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. |
I continue my CCLaP essay series “On Being Human”, this week exploring the dark world of Warhammer 40K and the Space Marines.
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 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 (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.
“Well, this certainly looks like a lot of words, in record time, I’m very impressed…Unfortunately, I am also disgusted. This is incoherent drivel! This is a total redo, and I’m assuming I need it right away.” — J. Peterman
J. Peterman or John Galt? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.
Part III: Chapter VII: “This is John Galt Speaking”
Well, that was pretty much exactly what I expected…and yet, so much worse. Karl aptly covered the dramatic and literary failings of “the speech,” so I won’t shoot the broad side of that particular barn. I’m also not going to attempt a point by point refutation of Rand/Galt’s legion of philosophical failings. I may not have a life, but I do have to eat, sleep and move my bowels for the next month, so that’s right out. John Rawls went through all the trouble of writing A Theory of Justice, after all. Just go read that.
Go ahead, it shouldn’t take long. The whole thing is probably shorter than Galt’s speech.
Among the myriad logical and historical fallacies on display in the Galt speech (the Dark Ages were dark because of a strike by intellectuals? For realsies?), the most annoying for me is Rand’s deeply misinformed conception of scientific and technological progress. Rand seems to live in the grammar school universe where every major innovation on the road of human progress is the result of a single individual applying their brilliance to a particular problem.
Theodoric of York knew that he shouldn’t have just slapped leeches on his patients, but his brain was on strike against the Catholic Church.
Eli Whitney “inventing” the cotton gin. Samuel Morse “inventing” the telegraph. In reality, of course, no invention in the history of humanity has a single author. Whitney and Morse, as well as Edison, Marconi, and every other famous inventor in human history, made their names and fortunes by innovating within an existing line of research being carried out across the years and by countless individuals. More importantly, their inventions came in the context of all the human knowledge that came before them. As brilliant as he was, Thomas Edison could not have invented an iPod. Not because he wasn’t smart enough, but because he didn’t have access to the corpus of collective human scientific advancement that occurred in the 20th century. Isaac Newton may have been the smartest man in human history, and he spent thirty years trying to turn lead into gold because he didn’t know what the hell an atom was. Not to mention the fact that he whiffed big-time on that whole “relativity” deal.
Isaac Newton: Father of modern physics and alchemist.
At one point in Galt’s speech, Galt challenges his lumpen audience to imagine what would happen if they had to survive by themselves in the untamed wild without the guiding intelligence of their betters. I’m guessing they’d do just about as well as Hank Rearden or Johannes Gutenberg: they’d scratch out a living for a while on grubs and tree bark, then die of exposure. Hank isn’t making any Rearden metal out of leaves and rainwater. Even more ridiculous is Galt/Rand’s parallel claim that corporate employees owe the same debt of gratitude to their bosses as the rest of us owe the inventive geniuses who make our comfortable lives possible.
The Cotton Gin: NOT invented by Eli Whitney.
In 1957, when Atlas Shrugged was first published, the President of the Ford Motor Company was Henry Ford II. Now, whatever claim to genius that Henry Ford Senior may have had (it’s not like the dude actually invented the automobile: he simply devised a more efficient way of manufacturing someone else’s invention), it didn’t necessarily extend to his son. Henry Ford Junior had the good fortune to be born the son of an industrial magnate. His crowning achievement as President was the introduction of the Edsel. Yet according to Rand, the employees of Ford, who significantly differed from the President of their company only by an accident of birth, owed him their entire devotion and should have been happy with any wage he chose to offer them. Every human being benefits from the collective intellectual and physical efforts of every other person, both past and present. Now, Rand might be willing to concede that point, but still hold that these efforts and intellectual products must be traded on an open market by individuals. Fair enough, but that’s not how Rand conceives the creation of human knowledge in the Galt speech. Instead, she posits an alternate universe where every human mind operates in a locked, lightless cell, uninfluenced by any other intelligence. Rand can’t acknowledge the self-evident fact of intellectual interconnectedness even when it wouldn’t necessarily invalidate her view on the correct way to structure an economy. Once again, we’re confronted by the fact that what Rand is peddling in the seemingly endless pages of Atlas Shrugged isn’t philosophy, it’s pathology.
Without the visionary genius of Henry Ford Junior, we never would have had the chance to buy the Edsel.
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter III: Anti-Greed Or, When Atlas Shrugged Turned into David Lynch’s Dune
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter III: Anti-Greed or, When Atlas Shrugged Turned into David Lynch’s Dune
Pages: 816 – 863
Summary: A new year and I’m still not done with this infuriating book! Only seven more chapters to go. I hope that my sanity can stay intact.
