Trace the dollar
by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on August 3, 2006.
College students: collect $5,000 in cash for writing the winning essay for the Ayn Rand Institute's Atlas Shrugged contest. Whether or not you win a prize, you'll have the experience of reading (or rereading) an exceptional novel. The deadline for the contest is Sept. 15. See AynRand.org for details.
Those not in college can also find much of value at that web page. Recent op-eds, media releases and letters to the editor discuss Internet "neutrality," oil production, legal torts and the conflict between Islamic totalitarianism and the West.
The Institute's web page also recently made available a talk by Tara Smith about justice. Smith, a philosopher from the University of Texas, draws on material from her new book, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. This Cambridge publication is just one sign of the continued vitality of Rand's ideas.
Students can check out the Objectivist Academic Center through the web page. Undergraduates can take supplementary courses by phone in philosophy and communication. (I'm signed up to begin the courses this fall, as the program sometimes accepts people past college.) Some students have been able to get college credit.
Diana Hsieh, a graduate student in philosophy at CU, said, "The Objectivist Academic Center offers a stellar education in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, as well as training in writing and speaking. Dr. Onkar Ghate's year-long course on Objectivism was the best philosophy course I've ever taken -- not just for its content, but also the clarity and depth of the presentation. Any student interested in seriously studying Objectivism would benefit enormously from OAC classes."
So, Atlas Shrugged. I decided to start rereading the novel in preparation for this column. The story begins with one of the most memorable opening lines in literature, "Who is John Galt?" It ends as Galt "traced in space the sign of the dollar." In between are more than a thousand pages that have changed the thinking of countless readers and that continue to influence the culture.
The first chapter establishes the mystery. Something is wrong with the world. "Who is John Galt?" has become, to many, a phrase of resignation, similar to, "What can one do?" At the end of the chapter, though, one of the better employees of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad inexplicably quits, to the surprise and frustration of Dagny Taggart, the force behind the railroad's success. The employee offers as his only reason for quitting the question about Galt.
Then there is the strange matter of Richard Halley's Fifth Concerto, which Dagny hears somebody whistling while riding her flagship train. The problem is that, as his publisher confirms, Halley wrote only four concertos.
So what is this business about the dollar sign? It stands for productive work, the life-sustaining values that it brings, and the faculty of human reason that makes it possible. Because of our capacity for reason and productivity, people uniquely have the ability to live peacefully with each other as traders, exchanging value for value in a free and advancing economy.
For Rand, people's faculty of thought is their most important attribute, which means that rationality is the hallmark of productive achievement and of moral worth. Yet the moochers and looters seek to forcibly control the producers and expropriate their wealth.
When philosopher Andrew Bernstein spoke at CU some months ago, he said that he envied those in the audience who would soon begin to read Atlas Shrugged for the first time. However, as I recently began the book, I felt like a "born-again virgin," to adapt a phrase made silly by some Christians with respect to sex. I only wish I'd understood more of Atlas Shrugged when I read it years ago. Now that I'm older, the novel is all the more vibrant and gripping.
What struck me is the intensity of the characters and their relationships. Apparently millions of Americans now think that ship-eating octopi constitute high adventure. Well, wait until you enter the offices of steel mills, the railroad cars, the factories, the ballrooms and the bedrooms of Atlas Shrugged. It is where a crude bracelet of a new metal becomes a symbol of achievement and of sexual ecstasy. Where a train ride becomes a rallying cry for independent spirits across the nation and the prelude to a passionate affair.
Oh, and there is a pirate, a former student of philosophy and physics who has taken to the high seas to fight for a principle.
I hear rumors of a movie version of Atlas -- and in some respects it feels like it should be filmed in black and white. But in many ways the world of Atlas Shrugged is all around us. Against those who seek to tear down the novel, it provides its own defense.
Colorado plays a major role in the novel, both as a center of industrial production and as the location of "Galt's Gulch," a secret valley high in the mountains where those of achievement go to escape a repressive political system until they can return to work in freedom. Next summer, the Ayn Rand Institute will host its summer conference in Telluride, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged.