Monday, March 12, 2007

The Truth Is Out There Somewhere, Part II

As I stated in a previous post, Valliant uses as one of his sources Jeff Walker’s book The Ayn Rand Cult (“TARC”). TARC is an explicitly anti-Rand book which is, as Valliant notes, is something of a repository for all anti-Rand stories. Curiously, Valliant uses TARC at times to supplement PAR, implying that it contains a better or more complete account of some events. He does this notwithanding that he accuses it of “extensive reliance” on the Brandens’ books. (PARC, p. 373.) One example concerns the production by Phillip and Kay Smith of Rand’s play Penthouse Legend (Night of January 16th), which precipitated the split between Rand and the Smiths. Valliant notes that while Branden reports that Rand split with Phillip and Kay Smith, she does not give the details of the split or connect it with the play.

In 1973, an off-Broadway performance of Penthouse Legend (Night of January 16th) was staged. Phillip Smith directed and co-produced the play; his wife, Kay Nolte Smith co-produced the play and acted as well. (PAR, pp. 369-372.) Walker says that Kay Smith made “unauthorized changes to a few lines of dialogue for a public performance” and for that reason was expelled from Rand’s inner circle. (TARC, p. 35.) Valliant’s only source is TARC. (PARC, p. 400.) Valliant’s version of the events is different. He says the Smiths, “changed the dialogue in their production of Penthouse Legend without authorization from Rand.” He describes the Smiths’ conduct as “systematic and personal betrayal.” (PARC, pp. 75-76.) However, TARC doesn’t describe the changes as concerning the “production” of the play but limits it to lines in one performance. Valliant doesn’t acknowledge the fact that TARC not only doesn’t support his description of this event, but contradicts it. Valliant also mentions that he asked Kay Smith for an interview in 1983, which she declined. Of course this could not be in connection with PARC since PAR wasn’t published until 1986.

As Michael Stuart Kelley notes, Phillip Smith supports TARC’s contention that the change was limited. Dr. George Reisman recounts the incident as follows in his weblog in 2006:

"Many years ago, there was a young actress to whom Ayn Rand gave the responsibility of directing a production of her play 'The Night of January 16th.' Toward the close of the play’s run, an actor prevailed upon this young woman to allow him to alter one of Ayn Rand’s lines in one of the play’s last performances. When Ayn Rand learned of this, she was furious and completely ended her relationship with this young woman, who had been in her inner circle for several years."

So while I think that, in retrospect, Branden should have included the details of this split, reporting it probably wouldn’t have changed the typical reader’s opinion of Rand.

Incidentally, when confronted with the obvious problems in his description of the split with the Smiths by Chris Sciabarra, Valliant responded that he had “anonymous sources” for his version of the split (and also anonymous sources for other events). Yet no such sources are mentioned or even hinted at in PARC with respect to the break with the Smiths or any other event. Valliant even goes so far as to claim that “[u]nlike Ms. Branden, I do not rely on anonymous sources as my only source for something . . . .” Valliant is relying on his anonymous sources exclusively for the Smith break given that Walker contradicts his version (or, perhaps, he is just misquoting TARC). And finally, one can’t notice the double standard employed by Valliant: when Branden said post-PARC that she heard the Remington-Rand story from Rand, Valliant accuses her of dishonestly attempting to bolster her case.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Truth Is Out There Somewhere, Part I

One claim of PARC is that the Brandens’ books can be shown to be unreliable based on evidence that Valliant has unearthed. Most significantly, Valliant argues that Rand’s diaries contradict the Brandens’ version of the 1968 split. However, these diaries do not shed much (if any) light on other events.

Valliant has referenced some, but not all, of the other published works that bear on his topic. He mentions, among other material, Jeff Walker’s The Ayn Rand Cult, recollections by John Hospers, interviews (by others) with the Brandens, and the video of Rand’s first appearance on The Phil Donahue Show. At the same time, he has ignored other sources relevant to his work, such as Justin Raimondo’s biography of Murray Rothbard and Joseph Stromberg’s essay on the Rothbard plagiarism allegation. In addition, while he accuses Nathaniel Branden of departing from Objectivism in various ways, he does not reference any of Branden’s post-split work, with the exception of his memoirs and his 1984 essay “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand.”

So far as I can tell, Valliant did not ask either Nathaniel or Barbara Branden for interviews. Barbara Branden’s book is based on dozens of interviews. He did not ask Barbara Branden for permission to listen to the tapes of interviews she had with others. It is quite brazen for Valliant to allege that Branden has fabricated entire incidents without seeking access to the evidence upon which she based her claims. The only interview (or rather attempted interview) that Valliant mentions is Kay Nolte Smith, who he claims refused an interview with him in 1983. (PARC, p. 400.) As Ellen Stuttle noted, by Valliant’s own admission he was, in 1982, a teenager in college.

