Considering Atlas Shrugged on Film
Friday, April 29, 2011, 2:37 PM
This piece was originally written for the Breakpoint blog.  Crossposted with their permission.

Christians have a deep ambivalence about Ayn Rand that probably draws as deeply from the facts of her biography as from her famous novels.  When the refugee from the old Soviet Union met the Catholic William F. Buckley, she said, "You are too intelligent to believe in God."  Her atheism was militant.  Rand's holy symbol was the dollar sign.  Ultimately, Buckley gave Whittaker Chambers the job of writing the National Review essay on Rand's famous novel Atlas Shrugged that effectively read her and the Objectivists out of the conservative movement.  The review characterized Rand’s message as, "To a gas chamber, go!"  Chambers thought Rand's philosophy led to the extinction of the less fit.
In truth, the great Chambers (his Witness is one of the five finest books I've ever read) probably treated Rand's work unfairly.  Though Rand certainly made no secret of her contempt for those unable or unwilling to engage in true exchange of economic value, she was right to tell interviewers that she was no totalitarian because of her abhorrence for the use of force.  She did not believe in compulsion.  Instead, she wanted a world in which a man stood or fell on his productivity.  Rand saw production as the one great life affirming activity.  Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth.  He must labor and produce.  This was Rand's bedrock and explains why she had such contempt for those who try to gain wealth through political arrangements.  She saw this parasitism on every point of the economic spectrum from the beggar to the bureaucrat to the purveyor of crony corporatism.
 
The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology is on human worth.  Christians affirm the inherent and very high value of individuals because of their creation in the image of God.  Rand values human beings only for their achievements.  A person who does not offer value is a leech, a “second rater.”
Atlas Shruggedthe film, is well worth seeing, both because of the challenge posed by Rand’s worldview and because it avoids the pedantic speech-making of the overly long novel.  Rand doesn’t trust her story to get her philosophy across.  The novel struggles under the weight of her desire to teach.  Thanks to the constraints of the film medium, we learn through the development of the characters and the plot.  As a result, the tale comes through quite clearly and simply.

The story proceeds from a fascinating premise:  what if the most able were to go on strike and take their gifts away from the broader society (like Lebron taking his from Cleveland!)?  These talented individuals stop producing because society (in the form of government) has begun to take their contribution for granted and seeks to control the conditions under which they live, work, and create.

Government action occurs under the rubric of equity, but these people who “move the world” — as one conversation in the film expresses — do not understand what claim the government has to order their lives or to confiscate the fruits of their labor.  The villains of the piece are not so much any welfare class as much as corporatists who want to link their companies to government arrangements so as to assure profit without the need for strong performance.  They go on about loyalty and public service, but it is a mask for mediocrity and greed.  The heroes (Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggert) want to make money, but they are virtuous because they give obvious value for every cent they earn.

The underlying moral is that we must not make too great a claim to control the inventors and entrepreneurs lest we frustrate them into inactivity.  Though we think we gain by taxing and regulating their efforts, there is a strong possibility that we will lose a great deal more by blocking the creative impulse and inspiring a parasitic ethic of entitlement.

Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all severely problematic for a variety of good reasons.  But one might compare her political and economic thought to chemotherapy, which is basically a form of poison designed to achieve a positive outcome.  You don’t want to take it if you can avoid it.  You hope the circumstances in which you would use it don’t arise.  However, in an age of statism, it is a message that may need to be heard.  Not so much in the hopes that it will prevail as much as to see it arrest movement in a particular direction which will end badly if it continues.

 



Strange Usage
Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 9:33 AM

I pay a lot of attention to the ways people speak because words have always fascinated me.  I continue to remember the day, nearly 20 years ago, when my father watched undergrads walking from downtown Athens onto the UGA campus and remarked, "There go the students entering into the portals of the university."  The turn of phrase has a certain sublimity.  Not bad for a chemical engineer.

And just as some phrases are wonderful, some are less felicitous.  I have noted the recent proliferation of people talking about "hand-carrying" things.  For example, a gentleman on a radio commercial talked about how he had helped someone when he "hand-carried" the forms they filled out to the proper office.

