Saturday, October 24, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 31

Politics of Human Nature 15: Sociology of the Intellectual. In the essay “For the New Intellectual,” we find Rand insisting that “the need for intellectual leadership was never as great as now.” Where is this “intellectual” leadership to come from? Rand imagines a “New Intellectual” who “will be the man who lives up to the exact meaning of his title: a man who is guided by his intellect.” The “New Intellectual,” Rand promises, will end “the rule of Attila and the Witch Doctor.” How will intellectuals do this? According to Rand, they have to do a number of things, such as: (1) Adopt a philosophy of “reason”; (2) reunite and become a champion of businessmen; (3) understand the nature and the function of the free market; (4) discover the theory and the actual history of capitalism; (5) prove and accept two principles: a.”that emotions are not tools of cognition”; and b. “that no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others.” [FNI, 59-64]

Now anyone who understands human motivation will recognize immediately that Rand’s views about the power of intellectuals are little more than wishful thinking. For the purposes of this post, however, I’m not interested in analyzing that side of Rand’s view. I would prefer, instead, to focus on Rand’s assumption that any significant number of intellectuals can be expected to do the things Rand wants them to do. Those of us who understand the “sociology of the intellectual,” as Joseph Schumpeter described it, regard intellectuals as one of the very last groups in society which we would wish to trust our fortunes to. "Beware intellectuals," warned historian Paul Johnson in his incendiary exposé, Intellectuals (Harper Perennial, 1990). "Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice."

Let us now examine the “sociology of the intellectual,” as limned by Joseph Schumpeter:

Intellectuals are in fact people who wield the power of the spoken and the written word, and one of the touches that distinguish them from other people who do the same is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs. This touch in general accounts for another—the absence of first-hand knowledge of them which only actual experience can give. The critical attitude, arising no less from the intellectual’s situation as an onlooker—in most cases also as an outsider—than from the fact that his main chance of asserting himself lies in his actual or potential nuisance value, should add a third touch.

Note particularly Schumpeter’s remark about “absence of direct responsibility.” When discussing intellectuals, this is critical in several senses. As I have stated in previous posts (for example, here), there are some domains of knowledge that can only be mastered by intensive experience. Intellectuals often have little, if any, appreciation for this fact. They often think they can attain mastery in a subject merely through reading or rationalistic speculation (i.e., “reason”), when, as a matter of fact, nothing less than experience will do. And since most intellectuals lack the requisite experience, they are not in a position, nor are they in the least qualified, to judge on matters relating to politics, social policy, and economics.

But there is another potentially serious problem: what happens when society produces too many intellectuals? What happens to all the intellectuals who cannot earn a living through their intellectual skills? As Schumpeter explains:

The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work. His failure to do so may be due either to lack of natural ability—perfectly compatible with passing academic tests—or to inadequate teaching; and both cases will, absolutely and relatively, occur more frequently as ever larger numbers are drafted into higher education and as the required amount of teaching increase irrespective of how many teachers and scholars nature chooses to turn out. The results of neglecting this and acting on the theory that schools, colleges, and universities are just a matter of money, are too obvious to insist upon….

All those who are unemployable or unsatisfactorily employed or unemployable drift into the vocations in which standards are least definite or in which aptitudes and acquirements of a different order count. They swell the host of intellectuals in the strict sense of the term whose numbers hence increase disproportionately. They enter it in a thoroughly discontented frame of mind. Discontent breeds resentment. And it often rationalizes itself into social criticism which as we have seen before is in any case the intellectual spectator’s typical attitude toward men, classes, and institutions… Well, here we have numbers; a well-defined group situation of proletarian hue; and a group interest shaping a group attitude that will much more realistically account for hostility to the capitalist order than could the theory—itself a rationalization in the psychological sense—according to which the intellectual’s righteous indignation about the wrongs of capitalism simply represents the logical inference from outrageous facts and which is no better than the theory of lovers that their feelings represent nothing but the logical inference from the virtues of the beloved. [Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 147-153]

