Objectivists often accuse non-Objectivists, anti-Objectivists and apostates from ARI Objectivism as suffering from “rationalism.” This term appears to mean something like applying principles to situations without taking into account the facts of experience. A recent example is Leonard Peikoff’s 2006 statement that anyone who considers voting Republican or abstaining from voting “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism, except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world.” Incidentally, the term does not appear in this sense in either The Ayn Rand Lexicon or the index to Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Ellen Stuttle has drawn attention to the following from Leonard Peikoff’s 1987 talk “My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand,” reprinted in The Voice of Reason:
About a dozen years ago, Ayn Rand and I were watching the Academy Awards on television; it was the evening when a streaker flashed by during the ceremonies. Most people probably dismissed the incident with some remark like: "He's just a kid" or "It's a high-spirited prank" or "He wants to get on TV." But not Ayn Rand. Why, her mind, wanted to know, does this "kid" act in this particular fashion? What is the difference between his "prank" and that of college students on a lark who swallow goldfish or stuff themselves into telephone booths? How does his desire to appear on TV differ from that of a typical game-show contestant? In other words, Ayn Rand swept aside from the outset the superficial aspects of the incident and the standard irrelevant comments in order to reach the essence, which has to pertain to this specific action in this distinctive setting.The event in question was the 1974 Academy Awards. By that time, streaking had become the national prank. Ray Stevens’ song “The Streak” had been written but not published. Based on the little evidence available to Rand that night, the most likely explanation was that the streaker was just another “kid” pulling a prank, and the Academy Awards program chosen because it would give him maximum “exposure.”
"Here," she said to me in effect, "is a nationally acclaimed occasion replete with celebrities, jeweled ballgowns, coveted prizes, and breathless cameras, an occasion offered to the country as the height of excitement, elegance, glamor--and what this creature wants to do is drop his pants in the middle of it all and thrust his bare buttocks into everybody's face. What then is his motive? Not high spirits or TV coverage, but destruction--the satisfaction of sneering at and undercutting that which the rest of the country looks up to and admires." In essence, she concluded, the incident was an example of nihilism, which is the desire not to have or enjoy values, but to nullify and eradicate them.
[. . .]
Having grasped the streaker's nihilism, therefore, she was eager to point out to me some very different examples of the same attitude. Modern literature, she observed, is distinguished by its creators' passion not to offer something new and positive, but to wipe out: to eliminate plots, heroes, motivation, even grammar and syntax; in other words, their brazen desire to destroy their own field along with the great writers of the past by stripping away from literature every one of its cardinal attributes. Just as Progressive education is the desire for education stripped of lessons, reading, facts, teaching, and learning. Just as avant-garde physics is the gleeful cry that there is no order in nature, no law, no predictability, no causality. 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 we referred to earlier, the one that attacks reason and reality wholesale and thus makes all values impossible: the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
In fact, the streaker was one Robert Opel, a thirty-three year old variously described as a photographer and an advertising executive. Opel wanted to make a statement about public nudity and sexual freedom (he was for it) as well as jump-start his career. His motive, then, does not appear to have been nihilism or tearing down the Academy Awards.
Rand’s discussion of the streaker incident highlights a couple of problems common with her analysis of historical and cultural events. First, she tends to draw conclusions in the absence of evidence. Second, she tends to ascribe philosophical motivations to individuals without considering more mundane explanations. In short, it was Rand who was guilty of rationalism in this case.
In the above excerpt, Peikoff continues that hearing Rand that night inspired him to write the chapter on Weimar culture in The Ominous Parallels. This misguided work, in which Peikoff all but blames Kant for Auschwitz, illustrates the streaker problem in reverse: the facts available to the historian are so vast that determining the one philosophic principle explaining it all (if there is just one) is close to impossible. It is more likely that a number of philosophical trends converged in 1933 which, when combined with the German public’s frustration over the economy and the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, resulted in the Nazi takeover. As Greg Nyquist argues in his book, if Hitler’s adversaries had adopted a better strategy, it is possible that the Nazis might not have seized power.
- Neil Parille