Ayn Rand died 29 years ago, yet her legacy thrives. A film based on her most well-known novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ premieres on April 15, traditionally known as Tax Day in the U.S. Perhaps because of the film premiere or perhaps because of the current political climate, Rand is being discussed, debated and in some instances, despised all over again.
Gone missing from commentary on Rand
I noted comments on a left-leaning message board where someone had posted a link to an article at The US Report about a billboard many people see on I-95 as they drive south. The billboard asks Rand’s pivotal question in ‘Atlas’: “Who is John Galt?” The posters on the message board adopted the usual stance of attacking Rand for her “selfishness.” I doubt most had read her works; the comments are largely juvenile.
If they had, they’d have recognized another often-missed point in ‘Atlas.’ Rand's central character Dagny was willing to risk her life for the man she loved. I’d say that is not indicative of a “selfish” act.
I enjoyed reading an essay at Red State, and I enjoyed reading the more than 250 often lively comments from readers there. In ‘Rejecting the Cult of Ayn Rand’ the essayist begins with an acknowledgement conservatives (whatever that is) “properly owe a debt of thought to Ayn Rand.” Because of course she railed against what we Americans rather bizarrely call “liberalism.” The essayist questions “allegedly grown and serious men worshiping her philosophy devoutly.”
Something went missing in that essay, however, and it has to do with the times Rand lived in as well as women’s rights.
Women’s rights, Labor’s rights
On the times, it’s useful to note her novel ‘Anthem’ actually addresses matters in real time after the book was originally written in 1937. Rand edited it before it was published in the U.S. in 1946.
In ‘Anthem,’ Rand writes:
“Compulsory labor conscription is now practiced or advocated in every country on earth. What is it based on, if not the idea that the state is best qualified to decide where a man can be useful to others, such usefulness being the only consideration, and that his own aims, desires or happiness should be ignored as of no importance?
We have councils of Vocations, Councils of Eugenics, every possible kind of Council, including a World Council—and if these do not as yet hold total power over us, is it from lack of intention?”
Segue to F.A. Hayek in ‘The Road to Serfdom.’ In a footnote to the Foreword, Bruce Caldwell explains the conscription of labor in Great Britain, beginning with the Control of Engagement Order of 1947, “issued by the Minister of Labour and, as delegated legislation, not subject to amendment by Parliament.”
Caldwell continued, “Ivor Thomas, in ‘The Socialist Tragedy’…offered this succinct description: ‘Under this Order men between the ages of 18 and 50 and women between the ages of 18 and 40 may not be engaged except through an employment exchange of the Ministry of Labour, apart from certain exempted occupations. Workers in coal mining and agriculture are not permitted to leave those occupations. Other applicants at an employment exchange are offered jobs that in the Government’s view have the highest priority. If an applicant refuses to accept a job he can in the last resort be directed, and failure to obey the direction can be punished by fine or imprisonment.’”
When I read that passage, I naturally think of the mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly called ObamaCare.
As for women’s rights Rand was determined to not only exercise her rights but in ‘Atlas’ to flaunt them. In the 1950s films with bedroom scenes showed married couples dressed in pajamas that showed little or no skin. The norm for the marital bed was a twosome—usually two single beds. Women were glorified for motherhood; the requisite pedestal was firmly in place. Those who broke with convention were usually depicted as tragedies and in real life that happened as well. Film star Marilyn Monroe is a perfect example.
Rand rebelled against the dictated role of woman as producer and nurturer of the species. She was fine if that’s what a woman chose for herself, but she was determined to get across the idea we should be able to choose. Rand’s most majestic character, Dagny Taggart, is far more skilled than her brother James who is in charge of the family’s railroad. Because she is a woman she must acquiesce to his often erroneous decisions because of his authority based on the simple fact he is the male heir to the corporate throne.
Those who write about Rand often overlook her work in the broad context of women’s rights, focusing instead on the narrow notion she simply wanted to enjoy her sexuality.
