Sunday, March 20, 2011

Edwin Locke Critiques Goddess of the Market

Edwin Locke has critiqued Jennifer Burns’ 2009 intellectual biography of Ayn Rand. In general, I think the review is very unfair. Here are some of the problems.

4. p. 11: Burns says Ayn Rand “escaped into French children’s magazines.” Ayn Rand’s love of (certain) fiction was not escapism but part of her search, even as a young girl, for interesting plots and the ideal man. This is explained clearly in Shoshana Milgram’s chapter (“Who Was John Galt? The Creation of Ayn Rand’s Ultimate Ideal Man”) in Robert Mayhew’s edited book Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” (which book Burns must have read because she mentions it in her Notes).

Oh for crying out loud. The context was that Rand didn't have a particularly happy childhood in part because she was too intellectual to connect with other children. Burns goes on to point that Rand was writing stories at the time and entertaining her sisters with her latest tales. She was even able to get the respect of her fellow students.

5. p. 16: Burns cites a quote from a cousin of Ayn Rand’s who said: Nietzsche “beat you to all your ideas.” But Burns does not mention here that the claim was not true. Even later in the book Burns indicates she does not get it (p.303-4, Note 4). Ayn Rand’s view of Nietzsche was made clear in her introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead. For a time when she was younger she admired Nietzsche, but as she developed her own
philosophy, she came to totally reject Nietzsche’s philosophy, because was it mystical and irrational—the complete antithesis of her own philosophy. She admired certain quotes from Nietzsche such as “the noble soul has reverence for itself.” Ironically, such a quote could not even be rationally defended without Ayn Rand’s philosophy at its base. Nietzsche’s alleged individualism had nothing in common with Ayn Rand’s which was based on reason. Nietzsche may have called for a new morality, but he did not provide one. Ayn Rand did.

I suggest people read the entire note that Locke references. I don't have time to type it all in, but Burns does mention the profound difference between Rand and Nietzsche. I'll quote the final two sentences:

Yet I approach the question of influence from a different angle, focusing primarile on Nietzsche's transvaluation of values and his call for a new morality. From this perspective, though, Rand's reliance on Nietzsche lessened over time, her entire career might be considered a '"Nietzsche phase."

6. p. 22: Burns discusses Ayn Rand’s rejection by a Russian boy named Levy and concludes: “To desire was to need, and Rand wanted to need nobody.” Bad writing aside, this is an equivocation about the meaning of need. Ayn Rand argued that to have a successful romantic relationship, you need self-esteem—you need to have a self (see The Fountainhead and Galt’s speech). Others cannot not fill the void of zero self-esteem for you. But, given that base, Ayn Rand certainly believed strongly in romantic love (and friendship)—as her life and her novels clearly demonstrated. For example, Howard Roark says to Dominique in The Fountainhead (p. 376), “I’ve given you, not my sacrifice or my pity, but my ego and my naked need.” Ayn Rand’s long and loving relationship with her husband has been well documented (e.g., see Mary Ann and Charles Sures’ Facets of Ayn Rand).

This is in the context of a letter written by Rand's mother to Rand while she was in Chicago reporting her anger that Rand didn't write in several months.

So Rand's feelings concerning a highschool crush gone unfulfilled and tensions with her family are to be explained by novels written decades later?

7. p. 42: In a very brief reference to Ayn Rand’s ethics, Burns writes that AynRand exalted “a psychological mindset utterly divorced from anything outside the self.” This totally misstates Ayn Rand’s position. Taken literally, Burns’s view would detach the mind from reality which would be a state of psychosis.

What Ayn Rand held was that in every issue of one’s life one should think for oneself and not sacrifice one’s mind, one’s judgment and one’s life to others. Thinking requires that one focus on reality, including the value of other people whom one deals with.

Here I agree that this is an imprecise characterization of Rand's thought. That being said, Burns' discussion is much better.

Actually this is not a "very brief" reference to Rand's ethics - it is at least a couple pages long, which may explain Locke's concern. For example, Burns reference her previous discussion of Rand's admiration of William Hickman, a murderer who dismembered his victim.

9. p. 63: Burns says that Ayn Rand viewed capitalism as “the solution to all ills.” Clearly, Burns is taking conventional literary license here, but again, it is a careless formulation. What Burns should have said here is that Ayn Rand held that capitalism is the solution to poverty or, more broadly, the only means of large-scale wealth creation. (Of course, more fundamentally, Ayn Rand regarded it as the only moral economic system.) The closest thing to a solution to all ills would be her entire philosophy.

Actually, the reference here is to Rand's 1930's piece "Manifesto of Individualism" written around the time of the Wilkie campaign and not a description of her mature philosophy. This piece hasn't been published. Has Locke read it?

