Friday, March 21, 2014

The Good Objectivist -- Part Three

The Schism-Minded Objectivist

I had begun to doubt that I would ever write this blog post. In fact, I was glad that I didn't have to. In recent years I have not seen any sort of horrible behavior of the type that this post was intended to address. Either by accident or luck, I have been able to go about my business without crossing the path of many of the breed I call the "schism-minded". Oh, yes, there have been brushes with them but, on the whole, I've neither been targeted or asked to target others in any significant way.

Yet, sadly, today I see yet another Objectivist circular firing squad loading up and it saddens and infuriates me. And, so, the time has come for me to make clear what I've observed and concluded over the years regarding this particular breed of self-destructive and hostile personality.

This post is not meant as a defense or indictment of any particular Objectivist personality-- except, perhaps, those leaders and luminaries in the movement who foster or encourage this pathology. I will try not to name any names. Let's just see where the evidence leads and I'll let you make your own conclusions.

One last note before I dig in-- this is an analysis of a particular subculture and an exploration of what goes on in other people's minds. Therefore, it will inevitably indulge some armchair psychologizing. I'm not a psychologist and, frankly, I believe that the mix of philosophy and psychology that was promulgated in the early days of the movement is probably to blame for many of the cultural problems Objectivists have today. So, let me stress that in this context I am speaking for myself and for myself only, that I do not make any claims to be a medical authority, and I do not intend this to be interpreted as an exact science, but as an exploration and meditation on the dysfunction within our ranks. And, of course, I am speaking about outliers. This is no condemnation of Objectivists generally or even particularly. I have a fervent wish that the schism-minded are a small and eventually insignificant subset of a wonderful and thriving intellectual community.


The schism-minded Objectivist is, I believe, of greater threat to the future of Ayn Rand's legacy than any collectivist or mystic could be -- largely because he imports into Objectivism traits from both collectivism and mysticism.

First-- what is a 'schism'? It's a term from religion. It means:
a division or a split, usually between people belonging to an organization or movement, most frequently applied to a break of communion between two sections of Christianity that were previously a single body
We all want to belong. We all want to feel we are in the right place, with the right people, doing what's right for the right reasons. This is a common feature in all communities, cultures, and movements. Even in a culture of individuals -- who pride themselves on their individuality -- the desire to feel "at home" is strong. And along with the desire to belong comes the desire to keep out the interloper, the stranger, the impure, the enemy.

When we see this in tribal communities we recognize it immediately. If we see a dark-skinned person born into a group of albino natives we can instantly predict that he will become an object of fear, then anger-- and possibly be pushed from the group altogether. We recognize that any group that organizes itself by a non-essential characteristic -- by race, hair color, lineage, etc-- will expel any member that deviates from such narrow criterion.When I say "schism-minded", I mean an Objectivist who habitually causes such an event or who seeks out such divisions as a matter of policy, creating them where none existed before. 

The issue is most often purity.

The schism-minded objectivist is binary in his thinking. He will declare a certain issue to be non-negotiable, and then like Mickey Mouse hacking the magic broom in Fantasia's Sorcerer's Apprentice cartoon he divides and divides and divides, splitting the movement into tinier and tinier splinters. If he begins with a group of 100 Objectivists, the schism-maker will find wedge issues to divide them into two groups of fifty, then into groups of 25, or a dozen, until if he is lucky he is left with a few souls of sufficient purity to pass his test. 

This behavior has to be confronted and ended. The stakes could not be higher. If Objectivism has failed to change American culture significantly over the past 60 years, the schism-minded Objectivist is the cause.  If the western world collapses because good ideas go unheard, it is at the doorstep of the schism-minded Objectivist that I cast the blame.

Objectivists, I find, can be extraordinarily abstract-minded. They are comfortable with handling an enormous number of intellectual linkages. In most, it is simply a love of understanding, of piecing together the observations of a lifetime and focusing one's mind to identify, analyze, and solve the problems of life.

In some, however, intellectual labor becomes an escape from life not a tool for living it. These men and women treat Rand's work not as an explanation of reality but as reality itself. Ideas are not metaphysical, however. They are man-made. Whenever you talk of some abstract philosophical position, you are not actually talking about reality, but about a theory that hopes to identify some facet of reality.

