Friday, July 31, 2009

The Ayn Rand Institute's War Against Reality

The forthcoming Jennifer Burns bio of Rand, "Goddess of the Market" confirms what many have claimed over the years including your ever-skeptical ARCHNblog: that the Ayn Rand Institute has been engaged in a consistent pattern of rewriting history in terms of both Rand's life and even literally her work. This pattern has been obvious for years, with examples ranging from the trivial (Peikoff fibbing about why Rand gave up smoking*) to the bizarre (James Valliant's "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics). This is hardly surprising, as the ARI, while ostensibly set up to promote a philosophy, is in practice merely an apparatchik organisation with the purpose of sustaining Rand's mythology.

Here's the recent Laissez-Faire Books review that seems to be the first to confirm this practice of rewriting reality is real, and is significant. Key grafs below the jump:

One other area that I found of significant interest is Burns discussion of the various problems surrounding Rand documents made public by the Ayn Rand Institute, Leonard Piekoff’s organization. There has been a great deal of controversy over indications that ARI doctored documents. Some of this doctoring was admitted by ARI, which asserted that they merely made clarifications consistent with what Rand had intended to say. Burns, who has seen the originals, says this is not the case.

She does say that the letters of Rand, that have been released, “have not been altered; they are merely incomplete.” But the same is not true for other works of Rand, including her Journals. Burns writes, “On nearly every page of the published journals an unacknowledged change has been made from Rand’s original writing. In the book’s foreword the editor, David Harriman, defends his practice of eliminating Rand’s words and inserting his own as necessary for greater clarity. In many case, however, his editing serves to significantly alter Rand’s meaning.” She says that sentences are “rewritten to sound stronger and more definite” and that the editing “obscures important shifts and changes in Rand’s thought.” She finds “more alarming” the case that “sentences and proper names present in Rand’s original …have vanished entirely, without any ellipses or brackets to indicate a change.”

The result of this unacknowledged editing is that “they add up to a different Rand. In her original notebooks she is more tentative, historically bounded, and contradictory. The edited diaries have transformed her private space, the hidden realm in which she did her thinking, reaching, and groping, replacing it with a slick manufactured world in which all of her ideas are definite, well formulated, and clear.” She concludes that Rand’s Journals, as released by ARI, “are thus best understood as an interpretation of Rand rather than her own writing. Scholars must use these materials with extreme caution.”

The bad news is that “similar problems plague Ayn Rand Answers (2005), The Art of Fiction (2000), The Art of Non-Fiction (2001), and Objectively Speaking (2009).” Burns says all these works were “derived from archival material but have been significantly rewritten.” Rand scholars have long suspected such manipulation of documents; Burns confirms it with evidence she herself saw.

* We have a forthcoming article by Neil Parille noting some of the odder fibs the ARI have invented about Rand in order to polish the personality cult; stay tuned.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another Rave Review for "Goddess of the Market"

Richard Baehr over at has given Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right yet another rave review. Baehr's review is interesting as an example of an attempt to co-opt Rand as a "conservative." "Burns describes these books [The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged] as the 'gateway drug to life on the right"' for young conservatives for decades," writes Baehr. "This is not meant as an attack, but to describe the power of Rand's ideas..." And: "Rand's arguments and beliefs, in particular her defense of capitalism and the free enterprise system ... can be used to shape the political debate for conservatives in the next few years." While it may be true some conservatives were influenced by these novels, it would be an error to regard Rand as a conservative. She was nothing of the sort, as her (and her orthodox followers') hostility toward conservatism easily demonstrates. Whether Rand's arguments for capitalism can be used effectively by conservatives is also debatable. I will have more to say on this subject in later posts, but I suspect Rand over-rated the importance of purely "moral" arguments based on the "evil" of altruism and the virtue of selfishness. These arguments may seem great to Rand's disciples and admirers, but many others find them merely strange and over-the-top. Most people are not very ideologically motivated and tend to be more impressed with pragmatic arguments. They are interested, not in what some philosopher claims is right and good, but with what political policies will work for them and their families.

Baehr's review also criticizes Rand's "purism," which, he says, "brooked no moderation around the edges of the philosophy she developed."

Ayn Rand trusted ideas more than political parties. But for ideas to have impact, movements need to have political power. The Democrats have been better than the Republicans in recent years at selling their message and disguising their identity (Obama as the moderate post-racial candidate who would end the partisan wars in Washington) and expanding their tent, in order to win elections. They have run pro-life candidates, military veterans, and small government types in conservative leaning areas, so as to make characterizations of the statist nature of the Party more difficult. In the debate within the conservative movement, at the moment the purists seem to be winning, driving out those who cannot check off all the ideological boxes. It is, I think, a recipe for intellectual coherence, and continued electoral defeat.

