Everybody Shrugged

Horace explained it in his Ars Poetica – a longstanding literary technique – in medias res (“into the middle of things”) – you start the story in the middle. And with epics and tragedies and whatnot that works pretty well. Everyone knows the stories anyway, and through flashbacks and highlighting what everyone knows is going to happen, sadly or triumphantly, you can drive home the emotional heft of the tale, and show, again, what it really means in the grand scheme of things. And your audience is, after all, there to see and hear it all again, once more, with feeling. They’re not expecting anything new. They are there for the thrill of the Big Truth told once again, stunning them back to awareness of what life really is. So starting in the middle is just fine. And that mirrors real life anyway – we all come in, so to speak, in the middle of a much larger family story, and cultural story – and we have to leave before anything gets worked out in any sensible way. All any of us get is the middle of things.

So it’s best to just dive in here and assume everyone knows about Ayn Rand and her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged – that was her major work and informs all of conservative economic and social thought from Milton Freidman to Alan Greenspan – a close personal friend of Rand – and from Ron and Rand Paul (consider his first name) to Paul Ryan’s new budget to every Tea Party politician out there, and those who want to ride the Tea Party’s coattails. Paul Ryan even explains that what is happening right now as just like what is in a particular Ayn Rand novel at length on the House floor these days. It’s hard to avoid Ayn Rand these days. It’s not like citing Horace, after all.

And as for that novel Atlas Shrugged – well, everyone knows what that’s about. The United States has fallen apart, as everyone is told to chip in, for the common good – and then industrialists and artists and the superior folks in general simply refuse to be exploited by society. The fetching Dagny Taggart sees society collapse around her as the government increasingly asserts control over all industry – including Taggart Transcontinental, her once mighty transcontinental railroad – and then society’s most productive citizens, led by the mysterious John Galt, just start disappearing. They cut out. Galt says they are “stopping the motor of the world” by withdrawing the “minds” that drive society’s growth and productivity. They will demonstrate that “men of the mind” like them are all that matters. You see, a world in which the individual is not free to create is doomed. After all, civilization cannot exist where men are slaves to society and government, and everyone has to be made to see that the destruction of the profit motive leads to the collapse of society. So they just walk away. Utterly selfish people, who want to make a ton of money, are the only good folks left. Everyone else is a parasite, a useless whining leech. There is also a love story in there somewhere, of sorts, with a bit of bold feel-no-shame sex. But it seems like an afterthought.

Of course angry people like this sort of thing – there was the recent Go Galt Movement that went nowhere. There was no general strike by the only truly noble and productive people in America, the utterly selfish, who are the only ones make things work around here. They preferred their paychecks. But then Bill O’Reilly did chip in with this column saying charity sounds good and all, but Jesus knew better, as everyone knew what Jesus had been saying over and over again – the Lord helps those who help themselves. He seems to have confused Ayn Rand with Jesus Christ. It happens. Oddly, she was a stone-cold atheist, and proud of it. There was no higher power than the brilliant and ruthless and utterly selfish individual.

But the Paul Ryan budget is the Full Rand – essentially eliminate Medicare and Medicaid, and most all of the social safety net, and the EPA and FDA and Centers for Disease Control, and most spending on roads and bridges and dams and all the infrastructure stuff. People can take care of themselves, and the good people want to. The others are fools or parasites. He simply wants to ensure “that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” And the rich get a break – millionaires and billionaires have the top marginal tax rate drop more than then points, to twenty-five percent – back to where it was in the mid-twenties, the Roaring Twenties. Yeah, they may have to chip in a bit for a strong military, but why punish the good guys? Make the parasites pay for everything else. And that is what the House passed – no Democrats votes for it and all but four Republicans did. It cannot pass the Senate, with the Democrats holding a slim majority, and even if it did, Obama would veto it. He’s not an Ayn Rand fan. So it was just a statement – a matter of principle.

And of course you came in somewhere in the middle of this story. But that’s okay. There’s a new movie version of Atlas Shrugged that just opened – the first part of a planned trilogy. Yes, she lived out here for decades, working in the script departments of the studios, but this thing had been in development hell for almost forty years.

