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Linz's Mario Book—Updated!
It is morally defensible to establish a nation-state built around maintaining a specific and exclusive ethnic population
Total votes: 11
Mullah Rand? [More PARC!]
Submitted by James S. Valliant on Tue, 2008-06-03 19:17
The following is Chapter 3 of The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. Once more, citations have been omitted while certain "Footnote" material has been folded into the text itself. In addition, the discussion of the Smith break has been expanded, that of the Blumenthal break changed for clarity and in order to include material not then available, and the description of Rand's appearance on the Phil Donahue Show has been augmented slightly.
Both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden concede that Ayn Rand did not “rule” the Objectivist movement by force or threats of force. Rand’s “authoritarian” nature revealed itself in harsh words and the avoidance of certain adversaries.
If the Brandens’ characterizations are to be believed, however, comparisons to the medieval church, perhaps even to Stalin, are appropriate. Indeed, it is their assertions in this regard that have provided the main foundation for this often repeated characterization.
Given the Brandens’ demonstrated penchant for drawing conclusions from nearly non-existent evidence, one should view with considerable skepticism the portrait they draw of the “Authoritarian” Ayn Rand of the many “Purges,” the moralizer and psychologizer. This is especially true, since both Brandens regard themselves as the very persons most seriously victimized by the Authoritarian Rand.
Ms. Branden relates the visit Rand once paid to Taliesen East, Frank Lloyd Wright’s school of architecture. The legendary architect had become an admirer of The Fountainhead. Wright wrote Rand a letter in praise of the novel, kept the book on his nightstand and recommended it to his students—almost every one of whom read it, according to Ms. Branden. Wright later designed a home for Rand that was never built.
Rand described Taliesen to her friends as a “feudal establishment.” She felt “the buildings were magnificent” but the school itself repressive. Rand was “startled” to learn that Wright's students who lived at Taliesen had to pay for the privilege of being servants as well as students in a somewhat monastic existence. They took communal meals, with Wright and his guests on a raised dais eating a better menu than the serf-students below.
"Almost all his students seemed like emotional, out-of-focus hero-worshippers. Anything he said was right, there was an atmosphere of worshipful, awed obedience. When [Wright] and I began to argue about something, the students were against me instantly; they bared their teeth that I was disagreeing with the master. They showed me some of their work, which was badly imitative of Wright. What was tragic was that he did not want any of that...."
Ms. Branden notes what she believes are the parallels between Wright and Rand here. Ms. Branden says that “it was clear to her listeners that [Rand] was describing, unknowingly, conflicting aspects of her own attitude: the emotional need and demand for total agreement always at war with the equal, simultaneous longing for an independent response.”
What is clear from her own comments is that Rand's conscious attitude toward such authoritarianism (if that's what it should be called) was quite negative.
It is also clear that the Objectivist movement, at its worst, including its manifestation in NBI (the Nathaniel Branden Institute), never required Rand's students to wait on her, nor were they ever put into a monastic setting with communal meals, much less a raised dais and separate menus. In all these ways, at least, Rand compares very favorably with Wright, and Ms. Branden's example has something of the opposite effect it was meant to have.
In none of her writings, of course, did Rand ever make a “demand for total agreement.” In private, Rand disliked even the idea of having “followers.”
“I don't like the personal adulation or any of the ‘fan’ atmosphere,” Branden quotes her as saying.
Nonetheless, the Brandens insist that Rand required “absolute agreement” from her students. But, here, the Brandens raise the white flag and admit their total lack of evidence, which does not stop them, however, from making the accusation.
Ms. Branden, for example, says that Rand “made it implicitly clear that any criticism of her was an act of treason to reason and morality.” (emphasis added)
Nathaniel Branden asserts that there were certain "implicit premises" which were somehow “transmitted” to the students at NBI, and among these were the beliefs that a “good Objectivist” admires and condemns whatever Rand admired and condemned, and that Rand was the “supreme arbiter of what was rational, moral, or appropriate to man's life on earth.”
Both use the term “implicit,” presumably to convey the fact that these dictums were never explicitly stated, as they were surely never stated in print or on tape by Rand or any of her associates. Mr. Branden even tells us that among these unspoken premises was the stipulation that “it is best not to say these things explicitly...”
In other words, no one ever said these things, including Rand herself.
Despite Branden’s “best not to say openly” remark, Jerome Tuccille actually cites Branden as his source for the proposition that to remain in Rand’s favor one was required to “believe and state openly” the most bizarre of these premises. This is a good example of Tuccille’s methodology and shoddy scholarship when discussing Rand, and it is but one example of how the Brandens’ dubious histories are used and built upon in still more dubious ways (see Tuccille, Alan Shrugged, pp. 73-74.) In fairness to Tuccille, it must be acknowledged that many of his errors stem from his extensive (and uncritical) reliance on both Rothbard and the Brandens. However, given the repeated stress placed on the “implicit” nature of these demands in both Brandens’ books and the sheer number of other Branden-like contradictions in Tuccille’s histories of Rand, one suspects that a hostile dishonesty—comparable to the Brandens’—is at work.
Still Branden is able to assert that what “Rand made overpoweringly clear to us was that the ultimate test and proof of one's idealism were one's loyalty to her work and to her personally.” (emphasis added) What Branden seems unable to make even slightly clear to his readers is how Rand did so—at least, he does not cite for us statements or actions which even suggest Rand communicated this.
Now, it is certainly true that the periodicals which Rand and Mr. Branden edited did nothing but praise Rand and criticize her ideological opponents. To the simple-minded, perhaps, this is cause to conclude all of these alleged “implicit premises.” But Rand herself reminded her readers, quite explicitly and on more than one occasion, that no human being is either omniscient or infallible.
It should also be remembered that it was the Brandens themselves who were singing Rand's praises the loudest in those days. Are they now confessing that they were, in fact, that simple-minded?
There is a single occasion where Nathaniel Branden alleges in contradiction to his otherwise consistent use of the word “implicit” that Rand did privately reveal to him her expectation that she be her circle’s “highest loyalty so far as other people are concerned, if it ever comes to a conflict.” What exactly this was supposed to mean is left to the various imaginations of Branden’s readers.
From his own description, this was said to Branden alone and in private, and, therefore, we have no unbiased corroboration. With Branden as our only witness, we require such corroboration.
Given the scant factual information which the Brandens are willing to provide for any of their claims, it is not hard to imagine that Branden would feel the need to amplify the evidence a little here.
Branden is also oddly echoing a similar claim made to Reason in 1971, but–in sharp contrast to his later accounts–Branden then alleged that this “demand for loyalty” was made “during an argument,” and that it explicitly pertained only to his relationships with Ms. Branden and Rand and potential “conflicts” among those personal relationships. Whether his marriage was already falling apart yet or not was not revealed, and, of course, Rand’s actual words were not reported.
Moreover, as reported in his memoir, the statement is highly improbable. Branden has here put the prediction of a future “conflict” with members of her circle into Rand’s mind, which does not seem likely. Branden quotes Rand as saying in 1961 that she believed a future dispute—at least between the two of them—to be “hardly likely,” when the suggestion was first made in legal planning for The Objectivist Newsletter. None of the context is given: where, when, in response to what, etc. Just, “Rand, just once, said this to me privately—although she said and wrote the opposite lots of other times.” To use Rand's own words, “hardly likely.”
Consider what we know Rand actually did say about having “followers”:
"I never wanted and do not now want to be the leader of a 'movement.' I do approve of a philosophical or intellectual movement, in the sense of a growing trend among a number of independent individuals sharing the same ideas. But an organized movement is a different matter. NBI was not quite either; it was intended as a purely educational organization, but it did not function fully as such, and, at times, it became a professional embarrassment to me."
Mr. Branden even tells us that Rand was dubious about NBI’s prospects from the beginning and that NBI was named after Branden, rather than Rand or Objectivism, precisely in order to establish “a certain distance” between Rand and that organization.
Such attitudes are not easily reconciled with a single statement that Branden claims Rand once made to him privately.
