Audience Didn't Shrug At Atlas Screening

APRIL 16, 2011


SAN FRANCISCO — The packed audience at the San Francisco premiere of the movie version of Ayn Rand’s classic 1957 novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” seemed thrilled with the result, despite the low-budget nature of the flick and the fact that this was only part one of a three-part series. Multi-part adaptations are common these days, but many people, myself included, find it hard to experience the full force of a story when it ends a third of the way into it.

I’ve read the reviews, which range from gently praiseworthy to scathingly critical, bust mostly concur with the enthusiasm expressed by the audience at the Thursday event, which was sponsored by CalWatchdog’s parent think tank, the Pacific Research Institute. The movie was strangely satisfying, and its flaws – turgid dialogue, preachiness, one-dimensional characters – don’t bother me given that they are the same flaws epitomized by Rand’s quirky, yet deeply moving and influential novels.

Rand’s fictional works are powerful not because they are flawless or without annoying features, but because they are based on simple truths that the public doesn’t usually hear. It’s the same reason former presidential candidate Ron Paul, the Texas congressman (and libertarian, but not Objectivist) who rambles about the Federal Reserve and lacks the polish of other candidates, has become something of a rock star: he tells basic truths in an honest and authentic way. The public hears so much well-polished blather that it often is willing to put up with some flaws and quirks in the process if it’s getting something meaty and valuable.

Haters of Rand’s philosophy find her ideas to be dangerous, which indeed they are to the cast of unseemly characters running our national and state governments. Online movie reviewer Will Schiffelbein, writing before the movie’s release, called on Hollywood to stop its production out of social consciousness: “I believe that if this project actually sees the light of day, we could be in for some turbulence up ahead. A movie version of Atlas Shrugged isn’t just destined for failure – it could turn out to be one of the biggest mistakes Hollywood could ever make.”

I recall a friend at a church I attended years ago suggesting that I read Atlas Shrugged. He did so in hushed tones, after looking around to make sure that no one overheard his suggestion. I read the book and was alternately moved and annoyed by it, just as I have been both moved and annoyed by Rand’s Objectivist philosophy as I’ve plowed through her other works and thought about her philosophy over the years. But it’s been very influential for me. There’s a reason this book was named the second-most influential book after the Bible in a frequently cited Book of the Month Club survey from the 1990s. People respond to the book, just as they responded to the movie because it is based on important but politically incorrect ideas.

Rand’s pull-no-punches philosophy is best described in her own words, in this 1962 article reprinted on the Ayn Rand Institute Web site:

Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality … .

Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

“The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use … .”

It’s not hard to see why this philosophy offends so many people and is viewed as dangerous not just to leftists, but to many religious conservatives who are appalled by her views on sacrifice. It’s no surprise that Rand was an atheist, although it does surprise many people that Rand insisted on total obedience to her full philosophy even though many of us who like many elements of that philosophy retain strong religious beliefs and do not embrace the philosophy in its totality. I’ve heard many stories of Rand booting people out of her circle for ideological disagreements and heresy.

To Rand, religion is mysticism because it relies on experiences and beliefs that are outside observed reality and that defy reason (miracles, the virgin birth, etc.). Our entire political system is designed around the use of force by those who have political power, and that force often is employed to make individuals sacrifice their interest to what the government claims is the greater good. Our culture celebrates those who pursue “public service” and political activism and criticizes people who defend their right to pursue their own financial self-interest. Our tax code is designed in a way to punish anyone who advocates Rand’s capitalistic philosophy. No wonder she still moves and angers people.

Yes, this is dangerous stuff. The entire California government, and the Democratic governing majority in particular, is organized around the belief systems that Rand railed against. Not that Republicans are fundamentally different in their willingness to use power to enforce their will on others.

California’s wealthiest 1 percent pays 45 percent of California’s income-tax burden and yet we still constantly hear the drumbeat that the rich do not pay their fair share. California legislators pass hundreds of bills, almost all of which are based on the idea that we, as individuals, do not have the right to manage our own affairs. The newly passed laws almost always make one group (those who work hard and earn money) sacrifice their will to the will of others.

California’s highly regulated and managed economy is not even close to laissez-faire capitalism – nor is any other state’s economy, although we are further down the road toward serfdom than most other states. California’s government recognizes few restraints on its own power and every law and rule is about force – about the threat of violence (arrest, imprisonment, etc.) against those who act in ways not preferred by the ruling authorities. The government here is in no way a referee. Instead, it is the prime player in the society as it doles out benefits to favored groups and restricts other groups and enforces badly written and oftentimes incomprehensible laws and regulatory edicts. Usually, the laziest and most craven elements get the most benefits, while the heroic figures that Rand celebrates – the true entrepreneurs, rather than the politically connected business owners, union freeloaders and rent-seekers – are constantly punished and harassed.

Many Californians know this to be true. That’s why we love Rand, warts and all. Many of us have read a ton of political philosophy, but what Rand brings to the table is refreshing. She gives us stories and fictional accounts that are apt descriptions of the conditions of our current society. She skewers the union thugs, petty despots, heartless bureaucrats, craven trade association whores, favor-seeking business owners, functionaries and freeloaders that run Sacramento and most of this country. We love watching the hilariously named Wesley Mouch, the lobbyist-turned-economic-czar, because we watch people like him every night on the news. We snigger at James Taggart, the incompetent, influence-seeking head of a failing railroad company, because he epitomizes the Chamber of Commerce-type businessman who rather lobby the government than build a better mousetrap.

The story, aptly explained by Kurt Loder, who writes in the libertarian magazine, Reason, goes as follows: “[It] concerns strong-willed Dagny Taggart, who’s fighting to save her family railroad, Taggart Transcontinental, from the inept leadership of her brother, James, a moral weakling, and from the metastasizing reach of government regulation. Dagny finds a kindred spirit in Henry Rearden, a principled industrialist who has formulated a new kind of steel that Dagny intends to use in upgrading Transcontinental’s decaying tracks. She and Rearden are opposed at every turn by collectivist politicians and corporate titans corrupted by their addiction to the government teat. Meanwhile, the nation’s most productive businessmen, demoralized by rampant political interference, are vanishing one by one from the public scene. And a mysterious figure named John Galt appears to have something to do with this.”

Loder doesn’t like the film and raises some good points about its technical flaws. I understand what he’s saying, and agree that it could have been a far more powerful presentation in many ways. But I enjoyed it. It satisfied me, a devotee of the book, and believe that it is still accessible to people not familiar with her work. The lefties and religious conservatives will hate it no matter what. I’m left eager to watch parts two and three.

My prediction is that the movie will be a huge success in DVD format. Americans, and Californians in particular, are hungry for the ideas the book presents. We’re tired of watching a government that constantly punishes hard work, savings, entrepreneurship and risk. We’re tired of listening to the whines of an overpaid government union elite that feels entitled to the fruits of our labors and that uses the political system to rig the rules in its favor. We’re tired of massive tax bills to fund government programs that do little to improve our lives and never live up to the promises made. We’re sick of a national-security state that constantly pokes, prods and searches us – something I’m reminded of after a cross-country trip where I’ve had to deal with intrusive, rude and power-hungry TSA officials, who know darn well that what they are doing does not improve our safety a single iota. We’re tired of the rules and the taxes and the assaults on our freedom and the arrogance and unaccountability of the powerful people who work for the government. And we’re tired of the rhetoric from politicians that sounds more appropriate in a socialistic society than a free one.

Yes, Rand had many flaws, and the movie adaptation is no different. Who cares? Go see it and enjoy it any way.

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