Monday, January 25, 2010

Who is John Galt?

During the July 4th Tea Party in Indianapolis, I sat quietly next to my homemade sign, crouching under my orange poncho to protect myself from the rain. The sign read, "Who is John Galt?" in bold letters. I had also pasted two pictures on the sign, one of author Ayn Rand and another of the hardcover version of her famous novel Atlas Shrugged.

A young woman walked up to me. “I have that book on my shelf but I haven’t picked it up yet. Can you tell me in one sentence why I should read the book?”

What a challenge. One sentence describing a novel that is over 1000 pages long. I should have expected that such a question would be asked…and by a young person. Atlas Shrugged was written over fifty years ago and has experienced a revival lately because it seemed to predict what would happen in our country once a collectivist government gained power.

The question caused me to pause. Not only was I surprised by it but I also wanted to give an answer that fulfilled her request. I wanted her to read the novel. So after a few seconds, I answered: “It’s a story about a man who discovered that one idea is destroying the world; it tells you what that idea is and how he was able to defeat it.”

I looked at her face to see whether I had lit a spark. “Are you going to read it?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said and walked away with her friends.

I first read Atlas Shrugged during a two-week layover in Fort Gordon, Georgia. I had just completed my advanced training as a Radio Teletype Operator in the U.S. Army and was waiting for orders to learn whether I would spend my active duty tour in Vietnam or some other part of the world. During this period, I devoured the book, making sure I took time to digest some of the ideas that I could apply to my own life – ideas, the likes of which I had never encountered in any other book. The person who had recommended Ayn Rand to me some 6 years earlier had told me that Rand challenged the entire Judeo-Christian philosophy (the only philosophy I knew at the time) and that she would change my life.

The central character of the novel is John Galt, a mysterious man hiding in the background throughout most of the novel. The story follows the heroine, Dagny Taggart, as she struggles to learn his identity and why he seems to be destroying the world. While pursuing this “villain” she is also on a quest to find the man she loves, an ideal that seems impossible in the world of her day that is crumbling economically and fast becoming a dictatorship. The slogan, “Who is John Galt?” is on everyone’s lips, a sort of fad that people utter at strange times; in moments of despair mostly, when people are afraid for their future.

The time period portrayed in the novel is one when people are asking questions that don’t seem to have an answer such as “What is wrong with the world?” The answer is another question: “Who is John Galt?” It means, “Who knows?” or “How can anyone know?” Some people think they have the answer: He is a man who “would stop the motor of the world” or he is the man who found the island of Atlantis. Like a grey ghost, John Galt seems to hang over the land, a faceless avenging angel whose curse brings failure and decline. Every government scheme to "make things better" accomplishes the opposite of its intent and few know why society is descending further into malaise.

Needless to say, the book did change my life. It kept me from becoming a 60s radical influenced by Karl Marx and made me into a radical for capitalism. It started a quest for me to understand philosophy, economics, human psychology and the Founding Fathers. I read everything I could that was written by Ayn Rand and other thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises, Leonard Peikoff, Henry Hazlitt, Hannah Arendt and Isabel Patterson to name a few. Although Rand stands alone above all other thinkers for me, my quest for knowledge has been well-rewarded.

Fast forward to September 12, 2009; Washington DC, me and my “Who is John Galt?” sign again. Through out the events of that day, I never had so many conversations about Atlas Shrugged. From people who just gave me the thumbs up to people who said they loved the book; to people who were wearing Ayn Rand T-shirts, this day was a spectacular event that made me realize I was not alone in loving freedom and liberty. I saw an old friend from my Florida days, Wendy, who asked me about the novel and I met Robert Tracinski, a great freedom writer whose sign read “Brother, you ain’t my Keeper.” Another young man told me that he had not read a single book since graduating from college and was now reading Atlas Shrugged and loved it.

Two encounters stand out as special in my mind. One took place as we gathered before our walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I was sitting on a bench listening to the speakers and reading the colorful signs all around me. At this point my sign was still out of sight in my plastic bag. A lady sat on the bench next to me and we started talking about various topics that had to do with where we were from and why we were here. We had chatted for about ½ hour when I asked to see her sign. To our amazement, we both had signs that said “Who is John Galt?” Kay, a lawyer from Nebraska, is now a Facebook friend. The second encounter happened, later, on the lawn at the Capitol Building; a lady walked up to me and asked me "Who is John Galt?" and I pointed out to the huge crowd: “They are.”

I’ve had conversations over the years about Ayn Rand’s characters and the most common complaint is that they are too perfect. “No one is like that. Dagny is the greatest woman on earth. Galt is the greatest man on earth.” I think this sort of complaint misses the point that Rand clearly knew. Idealized fictional characters serve as positive role models for readers. They present us with clearly-drawn examples of what people can be. They demonstrate, if they are consistently portrayed, the relationship between thought and action. They are normative in nature and can teach us important lessons. Those who criticize Rand’s characters for being too perfect are betraying their own conviction that they do not want to be morally perfect…or that they can’t be. Rather than find inspiration from a character that pursues reason, they would rather believe that such a person is impossible; that one should instead spend one’s life in pursuit of whims and disconnected actions animated by a lack of purpose.

I believe Ayn Rand’s portrayal of idealized and morally perfect characters is one of the reasons her novels are still popular today, and why after more than 50 years since Atlas Shrugged, people are still debating her ideas. Rand suggests that you should "discover" morality, not return to a philosophy that makes morality impossible. In some respects, Rand is now making her characters into reality. Today, John Galt is a Tea Party protester.

In fact, he started the Tea Parties. He was a man who saw, in the idea of sacrifice, the very principle that is destroying our nation. He vowed to fight against the idea that man should spend the precious moments of his life living for others. Rand would say, instead, pursue happiness; it is not evil, it is the end in itself to which your thoughts and actions should be dedicated. The fact that the government today demands that each person give up his life, time, work and production against his will is the reason why people still ask the question, “Who is John Galt?” It is the reason they started the Tea Parties.

What can we learn from the character of John Galt? John Galt represents a philosophy of success and achievement. If your time is not taken up by hard work and dedication toward high will not achieve the highest possible to you. If you don't hold a passion for high values, your future will be made up of failure and confusion. If you don’t rebel against the idea that man is a sacrificial animal, you deserve the kind of society you get.

If you know that you survive by the use of your mind, if you have taken it upon yourself to be self-reliant, if you know you have a right to keep the rewards of your work and enjoy your success, if you use your own mind and love that use, then you too will shudder at the thought of living in a society that demands “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

John Galt and the American citizen, when faced with the demands of slavery, both said, “Enough!”

No comments:

Post a Comment