The chapter opens with a strange meeting in the rural outskirts of Iowa. Dr. Stadler joins a nefarious cabal of government officials and other economic traitors to the One True Faith of Objectivism™. Finally, Dr. Ferris unveils Project X to the public. Dubbed the Thompson Harmonizer, it is a machine that inspires fear in the crowd and blows up an abandoned farm and a baby goat.
In the second part, Dagny gets bullied into appearing before a live radio audience to discuss her disappearance and assuage the parasitic sheep audience that everything is hunky dory. Dagny takes control of the situation and outs herself as an adulterous hussy, admitting her extramarital affair with muscular industrialist/Minnesotan sexpot Hank Rearden. To use the parlance of our time, she totally pwns the looters.
Finally, Dagny and Hank are reunited. Since this a novel written by Ayn Rand, the reunion of lovers is met with a long speech by Hank Rearden to Dagny. Then Dagny tells Hank she’s ending her affair with him. Hank, a man without fear and guilt and pain, accepts it without any protest or anything resembling a plausible human emotion. The claim that Atlas Shrugged contains characters possessing any resemblance to human beings – rather than cheap ideological constructs fit for disgorging essay-length tirades – has been highly exaggerated.
Observations: The chapter has a number of confusing scenes. The confusion arises from Objectivism’s collision with basic human emotions and implausible behavior. How is one supposed to react to the death of the baby goat? Let’s quantify it in coldly intellectual terms:
- It’s a goat, not a chromium counter top. (“Hooray technology, Nature can suck it!”)
- The goat was vaporized by a human invention.
- The human invention was created by evil looter bastards who stole the knowledge from heroic Objectivist inventor industrialist superheroes.
- The Thompson Harmonizer gets its name from Mr. Thompson, Head of State and shyster.
- Dr. Stadler felt sad that the goat died. (“Emotions be damned!” – Richard Halley)
- The Harmonizer will be used to intimidate the populace. Looters with weapons are far more dangerous than Ragnar blowing up aid shipments. (That would explain the twisted logic behind opposition to helping out 9/11 first responders.)
So … what am I supposed to think? Objectivist Commissars help me out here. Actually, my first response was “Wow, this novel sounds a lot like David Lynch’s Dune. The looters will prevail with their Weirding Module.”
“One of my premises is false” falls flat to the above listed mélange. If anything, it proves this is a philosophical system all too willing to cash in its credentials for cheap political points. But philosophy itself has gone through various political and ideological iterations since Aristotle and Heraclitus. Rand’s aggressive personal Messianism and economic specificity put her on par with kooks and eccentrics, not within the long lineage of philosophers and thinkers. (Depending on one’s adoration of Atlas Shrugged, my last statement can be read as either an egregious insult or a laudatory compliment.) At least to this lowly book reviewer, Rand’s philosophy possesses the same staying power of Ezra Pound’s economic crackpottery, although Old Ez could write a poem like nobody’s business. (Ezra Pound’s poetic output will last the ages, his economic and political thought … not so much.)
The other sticking point this chapter drove home was the complete lack of humans in Atlas Shrugged. Granted, there are plenty of bipedal hominids acting as major and minor characters, but the ideological stridency of this epic slab of free market agitprop strips off any plausible human behavior. This is even appraising the novel on its own terms: the idealistic, the epic, and the heroic. Even Ulysses had his frailties. It’s like a Russian Reversal of the medieval Everyman plays. In the plays, Everyman represented us. In the novel, we are supposed to aspire to these industrialist heroes whose hobbies include adultery and making long speeches.
Am I the only one who noticed that the characters have stopped having sex? This is less an observation dealing with the prurient and more an observation that sex is an intimate relation. Beneath the hardness metaphors and science fictional inventions, these characters have no plausible link to each other or they did in the beginning of the novel. Unfortunately, long multi-page speeches on various topics have entirely replaced the turgid eroticism. Just look at the objective reality: Dagny and Hank are reunited following her harrowing confession on the radio program. Instead of turning this long-awaited reunion into an opportunity to engage in some efficient Objectivist intercourse, it’s Hank who rambles on and on in yet another non-fiction essay masquerading as conversation. Seriously, who does that? And this is his mistress, the female companion he actually has sex with. Dagny is vital, sensual, and beautiful, unlike Lillian, his frigid castrating shrew of a wife.