Maybe it was the 1949 version of The Fountainhead – “An uncompromising, visionary architect struggles to maintain his integrity and individualism despite personal, professional and economic pressures to conform to popular standards.” The Fountainhead is Rand’s second most popular novel, but the movie of it was glorious hooey. Gary Cooper was the sort of Frank Lloyd Wright architect who had stupid clients who didn’t recognize his genius and kept wanting him to build what they had paid for – those fools. And Patricia Neal was the Ayn Rand free-soul brilliant woman – and kind of looked like Rand. But it was all talk, and no one really wanted to watch the nobly selfish spend an hour and a half being defiantly self-interested. It turned out that the audience for that sort of thing was rather limited. Put it this way – these days such folks would buy a ticket for the travelling Charlie Sheen show.

So Hollywood was shy, but there were Tea Party backer willing to fund production and distribution, and the time was ripe, and Michael Phillips in the Los Angeles Times reviews the thing:

The tinhorn film version of “Atlas Shrugged” fails to rise even to the level of “eh” suggested by Ayn Rand’s title. But with so little going on in cinematic or storytelling terms, we can cut straight to the fascinating tea-stained politics of the thing.

Conceived as the first of a proposed three-part series, director Paul Johansson’s movie is the work of true believers in Rand’s pet theory known as Objectivism, which can be described as “Us? There is no ‘us’!” In Rand’s worldview, it is me-time, all the time. The capitalistic visionaries among us have been hounded and taxed and ground down so relentlessly by the federal government and other societal evils, there’s nothing to do but blow the whole thing up and start anew, in a civilization run by the mysterious John Galt, who respects the rapacious dog-eat-dog nature of humankind and the sexy, life-enhancing virtues of unfettered economic competition.

But the Tea Party crowd will be fine with it, something “to stoke their righteous wrath” just for them:

As adapted, dutifully if flatly, by screenwriters Brian Patrick O’Toole and John Aglialoro, the movie deploys Rand’s code words and phrases like little bombs. Each time one of Rand’s noble warriors – industrialists, inventors, plus a craven lobbyist or federal-payroll slacker for moral contrast — mutters something about “federal tax” or “public funding” or the uselessness of altruism, it’s like a call to arms.

And Phillips adds this:

At least with the 1949 version of “The Fountainhead,” you had the sense of actors clawing their way through Rand’s philosophy toward a human feeling or two. Director King Vidor certainly held up his end; the Expressionist zap and noir-inflected imagery in “The Fountainhead” is peerlessly bizarre. Not here. This movie is crushingly ordinary in every way, which with Rand, I wouldn’t have thought possible.

And Roger Ebert is at least as unkind:

I suspect only someone very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel could understand the film at all, and I doubt they will be happy with it. For the rest of us, it involves a series of business meetings in luxurious retro leather-and-brass board rooms and offices, and restaurants and bedrooms that look borrowed from a hotel no doubt known as the Robber Baron Arms.

During these meetings, everybody drinks. More wine is poured and sipped in this film than at a convention of oenophiliacs. There are conversations in English after which I sometimes found myself asking, “What did they just say?” The dialogue seems to have been ripped throbbing with passion from the pages of Investors’ Business Daily. Much of the excitement centers on the tensile strength of steel.

And this:

It’s a few years in the future. America has become a state in which mediocrity is the goal, and high-achieving individuals the enemy. Laws have been passed prohibiting companies from owning other companies. Dagny’s new steel, which is produced by her sometime lover, Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), has been legislated against because it’s better than other steels. The Union of Railroad Engineers has decided it will not operate Dagny’s trains. Just to show you how bad things have become, a government minister announces “a tax will be applied to the state of Colorado, in order to equalize our national economy.” So you see how governments and unions are the enemy of visionary entrepreneurs.

Well, it is a message movie:

Let’s say you know the novel, you agree with Ayn Rand, you’re an objectivist or a libertarian, and you’ve been waiting eagerly for this movie. Man, are you going to get a letdown. It’s not enough that a movie agree with you, in however an incoherent and murky fashion. It would help if it were like, you know, entertaining?

