Monday, October 19, 2009

The Truth About Ayn Rand

In this bizarre historical moment, when everyone on the right is quoting Ayn Rand and the sales of her books are sky-rocketing, something needs to be said to this resurgent mob of Atlas Shrugged enthusiasts: they’re missing the point.

When she died, in March of 1982, “All Things Considered” ran a lengthy obituary that made the same mistake. Listening to it, you would have thought she was a marginal philosopher whose tracts, formulated as ‘novels’ continued to exercise a baffling influence on the young, the ill-educated and the neo-conservative. Of course they mentioned her most famous acolyte, Alan Greenspan, and there’s no better refutation of her simplistic theories than the gaudy Mardi Gras of financial malfeasance and economic ruin that his stint at the Federal Reserve created. He even allowed himself an endearing moment of innocent surprise recently. He recently admitted to feeling honestly shocked that greedy people would behave badly in the presence of enormous amount of free money. It’s hard to have much sympathy for such globally catastrophic naiveté. But Ayn Rand spent her life constructing a free market utopia in which none of the recent events (like the housing bubble, the sub-prime mortgage debacle or the default swap swindles) could ever happen. Ayn Rand capitalists don’t even need unions – they treat their workers so well that a union movement would be pointless. This brings to mind the literal Greek definition of the word Utopia: “No place” – a world most essentially defined by its impossibility.

Rand’s impossible world is a sharply divided one, parsed into the geniuses, the drones and the Collectivists. Of course, no one who reads her wants to feel like a drone (The good-hearted self proclaimed industrial serf Eddie Willers is hardly a glamorous role model; neither is the hapless store clerk James Taggart dupes into marriage); much less one of the dread socialist villains with their icky names – Kip Chalmers, Balph Eubanks, Wesley Mouch. Who wouldn’t prefer to be a John Galt or a Francisco D’Anconia? This urge to pick sides and stand with the cool group -- ironically so alien to Rand’s stated goal of self-containment and indifference to other people’s opinions -- often led to “Any Rand Syndrome” among teen-age boys. After a thousand pages or so, the average teen-ager would start sneering at his old friends and at least trying to laugh silently with his head thrown back. I for one could never quite figure how Howard Roark pulled that one off.

But the sad truth is that most of us will never run invent a new kind of metal or a new engine that converts static electricity into kinetic power. Most of us will go on kicking things when they break and feeling vaguely ripped of by the Geek Squad at Best Buy. We’re drones not geniuses, and the real men and women who constitute the ‘fountainhead’ of human progress are anything but the lock-jawed, slogan-mouthing puppets that Ayn Rand convenes at the end of Atlas Shrugged in a hidden Rocky Mountain valley. Rand finally ‘jumps the shark’ here, all but her most loyal devotees admit. In his New Yorker review, George Steiner remarked, “The last third of Atlas Shrugged is positively Swiftian in its social satire. I refer of course to Tom Swift.”

So what can explain the enduring popularity of this simplistic, quasi-fascist, leave-everything-to-the-smart-people doctrine with its heartless steely contempt for the average person and its almost carnal worship of the exceptional? Is it just because Ayn Rand’s strident free-market money-is-the-root-of-all good diatribes play into the political agendas of each new generation of avaricious Wall Street swindlers and tax-cut corporate minions in Congress?

I don’t think so. The same bad ideas have been advocated by many other voices, long silenced and forgotten. People, the vast majority of people, do not read Ayn Rand for her philosophy, such as it is. Those are the parts they skip. John Galt’s speech? Come on: it’s an endless turgid re-hash of everything we’ve already read in the previous thousand pages. Even Francisco D’Anconia’s money speech drones on for far too long, until even the most dim-witted Young Republican is shouting “We get it! We get it!”

No, people read Ayn Rand for a much simpler reason: she tells good stories and she writes them in a unique and entertaining style. The craziness that taints her ideas makes her pulpy stories fun. Like her hero, Victor Hugo, she is infatuated with the heightened drama of grand gestures. These are the moments that remain with you, years after the droning cant of her Adam-Smith-on-steroids sermons has faded:

Pirate Ragnar Danneskjold (he only attacks collectivist ships!) risks life and limb to give industrialist Henry Reardon a single bar of gold – the down payment and what the sleazy socialist morons have stolen from him over the years. They meet on a deserted highway (Reardon likes walking home from the steel mill) and though Reardon refuses the gold an calls Danneskjold a criminal, he can’t bring himself to turn the man in when the cops roll by. The slab of precious metal lying on the asphalt in the moonlight, the split second decision to side with the bandit against the police … that’s what we remember.

