The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan and Ayn Rand

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The latest issue of the Bob Dylan fan magazine ISIS includes an item by Ronnie Keohane detailing a discovery she made regarding Bob Dylan’s 2003 film “Masked and Anonymous.”

If you’ve seen that film (and what Dylan fan or aficionado of the art of movie-making has not?) you’ll recall that there is a radio preacher who is heard repeatedly, as if in the background. At one point he’s heard saying this:

The only power the government has is to crack down on criminals. When there aren’t enough criminals, you make them. You make so many things a crime that it becomes impossible to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? You pass laws that can’t be observed or enforced or even objectively interpreted. You create a nation of lawbreakers and then you cash in on the guilt. That’s the system, that’s the game. Once you understand that you’ll sleep a lot easier.

Ronnie Keohane spotted a passage in Chapter III of Part II of Ayn Rand’s weighty opus Atlas Shrugged which is, well, rather similar. A character named Dr. Ferris is speaking to a character named Hank Reardon, and says this:

The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor even objectively interpreted—and you create a nation of law-breakers—and then you cash in on guilt. Now, that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.

Ronnie Keohane (who has had countless fascinating insights into Bob’s music over the years) doesn’t report this in the interest of creating another “plagiarism” brouhaha, but rather sees that it ties in with a discernible concern of Dylan’s regarding the loss of liberty in America and the distance the nation has traveled from its founding principles.

Does it mean Bob Dylan is a devoted Ayn Rand fan? I have no idea, personally, but we know he’s a voracious reader and clearly he found this passage worth noting. I’m no expert on Rand; although I have a copy of Atlas Shrugged on the bookshelf, I’ve only managed to turn the first few pages.

I think Ronnie’s right that it fits with some other things we know about Bob. When the album Modern Times came out in 2006 these lines in “Workingman’s Blues #2” rang a direct bell with the statement of that preacher in the film:

Well, they burned my barn, they stole my horse
I can’t save a dime
I got to be careful, I don’t want to be forced
Into a life of continual crime

I also would not claim to be any expert on “Masked and Anonymous.” I found the film very amusing and interesting but I don’t have a grand theory on it. I do think that what’s interesting about the radio preacher is that although his voice sounds nutty, he is arguably speaking more sensibly than anyone else. His rant which opens the film ends with this: “Ask yourselves a question people: are you humble before God?” That’s always a good question.

I didn’t think “Masked and Anonymous” was a commentary on life in 2003, as much as it was a commentary on life generally. Unfortunately, since then, things haven’t exactly got much easier in America for anyone who wants to avoid that “life of continual crime.”


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