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Atlas Shrugged: Its Philosophy and Energy Implications (Part I: Overview)

Atlas Shrugged (Part I) had a strong debut weekend despite the effort of its philosophical critics, including some leading movie reviewers, to pan the effort and to discourage attendance (see the Appendix below where Walter Donway challenges Roger Ebert).

This movie and the classic 1957 book are important for today’s energy debate in a variety of ways, beginning with Enron and continuing with Obama energy policy. And how Rand undressed Richard Nixon with the energy crisis of her day(Part V–see schedule below)!

“Ah, Ha!”: Interpreting Enron/Ken Lay

For me personally, Ayn Rand’s philosophy was the key that unlocked the mystery of Ken Lay and the magical new energy company, Enron. I had once studied Objectivism but lost interest in Ayn Rand, finding it too dogmatic for my taste. (In retrospect, I ‘threw the baby out with the bath water’.) But some twenty years later, after I was laid off from Enron (where I had worked for 16 years) and was writing a why-behind-the-why book about the company’s rise and fall, I encountered a simple but profound essay, “Enron As a Postmodern Company.”

Roger Donway’s article gave me the insight to unravel what I called the Ken Lay Paradox, interpreting the once-revered Lay as a second-hander, a philosophical fraud. (See chapter 3 of my book, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy, for a full explanation.)

And yet yesterday’s New York Times had an uninformed, cheeky piece by Maureen Dowd, Atlas Without Angelina. She makes fun of the fact that the movie was low budget, missing the stars. (I thought the Left rooted for the little guy, but Big Hollywood, I guess, is too politically correct.) But where Ms. Dowd goes off the rails is resorting to the capitalism-is-greed theme. She writes:

You’d think our fiscal meltdown would have shown the flaw in Rand’s philosophy. She thought we could derive morals from the markets. But we derived immorality from the markets.

But political capitalism (including that practiced by central planner Alan Greenspan) is not real capitalism. Has Dowd studied the philosophy behind the book and movie? Rand was rather clear on perverted capitalism–the James Taggart, Wesley Mouch, Ken Lay, James Rogers kind–versus the the Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, John Allison, Charles Koch real kind.

Rand herself was clear on this point. “In my new book, I glorify the real kind of productive, free-enterprise businessman in a way he has never been glorified before,” she wrote. “I present him as the most heroic type of human being…. But I make mincemeat out of the kind of businessman who calls himself a ‘middle-of-the-roader’ and talks about a ‘mixed economy’—the kind that runs to government for assistance, subsidies, legislation and regulation.” (1)

Enron and the more recent financial meltdown were all about the political side of the mixed economy enabling bad business behavior. I invite Ms. Dowd to consider what Adam Smith and Samuel Smiles, not only Ayn Rand, had to say about best business practices in a free economy. (2)

Objectivism and the Energy Debate

For today’s energy debate, there are a number of insights from Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, including:

  1. Energy in Atlas Shrugged. From John Galt’s motor to Ellis Wyatt’s oil to Ken Danagger’s coal, energy is at the center of business life in her most famous novel. To Rand, energy comes from the mind, not the ground. Energy is a torch of man’s greatness, hence such metaphors as the “electric breath of the city” (p. 673). But Atlas is also about the forces against energy: the altruism that sacrifices its creators, the taxes that drain its producers, and the edicts that hobble its profitable use. (Obama energy policy, anyone?)
  2. Energy Producers on Strike. Atlas can shrug with energy, and “Who is John Galt?” applies to energy producers (the creative, market-driven kind) who go on strike, so to speak,  when government interferes with private property and capitalist exchange. Wellhead price controls in the 1970s, for example, cost the U.S. an estimated 900,000 barrels of domestic oil production per day (about 11%). (3) Capital that would have gone into exploration and production went elsewhere in the economy, and some resources just went on strike. And today, Atlas is shrugging with offshore production in response to the Interior Department’s guilty-until-proven-innocent offshore-permit policy. Ditto for Alaska and Arctic production.
  3. Postmodern Energy. The industrial windpower industry (and much but not all of the solar industry) is government dependent and a huge intellectual fraud. It is a postmodern industry akin to Enron as a postmodern company. It about perception and hope, raw emotions, not reason and reality.
  4. Open-ended Resources. ““Man does not live on a raft with one bottle of water,” Rand once said. “He lives on earth, which gives him infinite resources—and it is up to him to get them. His proper conduct and morality must be based on this fact.” (4) In this sense, Rand developed the philosophical basis for what Julian Simon would later codify as the ultimate resource, the ability of human ingenuity to anticipate, solve, and learn from problems.

This series at MasterResource on Rand, Objectivism, and Atlas Shrugged has five parts:

Part I: Overview

Part II: The Book (Atlas Shrugged)

Part III: The Philosophy (Objectivism)

Part IV: The Moral Responsibility of Businessmen (Political Capitalists)

Part V: The Energy Crisis (Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter)

—————–

FOOTNOTES

(1) Letter from Ayn Rand to DeWitt Emery, in Michael Berlinger, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), pp. 441–42.

(2) See Robert Bradley, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy (Salem, MA: Scrivener Press, 2009), Part I.

(3) Kalt, Joe. The Economics and Politics of Oil Price Deregulation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), chapter 5. Cited in Robert Bradley, Oil, Gas, and Government: The U.S. Experience (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), p. 530n205.

(4) Letter from Ayn Rand to Rose Wilder Lane, in Michael Berlinger, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), p. 354.

