Thursday, December 25, 2008

Monday, December 01, 2008

Objectivism and Religion

[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]

Ayn Rand and her followers have a bee in their bonnet when it comes to religion. In particular, contemporary Objectivists often fret about the influence on the Religious Right on politics. It doesn’t appear, however, that they have spent much time studying the topic of religion because the same old chestnuts keep popping up again and again. Here I’ll discuss a couple quotes that appear frequently in Objectivist literature and an additional claim made by Leonard Peikoff.

“Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged”

This is from Matthew 7:1 and is part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. It first entered the Objectivist lexicon with Rand herself:

The precept: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

It is mentioned most recently in Andrew Bernstein’s just published Objectivism in One Lesson.

The full quote (KJV) is:

“(1) Judge not, that ye be not judged. (2) For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

Objectivists, proud of Rand’s moralism, see in Christianity a precursor to the non-judgmentalism present in the post-modern world. (Objectivism must be one of the few philosophies in history which finds Christianity insufficiently judgmental.)

But does Jesus prohibit judging? This appears unlikely, if for no other reason than that Jesus was quite judgmental and judging is a part of life. A couple standard commentaries might help. According to Craig Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 240-41):
As noted above, the issue is not failure to discern, but hypocrisy in judging others for one’s own faults. Later rabbis declared that one should ‘remove [one’s] own blemish first,’ giving the example of a rabbi who deferred a case to correct his own behavior before he ruled that another must do the same. Greek and Roman sages offered similar wisdom: for example, one must solve one’s own problems, and only then in turn to criticize others accurately; we see others’ faults more quickly than our own. Likewise, ‘Practice nothing in your deeds for which you condemn other in your words’ which seems to have become part of the common moral wisdom. (Citations omitted.)

Donald Hagner (Matthew 1-13, p. 169) agrees: “[T]he way one judges others will be the way one is judged by God . . . .”

Rand says that, in judging, one must “possess an unimpeachable character,” so perhaps Rand is saying something similar to Jesus and the ancients.

“I Believe It Because It is Absurd”

This is another chestnut appearing in, among other places, Leonard Peikoff’s Religion Versus America.
What if a dogma cannot be clarified? So much the better, answered an earlier Church father, Tertullian. The truly religious man, he said, delights in thwarting his reason; that shows his commitment to faith. Thus, Tertullian's famous answer, when asked about the dogma of God's self-sacrifice on the cross: ‘Credo quia absurdum’ (‘I believe it because it is absurd’).

Tertullian didn’t say “credo quia absurdum.” (Peikoff is not the most accurate of intellectual historians.) As one writer puts it:

Credo quia absurdum is, of course, a misquote. Tertullian's words are credibile est, quia ineptum est (De carne Christi 5.4). The difference between the imputed and actual words is striking and important. James Moffatt in a sadly neglected article of a half-century ago discovered the clue to the interpretation of the words in observing that here Tertullian ‘follows in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle.’ In Rhetoric 2.23.22 Aristotle shows that an argument from probability can be drawn from the sheer improbability of a story: some stories are so improbable that it is reasonable to believe them. On this view, the words presuppose a tidy correlation between faith and reason, and a consideration of Tertullian's aims in the treatise in which they are found supports this interpretation.
Tertullian recognizes, however, that in spite of its distortions, pagan philosophy has often enjoyed glimpses of the truth. In recalling his quotable strictures against philosophy, we must not forget his equally quotable Seneca saepe noster (De anima 20.1). In the Ad nationes, an early work, Socrates becomes a forerunner of the Christian martyrs, because he suffered, as they suffer, on behalf of the truth at the hands of those ignorant of it (1.4.6-7). If there is a change of tone in the more artful Apologeticum, Tertullian still grants that Socrates aliquid de veritate sapiebat deos negans (46.5).
Those Secular Greeks

Leonard Peikoff, again in Religion Versus America, makes the following claim:

Ancient Greece was not a religious civilization, not on any of the counts I mentioned. The Gods of Mount Olympus were like a race of elder brothers to man, mischievous brothers with rather limited powers; they were closer to Steven Spielberg's extra-terrestrial visitor than to anything we would call ‘God.’ They did not create the universe or shape its laws or leave any message of revelations or demand a life of sacrifice. Nor were they taken very seriously by the leading voices of culture, such as Plato and Aristotle. From start to finish, the Greek thinkers recognized no sacred texts, no infallible priesthood and no intellectual authority beyond the human mind; they allowed no room for faith. Epistemologically, most were staunch individualists who expected each man to grasp the truth by his own powers of sensory observation and logical thought. For detail, I refer you to Aristotle, the preeminent representative of the Greek spirit.

Even though Peikoff qualifies his statement somewhat, it is still more than a little misleading. As a leading scholar of ancient Greek religion explains:

The paradox is that, although Greek religion seems to lack so many of the things which characterize modern religions and which require degrees of personal commitment and faith from their followers, Greeks were involved with religion to a degree which is very hard nowadays to understand. . . . The Greek household had its shrine to Hestia or to Zeus Ktesios . . . . At a meal a libation or drink-offering to the gods was an automatic custom . . . . The great landmarks of human life – birth, coming of age, marriage and death – were all marked by rituals with religious significance. . . . it is against this background of a way of life interpenetrated by an enormous variety of religious ritual, practice and belief . . . that the questioning of religion was seen as a dangerous threat. (J.V. Muir, “Religion and the New Education” in P.E. Easterling and J.V. Muir, Greek Religion and Society, pp. 194-95.)

Even the supposedly enlightened Athenians consulted the oracle at the shrine dedicated to Apollo at Delphi and made military decisions based on what they were told.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Passion of James Valliant's Criticism, Part V

The Passion of James Valliant's Criticism, Part V is now up. This completes my critique, although I am taking the five parts and turning it into a stand-alone critique. If anyone wants a copy, please email me.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

James Valliant on "The Exploiters and the Exploited," Part V

Financial Exploitation

Rand accused the Brandens of financial exploitation. With respect to Nathaniel Branden she asserts that he authorized an improper loan from The Objectivist to NBI, and implies that there were additional improprieties. (TWIMC, pp. 4-5.) With respect to Barbara Branden, she implies that Branden proposed a business plan for a reorganized lecture service that was financially so unreasonable that is was little more than an attempt to cash-in on her name. (TWIMC, pp. 6-7.) We shall see that there is no evidence to support these claims.

Valliant supplements Rand’s allegations in an additional way. He alleges that the Brandens’ deception of Rand concerning Nathaniel’s affair with Patrecia was motivated by financial concerns. Had Rand learned the truth, she would have broken with one or both of them, thus cutting off their “meal ticket.” In addition, he asserts that Nathaniel Branden was gradually drifting away from strict adherence to Objectivism and his failing to disclose this to Rand constituted continued exploitation. I will discuss Branden’s alleged departure from Objectivism later, but I find Valliant’s claim of financial exploitation unpersuasive.

The Brandens’ business relationship with Rand was likely beneficial to all parties, but there is no reason to think that their deception of Rand about Nathaniel’s affair with Patrecia was motivated primarily by financial concerns. It is more likely that they feared Rand’s volcanic temper and the shattering of the Objectivist movement if the relationship was disclosed. As even Valliant concedes, Nathaniel Branden’s finances improved dramatically when he moved to California and went into private practice full-time. (PARC, p. 108.) Branden writes in his memoirs that after the break, NBI was liquidated and the amount after debts was $45,000 – which was split among him, Barbara Branden and Wilfred Schwartz. He adds that “[t]his was all that was left of ten years of work. I had no other personal savings.” (MYWAR, p. 354.) Barbara Branden doesn’t discuss her financial situation at the time of the break, but it doesn’t appear to have been strong. In any event, it was Rand’s intention of naming Barbara Branden her heir that prompted Branden to disclose the truth to Rand (which Valliant, bizarrely, attempts to turn into further evidence of her alleged exploitation of Rand). (PAR, pp. 342-43; PARC, p. 119.) People as talented as Nathaniel and Barbara Branden no doubt could have established themselves in stable careers by 1968 had money been their life’s ambition.