There are other considerations that also have to be broached. If you examine the works of intellectuals through history, the results are not always terribly edifying. Indeed, the more an individual devotes himself exclusively to an intellectual life, the greater the chances that he will champion ideas based on irresponsible speculation and wishful thinking. Plato, one of the earliest men to devote himself almost exclusively to intellectual pursuits, is typical in this respect. We also see something along these lines in the Pythagorean cult, in the mania for abstruse theology among the Christians, in the pre-Kantian rationalist philosophers (particularly Leibniz and Wolff), in the idealist and Hegelian philosophers, and in the deconstructionists. Whole forests have been destroyed to promulgate views contrary to good sense and the facts of life.

Rand wished to place the lion’s share of the blame for all this rationalistic wishful thinking on Plato and Kant. Yet even if it were true that Plato and Kant are the primary culprits, we would still have to ask ourselves why so many intellectuals are attracted to rationalistic, wishful thinking. Could it be that the very type of individual most attracted to an intellectual life is, generally speaking, also the type of individual most alienated towards reality? Or could it be that the intellectual life tends to attract weak people, who look at a life of irresponsible speculation as a convenient escape from the rigors of a more active existence? Realism about the world requires strength; yet strength cannot be acquired merely by thinking. Strength is not, as the logic of Objectivism implies, a product of an individual’s premise. Changing a person’s premises will not transform the coward into a hero. The life of the mind may prove a poor and shoddy breeding ground for developing strong individuals. Perhaps only the exceptional individual can develop both strength and intellect, so that the number of strong, reality-orientated intellectuals will be too small to count in any significant way. If so, then Rand’s hopes for a new intellectual appear doomed from the start. The intellectual, by his lack of experience and practical responsibilty, by his unemployability and rationalized resentment, and by his tendency toward weakness and wishful thinking, will tend, by the very nature of his vocation, to entertain an intractable bias against capitalism; and no amount of arguments or premises can alter this fact.

"Howard Roark in New Delhi"

Jennifer Burns writes for Foreign Policy about the surprising popularity of Rand's "The Fountainhead." Rand's popularity in India has been visible for a while - check out the Google search figures - and it's understandable why. One of the positive uses of Rand is that she's useful to people who are looking for a way out of an oppressive religion. Anecdotally, I've noticed a lot of people on Objectivist fora are ex-Christian fundys or similar, and who for whom Rand is a liberating force. This is a good thing, obviously, though it sometimes also has the effect of jumping out of the frying pan into a frying pan that's on "simmer"... Anyway, enjoy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jennifer Burns on Jon Stewart

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Following up on Greg's review of "Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market" below, here's Burns interviewed by Jon Stewart. My review is in the pipeline, but in short this book surely deserves the major play it's getting.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review of Burn’s "Goddess of the Market"

Jennifer Burns' book focuses on Rand’s development as a thinker and philosopher and connects this development with the broader conservative and libertarian movements. Using her unprecedented access to Rand’s private papers and the unedited versions of Rand’s journal, Burns uncovers a wealth of fascinating evidence on the influences that shaped Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Goddess of the Market is now the most impressive work of scholarship on Rand to date, besting even Sciabarra’s Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.

This book is notable (among other things) for the impartiality of its author. As far as I can tell, Burns is the first non-Objectivist scholar to have been granted full access to Rand’s papers. Since she harbors no perceivable agenda beyond relating the important facts about Rand’s life and thought, Goddess of the Market becomes the most “objective” (in the non-Randian sense of the word) account of Rand. Unlike works on Rand published through ARI or by the Brandens, the conclusions of Goddess cannot be questioned on the grounds of bias. “I am less concerned with judgment than with analysis,” Burns writes in her introduction, “a choice Rand would certainly condemn,” she adds with muted irony. I would describe her book as even-handed: wherever Rand conflicted with friends and associates, Burns goes out of her way to give both sides, basing her analysis on the relevant documentary evidence (rather than just on mere speculation or bias). The intellectual conflict Rand had with Rose Wilder Lane, for instance, is fleshed out not merely with reference to letters between the two right-wing individualists, but even with a letter that Lane wrote to a third person describing her final showdown with Rand.

