There is no John Galt

Who is John Galt? The rhetorical question, posed frequently throughout the early sections of Ayn Rand’s epic tome Atlas Shrugged, continues to crop up here and there to this day, usually as a bumper sticker on the back of a BMW: the economic libertarian’s counterpart to the Deadhead dancing bears. It’s a codeword, the inverse of 420. If you know the answer to the question, you’re in the club of laissez-faire capitalists and would-be prime movers.

If you’ve never read Ayn Rand — and if you’re older than 20, you probably shouldn’t bother — you may still wonder just who John Galt is. Quick summary: he’s the bold visionary savior of capitalism, the person who would let the old world die so he and his disciples can shape a new one in the image of the dollar sign. If that still doesn’t answer the question for you, well, take some solace in the fact that the question probably isn’t really worth answering in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about John Galt more lately than I have in about 18 years, since the second and last time I read Atlas Shrugged cover-to-cover. I’ll admit, it can be a page turner for most of its (excessive) length, at least until the portion near then end where John Galt himself takes over the world’s airwaves and launches into a dry, rambling 80-page soliloquy laying bare Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But people don’t read Ayn Rand because her writing is so great. It’s not. They read Ayn Rand because her ideas are radical and liberating to ambitious minds that feel trapped in a society of conformist mediocrity.

In other words, her ideas are just what 15-year-old, Rush-and-D&D-obsessed nerds need to feel better about themselves in a world that rejects them for being different. At least, that’s what I thought her ideas were until I got really obsessed with them in college, moving beyond her novels to her collected non-fiction essays, along with those written by her “egoist” acolytes, including Alan Greenspan.

Yes, that Alan Greenspan.

I was pretty surprised to learn that the (at the time) Fed chairman was an Ayn Rand devotee, and it convinced me (at the time) that some day soon we’d see Ayn Rand’s philosophy rise up and vanquish the mediocrity of our soul-sucking society.

But then I grew up. I realized that her writing fell firmly in the realm of fantasy. And it wasn’t just that the “second-handers” of society that she described did not correspond in any recognizable way to anyone in the real world. It was that the leaders in her world — not just the godlike John Galt but the creators, the captains of industry, like Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden — didn’t have any real-world counterparts either. People, in most cases, do not rise to power and wealth purely through their noble industriousness and hard work, just as people do not struggle with poverty because they’re lazy. The world Ayn Rand creates has a tantalizingly simple internal logic. Unfortunately, her world is a miserably inadequate model of the complex, messy external reality she believed her “objectivism” so clearly observed.

Still, all of this would be an academic exercise for me to ponder in my parents’ basement were it not for the likes of Alan Greenspan, and so many who have come after him: Ron and Rand (Rand!) Paul, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the Tea Party and anyone whose ability to follow a thought through to logical conclusion is so broken that they somehow manage to espouse both Ayn Rand’s (aggressively atheist) philosophy and fundamentalist Christianity simultaneously. Check your premises, etc. etc.

What frightens me is that in the two decades or so since I outgrew Ayn Rand myself, and especially since the 2010 midterm elections, we’ve come to a point where we have people who embrace Ayn Rand’s philosophy, however contradictory their overall views may be, in positions of government power in the United States. People who apparently know (and, for that matter, care) so little about the way our government actually functions, yet who believe so fully — so faithfully — in the economic principles described in books like The Fountainhead and, especially, Atlas Shrugged, that they would run the metaphorical ship aground on these shaky premises, believing that allowing the United States to default on its debts, allowing the economy to crumble, would actually be a good thing, and would give them the opportunity to remake our government, our economy, our society, in a way more in line with Ayn Rand’s ideas.

But Ayn Rand wasn’t even a good science fiction writer, much less a good economist, and far less an astute, objective observer of the fragile complexities of human character and American society. If we allow our economy to collapse, if we make it collapse because we think we can start over from scratch with a (non-existent) team of all-star CEOs drawing up the blueprints, we will quickly learn the answer to the question. There is no John Galt.

Update (November 16, 2011): John Galt is getting some more attention lately, as apparently Lululemon loves him.

On separating artists’ work from their beliefs

Seals and Crofts: Unborn Child
Magma self-title

My musical tastes have taken a couple of painful blows in the past 24 hours. First, an old friend and fellow musician tipped me off to an ongoing controversy over French prog rock/jazz drummer Christian Vander (founder of Magma) and his possibly pro-Nazi beliefs. Ouch.

