September 30, 2010
[font="times"][size=5]The Objectivist Movement Commits Suicide
by Robert Tracinski
Editor's Note: My apologies for not sending out any issues of TIA Daily since last Thursday. I realized the urgent necessity of writing and posting the article below—which took on a larger scope the longer I worked on it. To access the article below online, go here.I will resume tomorrow with regular coverage of the news, catching up on everything that happened while I was working on this project.—RWT
But the most recent Objectivist controversy is too big to ignore, paper over, or address only indirectly. Its implications go too wide and too deep, striking at the very core of the movement's soul.
Early this month, John McCaskey resigned from the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute and from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship, which McCaskey founded to promote the training and hiring of Objectivists in academia. McCaskey resigned after his removal was demanded by Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand's student and heir, who does not sit on the board but, through his control of Ayn Rand's name and intellectual property rights, holds enormous clout over the Institute's actions.
McCaskey has posted on his website an explanation of his resignation and a copy of the e-mail from Peikoff to the board demanding his removal. This e-mail is posted—amazingly, considering its content—with Peikoff's permission. For those who have not yet seen any of this, go to www.johnmccaskey.com/resignation and take a few minutes to absorb it before reading any farther.
There has been vigorous discussion of this already on the Web, but what has been written so far only scratches the surface. No one wants to follow the implications as far as they go, because doing so would lead them in a direction that seems too horrible to contemplate. It is too horrible to contemplate the time and effort and the millions of dollars that have been wasted. And most of all, everyone has been told for decades—particularly at ARI fund-raisers—that the Institute is the only hope for the future. So if anything endangers ARI, it seems as if all hope has been lost.
Don't worry, I will address that concern below. But in the meantime, there is no point putting off the horrible implications. It is best to know the worst right away, so we can plan for what to do about it.
The McCaskey debacle, and particularly the e-mail from Peikoff, reveals in stark form everything that has been wrong with the Objectivist movement for decades and which I have personally struggled with for about the past ten years. This scandal is to Objectivism what the Climategate e-mails were to climate science. They are the public revelation of what some of us had seen privately and many had merely suspected: the corruption of a field of rational inquiry by authoritarianism and conformity.
Call it Anthemgate.
To understand what is happening and the full context for it will take a long time, and this will be a very long article. Be prepared to go over the whole picture—going far beyond the McCaskey case—in unsparing detail, and be prepared to question many things you may have thought you knew about the Objectivist movement. In what follows, I will not limit myself to politely indirect criticism. Now is the time to lay all of the cards on the table.
Let me briefly establish the context and the basic facts of the Anthem scandal. For at least a decade, the Ayn Rand Institute has provided support for David Harriman, a physicist, philosophy student, and close associate of Leonard Peikoff, to work on a book about the history and philosophy of science. Much of the work produced by Harriman has been excellent and valuable, and some of it has even been published in TIA. But over the years, Harriman's project became a vehicle for Leonard Peikoff to develop a solution to the "problem of induction"—an explanation of how it is possible to reason from observation of specific facts to universal principles. The idea was to use the history of science to provide a series of case studies, real examples of valid inductive generalizations, in order to present and support Peikoff's theory. The result is Harriman's newly published book The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics, produced under ARI's sponsorship and with an introduction by Peikoff proclaiming it to be a great, original new contribution to philosophy.
Behind the scenes, however, John McCaskey has been privately voicing objections about the accuracy of several of the book's key passages on the history of science. It is those private objections—as expressed in e-mails from McCaskey to Harriman and in private discussions among Objectivist academics—that prompted Peikoff to demand McCaskey's removal from ARI's board.
The e-mail posted by McCaskey lays out the irrational, non-objective basis for this demand. In the Anthemgate e-mail, Peikoff does not cite evidence that McCaskey's objections are wrong or that he made them in a way that violated some kind of proper etiquette. Rather, Peikoff objects to the fact that McCaskey offered any criticism at all. Peikoff complains that McCaskey "attacks Dave's book, and thus, explicitly or implicitly, my intro praising it as expressing [Ayn Rand's] epistemology, and also my course on induction, on which the book is based."
Note also that it is not merely the public expression of disagreement that Peikoff refuses to allow. It is also the private expression of disagreement. Referring to a small, conversational forum of Objectivist academics in which McCaskey participated, Peikoff says, "I do not know where else he has voiced these conclusions, but size to me is irrelevant in this context." One wonders whether it is acceptable for McCaskey to think these thoughts in his own mind.
Now take a moment to check out the review of the book that McCaskey subsequently posted to Amazon.com containing the essence of his criticisms. It is not some vitriolic "attack" or "denunciation," as Peikoff describes it. If anything, McCaskey is guilty of polite academic understatement, claiming only that Harriman's "historical accounts...often differ from those given by academic researchers working on the history of science and often by the scientists themselves." What follows is a serious, substantive discussion of two important errors in the history of science that are directly relevant to the theory of induction that Harriman presents. I won't try to summarize the science—McCaskey is a clear writer, and his review speaks perfectly well for itself—but for anyone with a background in science, it makes for interesting reading.
