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My Answer to Brandroids: In Praise of Objectivist Rage—(Valliant Book-Signing Event, Borders, Orange, July 6, 2006)
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Sat, 2006-07-08 06:37
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I speak to you tonight as an enthusiastic adherent to the philosophy that will save western civilization: Objectivism. I speak as an ardent, though not blind, admirer of the woman who formulated that philosophy: Ayn Rand. I speak as someone whose admiration for Ayn Rand was tempered for many years by a belief that her character was significantly flawed. This belief was derived from two books: The Passion of Ayn Rand, by Barbara Branden, and Judgement Day, by Nathaniel Branden. These books painted a picture of Ayn Rand as a genius with monumental shortcomings—a propensity to divorce logic from reality, engage in moral hysteria, substitute intimidation for argument, cut her friends off without good reason, manipulate her protégés into doing her bidding (including, in one case, her sexual bidding, thus driving her husband to drink) and then dishonestly rationalize her shortcomings as virtues and call them part of her philosophy. For two decades, inexplicably, Ayn Rand’s defenders made no comment on these portraits, inclining people like me to think they must be accurate, and thus always to temper our advocacy of Objectivism with disclaimers about the conduct of its founder. As one of us put it recently, without saying so or even recognizing it explicitly we looked upon Ayn Rand as “the wicked witch of Objectivism.” To which I would add, we saw the Brandens as its Hansel and Gretel—innocent, intellectually-starved children lured into the witch’s house, ostensibly for philosophical nourishment, but really to be eaten up … except that in this case they pushed her into the oven after she died of natural causes!
Reading James Valliant’s book, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, made me realize the Brandens’ accounts were a self-serving bunch of bull. Prosecutor Valliant makes the case conclusively that it was the children who were—and are—wicked and Ayn Rand who was the innocent party. Her own journal entries, reproduced in the book, establish that beyond reasonable doubt.
Why does it matter? Isn’t what’s important Ayn Rand’s philosophy, not her character; whether it’s true, not whether she happened to live up to it? Well, you might say that of any other philosopher, but you may not say it about Rand. Fundamental to Rand’s whole approach to philosophy is that if you can’t live by it, it’s useless and can’t be good; if you can live by it and it is good and you don’t live by it, you’re a hypocrite. For her there is no theory/practice dichotomy; the moral is the practical—so there’s no excuse not to behave with integrity. As she put it, “Integrity is loyalty to one’s convictions and values; it is the policy of acting in accordance with one’s values, of expressing, upholding and translating them into physical reality.” She famously said that her personal life was a Post-Script to her novels, whose heroes embodied her values, consisting of the words, “And I mean it!” So if Ayn Rand did not live according to her philosophy, by her own lights we are entitled to dismiss it or condemn her. Objectivism above all else is a philosophy for living on earth; if its founder didn’t live by it, then either it couldn’t be lived by or she was speaking with a forked tongue.
Objectivism’s cardinal virtue is rationality, living by one’s mind, neither at the expense of one’s emotions nor controlled by them, so if its founder spent a significant portion of her waking hours displaying an irrational anger, let’s say, then she could not be said to be living by her philosophy.
That is precisely what the Brandens do say about Ayn Rand. My contention is that they’re wrong, and that they’re not wrong innocently—under the guise of repudiating irrational anger, the Brandens, Barbara in particular, are really campaigning against rational anger, against the very possibility of such a thing, against anger as such, period. Why? Because the Brandens, in their own anger against Ayn Rand, do not wish Objectivism to succeed, all their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and wish it to declare the unilateral moral and emotional disarmament to which the repudiation of anger would be tantamount.
Right now, as I speak, the Brandens are literally over the road, peddling their angerless version of Objectivism to an ostensibly Objectivist gathering in a group-grope session called “Objectivist Community.” I say “ostensibly” because the organization whose honoured guests they are recently saw fit to change its name from The Objectivist Center to The Atlas Society, since they deem the term “Atlas” to be less “intimidating” than the word “Objectivist.” “Objectivist” apparently frightens the horses, and as the sensitive souls over the road might say: oh my, we can’t have that. I can’t help contrast the tepid, timorous timidity of this coven of cowards with the boldness displayed by Objectivism’s adversaries. Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, for instance: “Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution.” Over the road, they disdain not to conceal the very name of their philosophy, lest naming it should cause anyone to tremble, them most of all!
