In an earlier post, I suggested that Objectivist intellectual culture is dysfunctional. Too many Objectivists (I suggested there) operate with negative stereotypes and over-generalizations about academics and the academic enterprise, often generalizing from tiny and unrepresentative samples of widely publicized academic malfeasances, and concluding from them that academia is itself a corrupt and irrational place. In consequence, too many see Objectivism’s relationship to academia as analogous to a form of warfare, whether overt or covert. Too many think of academics as corrupt, dysfunctional “zombies” (Rand’s word) who deserve some discursive equivalent of destruction. Worse yet, too many put Objectivist academics in the role of commanders in chief in the Objectivist Intellectual Army, see themselves as commissioned officers in that army, take for granted that “the American people” are on their side, and long for a day when Objectivism will take academia by storm, replacing its undeserving ruling class with the New Intellectuals who will, at last, bring a “rational culture” into existence.
Every one of these ideas finds expression somewhere in Ayn Rand’s own writings. It was Rand who began the trend of stereotyping and over-generalizing about “modern intellectuals.” It was Rand who began the trend of generalizing from samples built predominantly on “Horror File” anecdotes. It was Rand who insisted on the analogy of intellectual life to warfare, of philosophers to generals, and of scientists and businessmen to commissioned officers. It was Rand who came up with the strategy of exploiting the “breach” between “the intellectuals” and “the American people,” singing the supposed praises of the latter, and suggesting that they were to be enlisted in a jihad against the former. It was Rand who, in the original Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, derided the very idea of intellectual debate with adversarial interlocutors. She seemed not to grasp the self-defeating character of this approach to intellectual life.
In truth, many Objectivist academics know all this, but would prefer to stay “prudently” silent about it. Some agree with Rand. Others disagree, but would rather not “hurt the cause” by saying anything critical of her. Still others would rather not hurt their donors’ feelings by saying anything that might be construed as disloyal to Objectivism, and decrease the expected revenue flow. Few of them have dealt very assiduously with the incoherence that arises from simultaneous adoption of four common Objectivist commitments:
- wanting collegial relations with one’s academic colleagues,
- wanting to convince those academic colleagues of the truth and importance of Objectivism,
- advocating the need for close and careful readings of Randian texts, and
- refusing to reject the embarrassing, over-the-top denunciations of “modern intellectuals” that persistently crop up in those same texts, denunciations that target the very colleagues that Objectivist academics are supposed to be trying to court.
It can be tempting, while focusing on the first item to pretend that the fourth item doesn’t exist. Unless you’re cognitively in focus.
Frankly, it may well be naïve to have particularly elevated expectations of this brand of Objectivist, given the Machiavellian attitudes that so many of them have about academic life. Concealment and double standards have now become a modus operandi for them. The hard truth is that in certain Objectivist quarters at least, the desire not to air dirty laundry has become a desire not to wash it.
It’s time—I’m suggesting—for a wholesale change of attitude and policy among Objectivists. It’s time, in other words, for a new generation of Objectivist academics and intellectuals who are willing to stand “in full sunlight,” without the need “for the murky fog of the hidden, the secret, the unnamed, the furtively evocative, for any code of signals from the psycho-epistemology of guilt.” Put yet another way: it’s time for visible signs of self-assertion by Objectivists who know their way around Objectivism, who are willing to self-identify as Objectivists, but who know when to throw Ayn Rand under the bus (and when not to). It’s an interesting question how many Objectivist academics fit this description. But the time has come for a pointed rejection of the ones who don’t.
Having put things this way, a critic might wonder what point there is to being an Objectivist if one is periodically going to throw Miss Rand under the bus. The best sustained answer to that question is, in my view, to be found in David Kelley’s Truth and Toleration, but in abbreviated form, I’d put things like this: Objectivism is a hierarchical system of principles. That formulation implies three things: (a) that Objectivism is a system constituted by principles, (b) that some of its principles are foundational (and basic), while others are superstructural (and derived from the foundation), and (c) that the more foundational/basic principles regulate and can in principle correct the superstructural/derived ones, but not vice versa. If that’s so, an Objectivist can throw Ayn Rand under the bus—and remain an Objectivist—in any case in which she said something wrongheaded, the wrongheadedness is superstructural, the error is revisable by more foundational principles, the foundational principles in question are distinctively Objectivist, and a non-trivial foundational core remains intact. The reasonable question is not whether such correction is necessary, but how much is.
