Atlas Shrugged, part 3, chapter 7

AtlasShruggedSection 3, Chapter 7: “This is John Galt Speaking”

Writing up this chapter gave me a sharp reminder that this blog is a book-review blog rather than a philosophy forum. Anna has had to hold me back from writing a 500-page response rebutting this chapter, line by line. Reading this chapter was an exercise in patience, allowing a mixture of irrationality, hypocrisy, and lies to just pass on by me.

The chapter starts off somewhat decent: Jim Taggart has hysterics at Dagny about Hank Rearden disappearing; Dagny laughs in delight. (I laugh, too. It is pretty darn funny.)

Then, John Galt does what V does in V for Vendetta: take over the airwaves to deliver his message to the people. Unfortunately, where V spoke for less than four minutes and made a reasonably good point, John Galt goes on for more than two hours in a miasma of weak historical knowledge and even weaker logic.

One of the few points that I actually agreed with was that man’s “basic vice, the source of all his evils,” is “the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think,” and yet that very state is the only way I was able to get through his speech. When I tried to interact with this text, I bogged down in the need to point out all the errors. I already make blog posts every chapter, a full blog post per paragraph of this chapter seemed a bit excessive. A certain amount of no-mind was necessary to just read and get through it.

To cover the actual speech, Anna suggested a Twitter account where you can see a highlights reel of the speech, without any editorializing, so I made my best attempt at it, with This_Is_Galt, and 118 tweets.

My impression of the speech as a whole is that it combines the damnation and hellfire rhetoric of the stump preachers of the Great Awakening with a severe lack of empathy such that Galt doesn’t understand that being the center of his own world does not make him the center of everyone else’s world.

Here is a man who has hijacked all the radio stations in the country to give a speech about how he takes nothing he hasn’t earned; who says that he doesn’t use fear to motivate people and then proceeds to use fear to motivate the people; who says that any downfalls that happen to other people are their just desserts for allowing it to happen but that any downfalls that happened to him and his were unearned personal attacks; who says force should only be used as a response to force but also to support contract law; who says this country was founded on reason but that reason has never been supported by the people; who says that to give a man enough food to live out the day is the same thing as to elevate him to supreme ruler; who says that both being taught and failing to learn are sins; and who says that to smile at a stranger who hasn’t earned that smile is an act of treason against life.

He says that to know something is to know everything and that to not know one thing is to not know anything (The first applies to him while the second applies to others.)

As much as I dislike him for being the type of asshole who would refuse to allow an ambulance to pass him on the street because the few seconds that would add to his commute are more important than the life of the person in that ambulance and then say it is society’s fault for imposing speed limits, I can deal with assholes.

I can even deal with furious assholes who think the world owes him infinite wealth and prosperity for being smart and that he should never have to work to monetize his skills. (I can practically see the spittle fly when he tells the national listening audience: “But you, you grotesque little atavists, stare blindly at the skyscrapers and smokestacks around you and dream of enslaving the material providers who are scientists, inventors, industrialists.”)

What I dislike so much more is the way he attempts to declare with authority who I am, what I think, how I think it… and being wrong. It is all very nice to meet someone who truly knows me, sure, but it’s a special kind of ass who is so sure that he knows me that he’s incapable of recognizing when he’s wrong. He spends more time in this speech talking about how the masses think than he does talking about his own philosophy. His descriptions of religious and political motivations are so irrational and confused that it makes me think of an elementary school kid studying arithmetic and explaining to his friends how calculus is completely useless gibberish and, because it made no sense to him, no one has ever used it to do anything useful.*

At the end of his speech, Galt finally comes to a point where he says that he challenges all the other useful people in the nation to either work below their capabilities and pretend to be mindless or to withdraw entirely from society and create their own little self-sufficient hermitages/communes, though only as a stop gap while the rest of society self-destructs before Galt can go forth and conquer the downtrodden.

