Category Archives: Philosophy

If…

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

—Rudyard Kipling

Liberals and Conservatives

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.” –G.K. Chesterton

Atheism+?

A fascinating new schism in the atheist movement.

Atheism as a movement? Why yes, it appears so, and some of them are already busy creating dogma and identifying heretics. Which ought to be proof to some people that what they thought was caused by religion–intellectual rigidity, intolerance, demand for conformity, and hysterical fear–turn out to be normal human traits no matter what you believe or don’t believe theistically.

Amusing to read though. Clearly, feminism (and a related form of racism that demonizes one particular race as “privileged”) is a religion and absorbed and interpreted as part of personal identity just as much as any religion. At least for a lot of people, regardless of their other beliefs. It’s probably why I rarely even use the word in everyday conversation: no one can tell you exactly what it means, the listener often means one thing while the speaker means another, it’s all subject to change at a moment’s notice, and for some people it’s become so wedded their personal sense of identity they feel personally attacked if you say anything remotely critical of it. [shrug]

*UPdate*: Girlwriteswhat has her own inimitable thoughts (and not even in video form, for those of you who don’t like that format).

Obama Picks Ryan, Redux (J. A. Eddy)

Because the first time was so much fun, and because I think some serious issues were ignored (and I freely admit I was part of helping them be ignored), I offer this:

“Who’s the Fairest of Them All?”

Belmont Club’s Wretchard the Cat (AKA Richard Fernandez) tends to write in-depth and make no mistake he is unmistakably right-of-center, but he grabs the “Obama chose Ryan” meme and rattles it so hard its teeth chatter. Comments over there tend to be pretty Knee-Jerk partisan, but can be informative none-the-less. It’s a good read, particularly if you are on the left and are trying to understand why the right is so jazzed up about the Romney/Ryan ticket.

It’s worth your time, even if you feel compelled to reject it out of hand.

Blogging Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 6

My entry on this chapter is going to be shorter than others But I really liked this chapter. And also hated it. Ultimately, I had what I think was an epiphany that made me at least a little more sympathetic to Rand and some of her acolytes.

Anyway, the basics: Hank Rearden reluctantly attends his wedding anniversary party, where he meets a bunch of people he can’t stand who his wife has invited. There are some horrible people there espousing some horrible philosophy and treating Hank contemptuously while rarely even addressing him directly. One particularly noxious philosophizer is named “Balph Eubank” (yes, “Balph” with a B, I’m not kidding).

Francisco shows up because Hank’s wife invited him, and Hank determines to avoid him because from reputation alone he hates the guy. But Francisco approaches him and, speaking nebulously, makes it clear that he only came to the party to meet Hank and gives Hank some vague and non-specific observations that appear to be aimed at making Hank think differently about his assumptions in life. It’s pretty obvious that he’s “priming” Hank for something (read: to embrace John Galt’s philosophy) without saying so. There’s also some discussion of a pirate who’s making problems out at sea for various countries, who we’ll learn more about later. Dagny’s also at the party, and conversations between her and Hank and Francisco are strained. At one point Dagny hears Hank’s wife complaining about the bracelet made of Rearden Metal, so Dagny embarrasses her by offering to swap a diamond bracelet off her own wrist in exchange for the “hideous” Rearden Metal bracelet. This annoys everybody but the swap is made. Later, after the party, Hank enters his wife’s bedroom (they sleep in separate rooms) and contemplates having sex with her but doesn’t, because he feels degraded by sex with this woman, and by sex in general, and he still isn’t sure why he married her or she married him.

There’s actually quite a lot of general philosophizing in all this, and to be frank it’s often infuriating to read. When Rand’s protagonists espouse her philosophy, I agree with some of it and disagree with some of it; when her party guests/antagonists speak, they say ludicrous things you’d only really expect out of a Communist (and maybe not even one of those). I agree with a few of the things her antagonists say but disagree with most of it–but who wouldn’t? Mostly it’s a bunch of annoying people saying a bunch of weird things. So far, my view of Rand remains that the core problem is not her prose, or her style, it’s the base preconceptions of her philosophy.

I’m out of patience for pulling out specific quotes from the book (at least for now), but let’s just leave it said that almost every sentence is laden with heavy philosophizing and lecturing. It’s hard not to credit Rand with a fierce intellect; to be able to make practically every word drip with her philosophy and its antithesis is no small feat. It’s also hard not to say “both the theses and the antitheses are often wrong.” And in my view, faulty premises often lead to bad storytelling. As the old saying goes, “I agreed to suspend my disbelief, but not to have it hung by the neck until dead.”

All of that said, I had a bizarre reaction to this chapter: it irritated me, but something finally clicked and made me think I understand why some people, especially when they’re young, really like this book. If you are of a personality type that concentrates on GETTING THINGS DONE rather than social niceties, you probably strongly relate to the characters of Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart. In fact, as a more idea-oriented, action-oriented guy than a “people person” myself, it’s hard at times not to sympathize with both Hank and Dagny. And I think that if you grow up more concerned with things than people (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many a successful scientist, engineer, computer programmer, mathematician, etc. is of that personality type, and they’re often really great people inside), the whole motif of “I’m sick of everybody laying their DUMB EXPECTATIONS on me for CLOTHES and PARTIES and BEING FRIENDLY and GOSSIPING when I have INTERESTING THINGS TO DO OR EXPLORE” is probably very, very appealing. Especially if you’re a precocious, intelligent youngster who likes exploring ideas rather than the petty political intrigues and gossip and concern for appearances that fill up so many people’s daily lives. Or you’re an older person who’s felt that way your whole life and just grown to think yourself defective because of it. And no, by the way, you are NOT defective if you’re like that.