Most Objectivists, even proponents of the so-called “closed system” approach, have come to grasp the need for revisionary correction of this kind, at least in narrow, highly circumscribed cases (especially cases in which their own oxen might be gored by something Rand said). They’re willing to reject Ayn Rand’s disgust for homosexuality, or her claim that a woman ought not to aspire to become President of the United States. In a more theoretical vein, some are willing to say out loud that Rand probably exaggerated the differences between her solution to the problem of universals and Aristotle’s. Coming to biographical issues, they may cautiously describe her affair with Nathaniel Branden as “very strange” (as one ARI-affiliated Objectivist did in conversation with me) They may dislike cats, enjoy “Dionysian” (or “Oriental”) music, or even regard yellow-red as their favorite color. They may lack Ayn Rand’s vehement enthusiasms for tap dancing, stamp collecting, or the paintings of Salvador Dali, and be willing to say (out loud) that those enthusiasms were idiosyncratic to Rand the (idiosyncratic) individual, not principled commitments that bind the rest of us. The prospect of being morally and aesthetically required to festoon one’s walls with the likes of “Eggs on the Plate without the Plate” is perhaps more than can reasonably be asked of anyone, whatever his doctrinal zeal.
But in my experience, closed-system Objectivists in particular angrily, defensively, and resentfully reject the possibility that Objectivism requires systematic revision, that Rand’s views on a wide range of subjects were not just wrong (sometimes downright immoral or stupid), but incompatible with the best applications of her best principles. A surprising number of them agree with what might be called Leonard Peikoff’s Directive 5-89: “…let those of us who are Objectivists at least make sure that what we are spreading is Ayn Rand’s actual ideas, not some distorted hash of them.” The italics are in the original, as is the implicit comparison of Objectivism to a jar of peanut butter (or a disease vector).
One of the ironies of this Directive is that while Peikoff has denounced people for failing to live up to it, he himself has never lived up to it, and never professed to. None of the books he has written since Rand’s death claims with certainty that its contents are “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.” It’s telling that his first book, written during Ayn Rand’s lifetime and recommended by her, is absolutely silent on this issue. And every book he’s published since her death opens with convoluted professions of fallibility on its relation to “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.”
It’s a mistake, as Ayn Rand once put it, to think that a tyranny is consistent about the directives it promulgates. The same may be said of intellectual tyrannies like ARI and intellectual tyrants like Leonard Peikoff. When Peikoff is in directive-making mood, he demands that others be certain of the difference between “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas” and the presumptive “hash” they must be making of things, on pain of being denounced by him as “monsters.” When he is in book-writing mood, however, an agnostic fog enwraps Ayn Rand’s “best student and chosen heir.” Suddenly, this beneficiary of thirty years’ apprenticeship to the master becomes unsure whether Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand is really a presentation of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand; it could, he admits, be a series of “misstatements of her views.” Caveat lector. He asserts with apparent modesty that we’re not to give him too much credit for the contents of his recent book Understanding Objectivism, because after the blank check he handed his editor for revising it, he has “no idea” what its contents are. As for the DIM Hypothesis, it opens with what Peikoff himself calls a “wild” guess about the overlap between its contents and Ayn Rand’s counterfactual ideas, concluding that there is a 5-15% chance that Ayn Rand would have regarded the book as garbage. Wisely, he offers no probabilistic estimates on the book’s agreement with “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.” In putting things so candidly, however, Ayn Rand’s “best student and chosen heir” seems temporarily to have forgotten Ayn Rand’s comment about the “Attila-ism” of those who don’t trouble themselves “with such questions as how one calculates percentages of the unknowable.”. But questions only trouble those who ask them.
