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That sound you hear is …

… the jerking of knees.

Friends of mine have two very bright teenagers — the kind of kids every parent would love — honor roll students, top athletes, well-spoken, and pretty straight shooters, as well. Their mom told me this story this morning.

One boy, a freshman in high school, mentioned in his English class that he was reading Atlas Shrugged. The teacher promptly flew into a frenzy. The book is trash, she insisted. Boring, poorly writtten, an utter waste of anyone’s time.

Now you know that a lot can be said both for and against Atlas Shrugged — sometimes by the same reader. In one breath, people will tell you that the book opened their eyes, hit their minds like a lightning stike, altered the course of their lives — and is filled with cardboard characters, thudding prose, weird sex, and speechifying figures who don’t know the meaning of the word “brevity.” Heck, I’m one of the people who would say all that.

But as Peter Bagge points out with a laugh (Tip o’ hat to Kevin Wilmeth) some people insist that the works of Rand are a) either 100 percent great and glorious, without earthly flaw or b) 100 percent evil and anyone who reads them must be unspeakable.

Back to my friends’ boy. That English teacher has every right to her opinions — though a real teacher would encourage kids to read, think critically, and make their own judgments rather than trying to impose hers. Fortunately, this boy has been taught by his parents how to think, rather than what to think. And while he’s been taught to be respectful of adults, he’s also learned to stand up for himself.

Bless his heart, he challenged the teacher’s opinions in front of the class — and after a bit of back-and-forthing she had to admit that she had never even read the book! OMG.


Recently, this blog drew a few contemptful comments merely because I posted the trailer for the upcoming Atlas Shrugged movie and a follow-up about where it might play. One person made the mind-boggling assumption that companies like Dow Chemical and Monsanto are examples of the Randian free market in action (rather than the state-partnered enterprises they actually are) — AND assumed that anyone eager to see the movie ipso facto wants companies like those to have even greater power. The other insisted that Rand’s readers are a pack of “Republicans and tea-baggers” who only like Rand because they’re mostly unaware she was an “evil” woman and an atheist. As he came back with additional comments, it became clear he thought this blog was also by and for those very same benighted “Republicans and tea-baggers,” despite evidence to the contrary.

Yeah, all that just because I opined that the trailer was boffo and I wanted to see the film. Whew. That’s a lot of conclusion-jumping. That’s like assuming that everybody who enjoys Hitchcock’s Psycho wants to keep his dead mother in the basement.

Bagge notes that there’s some poetic justice to knee-jerk Rand hatred; the ghost of Rand is reaping what she sowed in life — sneering contempt for any opinions that weren’t in lockstep with hers. (This is, after all, the woman who told Murray Rothbard he should divorce his wife and get a more “rational” spouse, simply because Mrs. Rothbard wasn’t an atheist.) Was Rand capable of being one very unpleasant, destructive person? From everything written about her by her one-time friends, I’d say you betcha. Does that make her novels evil? Heck, if all art were evaluated on the basis of creators’ character, there’d be precious little to like. From Caravaggio to Lord Byron to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jackson Pollock, artists and writers have tended to be … well, let’s just say not the nicest or most well-balanced folks.

But I find it hard to laugh at the jerking of the knees, whether from right or left or someplace else in the universe. I’ve lamented before: Whatever happened to an appreciation for nuance? Whatever happened to thoughtful analysis? Whatever happened to critical thinking and for that matter, gaining some knowledge of a subject before speaking out? I don’t care what “side” somebody takes; black-and-white thinking, and the jerking of the knees that goes with it, are not conducive to freedom.

Freedom is best served by considering the other guy’s point of view — or at least recognizing that he has a point of view that may not be “evil” even if it differs from yours — and may not be so stereotyical that you can judge it — and him — in 10 seconds flat based on the thinnest scrap of evidence.


  1. Scott
    Scott February 16, 2011 3:54 pm

    In seventh grade(gonna date myself-this was in 1974), I was told by an English teacher that “Science fiction wasn’t literature”,and lost one of my Asimov short story collections to her. The whole class got a rant about “trash”and what sort of people read it(using my captured Asimov collection as a prop). She never defined literature, though.Other than breathing the same atmosphere mix,we had little in common.Do you suppose she ever actually read any science fiction? I will give her credit though-she didn’t fail me.