Again, however, I want to emphasize that Peikoff presents no evidence to ARI's board—and, since he allowed the public distribution of his e-mail, he provides no evidence to us, the Objectivist "grass roots"—to show that McCaskey's conclusions were wrong or were expressed in an inappropriate way. He cites only the mere fact of criticism. And in case we were in any doubt, here is how he presents his ultimatum to the board:
"When a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me—I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism—is denounced by a member of the Board of the Institute, which I founded, someone has to go, and someone will go. It is your prerogative to decide whom."Many people have been shocked that this ultimatum takes the form of asking "Don't you know who I am?" It is a caricature of the rank-pulling blowhard—more reminiscent of John Kerry than of John Galt. But the actual key phrase here is "intellectual status."
The obvious rejoinder is that there is no such thing. There is no "status" in science or in philosophy, no role for personal loyalty and no deference to authority figures. Yet this idea of "intellectual status" is actually taken seriously by Peikoff's defenders. In a very revealing Facebook discussion started by Chip Joyce—a former classmate of mine at ARI's old Objectivist Graduate Center and someone who is well-known in Objectivist circles—one of the participants actually asserts that, given his past accomplishments, "Dr. Peikoff is not obligated to explain himself to us." But an intellectual is always obligated to explain himself, in any matter relating to ideas—just as a scientist always needs to show his work. The proper attitude is expressed by the motto of Britain's premiere scientific association, the Royal Society: nullius in verba, "on no one's word." Even an Isaac Newton has to show the data to support his conclusions. And the best scientists, like the best philosophers, will ask their colleagues to bring on the best counter-arguments and strongest criticisms, and they will be eager to answer those objections in public.
Respect for an intellectual's past accomplishments is certainly appropriate, but all it properly earns him is a respectful hearing—not obedience.
Taken on its own, this section of the e-mail is a clear appeal to authority. But it gets worse. The Anthemgate e-mail is literally a demand that Peikoff be treated as infallible. He complains: "In essence, [McCaskey's] behavior amounts to: Peikoff is misguided, Harriman is misguided, [McCaskey] knows Objectivism better than either." The fallacy here is simple. It is an equivocation between knowledge in general and knowledge in particular. Certainly, no one knows more about Ayn Rand's philosophy as a whole than Leonard Peikoff—but that does not mean he is incapable of making an error on a particular issue or point. In erasing that distinction, Peikoff is asserting his general expertise on Objectivism as grounds for demanding automatic agreement with his application of the philosophy to any particular issue. After all, who are you to think you know Objectivism better than he does?
And note that the issue on which Peikoff is asserting this authority is not even part of Objectivism proper. Peikoff has long insisted that Objectivism consists only of the philosophical ideas stated by Ayn Rand herself or personally approved by her. But she did not develop a theory of scientific induction; this theory is a very recent invention of Peikoff's. Yet he describes his theory as "expressing Ayn Rand's epistemology" and suggests that in disagreeing with Peikoff, McCaskey is claiming that "Objectivism is inadequate."
This fits with a pattern, in recent years, of Peikoff attempting to incorporate his own new theories into "official Objectivism." He has done it with the so-called "DIM Hypothesis," declaring in a 2006 letter that anyone who does not endorse the conclusions in that theory simply "does not understand Objectivism." (I'll have more to say about that letter below.) He has made several attempts to do the same with his theory on induction. The consequence is the increasing identification of the philosophy of Objectivism with his own theories and opinions, including on issues Ayn Rand never addressed. The message of this e-mail is: Objectivism, c'est moi.
This is the key for understanding what has gone wrong with the Objectivist movement, how it careened into the Anthemgate crack-up, and the historical roots of this crisis.
The history here is crucial to grasp. This is not just about McCaskey or Harriman or a single e-mail from Peikoff. There is a context for it. Ironically, some have cited "context" to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions from the AthemGate e-mail, saying that we do not know what discussions and conflicts may have occurred behind the scenes. I suspect they cite this context precisely because it is unknown, thereby justifying a permanent suspension of judgment. But as others have replied, in the vigorous online discussions on this issue, further context can only add information. It can't make the content of the Anthemgate e-mail disappear. In what context, after all, is it acceptable to make an argument from authority? And the really relevant context is that this is not the first time Peikoff has made such an argument, or launched an attack against an independent Objectivist intellectual. This is part of a long-standing pattern.
Here are the top highlights of that history, relying only on things that are publicly available and that occurred during my own history of involvement in the Objectivist movement.
The first serious alarm bell I noticed—at least, the first one that I was really required to get deeply involved in—was a letter submitted to TIA in 2000 by Peikoff and a circle of his associates that included Dave Harriman. The letter was written in response to a positive review of Allan Gotthelf's On Ayn Rand, a short overview of Objectivism written for an academic audience. The book's only flaw, in my view, was an overly complex and drily technical academic style, but it was condemned by Peikoff et al. as "harmful to the spread of Objectivism" because its biographical sketch of Ayn Rand was too long and positive and a few of its passages were (allegedly) unclear, so all of this would cause readers to dismiss Objectivism as "just some kind of cult."