Then, my growing interest in exploring the catalog of early ’70s soft rock duo Seals and Crofts, best known for the hits “Summer Breeze,” “Diamond Girl” and “We May Never Pass this Way (Again)” (gotta love those parenthetical song titles — they just don’t do that anymore), was waylaid by learning about the controversy over their anti-abortion song and album Unborn Child, released in 1974, right after the Roe v. Wade decision. The song led abortion rights activists to protest against the band, and probably accelerated their demise.

Christian Vander

The stuff about Christian Vander and Nazism is truly disturbing, although it should be noted that there’s no concrete evidence that he really does (or ever did) espouse these beliefs. Taking an honest look at Magma’s work, though, it’s not a huge leap to that conclusion. There’s plenty of Wagnerian influence in their work; Vander’s concocted language, Kobaian, sounds heavily Germanic, especially when shouted with a Hitler-like cadence (as did happen on some of their early recordings); and the band’s overall concept — a select group of humans flee an apocalyptic Earth and settle a new homeworld — is like a sci-fi version of the Third Reich. Another friend and Magma fan even pointed out that there’s a swastika in the cover art from the band’s first album, something I had never noticed before.

Of course, even with all of that, there’s no concrete evidence that Christian Vander is a Nazi. But since all of the band’s lyrics are sung in his own made-up tongue, and he’s never published an official Kobaian-to-French (or any other real language) dictionary, the best knowledge we have of what he’s actually singing about is the result of questionable fan translations.

Seals and Crofts

As for Seals and Crofts, one song written from the perspective of a fetus is a far cry from an entire body of work that may (debatably) promote a white supremacist agenda. But as a pro-choice liberal, knowing this song is part of the Seals and Crofts canon alters my perspective on the rest of the band’s work. Abortion is a complicated issue, however, in ways that Nazism isn’t: as far as I’m concerned, there’s absolutely no way to justify Hitler’s beliefs. I find Nazism so abhorrent I can hardly even talk about it.

But it’s possible to support abortion rights even though you think, ideally, no one should ever have an abortion. I would like to live in a world where abortion didn’t have to exist, but no one who hasn’t been in the position of having to make that difficult decision should feel like they have the right to take the option away from someone else. I don’t wish to belabor the abortion discussion in this post, however, as it is not the point. (And I think far too many important issues already get derailed by the abortion argument; case in point, the recently passed House bill for health care reform.)

The Big Question(s)

In both of these cases, the question for me becomes: Can I still enjoy the work of these artists, knowing that I disagree with their beliefs? I think there’s an important corollary to this question, and that is: Are the artists actively trying to promote their controversial beliefs with their art?

In the case of Seals and Crofts, on the second question, I would have to say yes they are, quite explicitly. To have released the song “Unborn Child,” with lyrics like “Oh unborn child, if you only knew just what your momma was plannin’ to do / You’re still a-clingin’ to the tree of life, but soon you’ll be cut off before you get ripe,” mere months after Roe v. Wade was a clear response to what was going on, and an unequivocal statement of beliefs on the issue. But, like I said, abortion is complicated. I think it’s possible to appreciate the difficulty of the decision, the moral ambiguity of the act, and still, ultimately, believe in a woman’s right to undertake it, if her circumstances lead her to do so.

As to the first question, I’m not sure this one song by Seals and Crofts can take away from the merits of the rest of their work, especially when you consider this song in the context of the band members’ Baha’i faith. I’ve tried to do some research (since I’m ignorant on the matter) on what Baha’i says about abortion (you can google it for yourself), and have come to the conclusion that, just as I’ve been saying, it’s complicated. There are certain readings that say it is “absolutely forbidden,” but also a broader interpretation that says it’s up to the individual conscience. This leads back to my general belief on the matter, which is that the decision should be left to the conscience of the person who is making it. If you feel abortion is an absolute wrong, don’t have one. But it’s a legal right, and its morality is a subject of debate. Don’t impose your beliefs on others who may also have carefully weighed the matter and conscientiously arrived at a different conclusion.

