Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Million Little Cups Of Henry Galt

Megan McArdle reads that Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea was semi-fictional, and is appalled that Mortenson thought he could get away with lying to people.

This sort of thing just mystifies me. I have nightmares where a false story has gotten into one of my stories by accident; I wake up with a sick start, and the relief when I realize that it was just a dream is sweet indeed. I cannot imagine the thought process that would lead you to do this on purpose. Leave aside the morality of it for the nonce--aren't people afraid of getting caught? In this day and age, how can you hope to get away with passing off a photo of an Islamabad think-tanker as a terrorist who kidnapped you?

But of course if the allegations are true, he did get away with it for a long time. Presumably, this started way back, with some harmless and undetectable fudge. After all, all journalism is approximate sometimes. It's gotten less so with the advent of recording technology, but when my recorder failed during an interview for my next column, I was forced to rely on my notes, and since I don't write as fast as people talk, this meant a lot of back and forth with the fact-checkers and the subject over whether I'd filled in the correct prepositions or gotten the right word order. And obviously I do not videotape everything I see. So we're all forced to contend with the certainty that errors can and do creep into our recollection.

Perhaps Mortenson's exaggerations started by just playing with the edges of this uncertainty--sexing up his quotes and the characters he met. Then as nothing happened, he got bolder. Especially since he was probably rewarded for his creativity--lightly fictionalized characters are usually livelier and more compelling than actual people, who tend not to speak in well crafted dialogue, or make exactly the perfect point upon which to pivot our story.

Still, I don't know how he could keep going on for so long, with nothing inside him saying "Stop, this is wrong . . . " or at least "Stop, this is really dangerous and you're going to get caught." Which is, I suppose, the mainstay of real journalism: people still do surprise you.

Let me explain the situation to Mrs. McArdle, using an example that she can relate to. Let's posit that you work for a magazine that takes money from very large pharmaceutical companies. You know that the more advertising revenue your magazine takes in, the better your chance of keeping your job for a long time. You want drug companies to continue to pump thousands of dollars into your boss's pocket because some of that lovely money will trickle down to you.

So you decide to tell everyone that they will die if drug companies make less money. Let's see, money pays for research, so we'll say that there will be no research and therefore no innovation in drug companies if the government sticks its great big ole nosy nose into healthcare. You don't have any proof of this statement, but who cares? The information is hard to find and hardly anyone will question you anyway. You work for a very prestigious magazine and people want to believe that their leaders are smart and honest.

You tell everyone that you read the drug companies' financial reports and they said that 80% of the drug companies' profits came from US sales. You tell your faithful readers that millions will die if Americans pay less for drugs. Oddly, you and your fans do not complain about how the rest of the world mooches off of Americans; instead you insist that Americans must overpay or die.

But then your worst nightmare comes to life. In a Q&A with the Washington Post, someone asks you where your number came from. Emboldened by your success at getting away with the lie and mindful of the wider audience, you admit that your number was "hypothetical."

Are you horrified? Are you sleepless with anxiety over your actions? (Well, maybe.) Do you admit you lied and say you've learned your lesson and accept Jesus as your personal Savior?

No, you continue to lie, lie, lie like the lying liar you are. That's how people become liars. And that's how they get away with it.

Speaking of writers, it seems that Ayn Rand wrote two books that bore a quite a resemblance to others' work.

There are similarities between Anthem and the earlier novel, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, another author who had lived in communist Russia. These include:

1.A novel taking the form of a secret diary or journal.
2.People having numbers instead of names.
3.Eugenics is practiced, and children are separated from their parents and brought up by the State
4.Individualism has been disposed of in favor of collective will.
5.A male who discovers individuality through his relationship with a female character.
6.A forest as a 'free' place outside the dystopian city.
7.The main character is a man, and a scientist.
8.This character discovers a link to the past, when men were free, in a tunnel under the Earth.

