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The Silence of Ayn Rand’s Critics
Submitted by Casey on Sat, 2005-12-03 07:17
EXCLUSIVE to SOLO and The Free Radical. (Subscribe to the print edition and receive a whole lot more.)
Fifteen years have passed since David Kelley wrote this fateful passage about Barbara Branden’s book, The Passion of Ayn Rand, in an infamous paper that would, after Ayn Rand’s official intellectual heir Leonard Peikoff responded with his paper “Fact and Value,” open a rancorous schism in Objectivist scholarship. Kelley and the Ayn Rand Institute would part ways over this divisive issue and its philosophical implications, with Kelley going on to create The Objectivist Center. The TOC side argued that the biographical portrait of Ayn Rand written by Barbara Branden (eventually extending to the memoir about Rand written by Nathaniel Branden) should be regarded as an objective source of information, while the other side rejected the Brandens’ testimony outright as arbitrary assertions made without regard for the truth.
Many regarded one side as open-minded while the other side resembled close-minded intellectual monks “whitewashing” their goddess, Ayn Rand. No explanation was forthcoming from ARI, and no consideration of the topic would be granted, seemingly vindicating ARI opponents and frustrating ARI supporters, as well.
It was not until this year that we find ourselves at a new crossroads in the debate. Barbara and Nathaniel Branden’s books have now, at last, been given a critical analysis, and one that has been sanctioned by the heretofore silent “other side” of the schism as Leonard Peikoff and the Ayn Rand estate have released the journals of Ayn Rand that deal with her last months with the Brandens to author James Valliant as supplementary evidence for his book, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics: The Case Against the Brandens.
In Valliant’s book, and in Rand’s own journal entries written during the time the Brandens only retrospectively describe in their books, there is, to paraphrase David Kelley, significant new evidence that should be argued.
And yet, ironically, there has been much resistance to arguing or even addressing this new evidence and critical analysis, even though much of it is from a primary source (the one whose reputation was damaged by the above-referenced books) and was written contemporaneously with the events described many years after the fact in the Brandens’ enormously influential biographical books published after Rand’s death.
The side of the schism that insisted on granting validity to all sources of information has, so far, largely ignored Rand’s own side of the story. David Kelley has not said a word. His organization, The Objectivist Center, has been silent and at least one of its representatives, Robert Bidinotto, stated on the SOLOHQ website on February 8 of this year (well before the book was available):
"It is dismaying that a pack of parasites has found a way to produce paychecks and royalties by rummaging through and selling off the contents of Ayn Rand's attic and wastepaper baskets."
This comment shows a somewhat slavish resemblance to Nathaniel Branden’s comment in his book, My Years With Ayn Rand (p. 364), that Leonard Peikoff had, by publishing journal entries of Ayn Rand, made a “display of imaginativeness that few people would have anticipated” in “converting the Rand legacy into personal cash.” Apparently, Nathaniel Branden’s comments are so authoritative as to make Rand’s literally worthy of the dust-bin. This, while calling PARC a slavish whitewash of Rand’s reputation, just to complete the circle of irony.
(The Ayn Rand estate and Leonard Peikoff declined any royalty or remuneration for James Valliant’s use of Rand’s journals in his book.)
Reason Magazine, whose subtitle, “Free Minds and Free Markets” was cribbed from John Galt’s line in Atlas Shrugged that a “free market is the corollary of a free mind,” has ignored Rand’s posthumous answer to the Brandens after publishing a Rand Centennial issue smoked in the flavor of the Brandens’ rendition of the author and philosopher. Cathy Young, who penned a particularly Brandenian memorial for the magazine, was unresponsive to my own recent inquiry as to whether she had seen The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics since writing her article.
