It was during college in the 60s that I was introduced to Ayn Rand, first through The Fountainhead followed by Atlas Shrugged. She spoke to me then, as she did to many others, with a loud voice promoting individual rights over the collective rights of society, especially as ordained by a government. It was important for individuals to pursue their art, ideas, dreams unhampered by anything as long as that pursuit didn’t prevent others from doing the same. As a college student, budding artist, writer, this gave me the license to be as egoistic as I wanted as long as I didn’t harm anyone else. This is a rather simplistic summation of my thinking about a very complex Ayn Rand, but for the purpose of this writing, it will do.
Atlas Shrugged came to mind recently with a strong enough memory to force me to “reread” it, courtesy of Audible, as I take long Florida walks to maintain my health. As soon as I got into the story, I thought, “Wow” Rand is speaking to me as clearly today as she was in the 60s, and I knew it was our current political climate that told me to take another look at the book.
Words. Rand uses a voluminous number of words to tell her story. Sometimes it seems too wordy, at least by today’s standards, but she does get her point across and leaves little room to question her meaning. That’s a good thing in a world of tweets, entendre and fake news. She repeats herself in many different ways by many different characters so that when you’ve finished, there is no doubt in your mind about what Rand thinks about anything.
Characters. Atlas Shrugged is peopled by a microcosm of the Universe, a compendium of types and stereotypes of a cross section of humanity. There are representatives of all occupations, all classes, the complete spectrum of intelligence. Rand includes everyone to show that her ideas leave no one untouched. They are not just philosophical ideas for the scholarly inclined. They are not just financial ideas for the bankers and wall street types. They are not just social ideas for humanitarians. The characters are frequently extremes, almost cartoon-like, to emphasize the seriousness of the threats she felt existed when she wrote the book, and I think exist today.
The book puts all of humanity, its people, its institutions, its endeavors on a continuum, extreme at one end by isolated individuals with only a pragmatic, utilitarian social structure and at the other by a conglomerate society where no individuality exists. Rand places at one end the creative thinkers, artists, inventors, without whom we would still live in the dark ages. At the other end she places the parasites and looters who steal from the thinkers for personal gain. Great wealth might be amassed on either end, one from personal effort and expertise and the other from trickery and manipulation based on the belief that those who have must share with those who have not.
Rand puts many, many words into the mouths of all of the people along the continuum in her story. There are many lengthy speeches she has given both sides to clearly represent her feelings that the creators have value and the looters do not.
Listening to those words again after all these years makes me fear for the future of this nation. From those in power in our government, I hear the words of the looters in Atlas Shrugged. It could be the playbook they consult before tweeting, speaking, or testifying. The use of language, words carefully chosen to have ambiguous meaning or no meaning at all, but effectively delivered, has resulted in the election of people who don’t represent the majority of citizens, who consciously exclude portions of our citizens, and repeatedly demonstrate they don’t really care about truth, honesty or justice. The effective use of language on social media propogated by foreign powers has convinced many people that there is nothing wrong with using any method available to win elections, that because it appears on social media, it must be true.
And yet, Atlas Shrugged also has at its root hopefullness. Conditions in the world may worsen, and if they finally reach a point of no return, then Atlas may shrug and let the world fall. But even if that should happen, there will be creative individuals, thinkers, artists, inventors, men and women of integrity and honesty who will pick up the pieces and start again. The spirit that drives individuals to create art, music, literature, buildings or rocket ships will prevail against all the deception, manipulation or fake news from any source. Thank you Ayn Rand for reminding me of this.