Atlas Shrugged Update...

24 Nov 2007

I felt a little stream-of-consciousness writing was in order, as I've reached John Galt's speech, 1000+ pages into this work. I didn't know there was a speech coming, actually, but now that I'm there, it's clearly what we've been building up to the whole time. The man who stopped the motor of the world takes over the airwaves and addresses the nation. No... "addresses" is the wrong word. He really lays it on them -- a detailed comprehensive philosophical castigation that the society of this novel has had coming for a long while. It's a difficult, hard-core speech; I already feel like re-reading it, just to enhance my comprehension. (I understand the basics, of course. But from time to time there are some exceedingly complex arguments.)

This book is a tough read. While I understand this was, and continues to be, a "bestseller," I find that fact tough to believe -- tough to believe that the "average person" (many of whom would have had to have purchased this book in order to have made it a bestseller at all) would actually read a whole text this deeply philosophical and also be open-minded enough to assimilate and consider the information within, especially since many of the ideas are so contrary to the norm in this country (to the point of certainly seeming blasphemous to many).

Maybe I've said this before, but I stumbled upon Rand rather independently. No one approached me and said, "Hey, you should read Ayn Rand." Instead, I formed my own ideas about how society "should" be; I've long held what I believe are exceedingly uncommon political beliefs akin, as far as I could ever tell, to the so-called "libertarian" ideal; and I've struggled to articulate certain beliefs I've held about the importance of individualism. One could almost say I "gravitated" toward Rand. But, of course, as any Objectivist worth his or her salt (or, in this case Galt) would say, that's a load of bunk ( i.e., there's nothing mystical about it). It's simply that, in exploring these beliefs, her name came up from time to time indicating that maybe her belief system was sympatico with my own, and finally it simply made sense for me to read some of her writing.

Frankly, I love the ideas in this book. And, I'm a lot like Rand in my insistence upon rationality. But, I'm still unclear about certain aspects of her belief. This free will vs. determinism seems vitally important and relevant. Galt says that we always have a choice about whether or not we're going to think at any given moment. Now, I like that notion a great deal, but have to ask whether it's entirely rational. What if it's not actually free will? I could easily imagine a scenario under which this "choice" is a result of causality.

Also, I'm occasionally running into essays by Rand scholars that don't always seem entirely rational to me. Many of them seem a little extremist in nature. You know, similar to the so-called "good Islam" versus the brand that flies planes into skyscrapers (which, for any other Rand fans out there, you may recognize as a particularly harsh comparison -- the skyscraper being a recurring symbol for Rand of the kind of achievement possible by rational beings of purpose).

The phrase "eco-terrorist" comes to mind here. I stumbled across one essay comparing the environmental movement with terrorists. Now, I realize that Rand's philosophy comes across as relatively black and white (meaning, it perhaps lends itself to rather extreme rhetoric without much room for compromise), but comparing environmentalists with terrorists seems out of line with Rand's message to me. After all, many environmentalists are pretty hard-core scientists themselves.

There are many, many hot environmental issues in the world, and I'm sure there are pro- and contra- views on each of them. And, I'm similarly sure that some of the "pro" people are correct in their judgment, and some of the "con" people are correct in theirs.

Global warming is a pretty good example of this... Al Gore and his camp say human-produced carbon is causing a heightened greenhouse effect. He's got MIT scientists, photos, charts, graphs, etc. And, hell, it all sounds a little scary. But, then take a look at the rebuttal. The other side says, "Hey, wait a minute. We'll concede that there may be a correlation between carbon and temperature, but maybe Gore's camp has it all backward." And then of course, they whip out their MIT scientists who say that, hey, it's not rising carbon that brings about higher temperatures; it's higher temperatures that bring about higher levels of carbon. Source of the higher temperatures? The sun, of course! They add, intriguingly, that this whole issue is not about the weather or the environment at all; it's really about keeping the undeveloped continents undeveloped.

Well, hell, when you're only goal is to be true to the objective truth, what in the hell are you supposed to think? Both sides have experts vastly more knowledgeable than yourself. Both sides put forth convincing cases. It's tough to apply Occam's Razor when there is no easier explanation.

I don't believe the environmentalists desire to return mankind to the wilderness; I don't see them as anti-development. But, I do see them as proponents of responsible development. While they concede that one group has the right to build factories and produce goods, they believe that others have the similar right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, etc. I don't see the irrationality of their worldview.

And I can't imagine Ayn Rand would, either. (Not all of it, anyway.) For, with new technology comes new insights. And followers of Objectivism, by definition, need to be open-minded enough to conform their thinking to new data. Here's a perfecto example: Smoking.

Most of the characters in Atlas Shrugged smoke. Rand even includes a few passages in which the burning coal of a cigarette is presented as a metaphor -- reminding one character of man's control of nature or something (hey, it's been 1,000 pages; I can't remember the quote from memory). I simply cannot imagine that, if Ayn Rand were alive today, she would have her characters smoke. It's simply proven beyond any reasonable doubt whatsoever that to smoke is a death wish. In short, it's irrational, which is as strong of a Randian criticism as I can think of. (My blog is open to comments from anyone and, whatever else I've gotten wrong about Rand above or below, I defy some Rand expert to explain to me how smoking is rational. There... I've laid out a challenge for the world's thinkers.)

(By the way: Would she advocate outlawing smoking? I seriously doubt it. If you have a death wish, no man should be allowed to stand in your way. By all means, smoke 'em if you've got 'em. But, uh, don't bitch when your health insurance premiums reflect the risk you're putting yourself under. I, for one, couldn't give a fuck if you smoke two packs of unfiltered Camels a day. I just don't like carrying your sick ass to the hospital -- figuratively speaking, based on my ungodly high premiums.)

But, as I said, new data comes in and we have to be able to take that in and act upon it. Back in the days of Atlas Shrugged, industrialists manufactured asbestos and put it inside cigarettes! (True: I've read the litigation.) Thousands died many years later of excruciating cancers. So, again, not ALL industry is good. They didn't know it was killing people at the time. But now we do, so we've stopped putting asbestos in many products. Same for lead, mercury, etc.

Of course, we still need lead, mercury, and asbestos for things. No one wants to ban these things. After all, lead and mercury are naturally occurring elements! But, we also now have technology that tells us what kinds of things make us sick, which puts the responsibility on industry to ensure that they do not sicken the populace. (After all, a fundamental Randian message is man's right to live free -- not to mention the importance of individual human life over all else.) So, by all means, burn all the coal in the world; it's a great, abundant source of energy. But, let's also figure out how to better filter the stack emissions so that those downwind don't develop cancer. Ever seen one of those health studies that shows correlations between, for example, incinerator stacks and cancer rates? It's undeniable.

So there are a few criticisms, I suppose. They diminish neither my view of Rand's genius nor my present fascination with her. If anything, I hope to understand her even more as I finish up Atlas Shrugged and start in on The Fountainhead.

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