I realize that this post will only be inside baseball for people interested in the vicissitudes of and infighting within the Objectivist movement, but I’ll take that risk. Back in May, I took public issue with The Atlas Society’s invitation of David Harriman to The Atlas Summit, its summer 2014 event. That led to a predictably acrimonious argument at TAS’s site which ended with David Kelley’s issuing a snippy denunciation of me, and unceremoniously–or do I mean ceremoniously–closing down the combox.
My view is simple,and so far stands both unaddressed and unrefuted by Kelley and his associates. For twenty-five years, David Harriman made common cause with the most militantly dogmatic and defamation-happy elements of the Objectivist movement. And applied to ARI, “militantly dogmatic” and “defamation-happy” are literal descriptions, not exaggerations or metaphors. Like so many people associated with ARI–including people who spent decades attacking libertarians as “nihilists” but have now decided to make common cause with them–he’s recently done an abrupt and unexplained about-face, which TAS, in turn, has decided to accept at face value. My claim is that Harriman owes us a public accounting of, and apology for, his prior associations. Otherwise, he deserves condemnation and ostracism. Wrongdoing demands a response in kind. It can’t simply go ignored or excused.
In May, TAS had claimed that Harriman would appear on a panel at their summer event, and explain all. Here is a video of the event, if you have an hour of your life to waste on it, as I did the other day.
[November 20, 2014: For some reason, the video is no longer working, but you can still watch it via the Atlas Society site. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure.]
[November 23, 2014: see note below.]
It’s no exaggeration to say that the panel consists of a very tedious hour of evasions and rationalizations. It doesn’t respond to a single issue I raised; the panelists simply pretend that the issues don’t exist. I’ve responded to the panel here, responding in turn to a like-minded post by Jonathan Smith somewhat before mine. The thread as a whole is 130+ comments long and began in March, well before the Harriman controversy. (I regret that the thread ended up being “hijacked” by the Harriman controversy, but feel free to blame that on Kelley, who attacked me, and then closed down the most obvious forum in which to respond. I wouldn’t have joined the discussion on the Atlas Summit at the Objectivist Living site* had I not become the topic of the discussion there without any effort on my part.) Post 43 (May 25) is my rejoinder to Kelley’s “response” to me just after he closed down the comments at TAS.
Outsiders may well be mystified by the vitriolic character of the rhetoric involved, but I think insiders should be able to figure out why things have reached this point. Suffice it to say that there’s twenty-five years of back story here–a quarter of a century of lies, evasions, and defamations, and with it, a quarter-century of bitterness and betrayal. There are also a series of cautionary tales here for anyone who gets his feet wet in the controversy:
- Lesson 1: The Objectivist movement is a thoroughly neurotic affair, regardless of what camp of it one has in mind.
- Lesson 2: In general, movements tend to be thoroughly neurotic affairs, regardless of the original intentions of their founders.
- Lesson 3: When the founders of a movement are themselves deeply neurotic–and here I mean Rand, Nathaniel Branden, and the entire “Inner Circle” that surrounded them, especially in the 1960s–expect the latent neuroses of the movement to ramify and intensify in directions set by the founders, and then to be transmitted, like disease vectors, across the decades.
- Lesson 4: Whatever one thinks of Objectivism as philosophy, it’s time to end the Objectivist movement. It serves no beneficial purpose that isn’t offset by the harms it does and the corruption it involves. And that applies to the whole movement, in both its ARI and TAS incarnations.
The original IOS project was one of promise and hope. Unfortunately, if you wish to see its monument, you’ll have to look to the distant past for a glimpse of it in dusty archives, old-timers’ stories, and track-back machines. The present organization is a pale shadow or dull echo–or honestly, just a bad parody–of its predecessor. Personally, I don’t find it worth looking at, worth listening to, or worth interacting with. Neither, I think, should anyone reading this. An inside allusion, but: no one is obliged to play Eddie Willers to this pathetic “movement.” The Objectivist train has come to a halt. It’s time to get off and, as John Galt puts it, to go back to the world. It’s bad enough to “live for the sake of another man.” It’s worse, much worse, to live for a “movement” with less life in it than any human being, and less capacity for forward motion. That’s what the Objectivist movement has become. What remains is just to admit it.
*For clarity’s sake, I added the phrase “at the Objectivist Living site” and the word “there” in the same sentence a few hours after posting.