I believe Baehr is largely correct in his criticism. Intellectual purism doesn't work in a democracy, because the voters who decide elections tend to non-ideological and pragmatic in their orientation. Moreover, under a democratic system, compromises must be made in order to reach the consensus necessary to get things done in legislative bodies. Purism, when taken too far, serves merely to insulate and remove its proponents from the political process.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Out of Ideas

With the world in the grip of an unprecedented economic crisis, a barrage of hype from right-leaning media commentariat, and sales of Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" surging in the early part of this year (though it has subsequently dropped out of the Amazon Top 100), one would have thought this would have been the ideal time for the Ayn Rand Institute to undertake some striking new initiative to capture the commanding heights of the public discourse.

Not content with their Atlas Shrugged Pledge on Facebook (only 1762 takers since May, with even Yaron Brook producing a not very impressive 45 out of 68 pledges himself) the ARI is now attempting to raise $2,000,000 with the amazingly original aim of..yes, you guessed it...promoting "Atlas Shrugged".

Yes, it seems that half a century after its publication, it's telling that the only trump card the ARI feel they have remains Atlas Shrugged. Even when its selling in record numbers, the Big Idea for Promoting Objectivism always comes back to...more Atlas Shrugged. And if that doesn't work, throw more, more Atlas Shrugged at the problem.

Someone at ARI HQ needs to do the math. As we at the ARCHNblog have already pointed out, Atlas has already been read by some 18,000,000 people in the USA over the last 50 years, far more than any other allegedly philosophical work (unless you count the Bible). Yet it's produced only a tiny trickle of Objectivists to date - probably less than 100,000. And even that small amount is famous for its inability to agree on much at all. In fact the ARI's Never Ending Atlas Shrugged Initiative is feeling more and more like one of those Big Government projects that is hopelessly ineffective yet continues on for year after year because of the political commitments of the players involved. If the ARI was a commercial business, with a conversion rate of just 0.5% one suspects the Atlas promotion would probably have been cancelled long ago.

The question is why, if Atlas is such an ineffective conversion tool, the ARI stick to trying to flog it as their primary strategy. One can only suspect that far from being all about ideas, it's because they're all out of them.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 20

Politics of Human Nature 5: Men of force. Rand and her disciples wish to abolish the initiation of force. As John Galt puts it, “So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others.” Very well. How do you propose to stop the initiation of force, beyond merely haranguing against it?

Rand’s favorite method of dealing with this issue is to try to convince herself and her followers that the men of force don’t constitute that much of a threat. Consider the following argument:

The men who attempt to survive, not by means of reason, but by means of force, are attempting to survive by the method of animals. But just as animals would not be able to survive by attempting the method of plants, by rejecting locomotion and waiting for the soil to feed them —so men cannot survive by attempting the method of animals, by rejecting reason and counting on productive men to serve as their prey. Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of a moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own. As evidence, I offer you any criminal or any dictatorship.

This is a typical appeal-to-sentiment argument, no different, in form, then what one would find in a religious sermon or a humanitarian tract. Rand suggests, without explicitly saying so, that men of force can only achieve their goals “for the range of a moment, at the price of [their] destruction.” Yet what exactly is she saying? That marauders only succeed for a few moments and then die? But that clearly isn’t so. And what are we to make of Rand’s “evidence” of “any criminal or any dictatorship”? Since there are many examples of criminals and dictators who succeeded for decades (can a decade qualify as “range of the moment”?), Rand’s evidence, far from proving her case, in fact undermines it.

Another favorite ploy of Rand in relation issue is her notion of the “sanction of the victim,” “The ‘sanction of the victim’ is the willingness of the good to suffer at the hands of the evil, to accept the role of sacrificial victim for the ‘sin’ of creating values,” writes Peikoff. “If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing,” wrote Rand. An underlying implication of this view is that the one of the reasons why men of force have succeeded throughout history in looting the producing class is because producers have “sanctioned” the looting (by accepting the premises of altruism). If the producers would only withdraw this sanction and “fight” for their values, things could be different.

However, it matters little whether the producers condemn looting if they are not also good at fighting for their property. Unfortunately, the skills that go to making an excellent businessmen tend to be different from the skills that go into making an excellent warrior. Businessmen tend to be foxes, not lions; and as a business-driven society becomes wealthier and wealthier, manners soften and the will to fight weakens. Rand’s so-called “sanction of the victim” may be little more than a rationalization of cowardice made by individuals lacking the stomach or the ability to fight for what is theirs.