Dagny’s actions bring up some pressing questions: Is Atlas Shrugged nothing more than a philosophic edifice created to justify adultery? A pretty shallow assessment. Let’s examine the Objective Reality™:
[…] Objectivists tend to gloss over the extra-marital affair Rand had with her protegé, Nathaniel Branden. Despite their 25-year age difference and the fact that they were both married, the two carried on a lengthy affair that was allegedly approved by their prospective spouses; Rand even tried to “rationalize” the affair by claiming that she and he were the two greatest living minds on the planet. (She didn’t have an ego – did she?) It came to an end when Rand discovered that Branden was actually cheating on her behind her back with yet another woman. This led to Branden’s excommunication from Rand’s inner circle and his demonization by the Objectivist movement. Rand rejected many of her close friends in the later years of her life, and much of the movement dwindled with her death in 1982. Today the Center for the Advancement of Objectivism (a.k.a. the Ayn Rand Institute) is led by Rand’s hand-picked successor, Leonard Peikoff, and he rules it with an iron fist. In the eyes of the ARI, Ayn Rand is nothing less than the greatest human being who ever lived.
Let’s run down Dagny’s affairs thus far:
- She had a youthful fling with Francisco D’anconia.
- She was the mistress to Hank Rearden.
- This is just a hunch: She will have an affair with Living God Free Market Messiah Literary Caricature John Galt.
Francisco = Nathaniel Branden; Hank = Leonard Peikoff; John Galt = Rand’s Jupiter-sized ego; A = A.
If I were suddenly reunited with my long lost love who was presumed dead, who then promptly dumped me, I would probably act differently than Hank. Since emotions are anathema within the Galtverse, it isn’t surprising that Hank’s reaction seems more robotic than human. Hell, even Cylons have more human responses than these characters and they are robots!
- “Why didn’t you come for me in person, instead of sending those incredible young hooligans with their mysterious gibberish that sounded half-science, half-pulp-magazine?”
- “He saw defensively belligerent men and tastelessly dressed women – he saw mean, rancorously, suspicious faces that bore the one mark incompatible with a standard bearer of the intellect: the mark of uncertainty.” OBAMACARE IS SOCILISM!
- Oh noes!
Dr. Stadler turned to Ferris, “What is Project X?” he asked sterly.
Dr. Ferris smiled in a manner of innocence and insolence together.
“A non-profit venture,” he answered.
“The Ayn Rand Center (ARC) is the public policy and outreach division of the Ayn Rand Institute, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.”
- “From the respectful whispers of the crowd, Dr. Stadler learned that the little man in a wilted suit, who looked like a shyster, striding briskly in the center of the new group, was Mr. Thompson, the Head of the State.” [Emphasis added.] Really Ayn? A few sentences later, we get “Dr. Stadler saw the little shyster’s eyes studying him for a fraction of a second.” [Emphasis added.] Etymology: shyster, from the German, Scheiᵦer (“shitter”). Not sure what annoys me more, the lack of subtlety or rancid tackiness of the description. Rand’s caricature of Mr. Thompson is so broadly drawn it can be seen from space.
- “Dr. Stadler could not bear to watch the graceful, undulating, effeminate motion of Dr. Blodgett’s hand as it pulled the first lever of the switchboard, then the next.” What’s Objectivism without a nice dollop of homophobia?
- “Oh, Miss Taggart … Miss Taggart!” said, in a joyous moan, the voice of the severe, unemotional Miss Ives. (Count the contradictions in this sentence.)
- “The grapefruit special is for the Smather brothers. The Smather brothers bought a fruit ranch in Arizona a year ago, from a man who went bankrupt under the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.” Mom liked you best.
- “Let me finish, dearest. I want you to know how fully I know what I am saying.” Hank to Dagny when they are reunited.
- He took her hand and pressed it to his lips. “Then you know what I feel,” he said, “and why I am still happy.” (Hank seems to take being dumped rather well.)
- Another classic conversation:
“So there is a John Galt?” he asked slowly.
“That slang term refers to him?”
Duh. Color me unimpressed by this revelation. Hank is as dense has his Metal.
The Taggart Comet meets its end.
Chapter VIII: By Our Love
Summary: While the passengers and crew of the Taggart Comet chug towards their doom, Dagny slowly goes mad in the seclusion of her family cabin. The woman is congenitally incapable of relaxing, which, of course, signals her worth as a human: she craves purpose, she must create at all times! She even considers creating a new roadway near Woodstock to reduce travel time. Her restlessness is made even worse by her ceaseless pining for Hank Rearden, who she hasn’t spoken to since fleeing into the wilderness.