This chapter is an additional example of Valliant’s one-sided writing. In his attempt to convince readers that the Brandens were motivated by a desire to cash-in on Rand’s name there is little, if any, mention of the countless hours of uncompensated time that they spent advancing (if not creating) the Objectivist movement. Instead (in keeping with Rand’s 1968 denunciation), their contributions are slighted:

A couple of years later, a newsletter—to be replaced by a magazine—was founded by Branden and Rand to publish Rand’s speeches and essays and essays, as well as the essays of Rand’s students, including the Brandens’, applying Objectivism to the questions of the day and the Questions of the Ages.

These activities soon became the Brandens’ full-time employment.

Rand's novels were really the only advertisement NBI ever needed. While the lectures at NBI -- including those of Leonard Peikoff and Alan Greenspan -- provided important applications and amplifications of Rand's ideas, it was her novels which recruited the students at NBI, not vice versa . . . . Whatever the quality of the work done at NBI, it was Rand who had pulled the students through the door in the first place--every time.

The same must be said of The Objectivist, which gave Branden and other young students of Objectivism a publishing outlet which they needed far more than Rand did at the time. (PARC, pp. 88-89.)

The Brandens were merely students and employees of Rand.

In an interview with Barbara Branden, Rand said the following (as reported by Mrs. Branden):

As cultural signs, I think the thing that really changed my whole mind is NBL. [Nathaniel Branden Lectures was the original name of Mr. Branden's organization.] It's the whole phenomenon of Nathan's lectures. As you know, when he first started it I wasn't opposed to it, but I can't say that I expected too much. I was watching it, in effect, with enormous concern and sympathy for him, because I thought there was a very good chance of it failing... Since the culture in general seemed totally indifferent to our ideas and to ideas as a whole, I didn't see how one could make a lecture organization grow . . . But with the passage of time . . . I began to see how even the least promising of Nathan's students . . . were not the same as they were before they started on the course, that Nathan had a tremendous influence on them, that they were infinitely better people and more rational, even if they certainly were not Objectivists yet... What I saw is that ideas take, in a manner which I did not know... The whole enormous response to Nathan gave me a preview of what can be done with a culture. And seeing Nathan start on a shoestring, with the whole intellectual atmosphere against him, standing totally alone and establishing an institution, that was an enormously crucial, concrete example of what can be done

Likewise, one certainly wouldn’t know the substantial role that Nathaniel Branden played in turning Rand’s ideas into the mature philosophy of Objectivism. In For the New Intellectual, Rand thanked Nathaniel Branden for his contribution of the “Attila” and “Witch Doctor” archetypes. In the forward to “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” published in The Objectivist in 1966 (which her followers consider her most important writings), she acknowledged the importance of Branden’s article “The Stolen Concept.” One need only consider the seminal essays Branden wrote such as “The Psychology of Pleasure.” In fact, his “Basic Principles of Objectivism” course was the first systematic presentation of Rand’s ideas and was listened to by countless thousands of students throughout the United States. Branden may have been a “student” of Rand’s, but he was the first teacher of Objectivism.

Barbara Branden devoted more of her time to the business side of the Objectivist movement, but she contributed articles to The Objectivist and presented a lecture series entitled “The Principles of Efficient Thinking” at NBI. Rand’s slight of Branden in TWIMC (“I cannot say as much for Barbara Branden” in comparison to Nathaniel’s “waste” of “human endowment”) was entirely unfair given her years of devotion to Objectivism and Rand’s previous praise of her talents and character (which she compared to the heroes of her novels).

Sunday, November 09, 2008

James Valliant on "The Exploiters and the Exploited," Part 4

According to Valliant, Rand’s defense in TWIMC was accurate whereas the Brandens’ responses were “dishonest . . . relying on direct personal slander.” (PARC, p. 90.) However, Valliant concedes that “Rand was not telling her readers everything.” (PARC, p. 95.)

It is evident from reading TWIMC that there was an undisclosed “personal” matter that provided the backdrop for the dispute. For example, Rand says that she was “shocked to discover that he [Branden] was consistently failing to apply to his own personal life. . . the fundamental principles of Objectivism . . . .” (p. 3.) She says that Barbara Branden later disclosed that Branden “suddenly confessed that Mr. Branden had been concealing from me certain ugly actions . . . in his private life . . . .” (p. 4.)

Although Rand did not say what these “ugly actions” were, she did reference Branden’s letter of July 1968. She wrote, “Mr. Branden presented me with a written statement which was so irrational and so offensive that I had to break my personal association with him.” (p. 3.) Left unsaid was that this statement was a several page letter which Nathaniel wrote to Rand explaining that their difference in age prevented him from resuming a sexual relationship with her. (JD, p. 375.) Branden reports that Rand was furious when he hand-delivered the letter to her. (JD, pp. 376-77.) Rand spent numerous pages in her diaries denouncing Branden and the letter. (PARC, pp. 311-69.)

Branden’s response to this claim about the letter was the following:

In writing the above, Miss Rand has given me the right to name that which I infinitely would have preferred to leave unnamed, out of respect for her privacy. I am obliged to report what was in that written paper of mine, in the name of justice and of self-defense.

That written statement was an effort, not to terminate my relationship with Miss Rand, but to save it, in some mutually acceptable form.

It was a tortured, awkward, excruciatingly embarrassed attempt to make clear to her why I felt that an age distance between us of twenty-five years constituted an insuperable barrier, for me, to a romantic relationship.

It is tempting to say, as does Valliant, that this portion of the Branden’s response was, if not gratuitous, at least misleading. In my opinion, the most natural implication of what Branden says is that Rand wanted to start a relationship. I don’t think most readers would conclude that Rand and Branden had a relationship which she wanted to restart. However, one must consider the context. At the beginning of the affair, all parties agreed to keep the affair secret. Rand, by mentioning the letter, in effect broke the agreement. By wording his response the way he did, Branden was able to keep his word and respond to the substance of TWIMC.

An additional matter is the addendum to TWMIC from signed by four lecturers at the NBI (Allan Blumenthal, Alan Greenspan, Leonard Peikoff, and Mary Ann Sures) who announced that they were breaking all ties with the Brandens and “condemn[ing]
them “irrevocably.” Of these four, Rand told only Allan Blumenthal of the affair. I find it a bit unfair for Rand to ask (or allow) these three people to sign such a statement without telling them know the complete story.

In hindsight it would probably have been better for Rand to write a short statement that she was ending her association with the Brandens for personal and professional reasons. By launching such a personal attack on the Brandens and indirectly referencing the affair, I find the Brandens’ response measured.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Stop Fact Checking and Start Reporting

Nothing annoys me more than the media claiming that it will "fact check" the various advertisements and claims of the candidates. Let's face it, members of the media will vote overwhelmingly for Sen. Obama. Yet when they profess to neutrally check facts, I'm supposed to take it at face value?

I'm no pomo-wonker who claims that "all facts are interpreted," but if some member of the media is going to assert that candidate x got his facts wrong I'd like to know if he is voting for or against candidate x.

Take for example one Calvin Woodward of the AP. Today he discusses (among other things) the McCain campaign's claim that Obama was too close to terrorist William Ayers.


William Ayers, a University of Illinois education professor and former member of the radical Weather Underground, was front and center in Republican claims that Obama was "palling around with terrorists," as Palin put it. Ayers had a meet-the-candidate event in his home for Obama early in the Democrat's political career.