In fact, I’ll say it of myself: I hate constantly worrying about appearances, dress codes, socializing just to socialize, being somewhere just because I am supposed to be seen there, and so on. It makes me crazy. I’d often rather gnaw my own arm off than sit around gossiping and “being seen” and making polite empty chit-chat to impress people. I hate it. I’d rather read a book, do an experiment, watch the stars, solve a riddle, think about a problem, or even have a good argument with someone I like or even someone I barely know.

The problem is that Ayn Rand generalizes so much that it becomes almost a mockery of that: action-oriented, idea-oriented people are often frustrated by other people’s social expectations, and there’s nothing wrong with that, or with noting what’s often noble and heroic about such people. But her philosophy takes that to an almost psychotic level. Or at least it seems almost psychotic, this far into the book.

For a humorous take on the chapter that I don’t much disagree with, you might enjoy the Coffee is for Closers summary. And otherwise, as usual, feel free to leave comments here.

On to Chapter 7. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, not sure yet.

Previous entries:

Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 1
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 2
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 3
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 4
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 5

Blogging Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 5

Red Hot Objectivist Love. Or: Childrearing for the Non-Looter. Those are my subtitles for Chapter 5 anyway, which is really entitled “The Climax of the d’Anconias.”

I must confess to enjoying this chapter more than the first four. Although my reaction was schizoid: part “this is unbelievably silly” and part “well that was at least interesting.”

In this chapter we finally meet Francisco d’Anconia and learn about his lifelong relationship with the Taggart clan, especially Dagny. Ironically, since I just noted in my analysis of Chapter 4 that Ayn Rand’s fiction is usually eerily missing children or much thought about children, she seems to have put this chapter here just to annoy me. For here are children. Sort of. Child versions of our adult protagonists anyway, who act in almost all ways like short-statured versions of their adult selves.

The chapter starts with Dagny and the Family Serf, Eddie, talking about recent news stories regarding Francisco d’Anconia’s massive mining venture in Mexico. It turns out that when the new Communistic government of Mexico seized Francisco’s mining assets along with Taggart Transcontinental’s assets, they discovered to their dismay that there was nothing there: the mines were fraudulent. They produced nothing of value. The whole thing was a scam. The Mexican government is furious. So apparently is Dagny.

Next we get a lengthy flashback–in credit to Ayn Rand, she’s pretty skilled in her use of the technique–to how Dagny, her brother James, and Eddie Willers (the Family Serf) got to know young Francisco d’Andonia as children. The early parts of this annoyed me, for it describes Francisco d’Anconia’s family progenitor, Sebastian d’Anconia, in much the same way that Dagny’s ancestor Nathaniel Taggart was described in Chapter 3. Except that if the story of Nathaniel Taggart was implausible, the story of Sebastian d’Aconia is outright stupid. Francisco’s great ancestor who created the family fortune…

…had left Spain many centuries ago, at a time when Spain was the most powerful country on earth and his was one of Spain’s proudest figures. He left, because the lord of the Inquisition did not approve of his manner of thinking and suggested, at a court banquet, that he change it. Sebastian d’Anconia threw the contents of his wine glass at the face of the lord of the Inquisition, and escaped before he could be seized. He left behind him his fortune, his estate, his marble palace and the girl he loved–and he sailed to the new world.

His first estate in Argentina was a wooden shack in the foothills of the Andes. The sun blazed like a beacon on the silver coat-of-arms of the d’Anconias, nailed over the door of the shack, while Sebastian d’Anconia dug for the copper of his first mine. He spent years, pickax in hand, breaking rock from sunrise till darkness, with the help of a few stray derelicts: deserters from the armies of his countrymen, escaped convicts, starving Indians.

Fifteen years after he left Spain, Sebastian d’Anconia sent for the girl he loved…when she arrived, she found the silver coat-of-arms above the entrance of a marble palace, the gardens of a great estate, and mountains slashed by pits of red ore in the distance.

OK. When I scoffed at the story of Nat Taggart building a railroad all by himself with no government assistance whatsoever, to illustrate just how wildly implausible this was I compared it to the idea of Nat Taggart using his own hammer to put down thousands of miles of rails. I was being facetious, but apparently I was not exaggerating Ayn Rand’s silliness much. So there was nothing but a few derelicts and “starving Indians” down there to help Sebastian as he mined a fortune in copper? OK whatever.

I know this is a cartoon version of reality, but this is almost beyond endurance it’s so vapid. Yes, working mightily to hew the rock with a pick, with the help of only a few clueless and stupid locals, he built a mighty estate in Argentina. Whatever. Let’s not even mention that the history of the Spanish Empire at the height of its power shows that it was already in Argentina and using brutal military conquest and slavery to get what it wanted. Or that only the British and Dutch were engaged in what we might now call “capitalism” in the New World. But no, in Ayn Rand’s universe, a tiny elite few do everything, with a few pathetic hangers-on to help them meagerly. Oy vey.

But fine. This is not a world that looks any more real than the world of Spider-Man and Iron Man anyway. So let’s roll with that. This is the Randiverse, where super heroes are born with grit and determination and they can do anything so long as they have the will to do it.

The rest of the chapter is an exploration of how Dagny and Francisco grow up, each the heirs to their respective family legacies. Francisco–whom Dagny nicknames “Frisco”–is an impossibly perfect child, who can do absolutely anything with ease and skill. He loves Dagny–whom he nicknames “Slug”–from the beginning, because sees what she represents: the great legacy of Nat Taggart, and her indomitable will and unfailing competence at everything–both of the pretty much incapable of failure in anything. James Taggart, Dagny’s brother, is shown even in childhood as hopelessly incompetent and stupid. As competent and unstoppable as the Boy Francisco is, so Boy Taggart is incompetent and incapable. In one vignette, the child James receives a motorboat as a present and can’t get the hang of it despite the best efforts of a professional trainer, but Francisco just jumps in and rides off in it like a pro; Francisco is so amazingly talented he can do anything. Climb mountains, take on any obstacle in his path… faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single cash transaction, it’s: SuperFrancisco!