  2. Pat
    Pat February 16, 2011 4:26 pm

    Occasionally I save a cartoon on my computer. I just saved the Peter Bagge one on Rand. It is so true. (And equally true of general reaction to libertarianism. It’s usually the people who know least about a subject who yell the loudest against it.)

    I’m surprised the boy’s teacher admitted she hadn’t read Atlas Shrugged. I wonder if she *will* read it now.

  3. Sherry Pisacano
    Sherry Pisacano February 16, 2011 4:35 pm

    Claire, I’m a socially and politically liberal gal who couldn’t agree with you more on this. Although I disagree with you sometimes, I have to say you’ve changed my mind on more than one occasion. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and would recommend them to everyone. Love them or hate them, they’ll will get you thinking, and isn’t that what we want from everyone, not matter where they stand?

  4. Claire
    Claire February 16, 2011 4:51 pm

    LOL, Pat. That’s a good question about the boy’s teacher. I suspect if she did read it, she would undertake the enterprise with such built-in disdain that nothing would change her preconception. My friends did quite a bit of eye-rolling about her and said (not in these exact words) that they were turning this into a valuable lesson in how to deal with fools.

    BTW, I also apologize. I spelled Bagge wrong in my initial post and just corrected it.

    Scott … sigh. What a maroon! But I wonder how many other kids (boys, especially) have had their reading material dissed by schoolmarms? That was cruel of her to go after you in class, besides everything else. I’m guessing it didn’t stop you from reading SF for one minute, though …

  5. Claire
    Claire February 16, 2011 5:39 pm

    Oh, Sherry Pisacano — thank you and bless you for your open-mindedness. Yes, you’ve got it, reading books from viewpoints we may not agree with can be enriching; even if we end up hating them, they give an opportunity to challenge and sharpen our own views, and possibly better understand ourselves.

    And please, please feel free to speak up if you disagree with me on a subject you care about. Much though I love to be patted on the back, sometimes I need to be kicked in the ass. 🙂

  6. Brian
    Brian February 16, 2011 5:50 pm

    I went to a Roman Catholic boy’s high school some 35 years ago. At the time, Andy Warhol’s Dracula was playing at a local theater, an X-rated film. In school I was taking German as a language class and mentioned to the teacher that I and two classmates had been to see the film.

    No, we didn’t receive the reaction you’d expect. The teacher, a young, lay female, made us give a report in German on the film. She was very open-minded. I don’t know how she managed to get a teaching job at a Catholic school. No classmates were prudish enough to complain to the school administeration.

    Also, we all were under the mistaken belief that Warhol was a German name. I believe it’s Slovakian.

  7. Winston
    Winston February 16, 2011 6:58 pm

    I might as well confess…Much as I’ve been meaning to I still haven’t gotten more than about a hundred pages into Atlas Shrugged. I don’t think it’s bad but I just haven’t been able to get into it, something else always comes along and I put it off. I kinda wish she HAD just written a manifesto instead of wrapping it in an overrated novel.

    But I bet if when I was in high school and one of my teachers told me how eeeeevil it was, I’d have had it read and studied in a couple days…

  8. Ellendra
    Ellendra February 16, 2011 9:08 pm

    Never managed to read Atlas myself (I think I got all of 10 pages in and got distracted by a more entertaining book). But, I also lament the lack of nuanced thinking. Personally, I find it amazing the number of people who, if asked, would deny thinking of themselves as psychic, but who start off their arguments with “That’s because YOU think . . . “

  9. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal February 16, 2011 10:38 pm

    I started reading Atlas Shrugged several years ago, and lost interest after maybe a hundred pages or so- my world was in the process of turning upside down at the time and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. A couple of years later, when my world once again came completely unraveled, I picked up the book again, and could hardly put it down. Why the difference? I don’t know.

  10. EN
    EN February 17, 2011 1:22 am

    I read it in the late 1960s and it’s probably the reason I’m reading here today. It’s not the kind of book that those with a small vocabulary can easily read. It’s a struggle just trying to digest the two or three big ideas on each page. However, it’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    My one complaint has always been that our socialist elements had never been able to ruin the US economy, generally supported individual freedom, and the Soviet Union didn’t collapse from internal contradictions… One on the way, one a given, and one a fact.

    I saw her speak at some point in the 1970s and she claimed the Soviet Union was a rotting body and near death. It’s seemed laughable. She was an incredibly reasonable and forceful speaker. An intellectual heavyweight. However, I wasn’t sure she was correct at the time.