The most interesting revelation in Goddess may very well be the extent to which Isabel Paterson influenced Rand’s philosophy. Rand was still working her way through her Nietzsche phase when she met Paterson in 1941. Paterson reinforced Rand’s growing commitment to “reason” and Aristotle. It is likely that Paterson introduced Rand to the banal phrase “A is A,” which later became such an important mantra within the Objectivist philosophy. Paterson also appears to be the original source of Rand’s detestation of Kant (which would later be reinforced by what she learned from Leonard Peikoff). Paterson may even have been the chief inspiration for Rand’s later fierce moral condemnation of using emotions as a tool of cognition. Paterson, famous for being “difficult” (W. F. Buckley would later describe her as “obstinately vindictive”), once, in Rand’s presence, screamed over the phone at Rose Wilder Lane, because Lane had confessed being led by her feelings, rather than by “reason.” Rand found Paterson’s arguments to Lane “marvelous and unanswerable," and her anger understandable, even honorable. Paterson was providing Rand with a model the younger woman would later imitate, to horrendous effect.

Rand emerges from Burns' book as a talented, energetic, sometimes even brilliant woman torn by paradoxical traits in her character. Rand was a “rationalist philosopher who wrote romantic fiction. For all her fealty to reason, Rand was a woman subject to powerful, even overwhelming emotion…. Her dual career as a novelist and a philosopher let Rand express both her deep-seated need for control and her genuine belief in individualism and independence.” Rand’s life, driven by a “clash between [the] romantic and rational sides” of her character, makes the story of her life “not a tale of triumph, but a tragedy of sorts.”

This book will not please the orthodox champions of Rand who have turned Objectivism into a personality cult. It confirms most of the controversial claims made by Barbara Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand, including Frank O'Conner's alcoholism, Rand's increasing mental rigidity during her Objectivist period, her difficulties with intellectual interchange, the contempt which Rand periodically felt for her fans, and the catastrophic consequences of her split with the Brandens for the Objectivist movement as a whole. It provides even more light on the possible role which Rand's habitual use of Benzedrine may have had on Rand. Paterson had warned Rand to "Stop taking that Benzedrine, you idiot," but Rand, stubborn and self-willed as usual, refused to listen. It was not unusual for Rand to work on Atlas during the day and then stay up all night talking philosophy with the "Collective" [i.e., the inner circle around Rand, let by the Brandens]. As Burns relates:
The Collective marveled at how the opportunity to talk philosophy rejuvenated [Rand] even after a long day of writing. The obvious was also the unthinkable. To keep up with her younger followers, Rand fed herself a steady stream of amphetamines. [148]

This opens up the possibility that what some of us find objectionable in Atlas Shrugged—namely, the work's blistering disdain towards anyone who might be so horrid as to disagree with its author, coupled with the book's piercing tendentiousness—may have been influenced by her repeated exposure to these drugs, which can lead to aggression, over-confidence, feelings of superiority, and even paranoia. Following the publication of The Fountainhead, Rand's personal life slowly dissolved into personal tragedy, as she became increasingly difficult and insular. That a woman who would devise an entire philosophy around the notion that human beings are self-creators via "reason" should have relied so heavily on amphetamines is in itself a kind of refutation of her view of human nature.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 30

Politics of Human Nature 14: Egalitarian Envy. In an earlier “Objectivism and Politics” post, we found Rand using the phrase “ hatred of the good for being the good” to describe nihilism. But she had also used to the phrase to describe “envy.” And in her essay “Age of Envy,” she illustrated her notions in relation to egalitarianism.

Egalitarianism means the belief in the equality of all men. “Equality,” in a human context, is a political term: it means equality before the law… But this is not the meaning that the altruists ascribe to the word “equality.” They turn the word into an anti-concept: they use it to mean, not political, but metaphysical equality—the equality of personal attributes and virtues, regardless of natural endowment or individual choice, performance and character. It is not man-made institutions, but nature, i.e., reality, that they propose to fight—by means of man-made institutions.