And at a certain level, I started to appreciate this chapter because of the childlike fantasy of it all. I was reminded here of nothing so much as the Percy Jackson and the Olympians stories. Dagny and Francisco as children are so all-powerful and superhuman in their intelligence and abilities there is nothing they can’t do; meanwhile, hopeless incompetent James Taggart just can’t do anything right. Even from childhood he’s already worthless.

But this also appears to be a running theme for Rand: people of virtue are always competent at everything they do. Ability and competence are one and the same; lack of virtue and lack of ability are also the same thing.

In any case, like in many novels written for children, the parents and other adults in young Dagny and Francisco’s lives are either hopelessly naive and stupid, or, aloof and amused and letting them do whatever they want. This is the perfect stuff of juvenile fiction, only with money instead of super powers (oh wait, money is the super power here).

Anyway, the story tells us that by the time Francisco’s a teenager he’s already graduated college and in his spare time bought and begun operating his own small but profitable copper mine, and even though he’s expected by his family to increase the family fortune by at least 10% or so, he states that he plans to make far more than 10% more profitable. OK. Although toward the end of the chapter, we realize that Frisco has along the way changed his mind completely, for some mysterious (read: probably John Galt) reason.

Once again, however, the standout character in the chapter is Dagny. Dagny and Francisco are clearly in love with each other, from childhood. Francisco makes young Eddie, the Taggart family’s servant, “feel safe,” but to Dagny he’s both a leader and a challenger. In several moving scenes we see how Dagny is constantly challenged by Francisco, and she challenges him back. In one particularly tense scene, we see young Dagny and young Francisco play Tennis together, and she determines that no matter what she’s going to beat him at this game. She goes beyond endurance, beyond anything she thinks she’s capable of, but finally defeats him, and he admits defeat. Even in her interactions with her mother, Dagny, like Francisco, is shown as ultimately in charge: when she agrees with her mother’s wish that she have a “coming out” ball, she dresses up and shows that she can make herself look beautiful if she wants to be… but then subsequently in the chapter demonstrates that she only looks beautiful when she decides to, and she usually doesn’t decide to because most men (and people in general) aren’t worth the time for her to bother.

I’ve seen some claim that this chapter also involves abuse and even something akin to rape of Dagny, but I think it’s only our politically correct era that reads it that way; in one passage, Dagny says something likely to make Francisco angry, and he slaps her; she grins back at him, both stung by the slap and proud and amused by it, pretty obviously because she made him lose his cool, and because she realizes that she could now get him in huge trouble for hitting her but refuses to do so; her power over him is shown by the fact that she chooses to let him off the hook, and he knows he’s letting her off the hook, and thus this is her power play over him. Similarly, when Dagny and Francisco finally have sex together, losing their virginity together, the sex is shown with Dagny being almost completely passive, waiting for Francisco to “take” her, and yet, after the act, she begins to caress Francisco’s body and think of how now as a result of their act that Dagny now feels…

…an emotion that was like a gasp of pride, pride in her ownership of his body.

While the chapter is mostly written from Dagny’s perspective, it’s clear that Dagny is pretty much superhuman in her ability to do anything she wants, and that she’s breathtakingly in love with Francisco because he’s the same way. And he is completely in love with her. And by their mutual respect they practically own each other.

As the chapter goes on, however, we learn that eventually Francisco changed. He told Dagny he would change, and that she would hate the way he changed. He refuses to tell her why, which frustrates her to no end. Although it’s an obvious plot gimmick, it’s annoying: Francisco has intentionally turned himself into a worthless bum playboy, but won’t tell her because she “won’t be able to accept it.” At least, not yet. All to keep the mystery going. But having not read ahead yet, by now anyone familiar with Rand must know the reason: he’s going “on strike” with John Galt, so he’s intentionally ruining his own business and the businesses of others. By the end of the chapter, the adult Dagny and Francisco have met up again, due to the recent doings down in Mexico, and Dagny expresses her disgust for him and what he’s become, and accuses him of intentionally destroying businesses. Speaking enigmatically, he does not deny it.

Frisco expresses his desire to sleep with her, but says he is “not happy enough to do it.” A running theme for Rand appears to be that Great People (like Francisco and Dagny) only have sex for intellectual reasons, and that’s the only time sex is enjoyable or authentic. Ayn could have used a basic course or two on human sexuality but hey, this was the 1950s she was writing in, right? So whatever. Sex is an intellectual pursuit or it is empty, according to her.

Anyway, Francisco shows admiration for her, but remains infuriatingly enigmatic about what he’s doing. Dagny isn’t ready in his opinion to know the full truth of it.

Although it’s hard to know where in the narrative to fit this, since Rand followers insist that it is her philosophy which we must take most seriously, I wanted to note this particular passage about Francisco:

“Francisco,” Eddie asked him once, as they stood by the tracks of the Taggart station, “You’ve been just about everywhere in the world. What’s the most important thing on earth?” “This,” answered Francisco, pointing to the emblem TT [Taggart Transcontintental, Inc.] on the front of an engine. He added, “I wish I could have met Nat Taggart.”

