Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Who is John Galt?"

Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God. - G.K. Chesterton

The economy is a mess, and no one’s immune. The mortgage and real estate industries are in a shambles – Kenna and I just spoke with a realtor on Friday, and home prices are continuing to plummet, as are interest rates. It’s more difficult to get a loan, but once you do, good homes are a dime a dozen. Home owners are struggling. The stock market has yet to show signs of life since the end of last year (I bought into a mutual fund in December of 2007 at $14 a share; the fund sits at just over $7 a share now. Buy high, sell low, right?).

I’ve heard people blame everyone from Bill Clinton, to George W. Bush, to CEOs, to mortgage lenders, to God for the sad state of the economy. But I’ve figured out who’s really to blame for these brutal current affairs – a dead Russian woman.

I recently finished Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, after reading The Fountainhead last year. Ayn Rand isn’t a pure novelist per se, she’s more of a philosopher who happens to excel at writing novels, and thus chose to situate her personal philosophy in terms of fictional characters and dramatic plots. My goal here isn’t so much to give a book report on
Atlas (there’s a great one here) or to spoil some of the more interesting parts of her writing for you, but instead to explain why my favorite way to describe her writing is, “I disagree with every single principle she holds true, and I love reading it.”

There’s no way that I can deny Ayn Rand’s brilliant writing style, a style that I eat up. Her dialogues and narration of main characters’ thoughts are almost contradictory, but they underscore her depth of meaning. Open the book to any page, and you can read a sentence like, “Her eyes were half-closed in the mocking, conscious triumph of being admired, but her mouth was half-open in helpless, begging expectation.” Her style is gripping, but her philosophy is sinister.

Rand grew up in Communist Russia, and it’s impossible to miss her revolt against the tenets of Communism & socialism in her writing. For her, the U.S. is the greatest idea and greatest possibility for humanity, because it was founded on capitalist selfishness; i.e. "If I work hard enough, I’ll be wildly successful and I won’t owe anything to anyone." And this extends even to romantic relationships; i.e. "I don't love you in spite of your faults, I love you only for the good in you and no more."

Ayn Rand writes all her novels from an individualist philosophy called “objectivism,” or to be more exact, “rational self-interest” or “egoism.” For Rand, the happiness of the self is the highest value, and the obsessed rational function of the mind is the highest virtue to achieve happiness for oneself. All of Rand’s heroes are brilliant, overworking, unfeeling egoists; all of her villains are philanthropic, self-immolating, weak cowards concerned with the “common good.”

I don’t see how anyone, religious or otherwise, could agree with this philosophy. Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987-2006, does.

Greenspan had a very close relationship with Rand until she died in 1982, and he was a part of her inner circle. Now, I can’t pretend to know much about complex economic structures, but I do know that when Greenspan was questioned about his flawed economic objectivist philosophy by Congress last year regarding the current recession, he said “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.” You can read more about the connections between Rand, Greenspan and our current recession in this great article.

But aside from all the criticism that I have on Rand’s intellectual and economic philosophy, I want to bring up the one sentence that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since reading
Atlas. Toward the end of the book, the central hero, John Galt, hijacks an international radio wave and broadcasts a 60-page diatribe on Rand’s principles. In the middle of that monologue, he throws this smug jab at the listeners who believe in self-sacrifice, even to the point of death: “Do not remind me that it pertains only to this life on earth. I am concerned with no other. Neither are you.”

And there it is. The linchpin on which Rand’s entire philosophy hinges. If there is no God, no heaven, no immaterial soul, and no morality based on sin (which she states), then there is no reason for self-less love. If there is no God, there is no “common good,” which she despises above all else. If there is no God, then rational self-interest may very well be the best way for our economy to function; many individuals in our country certainly act that way already.

BUT…if there is a God, a heaven, a soul and sin, then everything that Rand holds true is inherently flawed and sinister. If we believe in the Catholic social teaching of solidarity, then making money, being happy, and (gasp!) great rational intelligence aren’t the highest good – not by a long shot. If we believe that what we do, from the big to the small, has eternal consequences, all of a sudden we’re more concerned with helping our competitor get to heaven and not so much with putting him out of business.

It’s perfectly fair for Rand to claim that even Christians and Catholics aren’t truly concerned with heaven; but she’s wrong. And her entire system of thought unravels when you pull that string.

(And on a personal note, good ol’ Ayn made me angry when she effectively killed off my boy G.K. Chesterton in
Atlas. In the center of the novel, she puts a pontifical, over-stuffed English author named Gilbert Keith-Worthing aboard a train and runs the train into a tunnel, which collapses. Chesterton’s G.K. stands for Gilbert Keith. Grr…)

Peace, y'all!

Still to come:
- El Presidente at El Commencemente
- Starting up at OLG

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via FoxyTunes

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