Another tendency in Rand’s thought regarding this issue is her view that these men of force are mere bullies who “feed on appeasement” and would “retreat placatingly at the first sound of firm opposition.” (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 11, 1962) While it is true that men of force “feed on appeasement,” it is not true that they can be counted on to retreat if they are firmly opposed. Neither Hitler nor Saddam Hussein retreated at the first sound of firm opposition, but kept fighting to the bitter end, even when the odds were greatly against them. Some of these men of force are obsessed with saving face, and would rather die then back down. This may not be a problem if these individuals can be conquered and defeated by overwhelming force; but what happens when this is no longer the case? What happens when these violent men with a mania for saving face get their hands of WMDs? What then?

The man of force cannot be so easily dismissed or explained away as he is by Rand. His collection of personality traits constitute a direct threat to Rand’s political ideals. Rand and her followers have not only failed to present a solution to the problem of man of force, they don’t seem to fully comprehend the seriousness of the threat.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Early Review of Heller Bio: It's A Rave

Sounds like Anne Heller's new biography is a must-read:

"What’s great about Heller’s book isn’t that it reveals more facts than Barbara Branden’s biography—although it does; there are many interesting new details—or that it is so well written; it’s that Ayn Rand And The World She Made is so honest, so, in a word, objective. Rand is a real person to Anne Heller—a brilliant, clever, sometimes over-the-top writer; an astonishingly original thinker with, alas, too little education in the history of philosophy; a passionate, intense, idealist who, sadly, imposed such a weird rigor on herself and others as to leave her dark and alone at the end; a woman who believed—and rightly so—in the indomitability of the mind and its capacity for greatness, but who was capable of breaking long friendships over trivialities, fudging the nature of her marriage, and watching hours of game shows and Charlie’s Angels. None of this detracts from her greatness; none of it detracts from her ideas. What it does is to take Ayn Rand gently down from the pedestal—not as a vandal, or as a worshipper would, but as one would who recognizes that she’s not a God, but a human being. And to Ayn Rand, “human being” was never an insult."

(hat tip Neil Parille)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rand on Donahue 2

Somewhat less interesting segment, with Rand providing cheerful yet pro-forma replies to Donahue's limp economic arguments and an equally by-the-numbers discussion re: the existence of God. Worth a watch, though, for Rand's sudden burst of something like joie de vivre on the glory of life (as opposed to the afterlife). One gets a glimpse of the positive vision that charges the best moments of her work, and what must have made her so compelling as a personality in real life - as opposed to the feeble arguments, grating negativity and generalised megalomania that too often typifies the writing she left behind. In moments like this, one can see what optimistic thinkers like the Englishman Colin Wilson originally saw in her. Yet behind this flash of positivity there is still a dour drumbeat; the presumption of bad faith against anyone who disagrees with her:

"I don't give a damn about my critics...because I have not heard a good one...someone who would be honest and discuss the issues without misrepresentation."

This, coming from Rand, is rather rich.

The rest I will pass over to readers to comment as they see fit.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Rand on Donahue

Here's Ayn Rand in the first part of one of her two Donahue interviews. She leads off with what seems to me to be a perennially confused ethical position, namely that helping people is "fine", so long as you choose to do it yourself, but it's emphatically not a moral virtue.

Well what is it then? Is it a vice? That seems to be the implication of her following rhetoric (eg" cannabilism"). But she never comes out and says it directly, so it's hard to tell. Is it neutral or "arbitrary"? In which case how can it be "fine"? How can one pass any kind of judgement on it at all then? After all, in contrast to "cannabilism" she still is happy to use traditional terms such as "kindness" or benevolence to describe unforced charity which are undeniably positive. Or is this whole problem simply a "blank out" on Rand's part that she is verbally fudging her way through? It's a shame Donahue's line of questioning lacks precision.

Further, Rand's framing of the problem contains a vast omission - that is, the counterparty to the ethical situation, the recipient of the charity. Surely they would consider such charitable acts to be virtues? Surely they wouldn't of necessity consider them vices, or even neutral (though of course it is possible and even common to resent charity). And I'm still not clear how "arbitrary" or neutral moral settings sit with Rand's general "Either/Or" approach and insistence on uncompromising judgement at all times etc etc.

This issue, and the rest, I throw over to readers for comment.