——————-

Appendix: WALTER DONWAY ON THE MOVIE CRITICS OF ATLAS SHRUGGED (April 16)

Roger Ebert on the Atlas Shrugged Movie as an “‘Anticlimatic Non-Event’”

by Walter Donway on Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 10:18pm

I am not striking a rhetorical pose. I really don’t understand. The dean of movie reviewers, Roger Ebert, has posted his review of the movie, Atlas Shrugged Part 1.  Its dateline is April 14, one day before the public premiere of the movie. What I don’t understand is how Mr. Ebert can hope to get away with stating things, in print, that are flat-out untrue–and obviously untrue to anyone who has seen the film–or, a thing far more dangerous, has read Atlas Shrugged, since the latter category includes millions and millions who have not only read the book but understood it. They are not an audience casual about what they see, or what they read, because they take ideas seriously. But I suppose (I truly don’t know) such casual forgetfulness is what Mr. Ebert counts on.

He says that the philosophy of Ayn Rand is “I’m on board, pull up the lifeline.” Did he miss that Ayn Rand, not only in Atlas Shrugged, but in her books on ethics, politics, and the philosophy of art–all now used in college classrooms to teach philosophy–explains lucidly and at length that the ethics of egoism, and the nature of laissez faire capitalism, at once sanction each individual in holding his own life as his highest value and taking responsibility for the achievement of his own values, his own dreams?  And explains that to claim consistency in pursing her philosophy, each man’s obligation to his fellow men is to recognize their equal and inalienable right to their own “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? And her striking concept of the “pyramid of ability that operates when the world’s geniuses of production are free to achieve because the paramount relative value goes to the least productive, who enjoy all the creative and intellectual fruits of genius, which can be shared without limit unlike material products?  I have taken a few lines to sketch this aspect of Objectivism because I now ask:  Doesn’t Mr. Ebert realize that anyone familiar with Atlas Shrugged must conclude from his “I’m on board, pull up the lifeline” characterization of Objectivism that either he has not bothered to read Atlas Shrugged or does not have the conceptual capacity to understand even the essential point of a work?

Mr. Ebert says that he expects only people who read the novel will understand the movie–and that they will not like it.  On the first point, I say: We shall see.  Because the movie’s prime mover, John Aglialoro, has made a movie of an enormously complex philosophical novel that goes to the novel’s essentials.  Ayn Rand said, repeatedly, that the goal of her fiction was to project the ideal man, the moral hero, and his struggle for the good against evil.  In Atlas Shrugged, she sets out to portray the great producers–the innovators, the inventor-industrialists–as thrilling moral heroes achieving their dreams by reason, productivity, and integrity. That is the source of the unrepeatable enjoyment and inspiration of Atlas Shrugged, and the movie, Atlas Shrugged Part 1, which bring us the spectacle of men and women pursuing the clean, rational goal of pursuing the best work of the best minds—although they must fight bitter battles to do so.

As for the second point, that those who understand the movie will not like it, I am an expert.  I read Atlas Shrugged in the summer between the end of high school and going off to Brown University, and I have studied the ideas of Ayn Rand, and lived by them, for almost 50 years.  As I sat in the theater, protected by darkness, I experienced, after 50 years, the same emotions of hero worship for the best within us, the same excitement at a code of morality not compounded of duty and denial but principles for living and seeking happiness on Earth, the childish enjoyment at a work of art of endless ingenuity of plot, colorful characterizing in terms of essentials, and integration on a grand scale of ideas, actions, psychology, setting, and language.

Well, I have said a great deal about Ayn Rand, and even my connection with Objectivism, because there isn’t much to get hold of in Mr. Ebert’s review.  For example, he spends a whole paragraph, in a relatively brief review, on the incongruity of emphasizing trains in the near-future in which Atlas Shrugged is set.  Ayn Rand, writing in 1957, did emphasize the railroad industry (although, interestingly, virtually all of her heroes can pilot private planes).

But, by the nature of the mystery at its core, Atlas Shrugged always must be set in the future, so in making the film the dominance of trains had to be addressed. Mr. Ebert presents the emphasis on railroads in the film as incomprehensible. This is the obsession of the literary naturalist or realist, but Ayn Rand was an eloquent philosophical advocate of their opposite, romanticism, which is never about a slice of life, never reportorial fiction, but about the conflict of fundamental values that define character.

Accordingly, the co-producers of Atlas Shrugged Part 1 can dispose of the issue of trains quickly, with an easy finesse.  In Atlas Shrugged, America’s technological civilization, made possible by capitalism, the market economy, is collapsing under the weight of the omnipotent state. Within this context, the most advanced technology, air travel, is the first to become unreliable, throwing the country back on its long-established railroads. This is simply explained as the story begins; I am surprised that Mr. Ebert missed it. Believe me, friends, I would not spend even a sentence on this issue in discussing an epic novel of plot, character, theme, and philosophy–but, as a naturalist-realist, this is the level at which Mr. Ebert considers the entire movie.

In fact, Mr. Ebert even devotes a paragraph to discussing the film’s Wisconsin scenery because it appears to be closer to that of New Mexico.  All right, but, again, this is incomprehensible to me. Atlas Shrugged, the novel, and Atlas Shrugged, the film, bring to the screen some of the great conflicts of our time: reason versus religion, the morality of life versus the credo of sacrifice to the collective, the conflict of freedom with state worship. You would think Mr. Ebert might spend a few sentences on them, in addition to Wisconsin scenery.

