Tales of the Cold War: Cosmos-954

Originally posted way back in 2006.

A while back, I was going through an old footlocker full of various magazines I have collected over the years. I had quite a bit of stuff in there, including a lot of sci-fi & horror magazines, many issues of Mad, Cracked and Crazy, music-related magazines, and the like. Included in the mix were about three issues of an old magazine called Future: The Magazine of Science Adventure. All of the issues were from the late 1970s and I figure I must have bought these magazines a Half Price Books or some other secondhand shop many years ago. As I inspected the issues for the first time in several years, the one issue that especially caught my eye was the May 1978 issue that had a small white and red wraparound ad that screamed: TOP SECRET: The Truth About ORBITING SOVIET BOMBS! See page 16.” It certainly looked like good reading, so I set the magazine aside and once I had thumbed through and organized the other magazines, I had a look at the “Top Secret” report.

The article was a very short story entitled “Cosmos-954: A Glimpse of Space Disaster” which chronicled the January 24, 1978 crash of a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite in Northwest Territories, Canada.  The article is a classic mixture of science fiction and Cold War hype:

The newspaper headlines were straight out of a fifties science-fiction film: KILLER SATELLITE CRASHES IN CANADA! Only this time the story was real. The crash-landing of the Soviet nuclear-powered satellite, Cosmos-954, north of the American border was a nightmare come true. The effects of the event were felt immediately. Politicians started talking in scientific jargon while many scientists issued distinctly political statements. An interest in space law was (belatedly) revitalized. People began looking to the heavens with increased anxiety. The spectre of a Russian- spawned war in space hovered over the globe. “Perhaps Chicken Little was right,” some joked in reference to the unexpected appearance of the stray spacecraft. But Cosmos-954’s appearance was no joke.


The killer satellite seems best suited for a sneak attack on U.S. command and control, and early-warning satellites in 24-hour orbits. The FOBS (Fractional Orbital Bombardment System) orbital H-bombs seem to be a useful way to approach the U.S. in low orbits, eluding radar detection until the last minute. The nuclear-power naval watchers would mainly be useful in plotting at- tacks on aircraft carriers and nuclear missile subs prior to the start of a war from space.

Cosmos-954 schematics

The real story of Cosmos-954 — the post-Cold War version, anyway, — is much less fantastic.  It is now known that Cosmos-954 was a Soviet Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT) that was powered by a nuclear reactor. The former website UFO Phenomenon in the North previously offered a bit more information on the ultimate demise of the mission:

Previous Soviet missions using such technology would split the reactor from the parent body of the spacecraft and boost the radioactive material into a higher orbit where the reactor would remain for 300-1000 years once the short lifetime of the satellite was over (which was well beyond the life of the radioactive material). Cosmos 954 had a special problem, however – it went out of control and the technicians were unable to separate the reactor from the spacecraft’s parent body.

The Future article implicitly condemns the USSR for failing to notify anyone prior to the crash of Cosmos-954, but more recent accounts of the tale offer information that the USSR did send out a warning regarding the impending calamity, thus allowing NORAD to track the satellite until the crash. Moreover, some accounts note that the orbit of Cosmos-954 had become unstable as far back as September 18, 1977 and that its movements were monitored on a regular basis up until its demise.  A report from CBC Radio (dated Jan. 28, 1978 ) indicates that U.S. President Jimmy Carter contacted the Canadian Prime Minister by phone to advise him of the issue shortly before the satellite’s crash.  According to the CBC, in the wake of the crash, Canadian officials expressed disdain over the American delay in sharing information regarding the impending crash of Cosmos-954.

When Cosmos-954 finally did crash, it fell in the Great Slave Lake area of the Northwest Territories in Canada (near Yellowknife), spreading radioactive material across an area as large as 124,000 km² (some sources suggest the area was around 80,000 km²).  The total amount of radioactive material that reached the ground was around 25% of the estimated 68 pounds of Uranium-235 that was originally aboard Cosmos-954.  The remaining 75% of the U-235 burned up during re-entry.  No human deaths were reported as a result of the crash and it seems that information regarding the long-term environmental effects of contamination is rather few and far between.

Interestingly enough, the USSR eventually agreed to pay Canada a total of $15 million (US) for cleanup efforts, but they ultimately paid somewhere around half of the total bill.  By March 1978, most debris from the satellite had been collected through joint U.S.-Canadian recovery efforts.

In terms of nuclear accidents, Cosmos-954 was certainly an intriguing story back in 1978.  But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to some of the other nuclear accidents which have come to light in the past few decades.  For some particularly harrowing fare, check out Atomic Archive’s list of nuclear weapons incidents since 1950.

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Yes, It Really Happened: Steve Strong Vs. The Devil & Mel Sharples

Originally written in 2015  for another website.

Go ahead and file it in the “so bad, it’s good” category. After all, “Basher Malone,” a 1988 episode of the cult classic horror series Tales from the Darkside isn’t exactly without its charm. And hey, it’s built around the seedy world of territory-era pro wrestling, which is something that should strike a chord with nostalgia buffs far and wide.

