Blogs > Liberty and Power > More on the Corruption of Rand's Objectivism

Apr 29, 2004 11:34 am

More on the Corruption of Rand's Objectivism

As a follow-up to my post the other day on the corruption of Ayn Rand's radical legacy, I want to strongly recommend a superb new post by Arthur Silber at"The Light of Reason":"The Self-Appointed Moralizers, and Would-Be Executioners, of Objectivism."

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

1. If the movement's past is such a colossal waste of time, why did you spend such a looooooooong post talking about it?

2. If no one can judge the past Objectivist movement unless they were there, how do you expect those of us who weren't there to take your descriptions of it at face value?

3. If you're so bent out of shape about the time-wasting obsessions of "some" Objectivists, why not go after the two hacks who made a career out of it? Recall that it was Barbara and Nathaniel Branden who decided, for their own reasons (could profit and power conceivably be involved?), to dredge up the futile doings of the 1960s, writing breathless "memoirs" and Showtime films on the subject. In terms of time and effort wasted on that subject, no one holds a candle to those two.

4. Wouldn't your criticisms of "moralizers" have a little more credibility if you laid off the ad hominem fallacies just a bit?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Well, I appreciate your response, Chris, but I don't see its relevance to my questions. I'm not criticizing Silber for anything he's saying about the Middle East, war, etc. I'm criticizing what he's saying about the relationship between the history of NBI and Objectivism. The four questions I asked point to what strike me as glaringly obvious contradictions in Silber's post.

First he wants to say that all that ancient NBI history is irrelevant--so irrelevant that he wants to grab the people discussing it, shake them and tell them to grow up(p. 13). On the other hand, he treats us to a 15 page single-spaced discussion of the very history he regards as irrelevant, while referring us backwards to yet more discussion on the same supposedly irrelevant subjects, and forward to anticipated discussions yet unwritten of the same supposedly irrelevant subjects, as well as other peoples' posts on the same irrelevant subjects. If the history was really irrelevant to him, what sense would it make to expend this much intellectual energy on it?

The major epistemic issue regarding the history is: how do we know what happened? On the one hand, Silber wants to tell us that there is no way for people who weren't there to know what happened. On the other hand, he seems to be inviting those of us who weren't there to believe his recounting of what happened. And he says this as he recounts the avowedly DELUSIONAL state he was in at the time the relevant events were taking place! Well even if there was a reason to care about the history in the first place, how is anyone supposed to take this decades-after-the-fact recounting of a (supposedly irrelevant) history told by an (avowedly then-delusional) historian seriously?

And then there is the treatment of the Brandens here, who seem to get off scott-free, as though innocent of any conceivable malfeasances. But whatever may have happened back in the 60s, wasn't it the Brandens who decided to put these idiotic issues front and center in the first place--in the 80s, then the 90s, and now into the 21st century? It is pathetic that in the middle of war and other serious matters, people are discussing Rand's affairs with the Brandens. But whose idea was it to make those affairs a matter of public discussion in the first place? Who wrote the first (and the second, and the third!) "steamy" memoir on the subject? Who devoted a whole Showtime drama to it? Who, in short, has made the question of "who screwed Rand when and who knew about it" the guiding topic of their careers?

Even Peikoff's "Fact and Value" and Schwartz's "Sanctioning the Sanctioners" managed to discuss real issues, however deficiently. But Barbara and Nathaniel Branden have made careers out of discussing NON-issues deficiently. Isn't it time that we stopped propping these people up by giving them the attention they would never otherwise have earned? The Brandens to this day seem to think that Objectivism is fundamentally about THEM. I don't see how that attitude differs very much from, say, Leonard Peikoff's. And I don't see how SIlber's post rectifies matters.

Last point: I don't think I've ever read an anti-moralist harangue that sounded quite as moralistic as this one. On the one hand, S. doesn't want to offer any moral judgments about Rand and Branden ca 1968 (p. 11); on the other hand, Rand turns out to be an "unadmitted concealer", and he himself is "angry," and "absolutely furious" at her and about her (11-12). It's kind of hard to be furious at someone without judging them. And I'd say that calling someone a liar is a type of moral judgment. Sorry, but you can't have it both ways: either you're judging or you're not.