Let's be clear: Objectivism is NOT reality. It is a powerful EXPLANATION of reality.
Where Objectivism fails to explain reality or contradicts it, that aspect of the philosophy must be discarded or put aside. Reality should be the primary focus, not philosophy. Existence is primary, not consciousness.

When discussing philosophy, we are discussing a set of powerful premises and concepts which organize and explain the facts around us. But philosophy cannot replace the living of life itself. It does a man or woman no good to spend a lifetime writing recipes if he never gets a chance to taste the cooking. Philosophy is a guide for living. Too often we are tempted to live to philosophize, which is a tragic reversal of the appropriate hierarchy of values. Sacrificing your life for the sake of Objectivism is a contradiction. A life given over to philosophy can too often become an escape from life, an escape from the concrete into the abstract, an escape from the messy and difficult metaphysical into the orderly and straightforward man-made.

So the first potential aspects of the schism-minded personality we can identify is rationalism, withdrawal into the abstract, and the treatment of an idea as an entity-- to protect ideas as if they were breakable china. These are potential pathologies of the intellectual life in general and of philosophy in particular.

What sort of behavior might we see from someone who has made this error? Rigidity, first of all. When you make ideas primary, questioning that idea will feel like questioning the existence of metaphysical fact. Questioning Church doctrine, to a priest, will feel like questioning the very fabric of reality. Questioning Objectivism, to an Objectivist rationalist, must feel like questioning existence itself.

But questioning per se does nothing to a set of ideas. All the mistakes of all the interpreters in all the centuries have not succeeded in making Aristotle mean the opposite of what he intended. As long as Rand's works exist, are in print, and are finding readers there is absolutely no threat to the ideas themselves -- if I say that ethical egoism is evil and Rand was a vicious monster-- have I changed the facts? Have I made ethical egoism evil? Have I made Rand a monster? No. I am incapable of altering facts with any action of my consciousness. Existence is primary, Rand is in print, and hysteria over 'attacks' and 'misrepresentations' is so much primacy of consciousness metaphysics. A long as you state your disagreement when nonsense is spoken in your presence, you've committed no sanction. It is not some duty to find and destroy every misrepresentation or 'faulty premise' in the world. You have to trust people to have minds and to be able to use them without your persistent training wheels.

We see the rationalist type continuously and voluminously attack living people and claim that they are 'defending Rand'. But isn't this ludicrous? Rand is dead. She has left behind works that are immortal. The works themselves are the property of the copyright holder. What information and concepts and clear thinking those works contain are not 'Rand's ideas' anymore. She is the discoverer of OUR ideas. You and I are here, now, on this earth. We are thinking and doing. We are the recipients of a grand inheritance, yes, but the man who inherits a million dollar estate does not go through life forever afterwards referring to his 'father's money'. WE are the existents, now. WE are the minds. Rand is the beloved and venerated discoverer and codifier of the ideas we hold, and we should never try to pass ourselves off as the discover of her system. But-- she is beyond harm or help now, she has no more battles to fight, cannot be hurt, cannot be offended, cannot be injured in the slightest. As long as Atlas and The Fountainhead and everything else are in print, her life's work is safe from anyone on earth -- from the Brandens or Kelley or Rachel Maddow. She is beyond their reach. We cannot perpetually act as if we stand over a sickbed, protecting the helpless invalid. Rand would despise being thought of that way. She is a giant, and always will be. But she is a historical figure now.

We cannot act irrationally in defense of a great advocate for reason.

To love Rand is to love someone who no longer exists, except in record and in her works. To love her work is memorial enough.  Is it important to leave a clear and unbiased record of her life and an honest biography? Yes. But not for her sake. She's not here. I wish she were but she's not. It is a religion that would act in this manner, as if its founder were just temporarily absent and still watched our doings. Rand is not the ever-living prophet who will return at the end of days. She does not watch us from the halls of Asgard. She will not judge the living and the dead. Let her go.