15. p. 90: Burns describes The Fountainhead as “a strange book . . . moody, and feverish.” No reasons are given for these assertions. In contrast, Burns presents quotes showing why people loved the book. Somehow readers failed to see the book in the snide way Burns did. No explanation for these conflicting views is given.

Here is what Burns wrote in full:

That Bobbs-Merrill failed to anticipate the book's success is understandable. The Fountainhead is a strange book, long, moody, feverish. Even after Rand's last-minute editing it took up nearly seven hundred pages.

What was it that readers found in The Fountainhead's pages? At the most basic level the book told an exciting story, and told it well. When freighted with Rand's symbolic connotations, architecture became exciting and lively.

1. Looking at the material that Locke omits it's clear that "strange" isn't equivalent to bad, as Locke implies. It's more like "unusual."

2. There is no contrast between an allegedly negative evaluation of the book by Burns and a positive evaluation of the readers. Burns likes the book and shares Rand's readers' admiration for it.

17. p. 97: The heading of Part ll of Burns’s book is “From Novelist to Philosopher.” Again this is seriously off the mark. If Burns had studied Ayn Rand more carefully, she would have known that Ayn Rand’s literary goal was to present the ideal man (or woman). She recognized, unlike most, if not all, other writers, that to present an ideal you had to have a philosophy. Ayn Rand was philosophical from an early age. So her development was not one of
going from novelist to philosopher, but rather of formulating her philosophy more clearly and in more detail as she wrote her novels. Her philosophy is at the base of all of her books. It was the full development of her philosophy that enabled her to characterize the heroes (and villains) in Atlas Shrugged and to formulate the book’s theme.

Actually, the heading of Part II is "From Novelist to Philosopher, 1944-1957"

It's just a heading.

20. p. 128: Burns writes, “Rand’s theory of natural rights was based on fiat, on her stating it must be so.” This is totally false. Her theory was not a theory of “natural rights” in the Lockean sense at all. She does not derive it from man in a state of nature. Her theory of rights was based on man’s nature as a rational being, the morality of egoism, and the requirements of man’s survival in society. She wrote two whole articles on rights (see The Virtue of Selfishness and see also Galt’s speech, both of which Burns knew about). This is just poor scholarship."

A couple points here.

1. This is in a context of a letter from Isabel Paterson to Rand, long before her mature theory of rights was worked out.

2. In fact, I think the claim that Rand's theory was "based on fiat" is Paterson's evaluation of it. Two sentences later read, "Paterson concluded her letter with another snide remark."

22. pp. 151ff: Burns gives a great deal of press to Murray Rothbard, who showed an early interest in Ayn Rand’s ideas but who later came to advocate anarchism. Burns indicates that Ayn Rand disagreed, but Burns does not make clear in this part of the book Ayn Rand’s full view: that anarchism as a political system is totally irrational and can only lead to dictatorship. (Apparently Rothbard also believed in instincts and the primacy of emotions [p.153], which is further evidence of his irrationality.) Perhaps Rothbard’s most egregious error is the claim that “the good stuff in Ayn Rand’s system is not Ayn’s original contribution at all.” This is totally false but Burns never says so. There is a special issue of The Objectivist Forum, edited by Harry Binswanger (which magazine Burns evidently did not discover in her research) that shows Ayn Rand’s original contributions in every sphere of philosophy (and even other fields like psychology). Burns also includes many snide comments by Rothbard, calling her students (who were known, in jest, as “The Collective”) as “a group of lifeless acolytes” and a “passive, dependent group.” Now I happen to personally know some of the people in this group, though not all of them. Their goal was quite simple: to learn from someone whose philosophical knowledge was light years above theirs. This required them to have active, questioning minds. Passive acceptance would not have enabled them to learn anything. Rothbard was an irrationalist and a subjectivist, but for Burns all ideas are treated as pretty much equal.

1. "But who later came to advocate anarchism." According to Rothbard's semi-autobiographical work he was an anarchist by the time he met Rand.

2. "Apparently, Rothbard also believed in instincts . . ." Big deal. Objectivists are just about the only ones I know who don't think human beings have instincts. In fact, Rothbard denied that human beings have innate knowledge

3. "and in the primacy of emotions." It's not clear from Burns' book whether "primacy of emotions" was Rothbard's term. Emotions are more like "tastes" taken in the context of the discussion. According to Rothbard, to deny this is to deny individuality. She quotes Rothbard as saying that, based on Rand's ethics, "there is not reason . . . why Ayn shouldn't sleep with Nathan." (I'm reminded of George Reisman's quote that Rand could have a rational reason for preferring vanilla to chocolate ice cream.)