In an introductory note preceding his book, Branden says that when he reproduces a conversation, “I am not suggesting that all the words reported are verbatim,” although he is confident, he says, that he was faithful to “the spirit and mood of the occasion.” This is simply insufficient, given Branden’s predilection for ax-grinding and contradiction.
As we shall see in Part II, Rand’s private journals demonstrate that—far from “demanding” such “loyalty” from anyone, including Branden—Rand was actually appalled by the fact that Branden himself seemed to require her “sanction” for all of his decisions, including those involving his sex life.
Despite the Brandens' assertions to the contrary, Rand did have certain profound insights into how the human mind works outside of pure “theory,” but, in the Brandens' view, Rand was a “psychologizer,” one who uses psychological rationalizations to condemn unfairly other persons or their ideas, a practice that was identified by Ayn Rand and one she explicitly condemned in her essay, “The Psychology of ‘Psychologizing.’”
The Brandens would never “psychologize,” of course.
On many occasions in her writing, and it is to be believed in her private life, Rand did ascribe psychological motives to her adversaries. But, as with her moral judgments, Rand could provide specific reasons, indeed, an entire philosophical framework, to justify her conclusions. Nor could she have been more forthright in expressing them.
Both of the Brandens, in fact, praise Rand's psychological insight in other contexts–and they quote others giving Rand such praise, as well. Bennett Cerf's account of George Axelrod, who wrote the screenplay for the 1962 film version of The Manchurian Candidate, saying of Rand, “She knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years," At Random, p. 250, and Mr. Branden's own report that he “marveled at [Rand's] insight” into masculine psychology, are only two examples.
The Brandens’ principal evidence for Rand the Psychological Inquisitor, as opposed to Rand the Constant Moralizer, are the so-called “trials”—of which we are given but one example between them.
Ms. Branden tells us that a young student of Objectivism was having “personal problems in her romantic relationship” with another young Objectivist. No other details on the “problems” are given. Whether the girl was in therapy or with whom is not mentioned. The circumstances of her life are not related.
But, we are told, noted psychologist Nathaniel Branden “called her in for a discussion of her psychology.” The Brandens, the two young students, along with O'Connor and Rand, were present. Ms. Branden indicates that “[s]uch evenings were becoming commonplace in Ayn’s dealings.”
Whether or not “group-therapy” is even a psychologically valid technique, if Ayn Rand were truly the genius the Brandens still claim that she was, then who would not have paid dearly to take part in a small group therapy session which included Rand—provided, of course, that the psychologist conducting it was trustworthy.
Anyone who has observed group therapy can attest that the group sometimes has to come down on an individual pretty hard. It is said that this is part of the power of “group” as a therapeutic technique. It is also sometimes all too easy to be too hard on the individual being “grouped.” It is always a difficult line for even the best-trained clinician to draw.
Ms. Branden says that while “Ayn exhibited a lack of human empathy that was astonishing...,” it was Nathaniel who “conducted” the discussion. It was Branden who delivered the merciless verdict, which apparently included a diagnosis of “social metaphysics,” but, if he would make a good point, Rand would occasionally chuckle or clap.
This is all the information we are provided about what was said that night. Based on this one example, Ms. Branden would have us believe that psychology was a weapon which Rand used “as an inquisitor might use fire and the rack.”
To judge Rand from even the single case Ms. Branden presents, however, is impossible, given the tiny amount of information that is provided. What was said, what was “chuckled at,” how actually sensitive this unnamed girl was that night, how did her problems turn out, etc.? All these questions need to be answered before any judgment by Ms. Branden's reader—all of us who were not present—can be made of Rand's behavior. Of course, all of these questions remain unanswered by Ms. Branden.
Ms. Branden was herself present, and these details could have been supplied. We must, therefore, ask why they were left out.
In any event, without such details, this anecdote is nearly useless to the historian; given Ms. Branden’s lack of credibility on so many other issues, the reader may well demand that she supply more than her own summary conclusion.
If it is unfair to characterize this “discussion” as “group-therapy” from the information provided, then it is equally unfair to call it a “trial,” as Ms. Branden does. Apparently, the only “verdict” was Mr. Branden’s diagnosis. After the discussion, the girl wrote a paper about her state of mind. She was clearly experiencing distressingly low self-esteem, although, again, all the specifics are left out.
One thing is clear: the girl was not sent to Siberia.
Even taking the unwarranted step of assuming the truth of this information, it seems that the worst to be said of Rand is that she “astonished” Ms. Branden one evening by her “lack of empathy.” This consisted of clapping and chuckling during a discussion of someone's psychology being conducted by Mr. Branden. From this, one can hardly leap to the conclusion that Rand used psychology “like a torturer uses the rack.” The facts she has presented as her evidence simply do not warrant the opinions Ms. Branden would have us draw from them. It must be emphasized that, for some odd reason, this is the only specific example of such a “trial” that either of the Brandens mentions. We are simply told that there were others.
Nathaniel Branden admits: “I looked for alternative ways to reassure Ayn of my devotion. I became her ‘enforcer.’ If someone in our group did something to offend Ayn, or the ‘cause’... I would invite that person to lunch and in a quiet but deadly voice I would inform him or her of the nature of the transgression.”
Branden not only reveals that these meetings were his idea, he also tells us that only if the offense was “big enough” would others, presumably sometimes including Rand, even be involved. He does not say that Rand even knew about any of these private discussions, and he almost certainly would have told us if she had known of these. In other words, as Rand’s self-appointed “enforcer,” Branden was acting, without Rand’s knowledge, to create a culture of conformity which he would later blame Rand for creating.
Such “trials,” Branden claims, could involve charges of “gossiping” about another close associate of Rand’s, or “being friendly” with a critic of Rand. But, of course, no examples are provided, nor are we entrusted with any of the details regarding these instances, even assuming that Branden is referring to actual events.
Did the “gossip” amount to slander or merely a rude invasion of privacy? Just who was the critic of Rand—and just how “friendly” did the person become with him or her?
Omitting these details and distinctions, Branden suggests that the very idea of questioning what someone says about other people—or with whom someone is friendly—is authoritarian in itself. By implication, he suggests that Rand should have had no problem with a teacher of her ideas getting married to a Nazi or Communist, or with one member of her circle falsely accusing another of child molesting. Without the specifics we can only assume that Rand would be criticized just the same.
But, of course, this assumes that Mr. Branden is telling the truth about these things. Telling us so little may simply mean that there is very little to tell.
Branden does tell us that Ms. Branden “sometimes played the role of Lord High Executioner herself,” whatever that concretely means, an idea that readers of Ms. Branden's own biography will find surprising. (Even "Lord Chamberlain" seems a stretch, given the evidence we are provided.)
Since the Brandens both chose the very same “trial” to present, it must represent their strongest case—otherwise, we must also ask how they happened to choose the same lonely example. In light of the extensive counseling Rand provided the Brandens themselves over the years (just how extensive is made clear in Part II) it is curious that no example or detail of such torment could be produced from any of these sessions.
As we have observed, the accounts of this single “trial” obviously lack any of the relevant data to make a fair assessment of even that situation. If absolutely no one was willing, decades later, to waive whatever therapy-privilege might be involved in order to be named, much less interviewed about these “trials,” at least one of the Brandens should say so. If they never tried, they should tell us that, too. “Well, you just had to be there” is insufficient for the historian. With only their conclusions to go on, we are left actually knowing no more than before we read their books.
Notice, too, it was Nathaniel Branden that “called” the discussion and “conducted it,” and that such meetings were his idea in the first place. It was he who delivered the “diagnoses.” This, at least, is credible, as neither of the Brandens suggests that Rand would ever have conducted such a group discussion of anyone’s psychology at her own instigation. And, if it got out of hand, surely, it was Branden’s—the trained therapist's—job to correct the situation.
Which brings us to Nathaniel Branden's curiously different account of that evening. Of course, it is different only in its conclusory description, for the only additional detail he provides is the name of one of the young people involved. (Apparently, the privacy or legal privileges of the people involved are no concern to Branden.) That's it.
