Atlas Shrugged: Collateral Damage

Atlas Shrugged: Collateral Damage March 18, 2016

BridgeCollapse

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter IX

There’s one scene from the previous chapter that fits better here. While John Galt is being held captive, there’s one person he asks to see: his old teacher, Robert Stadler. Stadler, who sold his soul to the looters long ago, is hysterical with terror at the prospect and begs them not to make him do it, but they shove him into the room anyway:

Across the long room, he saw John Galt sitting on the window sill, a tall, slender figure in slacks and shirt, one leg slanting down to the floor, the other bent, his hands clasping his knee, his head of sun-streaked hair raised against a spread of gray sky — and suddenly Dr. Stadler saw the figure of a young boy sitting on the porch-railing of his home, near the campus of the Patrick Henry University, with the sun on the chestnut hair of a head lifted against a spread of summer blue, and he heard the passionate intensity of his own voice saying twenty-two years ago: “The only sacred value in the world, John, is the human mind, the inviolate human mind…” — and he cried to that boy’s figure, across the room and across the years: “I couldn’t help it, John! I couldn’t help it!”

Half-ranting, half-pleading, Stadler screams that it wasn’t his fault, that he was surrounded by “ignorant fools” who’d “never contribute a penny to science” so “why shouldn’t they be forced?” He insists that it “would have worked” if Galt hadn’t taken away all the capitalists:

“You’re asking the impossible! Men can’t exist your way! You permit no moments of weakness, you don’t allow for human frailties or human feelings! What do you want of us? Rationality twenty-four hours a day, with no loophole, no rest, no escape?”

You know, that’s a pretty good point. Rand’s philosophy doesn’t allow for human frailties or emotions.

John Galt doesn’t reply to anything Stadler says, but it’s completely true that his philosophy entails the same unforgiving view of human nature as Christian fundamentalists. Just as they believe that a single moral misstep marks a person as a sinner deserving the flames of eternal damnation, Rand believes that being a “proper” human being requires you to be an icy android like her protagonists. (The only difference is whether they believe people are capable of meeting that standard.) As we’ll see soon, she treats even a single moment of doubt, hesitation or indecision as literally a capital offense.

“Here’s where your road has brought you! Here you are, caught, helpless, under guard, to be killed by those brutes at any moment — and you dare to accuse me of being impractical! Oh yes, you’re going to be killed! You won’t win! You can’t be allowed to win! You are the man who has to be destroyed!”

Dr. Stadler’s gasp was a muffled scream, as if the immobility of the figure on the window sill had served as a silent reflector and had suddenly made him see the full meaning of his own words.

…Galt’s voice had the same unbending austerity as his eyes: “You have said everything I wanted to say to you.”

As John Galt anticipated, the looters would treat anyone he asked for as a bargaining chip to use against him, as Stadler finds out when Mr. Thompson starts making ominous promises:

“If he doesn’t give in to us peaceably, we might have to resort to pressure — such as hostages whom he wouldn’t want to see hurt — and you’re first on the list, Professor.”

Stadler protests that John Galt hates him, but it doesn’t sway them. And so, prior to the ballroom incident, he makes up his mind to flee New York City. All he has is a hastily conceived plan: to seize control of Project X, the weapon of mass destruction his work made possible, and to rule that part of the country like a feudal lord, safe from harm.

He drives deep into the Midwest. Again we see the paradox that while society is disintegrating and states are convulsing with riots and civil war, there’s still a functioning interstate highway infrastructure, complete with gas stations and roadside motels:

…directing his course through four days and nights — while he drove down deserted highways, across a country collapsing into chaos, while he developed a monomaniac’s cunning for obtaining illegal purchases of gas, while he snatched random hours of restless sleep, in obscure motels, under assumed names…

When he arrives at the site of Project X, there’s some kind of disturbance. The fences are down, the guards are out of uniform, and when he demands to be shown inside, they seem uncertain whether he’s supposed to be there or not. His sole strategy is to insist, more loudly and vehemently at each encounter, that this place is “his” and he’s come to take over, but:

It took him a long time to grasp — when his mind could not block it any longer — that somebody had beaten him to his plan: somebody had held the same view of existence as his own and had set out to achieve the same future. He grasped that these men, who called themselves the Friends of the People, had seized possession of Project X, tonight, a few hours ago, intending to establish a reign of their own. He laughed in their faces, with bitterly incredulous contempt.

“You don’t know what you’re doing, you miserable juvenile delinquents! Do you think that you — you! — can handle a high-precision instrument of science? Who is your leader? I demand to see your leader!”

The guards usher him to the new head honcho, who turns out to be Cuffy Meigs, the looter official who was the one-time “Director of Unification” of Taggart Transcontinental. Meigs is amused and openly contemptuous:

“Do you think,” asked Dr. Stadler, “that you can operate an installation of this kind?”

“Run along, Professor, run along! Beat it, before I have you shot! We’ve got no use for intellectuals around here!”

“How much do you know about this?” Dr. Stadler pointed at the Xylophone.

“Who cares? Technicians are a dime a dozen these days! Beat it! This ain’t Washington! I’m through with those impractical dreamers in Washington! They won’t get anywhere, bargaining with that radio ghost and making speeches! Action — that’s what’s needed! Direct action! Beat it, Doc! Your day is over!” He was weaving unsteadily back and forth, catching at a lever of the Xylophone once in a while. Dr. Stadler realized that Meigs was drunk.