    Of course this is the kind of book that can cause a Democrat Party/Christian/progressive head to explode. It’s a very logical book right down to the end game for guvment-biddness partnership. If you’re a socialist there’s no scarier refutation of your believes on earth. It’s worse than blasphemy, it’s reason.

  11. It's Me
    It's Me February 17, 2011 6:52 am

    I was debating someone yesterday and of course said the way to handle things is through non-violence, instead of the government. Their responce? That the way I would handle it isn’t efficient and that’s why libertarianism is “bankrupt”, efficiency takes a backseat to ideology. I guess the ends do justify the means right? Right?

    To quote Peter Tosh, talking about govenment, “everything you do upside down”. That’s pretty much it. People who are for non-violence are looked upon as being the bad ones.

    Haven’t read anything by Rand. Atlas Shrugged is certainly on my list, but there’s more I’d rather read. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and 1984 I have a hard time seeing Rand topping.

  12. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty February 17, 2011 8:00 am

    One of the first books my mother gave me was “The Incredible Bread Machine.”

    Having just discovered at this link how much my old copy might be worth, I’m going to go looking for it! YIKES.

    I don’t even remember much about it, but that it contributed to a lifelong pursuit of liberty and reason.

  13. William Stone III
    William Stone III February 17, 2011 8:05 am

    I would only stress your final point: consider the notion that the other guys has a point of view.

    The hubris of government itself is based on the notion that someone else knows enough to make decisions that effect the lives of millions.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Every few years, people who believe that they personally know the lives and habits of others so well that they should make decisions for them are sent to various governments, at the local, State and Federal level. They always assume — and somehow convince others — that they truly know better than those they purport to represent.

    And again, nothing could be further from the truth.

    This basic hubris is precisely why government in general always fails, and more specifically why we find ourselves exactly where we stand today.

    There is now no one who runs for any office at any level of government who does not believe that they know best for everyone, and that they personally shouldn’t be running the entire world.

    This is a kind of sociopathic narcissism, plain and simple. Nor will it change, because no one who isn’t such a person has any interest in the reigns of power concentrated in government.

  14. Jake MacGregor
    Jake MacGregor February 17, 2011 8:22 am

    if a knee jerks in a forest of gov’t/media/academic jerks can it still kick you in the ass?



  15. Victor Milan
    Victor Milan February 17, 2011 11:54 am

    “That’s like assuming that everybody who enjoys Hitchcock’s Psycho wants to keep his dead mother in the basement.” – Excellent! Brava! Brava!

    To the point and hilarious.

  16. Richard Clark
    Richard Clark February 17, 2011 4:48 pm

    So much for this Backwoods Home FB page promoting freedom of expression (I’m not talking about your excellent blogging Claire).

    All my comments were removed from the front page because I disagreed with the right-wing slant of some of the posts. One poster said he blamed the rape of journalist Lara Logan on the Muslim mindset. I rebutted this and said fundamentalist Christians are just as gulity of patriarchal force upon women.

    I was about to re-subscribe to BHM after several years, but after this, no way! Seems no diversity of thought is allowed unless you’re a FAUX News junkie and a die-hard right-winger.

    Thanks Claire for letting me post this.

  17. Claire
    Claire February 17, 2011 4:53 pm

    Richard Clark — I’m sorry that any such thing happened to you. Removing someone’s posts for honest and civil disagreement doesn’t seem like something BHM would do. Would you mind if I made some queries about what happened?

    Thanks for your graciousness toward me and for being a good sport.

  18. Richard Clark
    Richard Clark February 17, 2011 4:53 pm

    I’ve also been blocked from posting on the Backwoods Home Magazine Facebook Page!

    Fascism is reigning there even worse than FOX.

  19. Claire
    Claire February 17, 2011 4:58 pm

    Richard, I’m going to go ahead and ask Oliver, the webmaster here, about this unless I hear some objection from you. I don’t know whether he has any connection to the BHM Facebook page (I’ve never visited there), but he’s the resident tech guru, so he’ll probably know what’s up.

  20. Ron Johnson
    Ron Johnson February 17, 2011 8:42 pm

    Most people come to Rand with the world view that we owe our lives to our kids/spouses/church/community/ethnicity/class/nation/fuhrer. So when Rand sketches out a world in which a person may live for their own happiness, it strikes many people as fundamentally wrong…even evil. Some of us, however, come to see that Rand was right: that any society built on guilt and sacrifice will end up as a tyranny of rulers and ruled. The rulers will not have to force us into chains, we will put them on willingly because we OWE it to_____(fill in the blank).