He noticed Dagny’s glance at him. He said nothing else. But minutes later, when they were through the woods, down a narrow path of damp earth, ferns and sunlight, he said, “Dagny, I’ll always bow to a coat-of-arms. I’ll always worship the symbols of nobility. Am I not supposed to be an aristocrat? Only I don’t give a damn for moth-eaten turrets and tenth-hand unicorns. The coats-of-arms of our day are to be found on billboards and in the ads of popular magazines.”

“What do you mean?” asked Eddie. “Industrial trademarks, Eddie,” he answered. Francisco was fifteen years old that summer.

Rand’s reverence for capitalism is well known, and she could hardly have made it more plain here. Sadly, much of what she expresses is reality today: consciously or unconsciously, much of society behaves exactly this way toward major corporations. Too bad almost no major corporations are headed by individuals who built them from the ground up. A few, here and there. But most of them, especially the publicly-traded ones, are nothing like that at all, even though they dominate every area of our economy in ways that were unthinkable only 200 years ago. Thanks to government policies that made it so.

It occurs to me that if I could get your average person who believes in Rand’s philosophy to recognize this reality about most big modern corporations, we might see eye to eye on more things. But anyway, the passage was too juicy to let pass without mentioning it.

On to chapter 6, whether that’s tomorrow or next week I cannot say (remember, I set myself a minimum of 1 chapter a week).

Previous entries:

Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 1
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 2
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 3
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 4

*Update*: You might also enjoy a somewhat different, more humorous take here.

Blogging Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 4

“Oh God, Dan, I don’t want to be a looter!”

Dagny Taggart, the only really interesting character so far in this epic tale, comes as close has we’ve seen to a stereotypical “feminine breakdown” in this chapter. Fortunately, a friend who’s read this tells me she snaps out of it pretty quickly. Good, or I don’t think I could keep reading.

In Chapter Four (entitled “The Immovable Movers”), we start with Dagny. “Dagny,” by the way, is an Old Norse name meaning “new day.” Anyway, as the chapter opens Dagny has just returned from a trip to see the President of a company called United Locomotive Works, to demand to know when train engines she had long ago ordered would be delivered. As is typical of most Big Business operators in Rand’s universe, he seemed more concerned with appearances than results, and never really answered her. On her way out, she notes decaying equipment in a state of disrepair and has a reaction Rand describes as “in her feeling, a scream of protest against injustice…in response to something much beyond an old piece of machinery.” Rand wants to show us that everything in the world is falling apart, with the subtext being that it’s caused by ineffectual collectivists and people who care about perceptions more than money. As usual with Rand, hardly a word goes by without some subtext pointing to her underlying philosophy.

So anyway, a frustrated and confused Dagny returns to Taggart Transcontinental only to encounter the Taggart family Serf, Eddie Willers, who tells her that the head of a Cleveland contractor who used to supply train rails to them has quit. Dagny is flabbergasted. McNamara, the owner of the railmaking company has shuttered his doors, refusing to say why even though he has many customers and should be turning a huge profit. Although Rand doesn’t tell us this, presumably McNamara the railmaker has joined the mysterious John Galt, probably (I’m guessing) along with composer Richard Halley and engineer Owen Kellogg, both mentioned in Chapter 1.

Feeling defeated, Dagny wanders home through an obviously morally-decaying city, and goes home to listen to Richard Halley’s 4th and supposedly final concerto (even though we suspect he’s secretly written a 5th one, alluded to in Chapter 1). With more turgid prose on how amazing Halley’s music is, we learn that Halley had apparently quit in disgust when his work was at first met with indifference and then, years later, by great accolades. Critics are quoted as having said negative things like “It has a tone of ecstasy. Who cares for ecstasy nowadays?” and positive things such as that Halley “…has had a terrible struggle, but what does that matter? It is proper, it is noble that he should have endured suffering, injustice, abuse at the hands of his brothers–in order to enrich their lives and teach them to appreciate the beauty of great music.”

At this point it might help to understand something about Ayn Rand’s philosophy: one of its key tenets is that self-sacrifice is evil. In Ayn Rand’s view, selfishness is the ultimate virtue, and it’s evil to suggest anyone should sacrifice themselves for others or for the greater good. This bizarre comment only seems to make sense if you know that. A more charitable take would be that this is the sort of thing you hear out of Communist regimes and, having grown up under the brutality of Soviet communism, Rand probably heard stuff like that a lot growing up.

Anyway, while listening to Halley’s music, Dagny picks up the newspaper and notices that mining magnate Francisco d’Anconia is in town. Dagny knows Francisco but has not seen him in years. She sees his smiling face in the paper:

Don’t read it, she thought; don’t look at it. But the face, she thought, had not changed. How could a face remain the same when everything else was gone? She wished they had not caught a picture of him when he smiled. That kind of smile did not belong in the pages of a newspapers. It was the smile of a man who is able to see, to know and to create the glory of existence. It was the mocking, challenging smile of a brilliant intelligence. Don’t read it, she thought; not know, not to that music–oh not to that music!

OK, so she’s got mixed feelings about old Francisco. She reads the newspaper account, which suggests that Francisco is in town despite being caught up in a torrid love affair with some married woman, but while the press ask he refuses to say anything about it. In reading about it, Dagny cringes with emotional angst, although over what exactly is unclear.

We next cut to Dagny’s brother James Taggart’s apartment. James is stumbling out of his bedroom in pajamas and bare feet. He’s with his girlfriend Betty Pope. Knowing Ayn Rand, we can predict that Betty is a villain, or at least worthless, because her last name is Pope (Rand disliked religion) and she’s described as having a body that was “all bones and loose joints” with a “homely face” and a bad complexion. One thing that rarely stops with Rand: an unattractive person with a sinister name is always a bad person.

