For my money, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is one of the most important books of our age. It’s not important because it's great literature (it’s not) but because it exposed one of the most deeply rooted aspects of America’s (and the world’s) Collective Shadow in a reasonably entertaining and effective way.
As a reminder, the Shadow is those parts of ourselves (usually basic but socially unacceptable human desires) that were shamed out of us at an early age and with which we no longer consciously identify. In essence, we deny that these parts still exist within us.
The problem with the Shadow is that dis-identifying with these desires doesn’t actually rid us of them but instead simply forces them into our subconscious (the “Shadow”) where they continue to run the show in the background. In this manner what was once a conscious desire that was somewhat subject to our conscious control becomes an unrecognized one that’s not.
Once in the Shadow, our innate selfishness is no longer subject to conscious control because it's now entirely invisible to us, hidden under layers and layers of denials. This denied selfishness then causes us to pursue our selfish objectives unknowingly, deceitfully, manipulative, and passive-aggressively rather than, as was the case before, knowingly, openly, honestly, and transparently. Once it's forced into the Shadow, we can no longer be intentional about our selfishness.
How does Shadow's selfishness rear its ugly head? In many ways, but most often by convincing ourselves that we are motivated by purely altruistic concerns (even when we are in fact acting very selfishly), by convincing ourselves that the persons being harmed by our selfishness are “bad” or “don’t deserve what they have”, or (closely related to the last one) by adopting an entitled victim mentality.
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Atlas Shrugged is essentially a morality play that very effectively illustrates how looters and moochers, blinded to their own greed, are actually far more selfish, far more self-deceived, and do far more harm than those who, like the book’s heroes (John Galt, Hank Rearden, Dagney Taggert, and Francisco D’Anconia), are openly and transparently (but also very honestly) self-interested.
Alas, we presently live in a society organized and run by looters and moochers, and we are witnessing the destructive results of that first hand, results that the book so accurately predicted. Being openly and transparently self-interested is nearly everywhere demonized today in favor of more dishonest and deceitfully selfish strategies (humble bragging, playing the victim, attacking the producers of wealth as “evil” and “undeserving”, etc.). We see these dishonest forms of selfishness literally everywhere in our modern culture—in government, in churches, at schools, on social media, and in our personal interactions with others.
Gordon Gecko was actually right when he said:
The problem with Gordon Gecko wasn’t his selfish greed, it's that he pursued that greed dishonestly and deceitfully, as self-deceived looters and moochers always do, rather than openly, transparently, and honestly like the heroes of “Atlas Shrug” did. The movie “Wall Street” is wrongly viewed as a condemnation of selfishness, but it's not. It’s a condemnation of deluded, deceitful looters.
So long as we refuse to be open, honest, and transparent about our own selfish desires and needs—that is, so long as these desires remain in our Shadows—we will become increasingly manipulative, deceitful, and dishonest like Gordon Gecko. Only when we are willing to openly acknowledge our selfishness to ourselves and to others, and to pursue our selfish desires honestly and transparently, will we then enjoy some modicum of control over them. Only then can we ensure that our innate selfishness plays out honestly and transparently and in ways that ultimately benefit ourselves and the collective.
“Atlas Shrugged” is an effective litmus test for just how deep one’s selfishness has been pushed into the Shadow. Those without a selfish Shadow will generally enjoy the book or, at a minimum, be somewhat neutral to it. If they criticize it, such criticism will generally be rooted in its long-windednes or lack of literary merit. But those who viscerally disdain its message and attack it on that basis, and they are legion, are almost certainly among those with the darkest and most selfish of Shadows.
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