In any event, not only are the Brandens right now touting their supposedly kinder gentler version of the philosophy that dare not speak its name, but Barbara has already given a presentation on “Objectivist Rage.” Now for some obscure reason I was not invited to attend, so I cannot report on its precise content. I can, however, disclose how the talk was billed by the organization formerly known as The Objectivist Center in its promotional material:
It is lamentable but true that a great many Objectivists—although certainly not all—have been very angry people, given to excessive moralizing and condemnations of those who disagree with them. Over the years, Barbara Branden has identified some of the fundamental reasons for this rage, such as the beliefs—as David Kelley has noted—that ideas as such can be evil, that evasion rather than simple error, naivety, or confusion is the predominant source of philosophical mistakes, and so on. Error has become the original sin of Objectivism. In this talk, Ms. Branden will discuss the effects of excessive rage, and will suggest ways in which anger can be addressed and brought into balance with rational judgment and reason.
When I read that, and started to prepare this talk, I wondered if Ms Branden was going to be including in her presentation something I found on the Internet:
How to Fix Anger Problems—An easy way that gets rid of anger almost instantly. Guaranteed. Free CD!
Now, just so we’re clear on this, Ms. Branden includes in the category of “very angry people” Ayn Rand herself. To quote but one passage from her biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, after she cites Mimi Sutton saying Frank was sometimes upset over Ayn’s breaks with people:
In this last statement, Mimi was noting a phenomenon that no one who knew Ayn well failed to observe: a series of angry ruptures with people who had been her friends, accompanied by condemnations of them for irrationality or moral treason. Ayn often was warm and generous with her friends, generous with her concern, her time and her attention. But when, in her view, a line had been crossed, when she saw an action as unjust to her, or as intellectually dishonest, or as morally wrong, she became an avenging angel and the relationship ended in a burst of rage.
Elsewhere in her book, Ms. Branden faults Rand for erupting at questioners during public lectures, and for turning on a questioner during an appearance on the Donahue TV show. This is as good an example as any to cite of Ms. Branden’s mindset on the matter at hand. She writes:
It was a disaster. A young woman in the audience asked Ayn a question which made it clear that she thought her former admiration for Ayn’s work had been an aberration of youth—and Ayn, offended and insulted, pounced angrily, shouting at the girl; a substantial part of the show was devoted to the exchange.
Now, I’ve watched that show many times. It could only be deemed a “disaster” by someone who takes the view that one should never get angry, no matter the provocation, how justified one’s anger might be. Yes, Ayn got angry. The young woman, exuding insolence, prefaced her intended question with the remark that she used to be impressed by Ayn’s work but now that she was better educated … That’s as far as she got. Ayn, alone on the stage since Donahue was with the young woman, stepped in to say she would not answer a question framed in that way. Pandemonium ensued, with Donahue taking the questioner’s side. “Don’t be so sensitive,” he scolded Ayn. “I am going to be. I intend to be!” she shot back. She was shouting, not because she was out of control but because the crowd’s jeering or cheering—mainly jeering—was so loud. In defending her refusal to answer a question prefaced with an insult Ayn said the woman had displayed “the quality of her brain” in asking it that way. She also said she had no intention of being the victim of “hippies” who had abandoned politeness and manners. After a few minutes of mayhem, Donahue himself asked the woman’s intended question politely, and normal transmission was resumed.
