Atlas Shrugged: Indian Givers

FirstThanksgiving

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter IV

After unleashing a tirade at his family during Thanksgiving dinner, Hank Rearden decides he’s had enough of them. He stands up and announces that he’s going to New York, knowing that Lillian understands exactly what this means:

“Why do you wish to go to New York tonight?”

“I think, Lillian, for the same reason that makes you wish to stop me.”

“Tomorrow is your trial.”

“That is what I mean.”

He made a movement to turn, and she raised her voice: “I don’t want you to go!” He smiled. It was the first time he had smiled at her in the past three months; it was not the kind of smile she could care to see. “I forbid you to leave us tonight!”

He turned and left the room.

This is one of those times where it’s worth stepping back to see the big picture. A ruthless multimillionaire executive is having Thanksgiving dinner with his mother, wife and brother, sitting in stony silence even though he’s due to stand trial tomorrow on serious charges. His family tells him that he ought to be ashamed for what he’s done; he snaps back at them that they’re worthless parasites and he doesn’t care if they live or die. Then he storms out to go visit his mistress.

Rand stacks the deck by depicting her villains as ungrateful, grasping freeloaders and all her heroes as flawlessly moral and principled (although see below about that). Even so, there are places where the inherent unlikability of her protagonists bleeds through in spite of all she does to suppress it.

It was half past nine when he reached the city. Dagny’s apartment was dark, when he let himself in with his key. He picked up the telephone and called her office. Her own voice answered: “Taggart Transcontinental.”

“Don’t you know it’s a holiday?” he asked.

“Hello, Hank. Railroads have no holidays. Where are you calling from?”

“Your place.”

“I’ll be through in another half-hour.”

“It’s all right. Stay there. I’ll come for you.”

Dagny is at work at 9:30 PM on Thanksgiving, just in case you missed that. The text mentions that it’s because of another wreck in Wyoming, but the company doesn’t seem to be in crisis mode: when Hank gets there, there’s no one in the office besides her and Eddie Willers. And while emergency workers and salvage crews might have a job to do at the scene, it’s not obvious what she can do about it. (It’s certainly not to talk to the media, whom she despises.) It’s interesting that even Hank implicitly questions this workaholic behavior, although maybe that’s just because he’s annoyed that she’s at the office when he wants to be having sex with her.

“We won’t talk any further about my trial, tonight. You don’t happen to have anything to drink in your office, have you?”

“No. But I think my traffic manager has some sort of a bar on one shelf of his filing closet.”

“Do you think you could steal a drink for me, if he doesn’t have it locked?”

“I’ll try.”

He stood looking at the portrait of Nat Taggart on the wall of her office — the portrait of a young man with a lifted head — until she returned, bringing a bottle of brandy and two glasses. He filled the glasses in silence.

Wait, what? If I’d been drinking a glass of water while reading this, this would’ve been the place for a spit take.

Hank and Dagny, the two cast-iron capitalists who respect private property above all else, just stole private property from one of Dagny’s employees. Theft is practically the worst crime an Objectivist can commit; it’s pretty much the only crime an Objectivist can commit. Are we meant to conclude that because the traffic manager’s liquor was paid for by his salary at Taggart Transcontinental, that makes everything he owns the property of his boss? Or is this scene – like Dagny’s looting a valuable piece of machinery with no idea who the rightful owner is, or that time she bribed a judge to let her seize a bankrupt company’s operations for her own benefit – another argument for the conclusion that, whatever principles Rand claims to advocate, the ones she actually espouses are that her heroes are entitled to do anything they want?

“You know, Dagny, Thanksgiving was a holiday established by productive people to celebrate the success of their work.”

The movement of his arm, as he raised his glass, went from the portrait — to her — to himself — to the buildings of the city beyond the window.

In the sanitized Ayn Rand version of history, the Pilgrims were brave and fearless capitalists – a boat full of Dagny Taggarts and Hank Reardens with muskets and hats with buckles – who planted their flag on a foreign shore, tamed the wilderness, and then held a great feast as a way of celebrating how awesome they were.

The reality is that the Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth Harbor in December 1620 were utterly unprepared for survival in the new land. They had no shelter suitable for the frigid winter, no horses or cattle, and not nearly enough food. In the first winter, famine stalked the colony: half the original settlers died, and many of the survivors were weak, ill and malnourished.

It’s possible they all would have died, if not for the help of the Native Americans. Part of that help was inadvertent: the Pilgrims stole (or, as Ayn Rand might, say “looted”) food from Native American settlements in Cape Cod. More famously, they had the help of an ambassador from the Wampanoag confederation: Tisquantum, or Squanto as he’s better known. At the bidding of his chieftain Massasoit, who apparently helped the Europeans in the hope of enlisting their aid against a rival alliance, the Narragansett, Tisquantum taught them how to plant corn, where best to fish, and how to fertilize the soil with fishmeal so their crops would grow better. It was thanks to this help that they survived to celebrate the first Thanksgiving.

We know the sad story that came next. The Wampanoag’s hopes of an alliance came to naught, as imported European diseases decimated the native population of Massachusetts, and later waves of settlers with guns finished the job. Their reward for their help was extermination.

Ayn Rand believed that Native Americans were squatters and savages who had no right to the land they lived on, to be swept aside as soon as European capitalists arrived. (More on that later.) This clashes with the reality that, at least for the first few years, the Europeans were the moochers who survived on charity, and the Native Americans were the “productive people” who knew how to make the land yield the necessities of life. Later on, the phrase “Indian giver” became racist slang for people who give gifts and then want them back; but if that’s the standard, then how much more harshly should we judge those who asked for charity, received it, and then slaughtered their saviors?

Image: “The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Leon Gerome Farris; via Wikimedia Commons

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About Adam Lee

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


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