Thursday, October 11, 2007

Atlas Won't Shrug

A Very Odd Couple: Angelina Jolie and Ayn Rand

PSONG 20. Yesterday, Michelle Malkin noted the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, the extraordinary paean to capitalism written by Ayn Rand. She also revealed the incredible fact that Angelina Jolie has been signed to star in a movie version of the book. If you haven't read the book, you can't know just how incredible this circumstance is. The folks at confirm that the project is in some stage of development, and they include a plot synopsis. Here's an excerpt:

Enter a world of corporate bureaucracies, where railroad executive Dagny Taggart struggles against mounting odds to keep her company, and her industry, out of the toilet. In the course of her struggles, she meets many adversaries, a few allies, and a handful of characters she cannot quite figure out. Among these are Hank Rearden, Francisco D'Anconia and a cadre of others. An increasingly present, and mystery thread to the story, is the presence of graffiti, asking the simple but mysterious question "Who is John Galt?" This seemingly simple question begins to haunt Dagny Taggart as she struggles with feelings of confusion related to her personal relationships, her struggles with politicians and bureaucrats, and the continuing disappearance of heads of industry whom she considers kindred spirits. As more and more of the heads of industry abandon their companies, and condemn those industries to ruin at the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, Dagny embarks on a series of quests to discover the answer to 'little mysteries' (Who smokes premium cigarettes wrapped in gold paper embossed with dollar signs? Who is John Galt? Where are the heads of industry going? What does the world do when the people whose efforts make things run correctly stop contributing?)

I'll tell you right now the eventual shooting script will bear little relation to this synopsis and even less to the unmistakeable intentions of Ayn Rand. (Check out the message boards already starting up at There is simply no way the book Rand wrote can be transformed faithfully into a movie by left-wing Hollywood, whose loudmouth political activists are living caricatures of the philosophy Rand was attacking in every word of Atlas Shrugged. Her loathing of the socialist egalitarianism best exemplified by Berkeley and Hollywood leftists was utter, devoid of any shade of nuance. She didn't believe in income redistribution or a social safety net of any sort. Her ideal was a pure meritocracy in which absolutely unfettered capitalism rewards those who work, innovate, and take risks in the market. Not much is said about those who are incapable of work or unwilling to work. Presumably, they will learn when their straits become dire enough.

The book is also unabashedly pro-American. One of the characters in Atlas Shrugged delivers a five- or ten-page speech celebrating the fact that the United States is the only nation in history to employ its own initials ('U" superimposed on 'S') as the symbol of its currency, thus demonstrating the cardinal value of the nation (regardless of any cracker-barrel platitudes we may repeat as a pretense of altruism.) God, for example, is conspicuously absent from Atlas Shrugged; Rand was an atheist, which along with her ruggedly individualistic feminism, was all she had in common with the 'progressive' community in which this movie will be made. Nor is the atheism incidental. Rand was a product of the Soviet system, a supreme rationalist who created her philosophy in direct opposition to the equally atheistic rationalism of Marxism. Time and again she assaults the concept of "the greatest good for the greatest number," arguing that personal sacrifice is actually immoral and, correctly, that most of what we think of as sacrifice is not. The mother who goes hungry in order that her child may eat is not sacrificing anything. She is simply choosing an alternative she values more highly than her own physical well being. But the more abstract and remote from the individual such choices become, the less legitimate they become. At the extreme, the requirement to sacrifice personal well being in deference to the needs (or demands) of an entire populace amounts to annihilation of the individual self.

Rand's writings are as extreme -- and as unrealistically black-and-white -- as the rationalist totalitarian system her personal experience inspired her to oppose. That's why her books have always been most prized by those who read them very young. (I note that Michelle read Atlas Shrugged in high school, at about the same age I did.) Her sensationally radical opposition to a lot of unexamined social pieties provides a clarity that enables young minds to see a bigger picture they never knew was there. For most, the result is a kind of intellectual breakthrough which leads through time to a better educated and usually more temperate view of the ideal social contract; for example, one in which an individual may feel some responsibility for the well being of people he doesn't know personally, or in which a soldier may give up his life for his country without its being an immoral sacrifice.

But the residual Rand effect is still dangerous to leftist orthodoxy -- a core belief in the power and worth of the individual, on whose best achievements the success of whole nations and societies depend. No organization, no committee, no plurality of mediocrities can serve as a substitute for outstanding individual achievement. And if the incentives for the best and brightest among us are taken away, or too seriously diminished, the entire culture will crumble.

This is the irreducible nut at the center of Atlas Shrugged, and it's one Hollywood just won't be able to swallow. The story will have to be changed. The script will be rewritten endlessly until a way is found to spit out the nut. It will go through drafts as a Bush-bashing allegory, an anti-war parable (business is war by other means, right?), an allusive prefiguring of the worldwide economic crisis wrought by Global Warming, a melodrama symbolic of feminist battles against the patriarchy, a shallow screed against corrupt (Republican?) politicians, a complete reversal in which the disappearing industrialists are portrayed as villains for abandoning the parasitic sheep who feed off their talent... and, in fact, anything and everything BUT what Ayn Rand was saying on every page of her 1000+ page book. The most unlikely miracle of all is that a movie will ever be released in theaters.

You can take that to the bank.

I don't mean to be a wet blanket to all you Rand fans. I'm just trying to be realistic.

P.S. The sound file contains excerpts from the music I listened to continuously while I was reading Atlas Shrugged when I was fourteen. Don't ask me why. It just seemed to fit.

UPDATE. Just for you, Mal (see Comments). A prize for recognizing Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto right out of the box. I've replaced the original sound file with a big chunk of the second movement you (and I) love so much.

And also just for you, because I know you're grappling with the challenge of raising your boys, there was a prescient precursor to Atlas Shrugged just for kids.

It's the Dr. Seuss masterpiece Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, originally published in 1948. Granted, it's not about capitalism, but it is about the rights and responsibilities of individuals, and it was once -- however briefly -- a movie.

Thidwick allows himself to become the carrier for a bunch of freeloaders who eventually weigh him down to the point that he can no longer defend himself against hunters. Fortunately, he is able to shed his antlers in time to survive. Oddly enough, it was Russian animators who first thought to turn it into a film feature.

"Welcome," as the Russian film was called, has now been withdrawn from YouTube because the heirs of Dr. Seuss claimed a copyright violation. But Thidwick lives on, most recently as the subject of a PhotoShop contest at

And so it goes. Long before you start giving your kids the Civics Quiz, you can start getting them ready for extreme capitalism by popping this book into their Christmas stockings.

Will you be glad you did? Who knows? Eventually it may get them shot.

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