Sunday, May 20, 2007

James Valliant and "Uncritical Reliance" on "the Brandens"

In reading PARC, one gets the impression that all the negative reports about Rand’s personality have their origin in the Brandens’ books and that without these books there is no reason to accept as accurate the description of Rand provided in them. Let’s remember that the most Valliant is willing to concede about Rand is that her anger could be unjust at times and that she made some poor choices.

However, we shall see that Valliant has ignored a large amount of evidence that Rand had personality flaws beyond her anger. These were well documented prior to the publication of PARC.

Valliant makes no mention of Justin Raimondo’s biography of Murray Rothbard, An Enemy of the State, published in 2000. Raimondo quotes a 1954 letter from Rothbard to Richard Cornuelle. Rothbard writes “[George Reisman] found himself under a typical vitriolic Randian barrage, according to which anyone who is not now or soon will be a one-hundred percent Randian Rationalist is an ‘enemy’ and an ‘objective believer in death and destruction’ as well as crazy.” (An Enemy of the State, p. 110.)

Another book which isn’t mentioned is Stephen Cox’s 2004 biography of Isabel Paterson entitled The Woman and the Dynamo. Although I won’t go into the details, Cox’s description of Rand is somewhat negative and he takes Paterson’s “side” against Rand’s claim that Paterson failed to acknowledge that she got some of her ideas from Rand. Cox interviewed Nathaniel Branden, Henry Holzer, and Ericka Holzer.

One book that Valliant does cite is Jeff Walker’s The Ayn Rand Cult. Valliant occasionally uses this as a source, claiming it gives a version of events different than Barbara Branden’s, while attacking its general reliability. There is nothing inherently contradictory about finding a book that one doesn’t consider reliable to be accurate in certain cases. However, Valliant doesn’t say why TARC is reliable when it quotes Kay Nolte Smith concerning changes to Penthouse Legend but not the critical things she says about Rand. Likewise, why is TARC believable when it quotes Henry Holzer concerning his break with Rand, but not believable when it quotes the Holzers’ description of Rand as “nasty”, “insensitive” and “unkind”?

Finally, Valliant’s use of the Brandens' books as historical sources is contradictory. Valliant says that the books are “valueless as historical documents.” (PARC, p. 6.) However, they become quite reliable when they contain admissions by the Brandens. For example, Valliant credits Nathaniel Branden's claim that he became Rand's "enforcer" although alleging that Rand didn't know about Branden's conduct. (PARC, p. 59.) And, as Ellen Stuttle has noted, Valliant does not question either Nathaniel or Barbara Branden when it comes to their claim that Rand received Frank’s consent for the affair. Yet they are the only sources for such a claim.

Branden bases much of her account on interviews with those who knew Rand post-1968. Some of these people are quoted extensively. Branden quotes Allan Blumenthal: "She [Rand] was relentless in her pursuit of so-called psychological errors [concerning judgments on art]. If an issue were once raised, she would never drop it; after and evening's conversation, she'd telephone the next day to ask what we had concluded about it overnight . . . It was becoming a nightmare." (PAR, p. 387.) She quotes Joan: "but, often, she would seem deliberately to insult and antagonize us." (Id.) When I asked Valliant about this, he says he doesn’t dispute the Blumenthals’ account or that they have been quoted accurately. I read the Blumenthals account to go considerably beyond a claim of “unjust anger.”

Incidentally, Valliant does not dispute the reliability of anyone who says anything critical of Nathaniel Branden. Edith Efron is not credible in her description of Rand's anger, but Valliant finds her trustworthy in her denunciations of Branden. (PARC, 65, 77-78.)

Finally, Brian Doherty recently published a history of the libertarian movement in 2007 called Radicals for Capitalism which discusses Rand extensively. He likewise confirms unfortunate aspects of Rand’s personality and the authoritarian nature of her movement. He interviewed, among others, Robert Hessen, Ralph Raico, Barbara Branden, Nathaniel Branden, and Joan Kennedy Taylor. He also quotes letters from two anonymous “longtime members” of Rand’s “inner circle” attesting to Rand’s “cruel[ty]” and lack of a “benevolent sense of life.” (p. 705.)

In addition to my general point that negative aspects of Rand’s personality have been confirmed by those who knew Rand, Walker, Cox and Doherty have obviously made their own independent evaluation of the credibility of many of the sources used by Barbara Branden. It is thus unfair for Valliant to claim that they uncritically rely on PAR for their negative assessments of Rand.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Walter Block on Ayn Rand

An article from The Journals of Ayn Rand Studies.