I am waiting to see whether this way of speaking will catch on.  Will we begin to hear about the time someone "mouth-drank" a bottle of water, "foot-walked" through the neighborhood, or "ear-listened" to a piece of music?

Impossible, you say?  I thought the same thing a couple of decades back when I saw a couple of young guys wearing their pants about eight inches south of their waistlines.

 



A Special Note to the Sojourners Crowd
Saturday, April 9, 2011, 2:20 PM

Well, we've had our discussions about budgets as moral documents and now have reached a budget deal that went right up to the brink of a government shutdown.

To those friends of mine who are also Christians, but identify more with the left than the right, I have a question for you:  Just exactly what hill was it the Democrats decided they wanted to die on in this battle?  Where did they draw the line and say, "This far and no further!"

It turns out their one adamantine point of no compromise was . . . funding Planned Parenthood.  Wow, that's a real Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment.  Gets you right in the old ticker.

I suspect Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are feeling a little uncomfortable as they review the bidding.

Not that this should come as a surprise.  How many Democrat figures have been down this path and learned that they have to make a choice?  Ted Kennedy was pro-life and was forced by his party's realities to change.  Jesse Jackson was pro-life.  Same result.  Ditto for one Albert Gore.

There is one orthodoxy in the party of the left that will not brook disagreement.  Bob Casey the elder knew it.  And Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a book about it.

 



Does Marriage Complete You?
Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 11:43 AM

I recently attended a film festival at Union University featuring the work of students.  One of the first films shown was a thirty minute story about a young couple.

The plot was simple and touching.  A young man expresses his romantic interest in a waitress at a diner.  They fall in love and marry to the disapproval of her parents, who don't think much of the young fellow.  After a brief period of happiness, the two lose their jobs and fall upon hard times.  Indeed, they become homeless and are forced to live in a tent and steal baths in the swimming pool of a local apartment complex.

I won't give away the ending, which was nicely done and brought about a big, appreciative response from the audience.  Instead, I want to focus on the main idea presented in the story.  The primary thought expressed throughout is that even if a young person has nothing else, it is enough to have the sincere love of a husband or wife.  You can be homeless and desperate.  You can be almost without food or access to taken for granted resources like bathrooms and showers.  But if you have committed, romantic love, then you have everything you need.

I am certain that this thought, put over in a very charming and inspiring way is what caused the students to cheer as they did.  The film deserved their applause.  It demonstrated talent and imagination.  It did what films are supposed to do which is to inspire us and make us think.

But despite my admiration, I disagree with the message as nicely as I possibly can.  Thinking in the way the film suggests is right and ideal strikes me as a recipe for unhappiness.  Marriage is beautiful.  Romance is one of the most delightful experiences in life.  Commitment is a rock in life which makes many great things possible.  But marriage, portrayed in the film as the ultimate in romantic love which abides no matter the challenges, is not enough.  The line from Jerry Maguire ("You complete me.") is not true.

My wife complements me almost as much as it is possible for another person to do so.  She is scheduled and organized. I am not.  She is scientific and quantitative. I am in love with the arts and humanities.  When we married I was a fairly new Christian. She had been a committed believer for many years.  She plans activities for the children.  I am more fun and spontaneous.  I could add more examples.  The most notable, of course, is that she is female while I am male.  She is the other with whom I am designed to make a pairing.  But she does not complete me.  She cannot be the sufficient reason for my happiness or my soul satisfaction.  To put that responsibility upon her would be intolerable and unfair.  She cannot do it, no matter how wonderful I think she is (and I do).

The kind of fulfillment and completion suggested by the student film is not truly possible with another person.  The only way to find it, I believe, is through a relationship with God.  Only God holds the possibility of true fulfillment and completion.  He has given me a purpose in life and an eternal destiny.  He is my only hope for knowing the deep truth beneath all things.  I love Ruth.  I only love her more now than I ever did before.  But I recognize that I only have her because of Him.  And the things she can never give me, He can.