Looking back at this in light of today's context, I have to point out the preposterous irony. Ten years ago, writing about Objectivism in an overly academic style would make people think it's a cult. But ejecting people from the movement by appealing to your "intellectual status" and threatening "I hope you still know who I am"—that won't make Objectivism look like a cult?
The letter concluded that "this book is a test of one's ability to read objectively"—a mild, early form of a kind of "test" we will see later. In response, Bob Stubblefield (then-publisher of TIA) and I wrote a polite but firm defense of Gotthelf's book. Though this did not make it into our response, I thought at the time that the danger of Peikoff's letter was that it would shut down young minds. Any young Objectivist who took the letter seriously would be paralyzed from producing any writing or presentation of his own, for fear that a merely inadequate presentation of Objectivism would be harmful to the movement. Looking back on it, however, I realize that the target of that letter was not the over-eager effort of a young newcomer. It was a serious presentation by a distinguished academic who had been in the Objectivist movement for forty years. Which means that this was an attempt to paralyze everyone's mind. In retrospect, this letter was a warning that the only people allowed to write about Objectivism are Peikoff or those directly approved by him. It was an assertion of the exclusive privileges of his "intellectual status."
There was a series of minor skirmishes over the coming years, some of which I will mention shortly, but the next major crisis was in 2006, in the run-up to that year's mid-term congressional election. Peikoff released a letter (see the letter and my response to it here) declaring that it was "immoral" not to vote a straight Democratic ticket—that it was immoral even to abstain from voting. Yes, that meant a moral obligation to vote for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Barney Frank and the whole gang—the very same Democrats who now control Congress, with the results we see all around us.
But that is not what was most objectionable about Peikoff's election recommendation. An error can be excused—even, possibly, an error as big as that one—but what cannot be excused is an attempt to close down rational discussion. Toward the end of Peikoff's letter, he asserts:
"In my judgment, anyone who votes Republican or abstains from voting in this election has no understanding of the practical role of philosophy in man's actual life—which means that he does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism, except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world."As I wrote in reply:
This is entirely inappropriate....Dr. Peikoff's statement amounts to an epistemological Argument from Intimidation, an ultimatum demanding that the reader vote in a certain way, under threat of being considered epistemologically unworthy, incapable of understanding Objectivism "except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world."
One cannot make agreement on such a narrow, concrete, complex topic as an election into a test of anyone's philosophical understanding.... A respect for the independence and objectivity of other people's minds requires that such issues be open to civil discussion and debate.
In recent years, I've noticed that Peikoff has been using these tactics more frequently. In a recent podcast on the Ground Zero Mosque, Peikoff calls for the government not just to block the mosque but to bomb it (the details are a little incoherent). I'll have more to say about the reasoning behind his recommendation below. But notice that he could not help but begin the podcast with the same method: impugning the character and thinking of any Objectivist who disagrees with him. Here is how he says it:
Left to my own devices, I would be enraged and spout off all the way through my answer on the wickedness of the people who believe [that the developers have a right to build the mosque] or the non-knowledge of the people who agree with them. But I asked for questions and therefore if I take it, well, nobody forced me, I've got to be calm, just as if it was any other question. So, do not let my manner deceive you as to my opinion, my evaluation.All of these were public warning signs, but the Anthemgate e-mail makes it all very obvious and explicit. Peikoff's default mode now is to denounce anyone who disagrees with him, on any issue he regards as personally important, as "wicked" and to be ostracized by all good Objectivists.
All of this would be destructive enough even if it were done in defense of true ideas. It would be destructive because the commitment to judge the truth for oneself is far more important than the truth or falsehood of one's views on any particular issue. But this method of intellectual bullying has been used to inject a series of falseideas into the Objectivist debate, giving them the decisive weight of Peikoff's "intellectual status" and thereby cutting off valid thinking on these issues.
Leonard Peikoff's greatest contribution to Objectivism, in my view, is his identification of the thinking error of "rationalism," which consists of putting into practice the philosophical theory that all knowledge is gained by deduction from abstractions, rather than by induction from observation of reality. Peikoff's identification of this erroneous view of reason, including detailed analysis of its symptoms, is an achievement that is experienced by many Objectivists—particularly young men of an intellectual disposition, who are most prone to rationalism—as a form of salvation from error. I regard it as his most important achievement because it is one that people can and do use on a daily basis as a corrective to their thinking.
But then, in recent years, Peikoff produced the DIM Hypothesis, a complex alphanumeric matrix that somewhat artificially seeks to explain history by arranging ideas and leaders according to whether they are "disintegrated," "integrated," or "misintegrated" (hence "DIM"). The result is what I regard as a highly rationalistic deduction of the conclusion that the greatest threat of our era is the impending prospect of a Christian theocracy imposed by the Republican Party. It is a conclusion that is largely derived from a general appeal to broad historical patterns, and from the theoretical construct of the DIM Hypothesis—but with only a glancing attempt to ground it in actual observations of contemporary journalistic concretes.