The incident occupied a few minutes of a 60-minute show. To call it a “substantial part” of the show is precisely the kind of hyperbole Barbara engages in when faulting folk for their anger, as she did with my own in calling it “endless.” The show was vintage Rand—although looking unwell, she was sharp, focused, earnest, funny, relentlessly logical … and yes, angry. But no one who knew Ayn or was familiar with her philosophy would expect her to react to a rude question in any other way. One of her distinctive tenets is refusal to bestow what she calls the “sanction of the victim”—when you are wronged, do not sanction the wrong by acquiescing to it. It’s the opposite of turning the other cheek. “I saw that here comes a point,” says John Galt, hero of Atlas Shrugged, “in the defeat of any man of virtue, where his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent. I saw I could put an end to your outrages by pronouncing a single word in my mind. I pronounced it. The word was ‘No.’” In the Donahue context, Ayn simply said “No” out loud—and a bit more besides. By conventional standards, including Barbara Branden’s, she handled the situation badly, by displaying her anger (never mind how legitimate). No doubt she would have won accolades for handling it well if she’d said something like, “First let me say how bummed I am to learn that you think less of my work now than you once did. But I guess I can understand where you’re coming from, and, hey, I’m cool with it. I’d sure be stoked if you gave me another chance, though.”
Let me reiterate at this point that there is someone Barbara exempts from her anti-anger regime: herself. Here she is on my SOLO site, when she was still posting there, responding to someone who had taken her to task over a few things—in each case, I might say, completely justifiably:
Glenn, do you really suppose that I would engage in a discussion with someone who begins it by accusing me of evading, being driven by my emotions, and ignoring evidence? In future, you might spare yourself the effort of announcing your beliefs to me, for fear of learning the exact value I find in them. This is my last communication with you.
I suppose we are to conclude that that sort of icy anger expressed loftily is acceptable, while raising one’s voice is … uncouth!
How would Ms. Branden feel about the following, from Atlas Shrugged’s pianist/composer Richard Halley to Dagny Taggart, attacking proponents and practitioners of the mind/body spirit/matter dichotomy?
This, Miss Taggart, this sort of spirit, courage and love for truth—as against a sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic, because he's an artist who hasn't the faintest idea what his art work is or means, he's not restrained by such crude concepts as 'being' or 'meaning', he's the vehicle of higher mysteries, he doesn't know how he created his work or why, it just came out of him spontaneously, like vomit out of a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn't stoop to thinking, he just felt it, all he has to do is feel—he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard!
Barbara’s response would no doubt be the plaintive whine she once posted to SOLO: “There’s enough anger in the world already. Why add to it?” And as I say, she’s completely in tune with the received wisdom on the matter. Google “quotes about anger" on the Internet and you find anger has had a very bad press throughout history.
“Anger is the seducer of thought. No man can think clearly when his fists are clenched.”
“Anger is the wind which blows out the lamp of the mind.”
“There is no enemy more vicious than your own anger.”
“Anger is never without reason, but seldom with a good one.”
“For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.”
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”
“Anger is short-lived madness.”
“Anger and folly walk cheek by jowl.”
Those are quotations from sundry historical personages of both religious and agnostic or atheist persuasion. Jesus himself said, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. … anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell,” though he too appeared to exempt himself!
Just occasionally you come across a glimpse of an acknowledgement of justifiable, desirable anger, as in this, from Aristotle: “Anyone can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.” Or this, from Bede Jarrett: “The world often continues to allow evil because it isn't angry enough.”
See, the problem with this blanket condemnation of anger is twofold. First, there is the fallacy of moral equivalence—all anger is sinful, regardless of its cause, source, motive, object or consequences. No Objectivist should ever fall for that, on its face. Second, more subtly, the campaign against “Objectivist rage” is a campaign against profundity of conviction via intensity of feeling. Anger, of course, is an intense emotion reflecting strongly-held convictions and values, as are all other emotions arising therefrom. Because she was a valuer, as every Objectivist must be, Ayn Rand was a passionate valuer, as every Objectivist must be. The two are inseparable. To campaign against anger is to campaign against passion; to campaign against passion is to campaign against values; to campaign against values is to campaign against the mind; to campaign against the mind is ultimately, of course, to campaign against human life itself.
Listen to these magnificent words from the 19th century anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Douglass:
Those who profess to favour freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters.
