Friday, July 9, 2010

Reflections on "Atlas Shrugged": Dagny's Win #tcot #sgp

Atlas Shrugged is epic. It is the most intense novel I've ever read, perhaps because the storyline could easily be seen as a modern tale in the midst of our current economy. I have fallen in love with the young heroine, Dagny Taggart. She is the heiress of a railroad line and does not know the meaning of "can't." Her wimpy brother, Jim, on the other hand; is a mess. He is fearful, catering to the naysayers instead of focusing on how to make the railroad business successful.

There are so many messages in this story. For those unfamiliar with the book, the plot goes something like this: there is a group of businessmen and one business woman (Dagny) who is seeking to produce something they are proud of, that will advance something; whether that is an idea, a service, or a product. They love being able to chase their dreams and make something that will employ others and make a profit.

Then you have the government and groups of people unable to create anything unique, who continue to criticize the group of producers for being "selfish" for wanting to make a profit. Their idea of society is one where larger groups control others and edge out competition. Unbelievably, there was an "Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule" that sounded exactly like the "Too Big to Fail" bailouts that were just given to businesses. As much as I didn't like Ayn Rand's personal life choices, the woman was sharp. Atlas Shrugged is eerily prescient when it comes to today's headlines.

I'm including an excerpt of the book below. To set it up:

Dagney is trying to build a railroad line for her family's business. She is using a brand new product from another company, Rearden Metal. All other railroad lines used steel but Henry Rearden came up with a new metal that is stronger and more economical. A over-bloated scientific group has denounced the metal as "unsafe" although they've never tested it. The government is involved and will benefit if the railroad line fails.

Dagny was up against a wall. She agreed to step down as the Vice President of Operations and start her own railroad line to take the heat off of Taggart Transcontinental. She starts the John Galt Line, named after a mysterious man who seems to embody rebellion. (In the book, the phrase, "Who is John Galt?" is often said as though to say, "what's the point?" Dagny doesn't like the phrase and chose it to goad her attackers.)

Henry Rearden has proposed building a bridge made of his new metal. Dagny believes in him, but many others do not. There is increasing pressure to stop Dagny from going forward with her plans. A union representative has asked for a meeting. And now, from the book:

“Well, it’s like this, Miss Taggart,” said the delegate of the Union of Locomotive Engineer. “I don’t think we’re going to allow you to run that train.”

Dagny sat at her battered desk, against the blotched wall of her office. She said, without moving, “Get out of here.”

It was a sentence the man had never heard in the polished offices of railroad executives. He looked bewildered. “I came to tell you --”

“If you have anything to say to me, start over again.”


“Don’t tell me what you’re going to allow me to do.”

“Well, I meant we’re not going to allow our men to run your train.”

“That’s different.”

“Well, that’s what we’ve decided.”

“Who’s decided it?”

“The committee. What you’re doing is a violation of human rights. You can’t force men to go out to get killed -- when that bridge collapses just to make money for you.”

She searched for a sheet of blank paper and handed it to him. “Put it down in writing,” she said, “and we’ll sign a contract to that effect.”

“What contract?”

“That no member of your union will ever be employed to run an engine on the John Galt Line.”

“Why... wait a minute... I haven’t said --”

“You don’t want to sign such a contract?”

“No I --”

“Why not, since you know that the bridge is going to collapse?”

“I only want --”

“I know what you want. you want a stranglehold on your men by means of the jobs which I give them -- and on me, by means of your men. You want me to provide the jobs, and you want to make it impossible for me to have any jobs to provide. Now I’ll give you a choice. The train is going to be run. You have no choice about that. But you can choose whether it’s going to be run by one of your men or not. If you choose not to let them, the train will still run, if I have to drive the engine myself. Then, if the bridge collapses, there won’t be any railroad left in existence, anyway. But if it doesn’t collapse, no member of your union will ever get a job on the John Galt Line. If you think that I need your men more than they need me, choose according to that. Now are you going to forbid your men to run that train?”

“I didn’t say we’d forbid it. I haven’t said anything about forbidding. But...but you can’t force men to risk their lives on something nobody’s ever tried before.”

“I’m not going to force anyone to take that run.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to ask for a volunteer.”

“And if none of them volunteers?”

“Then it will be my problem, not yours.”

“Well, let me tell you that I’m going to advise them to refuse.”

“Go ahead. Advise them anything you wish. Tell them whatever you like. But leave the choice to them. Don’t try to forbid it.”

The notice that appeared in every roundhouse of the Taggart system was signed “Edwin Willers, Vice-President in Charge of Operation” It asked engineers, who were willing to drive the first train on the John Galt Line, so to inform the office of Mr. Willers, not later than eleven A.M. of July 15.

It was a quarter of eleven, on the morning of the fifteenth, when the telephone rang in her office. It was Eddie, calling from high up in the Taggart Building outside her window. “Dagny, I think you’d better come over.” His voice sounded queer.

She hurried across the street, then down the marble-floored halls to the door that still carried the name “Dagny Taggart” on the glass panel. She pulled the door open.

The anteroom of the office was full. Men stood jammed among the desks, against the walls. As she entered, they took their hats off in sudden silence. She saw the graying heads, the muscular shoulders, she saw the smiling faces of her staff at their desks and the face of Eddie Willers at the end of the room. Everybody knew that nothing had to be said.

Eddie stood by the open door of her office. The crowd parted to let her approach him. He moved his hand, pointing at the room, and then at a pile of letters and telegrams.

