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!”
Time to bring on the Awesome!
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter I: Atlantis
Pages: 701 – 750
Summary: Dagny meets John Galt. Awaking from her plane crash-induced slumber, she is rescued by John Galt. But not after describing John Galt’s physical attributes for several pages in terms that border on religious ecstasy. It made me feel like God to read it. God from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Thus opens a chapter chock full of Big Reveals, Pay-offs, and Philosophical Puffery. Galt tells Dagny she crashed because she was fooled by a visual projection. After helping her into a car driven by none other than Midas Mulligan, he gives her a tour of Mulligan’s Valley, otherwise known as Galt’s Gulch. During this thinly veiled attempt at exposition, she sees other “destroyers” who left their businesses. Now they are working menial jobs and heartily enjoying themselves. Extracting oil from shale is also witnessed, because the looters have got their hands on Wyatt’s light sweet crude. Dagny also sees a three-foot tall solid gold dollar sign, Francisco D’anconia’s idea of a joke. She also sees the Mulligan Mint and the tiny solid gold and silver coins it produces.
The sequence reaches its climax when Galt shows her his power plant that runs on static electricity. He also shows her that she cannot enter it. This is because it has doors operating on voice recognition machinery. Galt repeats the oath inscribed above the doors and the doors open.
Now requiring a cane for walking, Dagny attends a dinner populated by the former “destroyers.” They give speeches that awe Dagny, even though they are basically Objectivist boilerplate.
Composer Richard Halley begins:
Judge Narragansett continues:
Midas Mulligan chimes in:
Then John Galt uncorks a speech, short, damn near microscopic by Rand’s standards:
Hugh Akston adds in:
Dr. Hendricks talks about the evils of state-run medicine:
And Quentin Daniels has his say:
In the end, each tells of a new world-saving technology or idea, but since they are on strike, they refuse to share it with the outside world.
They offer her a choice that she is free to choose. The chapter ends, cliffhanger-like, with Galt escorting her to a room ironically named “the Torture Chamber” to contemplate her choice.
Reading Atlas Shrugged felt a lot like this.
Well, this is it folks. We’re finally into Part III: A = A, Tautologies Gone Wild! I understand it isn’t summer anymore. The objective reality proves the fact. Unfortunately, for the Objectivist True Believers, apparently we’re still fighting the Cold War. Maybe we can send them a care package, since they are in the same ideological desert island as the Japanese soldier who still thinks he’s fighting the Second World War. It is reminiscent of unreconstructed Communists pining for the Good Ole Days under Stalin. Too much nostalgia is never a healthy thing.
There will be a slight change-up in format. While one of us will take the appropriate chapter summary, both of us will comment on the chapter. And hopefully we can get this done by next summer. (Potential reading selection: Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard.)
After hundreds of pages, the reader finally sees the flipside to Rand’s criticisms. A place beyond criticism. A place without pain. Utopia. Rand has it both ways now, exposing the agonies and idiocies of the Looter Dystopia and the glories and pleasures of the Objectivist Atlantis. Rand is not the first philosopher to develop a fictional paradise. Plato wrote The Republic and populated it with a ruling caste of philosopher-kings. Thomas More wrote Utopia in the 16th century. A more ambivalent example is Aldous Huxley’s society of hierarchy and numbed pleasure, Brave New World. The Scots science fiction writer Iain Banks explores the limits of post-scarcity anarchist socialism in his Culture series of novels. And one would be remiss to neglect mentioning the strong strain of libertarian science fiction. So when Rand is called a utopian, this is not a criticism. A utopian setting provides opportunities for the writer to show what society would be like if her philosophical precepts were followed to a degree and with a purity impossible in everyday reality. (Doing so in a chapter laden with zero-dimensional characters repeating speeches we’ve read before … that’s a criticism.)
Rand does succeed in one case with her anarcho-capitalist utopia. One word forbidden in Galt’s Gulch is “give.” Good thing, because I could give less of a crap about these characters. Although calling them characters is too charitable by half, since they all sound like Ayn Rand. Agitprop ventriloquism for third-rate boardroom philosophers.
Because this chapter had a lot of material to deal with, I’ll be focusing on three specific topics with Sidebars.
Rand spends a lot of page space describing the physical attributes of one John Galt. For a philosophy premised on rationality and standing in opposition to supernaturalism, the opening passage came across as naked hagiography. John Galt seemed like a combination of Warren Buffett, Thomas Edison, Alexander the Great, Confucius, Jesus, and Macho Man Randy Savage.
Throughout the chapter Rand uses terms associated with either organized religion or its close parallel, the cult of personality. It sounds like North Korean Communists praising Kim Il-Sung. Perhaps a paragraph or two describing Galt is an understandable fanservice, but this was ridiculous. And contradictory. And off-putting.