As Barbara Branden herself observed, in Branden's version it is no “discussion” of someone's psychology—it is a meeting convened by Branden to hear ethical “charges.” These are even less specific than Ms. Branden's psychological issues, which were at least suggested to have involved “social metaphysics.”
It seems that, as the “prosecutor” in these meetings, as well as a psychotherapist, Branden realizes that if these meetings were, indeed, psychological in nature, then any mental anguish caused is principally the result of his own “professional” conduct. If they were an indistinguishable mixture of the two, it casts Branden in no better professional light.
As Branden is fond of pointing out, Rand repeatedly disclaimed any specialized knowledge of—or interest in—clinical psychology.
From the combined evidence of both Brandens, it is quite impossible to say which characterization of these meetings is more accurate—or that these meetings (or even just the one referred to) were somehow inappropriate. They (more accurately, it) may or may not have been.
In interviews published since the release of The Passion of Ayn Rand, Ms. Branden has not added new examples or details, but she has somewhat augmented the picture of Branden as “persecutor”—with Rand largely on the sidelines even in this single instance. Ms. Branden now suggests that, rather than wielding excessive “control” over the situation, if anything, Rand gave Branden too much latitude.
Of course, most large, private organizations have a protocol for “in-house” disciplinary proceedings and often a code of ethical standards governing the membership. Upon an allegation of code violations, some kind of informal hearing is usually part of the "due process" that is believed to be necessary to ensure fairness to all concerned.
NBI and The Objectivist had both employees and management. Presumably, they had internal rules, including, thanks to Rand herself, an entire code of ethics. (Regulations need not be posted in the lunchroom.)
Were any of these “trials” proceedings of this sort? It is impossible to say from the Branden account. The Brandens seem to imply that, since an ethical judgment is being made in the context of an informal hearing, this is somehow in itself proof of a Stalinist show-trial or “kangaroo court.” (All you attorneys can stop laughing now.)
Unfortunately, neither of the Brandens reveals the actual nature of their complaint. Is it: A) The very fact of such meetings; B) The ethical and/or psychological standards Mr. Branden used at such meetings; C) The way Mr. Branden conducted the meetings; or, D) The way Rand chuckled at one of them? These issues are all so blurred that the reader cannot tell. Perhaps the Brandens are simply organizational anarchists. We don’t know, and they never tell us.
But defining these issues is the necessary precondition before any determination can be made that some line had been crossed. Otherwise, it is impossible to say whether something inappropriate was going on at this meeting or not.
The only certainty is that the Brandens are more eager to imply that the Objectivist movement, with Rand’s tacit approval, had gotten out of hand than they are capable of substantiating their own claim.
What they reveal without intending to is that Mr. Branden's behavior, if anyone's at all, was by far the worst.
Branden says that “Ayn and I caused a great deal of guilt and suffering.” But he still seems not to have come to terms with the extent of the specific blame he, as opposed to Rand, might have had in the suffering of others. Although he called these meetings, “prosecuted” them and “delivered the verdicts,” and although Rand was apparently most times not even present, he was just being Rand’s “enforcer,” a role that she had never asked him to assume and the particulars of which she was kept largely unaware.
Mr. Branden even admits that, compared to him, Rand “was often the freest in communicating positive feelings toward her friends; in some moods she was kinder and more emotionally expressive than anyone else in our group.” He does not appear to recognize the implications of this for his own arguments.
As indicated, this single example of such a “trial” hardly proves that Rand used psychological theories to torture people—or moral theories to persecute people. Everyone present was an adult, who was there voluntarily; of that there is no dispute.
And, if this was the extreme—perhaps astonishing—case of Ayn Rand's “lack of empathy” with her students, then, on balance, the woman looks to have been a saint.
* * * * * * * *
Another indication, the Brandens tell us, that Rand was a psychological tormentor is the extent to which a number of Rand's students found themselves repressing their “true selves,” in order to live up to the alleged ideals of Objectivism.
Ms. Branden relates that once she mentioned to Rand that she liked to look at the mountains and ocean. Rand asked why, and Ms. Branden explained that their changelessness gave her a sense of peace. Rand noted that she preferred “man made” things like skyscrapers and suggested that the preference for nature over man stems from a tragic “dust in the wind” sense of life. Although Ms. Branden knew “that some part of what [Rand] said was true,” she felt uncomfortable at the discussion of her own psychology.
Another evening, Ms. Branden relates, she expressed an admiration for novelist Thomas Wolfe, about whom Rand had very definite opinions. “With devastating logic... [Rand] demonstrated Wolfe's shortcomings with regard to precisely the elements of fiction I had agreed were essential.”
Both of these events occurred quite early in her relationship with Rand.
Ms. Branden reports, however, that she was never able “to tear out of myself my passionate response to Thomas Wolfe's novels.” Instead, she says, she learned to repress her true artistic tastes and, indeed, many of her natural emotions. What she told Rand was “I agree”; what her heart told herself was, “But I don't!” In plain English: she lied to Rand about her feelings.
Ms. Branden claims that Rand later began to demand agreement “even in areas of subjective preference,” if not explicitly, then implicitly. Nathaniel Branden confirms that from the very beginning of his relationship with Rand, it was clear that Rand attached a deep significance to a person's aesthetic tastes.
If someone expressed an artistic value not shared by Rand, she might actually say things like: “not my kind of person,” or “not my sense of life.” Rand even once said of a student who enjoyed Mozart and Beethoven, “That's why there will always be a wall between us. Our souls are essentially different.”
The fascist implications speak for themselves.
Both Brandens tell us that many of Rand's students found themselves becoming comprehensive emotional repressors, smothering their “true selves” in an effort to be properly “Objectivist.”
If so, was this Rand's fault? If, as they say, they knew from the outset that Rand attached significance to these matters, then was it not for them to be honest about their own feelings, rather than smile and nod their agreement? Whatever psychological label they place on it, the effect on Rand was dishonesty. If they deceived themselves, they surely also—by their own admission—systematically deceived Rand, as well.
Notice, too, that, as in the case of the Mozart lover, such differences did not cause a “break.” They apparently did not even cause the moral condemnation for which Rand was allegedly famous. According to the Brandens' own reports, the only quoted reaction Rand had was one of personal dislike, “not my kind of person,” and such. it is also worth noting that such a spiritual “wall” did not prevent Rand from designating Leonard Peikoff, a lover of jazz music, her heir. Why did the Brandens feel the need to repress? Simply in order to be regarded by Rand as “one of her kind of people” and in order to claim to Rand that they shared with her a certain spiritual affinity.
This cannot be ascribed to any “authoritarian” tendencies of Rand, but rather to the dishonest and sycophantic tendencies of the Brandens.
An entirely different account of how Rand approached esthetic differences is given by Mary Ann Sures in her memoir, Facets of Ayn Rand. Mrs. Sures relates that she liked a certain painting by Cezanne but “couldn't put [her] finger” on what she liked about it. So she asked Rand, who she knew definitely did not like Cezanne. Mrs. Sures tells us that this is what happened:
"[Rand] asked me if I could tell her why I liked it. I don't remember all that I said. I recall talking about two things: the secluded, peaceful setting, and the sharp contrast between the sunlight and shade in the painting—what [Rand] called 'stylized sunlight.' [Rand] said she could understand why I was responding to that aspect of it...
"The value of that discussion was her stress on the importance of understanding the reasons behind artistic preferences. Doing so puts you in touch with yourself, and you identify your basic values in the process."
So, as the Brandens and their friends were suppressing their true selves in order to impress Rand as being “her kind of person,” Mrs. Sures, not trying to impress, was actually discovering her true self—and not resenting Rand in the process.
Leonard Peikoff insightfully refers to those former associates of Rand who “chafed under the necessity of suppressing their real sel[ves] in order to keep up the pretense of intellectual passion.”