To their credit, libertarian scholars Wendy McElroy and Chris Sciabarra have treated the evidence as significant, though Sciabarra was largely (18,000 words) dismissive in his review, prompting Barbara Branden to remark on the SOLO website, “Chris didn't hack Valliant to death with an axe, he elegantly pierced him in the heart with a stiletto,” a statement with which Chris Sciabarra was sufficiently comfortable to offer his silence. Apparently, scholarly equanimity, even from a scholar such as Sciabarra who prides himself on his ecumenical tolerance of all viewpoints, is subservient to personal loyalties even when one excoriates that attribute among those loyal to Rand.
Such is the state of truth and toleration.
The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, and the journal entries of Rand published for the first time in PARC, reveal a dramatically different picture of both the Brandens and Rand. It is possible that the silence of Ayn Rand’s critics, those who have relied on the Brandens for so much of their picture of Rand, is a function of inertia—they are still coasting on the fumes of the Branden narratives and have not realized that, like Wiley Coyote, the ground has disappeared from beneath them and they are now pedaling air.
Among its revelations, PARC proves absolutely that Rand was not the irrationally jealous “woman scorned” the Brandens depicted when she broke with the Brandens. Rand was not holding the Brandens’ business relationship hostage to a sexual relationship with Nathaniel Branden. The reverse is true. The Brandens were using the possibility of a sexual relationship between Nathaniel Branden and Rand to insure a business relationship with Rand, as Ayn Rand’s own contemporaneous journal entries conclusively prove. In the notes it is clear that Rand is frustrated by years of being led on by a manipulating bastard to whom she shows more fidelity to truth and toleration than any of Rand’s critics are now willing to show to her. Most ironically of all, Rand herself is the ultimate skeptic as to the Brandens’ bad intentions. She is the one who has to be shown the monstrous truth of a years-long romantic deception before she finally, agonizingly, reaches a personal and professional breaking point.
PARC also proves that the mosaic of an egotistical, authoritarian, and neurotic Rand, the clichéd portrait so many are a priori willing to believe of any artist, is made of fragments with no reliable factual grounding. The whole negative picture of Rand engineered by these details the Brandens provide goes up in smoke upon examination of the evidence for each of the individual claims. Often their conclusions and pronouncements about Rand’s character and its defects are directly contradicted by their own observations buried in other parts of their narratives. The case against the Brandens presented in PARC calls for nothing less than as open and public a reappraisal of Rand the person as that which followed the publication of the Brandens’ books themselves.
The historical implications of Rand’s notes and the revealed dishonesty on the part of the Brandens are huge. Because of this, I believe the significance of PARC is taking a while to sink in before the process of separating what is now an unfortunate legend from what can honestly be said about Ayn Rand can begin.
But a major reappraisal of the Brandens’ works, and of Rand’s character, is now clearly in order. And while others have been notably silent, the first act of that reappraisal has taken place dramatically on SOLO over the months before and after PARC’s publication.
A community of Objectivist-oriented scholars, contributors, and members, SOLOHQ.COM, founded by Lindsay Perigo, is not controlled in the way the content of magazines and journals and other mainstream media are controlled, so it is significant that where the public has had the chance to pay attention, it did. Over a thousand posts on numerous threads vigorously debated PARC. This subject, in fact, set a record on SOLO for the most posts on any single thread in the site’s history—and that was just one of the SOLO threads that have focused on the book. So much for “boring,” and “It’s time to move on.”
During the course of this public debate, several historic events transpired on SOLO both before and after the book’s publication. Since this popular site for those interested in Objectivism featured Barbara Branden herself as a magisterial celebrity presence at the time when the book was published, its community was naturally hostile to the nature of Valliant’s book, and many of its most vocal members chorused a condemnation of its whole thesis well before the book had premiered, including Mr. Bidinotto, who is now affiliated with TOC. But a remarkable thing happened right in front of those who participated in the many threads on the subject and those who observed from a discreet distance: Barbara Branden self-immolated.
