Who was John Galt?

“Who is John Galt?”

No doubt all the parasites back in so-called “civilization” would be abuzz with variations on that question. John Galt didn’t care. In just a few short hours, he would have his vindication and his solitude. For–how long had it been? Weeks? Months? No matter, it was as though his whole life had led him to this point–for some time, Galt had been gathering up the best and brightest, whose lights had been dimmed beneath society’s overbearing bushels. The greatest in science and industry, the arts and agriculture: Today, they would finally begin casting society away and releasing themselves from its choking grip, leaving the parasitic masses to their own insipid devices.

The plan was flawless. Galt had procured a sailing ship, small and innocuous, which would whisk his luminaries away from the world of fools and freeloaders. Galt’s Gulch had been a pleasant enough stopgap, but it was still too connected. To truly withdraw, they would need an island, self-sufficient and seculded as he and his companions hoped to be. It was a trivial matter to find a mighty sailing man, another shining light in his own field, and together they found a tropical paradise, undiscovered by any previous human being, unrecorded on any map. Galt remembered when they first set down on its sandy beach, after confirming that it was the secret sanctuary they’d hoped it might be.

“What should we call it?” asked his First Mate.

“We?” Galt laughed. “My small friend, did not your taut sinews steer our vessel? Did not your steely eyes spot this land? Did not your keen mind set our course? Did not your years of experience guide us to this wondrous location? You should not give up the fruits of your achievements, my friend. The spoils go to the victor, not the victor’s passengers! You found this island, and so you shall be the one to name it!”

“In that case,” the mate said thoughtfully. “I suppose I should name it after myself, so everyone knows who found it.”

Galt slapped the mate playfully with his sailing cap. “Now you’re beginning to understand!”

That first round trip, including all the surveying to ensure that it carried the necessary provisions and was not likely to disappear beneath the waves or a flow of lava, took scarcely three hours. Though time was precious, three hours was a small price to pay for a freedom unlike any ever before experienced since that primordeal Prometheus had his invention of fire stolen by cave-dwelling parasites, resulting in that first detestable “community.” Or perhaps it went back farther, back to the oceans, back to the first fish to grow beyond the confines of his pond, to leave the waters behind. Surely it was that, or be devoured by hordes of ravenous minnows.

Galt laughed at the irony, for today just such a Minnow would allow these big fish to escape their suffocating pond. And at that moment, he saw the cars pull up, carrying his friends, his peers, itching to leave this world behind.

Of course, that freedom was still some ways off. The island had no amenities, no touches of the modern world that his kind had built, and those comforts would be forthcoming. John Galt needed only send a few short telegrams, make a few enticing offers, and his island paradise would have all the benefits–and none of the demerits–of the modern world. But his people deserved to see the island in its raw form, like ore before it is mind, like a blueprint before it becomes manifest in reality. Three hours hence would he get to the telegraph, and his plan would be almost complete.

John Galt stood at the edge of the dock, welcoming each passenger aboard, before following the Mate onto the ship himself. “My friends, we stand on the horizon of a new dawn. Today, we loose our chains, today we glimpse our freedom, today we achieve the dreams of our ancestors! Imagine those who came before us, the geniuses and inventors who longed to rid themselves of the fleas that infested their societies. Imagine if they had succeeded! The world we leave behind today would be without phones, without lights, without motorcars, bereft of the luxuries that they have plundered from our progenitors! They would be as primitive as they deserve to be.” There was a rumble of thunder. “Hear that? That is the sound of the boulder rolling away, my friends! That is the sound of our shackles hitting the ground. The weather may be getting rough ahead, but I assure you, far rougher weather awaits the society we leave behind, for they must ride out the storm without our help!” A cheer rose up from the crowd. Galt smiled.

“This is my ship, but I relinquish the notion of militaristic rank. I will not be your captain; I will not declare myself your superior. No, on this journey, I will be the “skipper,” for what are we doing if not skipping out on the obligations that society’s parasites have loaded onto our backs? For once, for the first time, I am among peers–my mate, of course, the mightiest of sailing men, a millionaire and his wife, a movie star, a professor, and Mary Ann–why, you might as well be Demeter for your skill in the fields! Today, my friends, my equals, we set forth for a new land. Today we set foot on the island that will soon be transformed into our individualistic utopia. Today, in this three-hour tour, we will build the foundation of a new life, and we will do it on a land named for this man here, who discovered it himself and earned his right to be among us!” He placed an arm around the mate’s shoulders. “Today, we journey to…Gilligan’s Island!”

Wonders of the world they wrote

So, the other night on a whim I read Ayn Rand’s Anthem. I’ve looked into Objectivism as a philosophy as a few times, though never with any particular understanding of its appeal to some people, but this was my first serious foray into the fiction of the often verbose Ms. Rand.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. A couple of years back, I saw a high school production of her play, “The Night of January 16th.” I was not particularly impressed with the script, though the actual performance was pretty good.