Finally, in an argument against "moralism," we learn that Silber's opponents seek the undeserved, are essentially full of "crap," are "phony and pretentious," have no sense of priorities, are "empty," "woefully lacking in self-esteem", incapable of genuine achievement, "deplorable", "despicable", "idiots", "ignorant poseurs", and ought to beg Chris Sciabarra's forgiveness for their sins, etc etc (11-14). Whew! If this is anti-moralism, I'd hate to see Silber in a judgmental mood.

The bottom line is this: Either the old history is relevant now or not. If it isn't, let's stop talking about it altogether. If it is, let's stop talking about it in the way that Arthur Silber has.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

The "problem" that emerged in 1968 consisted of various moral improprieties by Rand and Nathaniel Branden and could well have been limited to them and forgotten by the rest of us. It is the Brandens who brought the pointless issues of the 1968 breakup back into our midst, and gave new life to them. It was ARI that then insisted that everybody had to make an all or nothing judgment on the 1968 breakup, and TOC that decided that it had to weigh in on the side of the Brandens. Every one of these moves was a mistake. But the impetus was the Brandens'.

As for the Brandens' memoirs and Barbara Branden's film, none of them seem to have been written with enough care or rigor for anyone to regard them as genuine history or biography. At a basic level, Nathaniel Branden has two different and incompatible memoirs, and Barbara Branden's book clashes with each of those, what to speak of her film, which constitutes a clash in a class of its own. Given the paucity of reliable information there, I'd have thought that moral judgment about 1968 was out of the question. But if Silber is to be believed, moral judgment is both out of the question--and something to be indulged in for purposes of public consumption.

As for Silber's being in a delusional state, that is how *he* describes it. He describes himself as being in total denial about plain facts until the mid 1970s, when he began to see things differently. The "many people in the early movement" who were deluded includes him--by his own admission.

Finally, as for the reception of AR: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL and so on, I hardly think that you (Chris) expect all of your critics ("detractors") to beg forgiveness for the crime of disagreeing with you. Some Objectivists have undoubtedly been intemperate as critics of your work, but not all have. Some libertarians have been intemperate as critics of Objectivism, too, but I can't imagine even a Peter Schwartz making the ludicrous demand that they "beg forgiveness" for it. (Or perhaps it's enough of an indictment to say that Peter Schwartz is the ONLY other person I can imagine making it...)

I don't deny that the Objectivist movement has its unsavory sides. That's why I'm decidedly not a part of it. But Silber's post is an instance of the problem, not the cure for it. I haven't read his other writings, just this one, so I'm speaking only to that. But I don't see a reason to change my mind about the one post I have read.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Last point on this, and I'll have to move on:

I wasn't saying that Nathaniel Branden has done nothing but chit chat about the affair. But he has undeniably capitalized on the affair in a way that no one else has (with Barbara as runner-up); it is central to his identity as a writer and as a public figure (insofar as he is one). And the modus operandi always seems the same: Nathaniel and the affair take front stage and center, with the limelight shining flatteringly on Nathaniel. Meanwhile, he shines a rather more scrutinizing and unflattering light in everybody else's face--a strange attribute in the guru of self-knowledge and self-esteem.

As for Barbara Branden, her book is less obnoxious than her film, but even if we give her all conceivable credit for the first two thirds of her biography, we're still left with a person whose career is tied to the revivification of the affair--and with nothing like a series of self-esteem books (even if half of them repeat what the other half have said) in mitigation of that fact.

As I think is obvious, I've lost whatever ability I may once have had to pull my punches while talking about these people. Leonard Peikoff, Peter Schwartz, and the Brandens: what do have here but one dysfunctional family, playing our their neurotic psycho-dramas in public at everybody else's expense? The amazing thing is not that they tried it, but that so many people let them get away with it for so long. Objectivism will make no progress as a movement until the lot of them are (I choose my words carefully) purged. Until then, I'm content to watch from the outside and let the movement trundle along without me.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 4/30/2004

Just a point of information. Arthur includes an update on yesterday's post, in reply to several emails he has received:

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 4/30/2004

On one isolated point, Irfan: No, of course, I do not expect my critics to beg for my forgiveness (and Silber suggests that I actually wouldn't expect such a thing). What I would prefer in ~some~ instances, however, is actual ~engagement~ with my arguments, rather than wholesale dismissal of my work by ~some~ people. Alas, that's what makes the world go round. We move on.