In any case, this is clearly a loveless relationship between Taggart and his girlfriend. Of their relationship, Rand writes:

There was no passion in it, no desire, no actual pleasure, not even a sense of shame. To them, the act of sex was neither joy nor sin. It meant nothing. They had heard that men and women were supposed to sleep together, so they did.

Here it’s hard not to note one of the creepy things about Ayn Rand’s novels: there are never any children in them. Despite people having regular sexual relations, and Rand writing in an era where reliable birth control was not the norm, no one ever has any children. If anyone is presented as having children, they’re always full grown adult children of others. Rand herself never had children and, while there’s nothing wrong with that–many great men and women of history, as well as ordinary but perfectly decent people, have never had children–it’s striking that in Rand’s fiction there are never any children, even any concern that there might be children, even among people who are sexually active.

In any case, so Betty Pope and James Taggart don’t much like each other; once again, as the ineffectual types they are, in Rand’s universe they take no joy in anything and are only concerned with appearances, so that’s the only reason they have sex together. Oh well let’s go with it: in Rand’s universe, Bad People Don’t Like Sex. Got it.

Anyway, James talks to his girlfriend a little and tells her gloatingly of his plans to embarrass his sister before the Taggart Transcontinental board. As he promised previously, he’s going to give her hell for having taken almost all company resources out of the train line into Mexico against his express wishes. Now he’s going to show her up by God! Unfortunately, before he can even leave to go give Dagny her drubbing before the board, a phone call informs him that the Mexican government has, as Dagny predicted, nationalized Taggart Transcontinental’s assets in Mexico. Whoops. So instead, in the next scene, we comically see James talking to the board, taking credit for Dagny’s wise decision to minimize all resources in Mexico. He claims the whole thing was his idea. The board is sober about this development–the Mexican government has just seized some of their assets–but they seem placated and comforted that James Taggart seems to have prepared wisely. No credit to Dagny is acknowledged by James or anyone else.

After the board meeting, James meets again with Orren Boyle, the ineffectual head of a steel company we’ve met in previous chapters, who’s part of the sinister cabal of business owners we met in Chapter 3. Is it too late to notice that since his name rhymes with “boil” (as in something puss-filled you have to lance) we already know this is a bad guy? Well we knew that from the fact that he’s involved in with those wicked business owners who express public-minded sentiment anyway; it’s just amusing to note how, like clockwork, a sinister name almost always equals a bad person in the Randiverse. Anyway, Boyle is upset by these new events in Mexico. He discusses Francisco d’Anconia some more with Taggart, and says his investigations prove d’Anconia has lost at least 15 million dollars because of this latest Mexican government action; as they’ve lost their trains and other assets, he’s probably lost his mines. But there’s also frustration: neither Boyle nor Taggart can get an appointment to see d’Anconia, even though their business interests are completely tied up in his. d’Anconia simply refuses to see them, he says he finds them “boring.”

We next cut to a new scene: a meeting of something called the National Alliance of Railroads, an organization that represents the interests of the railroad industry. The organization has passed something it calls the “anti-dog-eat-dog rule,” by which members of the rail industry agree to look after each other’s welfare before their own. The board votes that under this rule, an important and profitable railroad running through Colorado will have to go out of business, in the interests of the others. Railroads should run through unprofitable areas in the public interest, and railroads running at a profit may have to be shut down in the interests of the others.

Here we see Rand’s naivete about business and economics again; as we discussed in the commentary on Chapter 3, Taggart Transcontinental railroads appears to be based loosely on the real historic Great Northern railroad in the United States. The comparison is flawed in multiple ways, and one was because the founder of the real Great Northern was a highly admired public-spirited man devoted to politics and the betterment of mankind. And one of the things he did was build his railways through unprofitable areas, and to make them profitable he often brought people in to live and work along his railways so he would have customers for his services. But never mind, in Ayn Rand’s universe there is never any good to be had from a large company doing business in such a way that it helps economic development in an area; the goal is to make profits, period, and if profits aren’t being made you’re always doing wrong. Thank God Ayn Rand never ran any business of her own, because if she’d tried she would have gone broke along with anyone foolish enough to fund a venture she was in charge of.

Anyway, as a result of this new action by the National Alliance of Railroads, everyone knows that one of its members, a Dan Conway, is going to be destroyed. He’s running a highly profitable line through Colorado and he’s going to have to give it up.

In the next scene, a still uncharacteristically-emotional Dagny Taggart is meeting privately with Conway, furious that he’s going to be destroyed by the railroad collective. Yet Conway seems strangely unruffled. They talk for a while about how great it would have been if Conway and Taggart had to compete with each other in Colorado. Dagny brags that she would have driven him into the ground with competition if she could have, and he wryly and admiringly says he’d have loved to see her try, but both of them are pretty sure there would have been enough business to keep them both occupied. But now Taggart Transcontinental is going to have to build a new railways into Colorado while Conway has to just shut his down. Conway is a good guy, but he’s old and it becomes apparent from the conversation that he’s tired and just wants to retire and go fishing anyway. Conway wishes her luck, and predicts her life is going to be rougher than his now.

We next flash to a scene where Dagny is confronted by Ellis Wyatt, an oil tycoon from Colorado. He was mentioned as a key business figure in Chapter 1, and now he’s angrily telling Dagny that he expects decent service from Taggart Transcontinental now that the railroad collective has unjustly run Conway out of business. Ellis seems rather impressed when Dagny, rather than making excuses, says she will be sure he gets the very best service. We can see from the conversation that, like Dagny, Ellis Wyatt is a competent businessman frustrated by a world of incompetent collectivists around him, so he likes Dagny even though their conversation is short.

