Sunday, July 30, 2006

Commerce and Culture

Paul Cantor's seminar on Commerce and Culture is up on the site. I've listened only to his lecture on the serialized novel in the ninetheenth century and it's fascinating. Much of what we find in movie promotion today (such as tie-ins and even product placement) goes back to Dickens' time. For example, there were action figures for the characters in The Pickwick Papers and a Guinness Stout beer strategically place in a print for the book.

The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics

I plan on reducing the posts on this topic to one a week (probably some sort of "weekend exclusive"). My next topic is Rand's anger. I can't discuss this until I receive my copy of the first Donanhue interview, which I just ordered from the ARI. Since Branden's alleged misrepresentation of this incident has been cited by at least a couple of people in their "conversion" to skepticism vis-a-vis The Passion of Ayn Rand, this should be interesting.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Robert Bass on Tibor Machan

A review of his 2000 book on Rand. I dusted off my old copy and didn't find egregious errors on almost every page, but there were lots of sentences that could have been clearer or better written.

I think Prof. Bass is correct that we need a good 200-300 page introduction to Rand's life and thought.

Friday, July 28, 2006

James Valliant on the Brandens

James Valliant and I have been engaging in a friendly discussion about his book on Ayn Rand and the biographies/memoires of Rand's former associates, Nathaniel and Barabara Branden.

Now, as I see it, Mr. Valliant is making the following claim (I paraphrase):

"There are so many significant mistakes, ommissions, contradictions (within and among the books and with the known facts), excessive psychologizing, failure to name sources and self-serving allegations in the Brandens' works that the only explanation is that their works are deliberately dishonest."

There is nothing wrong with this approach. It's the way we normally judge credibility and juries find people guilty every day using this methodology. If I say that I was born in Salt Lake City, my father is the president of the Mormon Church, and I read the Book of Mormon every day then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that I am lying (or insane).

But this requires an analysis of the various errors and a determination of whether there are innocent explanations. At times a narrow view if required (is it a literal contradiction?) and some times a broad view (is what the Brandens say consistent with those undisputed things we know about Rand?). My reading thus far of PARC indicates that Mr. Valliant has not shown that there are deliberate fabrications. (Which isn't to say that I consider these books the last word on Rand, or even reliable.)

For example, I think that there is an innocent explantion for the mistakes about Rand's name. I suspect that Rand said something that lent credence to the Remington Rand story. I do find it interesting that Gotthelf believed this story until at least 2000. And even if he relied on Branden, one gets the impression that there was uncertainty on this issue. (Incidentally, Gotthelf says that he received comments from Harry Binswanger on "each chapter." Did the draft that Dr. Binswanger reviewed contain a discussion of the name?) Of course, I don't know what Rand told Branden on this issue and whether Branden may have misunderstood it. But Mr. Valliant doesn't know either. (If this were the only mistake in Branden's book, is the evidence so strong that the only inference to be drawn is that Branden is fabricating the origin of the name or the reason for it?)

Likewise, Branden's views on Rand's intellectual influences and the changes in We the Living do not demonstrate that she has deliberately misrepresented Rand's philosophical development. People other than Branden have said the same thing about these topics and is Mr. Valliant accusing them of lying?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

James Valliant on We the Living

In 1936 Rand published We the Living. In 1959, Rand prepared a revised version and made some changes. Some of the changes concerned areas with philosophical content. According to Valliant, Branden and some critics have argued that Rand deliberately toned down certain allegedly Nietzschian aspects of the work. Rand however denied that she made any changes affecting the “content of the novel.” (page 44.)

According to Valliant, this speculation is baseless and Branden’s claim is tantamount to accusing Rand of “self delusion.” He argues that Rand’s Journals (which were of course published after Branden’s biography) show that she had rejected important parts of Nietzsche’s system by 1934.

Again, how this demonstrates that Branden is engaged in an attack on Rand or deliberately misrepresenting the content or the changes to We the Living is not clear. And since writers in addition to Branden have made similar claims, what’s the big deal?

Incidentally, David Ramsay Steele sees Branden's discussion of the changes in We the Living as an attempt to downplay the changes (thus defending Rand).