Since nature does not endow all men with equal beauty or equal intelligence, and the faculty of volition leads men to make different choices, the egalitarians propose to abolish the “unfairness” of nature and of volition, and to establish universal equality in fact—in defiance of facts. Since the Law of Identity is impervious to human manipulation, it is the Law of Causality that they struggle to abrogate. Since personal attributes or virtues cannot be “redistributed,” they seek to deprive men of their consequences—of the rewards, the benefits, the achievements created by personal attributes and virtues. It is not equality before the law that they seek, but inequality: the establishment of an inverted social pyramid, with a new aristocracy on top—the aristocracy of non-value.

While many of us could do without the over-charged rhetoric, what Rand is saying in so many words is that “altruists” (i.e., socialists, humanitarians, leftists, etc.) seek real, as opposed to merely political equality, and that such equality is impossible. Fair enough. Where Rand gets into trouble is when she tries to analyze where this egalitarian “hatred of the good for being good” comes from. She ventures upon a psychological explanation:

The hater’s mental functioning remains on the level of childhood. Nothing is fully real to him except the concrete, the perceptually given, i.e., the immediate moment without past or future. He has learned to speak, but has never grasped the process of conceptualization…. [How does she know this? Where is her evidence?]

How does a human being descend to such a state? There are different psychological reasons, but—in pattern—the process of self-stultification is initiated by the child who lies too often and gets away with it. In his early, formative years, when he needs to learn the mental processes required to grasp the great unknown surrounding him, reality, he learns the opposite. He learns, in effect, that he can get whatever he wants not by observing facts, but by inventing them and by cheating, begging, threatening (throwing tantrums), i.e., by manipulating the adults…. Reality does not obey him, it frustrates his wishes, it is impervious to his feelings, it does not respond to him as the adults do; but, he feels ... he has the power to defeat [reality] by means of nothing but his own imagination, which commands the mysterious omnipotent adults who can do what he is unable to do…

Gradually, these subconscious conclusions are automatized in his mind, in the form of a habitual, ambivalent feeling: a sneaky sense of triumph—and a sense of inferiority, since he is helpless when he is left on his own. He counteracts it by telling himself that he is superior, since he can deceive anyone; and, seeking reassurance, he multiplies the practice deception. Wordlessly, as an implicit premise, he acquires the belief that his means of survival is his ability to manipulate others. At a certain stage of his development, he acquires the only authentic and permanent emotion he will ever be able to experience: fear.

Again, one wonders: how on earth does she know all this? It seems all very speculative, and some of it isn’t even plausible. Perhaps there might be something in Rand’s assertion that children who lie and get away with it can easily become manipulators who, as adults, will attempt to live off others, as parasites. But it is also possible that the principle danger of the child who gets away with lying (as well as other things) is that he becomes a spoiled child who ends up, as the conservative philosopher Richard Weaver once put it, failing “to see the relationship between effort and reward,” which causes him in turn to regard “payment as an imposition or as an expression of malice by those who withhold [him from] it.” In other words, Rand’s best speculations about egalitarian envy, while plausible, are not necessarily true. And her worst speculations seem merely expressions of a moralistic spleen trying to vent itself against an imaginary target. She claims, for instance, that the only “authentic” emotion the envious hater is capable of is “fear.” If an individual is so good at manipulating others that this can be a means of survival, why should he be afraid? If he has found a method of survival that works, why should he worry any more than the rest of us? Is it because of his dependence on others? Many people who don’t live by manipulating others nonetheless are dependent, in many important respects, on others. Why should dependence, in and of itself, be a cause of fear? Are human beings, by and large, really that undependable? And where does Rand get the odd notion that “haters” are incapable of “conceptualization”? Since anyone who uses language must understand the conceptualizations behind language, this view appears contrary to obvious facts.