Ponder this, from Facets of Ayn Rand, by Mary Ann and Charles Sures:
Charles: I’d like to add two points here. One is that her expressions of anger were the exception, not the rule. Two, they were often followed by applause from the audience – because the listeners were inspired by hearing someone speaking up for and defending what was right and good. They had heard, over and over again, mealy-mouthed speakers afraid to take a position – or suggesting that there were always two sides to a question – or that nothing is black and white. To have been subjected to these attitudes from childhood on up, and then to hear Ayn Rand take a firm position and defend it with conviction – this was cause for cheering. The audience response was not only to the content of her ideas, but to the manner of expressing them. She was medicine for the soul.
Mary Ann: All those adults who taught us never to get angry, or if we did, not to express it, to hide our emotions when we were offended or felt we were being treated unjustly, to remain calm, to maintain an even keel, for God’s sake don’t blow up, no matter what – these people didn’t do us any favours by urging us to suppress, to live like glazed, non-reacting creatures.
Charles: When she got angry, it was precisely because she was a thinker and an evaluator who was certain of her convictions. She judged something as right or wrong, good or evil—and she responded accordingly. She didn’t simmer and stew; she came to an immediate boil. Her thinking was not hampered and slowed down by chronic doubt, and her emotions were not suppressed or muted by it either. Moreover, her emotions never distorted or clouded her thinking. And the anger didn’t last. It was over almost as soon as it began.
Mary Ann: I miss knowing that there is someone in the world who always speaks out, unequivocally, against irrationality and injustice, and who not only denounces evil but defends the good. She was mankind’s intellectual guardian, a soldier in the battle of ideas. Her banner was always flying high. When she died, someone made the following comment: now anger has gone out of the world. And I thought, it’s true. And it’s the world’s loss. And mine.
Ponder all of the above, I say, and, when next incandescent at the unspeakable deeds of terrorist maggots, at the spewings of their apologists and appeasers, at the amplified jungle cacophony of musical terrorists such as rap "artists," at the sneering nihilism of the latest postmodern "painting," etc., qua Objectivist and qua decent human being, salute yourself for feeling that way—and for the thinking that led you to!
I quoted the anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass. Another such was William Lloyd Garrison, who, like Ayn Rand, upset everyone on all sides of the divide. He was a radical abolitionist, demanding the immediate repeal of slavery, unlike the gradualists of his time, but not advocating the shipping of freed slaves back to Africa, unlike some other abolitionists. For 35 years he fulminated fulsomely in his weekly newspaper, The Liberator. He stopped only after the signing of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. In his first issue, he wrote about it:
On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest; I will not equivocate; I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.
He was heard, all right! So ardently did he attack the defenders of slavery that he was jailed once for libel, almost lynched twice and had a bounty on his head of $5000 from the legislature of Georgia who wanted to try him for sedition. The Liberator was outlawed in many states, with jail for anyone subscribing.
Samuel May, a friend and fellow-abolitionist, once entreated him to be more temperate. "O, my friend, do try to moderate your indignations, and keep more cool; why, you are all on fire." Looking him straight in the eye, Garrison replied: "Brother May, I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt."
Ladies and gentlemen, Ayn Rand took on a battle much bigger even than the battle against slavery—the battle, as she put it, against the cultural tradition of 2,500 years, the battle against man’s enslavement to unreason in all its forms. How much more on fire did she have to be, and those who carry the torch in her wake—and how squalid and small to fault her and them for it, just because, occasionally, the anger was misdirected or inappropriate?!
The true agenda and import of Barbara Branden’s campaign against “Objectivist rage” is perfectly captured in William Watson’s "The Woman with the Serpent’s Tongue":
She is not old, she is not young, The Woman with the Serpent's Tongue. The haggard cheek, the hungering eye, The poisoned words that wildly fly, The famished face, the fevered hand, Who slights the worthiest in the land, Sneers at the just, contemns the brave, And blackens goodness in its grave …
Thanks to the valiant Valliant, we now have the antidote to the serpent’s venom.
I salute him.
And to Objectivists everywhere I say, “We have mountains of ice to melt, an ocean to conquer. Stay on fire! Maintain the rage!”
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