But here is Mr. Ebert, going at the substance of the movie. He declares that the movie is made up of a few kinds of scenes:  characters sipping cocktails and talking in “corporate lingo”; railroads; limousines passing through slums; city skylines; “the beauties of Colorado”; and the love scene between Dagny and Rearden.  To his list, Mr. Ebert only appends a smutty comment that nothing beneath the waist is shown in the love scene and Rearden keeps his shirt on (not that I noticed?), and so libertarians who “enjoy rumpy-pumpy” might be disappointed.  I did not experience this scene as disappointing for its lack of “rumpy pumpy.” Perhaps because I noticed the entire film as it built up to this scene:  A man and woman standing virtually alone, their independent judgment against the government-sponsored attacks upon a great new innovation, Rearden metal; the predictions that the new bridge of Rearden metal would collapse, killing everyone on the train; the threats and boycotts the two face; and then the final heart-racing flight of the high-speed train through the wilds of Colorado toward the impossibly slight-seeming bridge thrown like a laser beam across and awful chasm–both he and she in the locomotive cab–and the hurtling train’s thunderous plunge onto the bridge, over a drop of thousands of feet–flashing for a moment in space and brilliant sunlight—then booming onto the tracks on the far side as the man and woman embrace in the singular triumph of humans who have risked their lives on their own reason, knowledge, and intellectual integrity, and won.

I noticed all this, and so, when they make love that night–in intense admiration, acknowledgment, and celebration of their shared battle and victory–I didn’t miss the “rumpy-pumpy,” as Mr. Ebert did. But then, perhaps he did not notice the build-up to this moment of ecstatic celebration of the best within two human beings, because he put the scene in its entirety under the category of scenes about “railroads and lots of ‘em.”  Can it be that to a dyed-in-the-wool literary “realist,” for whom art is nothing more than a report on “real life,” the scene I have described is best summed up as “about railroads”?  Again, my bewilderment is not rhetorical.  I must not understand.

Mr. Ebert is a cannier reviewer than Michael Phillips–or, perhaps, merely more politic.  He seems aware, from the outset, that Atlas Shrugged, the novel, has a huge following of readers whose lives were changed forever by the philosophy of Ayn Rand (you know, “I’m on board, pull up the lifeline”), and would not be easy to sell on his sneering dismissal of the film: “There are…people who take Ayn Rand even more seriously than comic book fans take Watchmen.”

Although it would seem, from that crack, that Mr. Ebert couldn’t care less what the admirers of Ayn Rand think of the review, he tries over and over again to let them know he “understands”:  “I expect to receive learned and sarcastic lectures on the pathetic failings of my review.”

Well…right on, Mr. Ebert.  The failings are pathetic.  The admirers of Ayn Rand are not all “learned,” but they are more: They take ideas, morality, the conflict of values, and the reality of heroes seriously.  Still, my initial impulse to express my contempt for this review in sarcastic terms yields to genuine curiosity. To whom is this review addressed?  If it addresses those who have read Atlas Shrugged–identified in poll after poll (e.g., by the Book-of-the-Month Club) as changing more lives than any other book, fiction or nonfiction, of our time–then how did you expect to get away with characterizing Objectivism as “I’m on board, pull up the lifeline”?  Ayn Rand’s books on the theory of knowledge (Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology), ethics (The Virtue of Selfishness), politics (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), and esthetics (The Romantic Manifesto) are available in libraries and bookstores worldwide. Let me not be learned or sarcastic, but simple and straightforward:  Your characterization of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism makes you sound idiotic.

What can I add?  You conclude with a reference to the shadowy figure of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged Part 1, and add that for a look at him and an answer to “Who Is John Galt?” the viewer must wait for part 2, because “I don’t think you can hold out for part 3.”  I think that means that parts 1 and 2 will be so bad that no viewer can hold out for the finale.

Mr. Ebert, I, for one, can’t wait to see parts 2 and 3.  But perhaps you shouldn’t bother. Romanticism and the conceptual level of presentation aren’t your thing.

33 comments

1 Harry Dale Huffman { 04.18.11 at 6:33 am }

This is yet another example of what is going on in the wider world today: The reliance on dogma rather than open-ended reasoning, and the violent negative reaction of the “believer” in dogma (in this case Mr. Bradley) to the “unbeliever” (here, Roger Ebert) who dares to criticize that dogma in any way. If you come in on either side of such “debates”, you are likely to miss the wider point and you will merely contribute further to the problem, which is the vain argumentation (or confrontation, to the point of war) that only keeps everyone involved in the debate thinking in terms of the dogma, instead of in a wider, truer context. I think everyone needs to remember the famous line from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “We don’t need no stinking badges!”, and just say “We don’t need no stinking Ayn Rand’s philosophy”, any more than we need a stinking Islamic jihad, or a stinking greenhouse effect, or any stinking belief that sets itself up as the highest, and the only way to look at things, and demands our submission. Get over yourselves, believers. We are all here to learn, throughout our lives–never forget that.

Another way to look at these things is, consider the old joke about the man who encounters a fellow late at night, feverishly going over the ground underneath a street lamp. He asks him what he’s looking for, and the man says he dropped his wallet (or his lucky coin, or anything of particular value to him, that he desperately wants to find). So the first fellow helps him look, for a while, until finally he gives up and says, ” I can’t find it. Where were you standing when you dropped it?” And the fellow says, “Oh, across the street there, in the dark. But the light is so much better over here!” The point is, truth is where you find it, not where someone else is shining their own light on things. It seems obvious to me that everyone, including Ayn Rand, must agree with that. So look for the truth, not for proof of any dogma, any theory.

