Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, May 6, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking Part 2

Chapter III The Top And The Bottom

"It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Abraham Maslow

In her review of Atlas Shrugged, Megan McGalt said:

The movie left out the things that could have made it gripping: the aesthetic that deftly mixes comic books, film noir, and WPA murals; the reverance [sic] for genius and innovation; the stories that dramatize pure principle. These things are barely name checked, much less used. The best stories--like the nationalization of the San Sebastian mines, or the attempt by the 20th Century Motor Company to run its business along the lines of the communist motto "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"--are compressed into two lines, explained ineptly.

McArdle must have thoroughly enjoyed Chapter II, which goes from James Taggart's meeting with the top businessmen in New York to Dagny Taggart's conversation with a lowly news vendor in the lobby of her office building, which is Rand's version of the proverbial bus passenger whose views echo the writer's perfectly. Taggart meets with his friends in a skyscraper bar, which is ugly and nonsensical (it is built to resemble a cellar) because everything the Bad Guys do is ugly and nonsensical. It is extremely unlikely that a popular bar would have a ceiling so low one actually has to stoop to walk under it, but Rand does not feel constrained by everyone else's reality since she is making up one of her own.

James's meeting with a small group of like-minded industrialists is a scene we have seen described a hundred times before, as libertarians put finger to temple and imagine what liberals do together in one of their secret socialist cabal meetings. Evidently they band together to create new laws that pretend to be about fairness but actually are passed to squash competition. As Megan McGalt described:

Well, I dare the [regulation] defenders to tell me why casket sales need to be tightly regulated. You don't even necessarily legally need a casket to get buried in, according to the folks I talked to at the Institute for Justice, which is helping a group of Louisiana monks defend their casket-making business from the predations of industry insiders. The construction of a box is not one of those complicated things that only licensed professionals can master. And even if it were, it's not like the occupant is going to be hurt by a badly-constructed casket.

The regulatory board, naturally, "has nine members, eight of whom are funeral industry professionals". And the explanations of why the monks should not be able to sell caskets are embarrassingly bad; the best the Journal could come up with, apparently, is this: [snipped quote]

The real story, of course, is that caskets are a huge margin business for funeral homes. You can see why--it's easier to mark up a fancy box than to put an enormous price tag on preparing the body, which could cause an emotional freak-out on the part of the family. It's hard to maintain those kinds of margins in the era of the internet, especially since caskets are the very definition of a commodity business--there's just not much differentiation in styling or quality in a wooden box.

So funeral directors are doing their best to protect their business. I don't really blame them. But that doesn't mean that the rest of us should cooperate by enabling ridiculous licensing schemes.

See? Regulation exists to squash competition, just like Ayn Rand said. McGalt does not discuss, for instance, how the regulation of polluters like Koch Industries would also squash competition, but we suspect that it would lead to the end of competition in the toilet paper market and therefore the Koches should be able to pollute at will. After all, the poisoned people can always stop buying Koch products and Koch will be forced by Free Market Equilibrium to change its more lethal practices--as long as government regulation doesn't spoil the whole thing, of course.

Rand's Bad Guys do whatever Rand needs them to do, regardless of logic or reality. Nobody is accountable to stockholders and everyone sits around weakly, just waiting for their businesses to eventually fail. The industrialists do take some action to preserve their markets; they band together to to eliminate Reardon, who is buying up failing business he needs for the production of Reardon Metal. But they ignore the activity in Colorado, although it seems that every bit of machinery Dagny sees was made there. They are more concerned with helping Mexico become a successful socialist country, because when you are writing a How I Became The Most Important Woman In The World fantasy, you can contort your characters so they are socialists and monopoly capitalist simultaneously.

James Taggart asks Orren Boyle, owner of Associated Steel, if Mexico will nationalize the San San Sebastian mine, the only privately owned mine left in the country. Boyle made his money by getting huge government loans; all the Bad Guys made money through inheritance and favors, all the Good Guys made money through talent and hard work and mental toughness, even if they inherited great wealth. Because Boyle is weak he is also stupid; he says the mines won't be privatized. He tells James that Dagny has put her worst trains on the Taggart railroad line to the San Sebastian Mine and they all agree that nobody can do anything anyway, but James promises to himself that Dagny will pay, oh yes she will.

Throughout the conversation a weak, sycophantic, despised man sits at the table; he is James' lobbyist in Washington. We pause to take note that Megan McGalt's father was a lobbyist for New York construction firms, something that she stopped mentioning a long time ago, preferring to call him an academic instead. In Rand's world, lobbyists are nasty little men who are hired by the Good Guys because the latter are forced by an increasingly socialist government to protect themselves. Our Ubermensch accept the necessity of such men but despise them and everything they stand for, which is supposed to convince us that Dagny and Reardon are pure and uncompromising in every way while they are enjoying the advantages lobbying gives them.