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

James Valliant on Henry Holzer

We are still in chapter 3, where Valliant discusses the claim that Rand was an authoritarian. One of the people Rand "broke" with was her attorney Henry Mark Holzer. Valliant suggests that Rand's splits with people (to the extent they were splits as opposed to just drifting apart) concerned ideological disagreements. He says it is "clear" that philosophical splits were emerging with people, even if it is "not entirely clear" that these differences were the "proximate cause" of the split.

Turing to Mr. Holzer, Valliant suggests that their split might have had something to do with Holzer's belief in strict construction of the constitution. Rand, Valliant tells us, had a more flexible approach to constitutional interpretation. (page 74.)

That's about all that Valliant says. There are two footnotes to the paragraph in question (numbers 52 & 53).

Footnote 52 refererences Holzer's book Sweet Land of Liberty? where Valliant notes that Holzer didn't agree with the "right to privacy" underlying such decisions as Roe v. Wade.

Footnote 53 references:

1. Rand's Marginalia at pages 203-205;

2. An article by Harry Binswanger concerning the Bowers v. Hardwick decision (a 1986 Supreme Court case in which the court uplheld a state's right to criminalize sodomy); and

3. Stephen Macedo's 1986 book The New Right v. the Constitution.

I don't have Holzer's and Macedo's books, but from their titles I doubt they contain information on the Rand/Holzer relationship. Certainly Rand's Marginalia and Binswanger's article don't.

In fairness to Mr. Valliant, he doesn't claim to know the reason for the split, but he leaves the impression that philosophy was an issue. Based on these footnotes it isn't "clear" to me that Holzer's judicial philosophy was a factor.

Monday, July 24, 2006

James Valliant on Murray Rothbard

I am posting a series on James Valliant's book The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics which was published in 2005. Since this book has prompted some people to reevaluate their view of Ayn Rand and the Brandens, I think it is appropriate to discuss the book's scholarship. Incidentally, I do not claim to be an expert on the life of Ayn Rand, nor am I a supporter of the Brandens. I have never met either and my only contact with them consists of a brief email exchange with Nathaniel Branden on an unrelated issue some years back. I have never contributed to The Objectivist Center and have never attended its conferences.

I'm now on chapter three, entitled "Mullah Rand?" Here Mr. Valliant discusses the claim that Rand was an authoritarian who demanded complete allegiance, thus provoking several followers such as Murray Rothbard, Edith Efron, the Blumenthals, the Holzers, and the Smiths to "split" with her.

I'll turn first to Murray Rothbard. Rothbard and Rand broke in 1958. Mr. Valliant repeats the claim that Rothbard "plagiarized" Rand. Here is Mr. Valliant:

"Murray Rothbard (43), apart from being an anarchist, was clearly using ideas he got from Rand in scholarly articles without crediting his own source for the material, and he continued to do so throughout his career. (44)".

He adds that when Rothbard discussed something that Rand also discussed, "[his] own first source for the point was invariably (and quite obviously) Rand." (pages 70-71.) He accuses Rothbard of "plagiarism" and "intellectual larceny."

Rothbard met Rand in the early 1950s and died in 1995, writing until the end. Mr. Valliant apparently contends that Rothbard had been stealing from Rand's for approximately 40 years without attribution. In footnote 44, Mr. Valliant gives his only examples: a work called "Individualism and the Methodology of the Social Sciences" (particularly on the "validation of free will") and also chapter one of Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty, particular the phrase "the fusion of matter and spirit" in production. Mr. Valliant does not give any sentences from Rothbard's works that were allegedly lifted from Rand's writings.

The claim that Rothbard plagiarized Rand's ideas has been raised before, but generally revolves around Rothbard's 1958 essay "The Mantle of Science" and a claim this essay borrowed from Rand's ideas generally and Barbara Branden's master's thesis on free will specifically.

Mr. Valliant appears to be confused here. There is no essay by Rothbard entitled “Individualism and the Methodology of the Social Sciences.” Cato however did publish a booklet entitled Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences which contains “Mantle” and an essay called “Praxeology as the Method of the Social Sciences.” In any event, Mr. Valliant seems to be referring to the discussion of free will in “Mantle” but neglects to mention that Miss Branden was the alleged principle victim of Rothbard's supposed plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a strong claim. It does not mean using a few ideas without attribution but literally stealing words. So Mr. Valliant should present the evidence that Rothbard copied material from Rand if he is going to make this allegation.