2 rbradley { 04.18.11 at 9:02 am }

Mr. Huffman:

I am glad you brought up the point about dogma and absolutism.

Whether I am an Objectivist or not, I use Objectivism (as I do Austrian-School Free-Market Economics) to understand the world. I have a book out that interpretes Enron/Ken Lay using Objectivism in part. The same book has an appendix, “The Ayn Rand Problem“, where I critically assess.

Rand offers a multitude of insights that explain a lot of things to me (and many others). There is a worldview taking the best from Rand and from Julian Simon and from Ludwig von Mises (and others) to formulate the science of liberty.

Perhaps you totally reject the science of liberty for government planning…. And maybe you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater….

3 Jon Boone { 04.18.11 at 11:03 am }

Although I understand the utility of using literary ideas as springboard and context for empirical inquiry, one should be careful, for such an exercise can slide into its own brand of postmodern metafiction, which is essentially what Ayn Rand did. There is a surreal aspect both to her characters and her themes, often mingling the realistic with the bizarre. This “magic realism” is a hallmark of postmodernism. As is a concern for technoculture and hyperreality, where our understanding of the real is mediated by cartoonish representation and realistic simulation.

There is much irony loose in such enterprise. Consider how postmodern the current global warming/climate change model is, with many of its proponents heavily engaged in metafictional analysis, essentially writing about writing, stroking each other’s narrative accounts with a distain for a willful suspension of disbelief and skepticism.

A common theme of postmodernism is that one idea is as good as any other, that nothing has meaning beyond what is demanded by arbitrary authority, and that culture has been hijacked by Enlightenment science. It is this milieu that provides fertile ground for the zombies who support irrational technologies like wind by pretending to know what they do not–and depending upon their fellow postmodernists not to ridicule–even criticize–their beliefs. After all, they deserve praise simply because they’re human beings…. So why not reward them with ribbons of merit, in the same way we give trophies to children because of their participation in classroom and schoolyard activities, in the process assiduously avoiding the idea of rewarding merit…?

4 rbradley { 04.18.11 at 11:54 am }

Ayn Rand the the philosophy of Objectivism is the very opposite of subjectivism and postmodernism as I try to explain in chapter 3 of Capitalism at Work, pp. 61-67. Part III in this series will also cover this point.

5 Steve C. { 04.18.11 at 12:51 pm }

It’s a great read when you are young.
I find a lot of good in the points she made, but I also recognize that Atlas, and Fountainhead, emphasize extremes. That’s the nature of fiction with a strong point of view. A book about the difficulties of a contemporary executive/owner balancing the conflict between shareholders, family, employees, customers and regulations would be tedious at best.
What’s ironic is that Rand’s extreme depiction of corporatism rings so close to our present circumstances.

6 Alex Epstein { 04.18.11 at 1:06 pm }

Jon Boone raises the issue of what conclusions one can take from a work of fiction, such as Atlas Shrugged. Dr. Gregory Salmieri, who teaches philosophy at UNC, makes an illuminating point on this issue in the book _Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged_.

“[S]ince the events of the novel are fictitious, the reader—unlike the characters living in the universe of the novel—cannot take these events as facts and assume that generalizations reached from them will apply in the real world. Novelists routinely depict events or situations that could nor occur. For example, one finds in fiction many socialist utopias replete with ever-improving technology and happy citizens—something that Rand argues is impossible.

“How then can a novel prove anything? Novels—or at least Romantic novels, such as Rand’s—do not simply portray situations and events haphazardly. They show some events as following from others and from facts about the circumstances and characters—especially from the characters’ choices. As readers we can assess whether these events do in fact follow from such causes, and we can consider whether the cause—the kinds of characters and circumstances presented in the novel—actually exist.

“Of course we rarely if ever encounter in the real world people or situations exactly like those in novels…However, if the characters, circumstances, and events in a work of fiction are not journalistic reproductions of real things, neither are they entirely divorced from them. As Rand observed, an artist stylizes reality by ‘isolating and stressing’ those elements of it that he regards as significant and ‘omitting the insignificant and accidental.’ As a result of this stylization, a work of fiction can make salient casual connections that, though not obvious in the real world, can be easily observed there once our attention has been called to them. It is in this way that fiction can demonstrate, for example, that socialism cannot succeed. By depicting a world in which the facts that lead to this conclusion stand in sharper relief than they do amidst the train of accidental minutiae that constitutes so much of daily life, Atlas Shrugged helps us to notice these facts and their implications.”

For those wondering if Ayn Rand’s causal connections are worth studying, try reading her non-fiction essays, such as “For the New Intellectual”–which explains, among other things, where Postmodernism comes from.

7 Ed { 04.18.11 at 6:17 pm }

The film adaptation of Rand’s magnum opus fails miserably in almost every regard, but it doesn’t matter. The novel stands alone. No third-rate production can ever tarnish Rand’s achievement. It’s a pity, however, that this flawed project might serve to postpone or kill outright any future plans to give Atlas Shrugged the cinematic treatment it deserves. It could have been the greatest movie ever made. Now we’ll probably never know.

8 Jon Boone { 04.18.11 at 7:19 pm }

Nice commentary, Alex. This is a subtle, complex, nuanced issue that does start from first principles and evolves into orchestrated tumult–much like a Bach fugue.