PS: It's also worth noting her strong denial of Donahue's claim that he has "innate" tendencies. This denial is very much in keeping with Greg's thesis in ARCHN.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 19

Politics of Human Nature 4: Lions and Attila. In For the New Intellectual, Rand introduce the archetype of Attila, whom she describes in the following terms:

The man who lives by brute force, at the whim and mercy of the moment, lives on a narrow island suspended in a fog of the unknown, where invisible threats and unpredictable disasters can descend upon him any morning. He is willing to surrender his consciousness to the man who offers him protection against those intangible questions which he does not wish to consider yet dreads. [14-15]

In addition, Rand claims that Attila fears reality, that he holds his consciousness “on a subhuman level and method of functioning,” that his “brain is a jumble of concretes unintegrated by abstractions, that he is motivated, “not by thoughts, but by feelings and whims, and that he feels “secretly inadequate to the task of dealing with existence.”

By forming her archetype of Attila, Rand at least can be given credit for recognizing the problem posed by men of violence. But her description of this archetype, particularly in comparison to Machiavelli and Pareto, strikes one as a hopelessly distorted caricature—a product, not of honest reflection on the facts of history, but of mere wishful thinking and moral indignation.

Although Rand is guilty of grossly distorting and exaggerating the defects of the lion, of the man of force, this does not mean that men who correspond to this ideal type aren’t generously endowed with problematic characteristics.

Here’s a list of characteristics which often go hand-in-hand with the willingness and ability to use violence: (1) Faith and religion; (2) Obssession with “honor” and “saving face”; (3) Intolerance; (4) Willingness to use force to maintain various uniformities, such as customs and other “prejudices”; (5) Neophobia; (6) Belief in hierarchical domination (i.e., caste system); (7) Dogmatic adherence to “non-contextual” absolutes.

There exists no necessity, no heavy-hand of determinism, that forces these characteristics to go together; yet, because they are in many respects complementary, if you find two or three of these traits in an individual, you’ll probably find two or three more. There are probably profound evolutionary reasons at the bottom of this. During the long period when human beings foraged for food and chased animals with spears, tribes fought among each other for access to resources and women. The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who studied the fierce and violent Yanomamo people of the Amazon rainforest, documented that in their frequent warfare and raiding, men who had participated in a killing had more wives and offspring than those who had not. The initiation of violence, when pursued strategically by a disciplined, unified army of warriors, brings with it a genetic payoff that would be selected over evolutionary time. But note: it’s not just any type of violence that is selected. Random violence by lone individuals, or chaotic violence by random collections of individuals, will likely be put down by any group united in strong sentimental bonds. What might these bonds consist of? Religious and tribalistic sentiments, mainly. Tribes would be united by ancestor worship and filial and tribal bonds. Their willingness to fight would be buttressed by strong notions of honor and self-sacrifice. In short, here we see the evolutionary roots of Pareto’s group-persistence residue. All these characteristics—tribal bonds, mania for personal honor, ancestor worship (or worship of gods associated with tribe), discipline, submission to tribal ideals, and the willingness to fight and kill and die for the tribe—would provide an evolutionary advantage to those tribes that were strong in them, so that over time these characteristics would become conjoined and reinforced by natural selection.

Now fast forward to the modern era, when a new type of survival strategy has become prominent: the strategy of intelligence and innovation. It was difficult for intelligence to break free from the thralldom of taboo and violence, but once cunning individuals succeeded, through alliances of convenience with violent leaders, to build strong political and social communities, out of which the seeds of civilization could sprout and grow, intelligence became more and more important, until, in our modern, technological world, it has become paramount, the surest path to wealth and status. But even so, there still exist many individuals who have inherited the a genetic endowment fashioned by hundreds of thousands of years of violence and tribalistic, group-persistence sentiments. Many of these individuals won’t respond to “reason” or any other attempts at civilized persuasion. They resent the modern world and its emphasis on change and innovation. Lacking the intelligence and emotional make-up necessary to flourish in this world, they find themselves condemned to occupy a lower position in society while individuals less courageous, less religious, less “honorable” than themselves rise above them in the social scale.

How, then, does Rand propose to deal with these individuals? After all, it’s not as if she denies their existence: her archetype of Attila, distorted as it may be, shows that she nevertheless recognized that this ideal type posed a threat to her political ideals. In my next post I will discuss how she proposed to deal with the man of force and intimidation whom she derided as "Attila."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 18

Politics of Human Nature 3: Lions and foxes. Machiavelli, in The Prince, makes the following observation:

You must understand that there are two ways of contending, by Law, and by force: The first is proper to men; the second to beasts; but because many times the first is insufficient, recourse must be had to the second…. Seeing, therefore, it is of such importance to a Prince to take upon him the nature and disposition of a beast, of all the whole flock, he ought to imitate the Lion and the Fox; for the Lion is in danger of toils and snares, and the Fox of the Wolf: so that he must be a Fox to find the snares, and a Lion to fright away the Wolves…

