Recently I’ve been immersing myself in so-called right wing media and thought. It started with watching Fox News, and it’s culminated finally with reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I must say, I have enjoyed the journey of discovery, of shedding pre-conceptions, erring on the side of the defense of conservatism, and seeking the Right’s best and purest argument. Forget the jingoistic, the dog whistle appeals to racism, isolationism, and misogyny. Forget name-calling. Forget caricature. I sought out what were the noblest of their ideals among people of good faith. These people are not found on Fox News. Fox News is caricature.
What do earnest people on the Right seek for individuals? What do they seek for society? Well the short answer is purpose and productivity – noble aspirations to be sure, but it’s slightly more complex than that and leads us down the path of how American society has been constructed.
I bought the book, Atlas Shrugged, nearly twenty years ago on a whim. I had been hungry to go through the classic science fiction giants. I stocked up on Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, among others. I chose Atlas Shrugged because I had heard of it. I can’t recall exactly, but it and Fountainhead called my attention. I had no idea of its political or philosophical tone in its promotion of Rand’s Objectivism. In fact, I knew nothing about her or her philosophy. The book was a multiple reprinted classic, featured prominently among others in the Science Fiction section. Atlas was also the thickest, so I intended to read it last.
By the time I got to Atlas, I probably had run out of steam, but I couldn’t get into it. Barely 25 pages into the novel, I put it down and didn’t touch it for twenty years.
Bringing us forward into the present, I have chosen to revisit Atlas Shrugged in part because I wanted to understand what all the hulabaloo was about and because Ayn Rand’s Wikipedia page seems unnecessarily personal and hateful, that is, the attacks against the book and against her personally seemed illogical. Here was a woman who published two acclaimed novels, with Atlas Shrugged featuring a woman as a classical heroic character in a time when women’s roles were on the sidelines. I’ve got to give this another chance, I thought. And look at how I’m equivocating about my choices. It’s embarrassing that I feel the need to explain why I read it. Don’t be afraid to read Atlas Shrugged. It’s a good book. You’ll enjoy it. Just don’t treat it like a guide for your life choices, okay?
And I am glad I did. I enjoyed the book. I don’t agree with objectivism, but I think I understand where it is coming from, and I now see why it makes so much sense in American culture.
That an individual’s highest aim in life is purpose, is to work, is to create, and to do so without malice, greed, or malfeasance, embodies the American Protestant ethos, the molecules of social DNA sown on the shores with the discarded Puritan refuse of foreign lands. Max Weber defined the confluence of the virtues of noble work in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a series of essays latter bundled together, expressing economic output within a Protestant religious framework.
Ayn Rand, seems to draw unwittingly from Max Weber, but perhaps more deliberately from Benjamin Franklin who wrote of the virtues of industry and frugality, based upon his Puritan upbringing. Wealth is a byproduct of a moral life dedicated to purpose and productivity. Take your five shillings, he said in letter from An Old Trademan, and multiply it by working it. In short, wealth is never the point, but rather a measure of God’s favor upon you.
Wealth is a signal for virtue.
America was founded on these principles, and they are deeply embedded in the social construct, for Left and Right alike, and this framework defines public policy as implemented in social programs, economic management, personal and corporate taxes, and in a myriad of ways that just “make sense” to Americans. That there are makers and takers, those with virtue and those without is unquestioned, and informs all expressions of socialist programs through stigmatizing those collecting disability, food, unemployment, etc. At the same time, corporations are now people. I probably could just stop here. Just cut out the middleman, and wash away the individual failings, and put all our virtue signaling in the aggregate of corporate entities. People are generally good, right? So a corporation must be generally good and virtuous. We know it is so, because – look at the stock price. Forget the fact that malfeasance is still individual and now hides behind the cover of the Inc.
We fall victim to this virtue signaling by falsely identifying it when there is none but wealth, when virtue is bankrupt but dollars still flow. To have been in God’s grace, your path to wealth must have been virtuous, but it is so difficult to see it when some people won’t release their tax returns. So those of low virtue hide among the faithful, wolves in sheep’s clothing distorting, gaming, and manipulating for their own glorification and not the glorification of God.
But I get it, it’s tough to call them out, so entrenched is the signal of the almighty dollar. I also understand how decent Americans can vote Republican. It’s that hard to admit the brokenness of the signal.
America’s Protestant virtue social construct, I believe, creates resistance to recontextualizing achievements in the face of new information. Global Warming – How could our industrial development and progress have doomed us all? Those who achieved, the greats throughout American history, the railroad barons, the steel magnates, the developers – all of them were unquestionably virtuous because of their wealth. They were rewarded, and how could they have been rewarded if they weren’t virtuous. God bestows his blessings upon the just and the just are the makers not the looters and the moochers. What if those that extracted from the ground, mined wealth, laid track, build sky scrapers instead of the virtue they professed, were actually marching humanity toward an unmarked mass grave? Can you wonder why there might be resistance to such a concept?
Recontextualizing the achievers of a past age runs the risk of nullifying an American core value, perhaps THE core value, that wealth and production signal God’s grace. Manifest destiny’s final outcome signaled grace upon the nation – no matter how we got there, and if there be messiness, it would come to matter less and less as the generations passed, as textbooks excluded diverse viewpoints and left the dirtiness buried in a mass grave with virtue as the only artifact.