You’d think Stadler would make the argument that they need each other, that he can be useful because he knows how to operate and repair Project X better than anyone else. Instead, they just stand there yelling at each other:

They stood staring at each other for a moment, by the panel of the Xylophone, both cornered by terror. The unadmitted root of Dr. Stadler’s terror was his frantic struggle not to acknowledge that he was looking at his final product, that this was his spiritual son. Cuffy Meigs’ terror had wider roots, it embraced all of existence; he had lived in chronic terror all his life, but now he was struggling not to acknowledge what it was that he had dreaded: in the moment of his triumph, when he expected to be safe, that mysterious, occult breed — the intellectual — was refusing to fear him and defying his power.

The connection between these things seems tenuous at best – what makes Cuffy Meigs Stadler’s “spiritual” son? – unless you grasp that no one, in Rand’s worldview, is ever honestly mistaken. According to her, everyone who rejects her specific philosophy and politics knows that they do so because they’re anti-life looters who worship death and destruction. Some people are just better at fooling themselves about this than others. Thus, even though Stadler has always been a scientist, even though he’s never advocated violence, and even though Project X was a surprise and a horror even to him, Rand draws a line of responsibility and blame from him directly to Cuffy Meigs.

Stadler yells at him not to touch the levers, but Meigs, out of spite, shoves him aside and pulls them at random. The result is predictable:

"No, you fool! That's the History Eraser button!"
“No, you fool! That’s the History Eraser button!”

The crash of sound — the screeching crash of ripped metal and of pressures colliding on conflicting circuits, the sound of a monster turning upon itself — was heard only inside the structure. No sound was heard outside. Outside, the structure merely rose into the air, suddenly and silently, cracked open into a few large pieces, shot some hissing streaks of blue light to the sky and came down as a pile of rubble. Within the circle of a radius of a hundred miles, enclosing parts of four states, telegraph poles fell like matchsticks, farmhouses collapsed into chips, city buildings went down as if slashed and minced by a single second’s blow, with no time for a sound to be heard by the twisted bodies of the victims — and, on the circle’s periphery, halfway across the Mississippi, the engine and the first six cars of a passenger train flew as a shower of metal into the water of the river, along with the western spans of the Taggart Bridge, cut in half.

The first time I read this passage, there was something about it that seemed incongruous. On a closer look, I figured out what it was.

What Rand is describing is an apocalyptic disaster – everything within a hundred miles of Project X obliterated, a radius of destruction even greater than an atom bomb. We’ve been told that Project X is at the center of “a circle with a periphery extending from… Des Moines and Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Austin, Minnesota, to Woodman, Wisconsin, to Rock Island, Illinois”. That means the sphere of destruction looks like this, and encompasses Iowa’s two largest population centers, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. That means several hundred thousand people must have been killed!

And yet, other than a single curt reference to “the victims”, Rand says nothing about the human cost of this catastrophe. She seems to treat mass death as mere collateral damage; her focus is on describing the destruction of bridges, buildings and other infrastructure. (“Yes, I know, thousands of people are dead, but just think of all the precious Rearden Metal that’s been ruined!”)

It’s as if a story about 9/11 lavished time and attention on the quantity of construction materials destroyed, while neglecting to mention the people whose lives were lost. There’s only one death that Rand sees fit to tell us about:

On the site of what had once been Project X, nothing remained alive among the ruins — except, for some endless minutes longer, a huddle of torn flesh and screaming pain that had once been a great mind.

From the way he’s killed off, you’d think Robert Stadler was a truly evil, puppy-kicking villain. But remember, his unforgivable sin was calling for public funding of scientific research. That’s the deed that caused John Galt to break with him and offer him up for torture; that’s why Rand takes sadistic pleasure in scripting his ultimate painful end.

This may seem unduly harsh for a minor political disagreement, but that’s because another thing Ayn Rand doesn’t allow for or understand is the role of democratic consent. In her eyes, there are two, and only two, ways to run a society: you can have an anarcho-capitalist utopia where everyone is free to do as they please, or you can turn everyone into slaves by unleashing jackbooted thugs like Cuffy Meigs. There’s no in-between. The idea that a society could decide to bind itself to a social contract, where public goods like research funding can be allocated by majority vote, is something she finds incomprehensible. Her slippery slope is more like a greased slide to hell: as soon as you take one step off the righteous path of a 0% capital-gains tax rate, you’re all the way at the bottom, blowing up cities in the name of socialism.

There’s one more point I want to make about all this. When we first saw Robert Stadler, he groused about how the State Science Institute was incapable of producing results, only “abstract science” (because of course anyone who accepts a government salary is a bumbling incompetent), and that the capitalists’ genuine achievements were making them look bad. But now we see that the SSI is capable of producing weapons of mass destruction that work as advertised. Much like the conservative critics who claim that President Obama is both a tyrannical dictator and also weak and feckless, she uses two contradictory arguments side by side, without noting the inconsistency.

Header image: 1926 bridge collapse; sidebar image: nuclear bomb test, both via Wikimedia Commons

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