Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why is a "Liberal" Promoting Atlas Shrugged?

[WARNING: Atlas Shrugged plot spoilers ahead]

Bill Wolf, an English teacher, has penned an interesting op-ed titled How liberals can enjoy reading 'Atlas Shrugged'. Put simply, Wolf endorses the book by driving a wedge between the story and the novel's essential philosophical message. After bashing the deeper philosophical message in the book, Wolf writes:

   But that’s not the way to read "Atlas Shrugged."
   Keep in mind that "Atlas Shrugged" is, after all, a novel of science fiction: secret laboratories, super ray guns and magic motors. The novel ends as a Tom Swiftian adventure, complete with an underground torture chamber, heroic endurance, a small band of clever and fearless adventurers and a dramatic, last-minute escape. These are what have kept "Atlas Shrugged" strong in the marketplace for decades, despite the cockeyed economic theory, despite the long pages of half-baked rhetoric.
   And there’s Miss Taggart...arguably the strongest woman protagonist of Rand’s literary generation...: Proud. Accomplished. Competent. Strong. Enduring. Beautiful. Sexy. Adulterous. She is the key to the ongoing popularity of "Atlas Shrugged." She is Rand’s "motor of the world."
   It is the science-fiction adventure story, the tale of a great and forceful woman, that has sustained the book’s perennial popularity.

I left the following comments:

It’s surprising that Mr. Wolf, being an English teacher, misses the most fundamental theme of Atlas Shrugged; the role of man’s mind in human existence, a theme that encompasses Rand’s new Aristotelian-based concept of morality, rational self-interest. Wolf conveniently omits that Rand’s “celebration of egoism” rejects not only the self-sacrificial ethics of altruism but also the conventional understanding of selfishness (the sacrificing of others to short-term self-gratification). [One wonders if Wolf is a beneficiary of the Ayn Rand Institute's charitable Free Books to Teachers program.] The main theme is also missed by most on the Right, and that’s too bad. For the first time, someone has challenged the regulatory welfare state on fundamental moral grounds. Rand’s scientific moral defense of the inalienable individual rights of man is an indispensable companion to the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, Rand’s influence on American culture has been greatly exaggerated. It’s utterly false that “American politics [has moved] further and further to the right” because of Atlas Shrugged. In fact, since AS was published in 1957, the country has moved dramatically to the Left despite the Reagan interlude. Far from proving “the absurdity of Randian thought,” the financial crisis proved her right. The myth of “deregulation” is belied by Bush’s massive regulatory expansion. As Thomas Sowell, John A. Allison, and others have proven, government regulatory and political policies were the primary cause the crisis. If we actually had “the absolute separation of finance and state”—no Fed, Fannie or Freddie, FDIC, CRA, “affordable housing” policies, etc. etc.—there would have been no housing bubble and bust. 
Nonetheless, that this article has been written and published in NJ’s largest newspaper indicates that her influence has grown to the point that her ideas must be reckoned with. Thank you, Mr. Wolf, for pointing readers to Atlas Shrugged. Its important ideas are worth debating, not just for the political aspects, but especially for the wonderful life-enhancing personal values of Objectivism. 

Because Wolf focuses on the more superficial aspects of the book, he fails to recognize that  Dagny epitomizes the philosophic values of Objectivism promoted in the book. And, since the ideas that are diametrically opposed to Objectivism--bad ideas that dominate our culture today--are also highlighted in the book, Wolf is unable to see that those very bad ideas are ultimately destructive to the Dagnys of the world--which is why the climax of the novel has Dagny abandoning her railroad. 

Wolf acknowledges that, in the book's plot,  "...rampaging socialism and regulation in a U.S. government that had become absolutely corrupt [has brought] the economy [to the verge of] collapse." But that Wolf somehow misses the point that Rand's "cockeyed economic theory" and "half-baked rhetoric" is an integral part of the dramatization of the only societal conditions that can allow the heroic Dagnys of the world to flourish is beyond me. Socialism and regulation don't sometimes become corrupt. They are "absolutely corrupt" by their very nature. Ultimately, they can only lead to the collapsing world of Atlas Shrugged, because statism makes production and trade impossible.

But, perhaps this is a point that thoughtful "liberals" who may now pick up the book thanks to Bill Wolf will not miss. 


Mike Kevitt said...

I don't think Wolf missed any points in ATLAS SHRUGGED. He got them all, thoroughly. He's just trying to make as many other people as possible miss them.

Mike LaFerrara said...

You may very well be right, Mike. Interesting take.