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An Objectivist in Pittsburgh

Blake Scholl addresses Objectivists in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Scott Holleran)

Watching Boom Supersonic founder and CEO Blake Scholl address this summer’s Objectivist Conference in Pittsburgh, I was struck by the newness, youth and growth of the movement to advance Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. Blake is a friend whom I’ve known since he was a student at Pittsburgh’s distinguished university named for two great American capitalists — Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie — at the end of the 20th century. Today, Blake’s a leading new voice for capitalism, seeking to reclaim and restore supersonic air travel.

As the only philosophy to advocate capitalism on the ethics of egoism, which Ayn Rand (1905-1982) reduced to what she boldly and, I think, rightly called the virtue of selfishness, Objectivism is perfect for attracting, inspiring and guiding productive achievers such as Blake Scholl, who departed after his talk in Pittsburgh to Paris, where he tripled orders for Boom Supersonic’s new jet (its XB-1 Supersonic Demonstrator is scheduled to fly at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California in 2019). The system of ideas created by the author of Atlas Shrugged is bound to foster businessmen such as Blake Scholl, who presented his vision for aviation based on speed, convenience and quality before what the Ayn Rand Institute claims is its largest annual Objectivist Conference.

Pittsburgh

The city of steel, bridges and exemplary education, Pittsburgh, too, is the perfect place to exhibit an enticing preview of the manmade. Pittsburgh was at the crux of creating the world’s single, greatest period of productive achievement, the Industrial Revolution. This magnificent city, where pioneering soldiers, frontiersmen, industrialists, doctors and artists protected and forged the nation’s most enduring new enterprises — in medicine, engineering, energy, movies, television and the arts — continues to be underestimated. Just like America, Ayn Rand and the best minds.

Certainly, Boom’s Blake Scholl is not infallible; he may make mistakes in executing his vision. However, with Blake’s presentation, the Objectivist movement reaches a higher point — fittingly, in a tower located next to railroad tracks at the south bank of the Monongahela River in a proudly industrialized metropolis which climaxes at a golden triangle pointing West, stretching into lush, green hills. This year’s OCON included lectures on intellectual property, stoicism and the gold standard. Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram delivered insightful talks on Rand’s interviews with industrialists and an examination of Rand’s favorite novel, which is about building a grain elevator. There was a screening and discussion of the Oscar-nominated documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, trivia and talent events and a panel discussion on free speech with Flemming Rose, a journalist who once published a Mohammed cartoon and still needs police protection. Pittsburgh doctor Amesh Adalja spoke on the history of infectious disease in the city where his heroes, Drs. Thomas Starzl and Jonas Salk, made medical history. OCON Pittsburgh — during which the Pittsburgh Penguins won hockey’s Stanley Cup and I visited family and friends and saw the Pittsburgh Pirates defeat the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park — included tours of the Homestead blast furnace once owned by Andrew Carnegie‘s U.S. Steel, Henry Clay Frick’s (1849-1919) home and owned works of art and Fallingwater, the home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann in 1936. I was writing TV scripts on deadline during the conference and missed some talks, events and mixers. And, while certain conference services, staff and events failed, fell flat or need improvement, others were good, new or interesting.

Blake Scholl’s talk stands out as an Objectivist hallmark. That this Carnegie Mellon University graduate stood as a businessman against the cynicism and anti-intellectualism of our times to demonstrate that the good is possible and that air transportation can and ought to be grand, fast and glorious realizes Ayn Rand’s depiction of man as a heroic being. That he did it in Pittsburgh is perfectly rational. So, here comes evidence that the potential for the gleaming, industrialized future Ayn Rand’s idealistic novels envision, promise and dramatize can be made real. Whatever happens on the day after tomorrow, to paraphrase a condensed description of Atlas Shrugged — a novel, it must be recognized, which also depicts a dramatic episode of aviation adventure — this is true, which is cause for all thinkers to want more of what Objectivism explains and offers for living here on earth.