Despite having the usual qualms about the philosophical content of the chapter, the tone was far more aggravating. Ayn Rand writes with an unbridled preachiness that puts her with similar American writers … Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and Billy Graham.
John Galt’s quest to “stop the engine of the world” seemed very similar to William F. Buckley’s famous call to arms from National Review in 1955: “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
The religious tone is not that surprising, since Rand writes with the liturgical cadences found in other personality cults. Since this novel uses all the heavy-handed pedestrian tactics of Soviet Socialist Realism, one finds that only the content has changed. The Individual has been substituted for the Collective and trains have been substituted for tractors. It’s a brilliant reversal of the Stalinist personality cult.
In keeping with the liturgical atmosphere, Dagny can only witness the Miracle Motor working when she says the Oath in a genuine, authentic way. In the novel she looks upon “an ancient temple (the power plant) – and she knew what rite was the proper form of worship to be offered on an altar of that kind.” Temple? Worship? Rite? Altar? So much for the ferocious atheism Rand espouses.
Certain religions, fraternal organizations, and political movements rely on a system of controlled access. Dagny lacks the prerequisites to become an Objectivist Grand Master. One only hopes the Rearden Metal Decoder Ring™ isn’t too expensive.
But like any deviational proletarian in a Communist Utopia, she requires re-education. (Read: longwinded speeches by idealized stereotypes.) The speeches at dinner are nothing but this. While some would see this as a personal validation of their heroic Objectivism, it plays like a bully saying to a weakling, “Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself.”
Ironically, in this novel that fetishizes hard work and industriousness, the Objectivist philosophy elucidated in these speeches comes across as entirely unearned (at least in the narrative sense). The parade of straw men, the absurd storyline that bears no relation to reality, the remedial worldbuilding, and the complete lack of characterization make Dagny’s entrance into Galt’s Gulch a Pyrric victory.
The constant hammering for rationality veers towards idolatry. Objectivism is rational in the same way the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea is democratic, for the people, and a republic. (For those playing the home game, it’s actually a sclerotic hereditary monarchy that mistakes a delusional messiah complex for Communist orthodoxy.) Just because one parrots the line “Objective reality” enough times, doesn’t necessarily make it so.
Like a religion or personality, it also tries to weave its disparate strands into a Unified Field Theory. In the chapter, Objectivism is seen as a moral philosophy, science, personal code, and interior design aesthetic (Bauhaus meets Frank Lloyd Wright). However, since this is a utopian text, everyone can follow this philosophy perfectly and it all works out in the end.
The final bit of religiosity of Objectivism is in the Surgical Guilt Trip. Following the epic speeches by the Objectivist Heroes, Dagny is given a choice. She can convert to Objectivism or not. Technically, the characters are indifferent about the matter. They are happy in their anarcho-capitalist commune. It tries to have it both ways, being proselytizing and not. (Oddly contradictory, eh?) Given Rand’s heavy-handed methodology (see above), the reader would absolutely have to adopt the Objectivist philosophy. This is true, since all those who oppose the strong, muscular, innovative, hardworking, attractive Objectivist Heroes are weak, flabby, college-reeking, intellectual, neurotic, nihilist, moral relativist Looter scum. (It is a provocative and mature perspective on the matter.)
The Either-Or mindset goes berserk when Objectivism is criticized as irrational by the same people that criticize the obvious shortcomings of Soviet state planning. (I’m one of them. Communism is crap. So is Objectivism. Learn to deal with it.)
In summary, for a novel so adamantly against the irrationalities and superstitions of religion, it comes across as really preachy.
This brings us to the VW L1, a futuristic concept car with ridiculously good fuel economy. One of the fascinating aspects of Atlas Shrugged is its look at technological change. Despite its clunky name, Rearden Metal signifies how technological progress can become a society-changing activity. In 2002, Volkswagen released the L1 (meaning 1-litre) concept car. This compact vehicle was made of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber, but also boasted incredible fuel efficiency (1.36L/100 km or 208 mpg). It will go into limited production in 2012.
Then again, Germany has socialized health care and strict environmental regulations.
This is instructive, since Atlas Shrugged has the characters whining endlessly about regulations and losing money. In the real world, Germany has spun the straw of environmental regulations into the gold of automotive innovation. (Additionally, since the company wasn’t saddled with paying employee health care, it had more money to invest in research and development and employee salaries.)
Not to be outdone, Japan recently introduced the Nissan Leaf, a car boasting similar fuel efficiencies. The United States, half a decade behind in hybrid car technology, will probably react by rebooting another nostalgia brand a la Mustang or Camaro, accuse consumers of anti-Americanism, and ask for another bail-out.
