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[techbooks] REVIEW: "Atlas Shrugged", Ayn Rand

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    BKATSHRG.RVW 981003 Atlas Shrugged , Ayn Rand, 1957, 0-451-19114-5, U$7.99/C$9.99/UK#6.99 %A Ayn Rand %C 10 Alcorn Ave, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario, M4V
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 16, 1998
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      BKATSHRG.RVW 981003

      "Atlas Shrugged", Ayn Rand, 1957, 0-451-19114-5, U$7.99/C$9.99/UK#6.99
      %A Ayn Rand
      %C 10 Alcorn Ave, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario, M4V 3B2
      %D 1957
      %G 0-451-19114-5
      %I Penguin/Signet/Roc
      %O U$7.99/C$9.99/UK#6.99 416-925-2249 service@...
      %P 1074 p.
      %T "Atlas Shrugged"

      Ayn Rand is known as the darling of the right-wing crowd, as evidenced
      by numerous jokes about the Monstrous Monolithic Multinational
      MegaCorporation (and the drafting committee for the Multilateral
      Agreement on Investment) with its daily readings from the works of Ayn
      Rand. I was somewhat surprised to note the adulation for Miss Rand
      that appears on the net, given that most companies see the Internet as
      a haven of wild-eyed lefties. Initially I attributed this fan club to
      the recent surveys indicating that netizens are a fairly fascist crowd
      after all, but having been prompted to actually read some of this
      stuff I understand the attraction. Rand's work, in similar manner to
      "Terminal Compromise," is geek wish fulfillment writ large. (In the
      case of "Atlas Shrugged," very large indeed.) The book not only
      preaches that creating new things is an automatic path to riches, but
      that *all* other human activities are inessential. This relegates to
      trivia such considerations as social skills, etiquette, other people's
      feelings, any exertion outside of your own narrow focus, and possibly
      even personal hygiene. Sounds geek to me!

      Rand's fictional works are formed (one hesitates to say "informed") by
      her philosophy of objectivism. The tenets of this dogma are a
      determination on "objective reality" (seeing things as they are),
      logic, and an almost fanatical devotion to capitalism. Somehow, out
      of this mix, she determines that selfishness is a moral imperative.
      Objectivism seems to be a rather desperate attempt to justify an
      ingrained fear of communism. Only one of the ironies of Rand's work,
      life, and philosophy is the rigid insistence that any thought should
      conform to objective reality coming from a woman who only ever wanted
      to write fiction for a living and married an actor. The world of John
      Galt does not conform to any kind of reality: scientific, social,
      fiduciary, or managerial. (Heck, I've even worked on a railroad and
      that is *no* way to run one. Early in the story a P takes personal
      responsibility to order a train onto the main line against a red
      light, thus ensuring that the Comet continues its unbroken on-time
      record. As any reader of the RISKS-FORUM Digest could tell you, in
      real life the instant the passenger train hit the main track it would
      collide with an eighty mile per hour extra carrying the only available
      shipment of antitoxin for an epidemic in Chicago.)

      (In regard to objective reality, I find an irresistible urge to
      digress into Rand's view of nature. She hates it. Nature's only
      purpose is to provide raw material for factories. A beautiful park is
      only as good as the crops you could grow on it once the trees were cut
      down. Here in BC we once had a politician refer to the cloying and
      unhealthy stench of pulp mills as "the smell of prosperity," and Rand,
      with her endless belching smokestacks, would be in full agreement with
      that position. That contempt has to flow from ignorance: on a night
      only twenty four hours after a full moon the moonlight will easily be
      bright enough to walk down a railroad track. If I may be permitted a
      little armchair psychology, could it be that the fact that any blade
      of grass has more fine detail than the most skilled jeweller on earth
      could match is just too much competition?)

      (This despite for nature extends to the human body. These people live
      on caffeine, nicotine, and fried cholesterol. None seem to get more
      than a few hours sleep per month [unlike the models of Ford, Edison,
      and Churchill they don't make it up in naps] and there isn't even a
      pretence of exercise. There would be no need for them to "disappear:"
      in the real world they would be dying off at an extraordinary rate.
      If cancer didn't get them, they would all, Type As that they are, be
      having coronaries left, right, and sideways.)