There are also a number of differences between the two stories. For example, the society of We is in no scientific or technological decay, featuring X-rays, airplanes, microphones, and so on. In contrast, the people of Anthem believe that the world is flat and the sun revolves around it, and that bleeding people is a decent form of medicine. The similarities have led to speculation about whether Rand's story was directly influenced by Zamyatin's.[6][7] However, there is little evidence that Rand was influenced by or even read Zamyatin's work, and she never mentioned it in discussions of her life in Russia.[6][8]


In Justin Raimondo’s fun and lively book Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, he makes an argument that I did not find convincing. He argued that Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged was clearly influenced by the 1922 Garet Garrett novel The Driver–that Rand never acknowledged this “source” and that if this was not quite plagiarism, then “Rand’s silence on this subject amounted to a deliberate deception.”

I’ve never been convinced by this conclusion. There is no doubt that Atlas, whatever else may be said about it, is original. Even if Rand was influenced by Garrett, there is simply no case to made for plagiarism or deception.

Yet the question of whether Rand did read The Driver is of interest. There are, as Raimondo points out, some thematic similarities between the novels. In Reclaiming, Raimondo he says that “the clearest evidence, albeit circumstantial, that Rand did indeed read The Driver” is a certain “stylistic device.” That is, the question “Who is Henry Galt?”, which is similar to Atlas‘s repeated line, “Who is John Galt?”Raimondo concludes, “From the overwhelming mass of evidence it is clear that Rand was influenced by Garrett. The similarities between The Driver and Atlas Shrugged are too numerous and too detailed to be coincidence.”

As noted, I find the deception/quasi-plagiarism charge to be completely unconvincing, but I was not even persuaded of the contention that Rand had even been influenced by Garrett (not that there would have been anything wrong if she had). But I just came across Garrett’s Cinder Buggy: A Fable in Iron and Steel, a novel that

“chronicles the transformation of American industry from the age of iron to the age of steel.” “The plot concerns an ongoing war between two industrialists, one the hero who is beaten in the first generation and the other who is malevolent but initially wins an ongoing struggle. The struggle continues through the second generation, which leads to the titanic struggle over whether steel or iron would triumph and why.”

Hmm. A steel industrialist. Hmm.

One of the major characters in Atlas is Hank Rearden (2):

Iron-willed inventor, and founder of the Rearden Steel empire, Hank Rearden is, with Francisco and Galt, one of the novel’s three major heroes. Rearden’s quest to understand and resolve his moral and emotional conflicts is central to the plot. His revolutionary new alloy, Rearden Metal, makes him a target of predators in government, industry, and his own family.

Yet another similarity? Maybe. I suppose–though I’m still not convinced–Rand may have read Garrett’s novels, and the themes and use of industrialists (railroad; steel) may have influenced her. (I’m not sure I see any links, though, to Satan’s Bushel, the third of Garrett’s trilogy.) Food for thought.


Clever Pseudonym said...

Hmmm...a black bus passenger is coming to mind. And why is Megan awakened by terror sweats brought by the thought of her "work" being outed as fraud? Very telling.

Anonymous said...

Not getting out of the boat.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Presumably, this started way back, with some harmless and undetectable fudge.


DocAmazing said...

...that's not fudge.

Kathy said...

ArgleBargle has nightmares about accidental errors or "lies" in her writing, but she's OK with the deliberate lies and the glaringly stupid?

Pity the author of "Three Cups of Tea" tried to pass it off as factual. It would have been just as good a book if he'd admitted it was fictional.

atat said...

My favorite line is when she writes, "But I thought I just didn't like it," before she goes on to quote the CBS report.

Huh? Gibberish. I don’t even think she knows what she's trying to say there.

Batocchio said...

We is a much better novel.

However, McBargle's health care lies definitely amount to a bigger scandal – and I'm glad you won't let her forget it.

(Also - plagiarism could only improve Rand's writing – so imagine how crappy it was before!)

Anonymous said...

Ugh, she's waded into the comments section of TNC's thread on the topic. Is there no safe haven from her?

Anonymous said...

McMegan [Moderator] 19 hours ago in reply to ErikaMSN
Good point--keeping your lies straight requires more mental effort than remembering what happened.


Syz said...

So basically, Megan wants us to know how hard she works?