Author John Green hates Atlas Shrugged with a White-Hot Passion. I don’t mind that he doesn’t like the novel. All tastes and preferences are unique to the individual, after all. But that’s also the flaw in his analysis.
1. Atlas Shrugged is a novel of ideas. The plot exists only so that Ayn Rand can lay out her set of philosophical beliefs. So it’s the kind of book that makes you feel smart because you “get it,” but the story itself is paper-thin and is carefully constructed to explain and celebrate Rand’s objectivism. I have an inherent problem with novels of ideas, because I think they fail to do most of what is interesting and useful about fiction, but I particularly dislike them when the ideas are bad ideas.
I am not an Objectivist. I recognize common ground with it but am not particularly fascinated by the label. I also agree with his assessment of Atlas Shrugged, to a small degree. Rand was hardly a perfect novelist. And I don’t like novels of ideas that are about bad ideas. But Atlas Shrugged is not about the idea Mr. Green thinks it is.
2. The philosophy of objectivism is absolutely repugnant to me (and also does not hold up to scrutiny). The philosophy of selfishness is all built around the idea that the person ingesting the philosophy feels special (i.e., that we all identify with John Galt), and of course we do all identify with John Galt, because we all feel that the world is against us and we are secretly a unique flower that could bloom brilliantly if only we did not have to carry the weight of other, lesser people.
The “philosophy of selfishness” is accurate enough as a descriptive term, but not when we use the word selfish as the pejorative in common meaning. The novel doesn’t push the idea it’s so often accused of endorsing. It isn’t an ode to “Fuck you, I’ve got mine”. Selfishness in a Randian view is compatible with all sorts of actions associated with altruism. The difference is force. The unrequited correct form of altruism inspires force to achieve this correct form on the odd belief that humans would devolve to “Fuck you, I’ve got mine” if not for this push of force.
Or, as Timothy Sandefur explains more eloquently in his response to a straw-man attack on Ayn Rand in Slate:
Slate proclaims that evolutionary psychology shows that Objectivism is wrong because evolution favors “altruism,” which the article question-beggingly defines as “helping others.” Of course, Rand never claimed that helping others is wrong. What Rand said was that you do not live for the purpose of making other people happy. There is a big difference. Objectivism has always held that there are often perfectly good reasons to help others who are of value to you. And what evolutionary psychology actually shows is that Rand was on solid ground making that claim. What the evidence shows is that humans (and other animals) often help those who are close kin to them or are in a position to help them—so-called “reciprocal altruism.” The confusion arises because the term “reciprocal altruism” is a contradiction: if it’s reciprocal, it’s not altruism. I defy anyone to show me where Rand said that “lending a helping hand” is a bad thing.
(The rest of Mr. Sandefur’s post is worth reading.)
Personally, I donate money and a considerable amount of my time for a cause from which I will never personally achieve the benefit I advocate. My efforts can benefit others. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. But here’s the thing that separates this from the mistaken idea presented in Mr. Green’s analysis. I put my money and time into this specific cause because it’s what I care about. My efforts help people, but at the core, I am being selfish. Should I therefore stop?
I have also been told many times that there are “more important” issues to deal with. Perhaps. How effective do you think I’d be toiling away on a task that matters only in the abstract nature of altruistic sacrifice? I’d punch the clock for my obligation, and not for very long, rather than think and write at all hours and travel the country and stand in cold rain during protests. I value what I’m doing and why I’m doing it more than the costs.
I don’t feel the world is against me, either. Badly mistaken in critical ways, yes, but there is no conspiracy. We don’t live in a perfect world.
But the fact that when we read Atlas Shrugged we all identify with the elite is itself evidence of the book’s crappiness, because either A. only extraordinary people happen to read Ayn Rand, or B. we all feel extraordinary, because we are so busy being our multitudinous and complex and extraordinary selves that we do not imagine other people as being as complex or interesting or extraordinary as we are.
I suspect everyone who reads Atlas Shrugged identifies with the heroes. (Or misunderstands which characters are the heroes?) But this isn’t the fault of the book. The people who identify with the heroes who are like the villains are wrong in their self-awareness and understanding. This is not a critique of the book’s underlying idea. When Dustin Brown tried to drink from the wrong end of his water bottle, did that indicate a mistake in the design of the water bottle?
We all act selfishly. This is not bad. The world would not devolve into chaos if we recognized this. “Good” will still occur. It is human-nature, and should be celebrated.
If I could find my copy, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars contains this correct notion of selfishness in its characters’ actions. Regardless, I recommend the novel. It’s a fantastic story.