But Rand is not done with her psychological speculations. She proceeds by suggesting that there are two possible “roads” open to the envious haters: to either “seek safety in stagnation” or become an intellectual “who believes that ideas are tools of deception.” Her comments on the intellectual “hater” are worth reproducing, if only for purposes of comic relief:

Psychologists have observed a phenomenon called “the idiot-savant,” a man who has the mentality of a moron, but, for some as yet undiscovered reason, is able to perform a prodigy’s feats of arithmetical calculation. The hater of the good becomes a similar phenomenon: “the idiot philosopher,” a man who is unable to grasp the relation of ideas to reality, but devotes his life to the manufacture, propagation and manipulation of ideas…

And who are these “idiot philosophers” Rand is speaking of? Is there anyone she might wish to name? Thankfully, she grants at least one name: “On the basis of his works, I offer Immanuel Kant in evidence, as the archetype of this species.” [The New Left, 164-181]

The notion of Kant as an “idiot philosopher” “unable to grasp the relation of ideas to reality” is absurd, and easily refutable. Much of Kant’s philosophy may be overly pedantic and speculative, but this does not mean his mind was detached from reality, as Rand suggests. On the contrary, Kant, in his scientific speculations, was actually quite shrewd. He not only figured out, long before anyone else did, that the frictional resistance against tidal currents on the earth's surface must cause a diminution of the earth's rotational speed, he also helped popularize the Nebular hypothesis, in which he deduced that the Solar System was originally formed from a large cloud of gas. Kant also correctly speculated that the Milky Way was a large disk of stars, formed from a (much larger) spinning cloud of gas. As Wikipedia puts it: “These postulations opened new horizons for astronomy: for the first time extending astronomy beyond the solar system to galactic and extragalactic realms.”

Rand, as is often the case, relies too much on speculation unguided by empirical evidence; indeed, if her speculations are guided by anything, it is merely her own personal prejudices, particularly her prejudice against any innate influence or tendency in human behavior. There are probably many causes of egalitarian envy, some which may have a partial origin in innate proclivities prominent in certain strains of human nature. Egalitarian envy may, for instance, arise from concerns over status. As I will explain in more detail in a later post, many human beings desire status and respect, and feel envious of those who, they imagine, have attained a higher position in the socio-political pecking order. Nor is it necessarily true that these envious persons are always incompetent or lazy or mere manipulators of others. In all human societies, there exist status-rivalries, which easily can be the source of an envious hatred, particularly when one rival triumphs over another. The defeated rival may be an individual of estimable talent characterized by a strong work ethic. But if he happens to be a sore loser into the bargain, one can easily see this individual being attracted to egalitarianism. It is not necessarily the envy of the third-, fourth-, and fifth-rate that is the most malicious and dangerous. Why should it be? Incompetent individuals are likely to be incompetent even in their envious revenge. But the envy of the second-rate individual—of the man who is a notch or two below greatness and who boils with frustration at being so close to the top without reaching it—the envy of such an individual can lead to great mischief. The Nazis were not a party of incompetent, fifth-rate men, incapable of conceptualization. They were second-rate men who wished to be seen as first-rate men, and this gave rise, in at least some of them, to sentiments of envy, which focused much of its resentment and rage on Jews, partly because in Germany, the Jews, as a social group, were rising in society. It is difficult enough for the status-obsessed second-rate individual to tolerate being bested by people in his own ethnicity or race; but to bested by individuals in another ethnicity and race, particularly one that has for centuries been despised, that was more than Hitler and his genocidal fraternity could bear.

Rand’s tendency to equate “evil” with incompetence, impotence, and idiocy leads her speculations concerning envy astray. She seems to be trying to evade two important facts: (1) that not all envious people are incompetent idiots, but some are dangerous individuals with real capabilities; and (2) that the envy that provides emotional sustenance to egalitarianism is not the product of a mere premise which can be combatted with “reason” and moral condemnation. On the contrary, the envious, like the poor, will always be with us: the battle against envy is never-ending. It is part of the battle for civilization, which is also of the never-ending variety.

