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A Wholly Reluctant Blog

A blog by someone who prefers writing to writing about writing, but treats blogging like bad-tasting vitamins.

Currently reading

The Phantom Tollbooth
Jules Feiffer, Norton Juster
Walter Scott
Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit
Daniel Quinn
Bulfinch's Mythology
Thomas Bulfinch
Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863
Shelby Foote
A History of Mathematics, Second Edition
Carl B. Boyer, Isaac Asimov
Atlas Shrugged - Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand Rand should be applauded for, if nothing else, taking convention and turning it on its head. Government gone wild in an effort to maintain control is nothing new, particularly to anyone familiar with George Orwell. And anyone with a general grade-school education is, I'm guessing, familiar with George Orwell. But Orwell, et al, chose to depict the common dynamic of the powerful oppressing the non-powerful. Rand, however, chooses to depict the wealthy, the entrepreneurs, the successful, generally people we consider powerful, as those who are oppressed.

This is a challenging position to accept, perhaps because as readers, and consumers of media in general, we've been trained to identify with the first dynamic. The powerful oppressing the non-powerful is a familiar theme, probably because it's so easy to understand. Children subject to bullies; employees with overbearing bosses. The theme repeats itself in reality everywhere and at all levels. We see this theme repeated in fiction and non-fiction. We love the story of the overmatched, underpowered underdog triumphing over the stronger opponent. There's little to compel readers to read a story about a superpower stubbing out smaller opponents. It's a challenge to derive any sense of tension in scenarios where everything happens as expected.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand has created a world in which the powerful are crippled by the weak by, essentially, electing officials that destroy opportunities for success in the name of equality. This hurts everyone, which is the point Rand tries to make, and the only way for the weak to avoid suffering is to allow the strong to be successful. This smacks of trickle-down economics, which ultimately failed (is failing?) after being put into place.

The theme is also challenged by the fact that, while many in the US rail against a society of entitlement for underachieving citizens supported by government giveaways, regulations that put the clamps on (arguably dangerous) corporate practices, companies have also been granted the status of citizens, receive billions of dollars (this offhand approximation is probably a gross understatement) in government subsidies, have merged resources to the point that the failure of one can endanger the national and even world economy (something that would surely give American Badass and trustbuster extraordinaire, Theodore Roosevelt, fits) and spend countless dollars lobbying in Congress for laws supporting their business--a capacity that normal citizens decidedly lack. Whichever side you take on Rand's stand, there's evidence for both sides of the argument because government has taken both sides, which is itself likely unsustainable.

As ridiculous as this premise may seem (to me, anyway), Rand had little choice but to put forth the most extreme, slippery slope scenario to make her point. How else does one write a treatise for a position without exploring the undesired situation to its deepest depths? The plight of Sisyphus isn't half as interesting if he's pushing his stone along level ground. The goal is always to make the slope as close to vertical as reasonable.

In the end, this is a very, very long book with a theme you can derive by reading the first chapter and giving some thought to the title within the context of that chapter. Essentially: what would happen if the world economy was driven by a handful of innovators and those people, shouldering the whole world, shrugged, ending their contributions? Answer: the world would fall into the abyss. Or whatever Atlas was preventing the world from falling into by holding it on his shoulders, which is itself debatable as an imagined threat because Atlas was made to hold the planet ([sic] it was actually the heavens) as punishment, implying it had, at some point, not been supported by a god.

I appreciated some of Rand's descriptions. She could be an evocative writer when she wasn't using Objectivism as a bludgeon. I also appreciated the strong character of Dagny Taggart, but most others are such absurd caricatures that it's hard not to think of the work as satirical. I suppose in a universe of possibility that this kind of situation is possible, too, but in the end I don't think the odds currently rest in favor of the non-powerful. As much as we enjoy underdog stories, what makes them special is they are so rare--those with ample resources tend to win almost exclusively.

For all the hubbub over this book, I give it a "Hmm" for presenting an interesting twist on a common theme and considering the obstacles faced by the producers/Prime Movers of the world, but a "Meh" for the story itself. The story might have been more compelling with the inclusion of a Teddy Roosevelt character.

But what story wouldn't be?