In the opening pages of Ayn Rand's best seller, "Atlas Shrugged", we find a bunch of people standing around outside of a stopped train staring at a red light. Why the red light is on none of them know for sure, but it is a signal of danger ahead. Of course, none of them can confirm that there is actually any danger on the track ahead or if it is just another malfunction caused by a deteriorating society in which many are willing to simply defer to others, accept that there really is danger ahead and that if there is a problem someone else will fix it.
When Dagny Taggart, one of the characters of the novel who happens to be the Vice President of Operations for the railroad and actually on the stopped train, questions the crew about why they are stopped she gets a lot of hemming and hawing over the situation. No one with any authority wants to take responsibility for what might happen if they continue on despite the red light. No one, that is, except Ms. Taggart.
She orders them to resume the trip which leads to lots of questions including demands that if something should go wrong and that there actually is danger ahead that she takes responsibility because no one else wants to be held to account for the action. She, of course, answers that naturally she will take responsibility. So the passengers get back on board and the crew plows ahead back onto the main line and to their destination - without incident mind you.
Had one person not stepped up and taken initiative however the train would still be sitting along the side of the track, and everyone would have been late because of a false alarm. And had it not been a person with clout, but rather just the lowly passengers themselves demanding the journey continue the crew of the train probably would have been less likely to concede because they would have been ultimately responsible being that they were in charge of the train. But since the Vice President was there and giving orders, well that made things different. The crew was not responsible any more.
It is important to note that in this scene, however, that the crew of the train does not put up too much of a fight against being ordered to continue on despite the red light of warning. In fact, it appears that they were quite aware that there was no real danger and were just looking to not have any culpability if they happened to be wrong.
Can you say this is America today in a nutshell?
Whenever I read "Atlas Shrugged" I always seem to find something new that relates so well to the way we are heading in America. This is why I try to reread it every couple years. It is a laborious task to be sure. Rand's prose is not exactly well formed and smooth much of the time. But the story and the lessons more than make up for pain.
The red light analogy relating to our society today certainly is not one of those things I have recently discovered. I have thought about it a lot over the years.
We have become a nation full of red light watchers. If one goes on, many of us pay astute attention even if we know it is likely a false alarm. We act this way because to ignore the red light means taking responsibility for ignoring it. So it is just easier to stand huddled around the beacon and wait for it to give us permission to proceed or for someone with authority to tell us it is all right to ignore it because it is obviously broken.
And then if there is trouble ahead it is all right because we are not responsible. Someone else is. If we get hurt there will always be someone to blame. Usually that someone has very deep pockets.
Some of the red lights never seem to go out. They just remain red. Ten years ago we were given a red light, for example, on drilling for our own domestic oil resources in ANWR; a desolate wasteland that is a mosquito breeding ground for a few months when the permafrost is actually thawed. Now we suffer from failing supplies and are being told that it is pointless to open up the reserves now because it would take years to retrieve them. Perhaps the same ten years that we have been already sitting on our hands, to get the oil out?
Obviously the problem is not that there is not enough oil to be had. The problem is we abided by that first red light when we knew we should not. And now that it is shown that the first red light is the problem, we have just been given another red light to reinforce that we should once again just stand around abiding by the previous, and obviously broken, light.
In places like Washington D.C. a red light was put up to tell residents that they should not worry about defending themselves. Thankfully many people did actually ignore that silliness but many others stood around watching that red light waiting to eagerly be told that they could keep and bear arms without the restrictions that made keeping and bearing those arms for defense impossible. As the residents stood about watching that red light crime ran about them rampantly.
In the town of New London, Connecticut there went up a red light on the right of people to own property except for when the government had a legitimate public use for it and paid them justly to acquire it. Some fought against abiding by that red light only to have the Supreme Court smack them down. Others threw up their hands and abided by the light that told them what to do. Today all those properties that were taken sit undeveloped as the developer has backed out of the deal. A deal crumbled that would have not provided anything for public use but only for the benefit of politicians.
Where the next red light will be is anyone's guess. But when it is placed before you will you blindly abide by it? Or will you question it boldly and ignore it if it does indeed need to be ignored? And if you do, will you accept the consequences or rewards of your choices?
Copyright ©2008 J.J. Jackson