“Dagny, every one of them,” he said. “Every engineer on Taggart Transcontintinental. those who could, came here, some from as far as the Chicago Division.” He pointed at the mail. “There’s the rest of them. To be exact, there’s only three I haven’t heard from: one’s on a vacation in the north woods, one’s in a hospital, and one’s in jail for reckless driving -- of his automobile.”

She looked at the men. She saw the suppressed grins on the solemn faces. She inclined her head, in acknowledgement. She stood for a moment, head bowed, as if she were accepting a verdict, knowing that the verdict applied to her, to every man in the room and to the world beyond the walls of the building.

“Thank you,” she said.

Most of the men had seen her many times. Looking at her, as she raised her head, many of them thought -- in astonishment and for the first time -- that the face of their Operating Vice-President was the face of a woman and that it was beautiful.

Someone in the back of the crowd cried suddenly, cheerfully, “To hell with Jim Taggart!”

An explosion answered him. The men laughed, they cheered, they broke into applause. The response was out of all proportion to the sentence. But the sentence had given them the excuse they needed. They seemed to be applauding the speaker in insolent defiance of authority. But everyone in the room knew who it was that they were cheering.

She raised her hand. “We’re too early, “ she said, laughing. “Wait till a week from today. That’s when we ought to celebrate. And believe me, we will!”

I cried when I read this part of the book. It moved me because I could feel the desire of the men to do what they were trained to do. Run a train. They simply wanted a job and the chance to do something that hadn't been done before. You could feel the excitement as they imagined running a train over a brand new bridge, made of something the world had never seen before.

This is the type of spirit that built America. It was a "can-do attitude," not a "can't do." The character of Dagny, Henry Rearden, and to an extent, Francisco D'Anconia (who had the spirit at first but is now involved in a struggle to overthrow the "moochers" and "looters" of society) all celebrate the accomplishments of the human spirit. Ayn Rand grew up under the suffocation of communism in Russia. She knew firsthand the experience of control, stifling creativity and progress. You can tell in her writing that she loves America.

She has no use for those who feed off the success of others while damning them for that success. She calls such people "moochers" and "looters." Henry Reardon, for example, has his extended family of a mother and brother living with he and his wife. His brother, is unemployed. However, he is involved in some kind of an organization that condemns successful businessmen like his own brother. In fact, I was stunned by a part of the book that had the brother complaining that he couldn't raise funds for this group and his brother generously offered to give him a check for $10,000. (This book was written in the 1950's, so that sum of money was worth even more then than today.) The brother was sullen as he grudgingly accepted, then had the gall to ask if the money could be given to him in cash since he didn't want the group to know the money came from Rearden Steel. Rearden's family is a perfect example of moochers.

Looters are those who grab a business after its been pushed out and claim it as their own. Again, it's amazing to me how Rand had the foresight to see all of this, but maybe it's not such a surprise. As the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Rand was making a strong statement against a "collectivist" society, where the good of the many outweigh the interests of the few -- even if those few will provide jobs to the many by doing what they do best.

It is the punishment of success that is seen over and over again in Rand's novel. I have always thought that those who punish success, never have had it themselves. And we see it today. Those who are unable or unwilling to produce hate those who do. Like Dagny, I say fight it. Even if it looks hopeless, at least I'll sleep peacefully knowing I did.


kkollwitz said...

I havn't read "Atlas," but did read Rand's "Fountainhead," about an architect that does his own thing. While I like Rand in general, where the arts are concerned (music, painting, literature, architecture, theater, dance, sculpture) the unrestrained ego has made a real mess of our cultural inheritance.

Mariana said...

I very much liked both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead when I read them, but something seems a bit off about the philosophy contained therein. Although it's true that we should all seek to be producers, and self-sufficiency is a great thing, Rand seems to further imply that the only worth of an individual is in how "useful" they are to society. In Rand's ideal world of "true capitalism", there is no room for mercy or charity. Strikes me as pretty cold.

kkollwitz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kkollwitz said...

If I remember right, mercy and charity are ok with Rand, but only as far as an individual freely decides to be charitable or merciful with his own resources.

This reminds me of Paul's letter to Philemon. Paul says he could coerce Philemon to free Onesimus, but would rather Philemon decide to do it freely.

Bill Meyer said...

I remember when I first read Atlas-- I thought it was a bit melodramatic. In the years since then, I have reread it at intervals of 8 to 24 months, more or less, and have been surprised at how prescient Rand now seems to have been.

What seemed melodrama then seems now to be playing out in Washington, D.C., and sadly, with the same destructive effect on our country.

Mary Rose said...

kkollwitz, Bill (from my parish), is also an architect. I have a feeling you'd both agree on some things. :-)

I agree about the unrestrained ego. I was around enough of them during my own art school days. I didn't want anything to do with it.

Mariana, I'm not a Rand expert, but I believe she did focus on being selfish. (In fact, I think that's one of Objectivism's principles.) I agree that it's cold. I just like the fact that someone has highlighted the joys of achievement without feeling a need to apologize or atone for it. I'm amazed how "dumbed down" many kids are and how they've been carefully indoctrinated that capitalism is evil.

Bill, isn't that the truth. To me, when a person is really good at something, and has an opportunity to make money doing it - thereby giving others opportunities; then that's a good thing. I have been angered by how special interest groups have vilified those who are successful. To think that youth sports teams are not "keeping score" in their games because it will make the other team "feel bad" about losing is unreal.

This continual criticism of achievement is anti-God, IMO. God gave us talents to bless Him and bless others. Some folks, though, because they've never achieved much of anything, are bitter and resentful. They seem bent on preventing others from succeeding. Dolts.