Ms. Branden states the obvious when she frankly admits “we could've said: ‘Enough!’ and walked away.” The Brandens' credibility as witnesses against Rand the Authoritarian would have been greatly enhanced if they had done so. Instead of the Brandens' leaving Rand with the exasperated comment, “I can't take all this moralizing and this implicit demand for absolute agreement,” it was the Brandens who were both shown the door by Rand. It was Rand who chose not to “oppress” the Brandens, anymore.
Another of the terrible psychological weapons in Rand’s arsenal was praise, and here we can see Rand at her most cruel, it seems.
Ms. Branden reports that Rand once told her that she expected “world shaking achievements... miracles” from Ms. Branden and that she was convinced that Ms. Branden was “going to be a great writer.”
Ms. Branden says that no one, “not even Ayn,” could have seen a “great” writer from what she had shown Rand. This is surely true, but does Ms. Branden now resent the generous encouragement she was being given by a famous writer?
Nathaniel Branden recalls that Rand once described him as John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, “except for a few blemishes.” He actually blames Rand’s obviously unrealistic view of him for the “erratic behavior [he exhibited] with Ayn during this period.”
And Edith Efron, an associate of Branden in those days, agrees that he was “murdered by flattery,” that is, he was a social metaphysician (one whose beliefs and values are determined, not by one’s own judgment, but by that of others) as the noted psychologist—who helped to articulate this term—might have diagnosed himself.
Rand’s opinion was clearly in error, but Branden himself was in a better position to know just how much Rand was mistaken here. It was his responsibility to correct Rand in this matter rather than to continue what he knew to be a fraud for several more years, as he did, and then, after her death, to characterize her unconsciousness of certain personal facts as “appalling.”
Efron also calls Branden a “con man.”
Rand is attacked not just because she denounced people so harshly but also because she praised them so effusively. This kind of polar reaction was true for all Rand’s values—not just people—and it is, therefore, unfair to regard this as a kind of conscious manipulation, as Efron implies.
It seems that Rand just can’t win.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The principal evidence which Ms. Branden can produce that Rand ever made any “implicit demand” for total agreement consists of the so-called “purges” of certain close associates, those occasions when Rand terminated her association with a friend or student for ethical or ideological reasons. The Brandens, themselves, of course, fall into this category.
While it is true that most people will rarely, if ever, consciously terminate a relationship on the grounds of ethics or, more accurately, rarely label it in that fashion, people will frequently break up over insults, lies, infidelities, slights to one’s dignity, and generally losing one’s respect for the other person. Without the philosophically explicit concepts to which Rand related everything in her life, this is called “human nature,” and it is not usually compared to Stalin’s behavior, no matter how harshly it is verbalized.
Another chief difference was that Rand made her reasons clear, and left no doubt in those concerned as to the cause of the break. And it was a clear break. There was no cruel snubbing, no cowardly backstabbing, no secretive blacklisting. In this sense, Rand gave those she passionately disagreed with the respect of an explanation of her reasons and a complete context to her position, something quite uncommon.
Ayn Rand was a philosopher. And she was a philosopher who believed that philosophy mattered to life on earth—from art and politics to the most prosaic and everyday concerns. Rand strove for integrity, and so she applied her thinking to everything in her life.
Rand was, in particular, a moralist. Her philosophy, in large part, explicates a new system of ethics. In her writing and lecturing, and, certainly, in her private life, Rand was given to making moral judgments. The gusto with which Rand judged people was certainly no greater than many of the writers of our morally-relativistic age. For example, Norman Mailer’s and Susan Sontag’s condemnations of America in the wake of 9-11, because they are on the left of the spectrum, are not regarded as moralistic or intolerant.
In any event, Rand, at least in print, always gave the specific reasons for her judgments, which could often, at first blush, appear harsh. Her clarity, though, gave every reader the option to accept or reject these judgments for themselves.
Moral judgment is a complex business with any code of ethics, and Ayn Rand had just articulated a revolutionary new code. Rand was acutely aware of the necessity to pass moral judgments only on the voluntary actions of those who actually had a choice. She realized that a person’s emotions are outside of the person’s direct volitional control, and they are, thus, outside of the province of moral condemnation or praise. In her books, Rand made it a moral principle to distinguish between “errors of knowledge” and “breaches of morality.” In principle, only conscious evil and willful evasion actually merited Rand’s angry denunciation. And, in many cases, passing judgments can be a difficult matter, requiring information about an individual’s particular context of knowledge and circumstances, as Rand repeatedly acknowledges.
A passage from Rand’s private notes to herself eloquently expresses her approach to moral judgment in this respect, here in the context of her growing doubts about Nathaniel Branden:
"If I know that I cannot accept his present attitude, why don’t I break with him now? Because I do not understand his attitude. Because I must first understand."
For Rand, understanding was the sine qua non of ethical evaluation.
Rand also understood the absurdity of any attempt to force a mind. She argued that force and mind were opposites. Thinking, she believed, was a capacity only possessed by an individual. Each of us must think for ourselves and not yield our judgment to anyone or anything, even if, like Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead, we must stand alone against the entire world.
Rand was articulating a new philosophy, one that was being continually misrepresented by the media in what both of the Brandens acknowledge were grossly unfair ways. In one of the great moments of journalistic mendacity, The National Review, for example, reviewing Atlas Shrugged, compared Rand’s ideas to Nazism, when, of course, Rand was a passionate advocate of freedom and herself a refugee from totalitarianism. Rand was justifiably concerned with giving the media any cause to be right, and she took great care with respect to her ideological endorsements.
There were unauthorized attempts to use the names of the heroes of Rand’s novels in commercial projects, and a few of Rand’s former students, most notably Murray Rothbard, began advocating anarchism as a political doctrine. Under such circumstances, it was hardly paranoid on Rand’s part to explicitly announce who did and did not have her sanction, who could speak for Rand and who was only “a student of Objectivism,” whatever resentments this might engender.
Such resentment is curious in itself. If Rand really was a monster—or if Rand was just wrong about something—then why resent Rand for calling the relationship off? Accept the fact, vive la difference, and move on. Even, perhaps, be grateful.
When Rand broke with someone, she usually did it privately, as with the Rothbard faction—the sole exception (apart from the Brandens) being the brief note in The Objectivist which informed readers that Edith Efron was no longer associated with Rand or Objectivism in 1967. Rand thereafter declined further comment. Only the case of the Brandens’ would cause Rand to write an extensive piece, which we will consider in chapter four. But then, the Brandens, too, were not to be heard about again, apart from a brief “Legal Notice” regarding the later marketing of the Brandens’ NBI courses.
It should be repeated that Rand could have significant personal or ideological differences with someone she had known and still praise that person’s work. When she ended a relationship, it did not always end with any kind of formal “break.” Ms. Branden herself says that John Chamberlain, Henry Hazlitt, William Mullendore and Albert Mannheimer are just some of those with whom Rand’s deteriorating relationships are better described as “losing contact” but remaining on friendly terms with them. In all of these cases and others, if a writer was involved, Ms. Branden acknowledges that Rand continued to praise and recommend their books, whatever her past differences with these people had been, for the rest of her life.
Nathaniel Branden agrees that although Rand had become estranged from Isabel Paterson, with whom she had been quite close, this “in no way diminished Ayn’s appreciation of [Paterson's] book.” On the other hand, Rand’s disillusionment with Mannheimer, Branden concedes, did not “occasion a permanent rift.” He points out that Rand could admire an artist’s skill even while having profound objections to his philosophy—and even if she disliked the work, as in the case of Tolstoy and others. He observes that Rand, quite explicitly, did not seek ideological agreement from her business associates, such as her publisher. He points out that, even during the heyday of the “movement,” Rand was quite capable of a friendship with composer and music critic Deems Taylor, “without requiring that he be a convert.”
As many others have observed, it was only with closer intellectual associates, those to whom Rand had given a higher ideological endorsement, that “official” breaks happened—and for perfectly understandable reasons.
The Brandens both assert that Rand was “constantly moralizing.” But the moral judgments which most concern the Brandens, and the ones, they say, that reveal the most about Rand, are the ones Rand passed on the people she knew best, starting with the Brandens themselves.
“Ayn was often 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.” Several people “crossed that line,” among her students and later intellectual associates.