Vic Tayback and friends, from the “Basher Malone” episode.

The story is built around a feud between “good guy” Basher Malone and a gym owner and promoter named Tippy Ryan. Tippy was played by Vic Tayback, who is best known for his role as Mel Sharples on the 1980s sitcom Alice. His arch-enemy, Basher Malone, was portrayed by Steve Strong. ‘88 was, of course, the heyday of Hulkamania, and a lot of Basher’s shtick seemed to be modeled after Hulk Hogan—although there was also a hint of an anti-Ric Flair persona mixed in for good measure.

“Kids need a righteous hero like myself to look up to. A square-dealing, straight-shooting, clean fighting man … And kids, don’t forget what the Basher yells you: Brush your teeth after every meal, do your homework, and listen to your mom…”

After Basher Malone vanquishes all of Tippy’s best men in the ring, Tippy gets a call from “Old Scratch” offering to send up one of his best bad guys from the netherworld down below to settle the score with Malone. Tippy challenges Basher to do battle with his sinister new grappler, telling Malone that he’ll close up shop forever if the babyface wins their no-holds-barred contest.

Malone brings his elderly mother to Tippy’s gym at midnight for the fight and Tippy summons his demonic wrestler Trog via a portal in a Pepsi machine. The stakes are high, as Basher puts his title, his career, and his status as a role model on the line against the Devil’s best wrestler.

The ending is easy enough to predict: Despite a few twists and turns, Basher Malone vanquishes Trog, who carries Vic Tayback back to hell through the Pepsi portal. And even though this all sounds kinda awful, it’s fun to watch, complete with cheesy sound effects and a weird soundtrack that’s comprised mostly of bass and synthesizer licks. It’s really a fun, mindless diversion for wrestling fans and horror aficionados alike and, truth be told, watching the video isn’t a bad way to spend 20 minutes of your life.

The story doesn’t end for Basher Malone and Trog with the closing credits of Tales from the Darkside. Trog, who went by the name of Magic Schwarz, wrestled from 1983 to 1990. His personal website details his experiences through a number of professions, including his work as a wrestler in AWA and NWA.

As for Steve Strong, he was featured in the cult wrestling film Grunt! Strong also attained notoriety as an artist under his actual name, Stephen Cepello. He has painted two portraits of his fellow wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, including one that was displayed in the Minnesota State Capitol.

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Meeting Zhou Enlai

In 1971, Australian historian Ross Terrill visited the People’s Republic of China and he subsequently chronicled the trip in the 1972 book 800,000,000: The Real China. The title of the book was a reference to the PRC’s population at that time. As of April 2020, the population of the PRC is approaching 1.4 billion people.

The excerpt below is Terrill’s account of his meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai, from chapter 12 of the above-noted book. In the author’s original work, names are presented via the Wade-Giles method of transliteration ( “Chou En-Lai”) as opposed to the more modern Pinyin method (“Zhou Enlai”). The text is presented under the terms of Fair Use.

The prelude to a meeting with a Chinese leader is al­ways the same. There is no fixed appointment time, but word is one day given “not to leave the hotel.” Suddenly a phone call comes to say that the man you are to see has just left the com­pound where the Chinese leadership works. You leave immedi­ately for the Great Hall of the People. The idea is to have the two parties arrive at the same time.

With Chou En-lai, Premier for twenty-two years and (last summer) number three man in China’s government, the call is likely to come late at night. This war-horse of revolution, “sev­enty-three years young,” works until 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m., then sleeps until midmorning. Our group (I was with my coun­tryman E. Gough Whitlam, leader of the Australian Labor party) was advised late on July 5 to stay about the Peking Hotel. There would be an “interesting film” that evening. The Foreign Minis­try official did not explain why we were advised to put on suits and ties for the occasion. Just after 9:00 p.m. a call came: the film was off, Chou En-lai was on.

The Great Hall of the People is really the Great Hall of the Government. Only on highly formal occasions do the masses view its murals and tread its crimson carpets. A stone oblong in semi-Chinese style, it was built in a mere ten months around the time of the Great Leap Forward. Its fawn solidity stands guard over the biggest square in the world, Tien An Men; the Imperial City is to the left, the big museums opposite. The building’s area of 560,000 square feet includes an auditorium for 10,000 people, a room decorated in the style of each of China’s provinces, and sparsely furnished halls such as the East Room, where we found the Premier.

He enters from one door, we from another. A red badge with the Chinese characters “Serve the People” lights up his tunic. He is all in gray except for black socks inside leather sandals and black hair showing strongly through silver fringes. Introduced to him by Ma Yu-chen of the Foreign Ministry (the man who at¬tended James Reston at his hospital bed), I suddenly realized that he is a slim, short man. We talked for a moment of the background to the Whitlam visit; then he asked where I learned Chinese. Told “in America,” he smiled broadly and said, “That is a fine thing, to learn Chinese in America!”

