Sunday, September 17, 2017

Am I Still an "Objectivist"?

As a college freshman way back in 1967, I became enamored of the novels and ideas of Ayn Rand. In the decades since, my writing and speaking has been influenced in profound ways by that late philosopher and novelist's fertile mind and artistic sensibilities. I also held positions in various organizations and publications promoting her work.

During those years, I referred to myself by the name she gave to her philosophy. I was an "Objectivist" and I promoted "Objectivism."

But I no longer use those terms in self-description. Nor am I involved in any Objectivist organizations, publications, or "movements." For anyone interested, I'd like to explain precisely why, and where I now stand.

Without getting into complicated specifics, my essential philosophical ideas have not much changed, as anyone reading my nonfiction or fiction would quickly realize. The Randian influence is deep and unmistakable. 
However, my views about the validity, usefulness, and desirability of a formal movement of "individualists" who are organized in ideological groups and hierarchies, which are run and policed by designated "representatives" or "intellectual heirs" (including self-proclaimed ones), have changed, and radically. In fact, even during the years I was mired within the "movement," I argued against any such organizational structures, as being in contradiction with the substance of individualism. (For example, if you can find a copy, in a recorded lecture, "Organized Individualism? Building the Objectivist Community.")

Anyone who takes seriously the lessons of Rand's novel The Fountainhead would have to reject any such creature as an "organized Objectivist movement." (For those familiar with the novel: Can you imagine its individualist hero, Howard Roark , subjugating himself as a "member" or "follower" or even "student of Objectivism"?) For some years, Ayn Rand allowed such an organized movement to be established to promote her philosophy; it was called the Nathaniel Branden Institute. It later imploded disastrously -- ostensibly because of personal issues between herself and its founder, but actually because of the issue of "intellectual representation." 

Rand had designated the eponymous head of NBI as her "intellectual heir and representative," her public spokesman and champion -- the supposed embodiment of her ideas. In practice, that meant he was a professional yes-man, required to perfectly reflect and champion her ideas -- not his own. That inevitably proved to be untenable: A philosophy of individualism cannot be promulgated as a dogma. Yet the nature and structure of an organization aiming to perfectly embody somebody's entire philosophy -- to the letter and without deviation -- mandates and encourages dogmatism.

If you read Rand's own published statements in the immediate wake of the NBI debacle, you'd see that she learned that lesson explicitly. She wrote that she always had been dubious about an "organized movement of Objectivists" and never wished to be the head of one, let alone forced into the role of trying to police "misrepresentations" of her philosophy. She also -- again explicitly -- stated she would never again authorize or endorse any such Objectivist organization. But she was barely cold in her coffin before a new, self-proclaimed "intellectual heir" (never and nowhere did she ever designate him as such) declared that, with her death, that restriction no longer applied. He then created an organization, the Ayn Rand Institute, which essentially mirrored the disastrous approach of NBI.

I participated for a long time in a different, competing Objectivist organization, one that positioned itself as hostile to the notion of any intellectual gurus, hierarchies, and dogmas. But I still found the core problem had not been effectively addressed -- because it began with the label of the philosophy itself.

Ayn Rand had developed her personal philosophical system and slapped a label on it, one in which she also declared a proprietary interest: "Objectivism." This put her admirers in a moral quandary. Were only those who agreed with Rand's every significant utterance "Objectivists"? Or could one call himself an "Objectivist" if he agreed with most of her philosophical essentials, but disagreed with her on this or that specific application or inference? And if the latter, where, exactly, did one draw the lines?

Years (and may I say, lives) have been wasted in an absurd tug-of-war among individuals and organizations over the "moral right" to use Rand's invented label in self-description. People have built their entire self-esteem (and careers) upon that "Objectivist" title; upon their "loyalty" to specific utterances and positions of Rand's (and those of her self-appointed, posthumous interpreters); and upon whether or not particular notions are "essential" to Objectivism. The determination of what is and isn't "essential" is completely arbitrary and subjective, ranging from the utterly dogmatic ("Objectivism is everything and only what Rand wrote and said of a philosophical nature") to the utterly relativistic (e.g., notions by various self-proclaimed "Objectivists" who equate that term with moral and political views Rand herself loathed and denounced).

