Archive for February 15th, 2011

Motive Force or The Information Superhighway?

Tax Day has never been this anticipated.  Go file your return, and then catch a matinee of Atlas Shrugged.  Tom’s already posted the trailer.

Most of the concerns in his post center around fidelity to the book.  The compromise between strict fidelity and actual movie-making is always an issue when dealing with a beloved book with rabid fans.  It led the first two Harry Potter movies to be little more than scene-by-scene recreations of the books, and pretty much drained the life out of Prince Caspian.

Now, despite Rand’a paean to motive force, Atlas Shrugged isn’t really about railroads.  It was written in 1957, and the gradual decline of American railways, along with the special place they hold in our imagination, made them the natural industry for the book to focus on.  But today, most Americans don’t ride on long-haul trains, and unless you live near a hub, you look for them on long-distance road trips the same way you’d try to spot buffalo or pronghorn or elk.  They’re just not central to most people’s lives the way they were 54 years ago.  As someone who helped his dad build N-scale models and is currently working a stone’s throw from The Union Pacific, I take no pleasure in saying this.  But it’s true.

No, the book is about stifling innovation and creativity and wealth creation by mediocrity’s need to crush greatness, and the damage that does to all those people who aren’t great.  (It’s also about lots of other stuff, too, but that’s the point I want to focus on.)  So in an era when people are liable to ask, “why on earth would they stoop to bother about a train?” would the film’s power be better served by making Dagny and Hank something else, something that really is on the cutting edge right now?

You can think of dozens of examples without trying very hard.  She’s got an internet business model that will change the world, but it needs Hank’s new infrastructure to carry the data.  She’s got a vaccine to cure a disease, but it needs Hank’s delivery system.  More bleeding edge: she’s ready to make commercial space travel as common as, well, a commuter rail trip from Boston to NY, but needs Hank’s metal.  Wyatt sits ready to provide her the power, but his next-generation nuclear plant sits idle for lack of plutonium.

Obviously, such a substitution would do violence to the project of literally translating the book to the screen, but it’s completely in the spirit of this.  The question is, would it get in the way of the story to make the industries affected more immediate, or would it help?  Would it complicate or simplify the filmmakers’ task?  We have, today, in the headlines, the FCC trying to force internet service providers into being candidate for the DJ Utilities Index.  We have, today, Obamacare doing to the same to insurance companies and, eventually, hospitals and doctors.  Would a change have made the story more relevant, or just have made the filmmakers seem opportunistic and editorializing?

So while it’s completely unthinkable that Dagny Taggart could be anything other than a railway executive, and that Hank Rearden could have anything other than a super-strong, super-light metal to sell, what if?

With the premiere two months away, it’s probably exactly the wrong time to be asking this question.  It’s too late to do anything about it, it would probably just be better to wait and see how well they’ve done with the original source material.

But hey, that’s what blogs are about.

UPDATE: And this, too. A little behind-the-scenes featurette from a few months ago over at reason.tv

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Looking for Torah in Ayn Rand

Of all the rhetorical baits-and-switches the Left has pulled over the last 100 century or more, perhaps none has been as complete, enduring, or damaging as the identification of “Jewish values” and liberal politics. The historical roots are in European socialism, and there is even some evidence that the prominence of leftist Jewish political activity contributed to the merger between Democrat urban patronage and socialist policies. Regardless of the roots, for many if not most American Jews, the labels Liberal and Democrat are part and parcel of being Jewish. And attempts to assert capitalist, small-l libertarian, or conservative views are often met with accusations of not being Jewish enough.

But folks, It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Rabbi Gross out here in Omaha is in the middle of a 3-class lecture and discussion series on “Looking for Torah in Ayn Rand.” I missed the first lecture on “The Virtue of Selfishness,” but I caught last night’s on The Fountainhead.

There’s no particular reason to think Howard Roark is Jewish, but he’ll do. His life is a pattern as old as that of Pharaoh Jews: his talents are used, his ambition thwarted, his virtues caricatured as vices. Like Yaakov, he takes pleasure in his work (there is ample textual basis for this belief), and is often able to work out a modus vivendi with the Powers That Be (Esav, starring as Peter Keating) to continue to do that work, although his status is often precarious.

But Rand’s villains-as-cautionary-tales are usually more interesting, both for what not to be and what not to fall for. In this case, that’s columnist Ellsworth Toohey, who doesn’t actually wish that the US could be China for a day, but might have. His techniques for making it so are straight out of the manipulations of the worst of the Torah villains.

Toohey sets up altruism as the greatest ideal; once men inevitably fail to live up to it personally, he then offers them the chance to make amends by living up to it vicariously, by turning power over to someone who clearly has no interest in money – him.

This is straight out of Lavan’s playbook. Lavan uses Yaakov’s guilt over the moral complications concerning the birthright to manipulate him into increasingly unfavorable deals, which he has no intention of keeping to in any case. In each instance, when Yaakov tries to enforce the terms of the agreement, Lavan argues that it’s unfair, or that that’s not how things are done there, or that Yitzchak would never have done that.

Toohey deligitimizes greatness, even the idea of greatness, by elevating mediocrity. Yes, it’s handicapping people for the sake of control.  It’s also a direct parallel of the rhetoric Korach uses to undermine Moshe. What’s special about this blue thread, when I can make a whole garment of them? What’s special about washing this way, when I’ve just taken a whole bath? What’s special about this scroll on my doorway, when I’ve a whole library of sefarim? In Rand’s world is actual achievement and originality that suffers. In the Torah, it’s holiness.

Finally, Toohey recognizes the destructive power of laughter. The ancient Greeks understood it. Umberto Eco’s monks killed over it. And Rabbi Hayim Luzatto in Mesillat Yasharim (The Path of the Righteous) makes exactly the same point – that laughter and ridicule obliterate reverence. (The Rabbis keep this power under wraps by giving it free rein for one day each year, on Purim.) Both ridicule and mediocity serve to eliminate rivals for people’s admiration and models for their aspiration.

All this said, one has to understand Ran’s limitations. As Whittaker Chambers noted in his devastating National Review critique, a purely materialist philosophy is by definition incomplete. Rand’s philosophy may suffice for Rav Soloveitchik’s Adam I – Dignified Man – but only Torah is broad enough to satisfy Adam II – Man who hungers for a faith community.

Still, that Rand mistakenly considered her philosophy to be complete doesn’t mean that we have to evaluate it on that basis. We can stipulate that it’s incomplete, evaluate it on the basis of where it actually applies, and recognize that some of its most liberating aspects are both rooted in and consonant with Torah ideals.

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