Atlas Shrugged: Hobo Sign

Atlas Shrugged: Hobo Sign February 20, 2015

ManInBlackAndWhite

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter X

Dagny is in a desperate race against time to reach Quentin Daniels, the physicist whose brain might save the world, if only she can persuade him to resume his work before it’s too late. So, naturally, she takes a transcontinental train that will take several days to get her there, rather than flying.

The telegraph poles went racing past the window, but the train seemed lost in a void, between a brown stretch of prairie and a solid spread of rusty, graying clouds. The twilight was draining the sky without the wound of a sunset; it looked more like the fading of an anemic body in the process of exhausting its last drops of blood and light.

…She thought of what a difference one month had made. She had seen it in the faces of the men at the stations. The track workers, the switchmen, the yardmen, who had always greeted her, anywhere along the line, their cheerful grins boasting that they knew who she was — had now looked at her stonily, turning away, their faces wary and closed.

She had wanted to cry to them in apology, “It’s not I who’ve done it to you!” — then had remembered that she had accepted it and that they now had the right to hate her, that she was both a slave and a driver of slaves…

It’s true that, by returning to her job, Dagny is complicit in the looters’ regime. But why didn’t that impulse to cry out occur to her earlier? As I wrote previously, neither Dagny, nor Hank, nor any of the protagonists have ever tried to defend themselves to the masses. Their companies seemingly have no advertising, marketing, or PR departments. They’ve never used their vast personal wealth to try to influence public opinion or to rally popular support against socialist laws. After Hank’s one Washington lobbyist betrayed him, he even gave up on that. And when Dagny was invited to participate in a radio program, she refused when she found out that someone she disagreed with would also get to speak.

In Randworld, of course, persuasion is pointless because there’s no genuine disagreement. Everyone knows that the world is divided into virtuous, life-loving capitalists and sinister, death-worshipping socialists, with no ambiguity or overlap; moreover, everyone knows which side they’re on. As in evangelical Christian novels, everyone who isn’t one of the heroes is making a conscious choice to be evil.

She was astonished, approaching her vestibule, to hear the sound of voices close by. As she pulled the door open, she heard a shout: “Get off, God damn you!”

An aging tramp had taken refuge in the corner of her vestibule.

…The train was slowing down for a bad stretch of track, the conductor had opened the door to a cold gust of wind, and was waving at the speeding black void, ordering, “Get going! Get off as you got on or I’ll kick you off head first!”

There was no astonishment in the tramp’s face, no protest, no anger, no hope… He moved obediently to rise, his hand groping upward along the rivets of the car’s wall… he was indifferently ready to comply with an order which, in his condition, meant certain death.

Dagny is about to watch a man thrown to his death, and she’s perfectly fine with that – until she sees something that gives her pause:

The tramp’s suit was a mass of careful patches… but she noticed the collar of his shirt: it was bone-white from repeated laundering and it still preserved a semblance of shape. He had pulled himself up to his feet, he was looking indifferently at the black hole open upon miles of uninhabited wilderness where no one would see the body or hear the voice of a mangled man, but the only gesture of concern he made was to tighten his grip on a small, dirty bundle, as if to make sure he would not lose it in leaping off the train.

It was the laundered collar and this gesture for the last of his possessions — the gesture of a sense of property — that made her feel an emotion like a sudden, burning twist within her. “Wait,” she said.

This is likely the first and last time that any of Atlas‘ protagonists takes pity on someone in need. But pay close attention to what inspired this sudden, uncharacteristic gesture of generosity on Dagny’s part. It wasn’t a sense of compassion, or a recognition of the tramp’s humanity, or even a desire not to see someone die horribly in front of her.

Instead, what moved her to rescue him was the fact that he clings to his one remaining piece of property! In Rand’s view, that’s what shows you’re worthy of life – the desire to own something. Presumably, if the tramp had chosen to spend his begging money on food rather than on pressing his shirt, she would have been just fine with watching him thrown off the train to be ground to paste under its wheels. (I wonder, what’s the hobo sign for “Rich Objectivist lives here and will give you a meal if you give a speech about capitalism”?)

To the conductor’s surprise, Dagny says the tramp will be dining with her. As he sits down at her table, the man explains that he’s looking for work, and was heading out west to find it because every factory in the East has a long waiting list for jobs and is only hiring people who have political pull:

“You know,” he added suddenly, “I don’t think it will be any use. But there’s nothing to do in the East except sit under some hedge and wait to die. I don’t think I’d mind it much now, the dying. I know it would be a lot easier. Only I think that it’s a sin to sit down and let your life go, without making a try for it.”

She thought suddenly of those modern college-infected parasites who assumed a sickening air of moral self-righteousness whenever they uttered the standard bromides about their concern for the welfare of others. The tramp’s last sentence was one of the most profoundly moral statements she had ever heard; but the man did not know it; he had said it in his impassive, extinguished voice, simply, dryly, as a matter of fact.

Remember, caring about the lives of others just because they’re human beings is “sickening”. On the other hand, rewarding a man for clinging to his property in the face of certain death – why, that’s just common sense!

This scene, again, illustrates a contradiction between two of Rand’s principles that she doesn’t seem to recognize. On the one hand, she thinks it’s a positive good for there to be no social safety net and no help or assistance for the losers in the game of capitalism. On the other hand, she thinks it’s “a sin” to just sit down and die if you can do anything else. Put together, doesn’t this mean that the desperately poor should turn to crime if they have no other options? (The tramp, after all, was trying to sneak a ride on Dagny’s train.) Doesn’t her philosophy therefore condone, or even encourage, theft and violence?

Dagny asks the tramp what he used to do, and he says that he’s worked at factories all over the country. But in the last few years, they’ve been failing one after another:

“At first, we thought it was only one state or another. A lot of us thought that Colorado would last. But it went, too. Anything you tried, anything you touched — it fell. Anywhere you looked, work was stopping — the factories were stopping — the machines were stopping—” he added slowly, in a whisper… His voice rose: “Oh God, who is—” and broke off.

“—John Galt?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, and shook his head as if to dispel some vision, “only I don’t like to say that.”

“I don’t, either. I wish I knew why people are saying it and who started it.”

“That’s it, ma’am. That’s what I’m afraid of. It might have been me who started it.”

Who is this mysterious stranger, who conveniently shows up at just the right time with vital plot-advancing information, and what’s his connection to the shadowy name of John Galt? Next week, we’ll find out.

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