The two served on the board of the Woods Fund. And they live in the same Chicago neighborhood.

McCain and Palin stretched the extent of that relationship to link Obama with shadowy figures.

Beyond that, they falsely implied that Ayers used the occasion of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to wish even greater harm. "We don't care about an old washed-up terrorist and his wife, who still, at least on Sept. 11, 2001, said he still wanted to bomb more," McCain told a rally.

This distortion originated in Hillary Rodham Clinton's play book during the primaries, when she criticized Obama for the same relationship.

Ayers, Clinton said, made comments "which were deeply hurtful to people in New York and, I would hope, to every American, because they were published on 9/11, and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more."

By coincidence, The New York Times published a story on the day of the attacks about Ayers and what he called his fictionalized memoirs. The story was based on an interview he had done earlier, in Chicago, in which he declared, "I don't regret setting bombs," and "I feel we didn't do enough," even while seeming to dissociate himself coyly from the group's most destructive acts

Note the heading: "Guilt By Association." Is this "unbiased"? And where is the proof that Ayers' memoirs were "fictionalized"? Ayers still believes it was OK to "set[] bombs," so how is the McCain campaign wrong in claiming that Obama palls around with an unrepentant terrorist? "Shadowy figures"? How does Mr. Woodward propose to describe someone who was in hiding for years because he knew he was facing charges for planting bombs? "Dissociate himself coyly from the group's most destructive acts"? What does Ayers have to do to become a radical in Mr. Woodward's eyes, serve as Camp Commadant of the Gulag Archipelago? Being a commie terrorist isn't destructive enough?

Mr. Woodward: stop "fact checking" and start reporting.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

James Valliant on "The Exploiters and the Exploited," Part 3

Financial Wrongdoing

Perhaps Rand’s most serious charge against Nathaniel Branden is her contention that he financially exploited her. The centerpiece of this claim concerns a loan for $22,500 (or $25,000, depending on whom you believe) that Branden authorized from The Objectivist to NBI.

By way of background, The Objectivist (which was co-owned by Rand and Branden) and NBI (which was owned by Nathaniel Branden) were separate corporations. They shared a common business manager, Wilfred Schwartz. In September 1967, NBI secured a fifteen-year lease at the Empire State Building. The Objectivist was a subtenant, paying $6,000 a year to NBI. NBI’s rent was due yearly. From time to time Branden had authorized loans from The Objectivist to NBI. The Objectivist was profitable and the loans had been paid back. This much is agreed upon, or at least not disputed.

In July 1967, Branden authorized a loan from The Objectivist to NBI for $22,500. (Rand claimed that it was $25,000.) In any event, the loan included the $6,000 payment for The Objectivist’s lease, making it in effect a $16,500 (or $19,000) loan. It appears that this loan was greater than previous loans. It was repaid shortly before the break, probably in August 1968. According to Rand, the loan was made without her knowledge, in violation of the articles of incorporation, constituted almost the entire cash reserves of The Objectivist, and was not repaid until she insisted.

Here is Branden’s version of events:

Contrary to Miss Rand's claim, I never told her that I wished to borrow money from The Objectivist for the rent "because NBI did not have quite enough." At the time of the conversation to which Miss Rand refers, I had no reason to doubt that she already had knowledge of the loan, since there was regular communication between Mr. Schwartz and Miss Rand concerning the move to the Empire State Building, since The Objectivist's own Circulation Manager had prepared the check, and since the loan was entered on the books of The Objectivist. My passing reference to the loan was entirely perfunctory; it was intended, in effect, as a reminder, since I knew of Miss Rand's disinterest in business matters. When I mentioned the loan, Miss Rand said nothing to indicate that she was hearing of it for the first time; she uttered some casual expression of assent, said "So long as you pay it back" (or words to that effect), and waved her hand in a characteristic gesture, dismissing the subject.

Miss Rand states that "the original amount of the loan had represented the entire cash reserve of this magazine." The magazine's own financial statements do not support her assertion. The loan was made on July 6, 1967. The audited statement of the magazine, immediately preceding the loan, that of March 31, 1967, shows total assets in excess of $44,000 and cash in the bank in the amount of $33,881; the audited statement of March 31, 1968, shows total assets in excess of $58,000 and cash in the bank in the amount of $17,438, in addition to the $16,500 loan receivable from NBI (for which NBI was paying a higher rate of interest than The Objectivist obtained from its investments elsewhere).

Valliant alleges that this constitutes an admission by Branden that the loan in question constituted “the depletion of most of the cash reserves of the Objectivist . . . .” This is his reasoning:

He [Branden] does not tell us what The Objectivist had in the bank at the time of the loan, but as of March 31, 1968, the amount was $17,434 he says. The amount of money transferred to NBI, he alleged, had only been $22,500, not the $25,000 Rand had claimed, and, of this only $16,500 was “borrowed.” . . . . [B]ut no matter how Mr. Branden slices it, the loan still required the depletion of most of the cash reserves. . . . (PARC, p. 108.)

I’m no accountant, but I am at a loss to see how Valliant reaches this conclusion. While we don’t know the cash in the bank at the time of the loan, approximately four months prior it was $33,881. Valliant doesn’t mention this amount. Approximately eight months after the loan was made (but before it was paid back) it was $17,438. (Valliant mentions only this later amount, and gets it slightly wrong.) What is the evidence that this loan depleted the cash reserves of The Objectivist? I can only assume that Valliant believes that $17,438 contains funds from the repaid loan ($17,438-$16,500= $938), but the loan wasn’t paid until months later.

Concerning whether the articles of incorporation required consent of both Rand and Branden for such transactions, I can’t comment since I have not seen the document. Valliant doesn’t say whether the Archives has a copy. Valliant alleges that Branden admits in his Judgment Day that at the time of incorporation there was an “oral agreement” that there would be “mutual agreement on all decisions.” (PARC, p. 109.) Actually, Branden says only that there was an oral agreement that The Objectivist would not publish something the other opposed and if there was a falling out The Objectivist would cease publication. (JD, p. 291.)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

James Valliant on "The Exploiters and the Exploited," Part 1

In chapter four of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (entitled “The Exploiters and the Exploited”) James Valliant takes issue with what he alleges is the financial, intellectual and personal exploitation of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel and Barbara Branden which culminated in the 1968 break. Both Brandens concede that they deceived Rand about Nathaniel’s personal life but deny any financial or intellectual exploitation of her.

As is well known, Rand publicly denounced the Brandens in “To Whom It May Concern.” The Brandens, in separate responses, replied to Rand. (Rand then said nothing further on the subject.) This at least gives readers the ability to make a certain “common sense” evaluation of the charges, although it is ultimately difficult to come to firm conclusions without having access to primary source material and interviews. Valliant, who had complete access to the Ayn Rand Archives, is of little help here. He doesn’t supplement his critique of the Brandens’ books with any previously unreleased interviews. He does mention in the endnotes that he has reviewed certain letters and documents in the Archives (such as the business plan Barbara Branden drew up in 1968 for a new lecture service) but doesn’t reproduce them or discuss their contents.

The Play’s Not the Thing

Rand begins her critique of Nathaniel Branden’s supposed change in “intellectual attitude” by referring to his production of Barbara Branden’s stage version of The Fountainhead which, according to Rand, “seemed to become his central concern.” Needless to say, I have no way of verifying whether Branden’s involvement with this project took too much of his time, much less whether it was “authority-flaunting, unserious and, at times, undignified.” Valliant presents no evidence that Rand’s allegations are accurate. I am unaware of such a claim being made in the diaries reproduced in PARC, although the play is mentioned a few of times by Rand. (PARC, pp. 306, 308 & 334.)