The song states the band’s (or actually, lyricist Lana Bogan’s) beliefs on the matter. And if you really read the lyrics, the message, repeated again and again, is “Stop, turn around, go back think it over.” Think it over. Not “don’t do it.” This is not a message I necessarily disagree with. The song, on the whole, feels a bit like the simplistic, emotional body blow delivered by the “I could wiggle my toes at 18 weeks!” pro-life billboards. A bit disingenuous and distasteful, focusing on one narrow aspect of the debate. For that reason, I think I may never be able to appreciate this particular song. But it’s not going to turn me off from the band otherwise.

Thinking about these two questions in relation to Magma leads to much different conclusions. First, it needs to be repeated that there’s no concrete evidence, at least none that I’ve seen so far, to suggest that Christian Vander is in fact pro-Nazi. I deeply wish to believe that he is not, because although there’s much tension and fury in Magma’s music, there’s also a tremendous life-affirming energy, and I would hate to think that is tainted with repugnant anti-Semitic beliefs. But, assuming for the moment that the story is all true, where does that leave me with his music? First, it’s important to consider whether he’s actively promoting these views within his art. That question is almost impossible to answer, given the fact that I have no idea what he’s actually singing about. This has nagged at my conscience since I first heard the band, but I dismissed it for two reasons: 1) I rarely pay much attention to lyrics anyway, focusing mostly on the instrumental parts and harmonic structures in the music I enjoy, and 2) since I couldn’t understand any of the words, I could appreciate the vocals as abstract sounds. I always assumed that this was Vander’s main intention with the invented language: since the vocal performances are somewhat operatic in nature anyway, with extended repetition of lines, removing any recognizable meaning from the words allows the listener to focus solely on the sounds of the voices. Of course, it’s just as easy to interpret this decision as his way of getting people to listen to his deranged rants without realizing the horror of what he’s talking about.

I sincerely hope that it’s not the latter. But knowing that it might be, and that this is a fundamental part of not just one song, but the band’s entire body of work, is extremely off-putting. Fortunately I haven’t been listening to Magma much lately anyway, but until I can learn more about the truth of these allegations, I will find it difficult to give them any attention at all.

In general, then, the conclusion I arrive at is that I can separate an artist’s work from their beliefs, if they do. But as with everything, it’s complicated. One isolated work that promotes a viewpoint I disagree with is one thing; an entire body of work devoted to actively promoting an abhorrent philosophy is fundamentally unacceptable. But that’s a pretty extreme scenario, one that’s unlikely to exist except in rare cases of extremely idiosyncratic artists… like Christian Vander. It’s tough to face the prospect of abandoning long-held enthusiasm for the work of such a gifted musician, especially when I’m not sure there’s any foundation to the accusations leveled against him. But it’s something to consider.

Disidentification

I was discussing this situation with SLP, and she mentioned a concept that came up yesterday in a class she’s teaching: disidentification. Disidentification arises mainly in queer theory, in the context of discussions of gender role identification. I hope I’m not committing an egregious offense in appropriating the term, but I think it has broader implications as well, in the form of “deeply engaging with ideas/theories and using them, but not identifying with them.”

This concept shows up a lot in art (especially music): talented artists can write from a perspective that is not necessarily their own. I am thinking in particular about “The Rake’s Song” from the recent Decemberists album The Hazards of Love. Colin Meloy is embodying a despicable character, one who has murdered all of his own children just to be rid of them, yet no serious listener assumes that Meloy himself is filicidal. From this perspective, it’s possible — though a bit of a stretch — to assume that Christian Vander is writing lyrics from Hitler’s perspective in order to reflect critically upon that perspective, or that Seals and Crofts are pro-choice but exploring the worldview of someone who is not.

As a listener, it is possible, of course, to hear “The Rake’s Song” and not feel the urge to act upon its message, nor even to be particularly appalled by it. After all, it’s tongue-in-cheek; the rake is an outlandish cartoon of a character in an already outlandish rock opera. It’s also possible to engage critically with the genuine views expressed in Seals and Crofts’ song without agreeing with them. And, presumably, it’s possible too to engage with whatever Christian Vander is singing about, even if you don’t like it. The questions then raised are: 1) do you want to engage with them, and 2) if not, why not?