At the time of Peikoff's 2006 election letter, I and many others responded by citing mountains of evidence, about the waning historical influence of religion in the West, about how the War on Terrorism had caused the right to reaffirm its commitment to free speech and religious freedom, and on and on. At the time, defenders of Peikoff's position brushed off most of these claims as "concrete-bound"—a curious way of dismissing the relevance of facts.
I consider subsequent events to be a vindication of our arguments. The left, which Peikoff described as weak, dispirited, and mostly harmless, has proven to be more committed and destructive than even I expected. And as for the rank-and-file conservatives whom Peikoff denounced as the foot-soldiers of theocracy, they are the very people now saving us from destruction by spontaneously rising up in the Tea Party movement. Any doubt about their real priorities—whether they cared more about religious traditionalism or about freedom—has now been erased. These people did not gather together to march in the streets by the millions to demand theocracy or even a ban on abortion. They are marching to stop out-of-control government power (much to the chagrin, as I have noted, of the hard-core religious right). A story from this year's 9/12 march in Washington, DC, sums it up for me. As we marched past the Newseum—the mainstream media's impressive mausoleum overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue—we noticed a giant mural on the side of the building bearing the complete text of the First Amendment. The Tea Party marchers spontaneously began reading the words of the First Amendment aloud, in unison and with reverence, as a kind of display of patriotism. This is not a ready constituency for theocracy.
I would also point out that these are the same conservatives who have almost unanimously acknowledged that the First Amendment gives Feisal Rauf the right to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan, much as they might hate the idea. The irony is that it is Peikoff, who just a few years ago warned about impending theocracy, who has advocated the suspension of the First Amendment and the denial to Muslims of the "free exercise" of their religion. It is a disastrous precedent to set if Peikoff still believes, as he does, that Christian theocracy is the greatest threat to America.
But what is even worse is his reasoning, which has not been well understood. Many people who agree with Peikoff about blocking the mosque have defended his position by inventing their own arguments for it. Hardly anyone has pointed out his own central argument, expressed in this passage:
"Rights are contextual. In any situation where metaphysical survival is at stake all property rights are out. You have no obligation to respect property rights. The obvious, classic example of this is, which I've been asked a hundred times, you swim to a desert island—you know, you had a shipwreck—and when you get to the shore, the guy comes to you and says, 'I've got a fence all around this island. I found it. It's legitimately mine. You can't step onto the beach.' Now, in that situation you are in a literal position of being metaphysically helpless. Since life is the standard of rights, if you no longer can survive this way, rights are out. And it becomes dog-eat-dog or force-against-force."That is what he sets up as the context for everything that follows and as the basic justification for banning—or bombing—the mosque. He cites no principle to justify this suspension of rights, because he has thrown out principles, invoking an "emergency" to justify resolving the issue through a contest of brute force.
This is an extremely dangerous idea which, if taken seriously and applied elsewhere, would eliminate the very concept of individual rights from political discussion. And he has begun to apply it elsewhere. In another podcast, Peikoff has discovered another supposed emergency that justifies the suspension of rights: illegal immigration. Reversing his previous support for liberalized immigration, just two years ago, a new podcast justifies a crackdown on illegal immigration on the same kind of dog-eat-dog argument.
Peikoff is turning the lesson of Ayn Rand's article "The Ethics of Emergencies" on its head. The point of that article was that you cannot look at "lifeboat" emergency situations and draw general principles that apply to morality under normal circumstances. Yet that is precisely what Peikoff ends up doing—citing what you would do if you were stranded on a desert island to illuminate what should be done in the building permit approval process for a religious structure in Manhattan.
Leonard Peikoff sets the example from the very top of the Objectivist movement, and his methods have trickled down pervasively to others in the movement, something that has put me in frequent and increasing conflict with the "mainstream" Objectivist movement centered around the Ayn Rand Institute.
The first real conflict centered around American policy in the War on Terrorism, coming to a head in 2003–2004. I had seen such a conflict coming, which is one of the reasons I began phasing out my work for ARI at that time. It was at this point that Peikoff cut off TIA from the "Box 177" program, which uses the insert cards in Ayn Rand's novels to generate a mailing list that was shared by ARI and several other organizations. He also denied permission for us to include the text of his articles in a digital version of our back issues, on the grounds that he had philosophical disagreements with TIA. The nature of those philosophical disagreements was never disclosed to me.
(It was also at about this time, if I recall, that Phil Oliver, an Objectivist who put in an enormous amount of work to compile a searchable CD-ROM of Ayn Rand's writings, was denied an extension of his license to produce the CD specifically because Phil had criticized David Harriman's writings on science in Internet discussion groups.)
ARI then vigorously supported the creation of a better-funded competitor to TIA, The Objective Standard, which has reliably served as a de facto "house organ" for ARI, expressing views on war and politics that are in line with the approved positions there.