4. "Perhaps Rothbard’s most egregious error is the claim that 'the good stuff in Ayn Rand’s system is not Ayn’s original contribution at all.' This is totally false but Burns never says so. There is a special issue of The Objectivist Forum, edited by Harry Binswanger (which magazine Burns evidently did not discover in her research) that shows Ayn Rand’s original contributions in every sphere of philosophy . . . . "

Well Locke is entitled to disagree, but Burns had access to Rand's papers and is entitled to conclude (if she does) that Rand wasn't as original as she claimed. This is the view of every non-Objectivist intellectual historian I know.

5. "Burns also includes many snide comments by Rothbard, calling her students (who were known, in jest, as 'The Collective') as 'a group of lifeless acolytes' and a 'passive, dependent group.'

Well, Rothbard seemed to have some first-hand knowledge of the students. I think everyone would agree there was a conformist attitude in the 50's and 60's. In the ARI-sponsored 100 Voices there is someone interviewed who says that Rand's students all bought the same type of kitchen set as Rand and another interviewee who said everyone was smoking cigarettes and acting like Rand and Dagney.

6. "Rothbard was an irrationalist and a subjectivist . . . " Locke presents no proof of this and if he had read Rothbard's works he would know better.

7. "but for Burns all ideas are treated as pretty much equal." What is the justification for this statement? That Burns appears to believe that Rand's philosophy is not completely unique and falls within a liberal or natrual law tradition doesn't mean that she believes all ideas are "pretty much equal."

23. p. 156: Burns says Ayn Rand wanted to keep her affair with Branden secret due to having “a streak of cultural conventionality.” Anyone who seriously studied Ayn Rand would have to know that she had no such streak. The obvious reason for keeping the affair secret was to protect her privacy.

1. How does Locke know that Rand kept the affair secret to protect her privacy?

2. Rand had no streak of cultural conventionality? Well, she denouced homosexuality as "disgusting and immoral," described her enemies as "hippies," kept her adulterous affair secret, described nurses who took care of her as "kids in miniskirts," voted for Richard Nixon etc. Sounds rather conventional to me.

37. p. 223: Burns reports that Branden’s affair with Patrecia Wynand “lit the fuse that would blow Objectivism sky high.” But this affair did not affect the philosophy of Objectivism one iota. It simply upset some people. Somehow Burns cannot separate Objectivist ideas from the irrational actions of specific individuals.

Oh give me a break. Burns is obviously referring the Objectivist movement centered around the NBI. Is Locke really so "concrete bound"?

39. pp. 234–5: Burns seems to think that Ayn Rand should have presented her philosophical ideas as one opinion, then presented other opinions, then claimed uncertainty, and then let the students figure it out for themselves. But why would Ayn Rand even consider this if she knew she was right (and had proved it)? Clearly Burns resents the idea of certainty, in line with current intellectuals. But denying certainty would have made Objectivism into a useless joke. Imagine Ayn Rand starting a lecture with: “Here are the axioms of philosophy and here is how I validate them—but, hey, maybe I am wrong so you decide.” Burns thinks certainty promotes dogmatism (p. 237), but in reality dogmatism is the enemy of real (rational) certainty, because dogmatism necessarily relies on the arbitrary, e.g., belief on the basis of faith, which can only be sustained by evasion.

The discussion referenced by Locke is lengthy and I can only encourage people to read what Dr. Burns writes and compare it to what Locke says Burns "seems to think." It is the least chartiable reading of something I can imagine.

Burns' point is not that Rand shouldn't claim certainty for her ideas. Rather, Burns thinks that Rand's attitude discouraged the kind of give and take that helps people learn independently and ultimately arrive at certainty by their own thought process.

42. p. 242: Burns claims Barbara Branden was rejected by Ayn Rand because Barbara tried to defend Nathan after the affair with Patrecia was uncovered. This may be Barbara’s story, but in fact, she turned against Ayn Rand when it became clear to her that she could no longer use her association with Ayn Rand to make money. Why did Burns choose to believe Barbara’s story and not Ayn Rand’s when Burns admits (in her “Essay on Sources”) that the
Brandens had revenge motivation and had biases and false statements in their books? (Burns presents no evidence that Ayn Rand was anything but 100 percent honest.)

1. How does Locke know that Barbara's story is wrong, but Rand's is right? What work has he done in the archives? Has he even read her book, or just relied on Valliant's BS?