I’m inclined to say “no” regarding engagement with possible pro-Nazi messages in Magma’s music. As to why I feel that way, is it because I find these views distasteful, even if I wouldn’t have known about them through the music alone? Or is it because I’m self-conscious that someone else might think I don’t just l like the music, but I actually agree with what he’s saying? Well, it’s probably a lot more likely that an outside observer would just think I was a nut for liking something so obviously weird, but I’m used to that.

Probably what it really comes down to for me is that, most of the time, I’m just not interested in engaging with these difficult topics. I have not devoted myself to a life of activism. I prefer to spend my time focusing on the positive things I enjoy. That doesn’t make the bad things go away, and it doesn’t make me care any less. I’m just not that good at that kind of engagement, and it just leaves me frustrated and upset that the things I dislike exist in the first place. Perhaps that’s a weakness to be overcome, but in the current context, I think all it means is that, for a while at least, I’ll be listening to more “Summer Breeze” and less “Kreühn Köhrmahn Iss de Hündïn.”

Deep thoughts… maybe

I used to spend a lot of time on deep thoughts. Or at least, what I thought was deep at the time. When you’re in high school and college, you have lots of time, more than you can possibly realize. Gradually it dawns on you that your time isn’t so infinite, but by then it’s being squeezed in both directions… it’s running out and filling up simultaneously.

As I’ve gotten older (now unequivocally in my “mid-30s”), I’ve come to see the world in ways I could never have understood when I sat around indulging my erstwhile sophistry. But the opportunities to really explore my own thoughts are almost nonexistent, occurring mainly while sitting on the toilet (the fortress of solitude) or sitting up in a caffeine-induced zombie state in the middle of the night after the kids have — finally — gone to bed. (Right now it’s the latter, in case you’re curious and/or grossed out.)

Every stage in life seems to pose its own challenges, and presently for me it seems to be about finding a way to just slow the whole damn world down for a second and catch my breath. There’s a precarious balance in your 30s, where the wisdom of age has at long last begun to crack its way through your impenetrable cranium, yet you still have enough youth and health to get out there and do something with it. If only you weren’t consuming 99.999% (give or take a thousandth) of your time and energy on the mind-numbing banality of driving to work or sitting through pointless meetings or trying to keep the kids from eating plastic toys or cutting their own hair.

Are we humans or hamsters? Sometimes I’m not so sure. When we spend our days sitting in a little box, endlessly engaging in routine tasks as pointless as running around a little wheel, sipping at our water bottles and taking our food in pellet form (well, some of it might as well be), it’s hard to see much difference.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, but we get into the groove (or is it a rut?), bear down, and charge ahead without really looking around us. After nearly a decade of fairly anonymous apartment dwelling, SLP and I finally settled into a real house in a real neighborhood nearly four years ago, but it still took until this summer, and another looming (although ultimately scuttled) relocation for us to really make a connection with our neighbors.

More and more these days I’m starting to see the third dimension of strangers. It’s kind of like shattering the ancient understanding of the cosmos. I used to see the world with myself in the middle, the small group of people who really mattered to me (first my parents, then school friends, later SLP and now our kids too) orbiting in their perfect spheres, and finally on the outer sphere the vast array of everyone else — tiny, immobile pinpoints of light. Of course it hasn’t taken me 34 years to realize the world doesn’t revolve around me (regardless of what SLP might tell you to the contrary), but it can still be incredibly difficult to process the depth that exists in every face you pass by day after day.

When you’re a kid, everything is new. Every person you meet, every experience you have, is something that’s never happened before. There’s no history, for you or anyone else. (And since so many of the people you know are also kids, that’s a literal truth.) But one of the great things about meeting “new” people as you get older is that each person is a walking vessel of history, overflowing with interesting stories and storied interests.

Everything can change in an instant. Somewhere, for someone, it is. Right now. Babies are born. Grandparents die. People fall in love, others get divorced. Most of the time, these things aren’t happening to us or the people we know. And so for a long stretch, maybe from 18 to 34 (is that why the demographics are broken down that way?), it’s easy to feel invincible, even as our knowledge to the contrary becomes ever more acute. I’m on that line now, statistically poised to enter the next phase of life, and the cracks are showing. That long, smooth (well, not always so smooth, but definitely long) stretch of road is coming to an end. I see the curves ahead, but I don’t yet know where they’ll take me, take us.

For now, the best we can do is embrace the moment, and brace for the next.