The case against the Objectivist Movement, redux: David Harriman on the shoals of integrity

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.

I’ve made the case for Lesson 4 twice before, once on this blog, and once on a different one. David Kelley has, malgre lui, made the case for me yet again.

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.

14 thoughts on “The case against the Objectivist Movement, redux: David Harriman on the shoals of integrity

  1. I definitely did not know about Allan’s attempt to block JARS from The Philosopher’s Index. The general policy on such decisions about which journals/books to index is that the publication be related to philosophy (in whole or part, so that some inter-disciplinary publications can make it in, so long as they also carry some articles that are devoted to philosophy). We do not pre-judge the quality of the publications. You could sum it up as: “Our is not to evaluate, but to index.” Readers have the responsibility of judging the content of all contributions made to the discipline.


    • Thanks, that’s worth knowing–and frankly, ought to be more widely known. Gotthelf was on TPI’s editorial board, so it’s inconceivable that he didn’t know TPI’s policy. His attempt to exclude JARS from TPI is as outrageous as it is typical of movement-Objectivist modes of human interaction–violate a perfectly legitimate policy for an invidious purpose, then claim that you’re doing so for a higher purpose that transcends earthly concerns. Meanwhile, keep insisting that you’re the champion of a “philosophy for living on earth.”


  2. I am a complete outsider to this whole scene, but the story intrigues me. As I’m sure you’d guess, you get very similar dysfunction in many movements on the far left. In seeking out fellow Marxists, I have met a very long list of people whom I can only describe as completely crazy. When I briefly ran in Catholic philosophical circles, the experience was milder, but still similar in lots of ways. I wonder if there are any good psychological studies of the dynamics in groups like this, and even some explanation of why so many of them seem to have these tendencies.


    • I’m sure there are psychological studies of the phenomenon out there, but I haven’t read any of them. I think part of the explanation in both the Marxist and Objectivist cases has to do with the desire for a secular substitute for religion. Though it’s not a psychological study per se, Alasdair MacIntyre in effect made the case for a Marxism-Christianity connection in Marxism and Christianity. As an ex-Muslim myself, I’ve often thought there were affinities between Objectivism and Islam–the transition from the one to the other wasn’t painless for me, but it was less disorienting than one might think. I sometimes wonder whether there aren’t affinities between Objectivism and a sort of Hellenized Judaism.

      This isn’t really an explanation of the dynamics so much as the prelude to an explanation: Certain people have quasi-religious longings that can’t be satisfied by traditional religion, but that still need an outlet. Both Marx and Rand wrote in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, but they did so in secular language, and by self-consciously eschewing the self-image of being merely quixotic voices in the wilderness. Both Marxism and Objectivism suggest that the “voice in the wilderness” holds the key to a this-worldly triumph in which all apparent irreconcilables are ultimately reconciled and human nature is fully realized. (Actually, I find Rand’s novel We the Living very insightful on how Objectivism resembles Marxism and vice versa in this respect. That’s why Kira, the proto-Objectivist character, genuinely loves Andrei, the ardent Communist.) They’re both very attractive views in their own ways. What needs an explanation, I think, is why some people are so powerfully and fideistically attracted to them and others find them totally ridiculous. But the same question arises about religious belief. Why do some people take its claims seriously and others not? I don’t have a good explanation in hand, but my hunch is that the same essential explanation applies in all three cases–Marxism, Objectivism, traditional religion.

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  3. Pingback: “This video is private.” | Policy of Truth

      • Which of the many assertions are you referring to? I’ll take the one about how deleting a video constitutes “a pathetic conclusion to what might have been an illustrious project and career.” False. It’s intemperate and amounts to a smear.


        • I’ve discussed the “pathetic conclusion to what might have been an illustrious project and career” here. And many, many other places besides. I’ve been meaning to collect them in one place, but if you’re sufficiently interested, you could go and find them. They’re not hard to find. There’s nothing “intemperate” about what I’ve said about TAS or any other part of the Objectivist movement.

