Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Problem with Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

In the last few days, I created a list of essential philosophy books. There is a lot of Ayn Rand-related material on there, but the most I can do Atlas Shrugged-wise is to include the CliffsNotes version by Andrew Bernstein. One person I showed this list to asked, "What about Atlas Shrugged?"; this posting is prompted in part by that query. Here's the deal: I really don't like Atlas Shrugged. Now to explain why.

First off, I should briefly summarize my intellectual context: when I first encountered Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, in junior year of high school, it was a life-changer. Overnight, I went from (primarily) a student of economics to (primarily) a student of philosophy. The moral certainty she displayed - and the moral certainty about principles that are true - is almost unheard-of in the history of ideas. There was nothing of this sort in the writings of Milton Friedman, my biggest intellectual "hero" up to that time.

Shortly thereafter, I read The Fountainhead, and didn't "get" it at its fundamental sense-of-life level. I was not versed either in fiction or in the arts. (My interest in the arts would emerge years later out of other life-changers: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the adagio movement to Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto, Op. 73.) I promptly went onto other books and thinkers featured in the Laissez Faire Books catalog at the time, most especially Murray Rothbard, whose own radical moral certainty was, I thought at the time, the logical extension of the principles I first encountered in Rand. So for a time, I delved into anarchistic theory and, eventually, found that there was so much left-anarchist theory out there that I soon lost interest in the subject of what an all-out dismantling of the State might lead to. My principles were firmly capitalistic, see.

It was around this time that I was taking my first college-level courses in philosophy (under the tutelage of a leading proponent of Intelligent Design theory, as it happens). At this time my thoughts were increasingly focused on the moral foundations of individual rights as distinct from the questions the Rothbard-types were preoccupied with (in short: how to apply rights theories to such questions as whether the State is legitimate, or whether libel ought to be legal *facepalm*). It was at this time that I followed promising leads in the LFB catalog to the works of Tibor Machan, Eric Mack, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl. I noticed at the same time that much of their work pointed back to . . . Ayn Rand. (Yes, I had read Jerome Tuccille's It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand during my Rothbardian-anarchist phase, and - like with the one-sided accounts of Rand presented by Nathaniel and Barbara Branden in their memoirs - I bought into the book's negative depictions of Rand and the "Collective." More on the nature of the "Collective" as we proceed....) And, so, I become familiarized with The Virtue of Selfishness and arrive at the essential moral-philosophical worldview that I hold to this day. (It was also right around this time that I encountered Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia which I also dug, though he was doing more "well, duh" kinds of leftist-ass-kicking without getting into the important issue of the foundations for rights themselves.)

What happened shortly thereafter was another "life-changing" event, and one that, in long-term retrospect, had profoundly negative effects on the course of my life. That event, occurring during the summer after graduating high school, was reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time.

Now, what we have in Atlas is one hell of an intellectual construction. At the time I was, to use a cliche, "blown away." Here we had, on virtually every page, a literal deconstruction of the hate-filled premises of the enemies of capitalism and individual rights. When Ayn Rand said that The Fountainhead was only an overture to Atlas Shrugged, she wasn't kidding! Rather than more subdued aesthetic cues, we get page after page of the most heavy-handed didacticism that a highly-intellectual young student of philosophy - particularly individualist-capitalist philosophy - eats right up. For the month that I was reading it, it was like I was in heaven. I was now ready to go out and emulate the heroic characters in this story.

Big fucking mistake.

(to be continued)

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