Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The McCaskey Schism, Part 2

Two months ago I gave the lowdown on the latest schism in Objectivism. I suggested that the schism had not yet reached the level of the David Kelley split in the 1980s. In two short months we’ve reached Kelley levels and may be heading for a schism of Brandenesque proportions.

By way of background, it should be noted that Leonard Peikoff is not on the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and does not appear to have the legal authority to veto its decisions. Rather, as the heir of Rand’s estate, the owner of her copyrights and the owner of her papers, a decision by Peikoff to separate from the ARI would probably hamper its day to day operations if not require its dissolution.

On October 24, Diana Hsieh published her evaluation of the McCaskey schism. Hsieh, who has a doctorate in philosophy, is the most prominent Objectivist blogger and podcaster. She is an interesting character. A long-time Objectivist, she was for ten years a supporter of David Kelley’s the Objectivist Center (now the Atlas Center). She was no admirer of Leonard Peikoff, criticizing his magnum opus Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) and alleging that Peikoff lied in claiming Rand designated him her “intellectual heir.”

In 2004, however, Hsieh had a conversion experience to orthodox Objectivism in which all her previous criticism of the ARI and Leonard Peikoff suddenly became “inoperative.” In order to make up for lost time, she launched numerous attacks on the “false friends” of Objectivism. These included not just the usual suspects such as David Kelley and the Brandens, but her old friend Chris Sciabarra. Sciabarra is particularly loathed in ARI circles for his work Ayn Rand the Russian Radical, a book which puts Rand in historical context. In 2006, Hsieh, using private emails from Sciabarra without his permission, wrote a nasty hit piece. She repudiated her previous work. Leonard Peikoff now became a god in Hsieh’s eyes, even endorsing his 2006 fatwa on the moral obligation to vote for the Democratic Party.

Hsieh’s attempt to become Objectivism’s avenging angel worked, at least for a time. In a 2009 podcast, Leonard Peikoff said he respected her work. However, in June 2010 she disagreed (as did many Objectivists) with Peikoff’s contention that Moslems do not have the right to build an Islamic Community Center (which contains a mosque) near “ground zero” in New York City. (This was a dangerous position to take because Peikoff, as with the 2006 voting fatwa, had equated his position with Objectivism as such.) Nonetheless, she tried to be as respectful as possible to Peikoff, urging Objectivists not pester the Grand Old Man at the summer Objectivist Conference. Curiously, Hsieh reported, in September, that her proposal for a lecture at the 2011 ARI-sponsored Objectivist Conference (OCON) was rejected.

In preparation for her October 24 piece on the McCaskey schism, Hsieh wrote a couple letters to Peikoff asking for clarification concerning his now notorious email which, she said, “looked very bad on its face.” Peikoff did not respond or acknowledge the emails. She also spoke to McCaskey and ARI president Yaron Brook to get their side of the story. The most interesting bit of information in Hsieh’s piece was a letter that David Harriman sent to Hsieh’s husband, Paul (a medical doctor).

Date: Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 1:30 PM


To: Paul Hsieh

Subject: Re: Question about McCaskey's criticisms of your book?

Dear Paul:

I don't think you need access to private emails in order to reach a judgment on this conflict.
Professor McCaskey has published a negative review of my book on Amazon. He has also published articles expressing some of his own views on induction, and praising the ideas of William Whewell (a 19th century Kantian). Anyone who is interested can read my book, read the writings of McCaskey, and come to their own judgment.

I realize that most people know little about the history of science, and so they may believe that they lack the specialized knowledge required to make a judgment in this case. But I do not think the basic issues are very complicated.

McCaskey claims that Galileo discovered the law of free fall without even understanding what is meant by "free fall" (since Galileo allegedly had no clear concept of friction). Likewise, Newton discovered his universal laws of motion without understanding the concepts of "inertia," "acceleration," and "momentum." In effect, scientists stumble around in the dark and somehow discover laws of nature before they grasp the constituent concepts. This view is typical of academic philosophers of science today. I am well acquainted with it; in my youth, I took courses from Paul Feyerabend at UC Berkeley. But how believable is it?

