My Mom was Atlas… And She Never Shrugged.

Posted: 12 January 2012 in Faith and Life

“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier he world bore down on his shoulders – what would you tell him to do?”

“I… don’t know. What… could he do? What would you tell him?”

“To shrug.”

(From Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, 1957–over 7,000,000 copies sold to date)

It is hard to believe that my mom has been gone these seven years.  Mourning in the time immediately following her death was muted by the fact that mom had “left” us many years before, the victim of that poorly understood, mind stealing affliction she always referred to as “that Alzheimer’s.” Over time, and to my great surprise, my mourning has deepened and stretched to the point that I feel her loss spread over large swaths of my life.  As I try to understand why I come back again and again to the reality that not only do I miss mom’s smile, her gentle ways or her hospitality, but I miss (we all miss) the kind of person she was.  I have a gnawing suspicion that mom’s kind is an endangered species, but that no one is counting the loss.  I fear that one day we will wake up and realize her species has disappeared altogether.

Let me try to explain…

Rick Perlstein argued (fairly convincingly to me at least) that we all live in “Nixonland” now but in recent months I have become convinced that where we all really live is “Randland” (as in Ayn Rand).  Others have pointed out the influence of Ayn Rand in our current political discourse (just one example here) and I will not repeat their arguments.

I started thinking about her influence when I heard Ron Paul talk about how critical her writings were to him.  I became more intrigued when I read John Boehner’s speech to the Economic Club of Washington in September 2011 in which he said:

Private-sector job creators of all sizes have been pummeled by decisions made in Washington.

They’ve been slammed by uncertainty from the constant threat of new taxes, out-of-control spending, and unnecessary regulation from a government that is always micromanaging, meddling, and manipulating.

They’ve been hurt by a government that offers short-term gimmicks rather than fundamental reforms that will encourage long-term economic growth.

They’ve been hampered by a government that offers confusion to entrepreneurs and job creators when there needs to be clarity.

They’ve been undercut by a government that favors crony capitalism and businesses deemed ‘too big to fail,’ over the small banks and small businesses that make our economy go.

They’ve been antagonized by a government that favors bureaucrats over market-based solutions.

They’ve been demoralized by a government that causes despair when we need it to provide reassurance and inspire confidence…

Job creators in America are essentially on strike.

This, in sum, is the story at the heart of Atlas Shrugged.

And when Mitt Romney made these comments in a speech in New Bedford, NH in December of 2011, I realized that Rand, and the arguments she made through Atlas Shrugged, had, indeed, gone mainstream:

Just a couple of weeks ago in Kansas, President Obama lectured us about Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy of government. But he failed to mention the important difference between Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Roosevelt believed that government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities. President Obama believes that government should create equal outcomes.

In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people who truly enjoy any real rewards are those who do the redistributing-the government.

The truth is that everyone may get the same rewards, but virtually everyone will be worse off.

According to Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, the reason Atlas Shrugged has been so popular among businessmen:

If you have read Atlas Shrugged and entered the universe of Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and John Galt, you can understand why the novel has inspired so many in this way. Atlas Shrugged portrays great businessmen as heroic, productive thinkers, and it venerates capitalism as the only social system that leaves such minds free to create and produce the material values on which all of our lives depend. It gives philosophic and esthetic expression to the uniquely American spirit of individualism, of self-reliance, of entrepreneurship, of free markets. (emphasis mine)

Yes, Rand is not only popular, but nearly 20 years after her death and over 50 years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged her ideas are part of our daily lives–gaining even greater credibility in this election year in which Republican politicians tussle for the right to bear the banner promoting ever smaller government. Rand said this about her views on capitalism and the state in 1962:

The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

My purpose here is not to critique this view in detail and I don’t want readers to assume that my antidote to the current political/economic situation is greater central government engagement. My point is, again, simply that Rand’s views are very much in the mainstream discourse of our age.  It matters little that the kind of laissez-faire capitalism she extolled exists only in Econ101 textbooks (and perhaps in some parallel universe in which asymetric information, non-competitive markets and externalities don’t cause the failure of “free markets”), the mantra of her acolytes contains elements of all she wrote in the above.

But… I have strayed too far.  This post is not about Rand (really!) but about my mom.

Rand’s heros–the Atlases that held up the world and, in their anger and bitterness decided to “shrug”–exist in the real world as much as laissez-faire capitalism does.  They are cardboard cutout humans–created by Rand–who capture the vainest parts of our hearts. But they are not real. They are not Atlas. Our lives do not depend on them.

To find Atlas we need to take a trip (as I have) to the northern deserts of Mauritania, where a village chief and his wife expend their assets and lives to save their town, which is disappearing in the sand while their children shrivel and fade to the ravages of malnutrition and diarrhea.

To find Atlas we need to travel to Nepal where a group of women take on powerful interests to stop the trafficking of their daughters (ah yes, there IS a largely unregulated market for little girls too).

To find Atlas we must go to the high plains stretching from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan where mothers hold communities together in the face of war lords who conscript their sons–forcing the moms to pull their names written on slips of paper from a jar; a cruel game of warlord roulette.

To find Atlas we must tread the path of the Palestinian school teacher in Lebanon who built a school in a Beirut camp only to see his children shot by militia in front of his eyes–children who he buried with others in a hole they dug in the floor of a local mosque as the battles raged outside.

To find Atlas we must tiptoe into the kitchen of my childhood home where my mom wiped the tears of a single mom, listened to the stories of the chronically depressed colleague, carried dinner to an ailing neighbor, hugged the neighborhood bully–telling him he was loved.  And I could go on an on…

Rand, with her promotion of a social autism, disdained ones such as these, believing that they were “moochers” who encouraged “looters”.

But my mom, all the others I have mentioned, and literally millions more men and women around the world who uphold their communities in the face of tremendous odds… They are Atlas. And unlike the spoiled and pampered heroes of Randland–who walk on the backs of people like my mom, proclaim their autonomy, and boast of the success they have created on the sole basis of their hard work–they NEVER shrug. For if they did (and they can’t and they won’t) we would see a shaken world.

I miss you mom.  We need you in these days… You are Atlas.


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