Sunday, December 13, 2009

Robert Mayhew Reviews Goddess of the Market

Orthodox Objectivist Robert Mayhew recently reviewed Goddess of the Market in The Objective Standard, a magazine associated with the Ayn Rand Institute. It is probably the harshest review of this excellent new biography of Ayn Rand.

Perhaps the most sensational claim in Goddess is that the published version of archival material has been rather heavily rewritten to conform to the Objectivist view of Rand. Rand is rewritten to sound more definitive, for example. One of the perpetrators named by Burns is none other than Robert Mayhew, in his Ayn Rand Answers, a selection of her question and answers. Robert Campbell has confirmed the rewrite by comparing what Rand said to what Mayhew claims Rand said. The amount and nature of the changes are truly stunning. It would have been nice for Mayhew to inform his readers that he is specifically criticized by Burns.

In any event, Prof. Mayhew's review leaves a lot to be desired. Let's discuss Mayhew's central points.

1. Mayhew asserts that Burns believes in historical determinism and that she alleges that Rand's ideas are a product of her environment. Nonetheless Mayhew is nice enough to claim that Burns is not "generally Marxist." Yet neither of the quotes from Goddess which Mayhew reproduces show that Burns is a determinist. In fact the two quotes describe merely the influence of Rand's early environment on her thought. Mayhew is also upset that Burns implies that some of Rand's ideas were "caused by her encounter with other thinkers." Indeed she does. Burns gives solid evidence for this, including the influence of Herbert Spencer, Isabel Paterson and H.L.Mencken. The obvious question here is, so what? While Mayhew might be correct that Burns should he discussed these influences in more detail, it's not as if a strong case can't be made that Rand was influenced by others more than she let on. For example in Shoshana Milgram's essay in Mayhew's Fountainhead anthology, she shows the strong influence of Nietzsche on Rand's thought. We may grant that Rand didn't take various ideas from other thinkers and pluck them at random in her thought, but it's not as if there aren't similarities. Does Mayhew believe Rand is diminished if one contends that other thinkers influenced her?

2. Mayhew next complains that Burns ignored Rand's philosophy when it comes to her politics. As an example he mentions Burns' brief discussion of Rand's rejection of environmentalism. Burns writes that Rand was unable to accept the motives of environmentalists at "face value." I generally think Burns is correct here. Rand often searched for hidden agendas instead of confronting ideas head on. One thinks of Rand's critique of religion. She was much more concerned with the alleged motivations of religious thinkers than their actual ideas. A classic example of this is Rand's contention that a streaker at the Academy Awards
was a Kantian nihilist instead of a someone pulling a prank. That Rand's critique of environmentalist was somewhat prescient (and here I agree with Mayhew) doesn't mean that Burns hasn't put a finger on an occasional weakness in Rand's thought.

3. Mayhew attacks the book for its selectivity. I was surprised, like Mayhew, with the amount of discussion of Rand's private life. However Mayhew goes overboard in his claim that this is addressed to the detriment of Rand's political ideas. I think the reader of Goddess would understand quite well why Rand disagreed with conservatives and non-Objectivist libertarians. In my opinion Burns strikes close to the right balance between Rand's ideas, her life, and her influence on the conservative and libertarian movements. I would have preferred a bit more and detailed discussions of her political philosophy.

4. Mayhew puts a jab in a footnote about the supposed errors in the book touching on Rand's life. Without telling us what these are it's hard to evaluate this claim. Does Mayhew consider Burns' contention that Frank drank too much to be an error? Does he claim that Burns is wrong to suggest that Rand was not entirely candid about her early life? Mayhew does write that Burns exaggerates Rand's use of amphetamines; however there is reason to conclude that Rand's use was excessive and exacerbated her difficult side.

Finally, one can't but help noting the religious tone that opens the review. Mayhew compares Rand to Jesus, her followers to his disciples, and Nathaniel and Barbara Branden to Judas!