This alternative publication was launched with an article by Yaron Brook, ARI's executive director, and Alex Epstein, who now works as one of its policy analysts. The article launched another false idea into the realm of politics: the idea that the Bush administration's war policies were consistently based on an altruist, quasi-pacifist version of "just war theory" advocated by a philosopher named Michael Walzer. This was an idea originated by Leonard Peikoff in a talk at West Point and then broadcast by way of Brook and Epstein. The only evidence for the influence of "just war theory" was a heavily re-written history of the run-up to the Iraq War. The article asserts, for example, that toward the end of 2002, Bush quietly dropped the case for pre-emption—which is not consistent with "just war theory" and which Brook and Epstein approve of. But this is merely asserted, because there is no evidence to back it up. I followed the debate over the war exhaustively, and I can remember the exact day Bush stopped arguing about pre-emption and the Iraq War: it was in early 2005, after his re-election, when he finally felt that the American people had ratified the decision to fight in Iraq.
In that article, there is one smoking gun that indicates how Brook and Epstein re-wrote the facts. Michael Walzer, who is used throughout the article as the authority on "just war theory," is quoted describing that theory's restrictions on the use of pre-emptive force. When I read the article, I thought the quote sounded familiar, so I looked at an article Alex Epstein had published in TIA in late 2002. Epstein had argued in favor of the invasion of Iraq by arguing for the pre-emptive use of force to prevent a hostile regime from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. That earlier article extensively and approvingly quoted Bush administration officials making the argument for pre-emption, and Epstein included the same quote from Walzer—but in a longer form. In the longer form, Walzer states his restricted view of the right to pre-emptive action, but then goes on to say that this is contradicted by the arguments of the Bush administration. That is the part that is left out of the same quote when it appears later in Brook and Epstein's "just war theory" article. The quote is cut short because it contradicts the whole thesis of the article: the man they take as the authority on "just war theory" states that the Bush administration is not acting according to its restrictions.
If this sounds like nit-picking, well, there are those who regard McCaskey's factual objections to Harriman's book as nit-picking. But these problems are every bit as important in my field, journalism, as Harriman's errors are in McCaskey's field. In each case, a fact that was directly relevant to a philosophical conclusion was ignored or airbrushed out when it needed to be addressed.
That article's view of the War on Terrorism quickly became the acceptable view in Objectivist circles, and those who disagreed could expect a good dose of scorn and intimidation—and if you don't think so, then brother, you weren't on the other side. I even had a small handful of people cancel their subscriptions to TIA on the grounds that we were not really an Objectivist publication any more but had instead become "neoconservatives"—a smear borrowed from the Left.
But the disapproval directed toward TIA is not the real problem. When you write about politics, you tend to stir up a lot of hostility, and you get used to it. The worst consequence of this false theory is that it prevented thinking and learning about the most important issue of the day. The result, in ARI circles, has been a stubborn refusal to learn anything about the history and nature of counter-insurgency war, ignoring whole swathes of military science and history and instead chalking it all up as altruist philosophy. This has happened while the US has been engaged in two counter-insurgency wars and was winning one of them. But the "mainstream" ARI-associated Objectivists refused to study the implementation of counter-insurgency strategy and to this day they will not even acknowledge the victory of the "surge" in Iraq.
War is not the only subject on which ARI intellectuals have been wearing philosophical blinders. Peikoff's insistence about the imminent threat of theocracy has also caused some Objectivists to tailor the facts to this pre-approved conclusion, preventing them from being able to process new information. I will cite one glaring example. About five years ago, a conservative intellectual named Dinesh D'Souza wrote a book called The Enemy at Home, in which he accused the left of being responsible for September 11, not because they advocated a weak foreign policy, but because they are too secular and godless and therefore enrage the sensibilities of foreign Muslims. In effect, D'Souza advocates the suppression of our liberties in order to appease Muslim rage.
It was an evil thesis, to which Objectivists were first alerted by Jack Wakeland's scathing comments in TIA Daily in 2004. When the book came out, TIA Daily offered extensive coverage of the reaction in conservative circles, which I described as a test for conservatives of the degree of their sympathy with religious dictatorship. In our coverage, available here, I extensively documented the conservatives' rejection of D'Souza's argument.
Which is why I was struck last year when one of ARI's writers, Elan Journo, published a long series of posts on ARI's new blog addressing the D'Souza controversy three years after the fact—and getting the story completely wrong. If Journo had actually been following the controversy, he would have found multiple conservative arguments against D'Souza, often in quite strong and eloquent terms. Instead, the only conservative Journo cites as criticizing the book is Andrew Sullivan. (Virtually no one on the right has considered Sullivan to be a "conservative" since about 2005, when he flipped against the Iraq War, adopting the full litany of the Left's complaints.) Journo then goes on to quote the weakest criticism offered by National Review's Jonah Goldberg—while missing Goldberg's much stronger comments, in which he essentially declares, of the left, that he may disagree with everything they say but will fight to the death for their right to say it. He even quotes Mark Steyn egregiously out of context to make him look like a squishy appeaser of Muslims. Yes, this is the same Mark Steyn who is an indefatigable opponent of Islamization and who has personally stood up against persecution by Muslim radicals in the kangaroo courts of Canada's "human rights" commissions.