In Grandpa Taggart's day there were other ways of dealing with Senators and their legalistic shenanigans; Nat Taggart murdered a state legislator who planned to revoke Taggart's charter for personal profit and threw down the stairs a government official who offered him a loan. But he was a Good Guy, living up to his Galtian potential, so that was okay. Rand has no problem with murdering the weak, or simply the unlucky, as long as one is achieving greatness, a characteristic she held in common with communists, the people she hated most in the world.

Dagny always felt she was destined for greatness, unlike the rest of the world, which was destined for the dirt where they could more easily be trodden upon by the elite.

Dagny Taggart was nine years old when she decided that she would run Taggart Transcontinental Railroad some day. She state it to herself when she stood alone between the rails, looking at the two straight lines of steel that went off into the distance and met in a single point. What she felt was an arrogant pleasure at the way the track cut through the woods; it did not belong in the midst of ancient trees, among green branches that hung down to meet green brush and the lonely spears of wild flowers-but there it was. The two steel lines were brilliant in the sun, and the black ties were like the rungs of a ladder which she had to climb.

It was not a sudden decision, but only the final seal of words upon something she had known long ago. In unspoken understanding, as if bound by a vow it had never been necessary to take, she and Eddie Willers had given themselves to the railroad from the first conscious days of their childhood.

I can imagine Dagny's childhood was a little different from most girls'.

Maid: Miss Dagny, it's time for your bath.

Dagny Taggart, aged 4: You fool, do you think a moocher like you can tell me what to do? One day I shall rule this nation while you and your progeny will sink back into the muck from which you came. And I can't wait until I make it happen!

Maid: That's it, Missy. No more cookies before bedtime. The sugar makes you cross.

Dagny: Curse your weak, redistributionist soul!

This small child, this little girl, thinks of nothing but conquest over the entire world. Ordinarily a child with this attitude would be accompanied by either Rod Serling or a male nurse carrying a tranquilizer gun, but poor, misunderstood Dagny's only companion is her pet dog, Eddie Willers.

She felt a bored indifference toward the immediate world around her, toward other children and adults alike. She took it as a regrettable accident, to be borne patiently for a while, that she happened to be imprisoned among people who were dull. She had caught a glimpse of another world and she knew that it existed somewhere, the world that had created trains, bridges, telegraph wires and signal lights winking in the night. She had to wait, she thought, and grow up to that world.

As we mentioned before, Rand gritted her teeth throughout childhood and waited impatiently for the agony to be over. She felt that the only quality worth having was intelligence and that everyone else, from her classmates to the adults in her mother's social and intellectual circles, were stupid and therefore without any worth at all.

Implicit in Alice's reminiscences about her childhood is the fact that, from her parents and from the other adults she encountered, love and admiration were purchased by the qualities of her mind. When her mother paraded her before the relatives, it was because Alice's bright lucidity inspired their admiration; when her father smiled at her during his visits to the nursery at the end of the day, it was because she had told him of some activity--a game she had invented, a picture in a children's book she had built a story around--that demonstrated the quickness of her mind. Alice learned well the lesson contained in the reactions she received....But she placed on intelligence what can only be termed a moral value; intelligence and virtue were to become inextricably linked in her mind and her emotions; where she saw no unusual intelligence--not the capacity for dedicated productive work that she believed to be its consequences-she saw no value that meant anything to her in personal terms.

A child who is not loved has great difficulty loving others. Many children attempt to mold themselves into something that will gain that love, but others will try to mold the world instead. They will spend their lives trying to create a world which mirrors the one inside, demanding that everyone else acknowledge that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong, wrong, wrong.

[Dagny] never tried to explain why she liked the railroad. Whatever it was that others felt, she knew that this was one emotion for which they had no equivalent and no response. She felt the same emotion in school, in classes of mathematics, the only lesson she liked. She felt the excitement of solving problems, the insolent delight of taking up a challenge and disposing of it without effort, the eagerness to meet another, harder test. She felt, at the same time, a growing respect for the adversary, for a science that was so clean, so strict, so luminously rational. Studying mathematics, she felt, quite simply and at once: "How great that men have done this" and "How wonderful that I'm so good at it." It was the joy of admiration and of one's own ability, growing together. Her feeling for the railroad was the same: worship of the skill that had gone to make it, of the ingenuity of someone's clean, reasoning mind, worship with a secret smile that said she would know how to make it better some day.She hung around the tracks and the roundhouses like a humble student, but the humility had a touch of future pride, a pride to be earned.

