Monday, February 10, 2014

Future of Objectivism 7

John McCaskey, the candid Objectivist. Whereas many Objectivists, especially from the older generation, come off as a bit insular and even paranoid, McCaskey seems more open and engaging. He teaches part time at Stanford, and is well-liked by his students. He writes a blog, where he invites comments and even (sometimes) responds in a civil manner. There can be little doubt that evangelizing for the Objectivist cause means a big deal to McCaskey. He's a true believer in the Randian cause. But the way he goes about evangelizing his ideological preferences seems far more reasonable and inoffensive than what we've been accustomed to at the hands of Peikoff, Schwartz, Binswanger, and even Rand herself. Unlike those Objectivist luminaries, McCaskey is not offended when people disagree with him; nor does he automatically equate criticism with a personal attack. He seems to understand, what so many older orthodox Objectivists fail to grasp, that you don't win converts by displaying contempt for the people you disagree with.

McCaskey made a good deal money in the computer business. He then went back to school to get a Ph.D. in history. Presumably, he should have been perfect ARI board member. He had money, he had the credentials, he shared an obvious passion for Rand and her ideas, and he wanted to teach. What more could be wanted by the folks over at the institute? Well, there was a fly in the ointment; a tragic flaw, if you will, that would lead to McCaskey's fall from grace over at ARI. And I suspect it goes well beyond merely disagreeing with Harriman and Peikoff over a few points of historical scholarship. When Peikoff described McCaskey as "an obnoxious braggart" and "pretentious ignoramus," Ayn Rand's heir clearly exaggerated. But if you read McCaskey's blog, you  may detect an element of truth behind Peikoff's exaggerations. Peikoff likely had reasons beyond McCaskey's criticisms of Harriman for his histrionic denunciations of the former ARI board member. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the McCaskey's Harriman criticisms were merely the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. While calling McCaskey an obnoxious braggart and pretentious ignoramus is clearly over the top, McCaskey does exhibit just that sort of breezy self-confidence as an expositor of Randian ideology that could easily exasperate the over-protective, thin-skinned Peikoff. In his infamous "ultimatum" letter, Peikoff described McCaskey's criticism as saying, "in essence, Peikoff is misguided , Harriman is misguided, [McCaskey] knows Objectivism better than either." At the time, Peikoff's criticism struck many ARI critics as unjustifiable hyperbole stemming from an over-sensitivity to criticism. But if, as I suspect, McCaskey had, during his tenure on the ARI board, been riffing on Objectivism like he riffs on his blog, I can see how that would get on Peikoff's nerves. Riffing has always been a problem for orthodox Objectivism. Objectivism mostly appeals to high school and college students. While some of these students are content to follow an orthodox path, the more bolder nascent Objectivists often irrepressible desire to "improve" Objectivism in some way or another. It is likely that Peikoff, over the years, has received scores of emails from pretentious, sometimes even belligerent and nasty college students offering "improved" versions of the Randian creed. This sort of thing was never welcomed by Rand, and it certainly would not have been welcomed by Peikoff. McCaskey's riffs may seem, to those of us who are outsiders, as mild and inoffensive. They most deal with semantic issues (i.e, with how Objectivist arguments are worded) rather than posing any serious challenge to orthodoxy. But any sort of changes, even if merely to the phrasing of arguments, would constitute a challenge to Peikoff's authority as the most qualified interpreter of Objectivism. Over the years, Peikoff has guarded his position as the supreme authority on Randian doctrine with an intense, paranoid jealousy.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Future of Objectivism 6

John Allison IV, the sociable Objectivist. Although Yaron Brook is generally seen as a protege of Leonard Peikoff, there is another man who, I suspect, has also exercised a great influence on Brook: namely, John Allison. If Brook's energy hearkens back to Nathaniel Branden, Allison's practicality and business success suggests parallels to Alan Greenspan. In terms of basic disposition, Greenspan and Allison are poles apart. Greenspan is introverted, reserved, enigmatic; Allison affable, charming, gregarious. What they share is an ability, not all that common among hard core Objectivists, to get on in the world of business. They have social skills that other prominent Objectivists lack. They come off as having a real understanding of other people as autonomous individuals, with sentiments, points-of-view, and ideals uniquely their own. Leonard Peikoff, along with many of other orthodox Objectivist luminaries over at ARI, seem completely oblivious, even indifferent, to the social world around them. They are unable to relate in any meaningful way to the non-Objectivist world. They are insular, narrow-minded, aloof, narcissistic. It can be uncomfortable watching them engage in interviews with non-Objectivists. In terms of social awareness, they can seem, at times, semi-autistic.

Last year I heard Allison pump his book, The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure, on the Dennis Prager show. While Allison didn't say anything particularly new, striking or original, he nonetheless made a good impression. He was warm and friendly, and he tailored his message to Prager's audience, emphasizing points of agreement and skillfully avoiding anything that might arouse hostility. When Prager challenged him on Rand's atheism, he merely acknowledged that Rand didn't believe in God and left it at that, thereby avoiding a fight which would only have served to alienate his audience and entangle him in a debate with a skillful adversary.
I suspect that his years in business encouraged Alison to learn how to seek points of agreement with other people. That's how one succeeds in business and politics. That's not, however, how Objectivists have typical strived to succeed. Instead of finding points in common, Objectivists, following Rand's example, often seek for points of disagreement. Rand was the model for this sort of behavior. She was constantly ferreting out sources of disagreement, particularly among potential allies. She had a penchant for taking positions that alienated other free market advocates on the right. She antagonized and/or quarrelled with Leonard Read, Rose Wilder Lane, Ludwig von Mises, Whitaker Chambers, John Hospers and Murray Rothbard among others; and she maintained a lifelong contempt for Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, because neither were quite "pure" enough in their advocacy of the free market. Her shrill denouncements of libertarianism were much too broad, sweeping, and unfair. The consequence of this approach is that, while Rand's ideas remained broadly (if rather vaguely) influential, neither she nor her orthodox disciples have played a significant role in the development of the free market advocacy movement.