Continuing to troll the Net in search of Objectivism-related tidbits, I found the text of a 1995 letter from Linda Rearden to supporters of the Ayn Rand Institute, in which Rearden explains why she has been declared persona non grata in "official" Objectivist circles. The controversy involves a dispute over the business arrangements of ARI, which became a clash of personalities, which then (inevitably) was magnified into a moral and philosophical "issue." This is the way Objectivism works - rationalizing petty disputes into epic intellectual conflicts. (Other material relevant to the contretemps can be found here.)
Though Rearden has sharp words for leading Objectivists Peter Schwartz and Harry Binswanger, her main target is the head of ARI, Ayn Rand's legal heir Dr. Leonard Peikoff, who has written books and taught courses on Objectivism. Rearden was one of Peikoff's students until he unceremoniously expelled her from the fold. Her crime was that she refused to side with him in repudiating two other prominent Objectivists, economist George Reisman and psychologist Edith Packer (Reisman's wife).
"Not just Peter and Harry but especially Leonard Peikoff," she writes, "have behaved in a manner that is arbitrary, emotionalistically self-defensive, and authoritarian."
To which one might ask: So? Arbitrary, emotional, self-defensive, authoritarian behavior was characteristic of Ayn Rand. Why would her most loyal followers be any different?
At the time that Leonard gave me [an] ultimatum, he considered me one of his top students. Only a few weeks earlier ... he explicitly told me he thought I had great potential as an Objectivist philosopher.
What this means - as Rearden herself more or less acknowledges later in the letter - is that Peikoff considered her to be an especially pliable sycophant.
How do they rationalize their authoritarianism? Leonard regards himself as somehow equivalent to Objectivism, and Harry and Peter as his designated lieutenants in this respect. For their parts, Peter and Harry have eagerly accepted this view of things.... In July 1994, Leonard ... said these exact words to me, as a warning: “Rejection of Peter and Harry is rejection of me, because I support them; and rejection of me is rejection of Objectivism.”
But Objectivism's not a cult! Heaven forbid. Of course, in her day Ayn Rand considered herself to be "equivalent to Objectivism," with Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden as her "designated lieutenants." (After she kicked out the Brandens, she substituted Peikoff and Binswanger.) Again, Rearden has no call to be surprised by this attitude, which was built into the movement from the start and was obvious decades ago. Murray Rothbard noticed it way back in 1972.
Harry stated the following to George and Edith (and said that Edith could write down his words): "I don’t care about the opinions of the Board of Advisors or of the contributors. I can do what I want because I have the power and deserve to have it."
Spoken like a true egoist - though perhaps of the Nietzschean, rather than the Randian, variety. But there has never been as much daylight between those two positions as Objectivists like to believe.
In her writing, Rand frequently excoriated power-hungry mediocrities. How ironic that her philosophy turns out to produce people of exactly that type.
Edith Packer’s pamphlets further the application of Objectivism, in an important way, to the field of psychology.
I find this claim doubtful. Packer is on record as saying that homosexuality is a mental illness that can be cured by counseling. She has also advised patients who are insecure about their looks to "fix" the problem by resorting to plastic surgery. Somehow I don't think a psychologist who comes up with these insights is likely to provide any important contributions to her field.
In October 1994, a few days after Leonard declared George and Edith to be immoral, George asked him, “How can you say that we are immoral but still Objectivists?" (which was the position Leonard had taken). Leonard replied, "Well, technically, if you act immorally then that implies that you are contradicting Objectivism. But if I were to go by that standard, there would be nobody left in Objectivism.”
If Peikoff actually did say this, it is a remarkable admission. One of Rand's key themes, which she harps on constantly, is that there can be no dichotomy between the moral and the practical, or between theory and practice. She celebrated her philosophy as one that permits no such distinctions, a philosophy that can be implemented with perfect justice and perfect practicality. If Peikoff is now saying that nobody can actually live up to Objectivist standards - that Objectivism is not, in fact, practical or even practicable - then he has rejected perhaps the main thrust of the philosophy he nominally represents.