In my view, a twenty-first century Objectivist intellectual should sweep such Directives aside with the contempt that they, and their exponents, deserve. He or she should actively aspire to become the next Edward Bernstein of Objectivism, doing explicitly and self-consciously for Objectivism what Bernstein did for Marxism. The movement, alas, is already rich in its aspiring Lenins and Trotskys; it has a Gang of Four, and it has a Comrade Sonia. It doesn’t need any more of them. Nor should such an aspiring Objectivist “Bernstein” worry too much that some self-designated authority figure intends to take the “Objectivist” label from him or her. The final authority on such questions is not some raving hypocrite in southern California—or an office building full of them—but those who can prove what they want you to believe. It’s time to put reality back in its place, and displace from authority those who would put their Directives between it and us.
Still, a problem remains—one that harks back to the topic with which I began this series. What should Objectivists be trying to accomplish in academia, and how? Suppose that one insists on self-identifying as an Objectivist. If so, one is committed to thinking that Objectivism is, at some level of abstraction, true. But however one slices things, if Objectivism is true, then much of what is taken for granted in academia (and certainly in academic philosophy) is false. If it’s false, Objectivists actively have to contest it; the virtues of independence, integrity, honesty, and justice (among others) demand as much, and preclude the disavowal (or concealment) of one’s Objectivist commitments simply to have an easier time in academia or to advance one’s career. Even silence is a form of cowardice under some circumstances, and is incompatible with Rand’s principle of sanction. One can reject Rand’s rhetoric, and ratchet one’s philosophical and/or political commitments back to the barest fundamentals, but at some point, dialectical push must come to shove. What then?
That’s what I’d like to spend the next several posts discussing (with occasional digressions for other topics that come up in the interim). Ironically, I think the answer is implicit in the very essay of Rand’s that I criticized in the first post in this series, “For the New Intellectual.” As I’ve suggested, “For the New Intellectual” gives us a highly problematic conception of intellectual life that Objectivists ought to reject. The same essay, however, offers a different conception of intellectual life—a profound one similar to the one Mill defends in “On Liberty,” but with a distinctively Randian set of moral and epistemic twists not found in Mill. This better account lies buried between the stereotypes, denunciations, and bad history in Rand’s essay, but it’s there, and Objectivists would do well to recover and act on it. More on that in future posts.
 Those interested in a direct confrontation with reality might consider the following suggestion. Yaron Brook has been invited by the Ayn Rand Society to speak at its December 2014 meeting in Baltimore on “The Moral Basis of Capitalism.” I am not suggesting that anyone ask him irrelevant questions during the ARS session, but he might, before or after the ARS session, legitimately be asked some questions about the following set of claims he made in the Q&A session of a lecture he gave at the University of California at Irvine on December 12, 2002.
It is the intellectuals that are at root the problem and at root biased. Why? Well, because they hate the West. Because they reject the notion of the superiority of the West. I mean, what is multiculturalism all about? It’s about ‘we’re the same as savage tribes in Africa.’ It’s the same thing, there’s no difference. ‘There’s no difference between slavery and freedom, right? There’s no difference between capitalism and communism. There’s no difference between America and Saudi Arabia. Right? We’re all the same. Multiculturalism: all cultures are equal.’ Well, we have to reject that concept. And our intellectuals are motivated by hatred of what the West stands for. And ultimately, fundamentally, they are motivated by hatred of reason. Our intellectuals are whim-worshippers. And they reject the notion of reason as the only means of gaining knowledge about the world. And once you reject reason, anything goes. (“The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What is the Solution?” The Ayn Rand Institute Lecture Series 2002, Vol. 3, audio cassette 2B, about 2/3rds of the way through).
This crude and insulting set of claims expresses Brook’s estimate of contemporary intellectuals. It is preceded by similar material before the passage I’ve excerpted, and continues in the same vein for several minutes past it. But if Brook believes that our intellectuals “are motivated by hatred of reason,” what exactly is he doing at the APA? Why would the organizers invite someone so hostile to academia to speak to an academic audience at an academic conference? The members of the Society’s Steering Committee are careful not to talk like this. Why then do they tolerate and invite someone who does? Are such attitudes really consistent with the mission of the Anthem Foundation, of which Brook is a Board Member, and whose purpose is outreach to intellectuals? Do the relevant intellectuals in the APA (or ARS audience) know what Yaron Brook thinks of them? In a claim prior the one I’ve excerpted, Brook muses out loud that he “can only imagine” what kind of intellectuals work at the University of California at Irvine, where he was speaking. I think it’s fair to ask: what part of Brook’s generalizations about academia are based on factual knowledge, and what part on imagination?