Machiavelli’s archetype of the fox (roughly) corresponds to Pareto’s combination-instinct residue; while the archetype of the lion (roughly) corresponds to Pareto’s group-persistence residue. What Pareto adds to Machiavelli’s archetypes (besides more accurate delineation of the archetypes) is an important insight alluded to in the last post. Machiavelli’s ideal is that the Prince combine the cunning of the fox with the strength (i.e., the ability and willingness to use force) of the lion. “But such a happy combination occurs only for a few individuals,” notes Pareto. “In the majority of cases people who rely on their wits are or become less fitted to use violence, and vice versa.” In other words, people (particularly rulers) tend to be either lions or foxes.

Pareto developed this theory from his extensive knowledge of history. Particularly influential was the conflict between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. Athens is a typical example of a state governed by foxes, while Sparta is a typical example of a state governed largely by lions. The cultural and political elite of Athens were remarkably individualistic and innovative; indeed, it was these attributes that helped make this city state the cradle of Western civilization—the birthplace of European literature, philosophy, and political theory. Sparta, on the other hand, was a cultural backwater. Innovation in Sparta was a crime. The individual counted for very little, his initiative strangled in a web of custom and religion. Yet in the Peloponnesian war, Sparta conquered Athens.

Pareto’s view of “instinct-combination” and “group-persistence” residues was partly devised to try to explain how a sophisticated, cultured, individualistic “advanced” society like Athens could ever lose a war to a “tribalistic,” uncultured, “primitive” society such as Sparta (or Macedonia and Rome, which also conquered Athens). It seems rather counter-intuitive that the more advanced polity should ever lose to the less advanced. Yet history is replete with examples of the less advanced conquering the more advanced in war. Here’s merely a short list thrown together at the spur of the moment:

  1. Sparta over Athens
  2. Macedonia over Athens
  3. Rome over Athens
  4. Rome over Carthage
  5. Barbarians over Rome
  6. Mongols over China
  7. England over France (100 years war)
  8. Spain, Austria, France over Renaissance Italy
  9. Roundheads over Cavaliers (English Civil War)
  10. French Revolutionists over Old Regime
  11. Prussia over France (Franco-Prussian War)

The fact that there are many counter examples in the other direction is of no relevance to the point at issue. After all, one would expect the more advanced nation to prevail in nearly all cases. What is surprising (and in need of explanation) is how the less advanced ever prevails.

How would Objectivism explain the victory of the less advanced over the more advanced nation, of the lion over the fox? Objectivism would probably attribute it to bad philosophical ideas in the fox. Yet this is not convincing, because in most cases, the less advanced nation, governed by lions (i.e., group-persistence residues) will cherish even worse philosophical notions. The ideas predominant in Periclean Athens, whatever flaws or “contradictions” they may have exhibited, were clearly superior to the “tribalistic” and “superstitious” notions prevailing in Sparta. Athens was much more individualistic and “rational” (at least in its philosophy) than Sparta. So how did Sparta defeat Athens?

Pareto gives a couple reasons:

It is plain enough that what was lacking in Athens was such a balance between the combination instincts and the residues of group-persistence that while the combination-instincts encouraged adventure, the group-persistences would supplement them with perseverance and firmness of resolve required for success in the schemes imagined...

Athens had generals of the greatest ability at that time, but she could neither keep them nor take advantage of them…. Where sentiments of group-persistence are not very strong, people readily surrender to the momentary impulse without giving adequate thought to the future, forgetting the larger interests of the community under the sway of uncontrolled appetites. The Athenians cared little for their generals. They tormented them, persecuted them, condemned them, lost them through fault of their own. The lessons taught by past experience are of no avail for the future, there being no sense of group-persistence.

A third prominent reason for Sparta’s victory over Athens is the individualism prevailing in Athens (an indication of a weakening of group-persistences) eroded discipline and the stability of command (as is evinced by how the Athenians treated their generals). Discipline, hierarchy, willingness to serve a leader are qualities advantageous in battle (and which are strengthened by group-persistence sentiments).

A fourth prominent reason for Sparta’s victory stems from the courage and staunchness in battle provided by group-persistence residues. While the Athenians were capable of displaying courage in battle, no one fought as bravely or as with as much determination as the Spartans, who placed honor above all other considerations, including those of self-preservation. Pareto repeatedly identified group-persistence residues with the willingness and the ability to use violence. Where group-persistence residues are intense, people have a “living” faith: that is, they have ideals they are willing to die for (rather than just argue about).