I prefer Catch-22′s Orr over John Galt as a symbol for contemporary right reason/right action–in the face of the terror and languor of modernism. From the many different meanings of his name to his considered poise (literally) under fire to his premeditated–and ingenious–denouement, Heller creates in Orr a new ubermensch/everyman without resorting to a Nietzsche-like superhero, as Rand did with John Galt, even as a synodoche for how reason and passion should unite/ignite to make a more enlightened world.

9 Rolf Westgard { 04.18.11 at 10:00 pm }

As a teacher of energy subjects at the U of MN, I enjoy this website and use material from it. But your support of this second rate production surprises me. I suggest that this supposed trilogy will take a well deserved very long rest after this first chapter. Even the Wall Street journal offered a final mass. Mx Rand deserved better as does Roger Ebert.

10 rbradley { 04.18.11 at 10:20 pm }

Ed and Rolf:

I am glad you want better and the best for the book, but I am a bit perplexed about the perceived lack of quality of the movie. Value and art are subjective, but I welcome input on what the film missed and deserved, starting with Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio.

11 Richard Haydn { 04.19.11 at 4:01 am }

A little philosophy action and the prose rises to the occaision. Great comments. I still am troubled by Hank’s lack of over site concerning his lobbyist. I know; it’s the philosophy that is important and things are done to the extreme. But for cryin’ out loud, a man like Hank Reardon would expect results from his man in Washington. Being duped by his boy on the hill, and seemingly not understanding what is going on, just doesn’t ring true.

Unfortunately the only political idealists with the guts to really buck the current system are the libertarians. And let’s face it, they don’t have a pigs chance at a barbeque. Scrap the tax code? Right, all the tax accounts and attorneys will love that one. Stay out of other countries business? Can you say military industrial [congressional] complex. Dwight couldn’t — he had to eliminate the congressional part.

While this site rightly shines an optomistic light on human ingenuity with respect to technology, I am disheartened by the political realities we face. I am afraid the lobbyists are here to stay, along with their entrenched special interests and subsidies for all that can afford them.

12 rbradley { 04.19.11 at 8:12 am }

The free-market economist Ludwig von Mises is reputed to have said in a discouraged moment: “I set out to be a reformer and ended up as a historian of decline.”

The Tea Party, the box created by the federal deficit, the strong opening of Atlas Shrugged …. can a new vision of the common good take hold where everyone realizes that they ‘lose’ in some ways to get helped in other ways? Can we just leave as the unambiguous losers groups like the American Wind Energy Association?

I am cautiously optimistic, but it will take a lot of public education and our best efforts….

13 Walter Donway { 04.19.11 at 5:21 pm }

With my commentary on Roger Ebert’s review of the Atlas Shrugged movie posted right below Robert Bradley’s comment on the movie and energy issues, I see that Mr. Huffman mistakenly thought that Mr. Bradley was criticizing Roger Ebert. But it was I who wrote the commentary on Ebert.

As evidence for his claim that Objectivism is a “dogma,” Mr. Huffman says that I have a “violent negative reaction” to anyone who dares to criticism Objectivism–in this case, Roger Ebert. I would have been pleased with critical (reasoned) comments on Objectivism or the movie because that would mean that Mr. Ebert had tried to understand Objectivism, and to think about it, instead of dismissing it with a crude negative caricature and few jokes. My objection to Mr. Ebert’s comments on Objectivism is that he does NOT comment on Objectivism.

I have been a trustee for the Atlas Society, an organization for research, study, and public education about Objectivism, for some two decades and during that time members have argued the philosophy and its implications in every forum we offer–Web site, magazine, summer seminars. That is because Objectivism is exactly the opposite of dogma; it advances facts and logic to demonstrate every principle, and is logically integrated from its roots in metaphysics to its implications in ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

What is more, Ayn Rand told her readers again and again that HER convictions and certainty were not reasons for them to accept Objectivism; they must investigate, understand, and accept every idea by their own independent thinking.

Often, however, there is one superficial similarity between a dogma and a philosophy that stands on rigorous argumentation and has been tested by debate: adherents of both may be passionate in presenting their ideas. But the passion of the dogmatist arises from the fact that ideas held on faith can admit of no questioning–faith is faith–and the passion of the person committed to reason is based on ability to prove his ideas.

That is all the difference in the world because, as Mr. Huffman rightly says, it is hopeless to debate dogma; dogma demands belief without evidence or argumentation–or only the pretense at it. Two men of reason who differ in their idea may debate the truth in terms of a common referent: reality. Two men who differ in their dogma can only raise their voices–or go to war.

Several commentators called the movie Atlas Shrugged Part I a failure. I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 17 (the commentator who said the novel appeals to the young is certainly right), and have studied, written about it, and, above all, tried to live by its principles, for some 50 years. Although John Aglialoro, the man whose dedication over many years made the movie possible, is a fellow trustee of the Atlas Society, and a friend, I approached the movie with anxiety–and, to tell the truth, little hope that it could capture anything of the world created by Ayn Rand in the most thrilling, moving, and unforgettable book I ever read.

Now, I have seen the movie twice, and each time with the same surge of affirmation, the recognition of a homeland of my spirit, that I felt half a century ago. Everyone knew that the movie would have to be the movie–not the book–and succeed as a movie, not as a book on videotape.

The movie’s overwhelming success comes from its relentless focus on the goal that motivated all of Ayn Rand’s fiction writing: the portrayal of the ideal man of reason and of impassioned loyalty to values fighting great battles. In the case of Atlas Shrugged, she set out to portray the great producers of wealth as moral heroes, moved by reason, purpose, and self-esteem, in their struggle against the regime of political force–including the kind of businessmen whose power is over other people, not the material world. Those heroic men and women who have transformed the world by their work live on the screen from the first moment of Atlas Shrugged Part I.