We next flash to a longish scene where Dagny meets with Hank Rearden, the creator and owner of the fabulous Rearden Metal. She needs a rush job of new rails put together with the fabulous Rearden Metal, and since right now she can’t get rails from anybody else, Rearden tells her with relish that he’s going to charge her an extra high rate to meet her new demands. She admires him for unflinchingly asking for more money even though he knows she’s in economic trouble. He admires her for not whining about it and says he’s sure she’ll make enough money to pay for him regardless of how tough he is on her. Both of them talk at length, the gist of the conversation being that both are proud of making money and squeezing profits out of others, regardless of the feelings or needs of others. In this mutual shared contempt for anything other than naked profiteering, Dagny starts to feel better, beginning to get over the emotional angst she’s been experiencing the rest of the chapter.

He made a step back and said in a strange tone, “We’re a couple of blackguards, aren’t we?… we haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities. All we’re after is material things. That’s all we care for.”

Dagny is uncomprehending at first, but then her feelings of apprehension vanish. Yes, the two of them have agreed that materialism is the ultimate good, and they are completely unashamed. The world is going to be a better place because of it.

“Dagny,” he said, “whatever we are, it’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through.”

Freedom from guilt, remorse, shame, or any non-monetary sense of obligation to other people–in other words, embracing sociopathy–will make Dagny and Rearden and others free.

As twisted as this philosophical outlook is, as my friend Chris recently pointed out to me, it’s probably important to be charitable to Ayn Rand. After all, she grew up seeing the horrors of Soviet Communism, and writing in the mid-1950s she probably, like a lot of people, feared Communism would engulf the United States. It’s here that we can see the way almost all of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is a sort of funhouse mirror, distorted-opposite of Marxism: if collectivism is bad, individualism must be good. And therefore all collectivism is bad and all individualism is good. Also, since Marxism says making profits is bad, making profits must always be the ultimate good. If being overconcerned about others is bad, then the ultimate good must lie in never being concerned about others. That’s the running theme of most of Rand’s work, and it suffuses practically every sentence of Chapter 4.

One thing that’s a relief: at least by the end of the chapter Dagny has ceased to look like she’s about to turn into a blob of quivering Jell-O. As I think I mentioned, as the only character in this book I find much to like about at all, I couldn’t take it if she turned into a crying sissy.

Anyway, Chapter 5 awaits.

Previous entries:

Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 1
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 2
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 3.

Blogging Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 3

Ayn Rand’s naive ignorance of history, and of how a real business functions–it’s painfully obvious she never ran one–was already subtly visible in the first two chapters. But nowhere have I found it better illustrated than here in Chapter 3 of Atlas Shrugged. We’ll get to that later.

We can see by the opening of Chapter 3 why, in the 1930s and 1940s, Ayn Rand looked attractive as a potential screenwriter. Rand’s time in Hollywood is documented in multiple places, but in short: it didn’t work out because the studio people found her difficult and she didn’t like them much either. Nevertheless, while her descriptions of people and things are often overwrought and wordy, you can sense that technical people in Hollywood would find her alluring: she likes to set up scenes that practically beg for a camera, and for costumers and set designers to start scribbling notes. As with the first two chapters, in Chapter 3 (entitled “The Top and the Bottom”) Rand starts us out not with the people so much as their setting, with a vivid description that evokes the mood that she intends to convey:

The ceiling was that of a cellar, so heavy and low that people stooped when crossing the room, as if the weight of the vaulting rested on their shoulders. The circular booths of dark red leather were built into walls of stone that looked eaten by age and dampness. There were no windows, only patches of blue light shooting from dents in the masonry, the dead blue light proper for use in blackouts. The place was entered by way of narrow steps that led down, as if descending deep under the ground. This was the most expensive barroom in New York and was built on the roof of a skyscraper.

Four men sat at a table. Raised sixty floors above the city, they did not speak loudly as one speaks from a height in the freedom of air and space; they kept their voices low, as befitted a cellar.

I can almost imagine a young Orson Welles wanting to make an Atlas Shrugged picture from that passage alone.

Although her prose often lacks elegance, Rand is clearly trying to convey something with every word here–which is true of practically everything in her fiction. Good writers often strive to do this and fail; to give credit where due, Rand doesn’t fail. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would build a skyscraper with a ritzy rooftop bar that you nevertheless have to walk down stairs to get to, and that is so dank and cloistered, but the impression is what’s important: like rats in a cellar, these people at the top of a crumbling and decaying world are meeting to collude in sinister business. Why it’s sinister is not clearly spelled out: we are meant to gather from the conversation alone that these people are philosophically evil.

The four men in question are: James Taggart, the President of Taggart Transcontinental we met in Chapter 1; Orren Boyle, VIP of a railroad track firm that has been chronically slow in delivering badly needed rail lines that Dagny Taggart had complained about in Chapter 1; Wesley Mouch, whom we can probably assume is a bad guy since his name sounds like “Mooch” and he is a Washington Man (boo hiss); and Philip Larkin, Hank Rearden’s sycophantic hanger-on that we met in Chapter 2.