The whole flavor of this sloppy, selective coverage of the facts is summed up in one detail. Journo cites, as evidence of conservative sympathy for D'Souza's argument, that "National Review's website published D'Souza's detailed, four-part reply to his critics." He neglects to mention that this was followed by NRO's own online "symposium," whose title was "Rejecting a Thesis"—National Review's writers rejecting D'Souza's thesis.
Again, the worst damage is that the false idea spread through these methods prevents the discovery and acknowledgement of true conclusions. Thus, Journo's series concludes that "The only fire remaining in conservatism today emanates from religionists like D'Souza." This was written in late August of 2009, when town hall meetings across the country were exploding with rage against Obama's health care plan, following giant Tea Party rallies across the country on Tax Day and July 4, and about three weeks before a million people converged on the mall in Washington to protest against runaway government spending. To claim, in that context, that religion is the only issue that can set the right on fire is to live in an alternative universe.
Again, however, the problem is not just the error. It is the inability to correct the error. Note that at the end of this series Journo thanks, for their review and assistance, Yaron Brook, Onkar Ghate, and Tom Bowden—Journo's entire chain of command at ARI. Yet none of them were capable of offering a correction. They could not do it, because the idea of a theocratic takeover from the right—"an incremental 'Talibanization' of America," Journo calls it—was a pre-ordained result that could not be questioned. After all, Leonard Peikoff had already declared that anyone who doesn't accept this conclusion has "no understanding of the practical role of philosophy in man's actual life—which means that he does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism, except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world." And how could such a person be permitted to continue working for ARI?
This method of selectively presenting facts to fit a pre-formed philosophical conclusion is on almost cartoonish display in a Facebook attack on McCaskey by Tore Boeckmann, an ARI-associated intellectual who has set himself up as a kind of intellectual enforcer vilifying anyone who challenges Peikoff. (See his previous effortagainst Betsy Speicher and the late Stephen Speicher and their independent Internet bulletin board for Objectivists.) Boeckmann accuses McCaskey's review ofThe Logical Leap of being vague and noncommittal, of lacking substance and depending only on innuendo—which he does by excerpting only McCaskey's polite understatements and careful academic qualifications, while using ellipses to cut out everything of actual substance in the review. What is cut out is four paragraphs of detailed discussion of Galileo's concept of air resistance, including quotes from Galileo's own notebooks, and another four paragraphs of discussion on the best scholarship regarding Newton's concept of inertia. In other words, what is cut out is the actual argument offered in the review.
I had a somewhat disreputable acquaintance in high school whose idea of a clever trick, in a class debate, was to take a quote from the Founding Fathers and make it say the opposite of what it really meant. How did he do this? By using ellipses to remove the word "not." Boeckmann's technique is almost as crude.
Take a long, hard look at these dishonest attacks and put yourself in the place of a young intellectual looking to make a career in the Objectivist movement. Imagine what it would be like to realize that this is what is awaiting you if you challenge any idea approved by Leonard Peikoff and supported by ARI.
And this is the right perspective to take, because those are the people who are watching this controversy most intently: the young Objectivist intellectual in their twenties, and particularly the graduate students. These are people who had been hoping to rely on the Ayn Rand Institute and the Anthem Foundation for dissertation grants, for teaching jobs, for help in obtaining an academic position. They are now deeply concerned that if they follow this career path, they will not be allowed to think independently, that they will constantly have to worry about having predetermined philosophical conclusions dictated down to them from above.
My message to these young intellectuals is that they are right to be worried, because in my field it happens all the time. The Anthem scandal serves notice that it's beginning to happen in their field, too. And when Leonard Peikoff's promised book on his DIM Hypothesis appears, who knows what other thoughts will have become off-limits?
If I have cited a large number of examples to prove my point, it is because I am pulling together a big pattern that has manifested itself on many issues across many years. And I should stress that I do not expect you to read this overview and immediately be convinced that what I am saying is true. That is why I have posted links and references for all of these cases—and at the end of this article, I will publish a bibliography of links, so you can take time to go to the original sources, evaluate them, and judge for yourself.
My other reason for citing a large number of detailed examples is because I want to impress upon the reader how pervasive the problem is, and the fact that it cuts across all levels of the Objectivist movement, from the rank-and-file, like Chip Joyce, to the low- and mid-level intellectuals, like Tore Boeckmann and Elan Journo, to the very top. I'll provide one last example to prove that point.
If there is one Objectivist intellectual whom I have most regarded as a mentor or role model, it is Harry Binswanger, and his moderated e-mail discussion list, HBL, has been one of the last forums where different Objectivist factions all participated and talked with (or at least at) each other. But I have been increasingly frustrated with what I regard as a non-objective bias in Harry's moderation of the list, an attempt to stack the intellectual deck against arguments he doesn't like. The final straw came about a month ago, when I sent in a post addressing Leonard Peikoff's recent podcasts on immigration and the Ground Zero Mosque. Harry sent back a note explaining that he would not send it out to the list because he did not want to post any more criticism of Peikoff, and because my comments were too "trenchant." Go to a dictionary and look up the word "trenchant." I did, just to make sure it meant what I thought it meant. It doesn't mean that my comments were rude, insulting, orad hominem—you can read them and judge for yourself. What Harry was objecting to is that my arguments were too convincing. I have not posted on HBL since, I will not, and as of this writing I have asked Harry to remove me from his list.