Professor Murray Rothbard, Edith Efron and Professor John Hospers all “suffered” such “excommunications” in the years while the Brandens were still with Rand. Mr. Branden, of course, tells us that he participated in each of these.
Then came the break with the Brandens themselves. Several others would follow them.
The proceeding years saw the emergence of the Libertarian Party, which Rand denounced from the outset for many reasons, including its lack of a philosophical base, indeed, its apparent contempt for philosophy as such, and its alliances with anarchists, foreign policy appeasers and various other questionable persons. Many of Rand’s former students and exponents now found a home there, completing their own journeys away from “orthodox Objectivism.” Hospers became that Party’s first presidential candidate and Rothbard its most ardent propagandist.
The Brandens, along with many others, believe that Rand was intolerant and “close-minded” because she denounced the Libertarian Party. To them this Party’s domestic platform seems to be so close to Rand’s own views that her failure to endorse it can only be construed as overly suspicious, perhaps even authoritarian. Rand’s failure to endorse (or even read) the writings of former associates, and others, whose work appears related to Rand’s own work—if not actually based on it—strikes Ms. Branden as “perhaps the clearest” evidence of Rand’s “underlying despair and pessimism.”
But whoever Ms. Branden believes should have gotten it, Rand held her endorsement, her “sanction,” dear.
Unlike Libertarians, Rand could not make common-cause with anarchists and those who would unilaterally disarm America. Nor could Rand continue to endorse the work of people she personally knew to be dishonest—like the Brandens. Nor would Rand cozy up to the close colleagues of such people. In all these ways Rand certainly had a “closed mind.” She was an intellectual individualist, not a fellow traveler.
These “differences” are not so trivial as the critics suppose. They were certainly not trivial to Rand. But, rather than simply disagreeing with Rand over, say, the importance of systematic honesty in forming political and intellectual alliances, they accuse Rand of “intolerance.”
Owing so much to her, Libertarian disappointment over Rand’s failure to endorse their efforts is understandable. Predictable accusations that Rand was “closed-minded,” “suspicious” and “authoritarian,” from the same quarter nonetheless still seem childishly petulant (and rather ironic), coming from the party of so-called “individualists.”
Precisely what kind of “individualist” is it who would feel compelled to swallow all of her principles and convictions in order to be considered “open minded”—or who must join the crowd in order to avoid the risk of being called “intolerant”?
Murray Rothbard, apart from being an anarchist, was clearly using ideas he got from Rand in scholarly articles without crediting his own source for the material, and he continued to do so throughout his career.
In his own defense, Professor Rothbard would dig up an isolated point from some previous philosopher, usually very obscure, who had said something similar to Rand on a topic such as free will—but Rothbard’s own first source for the point was invariably (and quite obviously) Rand.
Under the all-pervasive influence of two giants such as Rand and Mises, Rothbard’s anarchism almost strikes one as a form of desperate self-assertion.
From Rand’s philosophical perspective, either his anarchism or his plagiarism would each and together seem to justify her break with Rothbard.
While Rand would publish nothing explicitly directed to this "break," Rothbard did publish a bitter, darkly humorous attack on Rand and her circle. When the author asked Professor Rothbard about this essay in 1982, he frankly indicated that his “Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult” was “highly fictionalized.” For example, no one was ever “excommunicated” from Rand's circle for not liking the music of Rachmaninoff as Rand did, as he had alleged. Rothbard was himself explicitly aware of the dishonesty of his attack.
Professor John Hospers, according to the Brandens, was taken to task for certain “sarcastic” and “professorial” criticisms of Rand in a classroom setting, although, once again, neither of the Brandens chooses to relate any of the specifics. Although still unable to provide the relevant details, Hospers himself was more forthcoming, although hardly satisfying.
In a 1990 memoir published in Liberty magazine, Hospers said that he was being "if not openly critical, at least challengingly exegetical” of Rand, but he was still no more obliging than the Brandens had been about the content of that challenge. However, eight years later, Hospers admitted that it had included certain “mild criticisms” of Objectivism.
In that 1998 article, Hospers, a specialist in esthetics, recalled being “publicly” critical of Rand’s view that every work of art conveys a “sense of life” (i.e., that art expresses some view of reality, a “metaphysics,” even if that view is conveyed in purely emotional terms and held only subconsciously—even by the artist himself.) Apparently, Hospers had also maintained that “what we say about sense of life depends on the language we use” to convey it (i.e., that our understanding of metaphysics— reality—“depends on” language.)
Hospers conceded that these were topics which he had been discussing with Rand for some time—indeed, from their first meetings—and that he knew that such a “linguistic” approach to ideas was fundamentally abhorrent to Rand. Hospers also says that he remains mystified as to specifically what had triggered Rand’s reaction. He tells us, “I never discovered what there was about my remarks that made her ‘go ballistic.’” We are, thus, still left almost entirely in the dark as to Rand’s perspective on this event.
Hospers does not give us the smallest clue as to what Branden might have found “sarcastic.”
The relevant details cannot be such a mystery to the Brandens, for it was Mr. Branden himself who proceeded to “read the riot act” to Hospers according to Branden’s own account. (Of course, neither Hospers nor Branden provide us with any of the specifics of that “riot act”—which might at least have provided some insight into Rand’s position at the time—Hospers does not even mention Branden’s complaints.) Mr. Branden’s total failure to provide any of the actual content of the issues involved in her break with Hospers is another glaring instance of Branden suppressing important evidence.
From the published portions of their correspondence, what is clear is that Ayn Rand and John Hospers had profound differences in the field of epistemology regarding all of its most basic questions. With methodological approaches at such variance, it is not surprising that they eventually separated. This is especially predictable, given the enormous importance which Rand attached to epistemological issues. They are no less than the fundamental preconditions of further thought or discussion, in Rand's view.
Unfortunately, we may never know the specifics behind their break.
As for Efron, neither of the Brandens says they can even remember why they split with her at all. Branden merely relates his own distress at Efron's “anger and sarcasm”—but leaves it there.
However, Mr. Branden was no more specific about the details of the break with Ms. Efron–even in 1971, although he was then claiming no inability to remember (see “Break Free,” Reason, p. 14.) The most detail on the cause of Efron’s departure with Rand has so far been suggested by Tuccille, who mentions only a personal and “biting remark” Efron had made about Rand—and within earshot of Rand. We are still not given the content or nature of this personal insult, or its surrounding context (see Tuccille, Alan Shrugged, p. 73.)
It seems that the clarity of the Brandens’ memory depends upon how friendly they later were with the individuals involved, for while Ms. Branden later reconciled with Hospers and Efron, as Branden later did with Hospers, neither were ever associated with Rothbard again. But, from the historian’s perspective, all the key evidence is entirely lacking in the Brandens’ accounts of the Efron and Hospers cases. (Unfortunately, Rand’s private journal entries throw no additional light on these issues, either.)
Hospers and the Brandens all stop at the observation that intellectual views could cause moral indignation on Rand’s part, if she knew the person’s context of knowledge, the context which informed the person’s behavior. This seems to them overly moralistic on the face of it. But not to Rand.
According to Objectivism, believing something is an act of will—assenting to logic and evidence is a moral decision. Going “out of focus” or evading is all too common, but it can be volitionally corrected. An intellectual position can, therefore, be immoral if it is a product of such evasion.
To determine in any particular case whether someone’s belief in false ideas stems from a moral failure or not, of course, requires knowledge about the person involved. What does the person know—e.g., has a communist lived in a cave for the last century or is he aware of the slaughter of millions and the enslavement of millions more under the various experiments with communism? In common parlance, should the person “know better?”
There is no point continuing a conversation with someone who cannot or will not acknowledge reality—as opposed to someone who is willing but struggling.
With Rothbard, the case is clear: intellectual larceny and anarchism. With Hospers and Efron, the missing details, never offered, are obviously crucial.
