Atlas of Victimology

Another of my teenage preoccupations comes to light:

Ayn Rand, Conservative Populists, and the Creed of Self-Immolation « Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society

I offer a reading of Atlas Shrugged, the novel that functions as the “gateway drug to life on the right,” especially for precocious teenagers. . . .

This explains why I call the Tea Partiers “Galtistas” and consider them to be immature and self-centered:

In his description of the “populist argumentative frame,” Michael Lee provides us with four attributes of populist reasoning: Populist rhetoric (1) invokes a virtuous people “portrayed as heroic defenders” of time-honored values (358); (2) identifies this rhetorically constituted people against a rhetorically constituted enemy “hoarding power” (359); (3) further compounds the enemy rhetoric by claiming to work against a “system” (like government or the economy) once virtuous but now “sullied” (360); and (4) expresses an “apocalyptic confrontation” or a “mythic battle” set in a political order on the verge of collapse (362). Running through these four strategies is a “narrative of victimization and redemption” that inverts the biblical soteriology by turning the congregation itself into the undeserving scapegoat (363).

Notice how the rights-based victimization rhetoric of the Galtistas contradicts biblical principles.

This rhetoric of victimhood is central to understanding the rhetorical situation of Atlas Shrugged as it provides aid and comfort to contemporary conservatives who see themselves as sacrificial victims of evil men and evil systems whose immoral incompetency is driving society to the edge of the abyss. . . .

For Burke, this “‘curative’ role of victimhood” (Rhetoric of Religion 4) explains all kinds of cultural animosities, both real and symbolic, as various groups demonize, antagonize, and ultimately seek to destroy their enemies in a move to purge the world of evil. . . .

Resentful times call for a “politics of resentment,” as Jeremy Engels argues in a recent article on the Tea Party (305). When “resentment is constitutive of civic identity,” citizens see themselves primarily as victims whose only recourse is unhinged hostility at “a purported cause of suffering” (Engels 306, 322). Unlike the sacrificial lamb who goes to the slaughter in obedient silence, the victim in this case resents its victimhood and lashes out at the victimizer. . . .

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand sets up a (melo)dramatic victim narrative inside which contemporary conservative populists can affix themselves, with righteous indignation as the adhesive. She cleverly subverts the typology of the theological victim—-e.g., the sacrificial lamb or Jesus Christ—-by making the act of atonement a vile injustice rather than the instrumentality by which justice is restored. . . .

Galt explains to Taggart that the men who have joined him at Galt’s Gulch are on strike. The useless men of the world have used the strike in the past; now “the men who have carried the world on their shoulders, have kept it alive, have endured torture as sole payment,” the greatest minds who endure the greatest social limitations, will walk out on the world. . . . Without the strike, the very best of society—-the most pure and worthy and necessary, the lambs without blemish, the sinless ones—-get massacred by those who need them most.

By contrast, the oblivious victimizers, like the Roman guards at the foot of the cross, know not what they do. Controlled by “dark emotions” rather than reason, the mass of humanity rises in power, having fatted themselves on goods and services they did not produce.

Notice how this principle of deserving what you produce is similar to Marx’s theory of labor value. However, the Christian receives everything he needs, including salvation, by the grace of God without deserving it.

In Rand’s fantasy, the political economy collapses as the unwashed and unworthy step in to replace the army of Atlases who have removed their services. This rhetoric of victimhood takes its audience beyond rage and into pseudotheological self-congratulation. Contemporary conservative populists can see themselves not only as society’s victims but as their saviors who, like Jonathan Edwards’s God, hold society over the abyss by sheer will. By the end of the novel, the victims have become the victors, and Galt and his gang go back to the world, having conquered their enemies—not, as Constantine did, by the sign of the cross but by “the sign of the dollar” (1069).

The problem, of course, is that the Galtistas are not actually going to fulfill their fantasy. They are soft, overfed, self-indulgent, and thoroughly dependent on corporate jobs with prepaid healthcare. They are not necessary for society and they do not deserve what they have. They are parasites and hypocrites who will be shamelessly manipulated by Republican politicians.

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