      A central and vital element in Rand's philosophy is logic. To a geek,
      that sounds quite reasonable. Logic is a fine tool. To a
      philosopher, it sounds a bit bizarre. Logic is one of the four
      classical elements *of* philosophy, so how do you found a new system
      of philosophy on it? Indeed, as Godel and his buddies found, there is
      an inherent contradiction in attempting to create a system of logic
      that internally proves itself. (This came as a bit of a shocker to
      the mathematical world, and it put paid to all those sci-fi stories
      where you give a supercomputer "1+1=2" and it deduces the universe.)
      However, while Rand does try to have the book exhaustively "prove" her
      philosophy (while I haven't timed it, I can well believe that Galt's
      sixty page speech goes on for three hours), the more obvious problem
      is the simple internal inconsistency of it, as amply demonstrated in
      the book. Go ahead. Try to reproduce Galt's speech in symbolic
      logic. Logic? Mr. Spock would have cat fits. (Well, no. Of course
      Spock wouldn't have cat fits. Spock would raise one eyebrow and
      murmur "Fascinating." Which, in view of some of the passages of the
      book, is fascinating.)

      The book has some beautiful and very moving tributes to persistence,
      hard work, the fruits of the human mind, accomplishment against great
      odds, and the joy of a job done superlatively rather than merely well.
      The very phrasing of the exchange of one's best efforts for the best
      efforts of others has a poetry almost unheard of when speaking of
      commerce. Unfortunately, it also has a great many very long passages
      of antagonistic characters spouting pathetic garbage so that it can be
      knocked down by Rand's heroes. These protagonists (which for the
      purposes of this paper, we will refer to as P) are capable, confident,
      productive, athletic, ruggedly good looking (oh, sorry, Dagny), and
      pretty much universally rich. They are task-oriented and aggressive.
      They are the "drivers" in many versions of that particular personality
      grid, and they are at the outermost tip of the quadrangle. Rand's
      books are built on the conflict between the Ps and the antagonists
      (which, because ASCII can't do the little bar over the letter
      designating "NOT," we will call P'). P' characters are unproductive,
      lazy, illogical, whining, hypocritical toadies who are generally also
      physically loathsome. The speech of a P' may reflect a kind of low
      cunning, but generally they are incapable of forming complete and
      grammatical sentences, and one suspects that they should not be let
      out on the streets on their own lest they fall into the traffic. It
      is these straw men who turgidly attempt to express (or caricature)
      ideas that Rand disagrees with, so that the Ps may wittily demolish

      Now, Ps are not geeks, or, rather, most geeks are not Ps. While task
      oriented, geeks tend to the passive side of the scale. However, this
      is where geek wish fulfillment comes into play again. Most geeks
      *wish* that they were more aggressive, that they were the movers and
      the shakers. And geeks would love to have the impossible happen as it
      does in the book. We have the girl who, single-mindedly dedicating
      her life to running a railroad, when she *does* go to the ball is not
      only the most naturally beautiful woman there, but, not having studied
      any of those things is an expert on cosmetics, conversation, dancing,
      fashion, and everything else that goes into being the toast of the
      town. When they all get to the P Shangri-La to live happily ever
      after, everyone willingly turns their hands to all kinds of mundane
      jobs, and they are all perfectly expert at them. In the real world,
      of course, geeks would be too single-focussed to have learned anything
      about farming, sweeping, or plumbing, and Ps, of course, would never
      have sat still long enough to learn any of it.

      The character of the P is arbitrary and, despite the extreme
      insistence on reason in all things, unreasoning. One P character
      takes an understandable dislike to a P', but out of all proportion to
      the offense, and acts upon it in an indirect, useless, and unfair
      manner. This action, of course, is merely human, but it flies in the
      face of Rand's (emotional) insistence on reason and logic in all
      things. The insistence itself is unreasonable, since any strong human
      drive, be it the will to create or the love for a good woman, is
      emotional. Logic does inform, but it doesn't impel.

      Rand also assumes that, since she can internally prove the validity of
      her philosophy (mistake number one), all reasonable (qv logical) men
      (qv Ps) will agree. On pretty much anything. (BIG mistake.)
      Therefore, life among the Ps is amicable and friendly, even among
      rivals for the same woman. The importance and primacy of self-
      interest? The book is positively Buddhist in its abnegation of

      The concept of trust is handled very oddly. One P character is asked
      to trust another on the basis of no evidence at all, while a few pages
      later yet another insists that he will not demand that the second take
      him "on faith" (despite a significant history of consistent
      behaviour). Yet much of the business of Ps seems to be conducted on a
      "handshake" basis. On a fourth hand, a P who prides himself on never
      breaking a promise has no interest in keeping his vows to his wife,
      and seems to absolved from those vows since his wife isn't, after all,
      a P.