As usual, the Brandens’ failure to recollect or to be specific is telling. They both dismiss any actual reasons Rand might have had for such a break, and chalk it up to Rand’s unfair and authoritarian nature, the same nature that “persecuted” them. They assume that the policy of breaking with someone in a permanent way is in itself somehow authoritarian. “My gosh, for purely ideological reasons?”
Of course, it is not, and the reasonableness of such an action depends upon all of the circumstances—the very circumstances left out of the Brandens’ accounts. They do not let the reader judge for himself, and it is specifics that are essential for us to make any final judgment regarding Rand’s alleged “implicit demands for absolute agreement,” much less hypocrisy on Rand’s part. We should not have to take the Brandens and their friends on faith.
As indicated, both Brandens seem to assume that such a “break” constitutes some form of persecution. Ayn Rand does not want to see you anymore, and, therefore, your rights have been violated. Rand may have had more to give and/or receive from these relationships, but she surely did not have to accept the exchange on any terms other than her own. And, according to Objectivism, this is not for anyone but her to determine.
Ms. Branden complains that “however much [Rand] previously had projected love and affection, one was always potentially on trial with her. At any time, an action, an emotion, a conviction that she deemed irrational, could result in an explosion of anger,” and that one “teetered constantly on the edge of moral depravity.”
However overstated, though, such is the nature of human volition. No matter how good someone has been in the past, he is still capable of bad behavior. No matter how bad, he is still capable of a good deed. It is true that people get into habits, develop character, such that you can begin to predict someone you know well. But even then, you can be surprised.
And you can also be deceived.
Nathaniel Branden writes that when someone had done something to displease Rand, “it was as if all history and context vanished... She gave her unconditional acceptance to no one.” In Ms. Branden's words, “Rand retroactively demoted” or “rewrote” the history of a friendship that had gone sour. One can only wonder if Nathaniel Branden ever grasps the irony of his own literal rewrite of his former friends.
But when you discover that a friend has systematically deceived you—for example, when he misleads you into thinking that he is something he is not—a total reevaluation is in order. By the Brandens’ accounts, it seems, Rand could never have been wrong about a person’s character, as she surely was wrong about the Brandens. Any new or corrected opinion must be a dishonest, retroactive “demoting.”
So, although the Brandens concede that Rand’s original opinion of them was way too high, they also bitterly complain when Rand corrects that view. History has been rewritten, in other words, if I'm no longer John Galt.
In addition, Nathaniel Branden seems to have forgotten that “unconditional love” is a contradiction to the entire ethics of Objectivism. Branden’s apparent rejection of so fundamental a point requires a better account than he gives of it.
Following the Brandens’ departure, to which we will turn our attention in the next chapter, there were several more “breaks,” among which were: Allan and Joan Blumenthal, Erika and Henry Mark Holzer, Philip and Kay Nolte Smith.
In many of these cases, it is clear that profound intellectual differences were emerging between Rand and the person involved, but it does not appear that those differences were the proximate cause of the split with Rand.
For example, Henry Holzer, an attorney and legal scholar, has forthrightly endorsed the conservative “strict interpretation” of the U.S. Constitution, like Robert Bork. In contrast, according to several of her associates, Rand endorsed a more expansive view of the unenumerated rights, such as abortion. Allan Blumenthal, a psychiatrist, has asserted that literally “all of Objectivism” was the product of Rand’s efforts to cope with her own psychology. He thus appears to have endorsed a form of psychological determinism—entirely rejecting, it seems, the possibility of objective cognition, a rather fundamental tenet of Objectivism.
Such differences, while they certainly would have justified Rand in breaking with these men—if only to defend and protect the integrity of Objectivism—do not appear to have been decisive. Indeed, it was not Rand who ended the relationship with either of them, but, rather, it was they who left Rand.
Despite the fact that Ms. Branden herself relates the Blumenthals' account, most writers dependent on The Passion of Ayn Rand nonetheless suggest that it was Rand who had initiated these breaks. In his recent history of the libertarian movement, Brian Doherty, citing Ms. Branden, flatly states that Rand "kicked out of her life" all but two of her original "Collective"–Greenspan and Peikoff. (See, Radicals for Capitalism, p.232.)
However, these last can hardly be called “excommunications,” yet, somehow, they are still evidence, in Ms. Branden's view, of Rand's intolerance. Perhaps this is why such historians have been led astray.
In lectures and interviews, both the Blumenthals and the Holzers have endorsed the portrait drawn by Ms. Branden of Rand the Authoritarian. This has not deterred the Blumenthals from their own policy of ostracizing Nathaniel Branden (who is Dr. Blumenthal’s first cousin)—in 1996, they severed all association with an organization which had invited Branden to speak. And Professor Holzer, at least in the Sixties, is described by Branden as having a particularly zealous approach to Objectivism and “a style that made even Ayn appear tame by comparison.”
Intolerance, it seems, is everywhere.
As for the Smiths, their story is curiously absent from Ms. Branden’s account, just as the Holzers's is not to be found.
In the 1970s the Smiths produced an off-Broadway revival of Rand’s play, Penthouse Legend. When the play had been originally produced under the title, The Night of January 16th, about forty years previously, Rand had waged a difficult and emotional battle to keep her dialogue intact. This history was well known to the Smiths.
Presumably, they also knew that Rand had convinced Jack Warner himself to order Gary Cooper to deliver each word of Rand’s screenplay for The Fountainhead. Rand had even threatened to dissociate herself from the production if The Fountainhead was not shot exactly as written. According to one exaggerated account, Rand threatened to "blow up the studio"–imitating the novel's hero.
Such a famous reputation might be counted on to provide caution to those who would take liberties with this author's text. Not so with Kay Nolte Smith and her husband, who, in an act exhibiting unbelievably reckless judgment, changed the dialogue in their production of Penthouse Legend without authorization from Rand. Knowing Rand's history had left no inkling that Rand herself might wish to be consulted on any change in her poetic language. That the new production was intended to be, in effect, "the author's cut"–a correction of that painful history–did not suggest to them that they first ask Rand about it, either. In such an instance of systematic and personal betrayal, a break was at least understandably in order, simply on the basis of their callous indifference to Rand's personal history, if not to her artistic integrity–however minor the changes.
While Ms. Branden relates the story of the play’s production and the role of the Smiths on that production, we are told nothing about the actual causes of this break. We are told that Rand broke with them—“how typical of Ayn”—but we are not given the benefit of Rand’s side.
Ms. Branden is almost as adept at suppressing evidence as she is at creating it ex nihilo.
It should come as no surprise that this list of “former” Rand-associates, Rothbard, Efron, Hospers, the Blumenthals, the Holzers and the Smiths, while they may not have gotten along with one another afterwards, all helped to contribute to Ms. Branden's biography, as her “Acknowledgments” indicate.
Understandably, those who remained friendly with Rand did not make themselves available for Ms. Branden to interview.
All those with whom Rand had a “break” share precisely the same bias and precisely the same interest in presenting Rand as an “authoritarian” as do the Brandens. Ms. Branden’s book appears to have been the receptacle for all the stories most likely to demonstrate Rand’s alleged injustices to each of them individually and collectively, but none that might explain Rand's side.
Thus, the information sources used by Ms. Branden share a distinct perspective on Rand. Rather than mitigating the effect of the author's personal bias, their contributions merely magnify it.
While most of these individuals have themselves given talks or have been interviewed about their relationships with Rand, none of them appears able (or willing) to provide any facts or details that cannot also be found in Ms. Branden’s biography, apart from two or three new anecdotes.
Even the missing anecdotes appear to have been weighed carefully for possible inclusion before being omitted. The Passion of Ayn Rand seems to represent their collective “best shot” at Rand.
Those anecdotes, however, are interesting, not in what they reveal about Rand so much as what they reveal about Rand's critics and the similarity of their perspectives.
Kay Nolte Smith relates that she once hosted a New Year's Eve Party to which Rand and her husband were invited. Smith decided that they should play the party game where the guests are challenged to identify their fellow guests from baby pictures. Smith recalls the exaggerated concern Rand expressed for the photo of her husband—it was apparently the only baby picture of him that she possessed.