[Postscript, November 23, 2014: Apparently, you no longer can still watch the video via the Atlas Society site. If you try, as I just did,you get a message that says “This video is private.” Why the sudden need to make the video private? A few months ago, TAS was boasting about what their Atlas Summit panel presentation would reveal. Then they shut down the comments in which I predicted that it would reveal exactly nothing. Then I was proven right. Having been proven right, I decided to say so in public. All of a sudden, the loudly-heralded video that proved me right was quietly made “private.” Could it be that the champions of “Open Objectivism” are unwilling to bear public scrutiny–i.e., unwilling to “tolerate” the kind of critical discussion that takes place in the open?
Twenty-five years ago, in “A Question of Sanction,” David Kelley had criticized Peter Schwartz and others for advocating a policy of preaching to the converted, which he (Kelley) described, accurately enough, as “a sorry sort of ingrown activism.” Kelley has, I’m afraid, become heir to the attitudes he once criticized–and come to suborn the same attitudes in his “followers.” It’s a pathetic conclusion to what might have been an illustrious project and career.]
Postscript, November 6, 2014: This has nothing to do with Harriman-at-TAS, but is relevant to any chronicling of the malfeasances of the Objectivist movement. Having unfortunately let my JARS subscription lapse, I missed this revelation from Chris Sciabarra’s editorial to their July 2014 issue (also posted at his blog):
For several years, Allan Gotthelf and I exchanged correspondence, both before and after the 1995 publication of the first edition of my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. I acknowledged his criticisms of my work in my book—indeed, it was he who provided the precise wording with which he felt most comfortable. But when the book was finally published, he felt obliged to tell me that he would do “scholarly battle against” my work and its “obfuscation” of the ideas of Ayn Rand (correspondence, 26 May 1996).
That battle sometimes took on a bit of partisan ugliness. When our journal was first published, we worked diligently to get it included in indexing and abstracting services across disciplines and geographic boundaries. Our efforts paid off considerably; we are now indexed and abstracted by nearly two dozen services in the humanities and social sciences. But getting JARS into The Philosopher’s Index was something that Allan Gotthelf opposed strongly. At a meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in December 1999, he took exception to the very idea of including The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies in The Philosopher’s Index. He could not outright oppose the inclusion of Rand scholarship per se in an index aimed at reaching academia, for he was a cofounder of The Ayn Rand Society, itself affiliated with the Eastern Division of the APA. But he made it very clear that, in his view, JARS was not a legitimate scholarly undertaking—despite the fact that several members of its founding advisory board had been officers of, and presenters to, the very society that he chaired. Nevertheless, as required, we submitted the first three issues of our journal to the Philosopher’s Information Center, and JARS was added to the Index immediately thereafter.
I counted myself a friend and colleague of Gotthelf’s during the period in question. I knew of his animus against JARS; at first I regarded it as partly justified but mostly overwrought, but eventually I came to regard it as pathological. That said, I had no idea that he’d worked to exclude JARS from The Philosopher’s Index (and I find it interesting that in more than a decades’ acquaintance with him, he never brought it up). I don’t think think Carrie-Ann knew that, either, and Carrie-Ann was (and is) an indexer/editor for The Philosopher’s Index. I draw attention to this issue because it’s of a piece with the Harriman affair, and also very much par for the course among movement-Objectivists: deliberate opacity as a permanent way of life for people who regard themselves as aspiring “public intellectuals” (in some cases without the modifier “aspiring,” but also, alas, without a public).
It all ought to be (but isn’t) a cautionary tale to the Matt Zwolinskis of the philosophy profession, who apparently operate on the premise that any association with any organization is justified, and any invitation from anyone is worth accepting–as long as you don’t look too hard at the agenda of the people you’re dealing with, and as long as you have a fabulous time doing whatever you’re doing (scroll down to the comments of this discussion). I guess if it came down to selling BHL to white supremacist organizations, then, there’d be no intelligible basis for demurral, right? Give it a shot, Matt. I’m sure they’d be happy to have you bless their next conference with your presence. Some of them are, after all, former libertarians. There’s always time to bring them back into the fold.
The truth is that when you interact with movement-Objectivism at, say, the APA what you’re doing is lending the movement respectability it doesn’t deserve, and couldn’t acquire in any other way. You’re also strengthening a series of front organizations who do what they can to exclude whomever they deem their ideological enemies from participation in the very events in which you might be participating. Feel free to say that you don’t care or have other priorities–I sympathize, because I did the same for so long–but it probably isn’t a good idea to invoke the accusation of “conspiracy theorizing” to deny that it’s happening, when, like Zwolinski, you conspicuously (and avowedly) have no idea what you’re talking about. And would rather not learn.