The Sign of the Dollar
In thoughtful commentary about Rand at the Labor Union Report, the essayist said, “Rand’s belief in the primacy of the individual over the collective has garnered her vilification from some on the Right and many, especially, on the Left. Yet, there is no denying that Atlas Shrugged’s portrayal on the devolution of society at the hands of the Left was prescient as it was one of the most cogent attacks on the excesses of liberalism. Today, it seems as though the lines of fiction and reality have blurred in our nation.”
I recall one commenter’s thoughts in response to my own article about the John Galt billboard, “The billboard owner’s comment about Rand’s atheism suggests that he is religious. It’s probable that he’s a Christian. He must lack a thorough understanding either of Rand’s ideas or of Christ’s because they are profoundly incompatible.”
I think the commenter lacked a thorough understanding of Rand’s ideas—true, she wasn’t a person of faith. But messages in her fiction address critical values in many faiths: the innate rights of man, the equally innate rights of women (still repressed in many countries today), the significance of a promise inherent in a contract between two people.
The essayist at Red State noted a repudiation of Rand by Whittaker Chambers who called attention to the finale in ‘Atlas’ when a character traces in the air the Sign of the Dollar. I haven’t read Chambers’ repudiation, but I’d like to note something about the final sentences in her epic:
“The road is cleared,” said Galt. “We are going back to the world.”
He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”
The Red State essay approaches Rand’s concepts as “the accumulation of wealth and pleasure,” noting that Chambers believed the character traced the sign of the dollar “in lieu of the Sign of the Cross.”
I viewed that passage as more expansive. Rand despised the practice of crony capitalism, and while it is true she wholeheartedly pursued the idea of man’s right to accumulate wealth if he so chose, the sign of the dollar at the end of the book is what the entire thesis of the book is about. I viewed it not so much as a condemnation of faith as representative of the economic systems and practices she addressed in her book.
She practically hits the reader on the head with the theme. Chapter I is titled ‘The Theme.’ The novel begins with a bum asking “Who is John Galt.” And Eddie Willers who is representative of the populace we often describe now as Main Street, gives the bum a dime. Rand writes, “Pleas for dimes were so frequent in the streets these days that it was not necessary to listen to explanations, and he had no desire to hear the details of this bum’s particular despair.”
‘Atlas Shrugged’ begins with a dime and ends with a dollar sign. Understanding the significance is critical to appreciating Rand’s fictional works which are works of art in comparison to her nonfiction writing on the theory of objectivism.
I often think how amused she would be at the legions discussing and debating her works today. I also think she would be horrified at how close we have come, however, to her prophetic vision. In that regard Rand reminds me of Cassandra in Greek mythology—the prophetess no one believed until the arrival of destruction she foretold for Troy.
I have often thought of Moses when I read works like those by Rand. The central figure in a number of major faiths, Moses leads his people but he is never permitted to see the Promised Land.
Yet throughout his life, Moses was propelled not only by his faith in God and his dedication to the Israelites. Moses in my opinion was also propelled by human curiosity and in my opinion, self interest. He wanted to see that Promised Land—I believe the need burned in him and helped fuel his strength.
I suspect we all want the same and for now, though fragile, we still have the right to define that Land for ourselves. I think Rand would concur.
April 15: Tax Day and 'Atlas Shrugged' premiere
The US Report
Remembering the real Ayn Rand
The Wall Street Journal
Atlas is Shrugging
Video and commentary at The Labor Union Report
Rejecting the cult of Ayn Rand
Why Moses is denied the Promised Land
A Torah study/Jewish News of Greater Phoenix
The Ayn Rand Institute
Devoted to Rand’s life and works, fiction and nonfiction
(Commentary by Kay B. Day/April 15, 2011)
The trailer for 'Atlas Shrugged' seems to capture the spirit of Rand the free thinker. The initial comments at YouTube appear to be dominated by those who’d describe themselves as ‘liberals’—a cursory read of those initial comments will reveal the rants of small minds all thinking alike.
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