Of course, many will not enjoy the movie, some will hate it, and they will have their reasons. But I have seen the movie with a wide circle of men and women whose achievements and integrity I admire and heard them discuss it, later, with a rare pleasure, the pleasure you take in witnessing a battle for great stakes.

Because we are a species that lives by gaining knowledge of the world, as Mr. Huffman says, and must make our judgments and act on them in the widest possible context of understanding, we need an integrated view of existence: of the fundamental nature of the world (a world of facts knowable by reason and science–or a world ruled by mysterious higher forces?), the nature of man (able to know reality, achieve his goals in this world–or a soul awaiting its true destiny in another realm?), the nature and purpose of values (fostering life on earth, and happiness, or dedicated to serving a higher realm that we cannot know but must worship), and the nature of government (to protect each man’s right to judge, choose, and act on his own convictions for this own values–or to enforce the “right” values whether of religion or service to the state?).

Because having reasoned, fact-based, non-contradictory answers to those questions will set the overall course of our lives, integrate all our judgments and actions, and tell us for what principles we must fight, we DO need a philosophy–not a dogma, but a philosophy for living on this Earth A philosophy like Objectivism.

See Atlas Shrugged Part I for yourself; it is your sense of life, your likes and dislikes in art, and, yes, your philosophical convictions–held implicitly or explicitly–that will determined your enjoyment or lack of it. Only you can be the judge.

14 Roberto Palazzolo { 04.19.11 at 9:54 pm }

Many good comments here. I think I understand most. Now how would you say the same thing to the people that vote enmass?

15 Ed { 04.20.11 at 7:34 am }

I agree with most of what you wrote above, Walter, but the movie must be judged on its own terms, as a movie, as a necessarily condensed, compressed distillation of the novel’s essentials. It must tell the novel’s story and convey the theme and style and plot and characterizations in a tiny fraction of the space in which a novel may luxuriate. As movie-making (unlike the truly individualistic arts such as writing, sculpting, musical composition) is a collaborative art, its success or failure hinges on the talents of all the primary participants, most importantly the screenwriter, director, actors and cinematographers. All must be on their best game.

My viewing of Atlas Shrugged left me disappointed in part because of a seriously flawed script and actors who seem to have been abandoned by their director and left to their own devices. The result (in my opinion) is a ship without a rudder, unprepared and unconvincing actors merely reciting lines. The characters’ motivations, the ideas that formed their personalities and drove their convictions, those essential character traits that Rand so carefully and wonderfully cultivated in the novel, are all but invisible in the film. The result is a kind of Cliffs Notes version of Atlas Shrugged, a zombie film with two-dimensional characters where living, breathing humans should be.

Contrary to the old cliche, movies are quite often better than their source material. The lousier the novel, the easier it is to adapt it and even improve upon it. Not so with Atlas Shrugged. Its scope and complexity almost defy a film adaptation. To do it properly would take ten hours or more. Anything less demands the most skillful of screenwriters, and this is where the blame for A.S.’s failure must be focused. The screenplay is the foundation upon which everything else is built. This one, sadly, is rotten, leaving the director and actors with nothing. The result is a stillborn production.

16 Ed { 04.20.11 at 7:41 am }

PS
And don’t even get me started on the casting choices!

17 Walter Donway { 04.20.11 at 10:30 am }

Thanks for taking the time to comment on what I wrote, Ed. Of course, I didn’t comment on the quality of the movie as a work of art in its own medium, with its own distinctive standards of excellence. I haven’t studied or thought much about cinematic art and the kinds of issues you raise.

I realize that it is possible to enjoy any given work of art in a compartmentalized way (lousy painting but hot-as-hell female model). Naturally, a professional movie reviewer is most concerned with how well the movie “works,” how well the potential of cinema is brought to bear. So I consider your comments fuel for thought, when I see the movie again.

I never did get into the casting parlor game in the months (and years) John Aglialoro sought a way to bring the novel to the screen. At a special screening of the film in NYC on April 14, the evening before the public premiere, four actors from the movie, along with the writer and the post-production director, constituted a panel, to which David Kelley, the executive director of the Atlas Society, put some questions. All of the actors commented on their understanding and interpretation of the character that they played, and I found them insightful indeed–and in some cases, hugely excited to be doing this.

Whatever the cinematic virtues of the movie, I am fortunate that they did not seem to detract from my experience of the film, which stirred up powerful feelings almost from the outset. I think I understand your point that Atlas Shrugged might have benefited from much more film time–the total will be about five hours over the three parts–and, of course, that issue was debated for years as John Aglialoro explored various routes to the screen. What succeeds about the film, for me, and for so many others who have seen it, is that its protagonists are precisely great wealth producers–typically portrayed as “robber barons,” crooks, exploiters–who are moral heroes for the RIGHT reasons: because the tools of their success is rationality, and, specifically, integrity in striving to bring a vision into reality in the world. That such men and women, young and appealing, are seen today on the screen in all their efficacy, determination, and pride–and battling villains who are the government regulators and expropriators and moochers–makes the movie, to this viewer, a glorious occasion.

But you knew, that, of course, before I even wrote this comment. Thanks again for taking time to write.

18 Walter Donway { 04.20.11 at 12:07 pm }

One additional point may provide context as we hear, on many sides, the discussions of the Atlas Shrugged film and all the elements that may affect its success.