As usual with Rand, expressing the philosophy takes precedent over the story. Thus the sinister nature of the meeting can only be understood if you understand why what these men is doing is evil: three corporate bigwigs are meeting with a Washington Man (by which Rand almost certainly means a lobbyist–boo hiss!), all busily explaining to each other why the multiple ongoing failures in the rail and mining industries are not their fault, how people must unite for the common good and put the interests of their fellow man above themselves, and how those who threaten the order (like Hank Rearden) should be viewed as dangerous. They also obsess over Mexico, where Taggart Transcontinental is currently running a dysfunctional and highly unprofitable train schedule for the purposes of helping the Mexican people develop their economy. They also discuss the doings of a mining kingpin we have yet to meet, one Francisco D’Anconia, who is supposed to be building a very big copper mine down there in Mexico which in theory will require a lot of train service to deliver the ore northwards, although no such copper is currently being shipped. But they are all mutually assuring of each other that they’re doing the right thing, trying to create progress in Mexico in the name of the common good. Rumors that the Mexican government will nationalize the industry are airily dismissed, and everyone is assured that D’Anconia is surely busy down there producing ore because people down there sure look busy and D’Anconia is a great guy. The common good must unite these businessmen, anyway, so why fuss over details? Especially when we’ve got troublesome, arrogant people like Hank Rearden to deal with. Only dilettante Philip Larkin has any reservations at all, and only hesitantly.

“Social reforms are slow,” Taggart says in sinister fashion. They’re probably going to do something to try to mess up hated Hank Rearden, but it isn’t clear what yet. But the symbolism is clear as Rand describes their exit from the bar into the streets below, telling us that the building they emerge from is “sharp and straight like a raised sword.” Pointed at Rearden and all those who threaten the collective order, one presumes.

We next cut to Taggart’s sister Dagny, whom we have already been told is the only person who really makes things work at Taggart Transcontinental. The next few pages are mostly biographical, telling us more about Dagny. One can see from Rand’s description why the character of Dagny Taggart is both liked and despised by people who call themselves feminists (a totally nebulous term anyway). While Dagny works feverishly to find ways to keep the otherwise incompetently-managed Taggart Transcontinental afloat, and thinks of how Hank Rearden’s company may help save hers, she muses on her life up to this point. Since she was a girl she had a strong interest in math and engineering and changing the world by bending it to her will. She had decided since she was a very young girl that she would eventually run Taggart Transcontinental, and it did not even occur to her until she was older that women don’t so such things–and then she promptly disregarded the notion and did it anyway. Caring nothing about titles or what anyone thought of her, as a Taggart she simply started taking over company operations wherever she saw something needed doing, contemptuously dismissing and treading over incompetence all around her as she made things work better. Although there had been some rumblings that they would never make her a corporate officer, when she threatened to quit because she couldn’t stand the incompetence anymore they made her Vice President.

She also muses a bit on her brother. He was made President of the railroad because of the tradition of handing the office of President to the oldest son in the Taggart clan, but also apparently for his public relations skills. Dagny views public relations as unpleasant stuff akin to working in a sewer and not something she’d ever imagine wanting to do anyway. In sitting in corporate board meetings, she always found them mostly incomprehensible since the people at those meetings almost always talked about things that didn’t matter, people and social responsibilities rather than the business of making the trains run on time and at a profit.

James Taggart comes into Dagny’s office to argue with her: he demands to know why the important train line into Mexico is using old, obsolete trains and on a very limited schedule. Dagny matter-of-factly says that she’s explained all this already to him in memos that he never reads: there is nowhere near enough passenger or freight volume to make running that line affordable, and even running a short schedule on cheap equipment is still causing the company to lose money. As in chapter 1, James becomes angry when he’s told things he doesn’t want to hear, and rants some more about how people are more important than profits and tries to deny that anyone can be blamed for anything theoretically going wrong with the organization. James talks about how Francisco D’Anconia’s mines will soon be shipping enough copper to make the Mexican line profitable, but Dagny asserts that Francisco long ago became a worthless bum; James is angered by this and darkly alludes to some sort of sexual past between Dagny and D’Anconia, to suggest that she’s jealous. Dagny just ignores the allusion. She doesn’t believe any copper will be coming from Francisco’s mines, and she also believes that the Mexican government will soon nationalize and seize their train line anyway; this possibility has been discussed a few times in previous chapters, always vociferously denied by James Taggart and others. From this we can conclude that the Mexican government–which is described in this chapter as a Communist-type state–will indeed probably be seizing Taggart Transcontinental holdings in Mexico any minute now.

James angrily demands that she find a way to get the Mexican train lines running at higher volume and with better equipment, but Dagny coolly refuses, saying this is impossible. The company is nearly bankrupt and can’t afford it, and she won’t do it. He angrily threatens to make her answer to the Board for her refusal, and, unruffled, she calmly says she’ll answer to the board. She then goes back to her work and proceeds to ignore James. He leaves, then eventually leaves herself. On her way out, she muses at the structures of the corporate headquarters, especially on the statue of her great ancestor who founded the company, Nathaniel Taggart. Contemplating Taggart is the closest thing Dagny has ever come to prayer, not because he is her ancestor but because of who he was as a man.

And here we read the biggest thing, so far, to betray Ayn Rand’s near-complete ignorance of history and how big corporate capitalism has always worked in America:

Nathaniel Taggart had been a penniless adventurer who had come from somewhere in New England and built a railroad across a continent, in the days of the first steel rails….He never sought any loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favors from the government. He obtained money from the men who owned it, going door to door–from the mahogany doors of bankers to the clapboard doors of lonely farmhouses. He never talked about the public good. He merely told people they would make big profits on his railroad, he told them why he expected the profits and he gave them his reasons…Through all the generations that followed, Taggart Transcontinental was one of the few railroads that never went bankrupt and the only one whose controlling stock remained in the hands of the founder’s descendants….In his lifetime, the name “Nat Taggart” was not famous, but notorious: it was repeated, not in homage, but in resentful curiosity; and if anyone admired him, it was as one admires a successful bandit. Yet no penny of his wealth had been obtained by force and fraud; he was guilty of nothing, except that he earned his own fortune and never forgot that it was his.