The feeling almost all of us know so well, the feeling of complete romantic and psycho-sexual immersion in a person of the opposite sex is a type of spell or chemical haze.  Our hormones take legitimate feelings of love, attraction, and appreciation and turn them into an all-consuming obsession for the other person.  College students are probably more apt to feel that than almost any other age group.  But the chemical haze eventually disappears and the view ahead becomes clear once more.  And if we are looking in the right direction, there He is, looking back at us . . .  offering our soul's true and rightful desire, greater (amazingly perhaps) than even the love of our natural other.

 



Socialism and Secularism Related?
Wednesday, March 16, 2011, 9:53 AM

In a recent piece for Religion & Liberty, a publication of the Acton Institute, I took on an analysis inspired by Bill Buckley's old contention that the struggles between atheism and Christianity and socialism versus capitalism were ultimately the same conflict.  While I don't go quite that far (though I think the idea has some merit), I group socialism and secularism together as different species of the larger genus we might call social leveling.  

Here's a clip:

I have argued that social leveling achieves a wrong result in the sense that it ignores things like merit and virtue in the form of socialism, and truth in the form of secularism. That alone is good reason to oppose it, but there is a bigger problem than that. The social leveling that is achieved by socialism and secularism can only be engineered by one entity in a society. That entity is the state. Thus, the state will become the effective owner of all property and the state will determine what manifestations of religion (if any) are acceptable to itself.



A Response to “What Would Jesus Cut?”
Friday, March 4, 2011, 3:08 PM

Jim Wallis and a number of other Christians involved in politics are trying to gain attention for the question, “What would Jesus cut?” The answer to this question is supposed to be as obvious as it is in other moral contexts. For example, would Jesus lie about the useful life of a refrigerator he was selling for Best Buy? No way. Would he bully a kid into giving away his lunch money? Not a chance. Would you find him taking in the show at a strip club on interstate 40 in Arkansas? Unlikely to the extreme.

Would he agree to a 2% cut in the marginal tax rate for income made above $250,000? Would he EVER accept a cut in welfare spending? Those take a little more thought. Jim Wallis and others think it’s a no-brainer. Let us reason together.

As I look over what Wallis wrote, I see several things worth noting. For example, he complains that some Republicans want to cut domestic spending and international aid, while they support an increase in military spending. The implication is that this is obviously a sub-Christian position. But is it? Probably the most essential purpose of government is to protect the life and freedom of citizens. The government achieves this goal through military means. Unless one takes the position that Christianity implies corporate pacificism, then it is unclear the Republicans have blundered according to Christian ethics. Now, match the question of military spending versus international aid and/or domestic spending. Are the latter obviously superior to the former? No. It depends on not only what the stated objective is for the different types of spending, but whether they actually achieve their purposes. To simply state that the Republicans want to bolster military spending while cutting international aid and domestic spending is to achieve nothing at all by way of an indictment.

Here’s another example. Wallis complains bitterly that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans add billions to the deficit. He is referring to the extension of George W. Bush’s cuts in the marginal tax rates that existed under Bill Clinton. The first question I have is how does Jim Wallis know that the level of taxation was just to begin with? And why take Bill Clinton’s tax levels as the Platonic form of taxation? Maybe they were too high or too low. The highest marginal tax rates have fluctuated drastically in the United States during the last century. John F. Kennedy made a big cut, with impressive economic effects, as did Ronald Reagan. Is Wallis sure that by cutting taxes those men robbed the poor and gave to the rich? Maybe a lot of poor people got jobs because of them. And we aren’t even getting into the question of whether rich people actually have an enhanced duty to pay taxes. If there is a community need, is it righteous to grab a rich person and employ the power of legal coercion to extract the needed funds?

Still another problem with this redistributionist attitude about taxes and spending is that it assumes a zero sum state of affairs. For example, one could assume that the most people would be better off under a system like the old Soviet Union that spread resources out to citizens in a way that prized equality of rations. The United States system didn’t do that nearly as much, not nearly at all. But which of the two systems provided a better life for people? The answer is easy. The United States and its emphasis on liberty did. Why? A more free economic system produces far more wealth than an unfree one. If your equality system produces a little, bitty pie, it may give you a lot of philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn’t do as much actual good for people as the system that prizes free productivity and success over equality.

