so guilty about cheating with Dagny, he agrees to go along.
Yes, James Taggart has tricked poor, good-hearted Cherryl Brooks into marrying him. She thinks he’s the man who built the John Galt Line, and he wants the social plaudits of marrying below his station. Rand’s description of James Taggart’s wedding reception is the closest she has yet come to displaying a sense of humor or insight into human nature. She describes the army of sycophants panting for a moment of favor from Taggart, who now holds such influence in Washington that anyone looking to get ahead during the economic collapse had better stay on his good side. Lillian brings Hank along mostly to give the Washington crowd the impression that Hank came to show respect to James. As a result, these wheeler dealers think James has power over Hank, even though Hank is just there to assuage his guilt over his affair. Every interpersonal relationship in the room is based on emotional or professional blackmail. Rand actually makes some good observations about the corrupting nature of bureaucracy: when influence substitutes for ability, the only currency worth anything is shameless ass-kissing.
Of course, then she ruins it by introducing the first in what promises to be an endless series of long-winded speeches by her heroes. Francisco d’Aconia shows up and, after messing with puzzled old Hank Rearden for a bit, overhears Bertram Scudder say that “money is the root of all evil.” Francisco responds with a four-and-a-half page rejoinder that boils down to the idea that money is an objective measurement of worth, and as such the only medium of determining the value of human endeavor. Hank is understandably confused at such rigorous, morally-upstanding sentiment coming from a man he’d written off as a worthless playboy. The real icing on the cake comes when Francisco reveals to the collection of rent-seeking plutocrats who had put most of their money into d’Aconia Copper (seeing as how it is the only reliably profitable company left in the world) that their piggy bank is about to get smashed. d’Aconia Copper stock is about to crash, taking the fortunes of the assembled looters with it.
Ayn, this Mr. Show sketch got across the whole of your 1200 page book’s argument in two minutes. Brevity truly is the soul of wit.
Reflections: Francisco’s big speech, the heart of the chapter, isn’t notable so much for its shoddy reasoning, although there’s plenty of that. It’s hard not to think about George W. Bush and Paris Hilton when he says that “if an heir is equal to his money, it serves him; if not, it destroy him.” No, more interesting to point out is the complete failure of imagination on Rand’s part that the monologue represents. After a twenty minute harangue, the only response the assembled worthies can muster is one bubble headed debutante saying “I don’t have any answers, my mind doesn’t work that way, but I don’t feel that you’re right, so I know that you’re wrong.” This is in a room filled to bursting with heavy-hitting acolytes of the looter ideology. It’s really Rand whose mind “doesn’t work that way.” She can’t project out of her ideological cocoon to even attempt an oppositional argument. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong point of view, but failing to give any sort of tension to the conflicting viewpoints at war in the book drains all the drama out of the proceedings. It’s not only a failure of empathy or imagination, it’s BORING. Intellectual combat this lopsided is inherently dull, dare I say OBJECTIVELY dull. There’s never a moment’s doubt as to which side is right and, more importantly, which side will triumph, and doubt is the engine of drama.
“Well, I’ll just say that ‘Governmental scientific inquiry’ is a contradiction in terms.” –Quentin Daniels. Yeah, Quentin, what has government research ever accomplished…other than building the atom bomb and PUTTING A MAN ON THE DAMN MOON?
Big Government can’t do nothing right…
“Can’t you give me this much, at the price of a few hours of boredom? Can’t you be strong enough to fulfill your obligations and to perform a husband’s duty? Can’t you go there, not for your own sake, but mine, not because you want to go, but only because I want it?” –Lillian Rearden. Lil, that’s pretty much the worst possible appeal to make to ol’ Hank. You’re lucky he’s cheating on you.
“There were men whose presence signified a special protection extended to James Taggart, and men whose presence confessed a desire to avoid his hostility–those who represented a hand lowered to pull him up, and those who represented a back bent to let him climb. By the unwritten code of the day, nobody received or accepted an invitation from a man of public prominent expect in toek of one or the other of these motives. Those in the first groupwere, for the most part, youthful; they had come from Washington. Those in the second group were older; they were businessmen.”
“Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it. Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it bounces, marked: ‘Account overdrawn.'” –Francisco d’Aconia. Now we know why Ron Paul has such a hair up his ass about the Gold Standard.
Glenn Beck says, call the good people at Goldline, and they’ll hook you up with the only objective determiner of worth!