According to Smith, Rand expressed a worry that the picture would be damaged in duplication, that Smith might be robbed, and even that Smith could be hit by a taxi crossing the street with it. Smith's conclusion: “[Rand] really was paranoid about practical reality.”
The familiar Brandenian diagnosis does not necessarily fit the evidence here, and perhaps this is why even Ms. Branden did not share the experience—or Mrs. Smith’s conclusion—with her readers.
Such a diagnosis might be plausible within a pattern of similar behavior in other matters, but Rand's alleged alienation from “practical reality” is a rather forced explanation of Rand’s fear for the photo. It is more easily explained by her intense romantic attachment to her husband, of whom she possessed only one irreplaceable baby photo. A different mentality might actually be touched by the story. But, of course, any psychological “explanations” here are merely guesses. Mrs. Smith’s guesses are guesses of the identical sort that the Brandens have published, even if they don’t quite fit.
Edith Efron recalls that Rand once launched into “a thunderous tirade” during a door-to-door magazine pitch. “Do you expect me to finance them after the slime they’ve printed about me?”
Rand had a definite set of negative epithets (whim-worshiper, etc.). The word “slime” is not a word Rand commonly used, indeed, used more than once or twice in her vast corpus of writings. This uncharacteristic language casts intrinsic doubt on the accuracy of Efron’s account. Moreover, the story does not reveal the “insanity” that Efron suggests, even if it is credible. Many might have acted the same way.
As previously noted, Rand was being compared in those days to the Nazis by America’s foremost conservative magazine, The National Review. Rand’s overreaction may have had an undeserved effect on the magazine salesmen, but Rand certainly had an honest gripe against many magazines. In my view, door-to-door solicitors must surely be prepared for a lot worse.
The same distorting pettiness and ax-grinding which the Brandens have perfected to an art can be detected in Miss Efron’s case, as well.
This is the kind of evidence that we are given for the alleged madness and "intolerance" in Rand's treatment of others–and, once more, the information fails to match the characterizations of it.
Does the sheer number of Rand’s personal breaks in itself indicate that Rand was too judgmental? It is important to recall that Rand's breaks with her “non Objectivist” associates did not involve permanent “excommunications” nor the total rejection of their work. As previously indicated, only those who might themselves be confused with Rand or her ideas drew such denunciations. Even then, it was rare for Rand to publish comment about it.
The answer seems to be that many of Rand’s radical ideas and methodology could not be easily grasped even by some of her brightest students, and that Rand strove hard not to be confused with those with whom she had developed philosophical disagreements.
* * * * * * * * * * *
By far the Brandens’ strongest case, at least their best documented case, for Rand the Intellectual Tyrant—believe it or not—involves Rand’s occasionally harsh answers during question-and-answer periods following a lecture. The Brandens not only provide examples, they provide different examples in some detail. Moreover, these events were witnessed by others. Readers of the Branden biographies will appreciate that this is a remarkably rare alignment of factors, and—to give credit where it is due—this is the first instance where we have at least the suggestion of credibility.
Ms. Branden concedes: “In the first years of the lectures, Ayn’s appearance at question periods was an event eagerly anticipated by the students. She was usually courteous, considerate, and painstaking in her response if a question seemed to her valid and intelligent; the students recognized the enormous compliment to them which her attitude projected, her assumption that they required and would respond only to a rational argument.”
And Mr. Branden, after acknowledging that Rand's presence was “enormously helpful” to the early success of NBI, reluctantly admits: “There were, of course, question-and-answer sessions when Ayn was warm, friendly, benevolent, charming. Once, when a student apologized for the naiveté of some question, she told him encouragingly, ‘There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.’”
In Rand’s view, there were, however, dishonest questions.
Mr. Branden says: “In the question periods following my lectures, she often became angry with any question she felt should not have been asked, perhaps because it had been answered in Atlas Shrugged, or perhaps because she believed that any honest person would figure it out for himself. Most of our students seemed to love her; but sometimes she could be terrifying.”
Ms. Branden continues: “But if [Rand] did not believe the question to be valid and intelligent, she was scathing in her denunciation; her anger, she would insist, was rationally justified moral indignation. A young man asked: ‘How can you expect everyone to be rational and to arrive at correct philosophical conclusions, if they have not been taught rationality and have not been exposed to a philosophy of reason?’ Ayn exploded, ‘I did it myself! No one taught me how to think!’ The student later said to his friends, ‘How can she have it both ways? How can she consider herself a great innovator, yet insist that everyone should arrive at the conclusions she did?’”
It is possible that the questioner had not grasped that Rand's morality does not require the understanding of complex or innovative ideas in order for a person to be judged as being moral. Rand believed that everyone—not just intellectual giants—could absorb the virtues of rationality, and honesty, and a respect for the rights of others.
Of course, every great discoverer of knowledge, from Aristotle to Newton, had every right “to expect that everyone should arrive” at his improved conclusions, even though he was also a “great innovator”—he was right. It was the discoverer's contemporaries who should have demonstrated patience, not the innovators.
It is more likely that the questioner did understand all of these things and was simply balking at Rand’s claim to have actually discovered a fully rational code of ethics. The hostility apparent in the follow-up question also suggests the hostility latent in the first inquiry. Did the questioner really expect to be answered?
Sensing this potential dishonesty in the question, Rand reacted with emotion.
As we have previously seen, Rand did not regard her achievement as resulting from her unusual intelligence, but her unusual honesty. And while Rand was convinced of her own historical significance, she did not go around calling herself “a great innovator.” This modesty was precisely the cause of her indignation.
Ms. Branden herself believes that Rand’s behavior in this regard is among the very gravest charges against her. She says that “[i]t was the question period... that gradually became the arena in which Ayn was especially bewildering and damaging to her students” as she would become, in Ms. Branden’s words, “enraged by an innocent questioner” and “lash out furiously at the hapless questioner.”
If this was “the arena” in which Rand was especially damaging to her students, then the notion that Rand was an intellectual authoritarian seems quite farfetched.
And, while Rand’s response was angry and sharp, the provided case is not an example of Rand being “enraged” or “lashing out” at “the hapless” at all. Ms. Branden cites the wife of Ludwig von Mises expressing her agreement that Rand was too harsh in her responses to students and tells us that Rand was gradually phased out of the question periods at NBI for this reason. Rand did, however, continue to answer questions following lectures—both her own and Leonard Peikoff’s—for several years to come.
Ms. Branden’s tendency for exaggeration is made clear from her descriptions of other Rand appearances. A good example is Rand’s first appearance on The Phil Donahue Show, and of this, on pages 391 and 392, Ms. Branden writes:
"It was a disaster. A young woman in the audience asked a question which made it clear that she thought her former admiration for Rand’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 their exchange." (emphasis added)
Fortunately, the videotape of this appearance is still available through The Ayn Rand Bookstore.
The person Ms. Branden calls "a girl” was clearly an adult. The “girl” started to ask a question about ITT's allegedly monopolistic control over "everything," but interrupted herself to say, “Fifteen years ago, I was impressed with your books, and I sort of thought your philosophy was proper. Today, I am more educated, and I find that if a company—”
Without “shouting,” Rand interrupted, “This is what I don't answer.”
To which Donahue replied, “Wait a minute, you haven't heard the question yet—”
Rand: “She's already estimated her position on my work—incidentally, displaying the quality of her brain. If today she says she is ‘more educated’ than...”
“Girl”: “I am more educated than I was fifteen years ago, before I went to college, before I read the newspapers...”
Rand: “I am not interested in your biography, in the context...” (At which the audience audibly moaned.)
The “girl” then proceeded to assert that in a free market “ITT and Nazi Germany” are somehow able to do "whatever they damn well please" because “ITT owns everything.”
When Donahue called upon the now silent Rand “to contribute,” she offered to answer the question if only someone else would ask it, saying, “I will not answer anyone who is impolite.” This elicited audience laughter.
Rand explained: “I do not sanction impoliteness, and I am not a victim of hippies.” (More laughter.) “That's where it started, this dropping of politeness in manners.”