What Jim Wallis is saying comes from a good heart. He is worried about things like fairness and, of course, about helping people. But the reasoning he employs in doing so assumes that federal programs actually achieve what they set out to do, which is far from obvious, and that they don’t create incentives for behavior that results in greater problems, which often happens. He also assumes a zero sum society. It is entirely possible that economic thinking that concerns itself more with productivity than with equality will actually leave the great majority of people better off.

 



On Income Inequality and the Question of Justice
Wednesday, February 23, 2011, 9:48 AM

The Acton Institute remembered that I wrote about Alabama and Susan Pace Hamill's tax crusade in The End of Secularism.  In the book, I didn't express agreement or disagreement with her argument.  Instead, I used the politics of the episode to show something about the flexible barriers between church and state.  Now, thanks to a prompt from the Acton Commentary series, I have written an article on contentions made about income inequality in a PBS program in which Hamill and others appeared.  Here it is (reprinted with attribution to Acton):

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The Ars Moriendi and Moral Thinking
Friday, February 18, 2011, 2:23 PM

I have been reading Rob Moll's excellent Intervarsity Press book The Art of Dying.  One of Moll's key points is that we know we will die and in order to do so well, we need to have thought about it ahead of time.  He doesn't mean that we should obsess about death, sleep in caskets, or wear black all the time like a disturbed woman I saw on a television program.  Instead, he encourages us to think about what it means to have a good death.  While we are removed from the immediate danger, take advantage of the calm to consider how we should die and how we should make decisions about dying.

As I thought more about it, I realized that Moll's insight about death has a lot to do with both moral and political thinking generally.  One of the great reasons to draw up a constitution, for example, is to try to set up rules ahead of time.  We need to have considered the possible situations for which law will be needed and to propose them now before they happen and we are caught up with either interestedness or our passions.

Bringing the example closer to home, I think about something I wrote several years go in response to a mass shooting incident at Virginia Tech:

I remember going for an evening walk with my young wife some years ago. As we strolled past a heavily wooded yard with a house barely visible, I suddenly heard the menacing growl of a very obviously big and mean dog. My immediate reaction was to run. The big muscles in my legs flexed and fired. The only thing that stopped me was my wife's anguished cry, "Hunter, don't leave me!" I forced down the fear impulse, backed up and put myself between her and the threatening sound. We walked on and nothing happened.

When Professor Librescu, an old man, a septuagenarian whose body had been through the terrors of the Holocaust, spotted a terrible threat he pushed his weight against a door and tried to keep a killer from murdering his students. All but two of the students and Librescu got away. In an email exchange yesterday, a friend wondered why able-bodied young men would have chosen to run instead of coming to the assistance of their heroic professor.

Thinking of my own experience and looking at what happened in that besieged classroom in Virginia, I think I know the answer. Liviu Librescu had seen death up close much earlier in life. He very probably saw his friends and neighbors killed and had many opportunities to measure his own reactions in light of right and wrong, valor and heroism. It is no surprise to me that such a man would resist rather than run. I suggest to you that he knew exactly who he was and who he was determined to be. The young men in that classroom were probably a lot like me in the situation with the dog. They were untested and had probably never been in serious physical danger. More important, they had probably never stopped to consider what they would expect of themselves in a life and death situation.

There are a couple of lessons that come to mind. The one that many conservatives will point to is that we have a culture that does not successfully impute manliness. We already knew the ethic of dedication to wife and children had slipped badly. We knew less well that we weren't raising boys with expectations of self-sacrifice and protectiveness toward others. But this is the smaller of the two lessons.

The greater lesson is that we should all take pains to reflect on who we want to be and what we really believe. It was once common to speak of the examined life. That phrase fell under the massive heap of self-help materials and endless reflection on why we don't have a better sex life, more money, and a better job. But the examined life goes deeper than that. It comes down to knowing who you are. Without it, you will almost inevitably run in the face of danger, quail before the bully, and excel in self-justification after the fact rather than action in the relevant frame.

