Property Rights in The Odyssey

I finished Homer’s Odyssey a few weeks ago, and something that impressed me in its second, domestic half is just how consistent the politics are.

Everyone knows the story: Odysseus returns home but must hide from the army of suitors that’s been leeching off of his fortune and abusing his family.  He must use his wits to trap and slay them all.

I was discouraged at first upon seeing just how many pages there were between the famous journey with its monsters and the final slaughter at the end.  It’s several sections long.

But as a middle-aged, middle class husband and father, those sections spoke to me most of all.

That kingdom, with its wealth and people, belonged to Odysseus.  The suitors had no right to encroach upon it, but not only did they do so, they did so with horrifying arrogance.  When Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, asks for the basic care that custom required for a stranger, they react with shock that anyone would dare to ask for some of “their” riches.  They sounded like trust fund babies.

Odysseus, on the other hand, when assailed by another beggar who doesn’t want Odysseus moving in on his handout racket, says that they’re both welcome to prosper as their luck and effort dictate, and berates him with this: “You’ve got no call to grudge me what’s not yours!” (Book 18, line 22).  The beggar has a scarcity mentality; Odysseus’ worldview saw agency and abundance.  The beggar resented and feared the success of others, and violently demanded his “fair share,” while Odysseus was content to live and let live.

And when the hour of reckoning came, and Odysseus was beginning to slaughter the suitors in the locked room, their leader’s plea is typical:

“So spare your own people! Later we’ll recoup

your costs with a tax laid down on the land,

covering all we ate and drank in your halls…” (Book 22, lines 57-59)

…only then suggesting that they themselves also offer something for that collection.

They expected the productive class to bail them out with a reactionary tax hike!

I think the political implications of The Odyssey are clear.  “Suitors.”  Ayn Rand would have called them by a better name: looters.

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Animal Farm Shrugged

I just read chapter seven of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegory for the disastrous early years of the Soviet Union, and noted this passage:

One Sunday Squealer announced that the hens, who had just come in to lay again, must surrender their eggs….When the hens heard this, they raised a terrible outcry….they protested that to take away their eggs now was murder.  For the first time since the expulsion of Jones, there was something resembling a rebellion.  Led by three young Black Minorca pullets, the hens made a determined effort to thwart Napoleon’s wishes.  Their method was to fly up to the rafters and there lay their eggs, which smashed to pieces on the floor. 

After which the tyrannical leaders cut their rations and starve the hens into submission.  So much for striking!

But the manner of their strike seems especially interesting to me: they deliberately destroy the beloved products of their own industry rather than see them fall into the hands of the looting collectivists.  The centralized authority that arrogates to itself confiscatory rights is clearly the villain here, and the heroes must make “a determined effort to thwart [the government’s] wishes.”  Further commentary on eminent domain or punitive taxation is probably unnecessary.

So there you have it: mildly socialistic George Orwell writing a scene that would have made Ayn Rand proud.

Ayn Rand and the Book of Mormon

Reviewing my favorite quotes from Atlas Shrugged last week reminded me of an interesting connection between it and the Book of Mormon.  This quote from Atlas Shrugged (1957): 

“You see, Dr. Stadler, people don’t want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think. But by some sort of instinct, they feel that they ought to and it makes them feel guilty. So they’ll bless and follow anyone who gives them a justification for not thinking. Anyone who makes a virtue–a highly intellectual virtue–out of what they know to be their sin, their weakness and their guilt.”  (322)

makes essentially the same pessimistic point about human nature as this quote from the Book of Mormon (1830):

But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet.

Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.  (Helaman 13:27-28)

Perhaps this is an example of the principle explained in Alma 29:8?

The Atlas Shrugged Quote Book

Recently I talked with someone who would love Ayn Rand’s prophetic dystopian classic, Atlas Shrugged, but she was daunted by its immense size.  That’s unfortunate, and it made me want to do this as a teaser to invite people in.  By no means is this a “condensed” summary of the novel, but it is a collection of my favorite, representative quotes. 

I went through my copy of the book, and I typed up the passages I’d marked which were short and especially relevant.  I had to skip ones that were long (though I did include one whole paragraph below), and items that were simply examples of excellent writing.  My choices focus on the life-affirming aspects of the text, its insistence on patriotism and how Rand’s vision brings joy to life.  Most of the quotes about music, education, and political criticism had to be left out–I wanted my collection to be no more than three pages long, and that’s what it is.  This collection represents about a quarter of what I have marked in my copy. 

The page numbers refer to the mass market paperback edition, which I believe is still the current edition in print. 

Enjoy this introduction to the awesome world of Atlas Shrugged

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“We who hold the love and the secret of joy, to what punishment have we been sentenced for it, and by whom?” (69)

“The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.” (89)

“Francisco, what’s the most depraved type of human being?”