Recalling his amazing career over half a century, I marveled at his freshness. This man has been a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party since 1927 (well before Mao); was forty-five years ago a close colleague of Chiang Kai-shek’s in Canton; played leftist politics in Europe at the time of Lenin; covered the last miles of the Long March through north Shensi in 1935 on a stretcher, gravely ill. Now he reaches across an epoch of China’s modern history to face Richard Nixon in the Ping-Pong diplomacy of the 1970s.

Though he is like David to Mr. Whitlam’s Goliath (the Australian is six feet four), you quickly forget his height; it is his face and hands which rivet every eye in the room for the next two hours. The expression is tough, even forbidding, yet sometimes it melts into the disarming smile which used to flutter the hearts of foreign ladies in Chungking (Mr. Chou was the Communist rep  resentative in Chiang Kai-shek’s capital during World War II). The eyes are steely, but they laugh when he wants them to. The voice, too, has double possibilities. One moment he is nearly whispering, weary and modest. The next he is soaring to contradict his visitor, and the streaky, sensual voice projects across the hall. From a side angle, a rather flat nose takes away all his fierceness. The mouth is low in the face and set forward tautly, giving a grim grandeur to the whole appearance.

The small, fine hands, moving sinuously as if direct from the shoulder, serve his rapidly varying tone and mood. Now they lie meekly on the blue-gray trousers, as he graciously compliments Mr. Whitlam on the Labor party’s “struggle” to get back to power in Australia. Now they fly like an actor’s in the air, as he denounces Prime Minister Sato of Japan. Now the right hand is extended, its fingers spread-eagled in professorial authority, as he instructs me to study well a recent editorial in the People’s Daily.

Sitting back in a wicker chair, wrists flapping over the chair’s arms, he seems so relaxed as to be without bones, poured into the chair, almost part of it, as persons seem part of their sur­roundings in old Chinese paintings. Beside this loose-limbed wil­low of a man, Mr. Whitlam, hunched together in concentration, seems stiff as a pine.

But the conversation is a freewheeling give-and-take. The Australian style, blunt and informal, fits in well with Mr. Chou’s. The evening has a lively, argumentative note rare in talks be­tween politicians of different countries, rarer still when the coun­tries represent different civilizations. When he disagreed — as on how widespread militarism is in Japan — the Premier would in­terrupt in English: “No, no, no!” Talking of Australian affairs, he twice frankly said he hoped the Labor party would win the next election in 1972.  Occasionally he struck a didactic note. “As you come to China,” he said after suggesting a lesson Aus­tralia ought to draw (about the United States) from China’s expe­rience with Russia, “we ask you to take this as a matter for your reference.” Both sides enjoyed themselves making barbs against John Foster Dulles’s policies. The ambience was, in brief, keen and frank.

Just before the author was introduced to Chou En-lai, he took this close up of the Premier. On the left is Professor Chang Hsi-jo, head of the Peoples Institute for Foreign Affairs: behind Mr. Chou, and obscured, are the Chinese Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade.

Mr. Chou’s aides from the Foreign Ministry and the State Council office had prepared him well. He knew, from reports of what his visitors had said to the Chinese Foreign Minister, that on Taiwan and China’s United Nations seat no great problem ex­isted between Peking and the Labor party. Mr. Whitlam said a Labor government would switch Australia’s diplomatic ties from Taipei to Peking, and vote for Peking’s installation in the China seat at the UN. (Prime Minister McMahon’s regime supported Washington’s unsuccessful “two Chinas’’ proposal in October, 1971.) So the Premier hardly touched these bilateral issues, but instead pitched a complex argument about the overall problems of Asia. (The efficient briefing continued throughout the week. At the evening’s end, Mr. Whitlam happened to recall that his birthday was near. Five days later in Shanghai, the Australian found his birthday observed with a festive dinner and a large cake — tactfully adorned with a single candle.)

Mr. Chou painted a picture of China threatened by three adversaries: the United States, Russia, and Japan. In one way or another, the Chinese press has given this picture ever since November, 1969, when Japan — following the communique signed by Nixon and Sato — seemed to step up to the status of major enemy in Peking’s eyes. Interesting in the Premier’s remarks was the pattern of relationships he sketched between the three adversaries.

After preliminary talk, Mr. Chou reached for his mug of tea, sipped, swilled with deliberation, then asked a question which turned the conversation where he wanted it to go. He was going to be very direct, he warned. What was meant by saying, as the Australians had said the previous day, that the ANZUS treaty (which binds the United States, Australia, and New Zealand in mutual defense) was designed to meet any restoration of Japanese militarism? “That is a special approach to us, so I would like to ask you to inform us what articles or what points of that treaty are directed toward preventing the restoration of Japanese militarism?” Mr. Chou was fingering the apex of Peking’s triangular anxiety.

The Australian background was explained. After World War II, Australia was much less anxious to sign a peace treaty with Japan than was the United States (and to this day Australians are slower to forget Japanese aggression than are Americans). The United States signed ANZUS (in 1951) in large measure to reassure an Australia (and New Zealand) still fearful of Japan. This perspective on ANZUS “down under” was shared by all shades of political opinion. The treaty was a purely defensive arrangement, concerned not with Communist revolutions in Asia, but with Japan — the only country that has ever attacked Aus­tralia.

