The Long View 2007-03-06: Various Book Reviews, and That Cranky Spengler

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I will admit that I went through an Ayn Rand phase when I was young. Here a repeat of the best thing I ever said on the subject:

I like the late 90s idea that devotees of Ayn Rand might prove to be unusually resistant to the false religion of the Antichrist, because of how sweetly naive it is. Rand built up a formidable cult of personality around herself that is probably only limited by intentional eschewing of religious elements. Thank God.

I have some inkling of this, because I too felt the siren call of Rand's individualist philosophy as a teenager. The scholarship programs aimed at high school students that encourage them to read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged are persuasive genius. Intelligent high school students are the perfect targets for this kind of thing. Some small percentage are probably hooked forever.

As a teenager, I read everything I could find by and about Rand. And then I discovered how weird she really was. The best story [recounted by Greg Cochran in his recent interview] is how her adulterous lover Nathaniel Branden decided to end the affair they had been carrying on and marry a normal woman. In response, Rand required all remaining members of her inner circle [including future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan] to denounce Branden, and forsake all future association with him.

That incident, above all else, helped me see how batty it all was. I also fondly remember my parents, sweetly pooh-poohing this bosh.

Which is just as well. I think the Objectivists are about as likely to end the world as anyone.

This line from John J. Reilly recapitulates my opinions on writing:

Rugs should be richly textured; prose should be lucid.

Various Book Reviews, and That Cranky Spengler

Yes, it does seem like 50 years since Atlas Shrugged was published, for the excellent reason that 50 years seems like just enough time to read a book that long. In any case, Mark Skousen of the Christian Science Monitor has some useful comments about the great anniversary:

NEW YORK - When Ayn Rand finished writing "Atlas Shrugged" 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today. It's credited for helping to halt the communist tide and ushering in the currents of capitalism. Many readers say it transformed their lives. A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans...Rand articulates like no other writer the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset.

Skousen says in that piece that "children do not appear" in Rand's world of Objectivist Capitalism. That's not quite true: I seem to recall that one of John Galt's colleagues, the Norwegian one, is described as having two kids. Nonetheless, Skousen does have a point if he means that Objectivism does not do a particularly good job of connecting the present to the future. The philosophy would work best for a race of immortals, which I suppose explains the Randian streak in Transhumanism.

Something else that I would argue Atlas Shrugged does not do particularly well is critique totalitarianism, or even describe it. The book is about the implosion of the welfare state, but a welfare state with no particular ideology, and certainly without any ideological connection to developments abroad. Atlas Shrugged is devoid of geopolitics. In the Objectivist perspective, perhaps, war is just another form of socialism. A military might exist in Rand's capitalist utopia, but as an anomaly: its ethos could have nothing to do with the larger society.

George Bush is by no means a Randian, but perhaps it is not an accident that his Administration's War on terror, especially in Iraq, has always been just such an anomaly in the context of his fiscal and immigration policies.

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Asia Times Spengler also faults President Bush, this time for failing to coordinate the different branches of his foreign policy, as we see here:

Washington had the opportunity at the turn of 2007 to isolate and neutralize the Mahmud Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran, but through stupidity and arrogance has made war the most probable outcome.

Misreading Russia...may have been the irreparable blunder. Meddling in the Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union and expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prompt Russia to step on Washington's toes in the one place that hurts, namely West Asia...[T]his has an unintended consequence: it has led Iran to believe that without Russian support, the United States will be isolated and impotent to act against it. That is not true, for the US can and will act to forefend a nuclear-armed Iran, alone if need be.

For myself, I find it hard to believe that anyone could perceive NATO as threatening, though its expansion to the east does diminish Russia's ability to make costless threats to the rim of states on its western border. Russia's unhelpfulness with regard to Iran is, perhaps, overdetermined by many other considerations. I rather doubt that the Russian government is any better than the US at coordinating policy in Europe and the Near East.

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There is another early online review (in addition to my own) of John Crowley's Endless Things, this one by Kestrell Rath at Green Man Review. Yes, that review is favorable, too, but perhaps more appreciative than I am of the complex structure of the tetralogy. Rugs should be richly textured; prose should be lucid.

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Here is a brief reply to all reviewers, offered by Mark Steyn in The New Criterion:

In the BBC TV adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ 1986 novel The Old Devils, John Stride gives a gleeful, roaring performance as Alun Weaver, a celebrity novelist and professional Welshman recently returned from London to his native clime. There’s a scene set at a book-signing for mostly effusive customers, to whom Weaver responds with a glance up from the table and some labored demurring: “No, no, you are too kind. This is mere hack work.”

And then an intense young man appears. “I’m a great fan,” he begins, “but I didn’t think this book quite captured the lyrical freshness of Mumbles Boy.”

There is the briefest of pauses, just time for a malicious smile from the novelist. “Why, thank you very much,” he replies. “And what on earth makes you think I’m interested in the opinion of young shags like you? Bugger off now, and a very good afternoon to you.”

A word to the wise: it is best to devise comebacks to remarks like that before they happen.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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