Uncle Sam Shrugged
One of the more interesting statistics that has caught my attention recently is the fact that Ayn Rand’s notorious opus ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has steadily climbed Amazon’s bestseller list since the start of the financial crisis; as I write this it’s #36 on their literature list. Setting aside the fact that the book has no business being on any respectable list of American literature – it’s a trashy pulp novel written for the sole purpose of delivering a treatise on Rand’s philosophy of ‘objectivism’ – that’s a pretty impressive sales number. Or perhaps ‘scarily impressive’ is a better word.
For those of you who don’t remember (or never read) the book, it’s about a dystopian parallel US in which a parasitic, vaguely socialist government has so squelched the ability to profit from innovation that the wealthy & powerful (who Rand treats as ‘ubermenschen’) go on strike. The book contains a lot of Rand’s usual melodramatic dreck, all leading up to a final chapter which is essentially a monograph on objectivism – Rand’s tortured attempt to legitimize self-gratification and solipsism by calling it a philosophy. The title itself is what one of my philosophy professors used to call a ‘clever move’ (by which he meant a bullshit maneuver), in that smuggles in the notion that business leaders are akin Atlas (the Greek god who held the world on his shoulders) without even the barest nod to explaining why we should think of them as such. In the book, these demigods, blessed with talent yet cursed with the affliction of having to carry the weight of the rest of (apparently useless) humanity on their shoulders, give a collective “who gives a shit?” shrug. And the world falls apart.
It’s extremely tempting to dive into a juicy deconstruction of Rand’s ‘philosophy’ and a disquisition on the toxic impact that she’s had on US politics and culture, but that’s a topic for another rant (suffice it to say that Alan Greenspan, her once-lover and lifelong acolyte, is a committed objectivist; when he famously admitted that he failed to properly regulate the mortgage securitization market because his model was flawed, the model to which he was referring was objectivism). Likewise, it would be an amusement of the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel variety to rail against the simplistic suckers whose need for elegant, sanitary solutions to life’s complexities causes them to fall for her trauma-driven worldview. But we have bigger fish to fry at the moment.
‘Atlas Shrugged’ owes its resurgence to the same misguided, self-pitying nonsense that underpins the “thinking” of the Tea Partiers – and the Bachmans, Becks, and the rest of the usual gang of idiots on the right – to wit, the slovenly, red-headed step-meme of Reaganism which takes its form in the absurd notion that anything connected with the federal government can only have sprung from Lucifer’s dark loins.
But as I look back on the past 30 years or so of American history, I notice two interesting things: a prominent trend line of less “government meddling” in the business of the gods of the free market, and an almost identical decline in our nation’s middle class. I also notice a dramatic corrosion of our collective appreciation for our civic institutions – not just government (although it has come to be taken as a given, even on the left, that government is an evil), but also of people with a college education, of professionals, of cultural heroes (not to be confused with the freak show of modern celebrity). In short, of many all of the things to which from which we once derived a positive sense of national identity, and which served as a repository for our trust. That trust has been replaced by cynicism – a collective disgust, really, of anything that smacks of having more power than Joe the Plumber or a failed governor from a backward state. Obviously, these things are connected; as people’s sense of personal control over their destiny has eroded, so too has the social contract that was once pinned to the table, as it were, by our institutions.
One of the more frustrating dynamics for Progressives is that despite the indisputable fact that America’s prime innovation – the first virtue from which all of our success as a nation has sprung – is its form of government, a sizeable number of our countrymen have been wangled into a fevered commitment to its dismantling. The cognitive dissonance generated by hearing people declare themselves patriots while simultaneously berating all of the fruits of that innovation makes a lot of us crazy…it’s the moral equivalent of taking a knife to one’s own nubbins on the theory that removing dangling flesh will improve our ability to chase down a mate. This is the kind of theory we might expect to hear from Cosmo Kramer or Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis’ character in HBO’s brilliant Bored to Death). The line between absurdist humor and political discourse seems to be blurring at an alarming rate.
In thinking about all of this, it occurs to me that what we’ve really seen over the past 30 years isn’t Ayn Rand’s vision of the best and most talented walking away from business because of government encroachment, but something akin to a precise reciprocal: the best and the brightest running from government service – to a large degree from any institutional affiliation – and being replaced by the worst, least talented, and (most importantly), least conscientious among our countrymen.
The danger – tragedy, really – is that crapping on government is the most elegant kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Ask yourself – what sensible person in his or her mid-20’s, reared in the full bloom of the Reagan message and its debt-fueled “economic growth”, whose attitudes towards government started to coalesce right around the time that Newt Gingrich was doing everything he could to bring down Bill Clinton, would have any interest in going into government service? I’m not just talking about politics – which is of course a shit-show of the highest magnitude, but for which one at least receives the compensation of celebrity and partisan support. I’m talking about the career positions that really touch people’s day-to-day lives – the people who man government agencies, and upon whose good faith and judgment elected leaders assume when they do their best to craft meaningful policy.
So, in an era in which the respect that was once accorded to people to committed to a career in public service has transmuted into contempt, in which the middle class has been successfully manipulated into a self-destructive orgy of misplaced rage, and in which the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, what’s good ol’ Uncle Sam, the guy who was born of our collective belief in our ability to form a more perfect union, to do?
 As in all of her books, she uses soap-opera plot devices and one-dimensional characters to deliver a message that the primary problem with the world is that empathy for life’s losers leads to totalitarian socialist governments. The irony of her using romance, pathos and the occasional rape scene as the delivery vehicle for the message that we should be more objective and rational is lost on most of her acolytes – people like Alan Greenspan who take themselves so seriously that they fall into the sophomore trap of confusing the fugue created by compelling drama with some higher meaning, and who therefore never bother to ask themselves why they’re so taken with her truthiness.
 Rand, born Alissa Rosenberg in St. Petersburg, was the seemingly-Asperger’s afflicted daughter of a wealthy pharmacist whose family that was uprooted in the Russian revolution. She spent the rest of her life so immersed in a monomaniacal rage against the Bolsheviks that she failed to notice that Soviet society had the same huge class-inequities that had always plagued Russia…and therefore missed the obvious fact that the problem had less to do with the specifics of the socialist system of government than it did with the fact that Russia has never had a middle class. A problem which also, incidentally, plagues the kind of unregulated free market systems to which she was so religiously attached. Silly humans….