Monday, October 12, 2009

How Ayn Rand Made Her World

From the previews of the forthcoming bio by Anne Heller, "Ayn Rand And The World She Made" the basic thesis seems to be that Rand gradually invented her own reality; that she came to live in a kind of solipsistic world of her own.

If this is the case, I would agree. This solipsism is a natural consequence of her theories combining egoism and introspection, despite the lipservice Objectivism pays to attending to reality. What's interesting is tracking down some of the mechanisms by which she gradually erodes the real world and replaces it with one of her own making, as this replacement of reality with a novelised fantasy as a superior reality is one of what I've dubbed the "cultic incitements" in her work.

Here's one very subtle, but very telling example, from her second interview with Phil Donahue. At about 1:58 in the clip above he quizzes her about what she means by a "sacrifice" and here's what she says:
Rand: What I mean by "sacrifice"... and what is generally meant (DB emphasis) to give up some value that is important to you for something else that is a lesser value...or a non-value...
Now, ARCHNblog readers may be familiar with our Understanding Objectivist Jargon series, where we explain the odd and often highly twisted meanings that Rand attached to many common terms. In fact, Rand's version of "sacrifice" is the exact opposite of the general meaning of "sacrifice", which is giving up some lesser value for a greater value.

Yet in the version of reality Rand lived in her own, invented meaning was the one that was "generally meant".

Like her crucial falsification of the dictionary definition of "selfishness" in her introduction to "The Virtue of Selfishness", Rand seems to be not so much dishonest as semi-delusional. Like a kind of postmodernist, the words make up her world.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 29

Politics of Human Nature 13: Canaille. John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, wrote that "there is a natural Aristocracy among men; the grounds of which are Virtue and Talents." There exists also a kind of natural Chandela or rabble, the grounds of which are vice and incompetence. Of course, in a society besotted with egalitarian sentiments , no one wants to admit such a thing. But it is true nonetheless. There exists a type of person who seems congenitally dysfunctional and incapable of living even a life of genteel and honorable poverty. One may pity such people as much as one wishes—for they really are pitiful—but one should not sentimentalize them. They may be unfortunate, unlucky, entirely blameless for what they have become. Their dysfunction may be cause by mental illness or some other congenital or acquired defect, such as injury to the fore brain or an innate chemical imbalance. Or it may be that these individuals (or at least some of them) are entirely or largely to blame for their sorry plight. Their dysfunction may be an expression of a narcissistic craving to avoid work, or an irresponsible preference for wiling away one’s time in a drunken stupor. Whatever the cause, the fact is that there will always exist some individuals who either can’t or won’t take care of themselves and who therefore cause problems for the rest of us. What is to be done about such people?

We know what Rand opposed in terms of “solutions” to this problem. She opposed any public financed welfare state or “safety net” that might take care of these people and get them off the streets. From Rand’s perspective, it is immoral to take money from the productive and give it to the unproductive. Very well. Then what is to be done? It simply will not do to say: “Leave them alone: let ‘reality’ or ‘nature’ take care of them.” Reality and nature won’t take care of them without first causing great inconvenience for the rest of us. I live in an area which attracts vagrants like a corpse attracts flies. These vagrants cause all kinds of problems for local businesses, from driving away customers through aggressive panhandling to defecating on the sidewalks and on the street.

An Objectivist might (and probably would) argue that these activities are (or ought to be) crimes and that the offenders should be arrested, convicted and punished. Yet, given the costs of convicting and then incarcerating vagrants, we would still find ourselves taking money from the productive to support the unproductive. Indeed, it would probably be cheaper to set up tents and a soup kitchen a few miles outside of town and try to draw the homeless hither. But how many Objectivists could bring themselves to accept such a solution, given their horror of anything that smacks of “welfare” or state assistance? In other words, they are not serious about the problem: they merely wish to repeat their various laissez-faire mantras and slogans. They do not wish to be bothered with the practical challenges that vagrancy poses to society. Instead, they bury these details under the vagueness and obscurity of their abstract doctrines.