I saw that the basic error of Rand -- as an advocate of independent judgment and individualism -- had been to ascribe a label to her personal philosophy (with all its countless implications), but then try to limit and restrict its "authorized" use by others...unless they conformed completely to every dotted "i" and crossed "t" of her own interpretation. Understandably, she imposed these restrictions about use of the label lest others publicly "misrepresent" her and damage her reputation. Yet this put sincere admirers in an impossible position: either slavishly nod and parrot Rand's every utterance, or abandon the label "Objectivist." If the former, then being an "Objectivist" means being a dogmatist -- which contradicts the individualist epistemological and moral basis of the philosophy. If the latter, though, then the only real "Objectivists" are those who abandon the label, in order to preserve their own intellectual independence and moral integrity.

Absurdly, five decades after they first arose, these debates continue to rage throughout the small and insular Objectivist subculture. Nearly a decade ago, I happily abandoned that subculture and its baggage. At my age, life had become far too short to remain mired in such pointless and preposterous preoccupations. To what end? Will the "winners" of the rhetorical battles swell their chests with pride that they -- and only they -- are the "true Objectivists"? Will that have the slightest substantive impact upon the course of their lives, let alone upon the course of the world outside their skulls?

Finally, from a personal, practical, and professional standpoint, using the shared label also meant having to constantly, publicly disavow a multitude of idiots and scoundrels masquerading as "Objectivists," and bizarre notions advanced as "Objectivism." Sadly, that included some of Rand's own private foibles and erroneous ideas. Like the "Scarlet Letter," the label has become a way for ideological enemies to employ "guilt by association" smears, linking the decent people using it to odious others, and to their dubious views. I have no time or interest in answering for the private quirks and weird ideas of total strangers, with whom I would be lumped by a shared, artificial label, but very little else.

As a principled individualist, I answer only for myself. (And I use the term "principled individualist" purely descriptively, and not capitalized.)

I cannot tell you how relieved and liberated I have felt for the past decade to be light years removed from "the Objectivist movement," and from its unproductive distractions. I remain proud of many things I accomplished during my years of involvement in that movement. But I wasted way, way too much time myopically mired in a silly, rhetorical tug-of-war over an unimportant label.

So, I no longer use the label "Objectivist." I neither have nor seek any affiliations or involvement with organs of "the Objectivist movement" --
which is "moving" nowhere, and which is an oxymoron, if you take seriously the point of The Fountainhead. I leave such petty preoccupations to those with far more years left to fritter away.

If you wish to label me anything, try my name.

Likewise, if you want to argue with my ideas, try arguing with mine -- not Ayn Rand's, or Leonard Peikoff's, or David Kelley's, or anyone else you care to name.


Mitch Baxter said...

Excellent piece, Robert. You've summed up what many of us have encountered in trying to navigate the "Objectivist" organizations, which we joined and/or moved between after reading Rand's novels.

If we're supposed to be individualists, relying only on the verdicts of our own minds, why are we also supposed to accept that any disagreement we have with the dogma or even the founder is proof that our thinking is flawed, because another person's thinking has been deemed infallible?

Robert Bidinotto said...

Recently, sci-fi legend Jerry Pournelle died. One of his insights was what he called "Pournelle's Law of Bureaucracies" -- though it could have been a law applicable to any organizations. It goes like this:

In any organization ("bureaucracy") there are two kinds of people: those who are loyal to the organization's objectives and ideals, and those who are loyal to the organization itself. The corollary to the Law: The second type always comes to dominate the organization.

In a sense, that's happened within the Objectivist movement, too. Someone who has read and agreed with Rand has a choice to make about the organized movement and its "bureaucrats": Is your first loyalty to your own understanding of the philosophical ideas, or is it going to be to the groups and "authority" figures? The organizations thrive on those who will be yes-men, while the more independent souls will eventually part company with the group over some heresy -- or be thrown out.

I don't have to elaborate on the implications this has for a philosophy of principled individualism, do I?

Ed said...

^^ What Robert said, in spades ^^