What else can I do—offer only my second-best arguments in order to avoid offending a higher intellectual authority? Any discussion based on the terms, "offer whatever arguments you have, so long as they're not too trenchant," is a fraud. It means that one side is able to post its best arguments and engage in direct criticism—Harry frequently publishes direct criticism of me and TIA—but the other side is limited to presenting its arguments in a softened, indirect form. This is not an intellectual discussion but a mechanism for the enforcement of orthodoxy.
This pattern is too pervasive to be attributed merely to the quirks of one particular personality. It stems from a single central idea: the establishment of a system ofintellectual authority, with a hierarchy of deference to that authority.
I vividly remember when that system was made clear to me. I believe it was some time in the last year in a discussion on HBL, when my "What Went Right?" seriesand some defenses of it that I offered on HBL were being criticized for showing insufficient "respect" for Leonard Peikoff. (On that issue, I will simply say that I have enough respect for Peikoff to treat him like an intellectual and not a pampered celebrity. And that means treating him as if he is fully capable of answering objections on their merits, without needing to be shielded from criticism, and without the crutch of standing on his authority.) I was trying to understand what these critics meant by "respect" when Jean Moroney Binswanger wrote a long post setting out a whole hierarchy of "respect," in which the top philosophers are entitled to the most respect in an intellectual discussion, and then lesser levels of respect are required for those who are farther down in the philosophical pecking order. (Unfortunately, due to HBL's rules, I cannot provide a link or a direct quote.) It struck me then that "respect" was the wrong word, that it was a reputable cover used to describe what is really expected in the Objectivist movement: deference to philosophical authority.
The Anthemgate e-mail makes that crystal clear, because it shows in no uncertain terms that "respect" goes only one way. Peikoff demands it for himself—but does not grant even a basic level of respect to ARI's board, to McCaskey, or to the average Objectivist. McCaskey's own story of how his ejection from the board happened is relevant here. I talked to him recently to get his side of the story and to verify some details that I had heard "through the grapevine." (He agreed to talk to me, but he was unaware that I planned to write anything on this, and he has not seen or approved of what I have written here.) One of the first questions I had for McCaskey was: how did he get Peikoff's permission to release the e-mail? Here is how he explained it. He offered to resign from the board on the condition that Peikoff allow the release of some kind of statement naming Peikoff's problems with McCaskey—and that e-mail is what was given to him as the statement. He was surprised, to say the least, that Peikoff was content to let a half-edited e-mail rant stand as his statement to McCaskey and to the world as the grounds for his action. Peikoff's decision not to write anything more formal or to offer any other information on the issue is an expression of contempt for the minds of others. The message is: you don't deserve anything better.
Why? Because in a hierarchy of philosophical "respect," Leonard Peikoff is way up there, John McCaskey is way down here, and the rest of us are presumably even farther down.
All of this—the rewriting of facts to fit a pre-determined philosophical conclusion, and the hierarchy of intellectual deference—is a massive demonstration of the very thing I have been responding to in my "What Went Right?" series: the pervasive premise, in Objectivism, that the propagation of ideas goes from the top down, that philosophy dictates conclusions down to the special sciences. Whether it's the War on Terrorism or the influence of religion in American politics or the history of science, in every field and on every issue where philosophical theory meets the facts, "one of us has to go," and so the facts go.
To see this assumption in action, consider a reply at Amazon.com to McCaskey's review of The Logical Leap. This reply is from someone I know to be a longtime and serious Objectivist, and he complains that "any review of the book should primarily focus on the theory, recognizing that it is the essential content and context, with all other issues secondary," but that McCaskey dwells instead on "details of interpretation of historical development." Note the premise that this individual has unwittingly bought into: that theory is primary, that it is more important to address the theory than it is to address the facts that support it.
But if McCaskey's comments are just historical nit-picking, why the condemnation and the ultimatums? Why not just let him state his objections and answer them clearly—or better yet, why not make the necessary factual and philosophical corrections, since McCaskey's arguments have been available to Harriman and Peikoff for some time? Yet in the Anthemgate e-mail, Peikoff acknowledges that McCaskey's "disagreements are not limited to details, but often go to the heart of the philosophic principles at issue." And McCaskey's review explains clearly why the factual errors he cites would require at least a revision of Peikoff's theory. So the attempt to cast McCaskey out of the Objectivist movement is an attempt to use Peikoff's philosophical authority to override substantive factual objections.