Why should the idea of public assistance be so very dreadful to a reasonable person? Even from the point of view of the most callous self-interest, it is better to get the homeless off the street and into shelters, if only to keep them from spreading disease and being a nuisance to the rest of us. There is, after all, no cheaper solution to the problem, short of declaring open season on the poor wretches and exterminating them. Rand claims that the moral is the practical; but in this case, Objectivists have taken their moral principles to impractical conclusions.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 28

Politics of Human Nature 12: Humanitarianism and nihilism. Humanitarianism, when it becomes extreme, desperate, belligerently utopian, and revolutionary, begins to merge into nihilism. A clear example of this is the revolutionary version of Marxism. As the economist Frank Knight wrote:

The [Marxian] doctrine itself—that all that need be done in order to awake the next morning in, or on the way toward, an idealistic Utopia is to destroy the admittedly crude and imperfect civilization which the race has developed through history thus far, by destroying its institutions and power relations and turning over all power to the promoters of the destruction for the purposes of reconstruction—has an evident if mysterious appeal to elemental human nature. How such propaganda and the romantic appeal of destruction in general, is to be effectively combated, is perhaps the most serious of practical social problems. And the most serious as well as the most puzzling phase of this situation is that in their manners and conscious intentions the promoters are for the most part “nice people,” and “honorable men,” and will readily, and often artistically, “with reasons answer you.” Not only that; they are morally earnest, even to a fault—in fact, to a degree which makes it a serious ethical problem whether moral earnestness can be assumed a virtue at all [a statement that can be applied to Objectivism as well]. For in plain factual appraisal, what they are doing is more catastrophically evil than treason, or poisoning wells, or other acts commonly placed at the head of the list of crimes. The moralisation of destruction, and of combat with a view to destruction, goes with the kind of hero-worship that merges into devil-worship. [Freedom and Reform, 118-119]

Knight’s phrase “moralisation of destruction” goes to the very heart of the nihilistic pathology. On a superficial level, Rand’s view is not necessarily all that different. Nihilism, for Rand, is “hatred of the good for being good.” Okay, someone who hates the good for being good will probably be attracted to destruction, so Rand's speculation here at least has plausibility on its side, if not truth. Where Rand goes seriously off the reservation is when she speculates about the source of this hatred. Consider Rand’s analysis of the infamous streaker at the academy awards as related by Peikoff:

Having grasped the streaker’s nihilism … [Rand] was eager to point out some different examples of the same attitude. [Peikoff goes on to relate how Rand observes the presence of nihilism in modern literature, progressive education, and “avant-garde physics.”] That streaker, in short, was the very opposite of an isolated phenomenon. He was a microcosm of the principle ruling modern culture, a fleeting representative of that corrupt motivation which Ayn Rand has described so eloquently as “hatred of the good for being the good.” And what accounts for such widespread hatred? she asked at the end. Her answer brings us back to the philosophy [Rand opposed], the one that attacks reason and reality wholesale and thus makes all values impossible: the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. [Voice of Reason, 344]

Here is a good example of Rand’s typical mode of proceeding on such questions. She starts out promising enough by identifying the streaker with nihilism. That’s a bit over the top, but interesting nonetheless. She goes on to relate the streaker’s attitude to modern literature, progressive education, and “avant-garde physics” (what on earth could that be?). Again, it’s over the top; and Rand also leaves herself open to accusations of painting with too broad a brush. Still, with a bit of overly generous interpretation, we might be able to extract something resembling plausibility out of it. The very worst aspects of modern literature and progressive education do have a strong nihilistic stench to them. And Rand’s phrase “hatred of the good for being good” also shows promise as a fascinating conjecture. Of course, it may also be possible that nihilists simply have a different idea of the good; still, it’s an eloquent phrase and Rand may really be on to something. But having gotten this far without making any serious blunders, she could not, alas, leave well enough alone, but has to reduce her entire analysis to raving absurdity by bringing up her long-established bête noire, the old wizened pedant of Königsberg, Herr Kant. It appears that Kant’s philosophy is the source and cause of nihilism! If only Kant had been smothered in his cradle, we would have been spared the combined horrors of James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Look-Say method of pedagogy!