Not surprisingly, the context is political. The Atlas Society, whose trustee, John Aglialoro, produced Atlas Shrugged Part I after a long struggle with Hollywood, is closely identified with this film: hosting the premieres, working on distribution, and using its Web site to provide a place for movie goers to get more information on every aspect of the film and the philosophy that drives it.

The Atlas Society was created specifically as an alternative to the Ayn Rand Institute. The Atlas Society is committed to “open Objectivism”: open discussion, disagreements within the limits of civil and rational discourse, and the development of the philosophy’s fundamental principles. The Ayn Rand Institute has consistently opposed the existence of The Atlas Society and its approach.

The Atlas Shrugged film is attracting new attention and support to The Atlas Society and its success will interact with the work of The Atlas Society to advance open Objectivism and increase the reach of the research, publications, and highly interactive Web site of the Atlas Society. The Ayn Rand Institute was and is welcome to be involved in the promotion of the movie and in making the most of the surge of public attention it is attracting to Atlas Shrugged, which has now soared to among the top 10 best-sellers on Amazon–more than 50 years after its publication.

But the Ayn Rand Institute has chosen, consistent with its record, to have no involvement with the movie or the opportunities it presents to advance Objectivism. Naturally, it is congenially to this position to portray the movie as a failure and to hold out no hope for its future.

Without understanding these politics, it will not be possible to understand the comments at least from some quarters on the appeal and prospects of Atlas Shrugged Part I. No human endeavor is without its politics.

19 Rolf Westgard { 04.20.11 at 5:51 pm }

rbradley: For answers to your question, take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes web site. I’ve searched their past files, and I cannot find a single movie with as low a reviewer rating as Atlas Shrugged. The notion that Donway could trash Ebert is ludicrous.

20 Walter Donway { 04.20.11 at 8:21 pm }

Last time I checked rottentomatoes.com, the approval rating for Atlas Shrugged Part I was 6 percent of movie critics and 86 percent of ordinary movie viewers. That is not unexpected, based on years of experience.

The book reviewers systematically panned Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, in the 1940′s, and it went out of print. Ordinary viewers kept recommending it and finally forced a reprint; when the novel celebrated the 50th anniversary of its publication, millions of copies had been sold–and continue to sell to this day. And now, some 50-plus years after its publication, Ayn Rand’s great epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, is in the top 10 on Amazon’s best-seller list.

Listen, there is a great divide, today, between the American people at large and their intellectuals, including, of course, their professional movie critics. The intellectuals, as a broad generalization, are influenced by the European tradition of philosophy and are subjectivists in metaphysics (your reality may not be my reality), skeptics in epistemology (reason is inherently misleading, the conceptual level of consciousness is a game with words, not a way of knowing reality), subjectivists in ethics (moral judgments are relative, expressions of feeling, science cannot speak to morality), collectivists and statists in politics (man, by nature, cannot be responsible for himself, that is the job of the state), and naturalists in esthetics (the role of art is to show us a slice of life, or, more recently, a slice of low-life).

Broadly speaking, the American public buys into none of these premises. Most relevant to this discussion, the American public is Romanticist, preferring art that emphasizes plot, portrays heroes, involves colorful and exotic settings, and depicts battles between good and evil. Since this is anathema to the serious literary establishment, the last vestiges of Romanticism, the detective, spy, action novels, are huge best-sellers, while the intelligentsia laments the debased taste of the public.

Well, Ayn Rand, in her philosophy, is a thoroughgoing Aristotelian: reality, reason, the morality of individual flourishing, and romanticism. She is wildly popular with the public and perceived as a deadly threat by our intellectuals.

And so we return to my point that a 6 percent approval rating by professional critics, like Ebert, and an 86 percent approval rating by the general public, was to be expected.

I did not set out to trash Ebert; I called attention to lack of evidence for any of his assertions, his cavalier treatment of philosophy, and his stifling attitude of superiority toward the portrayal of heroes in film. Someone called to my attention that Ebert has a huge knowledge of European film, and, given the premises that draw him to European cinema, could not begin to comprehend a movie, like Atlas Shrugged I, that appeals to the quintessential American sense of life.

Ayn Rand never did rely on a poll of intellectuals to affirm a philosophy that represents a revolution against some 2000 years of philosophical tradition and all of the anti-Enlightenment philosophy of the past 200 years or so.

American have been tragically betrayed by their professional intellectuals.

21 Ed { 04.21.11 at 8:00 am }

Rand’s detractors have always misstated (or, less generously: lied about) her philosophy, her approach to art, even her private life (speaking of her as if they knew her personally rather than through increasingly bizarre, politically motivated and scurrilous hearsay), so Ebert’s catty review of Atlas Shrugged comes as no surprise. Even many of Rand’s so-called supporters get it wrong more often than right (observe how political and social conservatives cite altruism as the foundation of capitalism). The only question regarding all the anti-Rand propaganda is whether Rand’s enemies are acting out of genuine ignorance (which may be excused, at least temporarily) or malice.

My own opinion is that Objectivism exposes the contradictions, evasions and lies in one’s personal life, and that introspection through the lens of Aristotelian epistemology can reveal inconvenient (if not dangerous) truths. Rand’s most intelligent detractors know this, and they are horrified by its implications, both political and personal. Their frenzied attacks on Rand and her philosophical allies (“Randroids”) lay bare their true motivations. Ayn Rand’s very existence is an affront to their cherished fables, their long-held political views, their own souls. Their loud, persistent and increasingly obscene antagonism toward Rand and her work is a testament to her enduring power as a thinker.