Someone finally shows up, but it isn’t Hank, it’s Francisco. He’s finally ready to reveal to Dagny the secret of his mysterious hedonism and business failure, and shepherd her away from Taggart Transcontinental once and for all. But before he can finish, an absurdly detailed radio report announces the fate of the Taggart Comet. Sure enough, everyone on the Comet was asphixiated in the tunnel, and then, after the train broke down in the middle of the tunnel, the explosives-laden Army special collided with it, blowing both trains up and collapsing the Taggart tunnel forever! Dagny is running to her car to get back to New York before Francisco can stop her.
Meanwhile, at Taggart Transcontinental, the fallout of the Comet disaster continues to reverberate. James has written his resignation (with no intention of submitting it, of course, just as a hole card), and Eddie Willers is quitting rather than revealing Dagny’s whereabouts. James blows his stack as the insolence, but before they can come to blows or James can summon the employment police, Dagny arrives. Instantly, she’s issuing orders to reestablish the Comet line; extending track, buying trunk lines, changing gauges, generally showing just why Dagny is basically the only person on earth who can keep Taggart Transcontinental going. After a hard day of saving the American economy singlehandedly, Dagny gets a booty call from Hank, setting the stage for a night of life-affirming, purposeful intercourse.
Reflections: Chapter Eight is a mercifully short chance to bask in the Objectivist Mindset, as personified by Dagny Taggart. Left at loose ends in the wilderness, Dagny is unable to rest at all: her mind is constantly working on challenges: there is no introspection, there is no contemplation, there is no quiet. According to Rand, people are like sharks: if they’re not moving forward, they’re dying. Undergirding the whole ethos is a fundamental hostility to the natural world, as exemplified by Dagny’s compulsive need to enforce order on the wilderness around her. Nature, in the Randian view, is a stupid, thoughtless mechanism. People only show themselves valuable to the degree to which they impose their minds on the dumb tabula rasa of the natural world. This means building roads through woods, paving the unruly wilds, replacing dirt with concrete, wood with plastic, and animals with robotic simulations of same.
The only dog worth a damn is a dog with batteries.
This speaks to the fundamental conflict between libertarianism and the environment. Of course, libertarians have plenty of arguments that capitalism is the best way to preserve natural resources: if the natural world is owned by people, those people will have a rational self interest in seeing those resources preserved. But that is a purely instrumental argument that sees nature only as a commodity. If the “resource” part of the term “natural resource” became obsolete because of some technological breakthrough (nanobots, perhaps?) , is there any doubt that Randians would gladly trade the Redwood forests for a glittering array of polycarbon robots? Since a redwood tree was not brought into being by the will and intelligence of humans, just the dumb machinations of seeds and dirt, it has no value. Hell, a McDonalds Happy Meal toy from “The Emperor’s New Groove” has more value than a redwood tree in the Randian cosmology. I don’t think that any person who values the majesty and transcendence of the natural world could embrace a philosophy that fetishzes the most banal human output while treating the actual environment like an obstacle to achievement.
Tacoma, WA Best Buy parking lot >>>>> Grand Canyon
“A circle, she thought, is the movement proper to physical nature, they say that there’s nothing but circular motion in the inanimate universe around us, but the straight line is the badge of man, the straight lineof a geometrical abstraction that makes roads, rails and bridges, the straight line that cuts the curving aimlessness of nature by a purposeful motion from a start to an end.”
“I am destroying d’Aconia Copper, consciously, deliberately, by plan and by my own hand. I have to plan it as carefully and work as hard as if I were producing a fortune–in order not to let them notice it and stop me, in order not to let them seize the mines until it is too late. All the effort and energy I had hoped to spend on d’Aconia Coppe, I’m spending them, only…only it’s not to make it grow. I shall destroy every last bit of it and every last penny of my fortune and every ounce of copper that could feed the looters. I shall not leave it as I found it–I shall leave it as Sebastian d’Aconia found it–then let them try and exist without him or me!” –Francisco d’Aconia
“We kept mankind alive, yet we allowed men to despise us and to worship our destroyers. We allowed them to worship incompetence and brutality, the recipients and the dispensers of the unearned.” –Francisco d’Aconia. Dude’s on fire.
“Dagny, any office boy could have issued orders here since the morning and everybody would have obeyed him. But even the office boys know that whoever makes the first move today will be held responsible for the future, the present and the past–when the buck-passing begins. He would not save the system, he would merely lose his job by the time he saved one division.” –Eddie Willers
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!