In short, I ask you which is more believable -- that Isaac Newton was fundamentally confused about the difference between "impetus" and "momentum," or that John McCaskey is confused about this issue?

A favorite pastime among academics today is to find "feet of clay" in great men. But that is not the purpose of my book.


Of course contempt for academics and the claim that all non-Objectivists are “Kantians” is vintage Peikoff. And who needs expertise in the history of science to evaluate a book on the history of science when a little “thinking in essentials” will do the trick?

Hsieh’s piece generated lots of comments. The most interesting was from physicist Travis Norsen, who revealed that he had been critical of the Harriman book for quite some time, resulting in a “cooling” of his relationship with the ARI.

Now, ironically, during this same period, a dear friend convinced me to consider trying one last time to submit an OCON course proposal; in particular I was assured that, this time, such a proposal would receive a fair hearing. So, despite doubting that a proposal by me could possibly be accepted, I did end up submitting something. To my pleasure and surprise, it was accepted, and so I was slated to teach a course at the summer 2007 conference (in Colorado). But then, a couple months later (in December of 2006), I was informed by ARI that they were withdrawing the invitation for me to speak, based on the “views on induction generally and on Dr. Peikoff’s lectures more specifically” that I had posted here.
Norsen also reported that he was told that the ARI had need for only one lecturer on physics, and that was David Harriman.

Hsieh didn’t reach many conclusions in her piece, claiming that there wasn’t enough information available to determine just what Peikoff was up to in his “moral condemnation” of McCaskey. Trying not to get into too much trouble, she urged everyone to be understanding of Peikoff and acknowledge his contributions to Objectivism.

If Hsieh’s failure to support Peikoff 100% was surprising, things got even more surprising a couple weeks later when, on October 29, Craig Biddle attacked Peikoff for his “nonobjective” and “unjust” attack on McCaskey. Biddle publishes The Objective Standard (TOS), an Objectivist magazine that publishes only orthodox Objectivists and has close ties to the ARI. McCaskey is on the masthead along with ARI president Yaron Brook. TOS had published excerpts from Harriman’s book. You’d think Biddle would be the last person to turn on Peikoff. Just a few weeks previous Biddle published a fawning review of James Valliant’s now debunked The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, even though it is out of print and orthodox Objectivists such as Hsieh have long stopped mentioning it. In his 2002 book Loving Life he called OPAR “one of the most important books ever written.”

Biddle removed Brook from the masthead of TOS, duly noting that he respects Brooks and does not want to sever ties with ARI writers. Lot of good that did him, because the next day he posted on Face Book that the ARI had cancelled his speaking engagements at several universities.

By now people were asking lots of questions, in particular students at the Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), a graduate program run by the ARI. Perhaps fearing that a decision by Peikoff to take his marbles and go home would result in OAC becoming another Founders College, they demanded a conference call with the ARI, which apparently took place in early November. The call was confidential.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, Peikoff returned from on high on November 5 to settle scores. First he denounced McCaskey. Lest there be any doubts, he said was morally condemning McCaskey. (This had been disputed by certain Objectivists, apparently forgetting that virtually every condemnation is moral in Peikoff’s eyes).

Because some people have turned the dispute into a moral issue, I should state the full truth, which is not stated in the letter: I have, for years, long before Harriman’s book, condemned McCaskey morally: I regard him as an obnoxious braggart as a person, and a pretentious ignoramus as an intellectual. Had I held a more positive estimate, I would have attempted first of all not to demand his resignation, but to discuss the book with him, understand his viewpoint, and see if together we could resolve and/or delimit his problems with it. But given my opinion of him, intellectual discussion was impossible to me.
Next, he reminded people that as the one who allegedly best understands Objectivism, he is entitled to trump any decision of the ARI, notwithstanding the fact that he is not even on its Board of Directors.

