New on AlterNet: Lessons from Atlas Shrugged

My latest column is now up on AlterNet, 10 Things I Learned About the World from Ayn Rand’s Insane “Atlas Shrugged”. It’s a distillation of the ten most important lessons I’ve gleaned over the past year of reading and reviewing part I of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus in defense of capitalism. Read the excerpt below, then click through to see the rest:

Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction, but as far as many prominent conservatives are concerned, it’s sacred scripture. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle, and opposed regulation of financial markets because he believed her dictum that the greed of businessmen was always the public’s best protection. Paul Ryan said that he required his campaign staffers to read the book, while Glenn Beck has announced grandiose plans to build his own real-life “Galt’s Gulch,” the hidden refuge where the book’s capitalist heroes go to watch civilization collapse without them.

Reading Atlas Shrugged is like entering into a strange mirror universe where everything we thought we knew about economics and morality is turned upside down. I’ve already learned some valuable lessons from it.

Continue reading on AlterNet…

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Space Blizzard

    Cool article. Just wanted to say I’ve been greatly enjoying your Atlas Shrugged posts- just re-read them all in one sitting yesterday. Good stuff.

  • 8DX

    Shame on you for creating another “online list”!

    Well actually it was a good read, but some formats are just terrible in general.

  • Hawker40

    Having read your article, I went on to the comment section…
    It’s amazing how many RandDroids come out of the woodwork to defend their Lady from being accurately interpeted. The most common complaint is “You obviously didn’t read it.”

  • Azkyroth

    ….off topic. Adam, do you realize your front blog page now has TWENTY ROWS (ten instances, with the same six links repeated over and over in random order for the most part) of those shitty “From The Web” buzzfeed link things between the first post and the subsequent posts? I mean, I don’t fault the need to support a website with advertising (although, if only someone could put together a network that only accepts advertising that does not insult the viewer’s intelligence!) but for fuck’s fucking sake…!

  • Delphi Ote

    I love this series, and I love this article, but you know what? You haven’t gotten to the most horrible part of the book yet. No, I’m not talking about the god awful speech. Most people never get to the part I’m talking about: the moment where Rand so dehumanizes her opposition, she justifies murder. She literally compares shooting a human being she disagrees with to shooting an animal.

    “Calmly and impersonally, she, who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.”

    When I first read that line (I was 17 at the time,) I experienced for the one and only time in my life an urge to burn a book, and the thought that people live by this book still makes me physically ill.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    That’s true, and I think it’s more significant than it looks like at first glace. I think the very idea that there are interpretations of books runs counter to Objectivist thinking — after all, if there is an objective reality, then there are objcetively correct readings of books, right?

  • Hawker40

    Moreover, an objectively correct reading that is obvious to anyone who reads.
    Which is curiously similar to the attitude of believers toward thier scripture: “If you would read it with an ‘open mind’*, you would understand and agree.”

    *Open mind, Holy Spirit, In the original Arabic, with the guidance of Vishnu, etc.

  • X. Randroid

    after all, if there is an objective reality, then there are objcetively correct readings of books, right?

    Of course! Rand made a hobby of explaining what other authors “objectively” meant. Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Dreiser, Mickey Spillane, the pope, John Rawls, Immanuel, Kant Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes … Rand knew what all of them were “really” up to.

    In that vein, one thing I’ve really enjoyed about Adam’s series is how his interpretation diverges from what Rand intended. (She left behind extensive notes and many published articles and speeches, so we know pretty well what she intended.) After years of being steeped in the “One True Reading,” it’s quite refreshing to see how differently someone else, coming to it without all that, can read the same words. I’m realizing how much of the “One True Reading” is driven by the reader’s knowledge of what Rand intended, rather than what she actually put on the page.

  • Adam Lee

    Yeah, that’s new and it’s really annoying. I’ll talk to the Patheos people about it.

  • Science Avenger

    Are you talking about Dagny shooting the guard where Galt is being held? That struck me as well, even in my Objectivist days.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    If there’s one thing I’m absolutely sure of after having read this series, it’s that Adam did in fact read the book.

    I am often struck by how often this accusation is used by Rand fans, and how libertarians in general like claim that no one understands libertarianism (to be fair, if you ask two libertarians what libertarianism is about, you’ll get at least three answers.) This has got to be the weakest rejoinder ever, especially given that the biggest appeal of Objectivism/libertarianism is its simplicity, and it’s coming from people who hold themselves up as paragons of rationality.

  • X. Randroid

    Ah yes, that scene. It’s not the only instance of dehumanizing in the books, just the most blatant.

    You may be somewhat comforted to know that a few Objectivists have the sense to object to it. Most blithely accept that it is exactly what Rand later claimed it was: a dramatization of the principle that the choice to think or not is a matter of life or death, not advice for what Objectivists in the real world should do to people who stand in their way. I bought the dramatization theory for years.

    It was only when I reread the novel as an ex-Randroid that I realized how seriously flawed this theory is. What the scene actually dramatizes is one person (the shooter/hero) trying to force another (the victim/villain) to think at the point of a gun (literally), something that, according to Rand’s mouthpiece (John Galt) is impossible to do and evil to attempt. Even worse, this scene comes just a page or two after Rand has dramatized the evil and futility of “forcing a mind” by having the villains try it (and fail) against one of the heroes. It’s hard for the alert reader not to conclude that Rand’s heroes get to play by a different set of rules from everyone else, a disturbing conclusion indeed.