I should add that I do not think anyone can live according to Objectivism's dictates, not because Objectivism is too idealistic but because it is too silly. As a small example, consider Rand's claim that the true Objectivist should be able to identify and justify every emotion he experiences. Every emotion? This is obviously impossible, in part because emotions often arise independently of cognition. Emotions are regulated by the amygdala; higher reasoning , by the cerebral cortex. The amygdala can process input faster than the cerebral cortex - thus we sometimes experience an emotional reaction before we even know what brought it on. This relationship is built into our nervous system and is not amenable to change through self-awareness, self-discipline, rational thinking, or what-have-you. But Rand knew nothing of all this, and cared less. Her "ideal man" should be able to experience only "rational" emotions, so of course it had to be possible.
When I, in a respectful and quiet manner, questioned his reasons, Leonard yelled me down and, as [witnesses] commented afterwards, was close to throwing me out of his house.
Again I ask: Why the surprise? Ayn Rand was known routinely to shout down people who disagreed with her and to order them out of her presence. Peikoff is merely following her example.
What Objectivism needs, if its influence is to spread, is independent intellectuals who thoroughly understand both Objectivism and their own fields of study. Then they need to write articles and books showing other thinkers in their field the power of the Objectivist premises and method to solve the problems in and advance that field of study.
This may be what Objectivism needs, but it will never happen, for the simple reason that "the Objectivist premises and methods" do not, in fact, have the power to solve any problems or advance any field of study. Objectivism is a hodgepodge of rationalistic assertions loosely strung together by invalid argumentation, with no empirical grounding and no track record of success in the real world.
This, of course, is a demanding task. It requires years of intensive study of Objectivism and of one’s chosen area of knowledge, involving the constant attempt to integrate the two.
It is an impossible task. The two cannot be integrated, because Objectivism is false and specious, while other fields of study ordinarily are at least somewhat connected to the facts of reality.
[Harry Binswanger] cite[d] two examples of professors he regarded as once having been committed Objectivists but as having been corrupted by their pursuit of careers in academia.
Translation: two professors who escaped from the Objectivist cult mentality once they were exposed to an intellectual environment consisting of normal human beings.
[Peikoff et al] view knowledge of Objectivism as an end in itself rather than as a stepping stone to independent achievements. Their focus is not on pushing back frontiers in their respective fields. Rather, they spend their time resting on their laurels and making up out-of-context reasons to denounce anyone they feel threatened by. The only kind of “talent” they prospect for is people deferential towards them ...
Again, is this any different from Rand's approach? She spent much of her time "making up reasons to denounce" people she felt threatened by, while surrounding herself with egg-sucking sycophants. Though she claimed to have pioneered important advances in philosophy, her actual system is a congeries of pre-existing theories - a dash of Aristotle, a pinch of Nietzsche, a sprinkling of Adam Smith and John Locke. Her few original ideas have been exploded as fallacious many times.
[T]he overriding thing Leonard wants from his students (and associates) is that they admiringly accept everything he says. I used to do that, which is why he resisted for a while Harry’s and Peter’s request that he expel me from his seminar. But I started finding faults in him, so he ejected me.
So, by her own admission, Rearden's qualifications as a top student with unlimited potential in philosophy boiled down to her willingness to kowtow to Peikoff. I'm not criticizing her for saying this, by the way. It takes courage to admit that one's own behavior has been less than heroic. This is especially true for Objectivists, who have the idea of heroic behavior drilled into them from their earliest exposure to Rand's fiction.
The more important point is that a philosophy that places its top emphasis on independent judgment, on thinking for oneself, and on being indifferent to others' opinions ends up producing someone like Peikoff, whose chief concern, reportedly, is that other people agree with him and look up to him.
[I]n analyzing a student’s confusions about how to judge people, Leonard said that, in his experience, one member of a married couple is almost always of a significantly higher moral character than the other, so that the character of a person’s spouse says little about the person’s own character.
As Rearden notes, this directly contradicts Rand's position that people are attracted to romantic partners who share their deepest values (itself a rationalization with little empirical support). Perhaps it is not surprising that Peikoff is divorced. Care to bet which member of that married couple was of "significantly higher moral character," in Peikoff's estimation?
Finally, though I haven't bothered to quote all the references, it is remarkable how often words like immoral, judgment, and denounce appear in Linda Rearden's letter. Once more we see something that eludes many Objectivists but is obvious to outsiders - that this is a movement more concerned with party loyalty, witch hunts, cliques, "in" groups and "out" groups, and the cheap satisfaction of righteous indignation than with any productive enterprise.
Damn, I'm glad I'm outta there.