Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 4: How Their World Is Like Ours

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After the financial crisis, many people perceived likenesses between the novel and current events. They weren't wrong. Conor Friedersdorf
To: Michael Brendan Dougherty, Garance Franke-Ruta
, Jerome Copulsky
Subject: Part I, Chapters 6 through 10

My Fellow Shruggers,

What I wouldn't give to tag along with Francisco d'Anconia to a Washington, D.C., cocktail party. Too often, Ayn Rand characters make their points with lengthy, repetitive speeches that unfold over many paragraphs and give the reader too little credit. But d'Anconia has a wonderful talent for pithy one liners that knock interlocutors off guard even as they provoke thought. "We need a national subsidy for literature," Balph Eubank says. "It is disgraceful that artists are treated like peddlers and that art works have to be sold like soap." To which d'Anconia retorts, "You mean, your complaint is that they don't sell like soap?" With his zings aplenty, produced as if on command, he best embodies an irrepressible mischievousness that many of Rand's heroes possess and exhibit in smaller quantities. Sometimes I think that quality is their most human and likable.


Why a Washington, D.C., cocktail party? As I reread this section, I couldn't help but agree with the masses who snapped up copies of the book as the economy crashed: It isn't as if the plot directly parallels real-world events, of course, nor do I see flashes of the heroes in any contemporary figures, but many of the pathologies on display are plagues in our time. Crony capitalism is the most obvious example. It isn't hard to imagine a Randian villain who ran a Wall Street firm that was bailed out in accordance with how much value it destroyed rather than how much it created, nor is it hard to imagine a Jim Taggart or Orren Boyle type putting together the Abacus deal.

If only the Tea Party had mimicked Rand's example and held rent-seeking CEOs up to as much scorn and moral outrage as their enabling pols and bureaucrats. (This is a good time to note my previous posts on how Paul Ryan, who's been called a Randian, more closely resembles an Atlas Shrugged villain than a hero.) And then there's Dr. Robert Stadler. As he permitted the use of his name for a statement the truth of which he did not know and had good reason to doubt, to Dagny's consternation, did anyone else think of Colin Powell and his U.N. speech?

Here's Stadler channeling Dick Cheney or Michael Bloomberg -- take your pick:

Men are not open to truth or reason. They cannot be reached by rational argument. The mind is powerless against them. Yet we have to deal with them. If we want to accomplish anything, we have to deceive them into letting us accomplish it. Or force them. They understand nothing else.

If I could purge one unspoken attitude from the minds of politicians and pundits, that might be the one I'd choose. I suppose some readers believe that attitude to be far less pervasive than I think it is, and are therefore less convinced than me that Rand has captured something true in that passage. She so often articulates what she takes to be implicit in actions or arguments, which can come off as either penetrating or idiotic straw-manning, depending on whether you think she's right. 

Naturally, I am enamored of Dagny's insistence that Stadler is obligated to speak up with the truth merely because it is true, though I don't know of anyone in government who behaves that way. 

There is, finally, the Washington man: "Rearden wondered, for awhile, why he heard no word from Wesley Mouch. His calls to Washington remained unanswered. Then he received a letter consisting of a single sentence which informed him that Mr. Mouch was resigning from his employ. Two weeks later, he read in the newspapers that Wesley Mouch had been appointed Assistant Coordinator of the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources." In a novel of exaggerated, unambiguously immoral villains, the portrayal of the Washington insider is spot on.

A few stray observations:

  • I question Rand's decision to juxtapose Hank and Dagny's tryst with Jim's impromptu date. "The hint of desire that he felt was no more than a sense of physical discomfort," she writes of Jim. "He admitted to himself that she was a much better person than Betty Pope, perhaps the best person ever offered to him. The admission left him indifferent. He felt no more than he had felt for Betty Pope. He felt nothing. The prospect of experiencing pleasure was not worth the effort; he had no desire to experience pleasure." Are we to take from this that Hank would've been an inferior person if he hadn't have wanted to sleep with Dagny?  
  • I liked Hank's confusion at why the Metal board honored him, having covered my share of awards banquets held for reasons I could never quite discern for people who didn't enjoy them.
  • "A brood of ragged children had gathered at the door behind the woman ... they stared at the car, not with the bright curiosity of children, but with the tension of savages ready to vanish at the first sign of danger." Noted because it's the first time I can recall children appearing in this book. 
  • I much prefer Wyatt torching his property to d'Anconia's treacherous San Sebastian mine project, given that the latter involved misleading a lot of innocent third parties -- workers who relocated there, for example.
  • True or false: "The same kind of brain can't do both. Either you're good at running the Mills or you're good at running to Washington." 

Stay tuned for a discussion of Part II of the novel next week, when Garance Franke-Ruta's commentary will return. Email on those chapters should be sent to conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com

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Atlas Shrugged Book Club

Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Jerome Copulsky

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