Randian objectivist philosophy is like a finely tailored, Harris tweed jacket in Miami in July: Many people find it attractive. Some folks will even try it on. But almost no one manages to wear it for long.
Maybe that's why it has taken more than 63 years for anyone to manage making a film of "Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand's 1,400-page objectivist manifesto, literary doorstop and paean to triumphant self-actualization. The trailer looks nifty -- lots of hats and nighttime cityscapes to please the Hopper fans among us. I'll certainly be sure to see this.* If it's a poor movie, it will still provide a fetishistic thrill to Randian (not to say randy) devotees of muscular capitalism, what with all the speeding trains and industrial sparks. If it's a good movie, and attracts an audience beyond a self-selecting group of Rand acolytes, it will also serve to expose many to Rand's ideas for the first time. Good movie or poor, you certainly can expect to hear her name dropped into more cable news debates and op-ed pieces by people who really haven't any idea what the mysterious Mr. Galt was selling.
I'm afraid my dedication to my own happiness is insufficiently singular to ever be a good objectivist. My own worldview is wrapped in and grows from my Christianity. So I part company from Ayn and her brood right about the time her protagonist says, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." (Rand's own obsessive approach to romance makes it difficult to imagine that declaration coming from her mouth, instead of Mr. Galt's.) I understand the concept well enough. I can grasp how rational self interest, universally exercised by everyone, always, is supposed to benefit everyone, everywhere. But tell that to my little boy when an important business event conflicts with a nice day for fishing. You tell him, because I won't.
At bottom, I think Rand's philosophy is untenable because it is predicated on an imagined world where ruthless, unalloyed self-interest is both possible and desirable, when, in fact, such a world would be impracticable and sad. Despite the facile way in which folks from all across the American political spectrum like to invoke it, and despite Rand's evidently genuine love of America,** Randian objectivism is by no means itself an American value system. Instead, the rugged individualism, love of liberty, and dedication to personal responsibility that are central to the best of American character all are rightly understood to exist in a context of sacrifice and service to others. Will Kane stands alone in that street not to glorify himself, and certainly not to serve any self-interest, but rather to fulfill his duty to others.
I also have to wonder how the filmmakers are going to deal with the massively anachronistic "government versus the brave industrialist" skeleton upon which the flesh of the "Atlas Shrugged" is layered. If you aren't already nodding your head, take a minute to Google "Citigroup stimulus," or "Koch Industries campaign contributions," or "procurement revolving door."*** What exactly does a modern iteration of the story do with billions in TARP funds, or no-bid government contracts?**** My guess is, it shrugs them off.
* Extra points to the marketing folks for having the movie open on Tax Day.
** "I can say—not as a patriotic bromide, but with full knowledge of the necessary metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political and esthetic roots—that the United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world."
*** That you can also search "George Soros campaign contributions," or "SEIU political influence," for similar results strengthens, rather than weakens, my argument.
**** Although the bailout did cause a surge in sales of the book.