The Chinese leaders leaned forward attentively. The Ministers for Foreign Affairs (Chi P’eng-fei) and Foreign Trade (Pai Hsiang-kuo) were present with senior aides, but the Premier did all the talking. “You know, we too have a defensive treaty, con­cluded one year before the treaty you have.” He recalled with a grim, ironic smile: “That treaty was called the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Aid. And its first ar­ticle was that the aim of the treaty is to prevent the resurgence of Japanese militarism!”

But what has happened, the Premier asked rhetorically, his eyes and hands now stirring to life. His answer, in a word, was that both Australia’s ally (the United States) and China’s ally (Russia) have gone back on their pledge to forestall any new danger from Japan. He charged that the Pentagon “is considering whether to give Japan tactical nuclear weapons or even some­thing more powerful.” Does not the fourth Japanese defense plan total $ 16 billion, one-third more than the amount spent on the three previous plans put together? The Nixon Doctrine, he noted, turns Japan into “a vanguard in the Far East.” With a shrewd addition to the usual slogan (“using Asians to fight Asians”), de­signed to make his visitors feel their potential importance, he as­sailed the doctrine’s motives. “It is in the spirit of using… ‘Austro-Asians to fight Austro-Asians.’ ”

Then Mr. Chou weighed the actions of the Soviet Union. He never referred to it by name but by sarcastic indirection. “And what about our so-called ally? What about them? They have very warm relations with the Sato government.” Unveiling China’s vi­sion of the world, the Premier wove in two further themes. The Russians, he observed, are also “engaged in warm discussions with the Nixon government on so-called nuclear disarmament.” Now his point came home: “Meanwhile we, their ally, are being threatened by both [Japan, the United States] together!” He fin­ished with an application to Australia’s situation. “So we feel our ‘ally’ is not so very reliable. Is your ‘ally’ so very reliable?

The Premier had a formidable case. He had put it with pas­sion and embroidered it with detail apt for Australian listeners.

It was, Whitlam conceded, a “powerful indictment,” and the Australian took a few moments to marshal himself and probe its questionable parts.

  • The first theme had been Japanese militarism.
  • The second, the failure of Washington and Moscow to resist it.
  • The third, the charge that the United States and Russia are in collusion with each other.
  • The fourth, a deep skepticism that any country can really be the ally of any other, an assertion that each country is utterly alone in the world, with nothing but its own resources and its “independence” to gird it.

Throughout forty days in China, these four themes met me at high levels and low. Later there is more to say of each. But stay now with Mr. Chou, for he had a fifth theme in his analysis of the triangle of menace facing China. It was introduced by an­other of the curious historical analogies he is fond of deploying.

During the talk, Mr. Chou showed a kind of fascination with John Foster Dulles. I remembered with a certain shame what had reportedly happened between these two men at the Geneva Con­ference in 1954. After lunch one day Dulles walked into the chamber and found only one man there — Chou En-lai. An em­barrassing turn of events! Chou held out his hand. Dulles de­clined it (one account says he murmured “I cannot”), gripped his hands behind his back, and strode out. But this evening Mr. Chou displayed no bitterness, just amusement, at Dulles; and a hearty contempt for his policies. Recalling the circle of defense pacts, multilateral and bilateral, which Dulles made with nations on China’s southeastern borders — and showing accurate knowl­edge of Dulles’s role as an adviser to the Truman Administration before he became Secretary of State — the Premier mused that it seemed to be an imperative of the “soul” of Dulles to throw a military harness around China. He spoke, I felt, as a man gazing down the corridor of history rather than as one faced with bur­glars at the door.

Suddenly it became clear that this historical excursion was for the purpose of analogy. He switched to the present. “Now Dulles has a successor,” said Mr. Chou with a laugh that was not a laugh of amusement, “in our northern neighbor.” The Premier was launched in earnest on his fifth theme. Today’s military en­circlement of China is by Russia.

This emphasis — that the Dulleses of the 1970s sit in Moscow — was confirmed when discussion turned to present trends within the United States. Mr. Whitlam said that the “soul of Dulles does not go marching on” in America. American pub­lic opinion, he judged, would not again permit its government to practice the interventionism in Asia that resulted from the “de­structive zeal” of Dulles. Mr. Chou responded: “1 have similar sentiments to you on such a positive appraisal of the American people.” By implication, he agreed that Dullesism was now eclipsed in the United States.

Later he spoke admiringly of the strength of antiwar feeling from coast to coast in the United States (“Even military men on active service and veterans have gone to Washington to demon­strate”). He frankly revealed the source of his confidence about the future course of U.S. policy: “The American people will force the American government to change its policies.” Casting around the room, Mr. Chou asked if his visitors had “in the past two years or so” been in the United States. They had. He then summed up with heavy stress: “So you realize from your own ex­perience that in these past years the American people have been in the process of change.”

