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Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

IDEAS

Today’s ideological battle in U.S. politics? Ayn Rand built it Add to ...

Without a similar vision, she wrote, “liberals have no coherent way of explaining where we’re headed, or of measuring how far we’ve come.”

Politics alone can hardly explain the continuing fascination with Atlas Shrugged, which despite its age is curiously modern. Fantasy was rare and science fiction marginal in the 1950s. Comic-book superheroes combatting implacable evil were strictly for kids. Today, all these strains are the basic stuff of pop culture.

Rand’s wizardly hero, John Galt, defending virtue with a cult of helpers in a secret paradise that is hidden by a “ray screen” and powered by a magic engine, is Harry Potter-plus – beguiling to children of all ages.

“There are two novels that can change a bookish 14-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged,” screenwriter John Rogers said in a widely cited 2009 blog post. “One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Where once readers grew out of Ayn Rand, today they grow into her, in a culture that shuns the moral complexity that bedevilled literary imaginations in the anti-heroic 1960s. Some of her most ardent followers are key figures in the transformation of comic books from the disrepute they suffered in Rand’s time to cultural dominance today, such as Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, and Frank Miller, creator of the Dark Knight Batman comics.

Like Galt and his allies in Atlas Shrugged, comic-book heroes are typically arch-outsiders who disguise their true identities and stoically accept the opposition of an unenlightened public as they work selflessly to save the world from itself.

And, like Rand’s, comic-book villains are not merely misguided or venal but evil incarnate, implausibly devoted to destruction for its own sake. With nihilist do-gooders James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged and Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead, Rand set the stage for the Joker, Voldemort and all the other uninflected Satans that mass culture currently prefers.

Read in a slightly softer light, Atlas Shrugged also heralded the trendiest fantasy genre of the 21st century, “steampunk,” which turns its back on modern technology to imagine past worlds dominated by huffing and puffing machines. The book’s anachronistic obsessions with metallurgy, magic machinery, railways, smokestack manufacturing and other artifacts of the last century mark it as ultrahip nostalgia in the digital age.

There are no computers running the world in Atlas Shrugged, and no smooth-talking financiers. Its heroes are people who make vitally useful things from tangible materials, such as toilet seats made from miraculous “Rearden Metal.” Nothing is plastic.

Such features made no impression on Rand’s fellow travellers in the anti-communist movement of the 1950s. What they saw – a vision as obscure to modern readers as our nostalgia would be to them – was an image of the totalitarianism they feared most.

Born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg and educated in the nascent Soviet Union, Rand developed an anti-communist ideology comprehensively contrary to the original it virtually matched: a precise replica, turned upside-down.

Famed anti-communist (and former Soviet spy) Whittaker Chambers was the first to make the connection in a devastating piece in William F. Buckley’s then-new National Review. Under the title Big Sister Is Watching You, it eviscerates Atlas Shrugged as “remarkably silly” and ideologically repugnant: “I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”

Chambers’s conclusion: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To the gas chambers – go!’ ”

Indeed, Rand offers no sunny havens for true believers. In addition to an abstract ideology that condemns all but a favoured minority of technocrats as “looters,” her writing is shot through with revolutionary violence – constant destruction in the name of a righteous cause.

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