2. "Why did Burns choose to believe Barbara’s story and not Ayn Rand’s when Burns admits (in her “Essay on Sources”) that the Brandens had revenge motivation and had biases and false statements in their books? "

This is what Burns says:

In my first stage of research, one of my primary goals was simply verifying if the essentials of the Brandens’ stories were correct. I was surprised to discover how accurate both books were. I did not discover any major errors or distortions in basic chronology or timing. I viewed the first series of correspondence between Rand and Nathan Blumenthal, and Barbara Weidman’s letters to Rand when she was away from her (the two later changed their names to Barbara and Nathaniel Branden). All of this material matched the accounts in the memoirs: here was the story of early difficulties in the relationship between Barbara and Nathan, for the reasons described; Nathan’s turbulent relationship with his family; the inflammatory letter he wrote to the UCLA newspaper (which I quote in my book), and so forth.

3. "Burns presents no evidence that Ayn Rand was anything but 100 percent honest." Actually she does. She credits Henry Holzer's statement that Rand's claim in To Whom It May Concern about Nathaniel's alleged financial fraud were untrue.

43. p. 244: About the split with the Brandens, Burns quotes one student as saying, “The rationally ordered universe NBI students sought and found in Rand was no more.” Wasn’t it? Where did it go? The rationally ordered universe was not based on people but on ideas. The ideas were there, on paper, for anyone who wanted them.

Another mistake. This is straight Burns, not a quote from a student. The previous sentence does contain a quote about To Whom It May Concern, but is from a "fan."

In any event, does Locke dispute that many young people tried to find "new home" (for lack of a better expression) in the NBI subculture and had doubts about Objectivism when the Split happened?

46. p. 269: “Rand had become increasingly unpleasant, querulous, and rigid as the years progressed.” There is no documentation for this claim. I only met her late in her life. I was fortunate enough to take her non-fiction writing course and had two conferences with her regarding papers I had written. She was unfailingly gracious and delighted to answer questions about her novels and philosophy. If she disagreed with something I wrote, she always politely explained her reasons. Ayn Rand, of course, could get angry (though she did not at me). But Burns does not understand why. Ayn Rand took ideas seriously; most people do not. She also understood in the most fundamental terms the consequences of irrational ideas for man’s life; for most people wrong ideas were just floating abstractions disconnected from reality.

Furthermore, Ayn Rand withstood decades of smears and denunciations from the intellectual establishment. In 100 percent of the instances that I am aware of, they misrepresented her ideas, often in the most grotesque manner (e.g., claiming her views were the actual opposite of what they were). Nevertheless, she never became bitter, never refused to explain her ideas (as long as the questioner was polite) and never deviated from her philosophy. She was inflexible in holding to her rational convictions against the most outrageous attacks. This is an aspect of her greatness—an aspect that Burns does not see at all.

Burns' evaluation of Rand's difficult side in later years may not be documented at this point in the book (or even in other places) but it is in fact documented. Just read that account of Allan and Joan Blumenthal in The Passion of Ayn Rand. (Not even Jim Valliant disputes the Blumenthals' report.)

No one disputes that Rand was a nice person most of the time. The evidence indicates the closer one got to Rand's inner circle the more difficult, controlling and demanding she became. There is no reason to think Locke would have witnessed much of this.

Obviously Burns understands the Peikovian take on Rand's anger (she was only upset at the irrationality in the world). Her years in the Archives an interviews with Rand's associates has led to a different conclusion.

48. p. 280: In her epilogue, Burns sinks into maliciousness (see also points 49 and 50). She argues that the Showtime television movie about Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, written by an enemy, Barbara Branden, “destroyed the vaunted image of Ayn Rand as an intellectual paragon who lived by rationality alone.” I noted earlier that Ayn Rand was never anti-emotion.
But more important, a less than C--grade, trashy movie written by an enemy who nonetheless wanted to exploit her connection to Ayn Rand, cannot be taken seriously by anyone—and it wasn’t. We have no way of knowing what events in the movie really occurred and which Barbara Branden made-up.

Barbara Branden did not write or approve the movie script. Burns says that Branden's books was "transformed" into an "HBO" (not Showtime) movie.

The entire paragraph should be read. Burns says that many people got a very negative impression from Rand after reading the Branden biography and that this impression was further "reinforced" by the movie. It should be remembered that Burns (and also Barbara Branden) have many positive things to say about Rand.

50. p. 281: Burns claims that the Ayn Rand Institute has a “poor reputation.”
Again, she gives no documentation. Poor according to whom? The institute is skyrocketing in growth, popularity and influence (see its websites). No other allegedly Objectivist organization even comes close.

I think the ARI's poor reputation is so well-known that it doesn't need documentation. Who, other than a few ARI insiders, supports the ARI's rewriting of Rand's papers, as well the purges, excommuncations and fatwas by de facto chairman Leonard Peikoff? In 2007, Texas State University turned down an Anthem Foundation fellowship, it being common knowledge of the dogmatism that plagues the ARI.

BTW, what does Dr. Locke think of the rewriting of Rand's papers?