Movie Review: Fences

Buy the Movie

Playwright August Wilson’s adapted Pittsburgh-based play of the same name, Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize in the late 1980s, is a movie for Paramount. The result, directed by actor Denzel Washington (Book of Eli, Philadelphia, Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Malcolm X), who co-stars with Viola Davis (Prisoners, Doubt, The Help), is affecting.

Fences is about the folks next door. I knew this when I saw it at the Pasadena Playhouse with Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Boyz N the Hood). It’s heavy drama about life’s give and take, energy expense and how daily living leaves you feeling spent. Fences‘ easy, natural rhythm in a Western Pennsylvania family’s ordinariness lulls the audience into making too little out of what comes on at first as a bit too strong.

Mr. Washington, whose acting in lesser moments tends to come on too strong, understands the dense material, which is not easily disposed to cinematic adaptation. He lets Wilson’s liberal use of the word nigger disarm the audience and grant a pass to see black people in their middle class, middle century, middle American urban enclave. All the trappings are here, if you think about it: the angry black man, the strong black woman, the young buck.

But Fences is not driven by race. In glances, meltdowns and gestures, Fences shows the toll that mixing tradition, religion and romanticism take on a man, a woman, a friend, a marriage and a family. Before hip hop, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan, at the dawn of the American exceptionalism of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, there was the uniquely post-war, pre-Civil Rights era of migratory black Americans in industrial cities such as Pittsburgh. Neatly framed Fences bundles this aspect with the onset of progress, unfulfilled lives, the shame of blended families and fathers that abandon children—and fathers that do not—and how the American Negro experience goes the way of becoming universal. Fences gets bleak, serious and sometimes depressing. But it borders and never crosses into maudlin territory.

Like its cultural cousin, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which is more pointed and powerful, Fences drags you down to impel you to pull yourself up.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an aspirational garbageman who was once a Negro league baseball player and has since become an ex-convict, husband, father, drunkard and motormouth. He’s a loud, extroverted physically powerful man in his early 50s. He’s sexually voracious and he spews and lusts for life. In speeches and backyard scenes where he aims to build a fancy fence made of the finest pinewood, it becomes clear that his undone athletic ability manifests in rage and anxiety. He chastises his sons, rails against mooches and thugs, demands that he be called “sir” and that his youngest son, Cory (perfectly cast Jovan Adepo, who is excellent), keep working at the A & P and forget about a sports scholarship. He groans about the city’s refusal to hire blacks as garbage truck drivers, tells his oldest son and best friend (outstanding Stephen Henderson, Tower Heist, Lincoln) while passing a bottle of gin that he was “scared of my daddy.”

Above all, he tells his wife Rose (Davis), and this is where things get complicated—in the sense that life is sometimes complicated—that he works hard, expends his best efforts and that “[t]hat’s all I got.” He means it. Whatever his flaws and mistakes, he’s telling the truth, if not the whole truth. His pal Bono presses Troy on this topic. Eventually, everyone pays the price of going beyond pre-set boundaries.

That family drama plays out in a modest home filled with crosses, pictures of Christ and The Last Supper and a cheerfully handicapped relative named Gabriel should not be taken literally. Troy bemoans religion and goes by his own thoughts, though he dares the Grim Reaper, invokes the Devil and has faith, not confidence, in himself, which leads to a lazy thinking that yields his greatest flaw—he confuses duty with love—which produces the film’s greatest tragedy.

Showing its stage play origins, Fences is too wordy and expository but the cast, especially the leads, reprising their 2010 Broadway roles, is rich and layered which more than compensates. As a director, Denzel Washington is deliberate and nostalgic, blurring the screen when it matters, adding flowers in the window, dropping a rose at the fence and threading  the play’s painful codependency into the actors’ faces and performances. The talented Viola Davis and Mr. Washington as wife and husband have adult conversations depicting the impact of ideas—chiefly, selflessness—on the whole of an ordinary life and both give strong performances. Ultimately, Fences blends cautionary and fairy tale and conveys that life is a kind of duty. This philosophy may be 100 percent wrong (it is by my thinking) but here it is planted and pictured with forcefulness, humor, warmth and honesty.