It is far more important that we treat each other -- the actual living beings who are on this earth right now-- with the utmost respect for justice, with consideration towards context, with fairness, reasonableness, forbearance. Toleration? Yes, towards any interpretation of Objectivism held honestly and with openness to questioning, and towards anyone who claims to have identified new applications or, yes, errors in the philosophy. Being reality-focused requires that we correct mistakes in the Randian framework, if such exist. Only rationalism demands that we defend every jot and riddle she ever wrote or spoke. A change in Objectivist thought is not a change in Objectivism. Objectivism will always exist. See my argument in Part Two. But if an error is identified, shouldn't we identify it and change our consensus going forward? Is that not the rational response? Would it be better to perpetuate error and live with a falsehood?

I hear the Schism-Minded among us shout "Show me Rand's errors, then!" That's not the purpose of this post. The purpose of this post is to say that not all of us will agree, and that's wonderful. The more disagreements we have amongst each other the better, if we are open and courteous and brave and curious and rational and we create an environment where any trial balloon can raise and be shot down without the originator being shot as well, that is an appropriate atmosphere for intellectual life-- not rigidity, not fearfulness, not resentment, not anger.

Objectivism should have no leaders and, certainly, no followers. Properly, if we take the philosophy seriously, we should be a fellowship of sovereign minds. What does that mean? It means that each of us speaks for himself and himself only, that each of us is responsible for defending the contents of our own consciousness, for backing up our own words, for standing on our own two feet, unafraid, and giving our own first-handed view of existence. No man is under any obligation to defend the ideas of anyone else-- unless he has voluntarily chosen to do so-- and certainly no one is responsible for the ideas of others. If a man speaks nonsense, that is his own responsibility. It does not redound to the detriment of his associates or family or friends or lovers. There is no such thing as a collective foolishness, any more than there is a collective wisdom.

A faction should never exist in Objectivism, because we should each be a faction of one. The smallest minority on earth is the individual? So is the smallest faction. As the schism-minded go merrily chopping away, they are in a sense doing away with their own faction -- splintering off all their allies, creating nothing but enemies until they stand alone in their own personal rectitude as they should have from the start. The existence of factions in Objectivism is evidence of a grave error in the community. I am tempted to say a grave error on the part off 'our leadership', but that is itself the kind of thinking that is ruining us. An intellectual movement has no leadership. If you are led, then you may be many things but an intellectual--a sovereign mind--you are not. There are properly no Objectivist leaders, only individual Objectivists who hold differing degrees of credibility, based on their works and behavior over time.

But we do have factions, and that is a shame and an embarrassment. Where do they come from?  A faction generally coalesces around an individual. Some person puts themselves forward as a thought leader or expert--rightly or wrongly--and a faction forms around the person and his or her ideas. To the Schism-Minded, these people become Sub-Rands or Randian Satellites-- beings with their own gravitational pull. The person at the center of a faction becomes the organizing center of gravity around which some subset of thinkers orbit.

Not all groups are factions. Mere groups might form around a person from a recognition of merit, or from their attractive personality, or from some display of virtue or bravery, or from a personal connection to Rand, or from all of these or some other quality. A gorgeous Objectivist female might find herself the center of a bevy of young men -- but is that a faction? No. These are mere circles, cliques. Objectivism will always have these, because people differ in their attractiveness and charisma and their preferences in a companion.

To be a faction, your group must be delineated by some intellectual position, some specific and usually non-negotiable conviction or interpretation. Early Christians, for example, divided into one faction of Jews practicing strict adherence to Old Testament law, and another that was open to Gentiles and eschewed any demand for circumcision or kosher-ness. (Note, by the way, who won that argument historically. Which evaporated and which took over the world? The more open faction gained adherents and the narrower faction fell into obscurity). Why do factions break away? Because they cannot reconcile some disagreement. In the case of the Christians, there could be no logical resolution, since both factions were arguing articles of faith not open to question.

But a philosophical community that teaches "Let reality be the final arbiter" should not descend into factionalism, should it? Surely there is a rationally demonstrable answer to whatever issue threatens to divide us. Contradictions do not exist. Reality is knowable, so why should we give up and go to our respective corners, never resolving our differences?

What are the Objectivist factions? The biggest are, of course, those factions centered on Leonard Peikoff and David Kelley.

