Saturday, January 06, 2007

Atlas Trembles After 50 Years

A chum on the staff of a couple of grocery-industry magazines I ran afterward wrote for a magazine for physicians. It had no medical content, rather it featured resorts, realty, jeweled watches and sybaritic restaurants. The docs had the dough. The service this maggy provided was a shortcut to keep them from having to research ways to use it for pleasure.

That tradition continues and expands. The Robb Report has been around for a long time. Even the New York Times is often self-parodying in featuring straight articles on treats for the thousands among the billions of us, amoral self-indulgence in $14,000 watches, $9,000 frocks, and $500 lunches for two.

Back when nasty Abe Rosenthal was Times managing editor, he spoke at a press conference announcing the paper's second cookbook. He seemed to think it was all pretty trivial, although, of course, he held that his rag did a better job of food coverage and he admitted there was money to be had from related advertisers.

As a moment of amusement, I asked him whether we'd read more from their great culinary writer Raymond Sokolov, whom Rosenthal tossed out, apparently for not being a lickspittle. Abe actually turned bright red, no mean feat for someone so wrinkled and stuffed into his suit. It was clear, "No," but he didn't raise his puffy fist or jerk back my free cookbook.

My chums who worked at the Times soon took to calling its Living section the Having section. Early on, it featured upper class and beyond diversions. Only a tiny fraction of its readership could spend at those rates, but apparently they, and the advertisers, subscribed to the daily fantasies.

For years following, the Sunday New York Times Magazine was likewise a catalog of the unobtainable for the insufferable. Lately, there is a bit of relief to find it has become a veritable apothecary for Boomers. It piles pseudo-articles upon each other in what we from print journalism call adver-whorials. The gray lady has found it can publish separate, perfect-b0und displays of extravagance many times a year in their own inserts.

This came up today when the Financial Times sloshed on the lawn. Inside was its own bagatelles-for-the-indolent insert, How to Spend It. Unlike the NYT, the FT has a tone of dry wit. Its editors know how absurd and unrealistic its features are, which you can tell from the risible title of the magazine.

Also, on the op-ed page, their U.K. companies editor, Charles Pretzlik, stomps and hoots to mark the 50 anniversary of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. (This column is available online only if you have a separate subscription to ft.com.)

I concur with his judgment that if you were fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with this 1000-page, cartoony diatribe, don't even think of picking it up. It is toxic to the immature and simple minded. In addition, Prerzlik notes that it has not aged well. As he puts it:
Its Manichean polarisation of consciously selfish, atheist producers and those who use regulation and guilt to rob them may have worked in the 1950s...Atlas's prose is rambling, often wooden; its length is self-indulgent. For chief executives who have got this far without reading it, here is a Randian tip; do something more profitable.
As well as confessing to grocery-magazine editorship, I must say that as at 14, I bought into Randism. When you are that callow, caricatures of real humans and absolute reductions of complex situations to perfect virtue and extreme evil are very attractive. This becomes too seductive to resist when you couple with girlfriend or boyfriend who is also eager to act out these self-righteous roles. Philosophy plus hormones...

A favorite high-school teacher pulled me aside after a class to not-too-condescendingly explain that she had fallen into the same silly role play, but as a college student. When she said I'd grow out of it, as any good Randist, I insisted she was wrong and I knew better.

In fairness to Rand, she had a great turn of phrase (you immediately detested the industrialist she described as fat over the collar) and an excuse. She fled totalitarian Russia. Unfortunately, she then saw extreme and sudden risk of total loss of freedom in any slack in the ropes of capitalism and idealized freedom to act that she projected on America.

Forward 50 years to when Soviet Russia is no more. The mixed record of capitalism takes the absolute out of her now corny novels. In fact, it would be difficult now for the economically and historically educated to read her works without regular guffaws.

Note that that over six million copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold, and it is continuing at about 150,000 a year. Some CEOs still believe in it enough to gift it. In addition, a very influential Randist kept his hand on our nation's economic rudder for decades -- Alan Greenspan.

It is unlikely that anyone could update the economic morality play today. Perhaps we should hope not.

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