"You're unbearably conceited," was one of the two sentences she heard throughout her childhood, even though she never spoke of her own ability. The other sentence was "You're selfish." She asked what was meant, but never received an answer. She looked at the adults, wondering how they could imagine that she would feel guilt from an undefined accusation.

Who is calling Dagny selfish and conceited? Knowing Rand's childhood, we suspect she is referring to Dagny's mother, who is utterly absent from the story, at least so far. In the end Rand has her revenge against mothers who don't appreciate their superior offspring; Reardon's mother is a harpy and Dagny's is simply non-existent. Dagny raised herself, it seems, and did a mighty fine job of it if she does say so herself. She didn't need help growing up just as she doesn't need her teachers in math, and obviously the other subjects didn't matter. Dagny boot-straps her way into running the railroad by asking her father for a job, which "amused and a little curious," he gives her. She works as a railroad operator, which the internets tells us is a person who "report[s] trains to the Dispatcher, copie[s] train orders, and delivers clearances and order[s] to the crews." Dagny works at night so she can go to engineering school, which she also starts at 16. Wisely, the other rail men do not protest or inhibit the career of the daughter of the railroad's owner, but Rand asserts that Dagny's rise was due solely to everyone else's incompetence.

Dagny's rise among the men who operated Taggart Transcontinental was swift and uncontested. She took positions of responsibility because there was no one else to take them. There were a few rare men of talent around her, but they were becoming rarer every year. Her superiors, who held the authority, seemed afraid to exercise it, and they spent their time avoiding decisions, so she told people what to do and they did it. At every step of her rise, she did the work long before she was granted the title. It was like advancing through empty rooms. Nobody opposed her, yet nobody approved of her progress.

Nobody stopped her because Daddy would have fired them, but in Rand World the moochers do not act because they are weak, not out of self-preservation. They do not try to protect their jobs when the boss's daughter starts usurping their power because they are afraid to make decisions, yet they were hired by her father's company and worked for him for years. For someone enamored of capitalist success, Rand seems to know very little about how companies are run and seems to care even less. Ubermensch must succeed effortlessly to prove their superiority so they do, no matter how nonsensical the story becomes.

Of course James starts in public relations at age 21, because he is a loser who just wants to schmooze with Washington power brokers. And of course the Board of Directors elected him president of the company, because Dagny only suffers from sexism when the story demands it. Mostly Dagny suffers from the stupidity and mediocrity of the rest of the world.

It was only in the first few years that she felt herself screaming silently, at times, for a glimpse of human ability, a single glimpse of clean, hard, radiant competence. She had fits of tortured longing for a friend or an enemy with a mind better than her own. But the longing passed. She had a job to do. She did not have time to feel pain; not often

Ordinarily a childhood like Dagny's would lead a fictional character into a short but glorious career as a Supervillain, but Dagny is not lucky enough to have a Superman to her Lex Luthor.

The adversary she found herself forced to fight was not worth matching or beating; it was not a superior ability which she would have found honor in challenging; it was ineptitude--a gray spread of cotton that seemed soft and shapeless, that could offer no resistance to anything, or anybody, yet managed to be a barrier in her way.

Nobody has anything to teach teenage Dagny; she knows everything and has already achieved perfection of character and morality. Everyone else is a stupidhead and stands in her way. She has no friends or boyfriends, doesn't go to movies or dances or dinner parties, doesn't travel for pleasure, doesn't like or love anyone. She is utterly cut off from humanity and instead of yearning for a human connection, she yearns to find someone who is exactly like herself, except better, of course, or they would just be another loser. Because that is how people are judged in Rand's world: first by intelligence, then by usefulness. Dagny's old boyfriend Francisco d'Anconia, who captured Dagny's attention by being intelligent and successful, disappointed her by also being useless and thus was rejected, not achieving the rank of Ubermensch.

After meeting with James and discussing her sabotage of the Taggart Mexican line, Dagny stops off in the lobby to talk with the news vendor and indulge in her only activity unrelated to the railroad, buying and smoking cigarettes. Dagny and her news vendor agree that men just aren't men anymore, they are weak and frightened creatures. The vendor is special somehow; his business has failed and his family and friends are gone, but these signs of inferiority mean nothing compared to his ability to recognize the superiority of his betters.

Dagny liked to stop at his newsstand on her way out. He seemed to be part of the Taggart Terminal, like an old watchdog too feeble to protect it, but reassuring by the loyalty of his presence. He like to see her coming, because it amused him to think that he alone knew the importance of the young woman in a sports coat and a slanting hat, who came hurrying anonymously through the crowd.

