What Would John Galt Do?

A whole different way of looking at "WWJD"

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ayn Rand & The Prophecy Of Atlas Shrugged -- a review

I don't quite understand why this documentary was made or what its producers meant to accomplish. But it was interesting and, in some places, entertaining.

Thinking that any filmmaker that made it possible for me to win free tickets to an Objectivist film must have his priorities in the wrong place, I was pleasantly surprised when we walked into the theater. While the theater was not literally packed, it was a challenge to find two seats together. But then there are a lot of Objectivists here in the locus of Atlas Shrugged (I live only a few miles away from where the John Galt Line would pass through, if it existed).

Using the word "Prophecy," with its connotations of mysticism and outright quackery, in the title of a film about one of the 20th Century's best-known atheists is clearly provocative, and now that I've seen the film I think it was only used to draw people in to see it. Of course, anyone who has read Atlas Shrugged cannot help being astounded by how accurately Miss Rand predicted the America, fifty years hence, in which we now live -- and in our time it certainly looks like prophecy.

But I am reminded of a video I recently watched of an interview with Milton Friedman that occurred in, I believe, the 1980's. The subject had come up regarding the malaise and stagflation of the Carter presidency, and that under Keynesian theory it was supposed to be impossible. The interviewer asked Friedman, "...but you [Austrian economists] explained it, right?"

To which Friedman replied, "We not only explained it, we predicted it."

In the late Christopher Hitchens' book Why Orwell Matters (titled Orwell's Victory in the UK), he relates the tale of the immense popularity of 1984 in countries behind the Iron Curtain (every copy of which was pirated, by the way). Eastern Europeans were astounded -- and literally could not understand -- how a man who had never lived in a Communist country could so accurately describe life under Communism.

Were Friedman, Orwell, and Ayn Rand relying on a crystal ball a la Jeanne Dixon, or divine intervention a la the Old Testament prophets? Of course not. The Austrians -- and Miss Rand -- merely laid out the logical and inevitable consequences of Government interference in markets. If a man who had never lived under Communism could accurately describe life under that system, then certainly an author who had lived under Soviet rule could accurately predict what would come in an America hurtling over the same cliff.

Which she did, in great detail. Just as Friedman, Hayek and several others have also done. All it takes is understanding how things work in the Real World.

The biggest takeaway from the film, and quite possibly the reason it was made, is that Miss Rand did not want to predict the future in which we are now living.

She wanted to prevent it.

Which means that for the first time in human history, a "prophet" who got everything right -- was a failure.

As a Hollywood screenwriter, she may (or may not) have been aware of the influence that Soviet agents were already exerting in the film industry in the 1930's when she wrote We The Living. But she clearly saw the direction America was heading -- decades before anyone else saw it -- and wrote that novel as a warning.

But nobody "got it." So then she wrote The Fountainhead. Which the critics loved, but still no one got the message. And this, folks, is why Atlas Shrugged practically beats the reader over the head with its message. Yes, the biggest legitimate criticism against the novel -- exists precisely because the critics never "got it" in earlier novels. This time, she wanted to make absolutely certain that everyone understood her message.

And they did. The book was universally panned, and the mean-spirited coverage of it is discussed at length in this film, including the scathing review that Communist agent cum Neocon darling Whittaker Chambers penned for the National Review. One has to wonder how genuine Chambers' defection really was. Perhaps he was pandering to the Communist agents still employed by the New York Times who had so savaged him, and destroyed the career of Sen. Joe McCarthy. This might make an interesting topic for a literary scholar to pursue someday -- but considering the current state of academia, would probably be a death sentence to its author's graduate degree.

There were the usual interviews with people who knew Miss Rand, and some rather glaring omissions (e.g. Leonard Peikoff, the Brandons, et. al.) of people who were not in the movie. One of the most entertaining of those who were included is Al Ruddy, a major fan of the novel, who tells the story of how he, fresh from his success producing The Godfather, walked away from the Atlas Shrugged movie project in a way that makes him look like Hank Reardon.

There is a brief mention of John Aglialoro's Atlas Shrugged Part I near the end of the documentary, with the pithy comment that "While it failed to reach a large audience, on the day it was released there were more copies of the novel sold than ever before."

In summary, the documentary does a nice job of telling the remarkable story of a fifty-plus-year-old novel that has never gone out of print, and indeed sees increasing sales every year.

Those who have never read the novel will probably not get much out of this film.


Blogger Matt said...

Pretty good, except for one inaccuracy: Orwell did spend quite a bit of time living with communism when he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Here is a biography with more information: http://www.george-orwell.org/l_biography.html

I haven't seen that documentary yet, but I'm more curious about it now. I'll have to find a copy when it comes out on DVD.

19 January, 2012 15:25  
Blogger Ken said...

This made me go back and listen to the podcast from which I got my information. It was an interview with Christopher Hitchens done shortly after he published his book referenced in this blog post.

Matt is correct. Hitchens had a thick British accent and I had missed hearing the part about Spain on my first listening. Here's the quote, as best as I can understand it:

"When they [members of the Polish Communist Party] found out who the author was, and it was an Englishman who'd never been to the Soviet Union, who'd never been to a Communist Country -- well, that's not possible. He can't have got it so right without having lived under it."

That was the part that I heard the first time through. Less than a minute later, Hitchens continues:

"But, in fact, in Catalonia, in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, Orwell had lived under, briefly, a Communist regime, before most people had in Europe."

I had heard the part about the Polish Communists and missed the part about Spain -- which I had always thought was under Fascist rule at the time. Oh well, as Hayek, Churchill and others have frequently observed, there's no real difference between Fascism and Communism.

So the reader would do well to ignore my comments about Orwell in my post above. The parallel with Hayek, Friedman et. al. still stands, of course.

19 January, 2012 17:36  

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