Of course, the Chinese Premier disapproves of particular cur­rent U.S. actions in Asia; his words on Indo-China made that quite plain. But when he mapped trends, the United States did not seem to loom largest among his concerns. And when he ana­lyzed the dynamics within the triangle of threat, the United States was evidently not the ultimate focus of opposition. He lashed Washington less for its own activities than for its support of Japanese activities and for its collusion with Russian activities.

Caution would be wise in construing what Mr. Chou said. Maybe the three threats to China are so diverse in character that comparing their magnitude is invalid. The Japanese threat is “rising.” The Russian threat is “immediate” in a crude military sense. The U.S. threat may yet be the “biggest” if the three were to be measured objectively against each other at the present mo­ment. A conversation cannot give systematic finality to this cald­ron of slippery variables. Nevertheless, it was all very different from what Peking was saying in 1964 or even two years ago. Here was a picture of the world that featured power more than ideology, fluid forces more than rigid blocs, emerging problems more than well-worn problems.

Recall that the Premier was talking to Australians, and with an Australian political leader whose views on Taiwan were not opposed to his own. So the two chief bones of bilateral conten­tion between Peking and Washington — the UN seat, the U.S. military presence in Taiwan — did not even come into the con­versation. Maybe Mr. Chou calculated that of the three threats to Chinese security, Japan was the one to stress to these visitors. The Russians are far from Australia. The American tie is inti­mate, and no Australian leader is about to break it. Japan, how­ever, is both important to Australia and a country about which Australians have ambivalent feelings. Yet it was remarkable that Mr. Chou did not raise — nor did his Foreign Minister the pre­vious day — queries about the substantial and sensitive Ameri­can bases (some related to nuclear weaponry) that dot Australia. Mr. Whitlam told me he had expected — as I had — that the Chinese would harp upon these bases.

It was easy to see that Japan was in the forefront of the Pre­mier’s mind. Whichever country came up, he linked it somehow with Japan. He quoted the Japan Socialist party to buttress his point of view. Broaching the subject of nuclear weapons, he seemed more worried by potential Japanese weapons than by ex­isting massive American and Russian stockpiles. Discussing the Australian Labor party’s international connections, he wondered in particular if it was close to the Japanese socialists. Should not Mr. Whitlam, when he left China for Japan — Mr. Chou had somehow unearthed this unpublicized fact of Mr. Whitlam’s itinerary — make a point of having serious talks with the Japa­nese socialist leaders as well as with Mr. Sato? The Komeito (Clean Government Party) especially kept popping up. Mr. Chou had met with its leaders the previous week (I had traveled into China in their compartment and watched them photograph each other, the train, and the countryside all the way from Hong Kong to Canton). Was it not “quite something for a Japanese, Bud­dhist, pacifist party” to make the shift it has this year (to a rather pro-Peking position)? Musing on the Labor party’s prospects of winning power in Australia next year, Mr. Chou again brought in the Komeito party, and made a comparison with it. But seeing its inaptness, he diplomatically qualified himself: “Of course it’s different; your party is very near to power.” A few days later, Mr. Whitlam was surprised that the Chinese put on his program a Japanese movie. Entitled Our Navy, it dealt with World War II and its background. The film was not out of the ordinary. But it seemed remarkable that the Chinese chose to show a foreign (military-political) film to a delegation visiting China, and no accident that it was Japanese.

Zhou Enlai at Huairou Reservoir, Beijing. August 30, 1960.
Photo by Du Xiu Xian; reprinted by Central Documentary Press, Beijing.

Further Reading
Zhou Enlai Internet Archive   marxists.org

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Rush Reflections: Different Stages

Introductory note: I wrote these essays in 2007 as part of a series for my previous blog. It was intended to be a four-part series, and I actually completed the first three parts. Over the years since I wrote these, I have lost all of the original posted/published versions. The versions below are compiled from my original notes of parts one and three (part two appears to be gone forever). I am reposting these now — in 2020 — as a supplement to a forthcoming podcast project, Rush Strutter Zep Magik.)

Part One: Waxing Philosophical

I have noticed that my interests tend to run in cycles.  I have a lot of interests and a lot of “favorites.” Every so often, I might read a whole lot on one particular subject and then, as quickly as my interest builds I shift to another topic.  I am like this with modern Russian and Chinese history, reading a spate of books on one over the course of weeks to months, then shifting back to the other, maybe picking up another unrelated interest in between and then returning back to Russian or Chinese history for a stretch.  I am the same with comics, television, sports and probably other things.  I have never really looked for a pattern or a relationship to seasons or events in my life… It’s just something I have just come to accept.  I am especially this way when it comes to music.  I will often go for several weeks concentrating on work by one artist or another until my interest shifts to something else.  But as quickly as the tide rolls in, it rolls out again and I’m on to something else.