In Pareto’s vision of human nature, rationality doesn’t have much to do with conduct, “for human beings are guided primarily by sentiment.” Therefore, in order to motivate human beings to defend their country and avoid the disastrous effects of pursuing self-interest in a non-rational way, some type of sentiment is required to spur “human beings to the required activities.” In this respect, “the chief utility of the sentiments of group-persistence is the resistance they offer to harmful inclinations of individual interest and to the impetuous sweep of passions.” But the very utility provided by group-persistence residues is itself problematic, since the group-persistence residues have produce other effects that Objectivists (among others) will deplore. These other effects be the subject of my next post.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Pretenders: The Strange Case of "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" Continues

A few weeks back we reported on the strange case of one "IP160", the most prolific editor of Ayn Rand's Wikipedia entry with a record 1300 edits and a seemingly boundless enthusiasm for promoting James Valliant's fantastically weird book The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics (henceforth PARC). Due to a range of Wiki-violations including edit-warring, being "rude, uncivil and disruptive", and repeatedly removing verifiable content and replacing it with references to the above tome, "IP60" got themselves a 6 month ban from editing Rand's page, along with Valliant's PARC being removed on the basis of being unreliable. Yet no sooner had "IP160" been banned when there suddenly appeared a mysterious "Pelagius1", who also showed let's just say a special interest in the work of James Valliant and PARC. The ARCHNblog soon revealed that - surprise, surprise - "IP160" had the exact same IP address as the author of PARC, James Valliant. Those familiar with a sockpuppet/meatpuppet unmasking will know what comes next: under question at Wikipedia, "Pelagius1" then revealed that they "lived in the same house" as Valliant, that Valliant was one of their "expert advisers", and that Valliant "uses this account too. But never about himself". Why, heaven forbid!

The plot then thickens - actually "thickens" is far too mild a description. "Convulses into a typically Objectivist melange of evasiveness, dissembling, and intra-tribal politics" might be more accurate.

Following "IP160"/"Pelagius1"'s unmasking, a person as yet unnamed began spreading rumours via email that, rather than the Wikipedia ban on "IP160" and PARC being the result of a number of Wiki editors merely acting according to Wiki policy on sock/meatpuppetry, net nuisances, and conflict of interest, it was in fact being secretly orchestrated behind the scenes by a single evil mastermind: Barbara Branden. Quite how an aging woman with apparently limited internet skills was supposed to pull off this complex feat is unclear; but then as Russell Kirk once noted, if you believe selfishness is a virtue, you'll believe anything. One also recalls that the underlying thesis of Valliant's nutty book is precisely that Barbara and Nathaniel Branden do indeed possess such evil super-genius capabilities. This rumour somehow reached the ears of none other than Ayn Rand Institute founder and Branden arch-enemy, the equally aging Leonard Peikoff - also, by amazing coincidence, a friend of one James Valliant. Peikoff then wrote a personal letter to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales - also an Objectivist - echoing these accusations and trying to get the PARC ban reversed. He posted this, along with an odd kind of "fly-my-pretties" appeal to his fellow Objectivists to somehow help "reverse Wikipedia's decision in this issue." Jimmy quite rightly told Peikoff to go jump, and Peikoff shortly afterward removed the letter from his site without comment. Strangely, in addition to his obvious ignorance as to how the Wiki works, Peikoff seemed to not know that the antics of "IP160" were the cause of PARC's removal, and that Barbara Branden by her own testimony and that of the Wiki editors involved, had nothing whatsoever to do with this. One can only wonder who might have deliberately misinformed the hapless Dr Peikoff in order to have him attempt to have the anti-PARC ruling reversed.

Meanwhile, back in the Wiki talk pages, "Pelagius1" was, ahem, valliantly attempting to have PARC reinstated as a reference - no, more than reinstated. "Pelagius1" was now weirdly demanding that it was such an important book that every reference to a book by one of the Brandens at the Wiki should be matched with a counter-reference to the Valliant tome. To which the Wiki replied, um, "No." "Pelagius1" also rather desperately attempted to deny any conflict of interest, describing themselves as a mere "editor...someone who makes no money on the book". Finally, after some three weeks of such dissembling protestations, Pelagius1 finally 'fessed up - though oddly on Wiki editor RL0919's personal page rather than the main discussion pages - as being "someone related to the author"...wait for it..." (his wife)." It seems with the Valliants the truth literally is the last thing you get; ever since that final sheepish ellipsis, "Pelagius1" has fallen silent on the Wiki, contributing nothing more. No surprise there: now she's identified, Wikipedia Conflict of Interest rules surely apply, and she can hardly "avidly and shamelessly promote him." Simultaneously with his wife's somewhat obscure confession, Valliant himself reappeared on an Objectivist forum thread to make the same announcement, claiming it was all a terrible misunderstanding and that he knew nothing, nothing about it all...(It's also worth noting that the forum post that began this thread concerned the supposedly poor quality of Wikipedia entries on Rand, and was posted by Valliant on the very same day "IP160" was banned. Another amazing coincidence). Now, it could be that Valliant, who apparently has a chronic illness which prevents him from working, knew nothing of his wife's relentless promotion of his work under multiple pseudonyms over the preceding months under his own IP address resulting in the removal of his work etc. It seems to us at best highly unlikely.