The first ominous sign appeared when she tried to answer evidence in PARC that she had gotten wrong the story of how Rand chose her nomme de plume. In their books, Barbara and Nathaniel cited differing stories supporting their claim that Rand got her name from a typewriter. Valliant's book documents how this explanation of her name is impossible, since she chose the name before any typewriter existed with the name "Rand," Remington or otherwise, and since she had revealed in interviews before and after meeting the Brandens that the name was an
Following this, however, was a scene that may as well have been predicted by James Valliant, and which could only be instantly translatable into live theater by the Internet. Barbara Branden became hostile to the host of SOLO, Lindsay Perigo, who had been dismissive of the idea of even reading the Valliant book up until this point. After Barbara Branden defended a man Perigo knew as a supporter of publications advocating child pornography, he roundly condemned her for this action. Barbara Branden, in turn, condemned Perigo’s tendency for fiery moral condemnation as abusive. And then she signed on to a vacuous accusation advanced by one of her friendly agents that Perigo was, in fact, an alcoholic.
It was a repeat of the loose accusations she had made against Ayn Rand and Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, acted out in real-time while the debate about these subjects was taking place with a global audience. In the annals of intellectual history, I daresay this was a first: something which Barbara Branden’s defenders denied was possible was re-enacted by Barbara Branden herself in plain view of everyone on the World Wide Web.
On a subsequent thread, in which yet another article, this one in Commentary magazine, relied on the Brandens’ portrait to smear Ayn Rand as a neurotic hypocrite, Barbara got an associate of hers to post her further “evidence” that Frank was an alcoholic—a now-deceased witness whom she neglected to mention in her book and who vaguely witnessed something that was not conclusive in any event. It was also during this record-breaking thread that SOLO’s founder, Lindsay Perigo, was finally persuaded to read The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics for himself.
And intellectual history shifted.
The former defender and friend of Barbara Branden, and honorary scold of ARI, began to change his mind as Barbara, through a sympathetic go-between, chided him for joining the ARI side with Star Wars-like melodrama. Perigo published his review, anyway, in which he apologized for dismissing the book and taking the word of those who had said it was “boring” and focused on “minutiae.” He pointed out that even Barbara’s recent summary of the break on SOLO was grossly misleading. He confessed that the book had changed his opinion about the Brandens’ representation of Ayn Rand, though it was still hard for him to fully incorporate those conclusions with his feelings about Barbara Branden.
Even the noted and estimable libertarian scholar Chris Sciabarra weighed in on SOLO, and in his own somewhat narrow (if long) review of PARC on his own website found no reason to doubt Mr. Valliant’s scholarly integrity in editing Rand’s notes, while minimizing the import of the new evidence that they contain. Later, however, he would concede on SOLO that the book had, indeed, “changed the landscape” of Rand scholarship.
As claims by critics that PARC is a “whitewash” have been dispatched by the contents of PARC itself, which clearly does not attempt to canonize Rand but merely to analyze the credibility of the Brandens’ claims about her, this accusation reveals the ironic fact that the Brandens have been canonized by default, literally, as sources whose word on Rand should be taken uncritically. All that PARC proves is that you must not take any source uncritically, and, after careful analysis, that applies doubly to the Brandens, whose deceits, of implication and omission, include many that can only be considered deliberate. No one could ever guess from either of the Brandens’ books that Nathaniel was serving up a fresh dish of psychological lies to Rand for the many therapy sessions he requested of her to discuss his sexual paralysis (which paralysis did not prevent him from carrying on his secret four-year affair with a young actress student). The elaborate and sophisticated smokescreens Branden spun in these prolonged sessions were supported by Barbara Branden for two years, as well, with all the conversation that must have involved. That must sink in. In addition, the Brandens both held out false hope to Rand that they were still working on their marriage, as the notes also confirm.
(In this regard, the most alarming of the historic moments that occurred on SOLO was Barbara Branden’s essay, posted before her falling out with Perigo, about how she and Nathaniel had lied about this very issue to her dying mother, reporting that Rand herself gave her blessing to this kind of white lie. Using Rand to indirectly justify their deception of Rand herself in such a pre-emptive reminiscence is surely a new low, even for the Brandens, no matter how justified they were in lying to Barbara’s mother.)