* One specific failing problem in this speech that I absolutely need to point out, is Galt’s ignorance of the scientific method. I love the scientific method and I think it is an incredibly valuable process, and thus I’m going to take a moment to explain what it is.

The first thing to understand is that the scientific method is a method, rather than a collection of facts.

The way it works is that you ask a question and then look for evidence one way or the other to answer that question. If you find an example that the thing you’re interested in is true, then excellent—but keep looking. It doesn’t prove that it’s always true, but it does prove that it’s sometimes true. If you find an example that the thing you’re interested in isn’t true, then that is excellent too—but still keep looking. It doesn’t prove that it’s never true, but it does prove that it’s sometimes false.

John Galt and Ayn Rand both don’t seem to understand this really super fundamental aspect of the scientific method**: You can never prove that something is always true.

There is always going to be just that hint of doubt: you always need to have your mind open to the potential that there might something new in the world that you didn’t understand before. This hint of doubt is what allows knowledge to grow. It doesn’t mean that you can’t depend on your theories and act with certainty. Newtonian physics is a wonderful example of this. It is an excellent working theory. It explains so much of the world and you can do a hell of a lot with it. Except, of course, that you need quantum mechanics to understand the double-slit experiment.

And physics doesn’t stop at quantum mechanics either. You need to keep looking, keep experimenting, and keep revolutionizing the field by looking and relooking at your working theories, even as you rely on them.

** While Galt uses, or rather fails to use, regular, conversational logic in his arguments, he also attempts to use a bit of formal logic to support his social stance, putting much emphasis on the equation A = A.

This is a useful little equation, but here are a couple of important things that it does not mean.

A = A does not mean that A =/= B. It is quite possible for A = A = B. Someone can have multiple valid identities. For example: Adam can be a husband AND a father AND a worker AND whatever else he happens to be.

A = A does not mean that f(A) = A. It is quite possible that f(A) =/= A. It is quite possible for time and circumstances to change someone. For example: Adam WAS a child and IS NOW an adult.

5 comments on “Atlas Shrugged, part 3, chapter 7

  1. Anna says:

    So, I had all the same issues as you did with this chapter/speech, though you did a much better job of breaking it down into reasonable counter-arguments than I would have. (Also, I’m totally going to title my autobiography “Grotesque Little Atavist.”) However, once I disregarded the vast majority of very problematic text, I found this speech boiled down to a few basic points, which I think are very important:

    1. Do not accept unnecessary or undeserved guilt.
    2. Pursue and accept happiness in your life.
    3. Most importantly, you are responsible for your own life, and you are, in the end, the only one responsible.

    Those sound pretty good to me, and are messages that I think we could all hear more often (though perhaps not in 50 pages of orating). I think these are excellent guides for living one’s life and I can even see now why this would be so influential to so many people, but I’m still holding firm in that it is too simplified to work on a large, societal scale.

    • Rebecca says:

      I think you might be better than I am at separating the wheat from the chaff, because yeah, those are definitely three good concepts by which to live your life. I’m just so put off by Galt’s presentation that it’s hard to focus on his basic point. Those are really excellent points by which to live one’s life, but while you can suggest, you can’t force other people to live by them. Galt spends a lot of time haranguing other people rather than suggesting or convincing.

      Also: what would the cover image be for your autobiography, “Grotesque Little Atavist”? My mind boggles.

  2. Erin says:

    Interesting back story. I recently watched a documentary on the author and they claim it took her 2 years just to write chapter 7 (the John Galt monolog). The publisher pleaded with her to shorten it and takes parts out and she refused because she claimed that this part of the book summed up her entire philosophical concept.

    • Rebecca says:

      Oh wow. Actually, taking two years to write it might explain somewhat why it’s so disjointed. I agree with the publisher: the book is in desperate need of a good editor to smooth it out and keep it focused.

    • Anna says:

      Haha! I love this backstory – thanks for commenting it! It’s probably good that I didn’t know it earlier, though, or I would have tried to argue that I get 2 years to try to read it.

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