Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Latest Smear

While I have recently been quoted with a somewhat favorable view of the size of Commentary Magazine vs. the size of all other Objectivist publications so far published, I want to make sure that everybody reading this blog understands I am in no way endorsing the content of Commentary which is decidedly mixed and can be quite awful.

A recent example of the latter is found in an article in the September 2005 issue entitled "Who Needs Ayn Rand?" by Algis Valiunas. (The article is available on the Commentary web site, as well as on amazon.com but a fee is required to read it. It may also of course be found in the print version of the issue in various bookstores). The short summary of the article below its title on the cover gives a clear indication that the author does not intend the question to be in the same vein as Ayn Rand's own book Philosophy: Who Needs it. It states that "[t]he work of the high priestess of reason continues to sell, but—with reason—her centenary has gone uncelebrated." Another hint of the author's attitude is that early in the article he writes that "Whittaker Chambers, in Buckley’s National Review,wrote a definitive takedown of her ideas."

Mr. Valiunas is of course referring to the so-called "review" of Atlas Shrugged published, as he mentions, in William F. Buckley's National Review. Enough has been written about Mr. Chamber's particular emotional outburst so I that will focus on the rest of the problems with Mr. Valiunas's article.

And there are numerous problems. To begin with it seems that in preparing this article Valiunas confined himself to three major sources: Barbara Branden's long discredited biography The Passion of Ayn Rand, and Ayn Rand's two major novel's, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The result is that he makes several factual errors that could easily have been corrected if he had spent the time doing a little more research.

Valiunas repeats Branden's mistaken notion of how Ayn Rand chose her name:
It was an unexpected letter from emigrant relatives who had settled in Chicago that propelled her westward like destiny’s guiding hand. Having inveigled an invitation to visit for six months, she embarked on English lessons, planning to write screenplays that would make her name and her fortune. In January 1926 she was off, with 50 dollars, a Remington-Rand typewriter, and a new name to go with her new country: Ayn Rosenbaum,soon to be further revised in the typewriter’s honor.
As David Hayes points out:
Barbara Branden’s 1986 biography of Ayn Rand has Alice Rosenbaum choosing the name “Ayn Rand” while in Chicago in 1926 and never telling her family in Russia about the new name. (pg. 71) However, letters from Rand’s family in Russia refer to the new name. Further, one such letter had been mailed from Russia before the family had yet received any mail from Ayn. Obviously, she had chosen the name before leaving and had told them what it would be. A 1926 letter by Ayn’s sister Nora with Nora’s hand-drawn illustration of the name “Ayn Rand” in theatrical lights, is reprinted in Michael Paxton’s companion book to his film Ayn Rand: a Sense of Life (pg. 71, remarkably the same page number as the Branden book).
Valiunas also seems to be confused about the Ayn Rand Institute's (ARI) history since he believes that:
Having realized her ambition as a novelist, Rand turned to philosophical essays detailing her Objectivist philosophy. These, too, sold phenomenally well. Her educational foundation, the Ayn Rand Institute, helped spread the word, as did her weekly column in the Los AngelesTimes explaining the news from an Objectivist standpoint.
As can be gleaned from checking the ARI's website, the Institute was established 1985, three years after Ayn Rand's death. Mr. Valiunas probably means the Nathaniel Branden Institute, but I am not convinced this is an innocent error. It seems to tie in too well with Valiunas's attempts to create an image of Ayn Rand as the narcissistic egotist.

This is evident when earlier he describes her transition to atheism thus:
She adored mathematics and logic, and at age fifteen she wrote in her diary: “Today, I decided to be an atheist.” Being anyone’s inferior was unthinkable to her, so God could not possibly exist.
I don't know if in the last sentence Valiunas is making an extemporaneous comment, or relying on Branden's biography, but I recall in the excellent biographical movie Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, a somewhat different reason was given. Namely, that it was unthinkable to her that there was something above Man, not her specifically. Put this way, it becomes a much more reasonable and less narcissistic proposition.

After Valiunas summarizes more or less accurately the plots of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, starts to evaluate Rand more explicitly.
What is one to make of it all? In Rand, soundness and charlatanry commingle. In the end, charlatanry prevails.
Freedom, individuality, achievement, reason: Rand takes these and other fine ideas and pursues them to the limits of sanity.
Having learned the lessons of socialist dystopia on her own body, she embraces a utopian fantasy of her own: only mingy compromise with collectivism stands in the way of the society without flaw, in which heroic individuals, loosed from Judeo- Christian tyranny with its insufferable God and foul altruism, will create the capitalist paradise. In her passion to reshape the world in accordance with her idea, Rand begins to sound like the tyrants she hates. Her capitalist revolutionaries speak of their opponents as “subhuman creatures,” “looting lice.” Galt’s radio address to the nation—he has commandeered the airwaves by some electronic magic—is positively Castrolike in its mad zealotry, running to over 50 pages and unfolding every half-truth and alluring lunacy Rand ever entertained.
I always find it amusing to see Conservatives, otherwise so insistent on the need for morality, belittle and dismiss any genuine example of passionate moral evaluation. Apparently, Rand through Galt should have been more diplomatic when discussing the people who in the story are tearing the country apart and leading to the downfall of civilization. I'm reminded of a line from the movie Robocop 2, in which, when it is pointed out to the mayor that the people with whom he wants to bargain are criminals, cries out: "Why are you labeling people?" In Galt's speech, Rand lays out the fundamentals of her philosophy, including her understanding of the nature and origin of morality. That she then proceeds to call a spade, a spade should surprise no one.

