Lee on Literature: Atlas Shrugged

In this season of American politics, supporters of the Republicans and the Democrats, the "conservatives" and the "liberals," often characterize their opposition as "unthinking." ---A deep-seated political frustration and animosity has developed from the kitchen table all the way to the US Senate floor. Each side sees the other's politics as fundamentally flawed, "out of touch" or simply crazy. Ayn Rand's 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, articulates an essential, underlying divergence in philosophy between the two groups and helps explain the current, bitter political disharmony.

When Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney selected Sen. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Atlas Shrugged reemerged in the national media with stories of Ryan's enthusiasm for the Rand classic, a text he earnestly recommends to staffers and friends.

Atlas Shrugged is a story set in the United States at a time of great economic recession. The economy is collapsing because all of the top leaders of industry, the "1 percent," have disappeared one by one, having gone on strike and gathered together in a secret utopian valley in Utah, hidden by a high-tech wave shield.

The protagonist of the story, Dagny Taggart, a railroad industry magnate, watches the economy disintegrate into an inefficient, non-market-driven, government led nepotism akin the communist Russian society that Ayn Rand experienced first-hand as a teenager shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In Atlas Shrugged, riots break out as the society quickly unravels by overzealous government intervention, as the strike of the exasperated 1 percent is "stopping the motor of the world."

Dagny searches for the missing industrial leaders, eventually penetrating the high-tech cloak and discovering their utopian society, a Shangri La of "objectivism." Here, Dagny Taggard finds that her friend, Mr. Milligan, charges her 25 cents to use his car rather than loaning it, because "giving" is completely removed from society and everything must be "earned."

This removes the fundamental guilt that drives both the giver and the receiver into false and destructive "sacrifices" of their individual talent, productivity and gumption—a vital flaw of modern "liberal" ideology. The oath of the utopian valley is: "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

This episode demonstrates Rand's philosophy of "objectivism," a belief that the world is objective and that man has the capacity, through objective thinking and pure rationality, to grasp the fundamental truth of the world: self-interest. Life, effort, achievement and development of the individual are paramount to happiness, and should be valued over sacrifice to the group.

Rand's "objectivism" is simply Aristotle's pure reason combined with Friedrich Nietzsche's exaltation of the individual. (Nietzsche's "superman" is the vital force that cuts through herds of mediocrity to drive creation of all that is novel, great and revolutionary.)

The superman of Atlas Shrugged is John Galt, the supreme industrialist and strike leader, who at the story's climax reemerges from hiding to sabotage a critical government radio broadcast to the masses. With this platform, he delivers a speech over 27,000 words long that restates Rand's objectivist philosophy by pointing out the evil of government interference in the economy and individuals' lives, the fallacy of sacrifice for others, along with the value of individual reason, purpose and esteem.

According to Galt, spiritual mystics who promote collective conscience over individual conscience are evil deceptions pushing human insignificance, along with an immeasurable and irrational connection to a wider universe. Spiritual followers "honor the fortune teller over the fortune maker." Galt celebrates "a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved." He asserts, "I am the man who has earned the thing you did not fight for, the thing you have renounced, betrayed, corrupted."

Herein lays a fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Democrat/liberals are viewed as mired in guilt about the "unfair" consequences of an unfettered capitalist society, and thus push for regulation, redistributive policies and indiscriminate giving akin to "socialism."

Conservatives believe that society is essentially fair, that individuals need to earn and cultivate personal responsibility and achievement, and that irrational giving hurts both the giver and the receiver. Liberals believe unproven interconnectedness with other people and a wider universe, something that Ayn Rand spurns as "spiritual causality," a non-objective, non-rational inference—I want it to be like this, therefore it is. Conservatives examine the world with a rational eye and conclude this truth, a "politically incorrect" reality: Each person really cares only about himself.

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a conservative Hindu mother, Mrs. Sona Choudhury, raising her family amidst the cultural liberalization of 20th Century India.

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