22 Rolf Westgard { 04.21.11 at 9:36 am }

The only people who go to the movie are rightwingnuts, thus the high public rating.

23 rbradley { 04.21.11 at 10:45 am }

Rolf:

If you are driven by emotion and not reason, I’d ‘check your premises’.

24 Rolf Westgard { 04.21.11 at 4:30 pm }

Atlas Shrugged is a Tea Party movie – black tea not green tea.
If you want reason google my name and a word like energy or nuclear and you’ll get all the emotionless reason you want.

25 Walter Donway { 04.21.11 at 9:16 pm }

I am noticing more and more the desperation to dismiss the movie Atlas Shrugged, and the philosophy of Objectivism, with comments that are false, and must be obviously so even to those who make them (“only…right-wing nuts” see the movie), that I marvel at the power of Atlas Shrugged and the philosophical revolution against altruism and statism to inspire panic.

26 Ed { 04.22.11 at 6:22 am }

“Atlas Shrugged is a Tea Party movie…”

That (false) observation seems to have emerged as THE favored lefty talking point regarding Atlas Shrugged. The film is no more a “Tea Party” movie than the Declaration of Independence is a “Tea Party” letter, or the Bill of Rights is a “Tea Party” list. Tea Partiers lean Conservative; the movement (such as it is) is hardly a bastion of Objectivism. One does not become a defender of reason and capitalism by waving a flag and mindlessly reciting Jefferson.

27 Rolf Westgard { 04.22.11 at 9:23 am }

<<<>>>
No desperation about this dog of a movie which will die a quiet death. All I need to do is shrug. Rolf

28 Kermit { 04.22.11 at 9:28 am }

The movie actually did address the need for railroads in the future. It was at the very beginning of the film, short and adequate for the plot line.

One thing which bothered me was the quote that Hank gave to Dagny for early delivery of Rearden Metal in 10′s of thousands of dollars per ton. Later it hit me that it illustrated hyperinflation rather than a realistic value of any metal (other than those from the PGM group of metals)

29 Walter Donway { 04.22.11 at 9:22 pm }

Well, I have Googled Rolf Westgard and read some of his articles. At least we seem to share a passion for defending the nuclear power industry and, I suppose, a loathing for the anti-science types who managed to derail nuclear power development twenty or thirty years ago, leaving us today in an untenable position with regard to energy and with no option but to enormously enrich the tribalist potentates of the Middle East. And, in my own neighborhood, the rich know-nothings successful cowed politicians into mothballing the already-completed, billion-dollars Shoreham plant, leaving Long Island with the highest electric bills in the nation for decades to come. To me, that is staggering! And to celebrate, the wealthy held parties of celebration in their East Hampton mansions! How I hate them! Perhaps I share this perspective with Rolf.

30 Ed { 04.23.11 at 6:37 am }

But the wealthy East Hamptonites are humanitarians, Walter. They prevented Big, Bad Nuclear from taking advantage of the Little Folk. Where would the Little Folk be without the selfless maternalism of their superiors?

31 Walter Donway { 04.23.11 at 9:24 am }

To this day, I cannot believe that then-Governor Cuomo caved in on the issue and so sealed the date of Shoreham. Unimaginable! Even the New York Times editorialized for Shoreham!

32 Samael { 04.27.11 at 9:00 am }

It’s always fascinating to watch Objectivists defend Ayn Rand’s writings. They first you demand you treat it with as much reverence as they would, but they just can’t be bothered to put their magic markers away long enough to stop writing crude graffiti on the bathroom walls about those who don’t agree with them.

The altruistic don’t seek to better society at all, the Objectivist will argue, they’re just the weak and stupid demanding the blood of the best of us, the truly alive. They define the best of us as including themselves, without question. The worst of us includes corrupt government, incompetent scientists, anyone with writer’s block, or a bad credit score, and the handicapped and elderly.

If you can’t accept all these things as true, then chances are, you’re their enemy.

What a pity then, that Ayn Rand would sneer in disgust at many of them. Especially the parasites who make their entire living off of her hard work.

The truth is, the movie “Atlas Shrugged” requires you to pity it, to enjoy it. The acting lacks the power and charisma the narrative demands, the sets and location shooting are an understated good effort, and the script was written to be as faithful to the book as possible, if judged by a computer program. There is no art, there is no vision, there’s just heart and a good effort put forth by all, as they rushed to make the movie as quickly as possible.

And it fails.

Christ, how it fails, to anyone who doesn’t already belong to their cult.

33 rbradley { 04.27.11 at 4:28 pm }

Samael:

I welcome frank discussion, invite criticism, and am interested in open-ended areas of Objectivism. I am a scholar, and most folks I know who are interested in Rand (and I admit to being more familiar with the Atlas Society than the Ayn Rand Institute) are reasonable, scholarly folk.

Beware of altruism–I think that is a point. Ken Lay was a real people pleader, a ‘second hander’ in Rand terms. Tried to be everything to everyone and ended up being nothing. (I write about this in my book, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy, chapter 3.)

I interpret Objectivism as ‘tough love’ but not a reason to not help those whose situations have left them vulnerable through not fault of their own (self-abuse). I am a charitable person but don’t like to hand $$ to those in the street intersections because that encourages bad and dangerous behavior–I try to be smart with charity, in other words.

I am not sure why you want to try to paint all those interested in Rand, Objectivism, and the new movie with the same brush. Chill

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