The movie is constructed of a few kinds of scenes: (1) People sipping their drinks in clubby surroundings and exchanging dialogue that sounds like corporate lingo; (2) railroads, and lots of ’em; (3) limousines driving through cities in ruin and arriving at ornate buildings; (4) city skylines; (5) the beauties of Colorado. There is also a love scene, which is shown not merely from the waist up but from the ears up. The man keeps his shirt on. This may be disappointing for libertarians, who I believe enjoy rumpy-pumpy as much as anyone.

It’s basically lecture, with cast. And even if you were there from the dolly-in pan-left go-to-main-titles opening, you still came in in the middle of things.

Roy Edroso offers this:

Whatever understandable prejudice you might have against Ayn Rand, you have to admit that the giant concrete block of her novel on which Atlas Shrugged: Part I is based could make a movie of some sort. Consider all that happens in it: Dagny Taggart, who wants her family’s railroad to succeed on its own merits, is opposed by her weakling brother James, who prefers that it succeed via corrupt influences. Conglomerate head Henry Rearden wants success on his own terms, too, but is opposed by, well, the whole wide world, which instinctually recoils at his greatness. These two superior beings inevitably meet, are inevitably attracted to each other, and inevitably couple, after which they together work to find the solution to their mutual dilemma.

Maybe it sounded better in the concept meeting:

But it is my great regret to inform you that Atlas Shrugged: Part I is neither good nor good-bad, but bad-bad-bad-bad. I dreamed … of my own swift and merciful death, and that of the director, not necessarily in that order. It is not a pleasurable surprise, not a hoot, nor an outrage; it is Rand’s granite crushed, reconstituted, and spread across the screen with steamrollers.

And there’s the unintentional irony:

Taggart and Rearden are supposed to be important and accomplished producers of wealth, but we never see them doing anything productive. Rearden smiles as he watches steel poured in his foundry, and Taggart walks around purposefully with folders, but neither is shown engaged in actual work. In fact the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid showing it: At one point Taggart appears outdoors at a worksite and Rearden compliments her on her easy manner with the workers, but we never see Taggart actually interacting with them.

It’s as if the filmmakers couldn’t imagine such a thing (nor can I: “Hello, factotum, your brute strength is useful to my enterprise, keep up the good work!”). In fact, it’s as if they thought that the sight of either character doing anything like what real executives do would spoil the effect. Because executives make deals, and Taggart and Rearden can’t deal with anyone but each other; the only thing like negotiation they perform is their own meet-cute, in which haggling over price becomes a romantic pas des deux. Everyone else they encounter, besides subordinates, is unworthy of their efforts, and thus can only be browbeaten or belittled.

Consistent though this may be with Objectivist mythology – noble producers standing among, but not of, ignoble looters – it destroys any opportunity for actual drama.

And there is another odd thing, as Dagny Taggart’s lover is married, by the way:

This is quickly dismissed as an impediment, because he and his wife hate each other. There’s so much wrong with the movie that I can’t even care about the morality of this, but I do wonder whether South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was thinking about Atlas Shrugged when he went hiking with his true love on the South American-Appalachian Trail.

It’s just a mess:

The movie is so starved of humanity that the big turning-point scenes are about as thrilling as a Congressional budget negotiation. When the super-train goes on its controversial trip over the bridge, we know that the bad guys want it to fail, and that the good guys want it to succeed. Drama, right? But not only are the good guys incapable of failure – they’re incapable of doubt, too. Not even the guy who’s driving the train seems worried. So the train accelerates (the fastest any train has ever gone in America!), it approaches the bridge, we cross-cut, see the wheels going around, and — guess what? It succeeds, just like we always knew it would. If the soundtrack swells it’s only so we can’t hear D. W. Griffith spinning in his grave.