          They didn’t delete the video; they made it “private.” Care to defend that? I’ve already said that it shows a reluctance to be transparent and a reluctance to engage in a real debate, as does closing down the combox on the subject. Kelley started his post-ARI career criticizing ARI’s reluctance to be transparent and reluctance to engage in real debates. Now he emulates them. That’s a pretty sad downward spiral–an instance of lowered moral standards and blatant hypocrisy, if you need it put explicitly. And that’s on top of TAS’s head-in-the-sand attitude about Harriman himself. I’ve repeated my criticisms of TAS-on-Harriman too many times to have to repeat them here. No one has ever responded to anything I’ve said on the subject. I’m not the one who has to meet such people half-way. They’re the ones who have to make the return trip to reality.


  4. Kelley is still producing. His career isn’t “over.”

    The hositlity and selectivity of the remarks is what I call “intemperate.” And they are. They’re way disproportionate to any alleged sin, and discourage any discussion. The references to “such people” and the need for a “return trip to reality” is more of the same.You should step back and reflect on what you’re doing honestly instead of just digging in your heels. You owe Kelley an apology.


    • I love these hit or miss comments that come from out of nowhere, with no apparent context, trying for the nth time to have an argument with me, but totally unable to deal with even 1/20th of what I said.

      I don’t owe David Kelley anything. I’ve done more for his career and reputation than he’s ever done for mine, and more than he can ever hope to do for mine in the rest of his life. The irony of his productive career is that he owes both journal articles he’s written in the last five years to me. I invited them. I co-edited them with Carrie-Ann Biondi, but it was my idea to have gotten them published in Reason Papers–not hers, and not his. What comparable favor has he done for me in the last 25 years? Well, let’s enumerate.

      He did show up drunk at a paper I gave at his online seminar, spouted some nonsensical rubbish in the way of commentary on it, then disappeared. Very gratifying. He missed 7 of 21 sessions at the 2013 TAS seminar–a seminar that he presided over, but which I planned essentially from A to Z, on a pro bono basis. Another smashing success–or do I mean smashed success? He was supposed to give the opening talk at the seminar, but welshed out of it five minutes before he was supposed to give it. Who gave it on an impromptu basis, with four minutes of prep time? Will Thomas and I split the honors. When I brought Will Thomas’s screaming incompetence at the 2013 seminar to Kelley’s attention, and offered to come to DC on my own dime to discuss it with him, he told me he didn’t have the time to do so. Shall I go on? Who needs to reflect honestly on what? And these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

      But you’re too clueless to have grasped the underlying point. I am not denying that Kelley produces things. I am saying that the movement qua movement is worthless. Try rousing yourself and addressing the thousands of words I’ve produced on that before giving me any pious advice or leveling any accusations.

      As for discouraging discussion, my combox is open, even to him. He is the one who closed his combox on me in the middle of a debate. Which policy is more conducive to discussion, one that makes it impossible, or one that facilitates it? I’m the one doing the latter. That by itself marks him out as a hypocrite and a coward. I’ll say that here, I’d say it to his face, I’d say it anyone on Earth. It’s a distinction he’s thoroughly earned, and I’m not one to begrudge him his just deserts.


  5. “But you’re too clueless to have grasped …” More of the same. Unless a commenter parses every screeching word, presumably he’s part of the Vast Intellectually Dishonest Conspiracy.

    Step back and take stock. Look at your own tone and approach. Untethered aspersion-casting is not a subsittute for rational argumentation.


    • Right. “Unless a commenter parses every screeching word…” In other words, you want the luxury of a concession from me without having engaged anything I’ve said. I haven’t said anything about a vast intellectually dishonest conspiracy, but I don’t need more evidence than that sentence to make the ascription of intellectual dishonesty to you.

      Handwaving is not a substitute for a rebuttal. And you’ve got a lot to rebut. Frankly, at this rate, I might be dead by the time you manage to deal with my actual claims, so if anyone should be stepping back and taking stock, I think it’s you: what exactly is it that you’re hoping to accomplish by commenting once every few months without ever managing to comment on anything I’ve actually said?


  6. Pingback: Somebody else “gets it”: | kb3ojg

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