Failing to see the insult implied by the question, Donahue took the position that Rand was equating any disagreement with impoliteness and proceeded to praise the questioner.
Going to commercial, Donahue cried out to Rand, “Don't be so sensitive!”
Rand called back, “I am going to be—I intend to be!”
In response to a later question asking how a woman “as intelligent” as Rand could be “so emotional in her approach,” Rand's response was calm and insightful:
“I did not come here to be judged. I came here to answer questions. A question asked in the following form: ‘I used to agree with you, but now that I am more educated, I don't,’ is an insult which I cannot sanction. I am not interested in the woman's history. She didn't have to begin it that way, and that's what I want to register my protest against.”
In total, the exchange could not have accounted for 10% of the show's time.
The fact that Donahue was blind to the gratuitous ad hominem within a question about ITT is not surprising. It is less understandable how Rand's comment about “the quality” of the questioner's brain should be taken as insult but not the “more educated” crack. It is a strange “one-way” street on which Donahue directed traffic.
In any event, Rand did not “shout” at “a girl,” but only refused to answer the condescending question of a grown woman. The appearance was not such a “disaster” as to prevent Rand from being invited back the following year. That appearance cannot boast even this type of minor “moment.”
Even more to her credit—and despite the obvious temptations—Rand is not said to have ever exploded at Phil Donahue or any other interviewer.
There were occasions when Rand could regret the intensity of her responses, according to Mr. Branden
"I recall an incident in which a man with a thick Hungarian accent began his question, 'In his speech, Galt contends that—' He never got any further because Ayn exploded. 'Galt does not contend,' she shouted, 'if you have read Atlas Shrugged, if you profess to be an admirer of mine, then you should know that Galt does not "strive," "debate," "argue," or "contend."' The man looked stricken. He pleaded, 'But Miss Rand, all I meant was—' Ayn thundered back at him, 'If you wish to speak to me, first learn to remember to whom and about what you are speaking!' Ayn was obsessed with clarity and precision ... but I did not feel sympathy for the passion in this instance; I thought it totally misapplied. The man sunk into his chair, embarrassed and defeated... Later when we were alone, I pointed out that the man had a foreign accent and probably was not aware of the nuances of meaning contained in the word 'contend.' 'I never thought of that,' Ayn replied, with a look of astonished, childlike innocence."
Rand quickly added, however, that she could not promise that it would not happen again.
Nor was this an isolated case, according to Branden. “Sometimes, Ayn would apologize for her outbursts.” In another context, Branden unwittingly sheds some light:
"[Rand] was convinced that ideas ruled the world and, consciously or subconsciously, ruled the life of every individual... Ideas mattered to her. No one could understand her who did not understand her conviction concerning the supreme importance of philosophy. If, for example, she heard a statement to the effect that man had no right to exist for his own sake, but exists only to serve society, or the state, or the race, or the planet—or if she heard a statement to the effect that reason is impotent to know reality, or that all value judgments are ultimately arbitrary, or that notions of good and evil are merely expressions of subjective emotion—she saw, concretely and specifically, the oceans of human blood that were spilled as a consequence of such beliefs—she saw Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia—and she reacted accordingly."
It is revealing that this observation is made in the context of observing that this “conviction concerning the importance of ideas could lend [Rand] enormous patience in intellectual discussions.”
Rand saw the error of moral relativism—and the moral cowardice that it implies. She realized that America's resolve and determination were sapped by such ideas. When anthropologists and historians come to a stage where they can no longer criticize the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, Rand knew something fatal had gone wrong.
As a prophylactic, Rand threw every ounce of her justifiable “intolerance”—every sincere ethical judgment she could muster—into the promiscuously “tolerant” culture she perceived around her.
The Brandens’ real problem with Rand is her moral (they would say “moralistic”) perspective. Just as Nathaniel Branden prefers “beneficial” and “harmful” to “good” and “bad” these days, so he reveals his distaste for most of Rand's ethical judgments.
Branden takes issue with Rand's approach in the “Introduction” to The Virtue of Selfishness. Rand states that she had been asked why she used the word “selfish” to denote virtue when many people might be alienated by it. “For the reason that makes you afraid of it,” was her response.
Branden asks, “What is accomplished by sounding a note of abusiveness on the first page?”
For anyone familiar with Rand's work, the answer is so apparent that Branden can only be intentionally omitting it. Rand is asking her readers for considerable moral courage to question the moral consensus of their age. She is asking them to join her in taking a position that has been stigmatized as evil itself.
And, if there is no word in the English language for the rational, principled pursuit of one's actual long-term interests, then isn't something being insidiously defined out of existence in the process? To anyone but the most spineless, Rand's approach can only be appreciated for its clarity.
Branden says this is merely a “mild version” of the same attitude Rand brought to the question periods. What he and his former wife actually object to is the field of ethics, the subject about which one might expect them to be most uncomfortable—given the revelations to come.
Leonard Peikoff has conceded that Rand's anger was sometimes “not justified,” and Peikoff admits that he was sometimes angered by this himself. However, he adds: “... I never saw her hold an unadmitted grudge. Her anger never festered unexpressed or turned into devious, brooding hatred. It was an immediate, open storm of indignant protest—then it was over. In this respect, she was the easiest person in the world to know and to deal with.”
And attorney Charles Sures has said, “[Rand's] expressions of anger were not the outbursts of someone run by wild and uncontrolled emotions. She didn't use anger to intimidate people, as bullies do. When she got angry it was precisely because she was a thinker and an evaluator who was certain of her convictions.” Sures agrees with Peikoff that Rand did not “simmer and stew”—she “came to an immediate boil”—and that “the anger didn't last. It was over almost as soon as it began.”
When asked about Rand's anger, Mary Ann Sures has said:
"One of the things I miss most [about Rand] is what we’ve been talking about—her anger and righteous indignation, and what it came from. 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 who 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."
To which Charles added, “And mine.”
It should also come as no surprise that nearly all of those who do not miss Rand’s anger are now also admirers of Ms. Branden's biography, for Ms. Branden’s tale of Rand the Repressive, Moralizing Monster is one to which all of these people can comfortably repair.
But, precisely to the extent that they have endorsed Ms. Branden's deeply flawed account, they are subject to an identical critique of their own distorted objectivity.
Pleasant or unpleasant, according to Objectivism, it is morally necessary to make appropriate ethical judgments of others. If this is what the Brandens and their friends now dispute, then they no longer believe in the basics of Rand’s ethics and should say so far more plainly, rather than accuse Rand of hypocrisy.
It is the Brandens’ responsibility as Rand biographers to provide us with all the significant examples of Rand’s unjust or inappropriate moral assessments. The examples must include enough information for their readers to pass their own judgment. Otherwise, we have nothing on which to base our agreement or disagreement, except the Brandens’ credibility and judgment—which we have seen, and will continue to see, is simply too suspect to provide a credible basis.
We have seen that each of the Brandens will distort and exaggerate the evidence, and that they have repeatedly suppressed vital evidence, and even that they will employ creativity in recollecting it. Both exhibit internal confusions and numerous self-contradictions. The only consistencies are the passionate biases that emanate from their own personal experiences. These factors all combine to render their biographical efforts useless to the serious historian.
As alleged “victims” of Rand’s “moralism,” they are hardly in a position to demand that we rely only upon their credibility and judgment when it comes to that alleged “moralism.” Yet, this is precisely what they do demand, and precisely what many of Rand’s critics have done.
One thing is certain, Ayn Rand is not for the morally squeamish. For those of us who believe that it is distortion not to identify values along with facts—those of us who get bored with so-called “serious” academic works on philosophy and politics—Rand is a welcome relief. When Rand complains of America's having “to apologize to any naked savage anywhere on the globe,” and you—like Branden—are “bothered,” then Rand is not for you.
Rand herself was a woman of certainty and absolute convictions, and she was a moralist. Rand was capable of fierce denunciations and even misplaced anger. However, she cannot, from the evidence provided by her detractors, be regarded as an intellectual tyrant.
[Interested readers are directed to the next chapter.]
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