    With large numbers of Americans asking to submit to government health care, or TSA x-rays, or random bag checks, or additional taxes, or Patriot Act intrusions, or mandatory public service, all for the good of the country, I know Rand was on to something. It is the unearned guilt that provides Washington with the levers that control and direct us.

    Atlas Shrugged was an in-your-face argument against unearned guilt. Even though I doubt most of my liberal (or conservative) friends intellectually understood that point when (or if) they read the book, they surely felt it at an emotional level. I believe that is the reason for the recent spate of irrational and over-the-top attacks on Rand, the book, and the movie. Atlas turns their world view on its’ head, and self-sacrifice and self interest switch places in the moral hierarchy. Thus they lash out at Rands life, selected odd or contradictory positions she took, awkward or stilted passages in the book…but they always fail to deal with the underlying challenge to their unacknowledged philosophy.

    I hope the movie can live up to the book. So far, it looks promising.

  21. Dana
    Dana February 17, 2011 9:18 pm

    My (government) High School English teacher *assigned* The Fountainhead. It was the first I’d ever heard of Rand. Go figure.

    Still haven’t gotten around to actually reading Atlas Shrugged.

  22. LM
    LM February 18, 2011 3:32 pm

    “[C]ardboard characters, thudding prose, weird sex, and speechifying figures who don’t know the meaning of the word ‘brevity’.” All true, but also all of secondary importance. As a novelist, Rand’s true genius was not in her heroes but in her villains. They give one a glimpse into the mind of beaucratic types who claim (and may even believe) that they are only trying to do good when the reality is that they do immeasurable harm. Breeze through the “speechifying” and turgid exposition if you like, but do pay attention to the words and actions of the villains.

  23. Claire
    Claire February 18, 2011 4:27 pm

    Interesting point, LM! I never thought of it that way.

    I have mixed feelings about Rand’s characterizations of heroes and villains. On one hand, both are ridiculously broad. All the heroes are Dudley Dooright; I expect their teeth to glint in the sun. All the villains, with their weak names (Mouch, Cuffy), slouching bodies, and propensity for meeting in dark places … well, I expect them to start drooling at any minute. OTOH, I’ve always been in love with Francisco D’Anconia, who I think is one of the most underappreciated tragic figures in all literature (not that Rand, or for that matter, Francisco, would accept my characterization of him as tragic; but so he seems to me). And for a “cardboard character” Hank Rearden is wonderfully conflicted. I also think the Wet Nurse and Eddie Willers are powerfully portrayed, very true characters.

    I think you’re right about the villains being realistic in pretending to go good while doing harm — and in the way they destroy (or coopt) good people and good companies. But I think the world would have been better served (NOT that Rand wanted to “serve” the world!) by showing villains who could also appear attractive when they were rotten inside. That might help some people realize that some real-world politician or political spokesthing who looks handsome and speaks smoothly can, in his heart of hearts, be a Mouch or a Cuffy. Instead, how often are people fooled by appearances …?

    Well, we’d get fooled by appearances no matter what Rand did with her characters. But the villains would have been better had they not all looked (in my mind) like Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 🙂

  24. Pat
    Pat February 18, 2011 6:02 pm

    Re Rand’s characters: I agree the villians were too broadly drawn. But the man I could never wrap my head around was in “The Fountainhead” — namely, Gail Wynand.

    He was too smart to make the mistake he did; he should have seen through his own rationalization. He’s the most complex of all Rand’s characters, I think — the “good guy” who isn’t, the potential hero with misplaced value system who couldn’t (apparently) see through the second-hander that he was.

  25. Eric Oppen
    Eric Oppen February 20, 2011 8:32 pm

    Hi, Claire! After a spell of computer trouble, I’m back!

    My take on AS is that Rand tried to do much too much in one book. I’d have rather she concentrated on the Twentieth Century Motor Company, and gone with that. (A friend of mine who reads my fanfics carried on a very interesting e-correspondence with me about that…she pointed out that one innocent sufferer from the Starnes heirs’ idiocy was Millie Bush, something I hadn’t thought of.)

    One trouble with a lot of “freedom novels” at least IMO, is that the authors feel that they have to get in swipes at _everything_ that bugs them…gun control, mandatory vaccination, the TSA, and ten other things at once. This (again only IMO) can and does detract from these books.

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