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

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. 

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Atlas Shrugged Book Club

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

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