The elaborate nature of the Brandens’ deception of Rand was omitted from both of their books. These are not small issues, and omissions such as these now documented in PARC cast the Brandens’ entire accounts into fatal doubt.
Innocent reliance on the Brandens is one thing, but understanding the scope of their ongoing deceptions about Rand and not acknowledging forthrightly that that revelation requires a reappraisal of her character and personal legacy is too much like the airbrushing that libertarians and other rival factions have accused the Ayn Rand Institute of engaging in. (Laissez Faire Books still will not sell The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, though it contains Ayn Rand’s own words that were written contemporaneous to the events the Brandens wrote about years after the fact in books that they readily offer to the public.)
Whatever errors the intellectual conservator of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, may have made, he has honorably come to the defense of his benefactor, whereas other professional beneficiaries have been content to let an injustice to her go unmentioned or have even obscured that injustice through their mention of it. In light of the new evidence and the old evidence that has finally been given a critical analysis in PARC, even a passive stance toward Rand’s moral reputation is a particularly low species of ingratitude from many of those whose silence has been so conspicuous.
What is pernicious about the last two post-Brandenian decades is that they have provided a smokescreen for larceny, a larceny that could be avoided by the simple honorable mention of the person who developed such revolutionary ideas. The simple act of not besmirching her unfairly or disposing of her person to retain her ideas would have sufficed. The Brandens have provided those who wish not to seem like a “cult follower” of Rand with a way to jokingly distance themselves from her. They have also, more disturbingly, forced many who don’t care about fitting in at cocktail parties to distance Rand from her ideas.
Whatever else one thinks about him, Alan Greenspan to this day is said to have stopped on a dime at Washington parties whenever he has heard Rand besmirched and told the offender directly that Rand was one of the most honorable people he has ever known, and that he won't abide insults of her person in his presence. In Washington, as the Federal Reserve Chairman, that takes courage. But he had the benefit of firsthand knowledge to give him what some might consider an uncharacteristic fire in this regard. (At his swearing-in at the White House as the president’s chief economic advisor, he is said to have stated that Rand was his second mother—his first, his biological mother, of his body; his second, Rand, of his spirit. And at his request, both of Greenspan’s “mothers” were present at the ceremony.)
If Objectivism comes up in mixed company, the conversation very soon turns to how Rand was a loon. Wasn’t she? My God! The admirer or follower or scholar of Objectivism quickly nods his head and agrees, of course, she was a loon, granted. But now let's look at some of her ideas, he repairs, because even a broken clock is right twice a day. This seems like a way to sneak the ideas back into play after Rand has been personally smeared. And, in fairness, because of the Brandens, it seemed like the only way to get her ideas back in play during the last 20 years.
But that has now changed. Visitors to SOLO had the chance to witness the change occurring before their eyes as Barbara Branden demonstrated the very tactics that call her account of Rand into doubt and the subsequent retraction of support for her depiction of Rand by her former public sponsor.
After seeing the numerous paltry defenses offered by Barbara Branden’s defenders at SOLO it is quite clear that the substantial and fatal contradictions in the Brandens’ psychological profile of Rand, and her husband, Frank O’Connor, are historically untenable. The Brandens, through their agents, have had ample opportunity to give their best defense, and it has been non-existent, unverifiable, and even more damning as to their standards of evidence. Now they are demanding more evidence for their claims from ARI in order to make their initial case credible!
On the other hand, the reliable evidence, from so many varied sources, has always clashed with the Brandens’ unique claims that she was cold, quick to dismiss friends, living a life of lies, helpless in the face of practical reality, insensitive to personal context, ungracious to benefactors, and humorless, to name a few of their condemnations. The testimony of virtually everyone else who knew her suggests that Ayn Rand was warm, loyal, honest, practical, sensitive, gracious and grateful to a fault, witty and appreciative of humor, and practiced remarkable integrity and devotion to those she loved. Even the Brandens’ own individual recollections contradict their broad negative pronouncements. The evidence from her journals in PARC confirms the observations of the non-Branden sources in spades.