“The man without a purpose.” (98)

“One is not supposed to be intellectual at a ball. One is simply supposed to be gay.”

“How? By being stupid?” (102)

“Then why do you want to struggle for years, squeezing out your gains in the form of pennies per ton–rather than accept a fortune for Rearden Metal? Why?”

“Because it’s mine.” (172)

“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” (188)

“He’s the looter who thinks that his end justifies his seizure of my means.” (189, first appearance of term “looter” in text)

Continue reading

Executive Unions

Here’s how we could make Atlas Shrugged really happen: if the workers of America get to unionize so they can push around the leaders, why don’t the leaders unionize and (pardon the pun) show the employees who’s boss?

Every executive, manager, business owner, innovator, and inventor in the country could join this national union, and when they are treated unfairly by their employees, who pitch a hissy fit any time their entitlements are questioned, the Executive Union could go on strike and–presto!–Atlas Shrugged.

The Executive Union could even negotiate their own set of entitlements–things that their hourly laborers will have to honor on pain of being penalized. For example, workers might have to exercise and diet outside of work to remain in peak working condition.

How could such requirements be equal to what unions make employers do now? Although most laborers work for an hourly wage, clocking in and punching out, so that their job is just a concern eight hours a day, innovators, managers, and owners are “on the clock” 24/7. For many, their job is their life.

Thus, if employee unions get to picket during their work shifts, shouldn’t employer unions get to make requirements–and picket their employees–during their private lives? Bosses could interrupt games, parties, and bar-b-ques to give their employees a taste of their own medicine.

<irony> Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to coerce someone into making personal sacrifices for the convenience of someone else, would it? </irony>

My Ten Most Influential Books

After reading this great post about the ten books that most influenced an author over at First Thoughts (one of my favorite blogs) a few weeks ago, I’ve been working on my own list.  The list changed drastically over a few drafts, and I’ve been surprised by the final results.

These are not necessarily my favorite books (though many of them are), nor are they what I’d consider the best books I’ve read (though, again, some of them are).  These are the books that have most contributed to who I am today.  For better or for worse, these are the ones that stuck with me, changed me, that left some deep imprint impossible to explain me now without. 

The only caveat here is that I decided not to include any scripture on this list.  For it to be accurate, they should be on here, but I ran into too many problems.  Should I count them all as one monolithic book called “Scripture,” separate them into Standard Works, or separate them even further into individual texts by author?  The more I broke them down, the more I had to wrangle with how to rank them.  It got too thorny, and I just decided to ignore that altogether for this list.

The original list at First Thoughts, along with many of the comments afterwards, cheated by doubling up on books and squeezing more than ten onto these “top ten” lists.  This draft has significantly fewer than my first couple, but I’ve still elected to cheat, also.  My top ten list has twelve titles.  If you really want to be a purist, cut off the last two. 

I’ve listed them here roughly in order of just how much they’ve shaped me, and I’ve included the general period in my life when I read them. 

1.  Hugh Nibley, Nibley On the Timely and the Timeless (college).  This isn’t my favorite Nibley book (his Book of Mormon works or Approaching Zion would probably get that nod), but this “greatest hits” collection deeply impressed me at the time with its range of classical literacy to social criticism to studious, spiritual discipleship.  It was the first Nibley book I read cover to cover, and started me on the path to the rest of his oeuvre.  The way that I read scripture, study history, and understand the practical relations between things ancient, esoteric, and pragmatically modern are all heavily influenced by his life and work (though, since reading his biography–which I took with me to read on my honeymoon because it had just come out and I couldn’t wait to start it–I have attenuated this idolizing a bit and tried to expand my circle of influence).  Undeniably, his books have had more of a profound effect on me than any other.  I bought an old copy from E-bay several years ago…right before it was reprinted in a new edition.

2.  Hopkins and Sugerman, No One Here Gets Out Alive (high school).  I owe this one to my older brother.  Like all boys, I worshipped my older brother, so when I was old enough to emulate his adoration of classic rock, I followed suit.  I came across this biography of Doors frontman Jim Morrison and devoured it.  For a moody, pretentious adolescent, it provided a role model worthy of my own egomaniacal imagination.  This book’s influence reached far beyond my devoted memorizing of every note on the legendary Best of the Doors two CD set.  Even back then, I would read biographies with an eye especially keen for what great people had done at my age.  Morrison had been, above all, a voracious, even a ferocious, reader, and a nascent poet. 

My own forays into poetry reading and writing were not terribly productive (though I still like The Lords and the New Creatures), the titles and authors cited by Hopkins and Sugerman as formative on Morrison–James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, the Romantics and French Symbolists–became my bread and butter for years, and sprouted branches of further influence that still dominate what I read today.  Though I certainly no longer emulate Morrison or his lifestyle, I can’t deny that this book has had a huge impact on me over the years.  Just last week I was flipping through radio stations and heard “L.A. Woman,” and I fondly paused to listen to some of it.  This book may be dormant, but it is in my DNA.  Continue reading

Is Harry Reid Secretly A Conservative Saboteur?