Rand then mentions two additional “defaults” with respect to Branden’s responsibilities concerning Objectivism. First, “the growing and lengthening delays in the writing of his articles” for The Objectivist and, second, his failure to rewrite the “Basic Principles of Objectivism” course. These are, to a certain extent, subject to confirmation.

With respect to articles for The Objectivist, Rand says “[w]e also agreed that we would write an equal number of articles and receive an equal salary.” She adds:

If you check over the back issues of this publication, you will observe that in 1962 and 1963 Mr. Branden and I wrote about the same number of articles and that the carried his proper share of the burden of my work. But beginning with the year 1964, the number of articles written by me became significantly greater than the number written by him. On many occasions, he was unable to deliver a promised article on time and I had to write one in order to save the magazine from constant delays. This year, I refused to write more than my share; hence the magazine is now four months behind schedule. (I shall now make up for this time lag as fast as possible.)

Valliant made no effort to determine whether Rand’s claim on this is true. Fred Seddon did. His findings (which I have not attempted to verify) are as follows:

So let’s check over the back issues. Here is what I found. (A “+” indicates Rand is ahead of Nathaniel Branden's output; a “-“ that she is behind. Here are the results up to the break in May of 1968:

1962 +7
1963 -3
1964 +2
1965 +4
1966 +4
1967 +1
1968 even

Notice she is wrong about 1962 and 1963. They did not write “about the same number of articles.” In 1962 she wrote seven more than Branden, the greatest imbalance of any year, despite her complaint about 1964 on. In 1963 Branden actually wrote more articles than Rand—the only year that happened. Notice also that in all of 1967 and 1968, Rand only wrote one more article than Branden. Hardly enough to justify her fuss, especially considering the huge difference in 1962 of which she does not make mention.

As far as Branden’s alleged failure to update his “Basic Principles” course, I am not in a position to verify this. Valliant appears to believe that Branden is in error:

Even in the “updated” version which he sold on LP following the break, a substantial portion of the material appears to be (almost verbatim) what can be found in The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Branden’s “continuous updates” consist primarily of added quotations from Rand’s newly available, IOE, which are also contained on these LPs. Otherwise, despite Branden’s claims to the contrary, his lecture material changed very little throughout the Sixties. (PARC, p. 120.)

Valliant sneers at Branden’s contention that he planned a full update by 1969, but this is possible. It is likewise possible that Branden, after breaking with Rand, was not particularly interested in doing a substantial rewrite. I do find plausible Branden’s claim that of greater concern was his book on psychology, which was published in 1969. Branden’s version of events, all things considered, is at least as likely as Rand’s, if not more likely.

James Valliant On The Exploiters And The Exploited

In chapter four of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, James Valliant takes issue with what he alleges is the financial, intellectual and personal exploitation of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel and Barbara Branden which culminated in the 1968 break. Both Brandens concede that they deceived Rand about Nathaniel’s personal life but deny any financial or intellectual exploitation of her.

As is well known, Rand publicly denounced the Brandens in “To Whom It May Concern.” The Brandens, in separate responses, replied to Rand. (Rand then said nothing further on the subject.) This at least gives readers the ability to make a certain “common sense” evaluation of the charges, although it is ultimately difficult to come to firm conclusions without having access to primary source material and interviews. Valliant, who he had complete access to the Ayn Rand Archives, is of little help here. He doesn’t supplement his critique of the Brandens’ books with any previously unreleased interviews. He does mention in the endnotes that he has reviewed certain letters and documents in the Archives (such as the business plan Barbara Branden drew up in 1968 for a new lecture service) but doesn’t reproduce them or discuss their contents.

The September 1968 Business Plan
After it was agreed that NBI would close, Barbara Branden presented Rand with a ten-page business plan for the creation of a new lecture service. The lecture service would take over NBI’s lease and The Objectivist would remain a subtenant. Branden presented this plan to Rand, which she rejected. Rand stated:

Then I considered the idea of endorsing Mrs. Branden’s proposal to run a lecture organization of her own, on a much more modest scale, with the assistance of NBI’s associate lecturers. But after a few inquiries, I concluded that this was impracticable: I discovered that NBI had treated its associate lecturers so unfairly that they were not eager to continue. (For instance, when the yearly grosses of NBI grew larger, the percentages paid to its associate lecturers were cut.)

* * *

On September 2, the plan was submitted to me at a business meeting attended by my attorney, Henry Mark Holzer. The plan did not offer any relevant factual material, but a projection (by an unspecified method) of future profits to be earned by a lecture organization patterned after NBI, with Mrs. Branden giving the “Basic” course. The essence of the plan required that THE OBJECTIVIST remain in the same quarters with Mrs. Branden’s new corporation, under a business arrangement of so questionable a nature that I reject it at once . . . .

In both her 1968 response and in PAR, Branden takes issue with Rand’s claims. Her response contains numerous points not addressed by Valliant which, if true, undercut Rand’s version of events. Branden claims that Henry Mark Holzer had in fact approved of the business plan. She alleges that the plan was accompanied by forty seven pages of analysis. If true, Rand’s claim that the plan did not contain “any relevant factual material” is likely false.

In any event, Rand’s claim of financial exploitation of the lectures appears unfounded. Rand asserts that lecturers were treated unfairly, using as an example the fact that percentages paid to NBI lecturer’s declined as NBI’s grosses increased. Why this should be surprising or unfair is beyond me. A decrease in percentage paid to lecturers doesn’t necessarily correspond to a decrease in payments. Here is Branden’s response:

Miss Rand states that when the yearly grosses of NBI grew larger, the percentages paid to its Associate Lecturers were cut. This is quite true. But she neglects to mention that when the percentages were cut, the minimum rate guaranteed to a lecturer for a course was more than doubled. (And surely the author of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal knows that the operations of a business preclude transactions which are not considered, by both buyer and seller, to be to their mutual advantage.)
I might add that, a few years ago, while lecturing for NBI during the summer months, Leonard Peikoff asked me if he might tell the head of his philosophy department the sum of money he was earning for his summer's work; he explained that the amount was so much more than a university professor makes, that his department head would be profoundly impressed with the "practicality" of Objectivism. I agreed.

Valliant repeats Rand’s claim that Branden’s proposal was only a “projection” and adds “without the draw of NBI’s ‘star’ lecturer, Nathaniel Branden, which as she says were based on NBI’s past performance, were of little value.” (PARC, p. 120.) Perhaps the report did mention the possibility of an initial fall-off in revenue. (Valliant’s comment about Nathaniel Branden is interesting given his attempt to downplay his contribution to Objectivism in the book.) Rand said that her name was a “gold mine” and it is certainly possible that a revised lecture service could have been equally profitable.

Valliant, who had complete access to the Ayn Rand Archives, was in a position to shed some light on these questions. He mentions that a copy of Branden’s business plan was likely found in the Archives, yet doesn’t reproduce it or discuss its contents. (PARC, p. 404.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

James Valliant On Naming Names

James Valliant first brought to the larger attention of the Objectivist world Allan Gotthelf’s finding that Ayn Rand’s name could not have originated from a Remington Rand typewriter because typewriters with name “Rand” were not produced until several years after Rand’s first use of her name.

I think that Valliant makes too much of this mistake by Barbara Branden. In any event, Valliant also raises suspicions about Rand’s first name and her father’s name in Branden’s biography:

. . . it is interesting to observe that Ms. Branden uniformly names Rand’s father “Fronz” while all other sources and scholars are in agreement that his name was “Zinovy.” Ms. Branden does not reveal her source for this naming. Perhaps Ms. Branden is attempting to draw more dubious “patterns” between Rand’s father and her husband, Frank O’Connor (whose given name was “Francis”) . . . . Ms. Branden translates Rand’s Russian name as “Alice,” while scholars as diverse as Sciabarra and Binswanger normally render it “Alyssa” or “Alisa” . . . . at least “Alice” is how her name appeared on her 1926 passport. (PARC, pp. 389-90.)