The origin of this schism in Objectivism lies in the disagreement of those two thinkers on the subject of toleration, associations, ideological precision, etc. I see no reason why the solutions to those disagreements should not be, in principle, discoverable. I would rather say that if neither man has put forth a proposition that rationally convinces the other, then in all likelihood BOTH are in error. Properly, then, they should get together to collaborate and re-examine the issue, excited that they are both so committed to truth, ready to throw themselves into experiments and bicker across a blackboard until they have their eureka moment and, arm in arm, emerge as great thinkers who have conquered a thorny problem to their mutual satisfaction.

What stops the leaders of these two factions from coming together in this manner? Bad blood, spite, personal dislike, hurt feelings, anger, dismissal, scorn, contempt -- i.e., a whole host of nasty emotions. That's it, so far as those of us in the cheap seats can tell.

Two men who engage in a personal vendetta for so many years should be, frankly, dismissed as exemplars of any sort. When men act as adults, they find common ground and work to resolve their differences. Only when men act like children do they take their marbles and go home, rather than look for a solution -- especially when so many people's lives are impacted by the repercussions of the split and so much vitriol is spewed by one side or the other. I say a pox on both their factions, to the degree that they perpetuate this feud a day longer and do not look to heal it at once, even if it is to step aside from a leadership role altogether and cede the field to the other or to no one, which is likely the best resolution.

But how great it would be-- how proud we would feel-- how much Joy would there be in Mudville-- if those faction leaders met, shook hands, and went to work-- starting from scratch to re-examine both their positions, each trusting the motives of the other. What a great way to cap their careers, even if they came to the exact same impasse -- to try and resolve this schism as philosophers, face to face, not as faction leaders via squabbling proxies.

Someone in back just yelled: "But to sit down with Kelley (or Piekoff) would be to sanction them!!!"

And there it is: "sanction", that deadly word at the root of Objectivist factionalism.

What is it, anyway? Let's take a little break to visit the Ayn Rand lexicon

Let's use the first definition: "To discuss evil in a manner implying neutrality, is to sanction it."

Now we have to parse it. What is 'Evil'?
From Galt's speech: "Evil is the irrational, the blind, the anti-real—and that the only weapon of its triumph is the willingness of the good to serve it."

So, you could say that to sanction is to "adopt a position of neutrality towards someone or something you know to be irrational or destructive." Fair enough?

So-- if we disagree about something, how do I supposedly sanction your evil position if I sit down to argue with you? Engaging you on the battlefield of ideas is hardly "adopting a position of neutrality".

I hold that many acts of Objectivist self-defeat are acts of "sanctioning by sanctioning." For example, a man goes to a debate group, discovers it is largely populated by a different faction, and abandons the group-- proclaiming that to have associated with those people would have been to sanction them. But this is actually the complete reversal of the concept. By ceding the intellectual field, you have committed sanction. By walking away, you have abandoned the debate, ensured that your position goes unheard, ensured that (presumably) error will win the day. You have ensured that no third party will have heard an opposing viewpoint at that meeting. You have quit in the face of an intellectual challenge and have retreated. You're not even stepping out of danger to wage guerrilla attacks a la George Washington's campaign. You're keeping your hands clean, returning to Mt. Vernon, and sipping something cool on the porch while others go out and risk sanctioning the redcoats by battling with them. Who is the sanctioner? Who?

And, worse, what if you give your army the same order -- not only cede your leadership role in the battle of ideas, but tell your entire army not to ever face the enemy, not in person? What if you declare that you don't intend to win the war, don't intend to prosecute it, and cannot possibly sanction the British by sitting down with them to negotiate either their surrender or your own? What if you start kicking troops out of the Continental Army because you saw them waging their own little war on the fields of Yorktown? How dare they be seen on the same grass as Cornwallis!

This is absurd, of course, and I'm making it absurd on purpose. The whole argument that one is preserving one's purity by not engaging the enemy strikes me as pernicious and self-defeating nonsense. That sort of thinking is the real and terrible sanctioning going on in Objectivist circles.

Associating with a Communist is not a sanction of Communism if your motive for initiating the association is to change his Communist ideas. Associating with a socialist is not sanction if the purpose of the association is to undercut his certainty about socialist theory. Associating with a follower of David Kelley is not sanction if the motivation of the association is to indulge curiosity, discover first-hand facts, or to simply socialize by setting aside a technical issue in philosophy that divides you -- each clearly stating his disagreement-- and working together on the things that you have in common.