Another thing Galt’s Gulch lacks is a military or a police force. Since Rand’s anarcho-capitalist utopia is full of well-behaved and industrious citizens, neither police nor military is necessary. But considering how much stress is placed on Galt’s oath of individuality, one wonders how long this community will last if there is an invasion? The military ethos is about protecting your fellow soldier. Galt’s oath is “Every man for himself.” It remains difficult to square that circle.
It is a truism that an army marches on its stomach. This feeds back to the Technological Sidebar. The individual soldier remains well fed with MRIs, but the modern demands of the military have involved the US military going against the truism. Instead of soldiers marching on foot, the truism should be applied to the vehicles in which the soldiers travel.
Military planners and weapons designers need to make energy efficiency part of their design brief. This is not because of any environmental issues per se, but because efficient weapons win wars. A military without a dependency on oil is a staggering prospect. Apart from small-scale weapons like unmanned drones, energy efficiency has only had limited application. Two cases are nuclear powered ships and the turbine engine in the M1 Abrams main battle tank. One of the main memes throughout the War on Terror has been the primitivism of Afghanistan. The same can be applied to the US military’s overreliance on outdated and inefficient transportation technologies. While the spy satellites and communications systems are new and effective, our vehicles have gas mileage as bad as a 1954 Chrysler sedan. Maybe our foreign policy would be a lot more useful if our weapons systems didn’t get 4 miles to the gallon?
Another aspect of militarism espoused during the Cold War was that all military innovation occurred in industrial democracies. The truth is our missile and space programs benefited from the Germans we used. Likewise for the Soviets who used their own Germans for the same purposes. One should remember that Nazi Germany invented jet technology. Military innovation isn’t a democratic monopoly.
During the twilight years of the Soviet Union, military designers came up with the ekranoplan. A massive vehicle with similarities to seaplanes and hovercrafts, it hovered above the water and traveled several hundred miles an hour. It flew just below radar height. Some versions even possessed missile launchers. A nightmare to Pentagon military experts. Luckily, the Soviet Union withered and died before these frightening things could ever be used offensively. Luckily, the free market Russian Republic is now able to sell ekranoplans to any international terrorist with enough pocket change. (Unfortunately, the Cold War kept things simple. A worldwide free market and fragmentary political alliances have made things trickier.)
Stray quotes taken out of context by someone who doesn’t get it:
- “The angular planes of his cheeks made her think of arrogance, of tension, of scorn – yet the face had none of these qualities, it had their final sum: a look of serene determination and of certainty, and the look of a ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it.” “Ruthless innocence”? WTF? This movie clip has lots of ruthless innocence.
- “[T]he place had the primitive simplicity of a frontiersman’s cabin, reduced to essential necessities, but reduced with a super-modern skill.” Objectivism as an interior design aesthetic. Like feng shui, but with more innocent ruthlessness.
- “He had brought an object she had never seen before: a portable X-ray machine.”
- “But that tractor has cut an eight-hour workday down to four –” Know any farmers with four-hour workdays?
- “I SWEAR BY MY LIFE AND MY LOVE OF IT THAT I WILL NEVER LIVE FOR THE SAKE OF ANOTHER MAN, NOR ASK ANOTHER TO LIVE FOR MINE.”
- “I merely got fed up with the job of running a slaughter house, where one drains blood out of healthy living beings and pumps it into bloodless half-corpses.” – Midas Mulligan. Um, that’s not how a slaughter house works. That’s how a blood bank works. Er … “My business is blood transfusions.” – Midas Mulligan, at the beginning of the paragraph. If you want to know how a slaughter house works, ask this architect:
- “What we are now asked to worship, what had once been dressed as God or king, is the naked, twisted, mindless figure of the Incompetent.” – John Galt.
- “I saw him lying at the foot of an altar, with his blood running down into the earth – and what stood on that altar was Lee Hunsacker, with the mucus-filled eyes, whining that he never got his chance …” How Lovecraftian in its overwrought awfulness.
- “The purpose for which I had chosen my work, was my resolve to be a guardian of justice. But the laws they asked me to enforce made me the executor of the vilest injustice conceivable.” — Judge Narragansett. Judges do not enforce the law; they interpret it. The unpleasantness during the Civil Rights Era erupted because the Southern states refused to enforce what the Supreme Court interpreted as the law.
- “Please tell me your reasons,” she said, with a faint stress of firmness in her voice, as if she were taking a beating, but wished to take it to the end. (“Baby, hit me one more time.” – Objectivist American Princess™ Britney Spears.)
I guess I wasn’t put on this Earth “to get it” …