Valliant’s suspicions are misplaced. Concerning Rand’s father’s name, Branden reports that Rand called him “Fronz” in her taped interviews. In addition, Adam Reed pointed out:

In footnote 10 on page 389, you speculate on Barbara Branden's motives for giving Ayn Rand's father's first name as 'Fronz,' 'while all other sources and scholars are in agreement that his name was 'Zinovy.' You speculate, 'Perhaps Ms. Branden is attempting to draw more dubious "patterns" between Rand's father and her husband, Frank O'Connor.' But it so happens that my parents were born in ethnically Jewish families in the Russian Empire in 1909 - and they and my other relatives had different native-sounding first names in different languages. For example, my father was Tsvi in Hebrew, Hersh in Yiddish, Genrik in Russian and so on. It was the Yiddish name that was used in everyday life within the family, even though they talked to each other much more often in Polish (or German or Russian) than in Yiddish. So it would not have been unusual if Ayn's father were named Franz/Fronz in German/Yiddish and Zinovy in Russian; Zinovy would have been on official documents examined by scholars and Fronz would have been Alyssa's father's name in childhood memories recounted by Ayn Rand to Barbara Branden.

Reed also discovered that:

The archives of the Jewish community of Saint Petersburg mention the couple Fronz Zakharovich Rosenbaum and Anna Borisovna Rosenbaum (see,53662,2806632.html (in Polish) - presumably Alyssa Rosenbaum's parents.

Concerning “Alice,” Branden also reports that Rand said that this is what her family and friends called her in Russia. It should be remembered that Branden did not have access to Russian archives or Rand's letters to her family when writing her biography.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Two Articles By Larry Sechrest

Two articles by Larry Sechrest from The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies are available here and here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ayn Rand and Charity, Part 2

Following up my previous discussion, I will survey some additional Rand comments on charity here.

Rand’s 1964 Playboy Interview

“My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”

Of note is Rand’s statement that “[t]here is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of help . . . . “ This leads to the question of how much I need to know about people in order to justify helping them. Contributing money to, say, an organization that helps poor people in India might turn on the moral status of the people receiving the help. Some of them might be moral, others not.

Allowing Poor People to Ride on Trains for Free

In one of Rand’s essays she contrasts a railroad’s allowing poor people to ride on a train in empty seats with a full blown altruist. This example approaches what I’ve called generic charity.

For some reason, I’m having a hard time finding the essay.

The Fountainhead: Austin Heller

Austin Heller is a positive minor figure in The Fountainhead. Rand says “he never donated to charity, but spent more money than he could afford, on defending political prisoners anywhere.” (P. 107.)

While this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as describing Rand’s views, it supports the idea that Rand did not support “generic charity,” but thought charity should be limited to specific kinds of people or causes.

I owe this reference to Roderick Long.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Ayn Rand and Charity, Part I

It is occasionally said that Ayn Rand supported charity. By this, one would normally understand (among other things) giving aid to strangers and also various organizations devoted to the care of the sick, the poor, and the needy. For example, giving money to hurricane victims, starving people in far away countries, as well as working for a local soup kitchen are generally considered charitable concerns. I'll call this type of charity (where you don't know much about the moral worth or specific circumstances of the people being helped) "generic charity."

I’m not so sure that Rand would have supported most of what we understand by charity, and in this series of posts I plan on discussing some of the major texts in the Randian corpus.

Rand’s principal work in this area is “The Ethics of Emergencies,” which is reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness. She discusses a number of scenarios.

1. Helping Those You Love

There is an obligation to help those one loves. Further, such acts are not altruistic and therefore don’t pose a problem for Rand.

2. Helping Strangers: Emergency Situations

Here Rand appears to believe that there is a moral obligation to help people in emergency situations if one can do it without much risk.

"It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if it is in one’s power. For example, a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck should help those to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life)." [VOS, pp. 54-55.]

By “should,” I take Rand to mean morally obligated. If so, then it would appear that the ban on altruism is lifted. Of course, one could read it as something not quite as strong – “it is a very nice thing to do.”

3. Helping Strangers: Semi-Emergency Situations

Following this, Rand gives a somewhat different example:

“Or to take an example that can occur in everyday life: suppose on hears that the man next door is ill and penniless. Illness and poverty are not metaphysical emergencies, they are part of the normal risks of existence; but since the man is temporarily helpless, one may bring him food and medicine, if one can afford it (as an act of good will, not of duty) or one may raise a fund among the neighbors to help him out. But this does not mean that one must support him from then on, nor that one must spend one’s life looking for starving men to help.” [P. 55.]

This is an emergency situation, but not as sudden and unexpected as the one above. She says one “may” help in such situations.

Most people would call this charity. Yet, what about giving to an organization devoted to helping similar people who are “down on their luck”? I don’t think Rand would approve of this, although it’s not clear. She does say:

“Poverty, ignorance, illness and other problems of that kind are not metaphysical emergencies. By the metaphysical nature of man and of existence, man has to maintain his life by his won effort . . . . One’s sole obligation toward others, in this respect, is to maintain a social system that leaves men free to achieve, to gain and to keep their values.” [Id.]

If country X has a social system that is not conducive to economic growth and thus most of the people were poor, I don’t think Rand would endorse contributing money to a charitable agency devoted to helping its citizens.

Monday, August 04, 2008

James Valliant on the O'Connors' Marriage

In The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, James Valliant claims that “[i]f we are to take the Brandens’ word for it, the O’Connors’ marriage was an empty fraud. For Rand, it was maintained by her fantasy-like projection of O’Connor. For O’Connor, this supposed financial dependence serves to explain what is otherwise inexplicable to the Brandens—O’Connor’s staying by Rand’s side.” [PARC, p. 152.]

On SoloPassion on July 10, 2008, Valliant said that Barbara Branden describes the O’Connors’ marriage as “something of a fraud . . . .”

As Ms. Branden describes it, Mr. Scherk, the O'Connor marriage was something of a fraud from the start -- built as it was on Rand's fantasy-like projection of a hero who embodied her distinctive values, not the reality of O'Connor, if we are to believe her. By the 1940s, it is suggested that the fraud was wearing thin -- Rand was allegedly becoming frustrated with a lack of intellectual communication. Of course, there is evidence which contradicts this portrait of a troubled marriage in the 1940s or a lack of intellectual communication -- as PARC notes. In any case, when did Ms. Branden ever say that the marriage become honest or solid thereafter? She implies that the friction had settled -- but does she ever suggest that the O'Connor marriage "got real"? (As PARC also makes quite clear, the nature of the relationship between the O'Connors carried a element of mystery for the Brandens -- note the title of the chapter.)

Contrary to Valliant, neither of the Brandens describes Rand’s marriage as a “fraud” or anything like it. It is true that the Brandens contend that Rand projected certain qualities on O’Connor that he didn’t possess (and they seem accurate in this conclusion). But this is a far cry from claiming that their marriage was “built . . . on” (much less sustained for fifty years by) Rand’s projection. Both mention the sincere love and affection that existed between the two. Like most marriages, the O’Connors’ marriage had its up and downs. Rand probably wouldn’t have embarked on the affair with Branden if she was completely satisfied with Frank as a husband.

The Brandens’ claim that Rand became “frustrated with a lack of intellectual communication” in the 1940s to such an extent that Rand considered divorce is highly believable. (And see William Scherk’s excerpt from the Brandens in which he highlights Valliant’s selective quotations.) Contrary to Valliant, there is no evidence that undercuts this. Valliant does not cite a single report of any “intellectual communication” between Rand and O’Connor. Even Valliant concedes, "[w]hether they were always truly happy together, especially in light of Rand's affair, can be questioned . . . ." [PARC, p. 157.] It is not hard to believe that in such an unusual marriage one or both of the parties would consider divorce.

