I recently did a story on a route clearance package, a platoon-sized element that searches for roadside bombs. The tedious 5 mph driving was finally interrupted when orders came down from higher command to dismount and recover a suspicious package from a field.
Afghans clustered at the perimeter of the field and watched us like we were alien invaders, which we technically were. I gave a couple of test waves; no one reciprocated.
Toward the end of the search a few of us waited on the far side of the field for those searching the opposite side to catch up. I couldn’t help but notice the soldier next to me had a name tape on his body armor that read “John Galt.”
“So, you’re an ‘Atlas Shrugged’ fan,” I said.
“It’s happening right now, brother,” he said, grinning.
You may be wondering, “What is Atlas Shrugged? Who is John Galt?” Both are creations of novelist/pseudo-philosopher Ayn Rand, who achieved the status of cult leader in the 1960s and still has a considerable following. Rand advocated unrestricted capitalism in a philosophy she called “Objectivism” in her novels, Anthem, The Fountainhead and, last but not least, the 1,200-plus page tome many of Rand’s fans consider her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.
Whereas economist Adam Smith and philosopher J.S. Mill justified libertarian policies by appealing to the common good, Rand recognizes no such thing as the common good in her ethics. For her, everything comes down to rational self-interest, even human relationships and sex.
Galt is a messianic character in Atlas Shrugged. As socialist cretins progressively screw up the world, Galt encourages industrialists to abandon the “looter” society and found an ideal, hyper-capitalist society in a hidden valley in Colorado. The book makes some good points about the dangers of collectivism but, in my opinion, also makes some unintentional points about the dangers of individualism.
When I read the book at age 18 it quite impressed me. Now that I have a bit more philosophy under my belt I think of Objectivism as a kind of intellectual chicken pox; most smart people get it when they’re young, but usually it runs its course before causing any permanent damage. Don’t get me wrong, I think Atlas Shrugged is well worth reading, just not as Holy Scripture.
Spc. Chris Wolfenbarger, or “Wolf,” who wears the John Galt name tape, thinks better of Objectivism. Once the mission was over, I located his hooch to continue our conversation.
“I’ve lived by the philosophy in her books my whole life, but I only read it (Atlas Shrugged ) 18 months ago,” said Wolf, a medic for the 1141st Engineer Co. (Sapper) of the Missouri National Guard and resident of Belton, Mo. Later, he added, “No one ever really converts to Objectivism—you either think that way or you don’t.”
Wolf read the book when he was 38 years old, recently married to his wife, Leah Sword-Wolfenbarger, and owner of two businesses in Missouri. He was tired of paying exorbitant taxes and decided that he would follow in the footsteps of the characters in Atlas Shrugged and stop supporting the looter system. So he joined the Army and volunteered for deployment with the 1141st. Now that he’s in a combat zone, everything he earns is completely tax-free.
“I am John Galt,” he said, without irony. “When all of the main characters of the book, the creative people, the movers of society, drop out… that’s what I did.”
I’m a little suspicious about this story. Wolf was impressed by the role the Louisiana National Guard played in restoring order to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He’s also got a very strong desire to help those in his platoon come home alive. He wants to keep his wife and stepchildren safe from terrorists. It’s hard for me to believe that altruism has nothing to do with these things, just as it’s hard for me to believe that Thomas Hobbes, the great-great grand-daddy of modern egoists, was not acting from altruism when he gave alms to a beggar.
Wolf disagrees: “It’s the point you always miss—it’s about sustainable self-interest and a society that allows for sustainable self-interest.”
Wolf very nearly made a convert of his fellow medic, Spc. Andrew Porter from Riverside, Mo., who recently finished Atlas Shrugged and said he feels a lot of sympathy for the ideas therein.
“I liked the book,” Porter said. “It takes a while to get into it, but at a certain point a light bulb comes on and you don’t stop until it’s finished.”
Nevertheless, Porter doesn’t consider himself an Objectivist.
“I’m not an Ayn Rand fan,” he said. “I’m a looter and proud to be.”
Although it’s a bit of a digression, I’d like to end by suggesting an idea for a sequel to Anthem, Rand’s first published novel. The original story is a dystopia about a society in which the singular first-person pronoun “I” has been forgotten about; there is nothing outside of “we.” A brilliant character finally escapes from the society and has a liberating epiphany at the discovery of the concept of the individual.
Here’s where my story begins: Suppose this same character wanders into John Galt’s valley several hundred years after Atlas Shrugged ended to find that there the word “we” has been forgotten about; as in an Obama speech, everything is “I.” Now the character has a second epiphany that Rand desperately needed but never achieved. He realizes that extreme individualism and extreme collectivism are both corrosive to the human soul.
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