But wait: just when you thought it was over, there's more. One of the long term questions that has hung over Valliant's book, and became an issue during the Wiki fracas, was whether PARC was a pay-to-publish deal or not. And while James Valliant has consistently denied this, as has his wife Holly/"Pelagius1", some time ago ARCHNblog commenter Michael Prescott uncovered evidence ("Vanity, Thy Name is Durban") that suggests PARC's publisher, the obscure Durban House, did indeed work on a pay-to-publish basis. Furthermore, the "Writer Beware!" blog, the purpose of which is to "shine a light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls", has put Durban House on its "Two Big Thumbs Down" list. So clearly Durban is very far from the respectable publishing outfit the Valliants have tried to portray it as. Now the "IP160/Pelagius1" debacle has brought even more peculiarities about the relationship between Durban House and the Valliants to light. James Valliant's wife is one Holly Valliant, nee Holly White. Ms White runs a PR firm in San Diego, Holly White & Associates. It turns out that Holly White has been doing PR for both Durban House authors and Ayn Rand Institute types for some years, both before and after her husband's book coming out in 2005. But what's really unusual is that as early as 2002 she seems to have been reviewing books and commenting on Amazon under the pseudonym "Durban House Publishing." This is most clearly indicated by the fact Holly Valliant's email address is the distinctive marcusantonius1[at], and the Amazon "Durban House Publishing" entity's nickname is marcusantonius12. The dustjacket on PARC also tells us one of the Valliant's dogs is named Marcus Antonius. Why does someone who is allegedly is not directly involved in Durban House nonetheless choose to review on Amazon under that pseudonym? Durban House's actual status as a functioning company seems also in doubt, with Holly Valliant/"Pelagius1" mentioning it is now defunct. And while James Valliant has insisted that PARC was objectively and "carefully" edited by Durban prior to publication, he declined to elaborate on who that editor actually was. He has asserted** that he "paid nothing" to have PARC published. However, this can nonetheless get engineered via vanity press fairly easily. For example, if a well-funded bookstore connected with the author was prepared to stock and order sufficient quantities of a certain item in advance, the author could be "paid" by the publisher from this pre-sale. But in this - purely hypothetical of course - case, the "payment" would simply be a money-go-round, not a typically commercial deal between publisher and author. And certainly Durban House appears to be no typical publishing house.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with self-publishing. "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" is itself a self-published book. However, being self published is an altogether different thing from being self-published and pretending that you're not. And if there's one thing that's evident in the ongoing strange and twisted saga of the Valliants and The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, it's that there's been a whole lot of pretending going on.

*Apologies, for some reason some of the comment links on the Solopassion forum no longer link to the particular comment but just to the thread instead. Valliant reappears on p3, sorting by latest first.
**For the same reason, here I have quoted from a Solopassion post that quotes Valliant, but that I can link to directly.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 17

Politics of Human Nature 2: Residues. In my posts on Pareto I have introduced the concept of residue, which is the stable or common element in social conduct corresponding to some fairly permanent human impulse or sentiment. Pareto lists six types (or “classes”) of residues, but I will confine the analysis in this post to only two of them: (1) Instinct for combinations; and (2) Group-persistences.

James Burnham in his book The Machiavellians summarizes these two residues as follows:

Instinct for combinations. This is the tendency which leads human beings to combine or manipulate various elements taken arbitrarily from experience. Many magical practices are a result of its operation: the manipulations to control weather and disease, to bring good luck, the supposed efficacy assigned to certain numbers … and so on. Supposed connections are established between certain events, formulas, prayers, or words, and good or bad luck, happiness or terror or sorrow. At a complex level it is this residue that leads restless individuals to large-scale financial manipulations, merging and combining and re-combining of various economic enterprises, efforts to entangle and disentangle political units, to make and remake empires.

[These residues] also impel men to “system-making”—that is, to elaborate logical or rather pseudo-logical combinations of ideas and mental elements in general, to theologies and metaphysics and ideologies of all sorts. Thus it is this class of residue that chiefly accounts for “derivations,” expressing man’s need to make his own behavior seem rational.