For many, many years now, Rush has been a recurring favorite in my listening rotation.  About two or three times a year, I enjoy a steady diet of Rush material, from their earliest days through some of their more recent fare.  If I made a soundtrack for a movie about my life, there would certainly be a few Rush songs in there representing some of the better moments of my existence thus far.  But as much as I have loved this music over the years, I have grown to have some reservations regarding the philosophy which apparently guides the band.  Much of this has come in the last decade or so as I have grown older and more politically aware. Since I am currently in the midst of my semi-annual Rush fixation, I thought this might be as good of a time as any to reflect a little on my affection for the music and my thoughts on the philosophy behind the band.  I am sure I don’t have the time or patience to write a thorough exposition and analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of this rock and roll icon.  I’m not up to writing an amateur dissertation here — I’m just waxing philosophical.  Think of it as “blogging out loud.”

The first Rush song I ever listened to — and I mean really listened to — was “Tom Sawyer.”  I’m sure that’s probably true for a lot of people. I was about 13 or 14 and I taped the song off the radio along with some other songs that were apparently rather forgettable.  I think I might have been sick and I was home from school on a weekday.  I listened to the tape at least once a day for a really long time and the only songs that I really recall from that particular mix were “Tom Sawyer” and “Break on Through” by The Doors (the latter song would lead to a fascination with the doors a short time later).   I mean, I am sure I had heard a lot of Rush before that particular day, but to have finally captured a song off the radio was kind of a big deal for me back then.  I was really taken by the music (“prog rock” is what they call it, I guess) and the lyrics, the meaning of which was not really clear to me back then (and still aren’t today) was equally captivating.

Eventually, I got around to buying Moving Pictures on cassette and soon after, I got Fly by Night for $4.99 from a K-Mart store.  I still remember looking at the big owl on the cover of Fly by Night while I fiddled and fumbled with the removal of the long, plastic anti-theft casing.  Whenever I bought tapes back then, I would usually spend about 20 minutes trying to pry the plastic off casing with a screwdriver before I realized that a wire-cutter would get the job done a lot faster.  Fly by Night was such a great album.  It was years before I appreciated the grandeur of “By Tor and the Snow Dog,” (which happened after I finally listened to the live version on All the World’s a Stage at the repeated urging of a coworker from one of my part-time jobs while I was in high school) but most of the other tracks made strong impressions on me almost immediately.  I was already familiar with the title track from one of the local “album rock” (that’s what they used to call “classic rock”) stations and that was all well and good, but “Anthem”  (more on the significance of the song’s title later) and “In the End” were favorites of mine.  I remember playing “Anthem” for my dad on the way to school one morning and he was less than impressed.  Years later, I had Thomai over to my house on a date and I recall sitting in my room and playing “In the End” for her on my electric guitar.  I played the soft part intro and then I stood on a chair and turned on the distortion to belt out the heavy part.  She was very impressed.  I wonder if she still remembers that…

And then there was 2112.  This album changed everything in a big way.  I don’t remember exactly when I bought it, but I remember listening to it back when I was working a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant, so I would have been 16 or so at the time.  I was already familiar with the lengthy, over-the-top masterpieces of Led Zeppelin from albums like Physical Graffiti and Presence.  The fact that Zeppelin was able to fill an entire side of “The Song Remains the Same” with just one song, a live version “Dazed and Confused,” had really impressed me.  But the song “2112” — lasting a full 20 minutes and 33 seconds and comprising the entire first side of the album— really blew my mind.  Of course, this particular song was a story; a truly epic tale for the ages.  Most people who are familiar with the album know the gist of the story: A sterile and bland future world ruled by an authoritarian clique is rocked with controversy when a young man discovers a long-forgotten relic.  The relic is a guitar which the man tunes and plays happily.  In his excitement, he takes the guitar before the rulers and attempts to show them how the music from the guitar can change the world for the better.  The rulers dismiss the man and his discovery, and in doing so they dash his dreams for a happy life.  Deciding that he cannot live in such a cruel heartless world, the man commits suicide.  A planetary war ensues in which the rule of the clique is threatened and the finale, while somewhat ambiguous, leaves plenty of room for one’s active imagination to take it from there.

At 16 years old, much of the political overtones were lost on me.  The theme of the rebellious spirit striking out against feelings of alienation and repression was understandably appealing to me as an angst-filled teenager.  The music on the album was a fantastic range of heavy rock, ballad-like interludes, and musical narratives.  Even these days, I still listen to “2112” quite often.  In fact, “Soliloquy/Grand Finale” is still one of my favorite rock pieces of all time.

My first copy of 2112 was a cassette and the older Rush tapes didn’t include the full liner notes that were available on LP versions.  I don’t have the old cassette version anymore, but I am relatively certain that it didn’t have any liner notes at all; just a shot of the main cover image and the track names.  It wasn’t until many years later that I picked up 2112 on LP from a secondhand record store on High Street in Columbus.  It was then that I held the full gatefold LP cover in my hands and read the words which had gained Rush notoriety in some circles and scorn and infamy in other:

“With acknowledgment to the genius of Ayn Rand”

But who was Ayn Rand and why did it matter?