I think you do put your finger on a number of mistakes that have been made. My point is that it is unfair to suggest that Nathaniel Branden has been doing nothing but chatting about this affair for three decades. He's had a career as the father of the self-esteem movement, publisher of more than a dozen books, and so forth. And Barbara's book, as I said, may have its limitations of first-hand account, but even critics of that book have suggested that its first two thirds provide biographical information that simply does not exist in any other source.

This, btw, is all a part of the process of historical biography; first come the biographies and the memoirs by those who were part of the history. In time, I fully expect (and know) that other biographies will be written by people who did not know Rand, Branden, Peikoff, or any of the other principals. It's a process that none of us should fear; and in the end, what will matter most is the historical moment in which Rand came to maturity, and the ideas she has left as a radical legacy.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 4/29/2004

Irfan, first of all, I don't think that this problem emerged with the Brandens. I think this problem emerged when the Objectivist movement was torn asunder in 1968 by a failed relationship between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden. That failure has had ripple effects for years.

I suspect we have very different views of Barbara's biography and Nathaniel's memoir; I think Barbara's biography has the obvious limitations that are inherent in a first-hand account of history by one of the principals ... while also having the provocative qualities that are inherent in such an account. Nathaniel's memoir says far more about ~him~ and ~his~ struggles than it does about anybody else. More than this, I think Nathaniel has made important post-Randian contributions, in such books as THE DISOWNED SELF and HONORING THE SELF, that examine the relationship between reason and emotion, and the relationship between philosophy, psychology, and culture, in ways that were only hinted at in his earlier writings. I also believe he's done terrific work with directed association techniques.

I think Silber's discussion is relevant because I do believe there are still vestiges of rationalism and moralism in aspects of the Objectivist movement, vestiges that should be buried once and for all. And I appreciate his being a good friend, and for expressing his frustration with how my work has been treated by some individuals in Objectivist circles.

I do not believe that Silber was in a "delusional" state; what he was saying was that so many people in that early movement were ~deluded~ because the truth never came out. And the truth was relevant. There was a distinction between the explicit philosophy of Objectivism, which eschewed rationalism, dogmatism, and moralism, and the ~behavior~ of Objectivism's principals and followers, who often equated the sexual and aesthetic tastes of Ayn Rand with objective reality. I think Silber is rightfully upset because there are still people who implicitlly make the same unjustified equation.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 4/29/2004

Irfan, I'm going to leave it to Arthur to answer these questions should he so decide. But I think that if you understood a bit of the context for this, you might appreciate more where Arthur is coming from.

There has been a rather exhausting debate on the Noodlefood blog about Objectivism; I don't think anyone there has quite grasped the extent of the rationalism, dogmatism, and moralizing that was on display in the early Objectivist movement, the kind of rationalism criticized by ~both~ Nathaniel Branden (in THE DISOWNED SELF) ~and~ Leonard Peikoff (in his course, "Understanding Objectivism"). I think Arthur has, at the very least, provided the personal testimony to give us a sense of how oppressive that environment was. And what he's railing against is the reproduction of that environment among some of Rand's current followers.

There is a further context to Arthur's discussion. He's been fighting a very lonely battle among those of us who owe an intellectual debt to Ayn Rand. I count myself with Arthur on the side of those who have learned much from Rand's radical critique of US foreign and domestic policy, and who have applied that critique to the current Wilsonian nation-building project in Iraq. Arthur and I are deeply critical of those within Objectivism who have sided with the neoconservatives in this folly; he is, I think, rather fed up that people who have known next to nothing about the actual events of 1968 could say so much, while the rest of the world is going to hell.

His post may have been a "loooooooooooooooong" one, as you put it, but it doesn't come close to the long, extensive, and comprehensive discussions that both he and I have posted, analyzing the current global crisis.

Whatever my disagreements with some of Rand's followers, and you know they are deep, I'd like to state for the record that I do ~not~ count you among the latter-day "rationalists." In fact, I think you've been among those who have actually questioned some of the rather simplistic formulas that some Objectivists have adopted in their analysis of the Middle East.