John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that "the modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." That exercise may have reached its limits
April 20, 2011

John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that "the modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." That exercise may have reached its limits with the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which has become the bible of conservative economic "wisdom" in our time.

How did the work of a pro-abortion atheist become so popular with the culture warriors of the right? How do you get people who want to strip Darwin from the classroom to enforce Darwin on the unemployed? How does a book that inspired Anton LaVey's Satanic Bible wind up on the lips of evangelical Christians waiting in line at the box office? Answers after the jump!

Balderdash. I have a progressive project; if Mr. Rearden gave me $100,000 for it, I would put his name in lights and have the Salvation Army choir sing his name like Bodger and Undershaft.

Hip-deep in the culture wars, the American Enterprise Institute is a "non-partisan" conservative think tank. You may remember that AEI fired conservative David Frum for opposing the ongoing Palinization of the GOP. (On the other hand, John Bolton's Mustache-of-Doom remains listed as a "Senior Fellow.") AEI's bigger accomplishment, however, is that America's most influential deans of economics all serve as advisors. AEI's president, Arthur C. Brooks, is also an economist. He's most famous for Who Really Cares, a book that argues secular liberals are stingy while religious conservatives are charitable and "compassionate."

Mind you, other studies have found that charitable giving is more closely related to class, with have-nots giving at a higher rate than have-mores. Man being a social animal, it seems that we tend to share more in common when we all have less -- a survival trait of our species that Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism rejects.

The wealthiest tiny slice of America has heeded her call; during our recession, they got richer than ever before (.PDF) while their charitable giving dropped. Of the three standard reasons why we must not tax billionaires, two -- that they support charities and create jobs -- are proving untrue in the empirical world.

The third, that taxation steals from the "producers," is Rand's "moral" argument for selfishness. Brooks' research has been trumpeted by cultural conservatives ever since its publication; it appeals to their ego and serves as cover for the oligarchy's Randian agenda of tax cuts for billionaires and corporations.

Such taxes are, after all, a form of wealth redistribution that goes down instead of up. We can't have that! Just as Ragnar Danneskjold, the piratical captain of Rand's dystopian novel, robs the poor to give to the rich, so Brooks encourages further regression in American taxation -- and does it in the name of culture war. He wrote a lengthy call to arms in the Washington Post last year:

I call this a culture war because free enterprise has been integral to American culture from the beginning, and it still lies at the core of our history and character. "A wise and frugal government," Thomas Jefferson declared in his first inaugural address in 1801, "which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government." He later warned: "To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it." In other words, beware government's economic control, and woe betide the redistributors.

Why do the redistributors hate Thomas Jefferson?! Brooks goes on to blame the housing bubble's collapse on government housing policy rather than deregulated speculation in mortgage-backed securities, calls stimulus spending "statist," and claims that welfare checks cause depression.

If it seems like this is aimed at whipping up the tea party demographic -- already convinced that (1) ACORN stole the 2008 election (2) welfare is abused by undeserving minorities (3) Barack Obama hates the Founding Fathers -- that's because it is. Culture warriors have been steeped in the politics of resentment for a generation; the "new" conservatism is merely more of the same, only worse. As Michelle Goldberg wrote at American Prospect in September of 2009:

Glenn Beck has become a far more influential figure on the right than, say, James Dobson, and he's much more interested in race than in sexual deviancy. For the first time in at least a decade, middle class whites have been galvanized by the fear that their taxes are benefiting lazy, shiftless others. The messianic, imperialistic, hubristic side of the right has gone into retreat, and a cramped, mean and paranoid style has come to the fore.


Producerism has often been a trope of right-wing movements, especially during times of economic distress, when many people sense they're getting screwed. Its racist (and often anti-Semitic) potential is obvious, so it gels well with the climate of Dixiecrat racial angst occasioned by the election of our first black president. The result is the return of the repressed. (Emphasis mine)

And there you have it. In the Randian mythopoeia, the "producers" have been terribly repressed. Can't you feel their repression? "Progressives" have taxed them to tears (although it doesn't seem to have affected Henry Rearden's real estate). Throughout the novel, government colludes with other businesses to destroy producer dreams and install a collective penury. Now dumb the whole thing down, cast it with unknowns, shoot it with amateurs on a small budget, and put it in front of people who will think it is all about them. Y'know, like the tea party has for the last couple of years?

Except it isn't. Rand did not have tea parties in mind when she wrote Atlas Shrugged, and the sight of tens of thousands of culture warriors on the National Mall would horrify her. The banality of teabaggery, particularly the misspelled signage, would draw her worst venom. In her book, characters constantly struggle against a world that wants to tear them down to a mediocrity; so consider the following reviews of the movie:

This movie is crushingly ordinary in every way, which with Rand, I wouldn’t have thought possible. (Link, emphasis mine)

Meeting the script mediocrity head-on is production designer John Mott and his vacant style. (Link, emphasis mine)

A low-budget film with more than a whiff of amateurism in its writing and direction. (Link, emphasis mine)

But my favorite quote comes from the Charlotte Examiner:

“Now that I’ve seen the movie, I think I finally understand the appeal of Atlas Shrugged,” (reviewer Timothy) Hulsey explained on Facebook. “It’s basically Ayn Rand’s version of the Rapture.

“Honestly,” he added, “I’ve seen quite a bit of evangelical Christian cinema, and Atlas Shrugged generally reminded me of the Paul Crouch-Trinity Broadcast Network Omega Code movies. That’s not to say I didn’t like it — quite the contrary. What Atlas Shrugged lacks in financial resources, star power, and cinematic competence, it makes up in bats**t insanity.” (Boldface mine)

Who is John Galt? A gestalt of Rand's own sociopathic vision of the perfect ubermensch who (spoilers here!) raptures the producers to his Shangri-La in the Colorado Rockies, 'comes down from the mountain' with a Castroesque policy speech that he demands the world treat as holy writ, and displays preternatural powers. He's Jesus -- but instead of salvation, Galt offers the gospel of "f**k you, I've got mine."

Everyone who's not a producer will be Left Behind. Tough luck!

Having grown up in a place where Jerry Falwell inspired the local churches to hook my classmates up with petitions to ban The Last Temptation of Christ from Alabama, I can't overstate how weird it is to read this LA Times report on the movie's first weekend:

Despite a lack of almost any traditional advertising, the movie found an audience in certain parts of the country. It performed best in the suburb of Duluth, Ga., where the film collected $53,832 just on Friday and Saturday. Producer Harmon Kaslow said the film’s backers organized a number of events in certain communities to create awareness about the film.

“But we also did email blasts to a number of ‘tea party’ groups and participated in their weekly conference calls to field questions from community-level leaders,” Kaslow said.

The movie will expand to 1,000 theaters next weekend. (Emphasis mine)

Mind you, over the years I've watched certain names appear and reappear in the op-eds of Northwest Alabama. The writers who told me The Golden Compass was obscene, Harry Potter encouraged witchcraft, and Yoda was a sinister agent of Eastern religion? They're now telling me to go see this movie.

That rally on the National Mall that was "more religious than political" was actually both, and the audience knew it. Having stripped away the "social justice" from American evangelical tradition, they've received a whole new definition of "faith, hope, and charity." It's an astounding rationalization that the right has been working on for decades...and may have perfected in our time.

The Book of Rand? Yeah, it's between Romans and Revelations.

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