Unprepared and without prior thought, none of us know how we will react in these situations. But we can prepare ourselves for the event and drastically increase the chance that we WILL do what we merely hope we would.

Take Rob Moll's advice with regard to death and many other important moments in life.  Prepare yourselves, friends.

 



Unbroken
Tuesday, February 15, 2011, 9:15 PM

When my mother called me on the phone to tell me about a book she'd recently read, I listened with some interest, but begged her not to send it along.  She is the type of person who will immediately run to the post office or to UPS to ship a book or anything else that is not nailed down which she thinks someone might enjoy.  

Hold off, I said.  I'll see you, soon, I said.  I only live three hours away, I said.  

Didn't matter.  She sent it.  

And I have to say, I am glad she did.  The book was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  I recognized her as the author of Seabiscuit.  I hadn't read that book, but had seen the movie and wasn't all that excited about reading some new story about a plucky and determined hero.  

I could not have been more wrong, more stupidly snobbish, or closer to missing out on a good thing.  

Unbroken is the life story of Louis Zamperini, a man whose life experiences included driving his community crazy as a juvenile delinquent, blossoming into an Olympic distance runner, flying bomber runs in WWII, surviving (after a crash) what was at the time the longest recorded sea float in history, and being beaten and humiliated as a prisoner of war by the Japanese.  I have scarcely been so riveted by a work of non-fiction in several years.  

As I read the book, I thought with excitement that it has the potential to be a spiritual milestone for many people.  The father God is an important part of Unbroken.  So, too, is Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  These matters won't jump up as strongly as they do in the genre of Christian books and testimonials, but they are there and unmistakably so.  I have little doubt that large numbers of people will look at what God did in the life of Louis Zamperini and will tentatively venture out in faith, looking for God to rescue them and preserve them.   

 



Does Mitt Romney Have a Mormon Problem?
Monday, February 14, 2011, 9:34 AM

John Mark Reynolds has a piece up at the Washington Post On Faith blog about Mormonism and the challenges its practitioners face in the political arena.  In the post, he notes that the LDS church upholds many virtues that are beneficial to the republic, while its "theological vices" are not threatening to the community.  I don't take issue, really, with any of this.  Certainly, it is true that the LDS church cherishes America and wishes it well.  It is also true that the LDS church has nurtured a number of outstanding citizens.  Tangentially (very tangentially), one of the best lines in the piece is where Reynolds notes that the media is highly aware of Glenn Beck's Mormon faith and amnesic with regard to Harry Reid's.  

However, I think much of the concern with the public perception of the Mormon church is misplaced with regard to politics.  Being Mormon is probably not as heavily disabling a factor as many think it is.  I know many will point to Mitt Romney's run for president in 2008 as proof of anti-LDS bias, but too much may have been made of it.  Mitt Romney had several pretty serious problems facing him in the presidential primary.

First, he ran for president as the one term governor of Massachusetts.  It does not inspire confidence when a governor holds office for one term, declares victory, and abdicates for a presidential run.  This is especially true when one suspects he would not have been able to win a second term.  That, of course, is not Mitt Romney's fault.  It is Massachusetts' fault, but it still reflects badly on him as a political champion.

Second, Romney conducted his campaigns for office (senator and governor, unsuccessful and successful) in Massachusetts and thus had to run away from the kind of conservative image that attracts voters in many other parts of the country.  Opponents could point to archival evidence of Romney distancing himself from Reagan's legacy, for example, and making statements in sympathy with the pro-choice position.

Third, Romney's crowning achievement as governor of Massachusetts was presiding over a comprehensive health care reform effort which required individuals to purchase health insurance.  Setting arguments about federalism and the appropriateness of states doing such a thing versus the federal government doing it aside, that kind of gubernatorial activity did not create the strongest foundation for a Romney primary run in '08.

All of this is to say that being a member of the LDS church was probably not Mitt Romney's biggest problem as a politician running in conservative primaries.

 


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