 In the 1990s, ARI-affiliated academics endorsed ARI’s expulsion and denunciation of David Kelley and his sympathizers in the very act of affiliation with that organization. They regarded this as a matter of “principle,” which some of them loudly defended (and others furtively whispered) at every opportunity. And they still do, almost a quarter of a century after the initiatory events. This supposedly principled moral stand did not extend, however, to IOS-affiliated academics with the power to promote the careers of ARI-affiliated academics. Thus a typically ad hoc exception to ARI’s anti-Kelley dispensation was carved out for Fred Miller, who was on the Advisory Board of Kelley’s IOS (the old IOS), but also ran the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University. As is common knowledge, ARI-affiliated academics—Darryl Wright, Tara Smith, John Lewis, Robert Mayhew—were visitors to (and beneficiaries of) the Policy Center (and/or its journal) despite their endorsement of ARI’s anti-IOS strictures. Apparently, Miller’s otherwise unsanctionable connection to IOS was OK because the price of denouncing him was the loss of precious sabbatical or conference time at Bowling Green. No one has ever offered a public justification for this behavior. It needs one.
Another ad hoc exception was carved out for Douglas Rasmussen of St. John’s University, who guest-edited an issue of the Monist (vol. 75, no. 1, January 1992). Rasmussen’s well-known support for Kelley and IOS were evaded by ARI so as to enable Harry Binswanger to publish a paper under Rasmussen’s editorship, thereby giving Binswanger’s scholarship the imprimatur of academic respectability (“Life-Based Teleology and the Foundations of Ethics”). Games of this sort have been par for the course in Objectivist academic culture, hidden from scrutiny only by the self-imposed veil of ignorance under which so much of it operates, and by the collegial form of mutual self-deception that demands that no one draw attention to the obvious. (It should go without saying that my criticism here is aimed at ARI and its affiliated academics, not Miller or Rasmussen.)
 Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” p. 42.
 The view I defend throughout the present essay is mine, not Kelley’s. He’s not responsible for anything I say, including any use I make of his views.
 I don’t mean to be denying that the Objectivist principles will invariably have to work in concert with background knowledge that is not distinctively Objectivist.
 Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (Mentor, 1982). In the book’s Introduction, Ayn Rand says twice that she recommends the book. She doesn’t say anything about “endorsing” it, whatever that word is supposed to mean or entail.
 The quoted phrase comes from Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Meridian, 1993), p. xv. The phrase is Peikoff’s, not Rand’s.
 Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. xiii-xv. It would take a separate essay to unravel the circumlocutions of Peikoff’s Preface to this book, but suffice it to say that I stand by the formulation I use in the text.
 Leonard Peikoff, Understanding Objectivism: A Guide to Learning Ayn Rand’s Philosophy (New American Library, 2012), p. x. Peikoff tells us that he didn’t so much as “glance” at his editor’s work, since “[e]ven a glance might reveal errors” (p. ix). But if Peikoff’s glance might have revealed errors, so might a glance by Ayn Rand. She didn’t see the book, either. It follows that she couldn’t endorse the book in its present form. It also follows on the ARI definition of Objectivism that the book does not contain “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.” If “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas” and actual endorsements are the criteria for the content of Objectivism, and the book involves neither, then how can the book claim to be a presentation of Objectivism, as its title implies? If it is our moral obligation to “spread Ayn Rand’s actual ideas,” how does this book live up to that obligation? If Peikoff merely meant in “Fact and Value” that we ought to be careful when describing Rand’s ideas to be faithful to her actual claims, what gives him the certainty that people he has never met are not so unless they pledge allegiance to his edicts?
 Leonard Peikoff, The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out (New American Library 2012), pp. xv-xvi. “Garbage” is my word, but compatible with Peikoff actually says.
 Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” p. 35.