Ultimately, someone has to decide who is qualified to hold such positions and where the line is to be drawn. An organization devoted to spreading an ideology is not compatible with “freedom” for its leadership to contradict or undermine that ideology. In theory, the best judge of such contradiction would be the person(s), if he exists, who best understands and upholds the ideology, as evidenced objectively by his lifelong intellectual consistency, philosophic attainments, and practical results. In practice, the best judge would be the person, if he is still alive, who founded the organization and defined its purpose, in this case as a step in carrying out a mandate given him by Ayn Rand. On both counts, only one individual qualifies: me. (I have retired from books, classes, and official position, but not from perception and evaluation.)

Next, he pointed out that he is on terms of “personal enmity” with “a few” Board members and doesn’t speak to them. Since there are eight Board members, Peikoff apparently isn’t on speaking terms with at least 40% of the Board.

Finally, in case anyone was wondering against whom Peikoff was directing his invective, he closed with “if . . . my detractors in this issue represent a sizable faction within the Objectivist movement whose spokesmen include magazine founders and PhDs with podcasts– then God help Objectivism, too.”

By now things had reached critical mass. With a “sizeable faction” of ARI supporters having questions about what little amount of intellectual freedom remains in orthodox Objectivism and a possible fall-off of contributions to the ARI, Yaron Brook decided to speak. The upshot of Brook’s press release is that Peikoff threatened to walk away from the ARI and the Board caved.

The substantive issue that Dr. Peikoff raised—whether a person who does not support a central ARI project should sit on the Board—was itself a very serious one. In addition, the Board had the practical, moral, and fiduciary responsibility to avoid needlessly damaging our important relationship with Dr. Peikoff. Dr. Peikoff founded ARI, served as its first Board chairman, and has continued to provide ARI with moral, financial, and practical support over the 25 years of ARI’s existence. As Ayn Rand’s heir, he has been very generous in giving Ayn Rand’s materials to the ARI Archives, with much more planned for the future. In these and many other ways, Dr. Peikoff’s ongoing support is important to ARI; we are certainly interested in hearing his thoughts and analyses, and we give them due weight in our deliberations

I won’t go into the details of Brook’s statement, which was brilliantly dissected by one “Saul” on Diana Hsieh’s blog. Of note, however, is that Brook does not say whether he considers Peikoff’s criticisms of McCaskey’s person (an obnoxious braggart and ignoramus) appropriate in light of McCaskey’s years of devotion to the ARI. Most importantly, we are never told why McCaskey had a “conflict of interest” as a Board member because he is unable to support the ARI-sponsored The Logical Leap. Is McCaskey obligated to support a work that is, at most, an extension of Objectivism? I don’t get the impression that McCaskey was out to publicly “trash” The Logical Leap or the ARI for sponsoring it. Rather it looks like he intended on keeping his criticism private.

We now have more information about this schism, although there is a great deal we don’t know. Most importantly we know that Peikoff’s denunciation of McCaskey is the culmination of his attempt to make David Harriman the official Objectivist expert on physics and science, notwithstanding his eccentric view on relativity theory and some other matters. In my initial piece I raised the suspicion that Peikoff’s anger might have something to do with the Archives granting access to Jennifer Burns for her critical biography of Rand. I thought that ARI supporters might be angry over Burns’ revelation that the ARI, apparently at Peikoff’s direction or at least consent, has rewritten Rand’s posthumously published material. That doesn’t appear to have been a factor.

The McCaskey schism is the logical culmination of Peikovianism. When Peikoff excommunicated David Kelley he implicitly put his interpretation of Objectivism on par with Rand’s stated positions. This was made explicit in the 2006 Fatwa and the New York City Mosque podcast. Now with the McCaskey auto-da-fe Peikoff has made his extension of Objectivism into an area on which Rand wrote nothing as much a part of Objectivism as anything that Rand wrote. If the DIM Hypothesis ever appears will Objectivists be free to express the mildest disagreements?