Saturday, December 05, 2009

One More Funny Thing About Atlas Shrugged

I think it is hilarious that the industry that Ayn Rand picked to represent the rugged individualism of the ruthless entrepreneur is a transcontinental railroad. It would be hard to find an industry in America that is more beholden to government. Perhaps an updated version of the story would feature a heroic, anti-government space explorer who built the Mars colony all by herself, with no help from the "looters" of the government.

Friday, December 04, 2009

One Cheer for Atlas Shrugged

Let's start with what I like about Atlas Shrugged. I liked Rand's clear focus on doing excellent work, of using your brain and persisting. I do agree with her main point that the need of the less competent does not entail a legal obligation to subsidize them on the more competent. I agree that society is best served by greater freedom, personal reward for work, private property, and a free market. I thought her description of the factory destroyed by egalitarianism was the best section of the book. I liked the railroad bits, too.

My fundamental disagreement with Ayn Rand, though, is in her notion that some people are naturally smart, rational, creative, and hardworking, and the rest of us are dependent parasites. Of course I accept that some people are smarter, more rational, more creative, and harder working than others. I think there is an element of nature in each of these qualities of a person, in descending order. But the role of nature is limited - let's say nature is only half of the story. In particular, I think how hard working people are depends more on social structure than on innate qualities. More importantly, I think smart, creative ideas come from unexpected people and unexpected places all the time. Rand is as much of a determinist as the harshest Marxist, and is equally wrong.

Second, while I agree that the need of the less competent does not entail a legal obligation to subsidize them on the more competent, it is still virtuous to help those in need. It is a personal virtue to be charitable. It is socially prudent to build up the basic competence of everyone and to build a social safety net to keep the most dependent from death and true misery. And this social safety net is prudent even for people who brought most of their problems on themselves. It is a virtue to care for the dependent because they need it; it is prudent to care for the dependent because "there, but for the grace of God, go I." Taking care of yourself as much as possible is a social virtue. Selfishness is not. Rand's philosophy owes the most, I think, to this part of Nietzsche's attack on Christianity, and is the ugliest part of her thought.

Which brings us to the wild unreality of the world she depicts. The main problem with her utopia, like all libertarian fantasies, is that it only works for self-sufficient individuals. That means no sick people, no disabled people, no very old people, and no children. A utopia without a place for children is absurd. The only positively depicted children in the whole story are the small sons of a woman in Rand's Atlantis who has made a vocation of motherhood ("not like the lies they teach children in schools."). In theory, everyone in this Atlantis has taken a personal oath to live only for him- or herself and no one else. Yet a vocation of motherhood makes no sense on those terms, and it is impossible for little kids to be part of a community requiring such an individual oath.

So we get to the unrealistic elements of Rand's telling of the story. Her characters have sex with each other because the Other represents their own highest ideal. This is certainly a better ideal of what sex is for than merely for sensual pleasure. Yet this ideal seems to have no place for marriage, and no place for children. A sex ideal with no place for children is retarded.

I am OK with an author making the hero in his or her own idealized image, but did Ayn Rand have to make Dagny Taggert not just beautiful and smart and eternally slender, but the only woman in the world worthy of the love (and sex) of not one, but the three greatest men in the world, in succession, each yielding graciously to the greater man?

Moreover, this novel is set in America, but this is an America with no religions, no ethnicities, no regions. The government has no political parties, no president, no real legislature, no politics; they are all just "looters." This is not really an American novel at all, but a vast Russian novel, with a (secular) Russian's sense of how a nation works.

I have met several people who read Atlas Shrugged as teenagers, especially those a decade or two older than me. Some were exhilarated by the sense that many bookish adolescents get when intelligence is defended against stupidity. Rationalism, and libertarianism generally, are the special province of independent young people who have no dependents and can't imagine that they themselves will ever need to depend on others. Most of them moderate their views when they marry and have kids, or when they or someone they love gets sick or old. Still, the old sense that the world would be better if the smart people like me were free of the stupid can be revived at a touch. It makes one feel like Atlas, carrying the world of the stupid. Which one might be tempted to shrug off.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Popenoe Says That Scholars Now Agree That Family Life Is Declining

David Popenoe, one of the early leaders of the pro-marriage movement among sociologists, has a fine interview with Carol Iannone in Academic Questions. In the '80s and '90s Popenoe was criticized for pointing out that marriage decline was leading to family decline. This was against the prevailing wisdom of the day that all family forms were equally good and nothing was declining.

The most interesting point in the interview, I think, is his contention that since about 2000 there has been a climate change in the field, and in educated culture generally. Now it is accepted that families are, indeed, declining. Popenoe says that even liberals who disagree with him about the solution now admit that there is a problem.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

California to Ban Divorce - Maybe

The 2010 California Marriage Protection Act would ban divorce. The petition drive to put this constitutional amendment on the ballot has 11,000 signatures so far, though a long way from the almost 700,000 they need by March.

OK, they are not really serious about this. They are tweaking the ballot measure from last year that banned gay marriage in order to protect traditional families.

Still, most of the points made against divorce in the Marriage Protection Act campaign are true. A constitutional amendment is not an effective way to fight divorce, but every other method is worth promoting.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

All Your Base Are Belong to Books

The above knowledge class aphorism was derived thus:

My Facebook status read:

Beau Weston is grading class analyses of family Thanksgivings.

Diane M.
Oh boy, I'm not sure I'd want my kid writing that paper...

[Diane and her husband were college friends of the Gruntleds. He is a professor]

Susan Weston [Mrs. G.]
@ Diane,

I'll try a few guesses of what might show up: Tablecloth brought back from another continent? Hand made candlesticks and/or serving dishes? Every seat at the table has a clear view of at least one bookcase? Most furniture built from low cost kits and/or second hand? Every art work in the room has a story, and at least one of them got told during the meal? The neighbors would be happier if the dining room had curtains?

Diane M.
@Susan - LOL, very accurate! No bookcases in the living/dining room as we have a library with built-in shelves (and some books in storage) and some furniture/dishes from family, but otherwise accurate.

Susan Weston
@ Diane - LOL back, every word I wrote was about OUR thanksgiving.

Mrs. G. then observed to me that their living or dining rooms must have some books. Which led to a knowledge-class aphorism from me:

All your base are belong to books.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sociologists Have One of the Best Jobs

Says a new study conducted by sociologists.

No disagreement from me. I just try not to rub it in to people who have to be investment bankers and the like.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Strange Religionless America of Atlas Shrugged

I am reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. I will say more about it later this week. This Sunday I just want to note that this huge novel that is set in the United States has almost no religion in it. There are a few mentions of fiery preachers, who are treated as symptoms of irrationality. One rich, old woman mentions her church group. That is it.

Ayn Rand was an anti-religious rationalist, so it makes sense that her heroes denounce "mysticism" and promote reason as if they were alternatives.

What is surprising, though, is how little her America resembles the real America. Nowhere is this clearer than in her utter neglect of religion - even to attempt to have her characters refute it.