      Money, according to the P creed, is based on honour. Ps would be much
      happier with a gold standard, since gold has intrinsic value. (Since
      gold's interesting electrical and corrosion resisting properties would
      not seem to justify the value of the gold standard, particularly to a
      copper refiner, I am at a loss to explain the logic underlying this

      Business operations are subject to rather incredible contradictions.
      Inflating prices because you know your customer to be in need is
      acceptable P behaviour. Trading in information is not. Making a
      profit on someone else's lack of information is quite OK: a number of
      sharp deals are cut where it is said that the buyers did not know what
      they had. Putting pressure on someone is OK, but using political
      pressure is justification for murder. Nobody should use force against
      anyone else, except one P does, but that is OK because his victims are
      of the P' persuasion. The question of fraud simply never arises.
      (Unless you think that fraud is just a special case of ignorance on
      the part of the buyer, which would make fraud quite OK.)

      Management is a bit of a problem. It appears to be limited to barking
      orders. There are never any personnel difficulties, aside from a bit
      of a labour shortage. There is never any training. In fact, the one
      person in the entire book who tries to improve her situation commits
      suicide in the end. The pension plan isn't much better: the perfect,
      loyal, lifelong employee is abandoned in the middle of nowhere.

      Grand sounding sermons are sprinkled liberally throughout the book.
      With yet more irony they preach logic, but appeal to emotions. These
      diatribes seem to be completely unaware of internal contradictions.
      As only one example, having shown a visitor that invention, commerce,
      and ownership exist among the hidden Ps, their leader insists that
      they have among them no invention, commerce, or ownership.

      Both family and sexuality are rather hideously portrayed. First, is
      it ridiculous to call a woman a misogynist? Rand seems to rail
      against the "keep 'em barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen"
      mentality, but also manages to put women very firmly in a subordinate
      position. Sexual activity (tame as it is) seems to be more of an
      "acquiescence to rape" than any kind of romance. (One also suspects
      that Rand was into bondage, considering a great many of the
      descriptions and comments.)

      Marriage vows in an objectivist church would probably run along the
      lines of "Do you promise to attempt to dominate and subdue this woman
      until such time as you grow bored?" "Maybe." "Close enough. And do
      you promise to applaud this man`s production until such time as you
      find someone with a bigger ... corporation?" "Whatever." "By the
      power vested in me by having scammed you guys out of a marriage
      license fee, I now pronounce you man and appendage. May you be
      unencumbered by small persons." Having almost no idea of Rand's
      family life (I do understand that in spite of the "Miss Rand"
      references she did get married at some point) I still feel confident
      in saying that nobody who has ever actually raised children could ever
      talk about "the virtue of selfishness" with a straight face. The
      discipline and self-sacrifice (oh, dear!) necessary to spend ten
      years, part time, developing a new alloy is rather pallid beside the
      investment made by any mother. However, the objection never arises,
      since almost nobody seems to have any children. As a grandfather, I
      really have to pity Galt and his friends.

      But enough of the soft stuff, what about the technologies? Railroads
      dominate all, with no room for trucking, shipping, or air freight.
      (1957 wasn't *that* long ago.) We have superlatively hard alloys made
      chiefly of soft elements. The amount of oil you can remove from a
      given piece of shale seems to be limited only by the imagination. The
      fact that steam engines can outpull diesel-electrics seems to have
      been forgotten. Neglected aviation fuel tanks don't fractionally
      evaporate, and don't get contaminated with water condensation. Hidden
      valleys are possible in the second most extensively mapped country in
      the world. Visual cloaking devices cover huge tracts of land. Sound
      waves that can destroy bridges at a range of a hundred miles don't
      damage the transmitter (but eventually do). Dozens, or even hundreds,
      of planes flit about the eastern seaboard completely unnoticed.

      (Ah, but while I've been saying that this book is about geeks, in the
      end it is the philosopher who lives happily ever after and the
      greatest scientist of the age who dies a horrible death. Well, it
      just so happens that eight years before "Atlas Shrugged" was
      published, a fellow by the name of Albert Einstein published a paper
      called "Why Socialism Works." Too bad, because I am sure that Rand
      would have hated quantum theory as much as Einstein did: God not
      playing dice with the universe and all that. Except she would have
      disagreed about the God part.)

      The ultimate object in this book, and the one we return to time and
      time again, is the motor: the "motor of the world" as we are
      repeatedly told. More specifically, it is John Galt's motor. And
      this is where we reach both the final departure from objective
      reality, and the central contradiction of Rand's philosophy. The Ps,
      P values, and even the P hideout itself are all dependent upon this
      magical motive power. Those to whom the very word "gift" is a hissing
      and a byword rely on a gift from that oh so exploitable nature. In
      direct violation of the laws of thermodynamics, the great motor gets
      its power from "out of the air."

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 1998 BKATSHRG.RVW 981003

      rslade@... rslade@... robertslade@... p1@...
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