Notwithstanding his apparent lack of interest in the evidence upon which Barbara Branden bases her accounts, Valliant is quite content to leave the impression that there is some version of events “out there” that she is suppressing. As one example, take Branden’s contention that Frank O’Connor drank excessively. Branden says that “each week” Rand’s housekeeper went to Frank’s studio and “found no new paintings, but instead, rows of empty liquor bottles.” (PAR, p. 366.) We are told by Valliant that “the housekeeper is said to have been indignant at Ms. Branden’s allegation”, apparently telling Leonard Peikoff that she was misquoted or misinterpreted by Branden. (PARC, p. 144.) The source for Peikoff’s statement is “the author’s best recollection of Leonard Peikoff’s statement in response to a question on the subject given during a conversation in his home in California in 1991, and it echoes comments made be Peikoff in the question and answer period following his speech “My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand” . . . on April 12, 1987 . . . .” (PARC, p. 407.) Since Valliant appears to be on rather friendly terms with Leonard Peikoff, it would not have been too difficult for Valliant to have asked Peikoff about this matter instead of relying on his recollection of a conversation fourteen years before. Incredibly, Valliant even claims that “as previously indicated, it is those closest to the O’Connors in their later years who most vehemently deny this charge.” (PARC, p. 147, emphasis in the original.) Really? The only people to whom Valliant could be referring are Peikoff and the housekeeper, and neither is quoted by Valliant as actually denying that O’Connor drank excessively.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, Objectivist Heretics, Part I

One of the central sub themes of PARC is that not only that the Brandens’ books are untrustworthy, but also that the Brandens have so departed from Objectivism that they view Rand from their new perspective, often distorting Rand as result. At times, Valliant also hints that their alleged departures from Objectivism are so severe as to render anything they say suspect. However, even Valliant must concede that by all accounts the Brandens remain quite favorable toward Objectivism and their departures are principally in the areas of psychology and moral judgment. (PARC, p. 27.)

Turning to Nathaniel Branden, Valliant argues that there are “significant” philosophical differences between Branden’s current views and Objectivism. (PARC, p. 27.) First, he argues that Branden rejects the term “validate” with regard to metaphysical axioms. Valliant’s source for this contention is a conversation recounted in JD between Branden and Alan Greenspan, apparently from the 1950s.

“Can you prove you exist?” he would ask, and I would respond, “Shall I send you my answer from nonexistence?” “Validate the laws of logic,” he would insist, and I would reply, “’Validate’ is a concept that presupposes your acceptance of logic; otherwise, what does it mean?” (JD, p. 133.)

Valliant is obviously reaching here. A conversation (or summary of conversations) from the 1950s doesn’t appear to have much relevancy to what Branden believed in 1989 (the year JD was published). And this conversation doesn’t support his claim that Branden rejects to the idea that one can validate axioms. While I no more profess to be an expert on Objectivism than Valliant does, Branden appears to be employing the “stolen concept” argument.

Valliant also contends that Branden’s approval of child psychologist Haim Ginott’s phrase “labeling is disabling” is another example of his departure from Objectivism. Valliant suggests ominously that “Branden seems to have veered sharply away from the author of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, if not the necessity and objectivity of concepts themselves.” (PARC, p. 28.) Branden’s favorable quotation of Ginott’s phrase is in the context of a discussion of the term “social metaphysician.” Branden says that he no longer use that term and instead he prefers to focus on one's “growing in autonomy and self-trust.” (My Years With Ayn Rand, [“MYWAR”], p. 111.) Branden does not deny that social metaphysician remains a valid concept, but its use circa 1960 presupposed a level of independence and autonomy which he no longer believes exists in the average person.

Valliant’s next example concerns Branden’s distancing himself from some of what Rand said in her introductory essay in For the New Intellectual. In that essay Rand surveys the history of philosophy, briefly summarizing the ideas of central philosophers such as Plato, Kant, Hegel and Spencer, drawing broad conclusions about their influence on history. Valliant says that “Branden does not argue with Rand’s evaluations, but he nonetheless claims Rand’s approach unnecessarily alienates intellectuals.” (PARC, p. 28.) This is another very poor summary. Branden says that many philosophy professors, in commenting on the essay at the time it was published, told him that they thought that Rand’s treatment of philosophers “oversimplified, in some respects erroneous” notwithstanding the “valid points” Rand made.” Branden says that while he didn’t agree with this criticism at the time, he now sees they were “right.” Thus, Branden does disagree with Rand’s evaluations (at least in part) and his reason is not that it alienates intellectuals. (JD, p. 281.)