What you own is your own kingdom / What you do is your own glory
What you love is your own power / What you live is your own story
In your head is the answer / Let it guide you along
Let your heart be the anchor / And the beat of your own song

— from the Rush song “Something for Nothing” (lyrics by Neil Peart)

Rush Reflections, Part Three: Bravado

Objectivism:  Who needs it?  As I was preparing to write this article, I gathered a small batch of Rand’s books from my personal library and I laid them out in my computer/writing area.  My cousin was over visiting one evening and he picked up some of the books and said, “What are you doing reading Ayn Rand?”  I told him I was writing a critique of sorts and I was getting re-acquainted with the subject matter.  He turned the books over in his hands a few times and read a few words out loud from the book covers: “Anti-egalitarianism”…  “The evils of altruism” … “What else do you need to know?” he asked.  Well put, indeed.

Objectivism is an ugly philosophy.  The proponents of Objectivism – the “Objectivists,” if you will – have written scores of volumes in celebration of this purportedly “brilliant” epistemology that celebrates the “noble” practices of individualism, greed, and selfishness.  Extensive and coherent critiques of Objectivism are, at least in my experience, a bit harder to come by.  I have noticed that Objectivist rhetoric often provokes an incredibly emotional response from its detractors and perhaps it is the visceral emotional reaction of opponents which ultimately precludes opponents from effectively refuting the most basic of Randian tenets.  It’s certainly not my intent to craft some sort of scholarly repudiation of Randian thought but I do want to take a very brief look at what makes Objectivism so objectionable.  Of course, one of the best places to start with such a critique is by perusing Rand’s smaller works, such as her writings from her newsletter, “The Objectivist.”  Since Rand quotes herself quite often, she often provides specific key references from her larger works in her essays.  To put it succinctly, one can get a good impression of Rand’s general philosophy without suffering through large tomes such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

So there’s a lot of written material to choose from, but it’s even more compelling to hear Rand’s thoughts from Rand herself.  YouTube offers a series of interviews with Ayn Rand, including a vintage episode of the Mike Wallace Show from (1959) and an episode of the old Donahue show from (1979) (It’s worth noting that the user comments feature is disabled on all of the Rand interview pieces).  I have read numerous works by Rand over the years, but when I discovered the Wallace interview on YouTube recently, I was once again struck by the ugliness of Rand’s world view.  Hearing the venom pour from her own lips really puts her writings in a better perspective.  In one segment, Rand answers Wallace’s request to explain the fundamental tenets of “Randism.”  Rand corrects him and refers to her philosophy as “Objectivism” and explains:

My morality is based on man’s life as a standard of value. And since man‘s mind is his basic means of survival, I hold that if man wants to live on earth and to live as a human being, he has to hold reason as his only guide to action and that he must live by the independent judgment of his own mind. That his highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness, and that he must not force other people nor accept their right to force him. That each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self-interest.

Of course, nobody wants to be “forced” to do anything.  So, I respectfully submit that Rand’s use of the word “force” is something of an inflammatory red herring. The real issue is not of “forcing” morality, per se, but one of fostering empathy and commonality.  Rand says these things are inherently counterproductive and immoral.  Simply put, in Rand’s world self-gratification is paramount.  To hell with everyone else.

Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal presents one of the clearest pictures of Objectivism as ideology; a time and place in which unbridled, unregulated capitalism reigns supreme and the wants of the individual supersede the needs of the masses.  It is, at the most basic level, concentrated elitism which builds its arguments upon a marriage of idealistic self-promotion and incomplete, self-serving critique on a multitude of topics.  It is in this particular work that Rand declares capitalism to be “only rational and moral system in man’s history” (p. 34; all references to this text are from the 1967 Signet paperback edition).  A brief look at statistical data from capitalist countries around the time of this essay puts Rand’s declaration in a proper perspective.  In Ernest Mandel’s  Introduction to Marxism, Mandel provides an overview of social inequality in a capitalist society, circa 1973.  It’s hard to imagine these compelling figures as being indicative of a “rational and moral system.”

A pyramid of wealth and social power exists in all capitalist countries. In the USA, a Senate Commission has estimated that less than one percent of American families possess 80per cent of all shares in companies and that 0.2 percent of families possess more than two-thirds of these shares. In Britain, in 1973, the richest one percent of the population held 28 percent of all marketable wealth; and the richest five percent, 50.5 percent of that wealth (these figures, however, strongly understate the concentration of wealth because they include private dwellings which, for a large part of the population, are not ‘marketable wealth’ but necessary living conditions). In Belgium one-third of the citizens are at the bottom of this pyramid, possessing nothing other than what they earn and spend, year in, year out; they have no savings and no assets. Four percent of the citizens occupy the top of this pyramid, owning half the private wealth of the nation. Less than one percent of Belgians own more than half the stocks and shares in the country. Among these, 200 families control the big holding societies which dominate the whole of the nation’s economic life. In Switzerland, one percent of the population possess more than 67 percent of the privately-owned wealth.