Turning to Valliant’s recent claim that Barbara Branden never describes the O’Connor’s marriage as “becom[ing] honest or solid thereafter [e.g., after the 1940s],” this begs the question of whether Valliant’s description of PAR is correct. In any event, it is rather incredible that Valliant missed this moving description of their marriage post-1968:

Ayn had turned once more to Frank, seeking the special comfort that he alone could give her. He was the one man who had never betrayed her, who had always stood by her, who was her ally and her support through all the triumphs and traumas of her life. It appears that now, at last, she began to truly love the man she had married—or perhaps, to accept the fact that she always had loved him, loved him as he was and as he had been . . . . Without the words to name it, he [Frank] had always accepted and revered her as no one else had ever done, and the personal rejections of a lifetime made his understanding and acceptance more valuable to her than they had ever been before. She clung to him, hating to have him out of her sight . . . . [I]t was the relationship that was the most purely emotional of her life which gave her, in the end, the most satisfaction. [PAR, pp. 364-65.]

As to Valliant’s final contention that “[f]or O’Connor, this supposed financial dependence serves to explain what is otherwise inexplicable to the Brandens—O’Connor’s staying by Rand’s side . . . .,” this is another misrepresentation.

First, only Barbara Branden mentions the possible financial reason Frank had for remaining with Rand. As is typical, Valliant has attributed something to both Brandens which is stated only by one.

Second, Barbara Branden does not say that financial concerns were the reason why O’Connor stayed with Rand for fifty years. Branden says that Frank once told her that he wanted to leave Rand, "'But where would I go? . . . What would I do? . . .'" [PAR, p. 262.] Branden interprets this as, in part at least, a concern for how Frank would support himself after a divorce. [Id.] She does not claim that this was the determining factor in Frank’s remaining with Rand for the entire length of the marriage.

Third, while the Brandens do find a certain “mystery” in Rand’s and O’Connor’s love for each other, it is a stretch to say that they found Frank’s staying with Rand for fifty years “inexplicable.” (See the above quote from Barbara Branden.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Is Orthodox Objectivism a Religion?

The claim that Objectivism is a religion goes back to Albert Ellis’s 1968 book Is Objectivism a Religion? Calling Objectivism a religion seems upon first glance quite odd, given its atheism and anti-supernaturalism. At the same time, many critics of Objectivism have noted quite a few “ominous parallels” between Rand’s writings and religion, and between the Objectivist movement and established religious bodies. I’ll review a few here, more in this spirit of provoking conversation than in coming to any definite conclusions. (My reference to Objectivism is limited to those Objectivists associated with Leonard Peikoff’s Ayn Rand Institute.)

1. Rand saw herself as something of a secular prophet. In the first edition of Anthem, published in 1936, she wrote, “I have broken the tables of my brothers, and my own tables do I now write with my own spirit.” Rand’s writing is frequently apocalyptic as well. She begins John Galt’s sermon in Atlas Shrugged with an Old Testament-like rebuke of a sinful world facing judgment. “I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing—you who dread knowledge—I am the one who will now tell you . . . .”

2. Orthodox Objectivism has its official canon of scripture. As Harry Binswanger says to those who consider joining his email list:

"It is understood that Objectivism is limited to the philosophic principles expounded by Ayn Rand in the writings published during her lifetime plus those articles by other authors that she published in her own periodicals (e.g., The Objectivist) or included in her anthologies."Pride of place goes to Atlas Shrugged, which Rand had the unfortunate tendency of quoting as if it were the Bible. Like a pastor using characters from the Bible, Rand and her followers constantly refer to characters in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to draw moral lessons.

3. Like religions, Orthodox Objectivism has the tendency to turn disagreements about doctrine into moral issues. For example, Leonard Peikoff once said to Rand,

"You are suffering the fate of a genius trapped in a rotten culture," I would begin. 'My distinctive attribute," she would retort, "is not genius, but intellectual honesty." "That is part of it," I would concede, "but after all I am intellectually honest, too, and it doesn't make me the kind of epochal mind who can write Atlas Shrugged or discover Objectivism." "One can't look at oneself that way," she would answer me. "No one can say: 'Ah me! the genius of the ages.' My perspective as a creator has to be not 'How great I am' but 'How true this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough to face the truth.'" So, for understandable reasons, we reached an impasse. She kept hoping to meet an equal; I knew that she never would. For once, I felt, I had the broad historical perspective, the perspective on her, that in the nature of the case she could not have. (Peikoff, "My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir," The Objectivist Forum, 1987, pg. 12-13.)

4. As can be seen from the above quote, adulation of the group’s founder is paramount in Orthodox Objectivist circles. In particular, Rand’s sacred name is given great reverence by her followers. Rarely is she referred to as just “Rand.” She may be called “Ayn Rand,” “Miss Rand,” or “AR.” Leonard Peikoff is now commonly called “Leonard Peikoff” and “LP.”

5. Also, like many religious people, Orthodox Objectivists abhor the “backslider,” the person who appears to give assent to the truth but is working behind the scenes to circumvent it. Leonard Peikoff mentions the type of people Rand attracted in the above article:

"They absorbed the surface features of Ayn Rand's intellectual style and viewpoint as though by osmosis and then mimicked them. Often, because she was so open, they knew what she wanted them to say and they said it convincingly. Though uninterested in philosophy and even contemptuous of fundamentals, they could put on an expert act to the contrary, most often an act for themselves first of all. Ayn Rand was not the only person to be taken in by it. I knew most of these people well and, to be fair here, I must admit that I was even more deluded about them than she was."

6. Orthodox Objectivism has its official villains and heretics of the type described by Peikoff. The two most evil figures in this pantheon are, of course, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. There are lesser fallen angels, such as David Kelley.

7. Orthodox Objectivism has its official church, the Ayn Rand Institute, which proselytizes on behalf of Objectivism. Leonard Peikoff and his small college of cardinals (Harry Binswanger and Peter Schwartz) supervise the movement. Peikoff occasionally speaks ex cathedra, as he did at the time of the Kelley break.

"Now I wish to make a request to any unadmitted anti-Objectivists reading this piece, a request that I make as Ayn Rand's intellectual and legal heir. If you reject the concept of "objectivity" and the necessity of moral judgment, if you sunder fact and value, mind and body, concepts and percepts, if you agree with the Branden or Kelley viewpoint or anything resembling it — please drop out of our movement: drop Ayn Rand, leave Objectivism alone."

Unlike many religions, however, Objectivists are intent on charging high prices for their material, which would seem to run counter to their movement’s aim. Objectivist retreats, called "Objectivist Conferences,” are quite expensive to attend.

8. Those who are associated with the ARI must take care that they do not demonstrate their “worldliness” by fraternizing with Kelleyites and other deviationists. No member of the Objectivist movement may associate with Kelley’s Atlas Center, for example. While an Objectivist might be permitted to publish in a mainstream philosophical journal (notwithstanding the fact that such journals routinely publish articles devoted to the destruction of man’s mind), no Objectivist may publish in Chris Sciabarra’s Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. No word yet on whether the lapsed may be restored to a state of grace.

9. It is unclear whether Orthodox Objectivism will develop an iconography of its departed saints, but at least one Objectivist artist has done so.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ayn Rand And The World She Made

Anne Heller's biography of Ayn Rand (Ayn Rand and the World She Made) is scheduled to be released on February 17, 2009.

