Atlas Shrugged: Do Not Adjust Your Set

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Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VII

The morning after the riot at Rearden Steel, Dagny is woken out of a sound sleep by the insistent ringing of her doorbell (“She had worked at the office till four A.M. and had left word not to expect her till noon” – such shameful weakness! since when do Randian protagonists require eight hours of sleep?). When she answers the door, it’s Jim, in a panic:

“He’s gone!” he cried.

“Who?”

“Hank Rearden! He’s gone, quit, vanished, disappeared!”

Jim tells her that Hank, along with some of his chief employees, have all vanished without a trace. He insists that Dagny must know where he is and tells her that she’s got to bring him back. She snaps that she can’t, and wouldn’t even if she could, and orders him out of her apartment.

The interesting thing, which the text doesn’t dwell on, is that Jim is absolutely correct when he accuses Dagny of knowing where Hank is. And Dagny doesn’t deny it!

Given that the looters regard Hank’s disappearance as a “national catastrophe”, you’d think they’d press her harder on this, but they don’t. After this one outburst of Jim’s, no one ever asks Dagny about it again. They know she was Hank’s lover, but they never interrogate her to see if she knew about his disappearance in advance or if she helped facilitate it. No one ever questions her deeply implausible cover story to explain her whereabouts for the month she was missing or expresses any suspicion that it might have something to do with all the other vanished capitalists. The closer we get to the end of the book, the harder it is not to notice that Rand’s heroes triumph not because they’re unrealistically brilliant or competent, but mainly because the author has selected their adversaries to be unrealistically incompetent.

In the weeks that follow, Dagny watches indifferently as society continues to unravel. The newspapers are full of contradictory reports about Hank, some denying that he’s quit, others claiming that he died in a tragic accident. More significant is the worsening news they’re not mentioning:

The newspapers did not mention the outbreaks of violence that had begun to burst across the country — but she watched them through the reports of train conductors about bullet-riddled cars, dismantled tracks, attacked trains, besieged stations, in Nebraska, in Oregon, in Texas, in Montana — the futile, doomed outbreaks, prompted by nothing but despair, ending in nothing but destruction.

On the employee list at the Taggart Terminal, John Galt’s name taunts her. There’s even an address for him. But Dagny hasn’t tried to check whether he’s still there, working in the tunnels. Whether he is or he isn’t, either way she’s afraid to find out.

A week after Hank’s disappearance, she gets a letter:

The envelope bore no return address, only the postmark of some hamlet in Colorado. The letter contained two sentences:

I have met him. I don’t blame you.
H.R.

If I were Dagny, I’d be extremely angry at this. When she was in the Gulch and wanted to write out to Hank, just to let him know that she was alive, John Galt said flat-out that no outside communication was permitted. Why did they make a special exception for Hank but not for her? Are the rules different for men and women? Or is this a kink thing where John Galt got a sadistic thrill out of forbidding Dagny to do something he knew she wanted to do?

As the outbreaks of violence grow worse, the looters acknowledge for the first time how bad conditions have gotten. In a blizzard of radio broadcasts and billboards, they announce that Mr. Thompson, the don’t-call-him-president, will give a speech on the “world crisis” on November 22. The announcements loudly and repeatedly promise that he’ll have the solution to all their problems.

On the night of the broadcast, Jim comes to Dagny to insist that she attend a conference with Mr. Thompson in New York prior to the broadcast. She agrees to go, but takes Eddie Willers with her. But when she gets there, she finds not a conference room, but a studio with a circle of chairs. Once again, they’ve tried to trick her into lending the appearance of support to their schemes.

“Mr. Thompson will sit between science and industry!” Chick Morrison announced. “Dr. Stadler, please — the chair on Mr. Thompson’s left. Miss Taggart — this way, please — on Mr. Thompson’s right.”

Dr. Stadler obeyed. She did not move.

“It’s not just for the press, it’s for the television audiences,” Chick Morrison explained to her, in the tone of an inducement.

