Atlas Shrugged: Were the Passengers Responsible for Their Deaths?

If the train crash scene didn’t prove that Atlas Shrugged is actually a horror book, I don’t know what will. As the cronies start imposing more and more restrictions and artificial obstacles on productive people, the more productive people quit, leaving the infrastructure to take care of itself. Infrastructure gets broken, people die in accidents, starve and freeze to death. It’s not very surprising that it happens, when things are no longer being run properly. But does it mean the passengers on board the Comet brought their deaths on themselves?

I will remind you what happens in that scene. Some very important politician named Kip Chalmers is on board the Comet, the fastest train in Taggart Transcontinental. The best employees of that company quit a long time ago, when the Directive 10-289 was issued by the government, making it illegal to quit your job, get a new job, or pay/get paid more than you did in the previous year. Some good employees are left, but those who are gone were replaced by lazy people who love the job security that Directive 10-289 brings. This sad state of affairs leads to poor company performance, and the Comet’s Diesel engine goes off track. It can’t be repaired, and another Diesel engine can’t be acquired any time soon. The only engine available is a coal-burning engine… but it can’t be used, because an eight-mile tunnel is ahead, and a coal-burning engine inside a tunnel is a deadly combination.

Kip Chalmers doesn’t want to understand any of that. He has a very important political campaign coming up, and needs to be in San Francisco on time. He demands that an engine is given to him immediately, and threatens to have employees fired if they don’t comply with his wishes:

“ Slowly, patiently, with contemptuous politeness, the conductor gave him an exact account of the situation. But years ago, in grammar school, in high school, in college, Kip Chalmers had been taught that man does not and need not live by reason.

“Damn your tunnel!” he screamed. “Do you think I’m going to let you hold me up because of some miserable tunnel? Do you want to wreck vital national plans on account of a tunnel? Tell your engineer that I must be in San Francisco by evening and that he’s got to get me there!”

“How?”

“That’s your job, not mine!”

“There is no way to do it.”

“The find a way, God damn you!”

The conductor did not answer.

“Do you think I’ll let your miserable technological problems interfere with crucial social issues? Do you know who I am? Tell that engineer to start moving, if he values his job!””

Kip Chalmers thinks the employees are just not working hard enough, and if he threatens and presses them hard enough, they will produce the engine they must be hiding away, and give him what he wants:

“Years ago, in college, he had been taught that the only effective means to impel men to action was fear.”

The employees thus are in a lose-lose position. If they refuse to give Kip Chalmers what he wants, they will lose their only allowed jobs and starve along with their families. If they comply, they will send hundreds of people to their deaths, and possibly be blamed for it, too. And thus the fate of the passengers is decided – the employees give them the coal burning engine, and send them into the tunnel. Each employee carefully avoids being seen as the decision-maker, and thus the “fall guy”. Eventually some naive young boy becomes the fall guy. The passengers suffocate inside the tunnel, then an army train crashes into them, the whole tunnel explodes and collapses. Who’s to blame? No one, and everyone. I believe this scene demonstrates what kind of disaster collective lack of competence or responsibility can lead to.

Here is what Rand has to say about the passengers on board the Comet, and this is what many critics find cruel and outrageous:

“It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.”

Then Rand describes some of the passengers. One was an elderly teacher who taught children they must always submit to the majority (what a life-ruining hag, I must say). Another is a journalist who wrote that it’s good to use any force necessary “for a good cause”. A third one is a person who thinks they have the “right” to transportation, whether a transportation company wanted to give it or not. The list goes on. And “there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas”.

I believe Rand does imply that everyone on board was at least somewhat to blame for their own deaths. Notice she never uses the word “deserve” in that sentence, and there is a huge difference between being deserving of death, and bringing it upon yourself. You can be a good person, get drunk, and get run over by a car. You wouldn’t deserve it, but you’ll surely be at least partially to blame. I believe lots of people, including the critics of this scene, confuse being responsible with deserving, and draw incorrect conclusions.

Is Rand right that the passengers were to blame for their deaths? To answer that question, it’s important to find who was the most to blame. Was it the employees? They were forced by the threat of starvation or jail. Was it the guys who created Directive 10-289? They’re surely guilty of unconstitutional laws and power-grabs, but they didn’t foresee the unintended consequences such as train-crashes where their own political helpers die a horrible crispy death. Was it the media and academia figures who promote the ideology that gives corrupt politicians their power? They are just people with opinions.

And thus, no one is to blame for the disaster.. and everyone. To contribute to a disaster, you don’t only have to attach a train to a coal-burning engine and send it off into a tunnel. You could also do it by passing laws, if you’re a politician. And if you’re just a “small” person, you could do it by supporting the ideology that helps corrupt politicians retain their power. Or even just by keeping status quo and not speaking against the injustice. You have probably heard this quote:

“”First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me””

Yes, the passengers did contribute to their own deaths. Kip Chalmers, and all the passengers, they were all hoist by their own petard. This might be a harsh message, but it cannot be powerful if it was soft. The moral of the story is this: Don’t Dig Your Own Hole. Don’t contribute to injustice, or you might just have to live your principles.

