This winter, I told myself that I’d read something different. Normally, I settle for a deliciously elaborate fantasy or sci-fi novel when it’s too miserable to peel away the hours outside. However, in the midst of a Rhode Island bookstore, a bright red cover caught my attention: Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand’s name had been passed around the English department, so I picked up the 1000+ page tome, and ordered a coffee from the bookstore’s café. The language’s texture was a mix between translated Russian and that of a traditional American literary author — which wasn’t surprising, because I later found that Rand was Russian-American.
After 10 pages, I was sold, so I bought the book and continued it on the train back to Boston. I hadn’t yet read up on Rand’s theory of objectivism, but the way her characters were choosing political sides within the confines of the story was quickly becoming apparent. The more liberal characters were hand-wringing, spineless whiners who were hell-bent on passing ‘anti-dog-eat-dog’ policies that were at the demise of the more conservative characters, who were brazen and not afraid to say they were in business for the money. The latter valued good skills in trade while the former complained that they weren’t given the chance, so of course their own skills weren’t so sharp.
I thought, since I wasn’t far enough into the book nor had I discussed my reading it with others, that maybe I was projecting a lot of our own political climate onto what I was reading. At choir the following week, I brought up the book to my 70-year-old friend. I pulled it out of my bag and asked her if she had read it before. She flinched, horrified.
“Oh, god no. Ayn Rand… brilliant but a fucking lunatic. She was a Nazi. I couldn’t read her. I couldn’t stomach it.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I went back and flipped through the pages I had read and shuddered. It occurred to me, with this knowledge and what the next 800 or so pages held, I could just stop. I didn’t need anything more from the book if it was just going to be overblown right-wing caricatures saving the world while the left-wing squirmed indecisively like worms.
But it also occurred to me that, to best understand the other side, you sometimes need to inform yourself of the meat behind their opinions. Kind of like martial arts — to have any chance against your opponent, you need to dissect the way they handle their body. It was not as if I was betraying my own political beliefs by just reading a book that, apart from some maddeningly over-played character traits, was engaging and well written. I was just putting on different lenses, understanding someone’s world from their perspective without having to put on their shoes to do so.
If anything, I am now more chilled by some of the dialogue, which closely mirrors (if not downright mimics) what we’ve been hearing in our current political climate. I’ve dog-eared several pages of arguments, descriptions, and fears professed by some of the characters.
“Reason is the most naive of all superstitions.”
“The source of public opinion? There is no source of public opinion. It is spontaneously general.”
“Your brain being an instrument of distortion, the more active the brain the greater the distortion.”
Some passages go on for several pages, so I cannot reproduce them here. But within these quotes above, I am reminded of the ongoing battle we have with truth and the “presence” of “fake news.” Except, in this book, it’s the conservative characters defending reason, while the liberal characters defame the actions of thinking for oneself and are actively trying to abandon it within the policies they create.
With these reversals, I wonder what Rand would say now if she were alive. A fervent defender of capitalism, what opinions would she have about the men and women marching to Trump’s drum in attempts to persist the flow of profit? She associates reason and profit — her heroes being incredibly rich and shrewd businesspeople who share the righteous belief that making money is a matter of skill, hard work, and (above all) solid reasoning. Her heroes are open and honest — and, dare I say it, easy to like for their strength and persistence. (It helps that one of these heroes is a successful businesswoman — at least from what I’ve read so far.)
And yet, when these heroes are held up to reality, they don’t match what we see today on the side that Rand is representing. It’s like looking into that funhouse mirror one of the scientists in the book discusses when he tries to prove the brain is ‘an instrument of distortion.’
In the end, though I am still working on the book, I think the lens I put on to read it has helped me better navigate the waters that only seem to get muddier with each passing day. We as liberals might refuse to read the propaganda by right-wing news sites like Breitbart, but it is there that the meat of their arguments is present. If we can undo their web, we may have a chance of getting out of our own alive.