I know very little about this book, but I did enjoy listening to Miss Heller's lecture at the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged last year. I suspect that the page count (368 pages) is off by quite a bit.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Charlie Chan's Witticisms

This website collects all of Charlie Chan's aphorisms and witticisms.

Some of them are quite clever:

Bad alibi like dead fish - cannot stand test of time. (Charlie Chan in Panama)

Boy Scout knife, like ladies' hairpin, have many uses. (Charlie Chan's Secret)

I have it on good authority that none of Chan's aphorisms attributed to Confucius are correct.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thinking About War by George Smith

This is an important essay by George Smith that discusses a recent Objectivist critique of just war theory.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Is The Passion of Ayn Rand "Valueless"?

James Valliant says in The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics that the Brandens' books are "valueless" to historians. Here is a list of allegations that were first made in PAR that have since been confirmed. Of course, not all are earth-shattering and Peikoff and the Sures have disputed Branden's description of Rand's anger, but I think all this is worth pondering.

1. Nathaniel Branden had an affair with Ayn Rand. Although Peikoff at first questioned this, even he now admits it.

2. Nathaniel Branden and Rand obtained the consent of their spouses before starting the affair. Confirmed by Britting in Ayn Rand.

3. Nathaniel Branden and Rand first became lovey-dovey during a ride to Toronto. Rand mentions this ride in her diaries as excerpted in PARC.

4. Barbara Branden met Rand in 1981. Confirmed by the Archives, although Valliant initially implied this was a lie.

5. The Collective threw the surprise party for Rand to celebrate Atlas Shrugged. Confirmed by the Sures in Facets of Ayn Rand.

6. Rand used diet pills. Confirmed by a letter sent by Isabel Paterson to Rand quoted in Cox, The Woman and the Dynamo.

7. Rand had anger management issues. Confirmed by Leonard Peikoff in “My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand.”

8. Rand occasionally became angry in response to questions. Confirmed by the Sures.

9. Rand’s habit of expressing public disapproval for things she didn’t like. Confirmed by the Sures.

10. Rand’s typing kept her Chicago relatives up at night. Confirmed by Britting.

11. Rand didn’t like surprise parties. Confirmed by the Sures.

12. Detailed recollections of Dr. and Mrs. Blumenthal concerning Rand as quoted in PAR. Not disputed by Valliant.

13. Rand’s disappointment with her sister Nora during visit to US in 70s. Confirmed by Britting.

14. Cult-like nature of the Objectivist movement in the 60s. Confirmed by Valliant (although places the blame on Nathaniel Branden).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Biological Teleology Of Ayn Rand's Ethics

An interesting discussion by Prof. Larry Arnhart.

Barbara Branden's Meeting With Ayn Rand In 1981

In The Passion of Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden says that she met Rand in 1981 and wrote Rand a letter thereafter. (PAR, pp. 397-400.)

In The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, James Valliant says that Rand never saw Barbara Branden again after their split. (PARC, p. 94.)

I contacted the Archives of the ARI and they confirm that there is evidence that this meeting took place. Specifically, although the letter mentioned by Barbara Branden was not found, Cynthia Peikoff (who was Rand’s secretary in 1981), mentions the letter and the meeting in the forthcoming 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand, by Scott McConnell.

Reference assistance, courtesy the Ayn Rand Archives, A Special Collection of the Ayn Rand Institute.

I thank the Archives for their response.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ayn Rand's Originality

The first two parts of my series are up at ACHRN Blog here and here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

PARC: Two More Points

1. The Surprise Party From Hell

In PARC, James Valliant says that the surprise party to celebrate the publication of Atlas Shrugged was thrown by Random House (the novel's publisher). I pointed out that this contradicts the Brandens' accounts, which say the Collective threw the party. When I wrote my critique of PARC, I did not have the Sures recollections of Rand published in 2001 as Facets of Ayn Rand. The ARI has now made the book available on the web. The Sures confirm that the Collective threw the party.

This is a minor mistake on Valliant's part, but it should be remembered that he claims that no one has found any mistakes in his book. (Valliant did cite Facets for Rand's view of surprise parties.)

When I confronted Valliant on this mistake in 2007, he claimed he based his account on "various sources." Maybe Mr. Valliant should be a bit more skeptical of his (alleged) sources.

2. Alan Greenspan

In my most recent post on PARC, I pointed out that Passion of Ayn Rand has a favorable blurb from Alan Greenspan on the back. Greenspan sided with Rand after the Split and knew Rand well until she died. I said that Greenspan had "vouched" for the book. I was taken to task by Valliant and his supporters. After all, Greenspan said only that the book was a "fascinating insight" into Rand's life.

Apparently, Official Objectivists Diana Hsieh and Gus Van Horn aren't too happy with Greenspan's "endorsement" of PAR. According to Mr. Van Horn:

Diana Hsieh notes of Greenspan that, "He endorsed Barbara Branden's smear of a biography with a laudatory quote printed on the back cover. (You can see it for yourself on Amazon.)" So much for Greenspan remaining loyal to Ayn Rand on a personal or philosophical level.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Objectiblog Mascot: Smokey the Cat

Smokey is the author of books such as Smokey: The Unknown Ideal and The Virtue of Smokey.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Rand's Style of Argument 3: Religion

[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]

Ayn Rand was one of the best known atheists of the twentieth century. Unlike many non-believers who find much to commend about religion, Rand’s evaluation was almost entirely negative. In this respect she was ahead of her time and has more in common with today’s “new atheists” such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.

Rand’s shortcomings as a philosopher are magnified when it comes to the philosophy of religion. Unlike her writings on ethics and epistemology (where she showed at least a moderate acquaintance with its subject matter and familiarity with some representative thinkers), it doesn’t appear that Rand had even a superficial knowledge of religion or even a passing familiarity with thinkers such as Augustine, Luther and Calvin. The one religious thinker she admired, Thomas Aquinas, is never quoted. Her interest appears more in critiquing its ethical teachings and psychological implications than in the arguments theologians put forward for its metaphysics and epistemology. Even here, her interest was quite narrow, being generally limited to contemporary and medieval Catholicism. She devoted two essays to recent papal encyclicals. In "Of Living Death," she critiques Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (which opposed artificial contraception) and in "Requiem for Man" she critiques his Populorum Progressio (a discussion of economics). When she discusses religious ethics, she seems to think they are universally synonymous with the worst excesses of medieval asceticism.

Rand’s bugbear is what she called “mysticism,” and defined it as follows:

“What is mysticism? Mysticism is the acceptance of acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against, the evidence of one's senses and one's reason. Mysticism is the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as ‘instinct,’ ‘intuition,’ ‘revelation,’ or any form of ‘just knowing.’" (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 62-63.)

Rand's definition of mysticism is non-traditional. Anglican theologian Alister McGrath defines mysticism as follows: "A multifaceted term, which can bear a variety of meanings. In its most important sense, the terms refer to the union with God which is seen as the ultimate goal of the Christian life. This union is not to be thought of in rational terms, but more in terms of a direct consciousness or experience of God." (McGrath, Christian Spirituality, p. 187.)

Not only does Rand utilize the term mysticism to describe all religions, but uses it to encompass theories that almost never fall within the common definition of religion. For example, she considers Marxism and racism to constitute forms of mysticism. Avowedly secular thinkers such as pragmatists and logical positivists are "neo-mystics." (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 64.) It might be hard to find a non-Objectivist system of thought that Rand did not consider mysticism or at least "neo-mysticism." Even Ludwig von Mises was a "neo-mystic" who engaged in "whim-worship." (Mayhew, Ayn Rand’s Marginalia, p. 147.) Rand is entitled to reject the arguments for religion or logical positivism, but she isn’t entitled to rule them out of court by a type of philosophical guilt by association.