Inequality of revenue and wealth is not only an economic fact. It implies inequality in chances of survival and death. In Great Britain before the Second World War, the infant mortality rate in the families of unskilled workers was double that in bourgeois families. Official statistics indicate that in France in 1951, infant mortality expressed in deaths per 1,000births was 19.1 in the liberal professions, 23.9 among employers, 28.2 among commercial employees, 34.5 among tradespeople, 36.4 among artisans (craft workers), 42.5among skilled workers, 44.9 among peasants and agricultural workers, 51.9 among semi-skilled workers, 61.7 among unskilled and manual workers. The proportional differences had hardly changed ten years later, although the infant mortality rate had fallen in each category.


The USA accounts for nearly half of the industrial production and consumes more than half of a great number of primary industrial materials in the capitalist world. Five hundred and fifty million Indians have less steel and electrical energy at their disposal than nine million Belgians. The real per capita income in the poorest countries of the world is only eight percent of the per capita income in the richest countries. Sixty-seven percent of the world’s population receives only 15 percent of the world’s revenue. In India in 1970, 20 times as many women per 100,000 births died in childbirth as in Britain.  (pp. 10-11 1979 Ink Links ed.)

It is perhaps useful to reflect a bit on how Rand and her followers practiced Randian teachings in everyday life.  As in many “great” movements and religions, the practice was a significant divergence from the theory.  Michael Shermer’s book Why Do People Believe Weird Things? illustrates how the Objectivist inner circle degenerated into a personality cult that celebrated the supremacy of one individual and the subordination of the group to Rand as the “Supreme Leader.”  Rand’s inner circle referred to itself as “The Collective,” which was either ironic or hypocritical depending largely on one’s perspective and sense of humor.

Rand’s works are riddled with half-truths and historical inaccuracies which she uses to prop up Objectivist mythology.  Rand purposefully neglects and ignores the victimization and exploitation wrought by American capitalism, blaming its most acute failures on government regulation and portraying businessmen as innocent “victims”  in the essay “Notes on the History of American Free Enterprise” from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.  She acts as an apologist for corruption and greed at all levels, including her analysis of the American railroad system in the early 20th century.  Rand’s lapdogs Alan Greenspan, Nathaniel Branden, and Robert Hessen get into the act as well in the aforementioned volume.

Of course, Rand’s perverted world view extends beyond the simple espousal of greed and capitalism but these factors remain at the core of her analyses of any and all social phenomena, including that of racism.  For an overview of the Randian take on racism, see her essay “Racism” from the volume The Virtue of Selfishness.  One could easily fill an entire volume with arguments refuting and disproving her assertions in this particular work.  Rand’s views on women are unbelievably short-sighted and filled with self-loathing.  In Rand’s  essay “About a Woman President” from the book The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, Rand wrote that women are “not psychologically suited” to be leaders despite her own ascendancy to an unchallengeable leadership of her own personality cult:

To act as the superior, the leader, virtually the ruler of all the man she deals with, would be an excruciating psychological torture. It would require a total depersonalization, an utter selflessness, and an incommunicable loneliness; she would have to suppress (or repress) every personal aspect of her own character and attitude; she could not be herself, i.e., a woman; … she would become the most unfeminine, sexless, metaphysically inappropriate, and rationally revolting figure of all: a matriarch.

One of the most disturbing components of Objectivism is the Randian analysis of love both as a phenomenon and as a social relationship.  Mike Wallace touches on this from his 1959 interview segment:

Wallace: And cannot man have self-esteem if he loves his fellow man? What’s wrong with loving your fellow man?… Why, then, is this kind of love, in your mind, immoral?

Rand: It is immoral if it is a law placed above oneself. It is more than immoral, it is impossible because when you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately, that is to love people without any standards, to love them regardless of the fact of whether they have any value or virtue, you are asked to love nobody.

Alexandra Kollontai

Rand continues by explaining her perception of love as a matter of “self-interest.” The cold, sterile world of Anthem that Equality-7-2521 rebels against in Rand’s work Anthem is seemingly presented for approval by Rand herself in the form of “Objectivist love.” (For an even glibber Objectivist description of the concept of love see pages 35-35 of The Objectivist Reader.)  The works of people like Che Guevara, who wrote of the “love of living humanity”, and Alexandra Kollantai, who wrote of love as a cooperative, common, living relationship, stand in direct opposition to the dystopic vision of Randian love.  Which kind of love does the world more readily embrace?  Love as a form of selfishness or love as a common relationship between equals?  Political and philosophical labels aside, I think most of us would prefer the latter.

Rand, for all her rantings on the inherent evil of all other social and economic systems and institutions, sought to build one of the most heartless and draconian systems imaginable through her own propagandistic ravings and her own homegrown cult of personality. It is tragic enough that some of her ideas have indeed found their way into the mainstream schools of political and economic thought in America (thanks to the likes of Greenspan, Friedman, et al.) but we should probably breathe a collective sigh of relief that Objectivism has never gained full credibility and widespread support as an attractive and viable philosophical movement.

The next and final installment of this series will examine the influences on Randian Objectivism on the lyrics of Rush.

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