I think I finally get it. I understand why Harry Reid is pushing so aggressively for this health care reform.

Remember Atlas Shrugged? Besides John Galt, the capitalist superman recruiting strikers behind the scenes, another freedom fighter was Francisco D’Anconia, who paraded as a worthless playboy so nobody would suspect him of helping to sabotage the whole economic system, overloading it and destabilizing it from within.

Maybe that’s what Reid is doing. As D’Anconia was pretending to be a thoughtless hedonist, Reid might just be pretending to be a clueless elitist. Perhaps Reid is actually a conservative and this is his way of destroying the corrupt, bloated, ineffective machinery of government that progressives have built up over the last century: he’s going to put so much weight on the shaky framework that liberals have constructed that it will finally have to collapse in on itself, exposing the whole thing as a scam and allowing us to start over.

Think about it: if a Randian hero were working undercover to subvert our broken system, a la D’Anconia, wouldn’t this health care bill be exactly the way to do it? Wouldn’t Harry Reid be in the perfect position to throw a great big wrench in the gears?

Maybe Reid knows exactly what he’s doing. Maybe–just maybe–he’s championing a disastrously bad work of legislation on purpose.

Brilliant.

And, Senator, if this is actually true and I’ve just blown your cover…sorry.

The Las Vegas Children’s Book Festival

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The Las Vegas Children's Book Festival, November 7, 2009

Yesterday, for the second year in a row, my wife and I took the kids to the annual Children’s Book Festival, sponsored by Target and part of the city’s larger Vegas Valley Book Festival. 

We agreed that out of all the local events we go to, this is our favorite. 

It’s held in the beautiful Centennial Plaza, which is hidden away downtown across the street from the federal courthouse, somehow all but invisible from the surrounding areas.  Parking was close, easy, free, and convenient.  Dozens of booths offered kids free books from charitable contributors, as well as private authors hawking their own excellent work, and crafts, gifts, and other activities thrown in for more fun.  Kids can get some free books, get their faces painted, and dance to the music piped in for the performers on a nearby stage. 

We got our gift bags and made the rounds, starting with a couple of free snow cones, and meeting some characters in costumes as we went.  My wife quickly found copies of the two volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia that we’re missing being given away.  There was an area off in one courtyard for the “grown up” authors and readers, where authors were doing readings and autographs.  The kids made bookmarks and coloring books at an arts and crafts booth.  A booth sponsored by UNLV gave away posters for their sports teams.  (I got three basketball posters–one for the boys’ room, one for my classroom, and one for my garage.) 

At the end of our tour was a stand giving out Hebrew National hot dogs.  We passed a great reproduction of the liberty bell on our way over.  As we sat by a water fountain in the shade for our lunch, a local children’s orchestra started playing.  The toppings available for our dogs even included jalapenos, and these were the sweetest ones I’d ever tasted.  

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Two random children (possibly crazy people). Also, a big red dog.

I told my wife, “This is the kind of world I want my kids to grow up in,” then it got better: I noticed that the woman sitting next to us was wearing a T-shirt that said “Rearden Steel.”  I told her that I’m also a fan of Atlas Shrugged, and asked where she got the shirt.  She gave me a web site.  Here it is: www.johngaltgifts.com.

There were people there of many different races and ages, but clearly we all shared a love of reading.  There were plenty of people with multiple tattoos and piercings, but you know what?  I didn’t hear a single person swear.  Not once, the entire time.  Clearly, this cross-section of our diversity was the cream of the crop, the exceptions to my “judge a book by its cover” rule, and it made me happy that so much variety could exist when literacy and civility are the norm. 

Total cost of three hours of perfect family fun: zero dollars.

The weather was pleasant, the plaza was never crowded, and everything was spotless.  I hope this festival remains a secret.

Except for you.  I hope to see you there next year.  I’d like to enjoy this oasis of joy with my friends’ families. 

 

 

Defending Ayn Rand

atlasPoor Ayn Rand.  She’s taken her licks lately in the Bloggernacle, getting excoriated at By Common Consent.  Some have stepped up to defend her honor, conservative gentlemen they are, but there are still some important points to be made that I don’t think anybody has explained yet. 

Rand is criticized for three main things: that her philosophy promotes greed and selfishness, that she was militantly anti-religion, and that her writing is poor.  I’ll address each:

1.  On the title page of my personal copy of Atlas Shrugged, I copied this famous quote from Book IV, chapter 2 of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations:

Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it…he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more efficiently than when he really intends to promote it. 

Meaning, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism may seem selfish and greedy…but it results in a better world for all, a world more just, more prosperous, and more fair than any other system.  Continue reading