WINO part 2: I Read Atlas Shrugged
I guess some of you know that Atlas Shrugged is 50 now. Several magazines have noted the fact, with commentary on its cultural effect. Reviews in general have been at least guardedly favorable.
Atlas is the story of a near-future dystopia where the “men of the mind” go on strike and “stop the motor of the world.”
Among libertarians of Objectivist leaning, including a lot of my friends and colleagues, there is an ongoing project to translate Atlas into as many languages as possible, thus ushering in the libertarian millenium. And now that there’s a movie project in the works (again), with Brangelina interested in the main roles, they are wildly enthusiastic about what’s going to happen once it’s released.
Well, though I’ve occasionally lent a helping hand in arranging such things I’m less enthusiastic about the project than many of my friends.
To begin with, Atlas has sold more than 20 million copies in the US alone, and more than a hundred thousand each year. With recycled copies and pass around readership – that’s a lot of readers.
However, anyone notice that there aren’t 20 million-plus libertarians in the US?
To me this seems like an example of what I call the “World-changing Book” fallacy. People point to books such as Paine’s Common Sense or Uncle Tom’s Cabin as books that had enormous and sudden effects on society. (“So you’re the little lady that wrote the book that started this great war” Lincoln famously remarked to Harriet Beecher Stowe.) But when you look closer at the history of the times, you find that the issues in question had been discussed for a long time before in a great many books and pamphlets before crystalizing around one significant work.
Atlas obviously has a profound effect on quite a few people. Some polls have it in second to the Bible in books that have had the most influence on readers’ lives – but being bowled over by Atlas evidently doesn’t automatically make one into a libertarian or objectivist.
I had a conversation with an English libertarian once, where I told him that I’d introduced Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer to a Polish academic who wanted to translate it.
He replied that Atlas Shrugged was far more important because, “Hoffer defines the problem but Atlas Shrugged tells what to do about it.”
What’s that? Atlas is a fantasy about every single creative individual in the country going off to a remote valley (except for one who becomes a pirate) and.. what? Being free together? Is there a single realistic, concrete proposal in the book?
Well yes, one. In Galt’s Gulch a famous jurist is rewriting the Constitution in a rather cavalier fashion, inserting a new amendment into the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of production and trade” thus sweeping aside any consideration of serious moral and legal issues such as: trading with the enemy during wartime, trading for goods produced by slave labor, transferring crucial technology to a hostile power etc.
I could go into lots more depth, but let me summarize the remarks I made to some university classes in Minsk.
I’ve got a bud Jarolslav Romanchuk, who’s the vice-president of the major opposition party in Belarus, a member of a few free-market think tanks and partner in our Language of Liberty project in Eastern Europe. He’s also a staunch Objectivist and was involved in the translation of Atlas into Russian.
On a trip to Minsk (for among other reasons, to convey some cash donated for the relief of familes of imprisoned dissidents) my bud told me he’d arranged for me to speak on the subject of Ayn Rand at the European Humanities University. (Now alas, shut down by the Lukashenka regime and relocated to Vilnius, Lithuania.)
I said, “I haven’t read Rand in years.”
He said, “Say something about Rand.”
To my surprise, I did have something to say about Rand. (Fortunately I have a gift for extemporaneous speaking. Those of us of Irish origin have a name for it. Sounds like ‘baloney’.)
Also to my surprise, I was invited back to repeat the substance of my remarks to two other classes.
I began by asking the classes if they’d like to 1) go to America, and 2) be a writer. All agreed they’d like to go to America. Many agreed they’d like to be writers – somewhat hesitantly as is often the case. Many more dream of writing than ever attempt it.
Then I asked them how they’d like to try becoming a writer in a language not their own.
That’s a daunting idea that very few are even willing to consider. Joseph Conrad (born Józef Korzeniowski) did, but how many others can you name?
(My wife, also a native Polish speaker, speaks English fluently enough to work as an English copy editor correcting the manuscripts of native speakers (!!!) but still has to have her own English composition carefully checked.)
This is an incredible accomplishment. Recently I opened Atlas again and read the first page. Rand’s mastery of English and power of description reached out grabbed me all over again.
However, taken literally the central premise of Atlas just doesn’t work for me.
As anybody who’s seen the marvelous series Connections by James Burke (http://www.k-web.org/) could tell, the progress of civilization is not the work of a few lonely and persecuted geniuses draging humanity kicking and screaming into the future – though it flatters the vanity of intellectuals to think so.
Progress is the result of the cumulative effort of a great many people, most of them obscure.
But Atlas works very well for me as allegory.
For people to innovate, they must be free to think for themselves. What happens when repression makes men afraid to speak their minds? We can of course all be free in the privacy of our own thoughts, die gedanken sind frei.
But what happens when men become afraid of the thought crossing their faces? When they dare not even think certain things because they cannot keep them from showing in their faces or slipping off their tongues?
Could it be that the mind shuts down? That in effect, the mind goes on strike?
Could it be that something like this is going on in our universities in the social sciences and humanities?
Over the past 50 years Atlas has obviously had a profound impact on our culture. It was really the first to articulate a moral, as opposed to utilitarian defense of the free market. It came along at a very conformist time and told people they had a right to live for themselves.
But… the effect has not been an unmixed blessing. And that is the subject for another post.