    I find it interesting that Objectivists (from Rand on down) don’t seem to notice how the events of the story so often fail to match the words.

  • Hawker40

    Warning: I’m a internet know it all, and like to lecture… if you already know this, then I apologize.
    There’s a concept, called “Death of the Author”, where you don’t get to ask the writer what they meant but have to infer it from what is actually in the work. If an author wants a particular interpetation for thier work, then they better put it in that work, and not in seperate essays and commentary. If the work needs apologetics, then it isn’t clear work, is it?

  • Hawker40

    Totally off topic, Mr. Kearney, but… I have a few cousins with that last name. Are you from the NYC area?

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I lived in NYC for a year or so in grad school, but I am currently and originally from the Portland, Oregon area.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    Also, if you don’t agree with the OTR, you’re either stupid or evil. Since no rational *men* can disagree, there’s no such thing as a good faith disagreement — one reason I think Rand’s political influence is so pernicious.

  • X. Randroid

    No disagreement here, Hawker40. A novel should speak for itself. Atlas Shrugged doesn’t, and that, I would say, is the fault of Rand, not Adam. (Maybe if Rand had sought out beta readers beyond her circle of sycophants, and if she had been capable of listening to her editor’s suggestions, she might have ended up somewhere within shouting distance of what she intended to say. Of course, had she been open to constructive criticism, she might have realized that the ideas she was trying to convey have some fatal flaws … but I digress.)

    What I was trying to get at is that, having spent so many years learning the apologetics, I now have a hard time reading what Rand actually wrote without unconsciously superimposing extra-textual information. Several times while reading Adam’s posts, I’ve had the initial reaction that Adam was being totally unfair, but after going back and looking at the section in question, I’ve had to say “actually, he has a point.”

  • X. Randroid

    I assume that’s the scene, since the quoted sentence is from that scene.

  • Hawker40

    I never heard the apologetics until long after I had read the novel. I read it in high school, because I was told that my favorite author (Robert Heinlein) was a Libertarian and Atlas Shruged was the perfect book on the subject. But the man who wrote Starship Troopers (where a man’s highest achievement was to sacrifice himself for the good of the group) was no objectivist.
    After long thought on Rand’s novel, I came to the conclusion that she didn’t know how things really work. The last line of the novel (IIRC) was about how John Galt would turn off the force field decades later, “And what do you think he would find?” What he’d find was an army waiting to arrest him. That is, if no one on the outside figured out his shield before then; I felt that someone would and he’d wake up before dawn one morning and find law enforcement arresting him. That is, if there was anyone alive inside the shield after 5-10 years and they hadn’t all killed each other before the people outside could drop the shield and arrest them.

  • Delphi Ote

    Yes. And X. Randroid had exactly the same realizations I did about that scene (and articulated them very well.)

    Rand brings all her pseudo-intellectual sophistry to bear in this passage to justifying a pointless, cold blooded murder committed by the main protagonist in the final action scene of her several thousand page long life-changing novel.

  • Russell Manning

    As a twenty-year senior English (AP) teacher in a suburban high school, I often had students–only male ones–who were infatuated with Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged.” When asked why the novel wasn’t on my recommended reading list, I usually replied that it didn’t meet Western canon standards of “Great Books” that would best prepare them for university study. I admitted a fondness for the film of “The Fountainhead,” but largely due to the acting and my regard for Nina Foch. When pressed, however, I would observe that Rand’s philosophy, likely the result of her Russian heritage and her antipathy for the Revolution, where communism supplanted czarist oppression with abject socialism, was hyperbole of the worst kind. I pointed out aspects of our culture that were, in essence, socialism. And that capitalism had its faults when, like any other philosophy, it went extreme and lost respect for individual humanity. Thankfully, those enamoured students who returned to visit me after a couple of years of university studies, confessed they had now rejected Rand’s praise of financial might no matter the cost as they approached a more humanistic existential bent. Hence, although I retired at age 43, I came to observe that Rand’s most popular audience was post-adolescent boys whose hormones complimented her male characters’ physical violence against women, what they could see was rape made moral. And that maturity brought rational constructs into play. And, so, to read that Paul Ryan assigns his staffers “Atlas Shrugged” does not surprise me as I see in him that same adolescent fervor for unfettered capitalism with no taxation of the 1%. Great summation here of the 10 fallacies of Ayn Rand. Today, my only value in knowing who she was is in crosswords where a 3-letter word is the answer for a clue associated with her. But then I experience the same pleasure in my parents having taken me to a concert to see Yma Sumac, another 3-letter answer.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I’ve often thought that one of the things about Rand that was appealing to adolescents was her gnosticism — she is imparting “secret” knowledge about how the world *actually* works behind the scenes. Plus, she flatters the readers by implying that they’re smart enough to get it. Does that jive with your experience?

  • Adam Lee

    I was told that same thing explicitly by an Objectivist angry about this piece: that being “honest”, by his definition, means agreeing with Rand.