But of course, the real enemy for Conservatives is not a rational morality but reason as such:
Everything in Rand’s thought depends on her faith in reason, her conviction that any question has a clear and definitive answer. This unlimited faith in reason damages her as a novelist—there are no mysteries in her world, including no mysteries of human character—and also severely limited her as a moralist and undid her as a woman.
"Faith in reason" -- a common refrain among Conservatives. But one that, if properly understood, is clearly a contradiction. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence or in presence of opposing evidence. Reason, as Ayn Rand put it, is "the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses." To base one's belief on the identification and integration of factual evidence is clearly the opposite of faith, which disregards such evidence. But what is the basis for accepting reason in the first place you may ask? Isn't the acceptance of the validity of reason itself an act of faith? These questions betray an ignorance some of the essentials of metaphysics and epistemology. The metaphysical essential relevant to reason is the axiom of the law of identity or "A is A". Its epistemological implementation is the law of non-contradiction that is A cannot be non-A at the same time and in the same respect, which is the basic law of logic. Identity is a basic axiom of metaphysics and as such it is a fundamental identification of a basic fact of reality that all knowledge depends on. Thus, logic, which is the method of reason, is simply an epistemological recognition of the nature of reality. If one wants to succeed in reality, one must follow reason because only by following reason can one be in accord with the basic law of reality, the law of identity.

The last sentence of the previous quote is of course a reference to Ayn Rand's unfortunate affair with Nathaniel Branden. Valiunas proceeds to regurgitate the usual distortions from the Branden biography. One wishes in vain that he had taken a look at James S. Valliant's riveting The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, a book that gives quite a different view of some of the events that Valiunas describes. For example, Valiunas describes that the affair's result was that the "Brandens’ marriage collapsed and Rand’s husband swirled down the alcoholic drain." In his book, Valliant challenges both of these claims. He points out that both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden each had secret affairs from each other (the Rand-Branden relationship had been open and both spouses were consulted and gave their approval before any intimacy had been attempted) and that their marriage collapse was more likely a result of these dishonest dealings than the Rand-Branden affair. With respect to Frank O'Connor, Ayn Rand's husband, Valliant shows there is little real evidence to support the Branden's claim that he became an alcoholic.

Valliant also disproves conclusively the notion that Valiunas repeats, that as a result of discovering that Branden had a secret affair with a younger woman, "Rand nearly went insane in her jealousy." Valliant shows by examining Ayn Rand's personal notes at the time that Ayn Rand had long since given up on an intimate relationship with Branden and in fact was giving Branden, at his urging, psychotherapy sessions, in which she was trying to help him deal with his problems. In those sessions Nathaniel Branden continued to viciously lie to Ayn Rand (with the full knowledge of Barbara Branden) about his present feelings for her, as well as his secret affair with another young female student. It becomes clear on reading Ayn Rand's notes that the reason for Ayn Rand's complete break with Nathaniel Branden was not "insane jealousy" but the realization that Branden had been dishonest with her for years and thus on a scale she could hardly believe of someone whom she once referred to as her intellectual heir. Therefore, it ought to be no surprise that Branden's dishonesty and hypocrisy led Ayn Rand, upon her discovery of them, to completely disassociate him from herself and her philosophy, which considers these traits major vices. But one might mention that all of Branden's articles written during his association with Ayn Rand remain in Ayn Rand's books. Contrary to the implications of Valiunas, Ayn Rand did not rewrite history. The idea that Rand "destroyed [Branden's] professional reputation" is a myth. First of all, Branden is responsible for any destruction of his reputation via his own actions. Second, all Rand did was to severe the parasitical business relationship that Branden had developed with respect to Ayn Rand's ideas. Nothing less could be expected.

The fact is that Ayn Rand did not relish being the leader of an intellectual movement. That is why there was no Ayn Rand Institute during her lifetime, only a Nathaniel Branden Institute. While obviously she believed in the truth and importance of her ideas, as Leonard Peikoff has pointed out, she always wished there was a modern day Aristotle that would take her place. As a rational egoist she certainly believed in her own value but she was not a narcissist and did not run a cult. Unfortunately, with talent and fame came many admirers and fans, many of whom completely fail to understand and/or integrate her radical ideas. Among them was the biggest fraud Ayn Rand had encountered in her life but unfortunately she did not discover it for many years.

It really is a profound injustice that intellectuals continue to distort Ayn Rand's ideas and personal history. However, it is also a sign that Ayn Rand can no longer be ignored as she used to be. As the number of Objectivist intellectuals increases it will be come increasingly difficult to ignore Ayn Rand's ideas and eventually, I expect, to deny their truth. That is a time worth waiting for.


Blair said...

What I've recently learned, via assistance from other bloggers (Gus) is: when one sees virulent smears of Miss Rand such as this latest in Commentary, think of that writer's own psychological motivation's, i.e., think that that writer knows conservatism [insert whatever ideology] is bankrupt, but doesn't want the reader to know it or discover it. The louder, mor spastic the attack on her, the more people are realizing that America has no intellectual leadership and the more honest among them will gravitate to her to investigate the ideas for themselves. This is exactly what smear jobs on her are trying to prevent. It's self-defeating!

Gideon said...

Yes, I think you're right. As I wrote in the last paragraph of my posting "Ayn Rand can no longer be ignored as she used to be" -- if you subscribe to Google's convenient Google Alert on mentions of Ayn Rand in the news, you know that she is mentioned several times almost every day in all sorts of newspapers and other online sources. Some people find that threatening.