As is often the case, the “pseudo-psychological trappings” (as Daniel Barnes of ACRHN's blog puts it) of Rand’s argument knows no limit. In “Galt Speaks” from Atlas Shrugged, she provides the following psychological diagnosis of mystics:

“A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear that he renounced his rational faculty. . . . From then on, afraid to think, he is left at the mercy of unidentified feelings. His feelings become his only guide, his only remnant of personal identity, he clings to them with ferocious possessiveness-and whatever thinking he does is devoted to the struggle of hiding from himself that the nature of his feelings is terror.” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, pp. 160-61.)

Nowhere in Rand’s corpus do we find any attempt to support this diagnosis with evidence. I doubt that Thomas Aquinas, Ludwig von Mises and Karl Marx experienced such a psychological crisis point in their childhood, but as can be seen from Rand’s diaries published in James Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, Rand put great stock in her psychoanalytic abilities.

In fact, Rand’s own psychological needs appear to be the driving force for her embrace of atheism. According to her one-time associate Barbara Branden, Rand became an atheist at age thirteen. Branden records Rand writing in her diary at that age: "Today I decided to be an atheist." Branden reports her as later explaining, "I had decided that the concept of God is degrading to men. Since they say that God is perfect, man can never be that perfect, then man is low and imperfect and there is something above him – which is wrong." (Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, p. 35.)

Of the various arguments against God’s existence, this is particularly weak. My feelings about a thing’s existence generally don’t have much to do with its actual existence. I could just as well argue that geniuses don’t exist because that posits someone who is above me. Interestingly, Rand once said that a person could raise his IQ from 110 (moderately above average) to 150 (borderline genius). (Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, p. 179.)

When Rand actually gets around to critiquing the metaphysics and epistemology of religion, her results aren’t impressive and more often than not rest on poorly thought out arguments and misunderstandings. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, she claims that theism is contradictory: “God is that which no human mind can know, they say—and proceed to demand that you consider it knowledge.” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 149.) Rand’s description may describe Gnostics and some types of mystics, but certainly doesn’t represent mainstream theists, most of whom believe that God may be known (albeit not exhaustively).

For those who are interested in Rand’s (and Leonard Peikoff’s) abilities as critics of theism, I recommend the essays by Stephen Parrish and Patrick Toner in the Spring 2007 Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Myths and Truths About Libertarianism

Murray Rothbard's essay Myths and Truths About Libtertarianim is available on-line. I tend to think that Rothbard's style of anarcho-libertarianism, while not utopian, assumes an amount of goodness in human nature that is unwarranted.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

PARC: Four More Points

Since my two critiques of PARC, I've moved on to other projects, but here are a few things worth mentioning.

1. Frank's Drinking

One of the most notorious misrepresentations by James Valliant in PARC is his misquote of what Barbara Branden says Rand's housekeeper told her concerning liquor bottles in Frank O'Connor's studio.

Here is Barbara Branden (emphasis added):
He retained his studio in the apartment building where he and Ayn lived, and continued to spend his days there. And each week, when Ayn’s housekeeper went to the studio to clean it, she found no new paintings but, instead, rows of empty liquor bottles.

Here is Jim Valliant (emphasis added):
As her sole corroboration for these sources, Ms. Branden refers to the 'rows of empty liquor bottles' in O’Connor’s studio which Rand’s housekeeper is said to have found there after O’Connor’s death.

Now, finding empty liquor bottles "each week" and finding them "after O'Connor's death" are two different things.

Robert Campbell has pointed out that the source for Valliant's misreport is apparently Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult.
Barbara Branden relates that toward the end when people came into Rand's apartment, "the first thing they smelled was alcohol, and Frank had clearly been drinking," even in the morning. Now "Frank would fly into rages over nothing." After he died, his studio was found littered with empty liquor bottles. [TARC, p. 264.]

Walker does refer to an interview with Barbara Branden for the part in quotes, but nothing for the statement about the liquor bottles.

2. The Break With The Holzers

In PARC, Valliant speculates that the split might have something to do with Henry Holzer's views concerning constitutional interpretation. I came across this 1996 interview with Erika Holzer on her website.

FC: Did you show her any of your writing?

Holzer: Ayn had already seen samples of what I called my "practice pieces." These she went over with me in great detail, giving me invaluable literary feedback. But by the time I had completed my first novel Double Crossing some years later, she and I had become estranged.

FC: Over political or philosophical issues?

Holzer: Neither. It was a personal matter involving some friends of hers who'd known her a lot longer than we had. Even after this estrangement, she remained cordial to my husband and me whenever we'd see her at some public event, such as a lecture on Objectivism, even telling us that, unlike everyone else she had “excommunicated,” her “door was always open to us . . . ” [For various personal reasons, my husband and I chose not to re-enter that door.] It was too bad, really. When we were still friends, Ayn said to me on more than one occasion that I'd never have to endure from the liberal publishing establishment what she'd had to endure — all those endless doors being slammed in your face. That, given her clout, she would see that the right doors remained open to me. But that never happened. I did have to wage that enormous uphill battle she had promised to spare me. It went on for many years.

I have no idea which friends of Rand's Holzer is referring to, but: (1) she does describe their break with Rand as an "excommunication"; and (2) it didn't have anything to do with political or philosophical issues (for example animal rights or constitutional interpretation).

3. Speculation in PARC

James Valliant likes to claim that there this is too much speculation in the Brandens' books. I should have highlighted more the fact that Valliant is the king of speculation.

To take one example, Barbara Branden says that Frank told her that he wanted to leave Rand, "'But where would I go? . . . What would I do? . . .'" [PAR, p. 262.]

Here is Valliant:
The manifest absurdity of believing that a husband of a very successful author--whose crucial role in that author's own work had been publicly professed by Rand--would be left penniless from a divorce cannot be ascribed to O'Connor but to Ms. Branden. (Even in those days, husbands of high-income wives could--and did--get attractive settlements.) [PARC, pp. 151-52.]

Barbara Branden was an eyewitness and I see no reason to doubt her recollection. Even if what Valliant says is true about husbands receiving generous settlements (a claim he doesn't document) Frank might not have known this or might have felt there was something wrong about asking for money from Rand.

After quoting from Rand's notes for Atlas Shrugged from 1949 where Rand writes that Rearden takes pleasure in the thought of Dagny having sex with another man, Valliant writes that "this particular account of male psychology is almost certain to be an expression of her husband's own psychology." [PARC, p. 166, emphasis added.] This note isn't even about Frank and was written before Rand met the Brandens.

Or take this piece of speculation on p. 167 of PARC (emphasis added):
O'Connor almost certainly believed that his wife was an exceptional genius and a woman intensely loyal to her values. He may well have appreciated his wife's complex emotional--and intellectual--needs. Possessing such a sensitive and daring soul [it's now a fact] may well have given him the capacity to embrace his wife's quest for joy, a capacity obviously not shared by the Brandens. (And he surely could have left Rand without much fear, had he truly objected to the sitation.)

The only direct evidence bearing on the affair's effect on Frank are the reports of Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden that it hurt Frank. To to extent that one need speculate, experience indicates that these types of relationships cause hurt and even the innocent party may feel "conflicted." Valliant has to admit that "[w]hether they were always truly happy together, especially in light of Rand's affair, can be questioned . . . ." [PARC, p. 157.]

4. Alan Greenspan

In his recent memoirs, Alan Greenspan (a member of the Collective who sided with Rand in 1968) says he remained a "close friend" of Rand's until her death. On the back of my copy of PAR, there is a supportive blurb from Greenspan: "A fascinating insight into one of the most thoughtful authors of this century."

If someone who knew Rand well for 30 years vouches for the book, by what right does Valliant (who didn't know Rand) denounce the book as one long "abitrary assertion"?