Or this:

Dagny Taggart hears Reardon’s wife disparaging her husband for the clunky gift he gave her – a bracelet made from the first pouring of Reardon metal. This is at a their Anniversary party. She says “I’d gladly trade it for a diamond bracelet – somethingf really valuable.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Dagny pulls her diamond bracelet off her wrist and makes the scandalous trade. Gotta love her for that. Like when her brother James’ new wife (whom he has conned into thinking he’s the hero of the railroad) says to Dagny “I’m the woman in this family now,” and Dagny casually replies “That’s OK. I’m the man.” Or when Howard Roark’s arch-enemy in The Fountainhead finally meets him in the middle of the night at a deserted construction site and says “I have to know—what do you think of me?” and Roark says, casually bewildered, “But I don’t think of you.”

I wanted to feel that way about so many people when I was a kid.

I still want to feel that way, I might as well admit it.

And there are so many more:

When a workplace disaster interrupts an intractable difference of opinion between Francisco D’Anconia and Hank Reardon and they have to work together to save the steel mill; when John Galt instructs the people torturing him on how to fix their torture machine, which had broken down; or when a starving hobo taken into Dagny’s private railroad car and offered dinner while he tells the story of the mysterious John Galt engine, refuses to wolf his food and eats with a quiet decorum; when a college janitor unceremoniously erases a whole lecture-hall blackboard a young physicist has filled with futile equations and scrawls a simple formula that solves the problem … just like Good Will Hunting. I’m sure that moment in the Matt Damon Ben Affleck screenplay was intended as an homage to John Galt. Maybe their next script will feature an homage to Hugh Akston, the philosophy professor who winds up running a diner in the mountains after withdrawing from the world as part of the “strike” that defines the book. He makes burgers now, but they’re the best burgers Dagny has ever tasted, which somehow makes perfect sense.

Beyond these iconic scenes there remains the stubborn fact of the writing itself. Rand makes a unique sound, partly the product of English being her second language, but primarily a function of her unique, even batty sensibility. I realized I was in the presence of something original and fascinating when I opened The Fountainhead and read this on the very first page: “He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone – flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion.”

A pause more dynamic than motion.

That blew me away at age seventeen. And I have to say -- it still sounds pretty good. One character in Atlas Shrugged greets another one he thought was dead with a “joyous anger of relief.” It’s odd and exact and wonderful, and there are sentences like that sprinkled throughout all her books. Whole sequences dazzle you – the trains taking two lovers to separate Siberian gulags in We The Living, the first run on the John Galt line in Atlas Shrugged, the ruin of Gail Wynant in The Fountainhead. Rand’s characters linger with you – doomed old architect Henry Cameron, abrasive Ellis Wyatt, self-destructive Leo Kovalensky.

It’s the writing that we love her for -- those of us who still love her, after our adolescent infatuations burned away to a doctrinaire contempt and were finally replaced by a stubborn affectionate admiration for the way she can rhapsodize the lit end of a cigarette or the sight of the New York skyline at night, for a character who calls his yacht “I Do” not to commemorate his many marriages (as the tabloids think) but to answer all the people who spent so many years telling him “You don’t run things around here”.

Like her hero Victor Hugo, her ideas are her weakness, her liability and her shame. Her greatness lies between the pronouncements and the opinions, the dogma and Doctoral fodder, the image she gives you of the harridan school teacher slapping your wrist with a ruler when disagree with her.

She was all of that, but she was also a writer, a wonderful, passionate utterly strange writer, and that’s the way I choose to remember her – especially now, when she’s becoming popular again with all the wrong people, for all the wrong reasons.

She deserves better.

