Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Randians At Play With Their Model Trains [Anthony McCarthy]

I'd better admit that I've been taking quite a good deal of pleasure reading the bad reviews of the movie made out of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's novel. And some of them have been among the worst reviews I've read recently. I should also admit that I didn't read Atlas, having struggled with her prose and her bizarrely demented thinking fully developed in her earlier, The Fountainhead. I'd been aware of some of her other writing, skimming some of the shorter stuff, maybe looking at some of the rest of it but nothing there changed the original impression that she was a crackpot* and one with a psychotic mean streak. Wait, change that, it wasn't a mean streak, it was a deluge of pathological hate, anger and resentment.

That she developed one of the stranger and more dangerous political-"philosophical" cults going is what's primarily interesting about Ayn Rand and her similarly cracked followers. Having given people who are emotionally arrested at the state between infantile generosity and when they have mastered their selfishness enough to relearn sharing, was a sure fire formula for that kind of movement. The worst of it has been those who gained political power, Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, and her true believers in the media have deformed our politics from our idealistic democratic beliefs to the predominant faith of our establishment. Since the Republican Party has handed economic policy to Ryan, we have every right to say that Ayn Rand is the foundation on which they intend to build. Rand was Lyndon LaRouche with influence.

For anyone who hasn't heard, one of the bases of Randian faith is that only the private sector is able to produce anything good, that anything that is done by the government is bad. That is one of the things about the reviews of Atlas Shrugged that has given me the most pleasure. For anyone who doubts that Rand was totally nuts and not especially intelligent, she chose a make believe, would be railroad baron as her hero to demonstrate the evil of good intentions, the folly of democracy and the virtue of selfishness.

Anyone who has ever looked at transportation as a part of human technology and history will be struck by one thing, there has never been a form of transportation that hasn't absolutely depended on government support. Shipping required protection from pirates, beacons to mark dangerous obstructions, direct subsidies to mercantile efforts, the construction and maintainable of ports. Roads are built with government subsidies, often through the labor of people held in servitude by the government, often on the basis of government appropriation of private property, etc. The history of the railroads have been a history of even stronger involvement by governments, often depending on the corrupt subsidies from bought off legislatures, executives and courts. In the United States, the irrationality of much of the rail infrastructure is directly due to that history of corruption by private capital of the government. Air travel would die without massive support from the government.

If anyone wanted to choose a worse example to spin a Randian fantasy around, it would be hard to think of one. Yet Ayn Rand, who some of her devotees believe is the most brilliant human being to have ever lived, built her proof on the one industry that most definitively refutes her credo.

In reading around about it I have been reminded that Rand credited a number of inspirations for her writing, including Hugo and Dostoyevsky. I have also read that she credited a number of classical philosophers as antecedents, though I'm also aware that philosophers who have specialized in some of them doubt she ever understood them. I have to say that reading the plot of her book and the movie, I didn't think of anything but the little remembered British film The Titfield Thunderbolt, which was made four years before Atlas was published. Though, if she did depend on that rather charmingly silly movie, it would also be ironic because it is all about the virtues of cooperative action to save a tiny rail line from the predations of the bus industry.

That Rand seemed to have missed that it was the titans of the auto industry, the interstate highway system built by the federal government at the behest of the military-industrial complex and other competing industries that made her book ridiculously anachronistic even as she was writing it, only adds to the hilarity. But when you're the greatest genius in the history of the universe, an example of the most Uber of Supermen, you don't need to notice that vulgar little thing called reality. Alan Greenspan didn't have much use for it either.

* Anyone who might dispute that Rand was psychotic should look up her adoration for William Hickman, a man whose greatest claim to anyone's attention was his brutal rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl, whose dismembered body he sent in pieces to the authorities. Of course she would see him as a great example of the Nietzschean superman. As is always the case with the people impressed by that other nutcase, perversity impresses. If anyone who has looked at that could still think there was anything positive about that cesspool of psychosis they should be watched, carefully. This is an aspect of the thinking that is regularly promoted by our media and one of our political parties as worth considering. Withholding judgement on the basis of alleged philosophical foundations only makes us complicit.