Rand’s philosophy of history (like her view of human nature upon which it is based) is a millstone around the neck of her social and political views. It drains her social analysis of whatever aura of plausibility her skill as a propagandist can attach to it, and renders her political objectives unreal and impractical.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Hoisted From Comments: A Reminiscence of the NBI

In comments, tenaj gives us this intriguing personal snapshot of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, and an alternative view to the one currently propogated by the Ayn Rand Institute regarding Branden's influence on Rand.

I'll skip when I first came across Rand and save it for later maybe. In August of 1960 I was reading Atlas Shrugged and going through a behavioral quit smoking program. One of the instructions was not smoking one hour before going to bed (to sleep I presume)and so I would have my last cigarette and read some more of Atlas. Then I would be in a place where I didn't want to stop, so I would light up another cigarette. And so on. I loved the book, had recently gotten a divorce, was teaching first grade and now considering it as a real career instead of something to do until I had children. So as I was finishing with Atlas and with cigarettes my mother saw an ad in the Sunday Inquirer that Objectivist Lectures-NBI- on Rand were coming to Philadelphia. And I immediately decided to go. BB [Barbara Branden] gave the lectures and the rest was history for me, as I took it very seriously.

I had decided to quit smoking because I could feel what it was doing to me. I felt that I could not change things in my life until I quit. How's that for Neuro Linguistic Programming. So I entered a world where all the players smoked, ritualistically with holders no less. And I was not tempted because I was happy I no longer wanted to smoke. So it created a boundary for me in my identification with BB. She was quite lovely and I thought at the time, very intelligent. So it was possible to be a woman and be both was the message I got. NB, AR, AG and LP [Nathaniel Branden, Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, Leonard Peikoff] gave guest lectures over the two years I went. I attended LP's philosophical lectures on the history of philosophy in New York the summer of 62 and Mary Ann Sures on art in the summer of 61. I never asked a question because I had read Atlas carefully and felt I knew the answer as soon as anyone asked a Q. Then I would compare what I thought to the answer from on high. I loved it when Rand was impatient with a Q. You see now I know the difference between the content of a question and the intent. Rand could pick up on the intent and often responded to it. BB and NB always responded to the content as I remember. An important distinction for anyone to know who goes before groups for Q & A.

But all the while unbeknown to me I was observing all sorts of things and storing them in my data base unfiled. So yes I have lots of visual memories of all of it. I can tell you how BB wore her hair, what clothes she wore, her verbal mannerisms, NB's gestures and many things about LP and Rand as they lectured and presented. But my dots were not connected until many years later.

The most important thing was that I found my own mind that I had lost in school. And I began a journey.

I will say that had NBI not existed, I would have been under the spell of Atlas for awhile but would never -and I mean never- have explored her philosophy, become an Objectivist and been able to begin to apply it to my life. Without NBI Rand's ideas would have entered the ether. This is Nathaniel Branden's great contribution. I c an personally attest it is true. He gave her so much that she could never have achieved on her own, with or without LP or any of the rest of them. I never knew him in those days, so the hateful things I have read don't mean anything real to me. I do know that he was generous to a fault. He gave her so much and she threw it away because of her desire to possess another human being. Everything that Objectivism is today comes from the root of NBI. No one would consider her in the field of philosophy (and maybe no one should)if not for NB. I have not considered here the fact that NB gave her his youth, his mind, his sex, his labor and all the while he was her muse. He brought her all his relatives and friends from Canada and without all that he laid at her feet she would never have finished Atlas and/or it would not have been the book it is. (Please don't think I still love it, but I do not deny its impact on our culture.)

And no one ever even comes close to mentioning the elephant in the room which I hope to go into somewhere. When I do they will truly want to kill me.