Star Wars and the Surf Park: Waking Up from the American Dream

In early August 2006 I signed up for the waiting list at the Ron Jon surfpark in Orlando Florida. I was number 5166 on the list, with little chance of actually getting a membership in the first few years (only the lucky first 2000 could expect that); but I was thrilled anyway. It seemed like a kind of utopia to me. I toured the “Virtual Park” whenever I was on-line, giving new meaning to the concept of ‘surfing’ the net. I scrolled up from the learner’s pool (three foot waves, beginners only) to the advanced pool., where six to eight foot swells would be generated every six seconds, and the bottom could be re-contoured in a matter of minutes to imitate any break in the world, from the gentlest to the most radical. Along the way I paused to appreciate the restaurant, the bandstand (they were going to have concerts, too – maybe even the Beach Boys!) and the tiled channel that allowed you to paddle back out into the ‘line up’ at the far end of the pool, without bothering other surfers or struggling with the white water from broken waves. As someone who is frequently forced back to the beach on big days by wall after wall of churning water, this felt like the perfect final detail, the linen hankerchief in the breast pocket of a suit hand-tailored just for me. In the surfpark world you waited with the other five or six people in your group and took turns riding waves. I did the math --the longest you had to wait was 36 seconds. I’ve waited an hour for a wave, sitting in the ocean with all those jelly fish and sharks and kelp and other icky manifestations of the real world. The surfpark would get rid of all that. Clear water, lightly salted (served to order like a steak at Applebees); no sea life to squelch underfoot or bite or sting. I did more math. I could catch more waves in one session at the park than I’d caught in a year surfing the old fashioned way, in the ocean. My carpenter friend laughed at me. The whole point of surfing was appreciating the actual ocean – just being there. That was what made our sport unique. “No one ever sat around for hours staring at a baseball diamond,” he said.

Besides, there were to many moving parts, it was too complex, it would never work. He’d check the plans before he started building – any good carpenter would.

I ignored his Luddite cynicism. I dropped the subject. But I was still enthusiastic. The e-mail confirming my status invited me to keep track of the surfpark progress on their website, and I did.

It was slow. There were setbacks. The place was going to open in March and then June and then September; in 2007 and then in 2008.

Well, it’s 2009 now and the dream is dead.

The people who put millions into the place lost everything and it’s doubtful anyone else will try to build a surfpark for decades now. What went wrong? Everything went wrong. Water sloshing off the sides of the pool ruined every wave but the first one. The bottom contour-changing machinery was slow and cumbersome and made no difference, anyway. Most damning, the pool itself was only twenty yards wide. This fact sticks in my mind because even during my initial infatuation with the idea, the width of the pool set off a small alarm. But I figured I just wasn’t bright enough to fully imagine the set-up, even with the virtual tour. I forgot about it but I shouldn’t have, and neither should the park designers. For non-surfers, I’ll be brief: You don’t ride a wave straight in toward the beach. You slide parallel to the beach, across the face of the wave. Even an unsatisfying Nantucket shorebreak close-out takes you twenty yards. The pool would have to be as wide as the length of a football field to approximate a really good ride on the kind of waves they claimed they could manufacture.

So the whole enterprise was doomed from the start, but no one wanted to admit it.

I have to say, it all felt very familiar. In fact it felt like a classic American moment. So many of our big plans have come to nothing lately. The Bradley mini-tank,(twigs clogged the treads: no one took it off-road for a test drive?) the Star-Wars defense system (Ever trying shooting a bullet with another bullet?) that put our national security into the hands of computers (How often have the computers been down when you go to the bank? And that’s just for basic arithmetic). Or go bigger – The Iraq war we botched, the Afganistan war we’re botching., the Iran war we’re eargerly looking forward to botching in the near future with the same mixture of hope, hubris and blinkered, irrational optimism. We’re “can do” people! We watch Oprah. We build it and assume they’ll come. We believe in “The Secret” which boils down to wishing makes it so.

But it desn’t.

I haven’t mentioned any of this to my carpenter friend, but I know what he’ll say: They should have checked the plans. And his other mantra: measure twice, cut once.

But that stuff is for realists. And we haven’t been realists since the Eisenhower Administration. We’ll always go for the shiny treat, the quick fix, the cool gimmick that’s too narrow, too incapable of dealing with the chaos its orderly solution creates.

I feel it in myself, the national virus. I’m ready to sign up for the next surfpark right now (I’ll be higher on the waiting list this time), and no one has even been dumb enough to suggest it yet.