Atlas Shrugged is my favorite novel. I’m well aware of what the problems with it are. No, it isn’t the greatest literary achievement in human history. In particular, the character of John Galt (and the last third of the book, in which he appears) could use some work. I always had trouble imagining that this man who only ever communicates in speeches about politics and morality will be able to settle down to a happy life of making ever-more-groundbreaking improvements to his already-revolutionary motor once the Wesley Mooches are expelled from the halls of power. The idea that the world’s most perfect man needs an unworthy opponent in order to thrive is ceratinly not the impression Rand was shooting for, but there it is. No, I don’t agree with all of it either. In particular, there’s a lack of graciousness about the supermen that’s hard for those of us who occasionally make mistakes to admire. Additionally, the unresolved questions of how you sustain a political system that is geared toward the capable minority rather than the mediocre majority are neither stated nor answered, but they are legion in the astute reader’s mind. It is my favorite novel all the same – because nowhere else have I encountered a read that was as relevant to my personal life and as entertaining as this one. It is an inspiration to me every time I read it.
So I was pleased today to come across this blog entry on countering passive-aggressiveness using Atlas Shrugged. The particular context is dear to my heart: underhanded America-bashing from European weenies. It isn’t just Europe, of course. I’ve run across the same problem in Canada, Japan and South Korea. Everywhere in the world there are people who can’t abide the fact that Americans exist and, like AA failures offered a sip of whiskey in their coffee, just can’t seem to stop themselves from slipping insinuations into the conversation when confronted with one of the species. But in my experience the problem is particularly bad in Europe. In Japan, whatever anti-Americanism you run across is hard to distinguish from the general background noise of their own cultural superiority complex and tendency to passive-aggression in all affairs. In Korea, they have the decency to say it to your face. Not a subtle bunch, the Koreans. And in Canada, you just feel sorry for them, because you know that the Europeans they try so hard to align themselves with don’t really think any better of Canadians than they do of Americans. No, Europe is the only place it ever really got under my skin – and boy, did it ever. It’s just wearying after a while to have to constantly be on your guard with everyone you meet, because these attacks always come straight out of the blue.
I’ll let Rawness’ post speak for itself. Go have a look, and also have a look at the reasoning behind the approach if you have the time. In a nutshell, the idea is that this is an instance where Rand’s advice about “refusing the sanction of the victim” applies. The kind of underhanded America-bashing that one encounters so much of in Europe needs your complicity to work, and so by denying to comply (that is, neither getting openly offended, nor allowing the attacker to simply retreat after the sting – as Hank Rearden does in the courtroom scene in Atlas Shrugged) you beat it. In my experience, this is solid advice. Trying to argue the point mysteriously only ends up making you look overly sensitive, but letting it go is even worse, as it guarantees you’ll be treated with condescension by that person from there on out. The only thing you can do is exactly what’s suggested: let it play out for a bit, then start to calmly ask pointed questions. It’s so devastating in its effectiveness that you really have to see it to believe it.
The only thing missing from Rawness’ post – and this is NOT a criticism as I don’t have any bright ideas on this front myself – is an explanation for where the behavior comes from. There’s this stab at it (from the second link):
Passive Aggressors have a weakness that you can exploit. See, they desperately want to engage in confrontation for whatever reason. Maybe they feel powerless in general and have typically felt this way since adolescence and winning conflicts are a major ego boost for them. Maybe they are trapped in middle management hell. Maybe they have unresolved issues about something, and you remind them of those unresolved issues. In some form you are the embodiment of whatever it is they have issues with, be it because of your race, your culture, your personality, your archetype (maybe you remind them of the big jocks that pushed them around in high school, the cool guy that got all the girls they couldn’t, the hot chick that never gave them a time of day growing up, the optimist they always envied). For some reason, they have a need for conflict and victory in general, and something about you in particular especially triggers that need for victory.
That’s all true, of course, but what I’ve never been able to understand is what it is about Americans that triggers this need in Europeans? Some of their criticisms are, after all, perfectly accurate, and while I do feel that envy plays some role, I’ve never met anyone doing this who I felt honestly wants to be American. Just saying “it’s envy” is too pop-psych for this; the real motive, whatever it is, is likey to be much more complicated, and I’ve never, not anywhere, run across a satisfying explanation for what it could be.