Valliant’s final example concerns Branden’s claim that Rand’s moralism reflected a remnant of religious thinking. According to Valliant, Branden now prefers to see things as “harmful” or “beneficial” rather than “bad” or “good.” Valliant concludes that Branden “appears” to embrace the current view that moral evaluations are non-objective and unscientific.” (PARC, p. 28.) Valliant again misrepresents Branden’s views, although he is perhaps a bit more in the “ball park” this time. Branden writes that, even during his years with Rand, he tended to see “good and evil” in the context of an individual’s spiritual and psychological well-being. He believed Rand was too quick to condemn people with stern moral pronouncements such as “evil.” On the other hand, he was more inclined to ask “what is this person trying to accomplish?” (JD, p. 296.) Branden does not deny that there are actions that may appropriately be called “good” and “evil” much less deny that ethics is objective and scientific. Indeed he evidently believes his approach to ethics is more objective and scientific than Rand’s.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Did No One at Durban House Even Read This Book?

The opening chapters of PARC are an attempt to cast doubt on the reliability of The Passion of Ayn Rand (“PAR”) by suggesting that it is riddled with errors and inconsistencies. Valliant asks rhetorically, “did no one at Doubleday even read this book?” Although I believe Valliant vastly overstates these alleged problems, the same could with more justice be said about PARC. PARC is filled with mistakes. The Brandens’ books are frequently misquoted. Indeed, the very first quote from PAR contains a typo. (PARC, p. 9.) PAR is misquoted again on page 12. On the following page, Valliant quotes Nathaniel Branden as telling an “undetermined ‘us’” that Rand’s name came from her Remington-Rand typewriter, but it is clear from the context that the “us” refers to Barbara and Nathaniel Branden. (Judgment Day [“JD”], p. 73.) There is no need to surmise (as Valliant does) that this second person is “likely” to have been Barbara Branden. When Nathaniel Branden describes Rand's claim that no one ever helped her as an "evident contradiction" with other facts, Valliant claims he calls it "'grandiose' dishonesty." (PARC, p. 41; JD, p. 63.)

Minor mistakes abound in areas tangential to the book’s argument, often in footnotes. Stephen Macedo’s The New Right v. The Constitution is called The New Right Versus The Constitution. Murray Rothbard’s Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences is called Individualism and the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty is misquoted. An internet article by David Hayes is given two slightly different titles. Chris Sciabarra is misrepresented twice concerning his views on Rand’s philosophical background. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies is cited inconsistently. Sometimes it's National Review and other times The National Review.

Granted all books contain mistakes of this type, but the sheer number in PARC casts doubt about the care the author has taken with his sources. More importantly, it makes one wonder if Rand’s diaries (which make up a large portion of PAR) have been accurately transcribed.

Our doubts with respect to PARC have of course been confirmed. Divergent accounts by the Brandens are presented as if they were identical, as in the case of Rand’s break with John Hospers. Sources are summarized carelessly as in Valliant’s claim that a surprise party to celebrate Atlas Shrugged was thrown by Random House, when his only sources say it was thrown by the Brandens. Most notoriously, Valliant claims that Barbara Branden conceals the fact that the Blumenthals broke with Rand when PAR quotes Allan Blumenthal stating explicitly that they decided to leave Rand. Another misrepresentation concerns Branden’s report that Frank O’Connor drank excessively. Branden says that “each week” Rand’s housekeeper went to Frank’s studio and “found no new paintings, but instead, rows of empty liquor bottles.” (PAR, p. 366.) Valliant changes this to “’rows of empty liquor bottles’ . . . which Rand’s housekeeper is said to have found there after O’Connor’s death.” (PARC, p. 144.) He omits the part about their being no new paintings. Suspicions are raised when none are warranted, as in the case of the origin of Rand’s name. It is not at all surprising that Barbara Branden did not mention in PAR that she heard the Remington-Rand story from Rand given that Fern Brown’s recollection (which she quotes in detail) purports to be an eye-witness account of Rand actually choosing her name and was not questioned until years after PAR was published. (PAR, p. 71.)

The Passion of James Valliant's Criticism, Part II

In my essay The Passion of James Valliant’s Criticism, I focused primarily on James Valliant’s use of the Nathaniel and Barbara Brandens’ books as sources. As I showed, Valliant consistently misrepresents the Brandens’ books. I occasionally discussed, often in passing, some of the more serious methodological problems with PARC, such as Valliant’s uncritical grouping together of the Brandens’ books. In this series of posts I will discuss many of these larger problems of PARC in more detail.