Obviously, Ayn Rand has been in the news a lot lately. Not because she’s done anything particularly newsworthy herself, of course, but because the new Republican pick for VP has frequently and publicly expressed his admiration of her before being told that loudly talking about how awesome a self-professed atheist is just doesn’t fly in a party that panders almost exclusively to fundamentalist Christians these days. So he made a public repudiation of his love of Ayn Rand’s thirty-year old corpse, while still of course admiring all of the bits of his philosophy that let him be a selfish prick. (Um, this is as good a time as any to mention that yes, this is going to be a post with Views. You may wish to skip it if you love Republicans, Objectivism, or being a selfish prick.)
And whenever Ayn Rand’s name comes up, I always think of Philip K. Dick. Not because the two of them were buddies or anything. I don’t even think they knew each other. Mainly because I read a very interesting book called ‘Counterfeit Worlds: Philip K. Dick On Film’, which covers a lot of his life and writing in the process of explaining why his films are so attractive to screenwriters. The section that talked about ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, the novel that eventually became the film ‘Blade Runner’, explained that its genesis came from Dick’s thoughts on World War II and the Holocaust. He genuinely believed that no real human being could do that kind of thing…that while the Nazis might have looked human and sounded human, some fundamental human quality was missing from them that allowed them to perpetuate the atrocities they did. He envisioned a test that would separate the real humans from the fake humans, a psychological evaluation that would separate out those who possessed empathy for others from those who didn’t. This eventually went on to become the Voight-Kampff test, which could sniff out androids mimicking humanity through their inability to care about others.
Which is an interesting idea for a novel, of course, but I never really felt like Dick took it far enough. In the first place, I think his original notion–that people who lack empathy and do terrible things to other people are somehow “not human”–is really more of a convenient dodge than anything else. As much as I might wish it otherwise, Ayn Rand is part of the same species as I am, and is my kith and kin, even though she would fail the Voight-Kampff test. (“You see a turtle by the side of the road, lying on its back.” “The turtle is a leech and a parasite. If it can’t turn itself over, I’m doing the world no favors by allowing it to continue surviving. It will only consume food that should go to better, fitter animals like me.”) She’s a woman who notoriously idolized a sociopathic serial killer, and whose philosophy can best be summed up as “Altruism doesn’t exist. Anyone practicing it is a sucker, and anyone benefiting from it is a leech.” (Which didn’t stop her from collecting Medicare, of course.) Paul Ryan has bought fully into the idea that selfishness is a virtue and kindness a vice, and he’s far from the only one. To pretend that these people are somehow inhuman is to avoid confronting the painful and ugly truth about humanity: Decency is a skill we learn, not a quality we inherit.
And the most complex part of all is that it’s not a skill we ever truly master…and Dick is the prime example. His story that started with the envisioning of a test for empathy is, at its heart, about how it’s morally acceptable to kill people who lack empathy because they’re not really people. They’re things, and you can do whatever you want to things without feeling bad. (Sure, they’re androids, not people. And the Klingons weren’t the Soviets.) Fundamentally, Dick is engaging in one of the most classic ways of avoiding one’s conscience and shutting down empathy, by “otherizing” the people you hate instead of understanding them, while claiming that his purge is a pro-empathy action. He deludes himself into thinking that a man can “retire” androids who look like people, talk like people, act like people all day every day for years…and it won’t cost him any of his soul.
‘Blade Runner’, the film made out of Dick’s novel, at least understands how false that is. Deckard in the film is a burnt-out wreck of a man because his empathy withered and died years ago, not because he’s secretly an android himself. The Voight-Kampff test separates out human beings with empathy from the androids…the androids that live a life of slavery from beginning to all-too-sudden end, exiled into space to do the jobs that humans won’t do. And when they try to escape? We kill them…excuse me. We “retire” them. Because if we call it “retiring” them, we don’t have to think about what we’re doing. We don’t have to understand their fear and pain and anger. In short, we don’t have to empathize with them because we passed the empathy test.
‘Blade Runner’ avoids that paradox for too much of its running length, which is why I would like to see someone else take a crack at it. It’s a drama about slavery where nobody ever suggests that slavery is a bad thing, which is a bit too bloodless for a movie with such an angry contradiction right at its very core. The only time we see even a hint of it is when Roy Batty rescues Deckard at the end, an act that gives the lie to the entire notion that androids are incapable of empathy and forces Deckard to confront the truth: He’s a mass murderer, and he never even thought about it. And given that he gets maybe two lines of dialogue after that, I’d call the film at least a little bit flawed. A sequel that really got into the idea, one that confronted the notions that androids could learn how to be human beings…and that human beings can all too easily forget…could be even better than its predecessor.