The commonly-held false view of sanction is, in practice, leading to constant acts of sanction-by-omission, daily situations where some Objectivist is AWOL when he should have been in the fray. Every time you turned down an opportunity to counterbalance your intellectual opposition by raising your voice aside your ideological foe as contrast was an act of sanction, at least if your stated purpose is to educate, spread good ideas, and defeat bad ones.

To repeat: The real sanction is staying home.

The Schism-Minded are not merely mistaken, unfortunately. They are not all misguided souls who do not understand sanction, or who are fighting the battles of the past. There is a darker and far worse aspect to this subset of Objectivists.

Now we get ugly.

Let me tell you a story.

As I said above, I've read a lot of authors on Rand. One of these was Chris Sciabarra, whose book "The Russian Radical" i picked up, I guess, twenty years ago. It was interesting, but didn't impact my thinking much.

Years later, when I'd joined Facebook, I saw a notice from some acquaintance along the lines of "Chris Sciabarra is sick. We are spreading the word in order to get some donations". I shook my head and tsk-tsked at this, not being a personal friend of the guy and not knowing or caring about his faction or reputation, of which I was ignorant. I recognized the name as a writer on Rand, and so re-posted the donations request "FYI" to anyone in my circle who might want to know the information. I didn't even donate myself -- struggling artist and all-- but I thought I might as well pass the info along to others, right?


I was immediately subjected to a purge by the self-appointed defenders of Objectivism. Behind my back, and without a one of them speaking to me or asking a single question, the word went forth that Richard Gleaves was in league with Sciabarra of the Atlas Society, had committed a terrible act of sanction. "Anyone who is friends with Richard must defriend me immediately!" the cry went forth and, by the time I even knew anything was happening, I had a black mark on my reputation and was the subject of condemnation by strangers.

This is an awfully strange behavior, and it took me a long time to understand what I was seeing.

The leader of this attack, who I won't name, contacted me privately and said he would withdraw his accusations if I proved to him I was not friends with Sciabarra, had not sanctioned the Atlas Society, if I were sufficiently deferential to Peikoff etc.

And then I realized -- and this is the root of the ugliness that is the schism-minded Objectivist.

He wanted my sanction.

It was he who was looking for me to sanction him, not the other way around. He wanted me to jump though his hoops, to justify myself to him, to accept his right to judge me, to accept his right to pass a verdict, to accept his stature in the pantheon of Objectivists. That was the psychological motive and what made the whole affair so repellent.

The Schism-Minded Objectivist needs to create victims, because he needs their sanction and the sanction of his peers to feel big and important. In our world of fractured factions, this has become the coin of the realm. People rise in Objectivism, not by virtue of their commanding intellect, but by PULL. Our leaders have become pull-peddlers, trading access for obedience, and their foot soldiers attempt to climb the ladder by stepping on the heads of others, by establishing their herd dominance, by pushing someone down and then asking them to grovel and sanction the attack.

And, if this is the evil going on in our movement, Rand herself has given us the concepts and the means to end it.

It is the VICTIMS of this practice who must withdraw their sanction. If someone attacks your associations, tell them "I do not recognize your right to speak on behalf of Objectivism." "I don't accept your right to tell me who I should associate with." "I do not recognize you as an Objectivist or an Objectivist leader."

Nothing else will end this. Not unless every person who objects to the behavior recognizes their own right to exist, their own right to choose their own associates, to blaze their own intellectual path.

They WANT you to cower, to justify yourself, to acknowledge them, to fear them. They are second-handers trying to splash the community in the hope that the ripples will push them closer to the centers of power. Do not give them that ripple. Don't quaver, don't quail. Tell them where to go, and why. Tell them what they're doing and why they're wrong. Tell them what I tell you now.

An Objectivist's concern is the conquest of nature. A parasite's concern is the conquest of men.

Then forget them and start over. Put the past aside, associate with whomever you like, and start building tomorrow. Or to put it more poetically and positively, paraphrasing Badger Clark:

The sunrise plains are a tender haze
And the sunset seas are gray,
But I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
Over me and the big today.
What good to me is a vague “maybe”
Or a mournful “might have been,”
For the sun wheels swift from morn to morn
And Objectivism began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

Good premises.