PARC came out in May 2005. Mr. Valliant did not have the benefit of hearing George Reisman's August 2005 speech at the Ludwig von Mises institute in which he discussed this incident. Reisman was on friendly terms with both Rand and Rothbard at the time. According to Reisman, Rothbard did not plagiarize from Rand or Branden, but should have mentioned that he first heard certain ideas from Rand. However, by the time PARC came out, Joseph Stromberg's discussion of the plagiarism allegation was available on the web and also Justin Raimondo's 2000 biography of Rothbard entitled An Enemy of the State which has the most extensive discussion I'm aware of Rothbard's relationship with Rand and the Brandens. Unfortunately, neither is mentioned.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

James Valliant on Rand's Intellectual Debts

James Valliant, in The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics makes the following criticism of Barbara Branden.

“Ms. Branden alleges that dishonest grandiosity is apparent in Rand’s claim that ‘the only thinker in history from whom she had anything to learn’ was Aristotle. This is something for which ‘Rand should have been challenged,’ according to Ms. Branden, who also claims that Rand ‘dismissed’ as worthless if not immoral, the whole ‘history of philosophy, with the sole significant exceptions of Aristotle and aspects of Thomas Aquinas. . .’ (99)”

“It is simply a fact that Rand was influenced by very few thinkers when it came to philosophical fundamentals. Does Ms. Branden wish to imply that Rand should have been more influenced by others?” (Page 46.)

I think it’s clear what Branden is saying. First, that Rand (like any philosopher) inevitably absorbed ideas from other thinkers. So while Rand may have said that her sole philosophical debt was to Aristotle, she was likely influenced unconsciously by other thinkers, even if she didn’t remember exactly who and when. Second, Rand had an excessively negative view of the history of philosophers and, contrary to what she thought, could have learned from other philosophers’ ideas and perhaps incorporated some into Objectivism.

Now, say what you want about Branden’s point, this is her opinion about the enterprise of learning and how it likely worked in Rand’s case. Nothing that Valliant says in the several paragraphs that follow proves Branden wrong, much less shows that she is lying.

This is typical of Vallient’s methodology. It might be called “overanalysis.” Statements made by the Brandens or a critic of Rand’s are interpreted in such a way as to create a contradiction.

James Valliant on Rand and the Remington Rand Typewriter Story

James Valliant, in his book The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, practically begins his attack on the Brandens with Barabara Branden's claim that Rand took her name from the Remington-Rand typewriter. He quotes Allan Gotthelf as discovering that it wasn't until 1927 that Remington-Rand typwriters began to be produced. He says that Gotthelf, in a future edition of his 2000 work On Ayn Rand will discuss the results of his research.

What did Gotthelf say in 2000?

". . . she probably first spotted 'Rand' on a Remington Rand typewriter in Russia." (p. 19.)

Not only that, he states at the beginning of the chapter:

"In this paragraph and in what follows in this and the next chapter . . . I draw on . . . other material housed in the Ayn Rand Archives at the Ayn Rand Institute . . . ." (p. 17.)

And in the book's introduction:

"Michael Berliner, Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute, kindly supervised the checking of biographical information for me in the Institute's Ayn Rand Archives."

Why does a mistake that was believed as recently as 2000 by Allan Gotthelf and (apparently) by the ARI become proof of Barbara Branden's dishonesty?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ayn Rand and Bruce Goldberg

In the 1960s, libertarian philosopher Bruce Goldberg wrote a sharp critique of Rand's For the New Intellectual in the The New Individualist Review.

Goldberg's piece came to Rand's attention. According to Rand's archives (go to page 21), she placed it in a folder marked "B.S.".

Curiously, the archives describe the New Individualist Review as "right wing" even though it concedes that two of its advisors were Hayek and Friedman.

I'll have to dig out my old copy of The New Indivualist Review. I recall that Nathaniel Branden wrote a response that was published. The archives don't mention this, however.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Roderick Long on Culture and Liberty

Prof. Long's lecture on liberty and culture given at the recent Mises conference proposes an approach in between Rand's and Walter Block's.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Foundations of Libertarian Ethics

I haven't started listening to this series by Roderick Long yet, but it sounds excellent.