And there’s this:

The country at the time of the film (2016) is in some kind of chaos which is not well explained – the Middle East is in crisis, gas is absurdly expensive, and plane travel is moribund, which somewhat justifies the otherwise perplexing and anachronistic interest in railroads. Poverty is widespread, signified by beggars and trash fires. No attempt is made to tie all this together, but it is also suggested that the nation has been given over to sociamalism – the opening montage shows protesters marching with signs touting those twin menaces, Martin Luther King and communism, and the D.C. guys talk about sharing the wealth in ways that have never been heard in Washington, nor anywhere in the United States except perhaps Louisiana in the time of Huey Long. I suppose this is the film’s Tea Party tell, but I notice that it seems not to affect the actions of the principals in any direct way. This is made comically clear when Taggart, dressed in fancy duds, bolts from her brother’s limo and walks home through an urban hobo jungle. I know the filmmakers were in a rush, but I marvel that they resisted the temptation to have Taggart explain her natural superiority to a bum, after which he would cower before the force of her logic instead of raping her and taking her purse.

And then there’s Digby:

I do take exception to one thing Roy says. Any notion that that teenage potboiler could ever be anything but ridiculous is wishful thinking. There’s a reason nobody’s ever been able to get a decent script out of that monster. It’s just too stupid. And that’s in an industry that has made gazillions on a franchise called Jackass.

But it’s just a movie.

On the other hand it might be more than that. Mark Thoma at Economist’s View offers some thoughts on how it has become difficult to have a civil discussion between Republicans and Democrats when “the two parties have both utterly different goals and utterly different views about how the world works.” He doesn’t mention Ayn Rand, but she’s in the background nonetheless.

He had discussed that here – the issues are complex – and these are important issues, as “there are fundamental ideological differences, and we should expect passionate debate.” It’s just that what we get makes no sense:

But the debate should also be refereed by the press in a way that exposes falsehoods, misleading statements, budgets that don’t add up, and the like, and it should apply to both sides equally. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the response is asymmetrical. The Republicans seem free to make whatever outrageous claims they want, from death panels to tax cuts paying for themselves, without being called on it by the press. But if Democrats return fire, or criticize Republicans at all, if they say anything, the media jumps all over them. How can we possibly get a deal on anything if Democrats won’t move toward intransigent, unbending, will-not-move-an-inch Republicans? Of course it’s Democrat’s fault.

We’re stuck in a bad Ayn Rand novel perhaps. And he cites Paul Krugman on how it has come to pass that civility is the last refuge of scoundrels:

At the beginning of last week, the commentariat was in raptures over the Serious, Courageous, Game-Changing Ryan plan. But now that the plan has been exposed as the cruel nonsense it is, what we’re hearing a lot about is the need for more civility in the discourse. President Obama did a bad thing by calling cruel nonsense cruel nonsense; he hurt Republican feelings, and how can we have a deal when the GOP is feeling insulted? What we need is personal outreach; let’s do lunch!

But that is nonsense:

The easy, and perfectly fair, shot is to talk about the hypocrisy here; where were all the demands for civility when Republicans were denouncing Obama as a socialist, accusing him of creating death panels, etc..? Why is it OK for Republicans to accuse Obama of stealing from Medicare, but not OK for Obama to declare, with complete truthfulness, that those same Republicans are trying to dismantle the whole program?

Beyond that, are we dealing with children here? Is one of our two major political parties run by people so immature that they will refuse to do what the country needs because the president hasn’t been nice to them?

Well, that happens if you’ve read too much Ayn Rand. You get locked in early adolescence.

But then there may not be anything to have a civil discussion about:

The truth is that the two parties have both utterly different goals and utterly different views about how the world works.

It’s not nice to say this (but the truth is rarely nice): whatever they may say, Republicans are not concerned, above all, about the deficit. In fact, it’s not clear that they care about the deficit at all; they’re trying to use deficit concerns to push through their goal of dismantling the Great Society and if possible the New Deal; they have stated explicitly that they want to reduce taxes on high incomes to pre-New-Deal levels. And it’s an article of faith on their part that low taxes have magical effects on the economy.

That Rand woman has made civility in discourse not only impossible, she has cast it as morally evil. So what is there to talk about?

Okay, that’s that. If you came in sort of the middle of the argument, now you’re all caught up. But it was going on long before you got here, and it will still be going on long after you’re gone.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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