She made a step forward. “I will not take part in this program,” she said evenly, addressing Mr. Thompson.

… “Dagny, for Christ’s sake!” cried James Taggart in panic.

Until now, television has gotten only fleeting mentions in the world of Atlas Shrugged, and all mass communication has been by newspaper and radio. It’s as if TV didn’t exist when Ayn Rand started writing the book, and when it was invented midway through, she began mentioning it and pretending it had been there all along. The timing doesn’t exactly work for that, since commercial television was already in existence when Rand started the first draft of Atlas in 1946, but it’s possible that it wasn’t prominent enough a medium for her to really notice it until she was three-quarters done with the book. Of course, if TV wasn’t already a fixture in the world, one wonders how it could have become widespread in the midst of food riots and an economic collapse.

Also, here’s an obvious question: Why did they want to put Dagny on stage rather than Jim? Even if they know Dagny is the competent one and secretly seek out her advice, Jim is the one who runs Taggart Transcontinental in the eyes of the world (that’s what Cherryl thought, remember). There’s no plot reason for them to want her there. The real reason for it is authorial fiat, so she can witness what’s about to happen next:

Then a man came rushing toward Mr. Thompson, and she stopped, as did everyone else — and the look on the man’s face swept the crowd into an abruptly total silence. He was the station’s chief engineer, and it was odd to see a look of primitive terror struggling against his remnant of civilized control.

He says, hesitantly, that they can’t get on the air and might have to postpone the broadcast. Mr. Thompson berates him, promising dire consequences if they’re suffering mechanical trouble. But the engineer insists that their equipment is fine. The problem is “a wall of radio waves jamming the air” from a transmitter “that makes any known to us look like a child’s toy!”

The hand of the clock reached the dot of 8:00.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a voice that came from the radio receiver — a man’s clear, calm, implacable voice, the kind of voice that had not been heard on the airwaves for years — “Mr. Thompson will not speak to you tonight. His time is up. I have taken it over. You were to hear a report on the world crisis. That is what you are going to hear.”

There’s no image on the television screen, only a voice. The text tells us that there are “three gasps of recognition” in the room. One is Dagny, for obvious reasons. The second is Eddie Willers, for reasons I’ll get to later. The third is Robert Stadler, whose face “was distorted by as evil a terror as one could ever bear to see” at the realization of who he’s hearing.

“For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing — you who dread knowledge — I am the man who will now tell you.”

Obligatory note: John Galt has commandeered the airwaves – all airwaves everywhere, apparently – to deliver his ultimatum to the world, explaining that most of humanity is going to die for not obeying him. Usually, that sort of thing is a pretty clear indicator of a supervillain.

And now, the thing that Atlas Shrugged is most infamous for. We’ve seen Ayn Rand pause the action so her characters can give speeches before, but this one leaves all the others in the dust. Aside from these introductory scenes, this entire chapter – the longest in the book, 65 pages of tiny type in my paperback version – is devoted entirely to John Galt’s speech.

In the tone of an inquisitor pronouncing a sentence of anathema, Galt explains to the world how he’s forsaken them for their philosophical errors and punished them by withdrawing all the industrialists and producers they were depending on for survival. Along the way, he outlines Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism from start to finish, explaining how reason and production are the roots of human existence, how capitalism without restraint or regulation is the only way to construct a workable society, and how human beings who know how to think correctly will come to all the same conclusions he does. He also says that those who reject his beliefs, whether they know it or not, are worshippers of death – anti-human, anti-mind, anti-life – and that he’s come to grant them what they secretly desire.

To analyze Galt’s speech from start to finish would take an even longer book review than this one has already become. But since this is the apex of Rand’s philosophy, I have to give it at least some attention. Starting next week, I’m going to hit some of the high points and show how the Objectivist conception of the world denies history or clashes with human nature in ways its creator never fully understood.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Galtocaust
Atlas Shrugged: The Passion of Eddie Willers, Part II
Atlas Shrugged: They Just Didn't Care
Atlas Shrugged: Take Our Word For It
About Adam Lee

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


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