While David Kelley concludes from Barbara Branden’s book that Rand had “a tendency to surround herself with acolytes from whom she demanded declarations of agreement and loyalty; a growing sense of bitter isolation from the world; a quickness to anger at criticism; a tendency to judge people harshly and in haste,” it is curious to note that Leonard Peikoff, the person who required the most convincing of all if we are to trust the Brandens, was chosen to be her intellectual heir rather than the sycophantic Brandens, who claimed to agree with Rand on virtually everything throughout their relationship no matter how false that agreement was.
In terms of moral character and integrity, Rand stood head and shoulders above other celebrated intellectuals, who are not run down personally in conversations about their ideas, whether they be Picasso, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, or even Karl Marx. It is no doubt antipathy for Rand’s ideas that has led many of her critics to latch on to the Brandens’ portraits with such avid interest, but it is also a fact that Rand claimed to live by her principles. The mendacity of the Brandens has therefore done more than harm Rand the person—it attacks the most basic claim of her philosophy by suggesting that Objectivism is no more practicable than any other clever subjectivist philosophy. Therefore, the revelation that the Brandens lied about such things reveals a malice not just toward Rand but toward Objectivism itself.
PARC reveals that there was never any basis to concede the biographical high ground to the Brandens out of a fear of “whitewashing” Rand. The negative image of Rand conjured by the Brandens was never more than a vicious and elaborate ad hominem justification for their own astonishing mistreatment of her, and is contradicted not only by more reliable witnesses but even by their own narratives, and now, especially, by Rand’s own notes. It is time to defend Rand now, not the Brandens—they have had their two decades of influence, as unjustified as they were.
People like Frank Lloyd Wright or Alan Greenspan or Leonard Peikoff are not mindless drones. The reason intellects such as theirs were attracted to Rand’s ideas is that her ideas expressed what they knew to be true, and that was the only reason for their stated allegiance to those ideas. None of them had any problem crediting her with the great service she had done them by expressing those ideas so completely.
Will coming to the defense of Rand, as a person, make her admirers sound like cult worshippers? It was always a fallacious charge to begin with. It denies something so fundamental as to concede the whole battle to the opponents of Objectivism without a real shot ever being fired. To fear that defending her ideas or person will be called cult-worship is to belie a fear that it is not the truth of her ideas that can merit defense, but only her oracular status—that the only reason to defend her ideas or person must be a religious devotion to someone's arbitrary intellectual primacy (one's own or someone else's), divorced from objective truth.
This is giving everything away to the philosophical opposite of Objectivism; it is an utterly irrational concession to subjectivism without regard to any objective evidence in the name of avoiding being “cultish.” (Irony on top of irony.) This kind of automatic belief, that there must be a negative side to Rand’s ledger that is being suppressed and for which the Brandens should be considered valid sources, and that all argument from the contrary is dishonest, is the very mental prerequisite of a new cult—that of the Brandens! It is the perfect platform from which to advance the notion that they must be right and that all opponents must be deluded. Moreover, it implies a positive belief that there is no objective truth available to be discovered by any genius at all, for, if objectivity is possible, Rand is possible, and a Rand who lived by her principles is possible. To think otherwise prima facie is to reject Objectivism fundamentally.
Furthermore, to refrain from defending Rand's person from unjustified calumny concedes that there is no truth about a person that is objective, either—while throwing out objective standards of evidence in the bargain.
Far from suggesting the impracticality of her philosophy, Rand’s life is a spectacular proof of that philosophy’s efficacy. Ayn Rand deserves objectivity in the consideration of her legacy. As has been proved in The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, she did not get it from the Brandens or from those who accepted the Brandens’ testimony uncritically. It is still a question whether she will get it from many of her beneficiaries who are so silent now. But in the long run, the truth revealed in PARC, and the enormity of the Brandens’ deceit, will slowly sink in.
And the history that transpired on SOLO will be remembered as the first turning point on that long road.
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