And there it is again: people hate the rich, and they hate them because they’re successful and people envy success. Whatever element of truth there is to this view (some but not much, in my experience), Rand drives it home over and over again with the sledghammer subtlety of an Oliver Stone movie.

But hey, you know that you’re going to get that with Rand going in: of course rich people are automatically hated because they’re successful. No one ever hated a rich guy for any reason but that. Fine. Roll with it, that’s how Rand and her acolytes see the world. As dips#!+ dumb as that is, you know you’re going to get that going in with Ayn Rand.

No, what’s really annoying is the ludicrous notion that anyone anywhere ever built a transcontinental railroad without substantial government assistance. Which is akin to saying Nathaniel Taggart worked like John Henry with nothing but his hammer in his hand, rails on his back and pitons on his belt, laying all the rails with his own hands every day late into the night to cross North America. Sure it took him a few years but by gum he had a strong back and strong hands, you should have seen the way he laid 5,000 miles of rail with nothing but a toolbelt and gumption. That’s a real man I tell ya!

Yes, it really is just that dumb. You have to be thunderingly ignorant of history to believe it’s not dumb. Any study of the railroad industry as it developed in the US makes it very clear that you needed more than rails and ties and hammers and Chinese laborers: you need this teensy, tiny, inconvenient little thing called RIGHT OF WAY, my dear Randites. You have to put those rail lines through land that has people living on it. Or farming it. Or raising cattle on it. And over or through rivers other people are using. Or who otherwise find your trains a nuisance. Which means you’ve got to purchase that land, either by buying it from people willing to sell it to you, or by going to big, bad, evil government to get a deed that says “No one currently owns that land so I can have it now.”

And what actually happened, dear Objectivists, is that all the great railroad barons (yes, all of them) did was go to Governors, Presidents, Legislators, Judges, and Indian Tribal leaders to get right of way for their rails. And when various people objected and said “no, we won’t sell at any price,” if a workable route around was not practical (and it frequently wasn’t) or was just too expensive (which it frequently was), they made extensive use of something called Eminent Domain to trample over cattlemen, farmers, homeowners, Indian tribes, and so on to get their rails run whether the people in the way liked it or not. In fact, this is one of the many reasons why the railroad “robber barons” were often hated: not because people were like jealous schoolgirls who can’t stand the prettier girl with the fancier dresses. It’s because the railroad barons forced them to allow train rails to be run where some people didn’t want them. They took that property, often by force, with government assistance every step of the way.

What justification did all those railroad builders use to force their rails through whether the people using that land wanted them to or not? Yes, that’s right: the sinister, evil thing that the dastardly businessmen out to destroy Hank Rearden at the beginning of this chapter are talking about: the public good, progress, economic development for all. Most people agreed that this was a good idea, and most government officials agreed, so using Eminent Domain laws and other various court and legislative action, the railroad barons (like the fictional Nathaniel Taggart) got their way over the objections of the minority who didn’t want their land torn up to run rails through, nor their peaceful quiet and clean air mucked up with screeching whistles and clouds of steam and choking smoke dirtying the air and spooking their animals.

In reality (as opposed to Randian fantasy) the railroad barons were both hated and loved, admired and criticized, for a lot of reasons. But if you aren’t even going to bother learning about the history of Eminent Domain use by the railroads, why would you bother learning about any of those other things either? Why look at the use of the U.S. Cavalry in forcing the issue and protecting the rails, railroad workers, and trains? Why look at how it took government to create the very concept of the publicly traded corporation that Nathaniel Taggart had to use, for that matter? Or how the banks he got loans from were a government-regulated industry from the beginning of this country? No, no, it’s all about envy and jealousy of the collective against the individual–you can stop thinking right there. This is Rand’s universe, and no one ever hated a rich guy for any reason other than envy.

Hey, this is fiction anyway, right? Maybe in the Randian universe, he could have just bartered gold with local farmers to get it done and run it without benefit of incorporation or banks or lawyers or lobbyists or any of that. I guess we’ll let all that slide. In this fantasy universe, men can build railroads without government assistance. It’s just fantasy right?

Yeah, OK, it’s just fantasy. Just as long as we acknowledge that it’s a fantasy no more realistic than Jedi Knight hereos fighting Dalek villains, I can roll with it. Just don’t make me pretend it’s anywhere near as much fun as Daleks fighting Jedi Knights (and by the way, wouldn’t that be sweet?!?). And just so long as we recognize that any philosophical lessons we are to learn from this are no deeper than the philosophical ramblings of Doctor Who or George Lucas.

For all the silly shallow fantasy nature of this chapter, though, the character of Dagny Taggart sticks out: it’s hard not to like her. It’s appealing to see a female character, especially in fiction from this era, who is neither a mewling sycophant, nor a sex goddess, nor a sex kitten, nor a victim, but merely self-possessed and competent. Contrary to what you might believe, women like her have always existed, all throughout history—just not often enough in fiction, especially during Ayn Rand’s era.

Anyway, the chapter closes with Eddie Willers, the self-described serf to the Taggart clan that we met in the opening pages of Chapter 1. He’s a bit despondent about the decaying state of the company, and wanders into the underground cafeteria of Taggart Transcontinental. He meets an unnamed grease-stained worker, but rather than getting the fellow’s name he just treats him like a fellow employee, rambling about how lousy things are getting, what the company’s upcoming plans are, how Dagny’s fighting the good fight but things don’t look so great, and other grousing. We never find out who the unnamed worker that he’s spilling all this insider information to is, but it’s hard not to suspect we’ll be seeing this faceless worker again in the coming chapters.

Chapter 4 awaits…

Previous entries:

Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 1
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 2