Anyway, Ayn has become something of a running joke among my peers. There was a period of time where a copy of The Fountainhead was rolling around the backseat of my friend’s car, and we’d occasionally read random passages of pretentious dialogue or florid descriptions out of it for a laugh.

Anthem, owing to its short length, avoids many of those problems; the story is so short that the printers have done everything possible to pad it out–the font size is enormous (and changes about twenty pages in), the columns are narrow, the leading is huge, and there’s an extra space after every paragraph. As if that weren’t enough, a second version of the novella is included, photocopied from an earlier manuscript, complete with the author’s handwritten editing. They really wanted to justify charging 7.99 for a story that weighs in at 90 pages, padded out.

About 15 pages in, my overwhelming impression was that I preferred this story when it was “Harrison Bergeron.” Halfway through, I realized that Rush’s “2112” concept album was a closer adaptation of the story than their song “Anthem.”

And before I knew it, the book had devolved into a chapter or two of soapbox lecturing, and then it was over. It wasn’t a bad story, mind you. And I’m always a sucker for a good dystopia story. But there were some significant problems with it, which cast harsh light on Objectivism as any kind of viable philosophy.

First, and perhaps least relevant to the philosophy, is just how blatantly anti-feminist the story is. The only female character follows around the protagonist like a lost puppy looking for guidance. I understand that Ms. Rand was a bit of a sub, but this is ridiculous. She barely had a personality; she was purely object.

Our heroic protagonist, Prometheus (née Equality 7-2521), was the pure, unfiltered Randian hero: brilliant, willful, and instantly skillful at whatever he puts his hands to. In his post-apocalyptic quasi-medieval society, he and another lowly street-sweeper manage to find an abandoned subway tunnel. Through pure trial-and-error experimentation with the remnants of 20th century technology, he rediscovers steel and electricity, and he singlehandedly reinvents the lightbulb. Ultimately, he decides to share this discovery with the scholars, but is refused and threatened with death. He flees into the woods, where he proves to be a fantastic hunter (his first flung stone kills a bird, and he’s able to fashion a bow and arrows–and use them with great skill–with no apparent prior knowledge or training). At some point, the one girl he knew in the city shows up, having followed him. Eventually, they come across an abandoned centuries-old cottage in the mountains, with its own generator (which our hero is able to repair). He reads voraciously from the cabin’s apparently prodigious library, then comes up with names for himself (Prometheus) and his bride (Gaea). He decides that community and altruism are evils, designed to keep folks like him from achieving their potential, and leading to the stagnation of society and the stifling of independent thought. He determines that he needs no one else, and so he will return to town eventually to liberate the other free-minded ones like himself.

Yikes, where to begin? I’ll leave aside the evolutionary benefits of altruism at this point, they’re purely incidental to the problems with Prometheus’s reasoning. Isolation and independence are all well and good for him, but they don’t translate into a real-world viable option. See, Prometheus is only able to become self-sufficient because he is the luckiest man on the damn planet. He literally falls into advanced technology that, for whatever reason, still kind of works, and then fumbles his way through several centuries worth of scientific progress. He manages to leave town with little problem, despite his violation of various serious laws. He manages never to eat anything poisonous while living in the wilderness for a fairly extended period of time, bumps into his girlfriend in the vast woods, and finds a pristine, untouched, undamaged house from centuries earlier. This might make for decent fiction, but you can’t count on such wondrous luck in the real world, and that’s a nail in the coffin for Objectivism as a viable way of life. Sure, selfishness works when you’ve got everything else going for you.

You know, except when it doesn’t. Somehow, in his rant at the end of the book, Prometheus fails to recognize that it’s dependence on others and their altruism which got him to this point. He found the entrance to the subway with his friend, International 4-8818, needed his help to open it, and had to trust him to put himself at risk in order to keep the finding (and their subsequent experimentations) secret. He needed Liberty 5-3000 (who he’d later rename Gaea) to keep their conversations and interactions secret. He needed the humans of the past to share their innovations with the rest of the world, so that he might rediscover them. And, you know, if Gaea’s going to fulfill her role in recreating an individualistic human society, he’s going to need her around too. Selfishness only works when you’re actually self-sufficient, which no one, not even our dear Prometheus, is.

Anthem, to an astute reader, is more an indictment of Objectivism than a promotion of it. Prometheus’s speech at the end reeks of sour grapes and undeserved feelings of superiority, and it utterly ignores how much he’s relied on other people to get anywhere near self-sufficiency. And then, after decrying altruism and denouncing society, he resolves to return to the city to liberate others like him and bring them to his mountain home. Last I checked, that sort of action qualified as altruistic, and a collection of people living together was the necessary component of a society.

It really demonstrates the problem with Objectivists: they claim that altruism is a general negative and that people ought to be able to get by on their own skills and merits. Then they run headlong into reality, in which people actually do need one another. They’re ultimately put into a position of perpetual complaining, that they’re better than society and they don’t need other people and altruism is bad, but not actually being able to do anything about it. Objectivism is a philosophy of inevitable cantankerousness.