As always, the biggest sign of a person's superiority in Atlas Shrugged is that they recognize the worth of a poor, suffering, unappreciated, hard-working Galtian who just wants to do a good job but is surrounded by weaklings and idiots. But before too long Dagny will find what she is looking for--a person as unemotional, selfish, arrogant and alienated as herself.


Phil Perspective said...

McArdle must have thoroughly enjoyed Chapter II, which goes from James Taggart's meeting with the top businessmen in New York to Dagny Taggart's conversation with a lowly news vendor in the lobby of her office building, which is Rand's version of the proverbial bus passenger whose views echo the writer's perfectly.

So Little Tommy Friedman has been stealing Rand's schtick?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm....sounds like "Atlas Shrugged" is in fact a fascinating exploration of the mind of Adolph Hitler...

Lurking Canadian said...

Rand just never got over Mom giving her extra toys to the poor kids. You can hear her crying out against that injustice in every sentence she ever wrote.

Mr. Wonderful said...

Count--even in your excerpts--the number of times "clean" is used as an approving adjective. Therein lies an untapped Freudian oil reserve of repression--of rage, tears, emotions, and all those other messy things.

Cf., as always,

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

...Rand's version of the proverbial bus passenger whose views echo the writer's perfectly.

I like to think of this person as the Applebee's salad bar attendant.

Very nice work, Susan.

Istanbul ( not Constantinople) said...

Oh please oh please oh please don't stop writing these.
Extraordinarily well done posts, and I look forward to the next one.

Kathy said...

Other than writing very long books, did Rand ever "produce" anything of value? Did she ever show evidence of superior intelligence or usefullness?

Anonymous said...

bwahaha love the passing shot at suave douchebag Julian Sanchez!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Rand had any experience working for a living in the private sector>

zuzu said...

McMegan's never buried anyone, clearly.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Nonny, wiki covers it.

From the ridiculous to the really ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

“James Taggart asks Orren Boyle, owner of Associated Steel, if Mexico will privatize the San San Sebastian mines, the only privately owned mine left in the country.”

Should the first “privatize” be “nationalize”? As written, that doesn’t really make sense.

Batocchio said...

One of things that struck me watching the four or so Rand TV interviews online is how much she was an imperialist, even though she used different language. She said she didn't find sunsets or nature beautiful; she thought skyscrapers were. Okay; but she's very much into the conquest, subjugation and despoiling of the natural world. Despite her lines about not seizing things by force, she called both Native Americans and Arabs "savages" who had no right to their land because they 'weren't doing anything with it.' To her, a mountain that wasn't being strip-mined was a waste. As with many a glibertarian narcissist (but I repeat myself), Rand's commitment to property and opposition to force stemmed from her assumption that she owned the property. So it goes with the rest of her self-serving "philosophy."

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." – John Kenneth Galbraith

Susan, have you considered adding category tags, at least for this series? If nothing else, you can link them all in a new post when you're done. Just make sure you're pacing yourself for sanity's sake, and drinking heavily.

(Side note – Jerome Bixby, who wrote the short story "It's a Good Life," got a bit sick of it and The Twilight Zone episode because it overshadowed his other, often fine work.)

fish said...

"capitalism's version of middlebrow religious novels"

That is so excellent.

Susan of Texas said...


Batocchio, I'll add tags, which I usually neglect out of laziness. I did add a link to the posts on the left, under the blogroll.

she called both Native Americans and Arabs "savages" who had no right to their land because they 'weren't doing anything with it.

That sounds awfully familiar.

Yesterday, I rode the bus for the first time from the stop near my house, and ended up chatting with a lifelong neighborhood resident who has just moved to Arizona, and was back visiting family. We talked about the vagaries of the city bus system, and then after a pause, he said, "You know, you may have heard us talking about you people, how we don't want you here. A lot of people are saying you all are taking the city from us. Way I feel is, you don't own a city." He paused and looked around the admittedly somewhat seedy street corner. "Besides, look what we did with it. We had it for forty years, and look what we did with it!"

Narya said...

Partly because of you beginning this series, I dug my copy off the shelf and started reading--and was even more appalled than before about how terribly wretched the writing is, how morally bankrupt the ideas it propounds really are, and how ludicrous the whole thing is.

I had to put it down almost immediately, as it was straining my eyes, due to the constant rolling thereof.

Lancelot Link said...

Some late-arriving irony here;
"In Rand's world, lobbyists are nasty little men..."
You know who else was a professional lobbyist? The Scottish writer...JOHN GALT.

Gary said...

a characteristic she held in common with communists

If you look at it, Objectivism really does resemble Stalinism an awful lot.

They don't object to the tactics, just the result.