I personally do think everyone was to blame to some extent, although most of them did not deserve death. I think that teaching lady just deserved to be fired, really. I also know that in real life, people often get away with performing injustice, while people who do the right thing have bad things happen to them. But I would rather be as just as I can be, as I want as few of my problems as possible to come from ME. I also don’t expect people to speak out under the threat of death or torture. It’s an extra achievement, but I can’t say people dig their own hole if they refuse to do it.

P.S.

I also believe this is the type of disaster that can happen when the employees are motivated by fear. Introductory psychology will tell you that fear of punishment “works”, but not as well as anticipation of reward. When you motivate your kid, your pet, or your employees by punishment, you are also teaching them to fear and distrust you. People motivated by fear of punishment will lie their way out of consequences if they must. They will pass the buck. And sometimes, they will be so scared that they will fuck up, instead of performing better. I think this real-life event is a good example of what culture of fear can lead to:

Yet there are people who think fear is the greatest way to motivate people.

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6 Responses to Atlas Shrugged: Were the Passengers Responsible for Their Deaths?

  1. Liz says:

    I think there’s a big difference between “blaming the victim” and analyzing how tragedy befell them, acknowledging they had some part in their own demise.
    In my opinion, Rand takes it a bit too far in this case, but it does illustrate a point.
    The same point that the bromide “we have the government we deserve” makes, more succinctly.

    • “The same point that the bromide “we have the government we deserve” makes, more succinctly.”

      Interesting. I haven’t thought of it that way. I guess it’s sort of true at least when democracy exists, although again I’d rather not mix up deserving with being responsible for.

      • Liz says:

        There are really a myriad of ways to consider this passage of Rand’s, from my perspective. Concepts like collective shame. She seems to simultaneously both reject and embrace the concept of collective responsibility. To elaborate, doesn’t the concept of collective responsibility require certain actions from the individual in some “greater good” interest? This sense of collective responsibility in democracies is actually a key mechanism for asymetric warfare (particularly terrorist acts) as well. There’s a happy medium between these concepts somewhere.

      • Rand is certainly not for pure selfishness, although she’d never say it that way. If she was for pure selfishness without context, she’d have no problem with Jim Taggart and his buddies, and he wouldn’t be the villain. But I think that Jim Taggart&co are selfish from a position of weakness, they are selfish while having some sort of major scarcity mentality, and perhaps Rand would say they’re thus not selfish enough. So to come closer to the Rand ideal, you have to become strong and get abundance mentality, and that doesn’t involve collective responsibility or denying yourself anything.

        What do you mean by that: “This sense of collective responsibility in democracies is actually a key mechanism for asymetric warfare”? Do you mean that terrorists justify attacks on civilians because the civilians voted some bad politician into power? I think it would be a thin justification. Each person, even if they voted for Hitler, has only a tiny portion of the responsibility and don’t deserve to die. If the terrorist wanted to justify the attacks by saying “Civilians will die, but in the end, it will prevent more deaths” it would make more sense, even if it would still be brutal. And this is why it makes perfect sense to me that the Comet passengers contributed to their own deaths, but they didn’t deserve it. And I think it wouldn’t be very Randian to go out and kill people for expressing SJW opinions today, for example.

      • Liz says:

        “What do you mean by that: “This sense of collective responsibility in democracies is actually a key mechanism for asymetric warfare”? Do you mean that terrorists justify attacks on civilians because the civilians voted some bad politician into power? I think it would be a thin justification.”

        Yes, what I’m saying is, this is a key justification for attacks on civilians. Terrorists target civilians, and they do so more in democracies than under dictatorships for a reason. Civilians hold the power over government. Their self justification for those (very effective) attacks is, no one is innocent…everyone is responsible.
        I’m not agreeing. You and I might both think that this is “thin justification” but it is their justification and I’m not so sure it does it differs so much from Rand’s assertions.

      • I see. I agree with you, although I disagree on the interpretation of the scene. I got an impression that it does not matter whether we feel guilty or not, the consequences of everyone’s actions are coming. Consequences don’t necessarily affect people according to exactly how guilty each of them is, but they will happen. It’s not a question of morality, it’s a question of facts. There is nothing in the book so far suggesting that terrorism towards people with the wrong opinions is justified. The closest we come to violence is Ragnar Danneskjold’s robbery of government cargo ships, but that’s more of a topic of whether it’s ok to loot the looters, tax authorities and similar. I think there’s be a lot more killing in the book, if the terrorist logic was seen as valid by the author. Instead, the heroes just strike and flee (except for Ragnar the robber).

        Of course, I only interpret the book and don’t know what else Rand said about this. But I’ll stick with my view, until something in the book or in Rand’s words disproves it.

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