Group-Persistences. When once any combination has been formed, forces come into play to keep that combination sustained and persisting. These are, one might say, “conservative” forces, present among animals as well as human beings, and sometimes referred to as “social inertia.” They express themselves, for instance, in the powerful feeling that the family or the tribe or the city or the nation is a permanent and objective entity. So strong are they that the dead and the not-yet-living are included in the supposedly persisting unit, and we thus have all the many forms of ancestor-worship, belief in immortality, and social provisions made for a posterity that will not exist until all living persons are long dead. “Family pride,” “class solidarity,” patriotism, religious zeal are all quite direct modes of these residues.

They account also for the feeling that “property” becomes a permanent part of a man’s being, so much so that certain objects are even placed with the dead body in the grave, or for the “love of the native soil.” In another direction, they give persisting life to abstractions and personifications. Gods and heroes and Platonic Forms and “natural law” and “progress” and “the state” and “the moral will” and many other creatures of the dynamic human imagination [such as Rand’s “logic”] are endowed with substance and enduring reality.

These [group-persistence] residues, as Pareto describes them, are usually accompanied by a willingness to use force in order to maintain the solidity and persistence of the entities in question—to “save the nation,” or the “true faith,” for example. [209-211]

It is important to keep in mind a few caveats when dealing with these two classes of residues. First, they neither apply to everyone nor explain everything people do. They are, however, important in understanding certain social phenomenon, particularly the tendency in society for ingenuity and innovation to conflict with faith and force. And second, these residues apply in varying degrees to different people. While most human beings manifest these two classes of residues in some degree, the tendency is for individuals to manifest more of one than the other. And finally, a word of warning: one should not get caught up with the phrases Pareto sometimes uses to identify these residues. When Pareto calls “Class 1” residues the “instinct for combination,” he is not introducing any kind of theory of instincts. He is merely noting that very many human beings throughout history behave as if there were such an instinct. Pareto is not terribly interested in the cause or origin of the conduct: only with the conduct itself.

There is one psychological assumption, however, that Pareto does make about his residues: namely, that they have a non-rational origin. Residues are ultimately the manifestations in conduct of motives, and all motives, as I explained in my last post, are and must be non-rational in origin. This does not mean that residues can’t motivate rational activity. The combination-instinct residue helps motivate scientific activity and business enterprise, both of which Pareto would regard as rational. But it also motivates alchemy, astrology, magic, and “metaphysics,” all of which Pareto would classify as non-rational.

The most important clash between Pareto’s theory of residues and Rand’s vision of human nature arises from the notion that these residues have alternating strengths and weaknesses that make them better fit for dealing with certain types of problems rather than others. Individuals, for example, who are strong in combination-instinct residue tend to be good at using their wits and are thus better fit in dealing with problems requiring intelligence. Individuals strong in the group-persistence residue tend to be good at using force and thus are better fit in dealing with problems requiring violence.

Rand, when inventing her heroes, ignored this notion that there trade-offs between various traits of character. She gave her heroes every trait that she admired regardless of whether they went well together or not. Thus her heroes are not only immensely intelligent, but, when called upon, they are courageous and (or so we would assume) good at applying force (one them, after all, is a pirate). Thus, her heroes can handle any situation, because they can always draw upon the requisite characteristic.

In the real world, however, it is rare for individuals to be good at everything. Just as there exists a division of labor in society, there exists a division of talents and capabilities. To reach distinction in the use of one’s wits, one must devote most of one’s time to cultivating one’s practical intelligence and judgment. To reach, on the other hand, distinction in applying force, one must devote most of one’s time cultivating one’s talents in developing skills appropriate for intimidation and violence. Now individuals will tend to cultivate their innate strengths, so that if an individual is born with a high IQ, he will tend to favor intellectual skills at the expense of athletic or military endeavors, while those who are innately athletic and courageous will tend to develop such skills related to bullying, intimidation, fighting, sports, etc. Individuals tend to develop those innate abilities and talents by which they can distinguish themselves among their peers and thus enhance their status.

The division of talents and capabilities plays an important role in the determination of the social order. A society requires a ruling elite that can draw upon a wide array of skills and abilities. Unfortunately, the tendency in societies is for elites to become increasingly dominated by the skill sets associated with either the instinct for combinations or group-persistence residues, rather than the skill sets for both.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Jennifer Burns on Ayn Rand and Economic Collapse

Professor Jennifer Burns, historian and author of the forthcoming "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right", talks about the economic crisis and the current surge of interest in Rand.

(hat tip Neil Parille)