This is not news to me. My field isn't history or the philosophy of science. Mine is politics, and what I have seen over the past ten years is the persistent intrusion of false ideas pushed down from above on Peikoff's philosophical authority. On the two biggest political issues of our day—the War on Terrorism and the relative merits of the Republicans (and the right in general) versus the Democrats as the best protection for our liberties—Peikoff and those following his lead have been disastrously wrong. But worse, they have been wrong because they have been contemptuously indifferent to the facts. One jarring juxtaposition should make my point. At the same time that Peikoff posted his letter on the 2006 election on his website—the same time that he was saying that the rest of us have "no understanding of the practical role of philosophy in man's actual life"—his site also featured the following Q&A:
"Q: I am writing to inquire about your sentiments on the current state of America and the world."A: I now read only the front page of the New York Times, dropping each story when it is necessary to turn the page. That way, what is happening does not become too real to me."
This is why I have become increasingly skeptical over the years about Peikoff's work on induction—because I have observed that in my field, he does not practice it. After all, the first step of induction, its precondition, is an immersion in the facts. There is no theory of evolution without the voyage of the Beagle, and no sweeping new theory about the political direction of the country without reading the newspapers. McCaskey's criticisms—and Peikoff's reaction to them—confirm my skepticism. Harriman has presented a theory of induction produced by someone who does not fully believe in it, who believes that his philosophical theory can stand apart from its basis in the facts.
That attitude was crystallized for me in 2006, when I stood out against Peikoff's election recommendation and received an e-mail from a board member at ARI who urged me to reconsider because Peikoff was looking at events on a "higher level," a rarified philosophical plane which ought to override the mere factual objections of a journalist. The whole thing smacks of the leftover influence of Platonism, the idea that deeper truth resides at a greater distance from the facts.
And that give us the key to understand what it is that Peikoff is asserting in the Anthemgate e-mail. In effect, the "intellectual status" Peikoff is claiming is that of a Platonic philosopher-king, whose connection to a higher realm of abstractions entitles him to overrule the conclusions of those who are engaged with the mere "details" of history, politics, law, and so on.
I took a lot of heat in my "What Went Right?" series for identifying this "top-down" approach to the influence of philosophy. Many thought I was misrepresenting Peikoff's views. But is there any better example of the top-down approach than Peikoff's conflict with McCaskey?
In my original presentation of my series, I chose not to spend a lot of time demonstrating the pervasiveness of this approach, largely because I wanted to focus attention on my own positive theory, rather than on my criticisms of other Objectivists. It turns out this attempt was somewhat naïve; I did not realize that in the authority-centered system of the Objectivist movement, the most important issue would not be the evidence I provided for my own theory, but rather my deviation from the accepted philosophical authorities.
In the current context, therefore, it seems appropriate to return to this issue and take it head-on. Reluctantly, I have concluded that the error does go back to Ayn Rand, particularly this analogy from her essay "For the New Intellectual":
"The professional intellectual is the field agent of the army whose commander-in-chief is the philosopher. The intellectual carries the application of philosophical principles to every field of human endeavor. He sets a society's course by transmitting ideas from the "ivory tower" of the philosopher to the university professor—to the writer—to the artist—to the newspaperman—to the politician—to the movie maker—to the night-club singer—to the man in the street. The intellectual's specific professions are in the field of the sciences that study man, the so-called "humanities," but for that very reason his influence extends to all other professions. Those who deal with the sciences studying nature have to rely on the intellectual for philosophical guidance and information: for moral values, for social theories, for political premises, for psychological tenets and, above all, for the principles of epistemology, that crucial branch of philosophy which studies man's means of knowledge and makes all other sciences possible."Substantively, the wrong premise here—which is expanded upon in the rest of her essay—is Ayn Rand's idea of the division of labor between the intellectual and his audience. Yes, there is such a division of labor, and there are incalculable benefits that come from making it possible for some men to devote their full-time effort to the study and transmission of ideas. But this is one case where the division of labor has limits: a man's thinking about the most important issues of life cannot be outsourced to others or handed down to him on some transmission belt from the ivory tower. In particular, in the current context, I would note that a scientist has to be an expert in epistemology in his own right—and historically, the scientists have been much better epistemologists than the philosophers. In my view, we would be much better off if the scientists did not rely on the philosophers for their ideas on epistemology, but rather if the philosophers relied on the scientists. They could make a good start by studying Galileo and Newton.
Stylistically, the problem with this passage is the comparison of the philosopher to a general giving orders to his troops. You can see the potential for mischief, and I think we can now understand how Ayn Rand's successors believe that when they announce a philosophical conclusion, other intellectuals are supposed to salute smartly and stick to their marching orders.
But it is also clear that the author of The Fountainhead would never have endorsed an interpretation of this division of labor that allows for appeals to authority or for the subordination of the individual's independent judgment. And I should note that while the top-down premise does appear in Ayn Rand's theory of history, it is not consistent throughout, and it is very clear that she held an opposite view implicitly. After all, in her novels, who are the great philosophical innovators who generate new ideas? An architect, and a physicist working on an engineering project. And who, after all, was she? Ayn Rand was not an inhabitant of the ivory tower; she was a former Hollywood screenwriter who developed her philosophy in the process of writing her novels—with all of the contempt that earned her from the credentialed academic establishment.
Yet the top-down premise, once it had gained a toe-hold in Objectivism, had a profound effect on the Objectivist movement. The problem was compounded, I suspect, by Ayn Rand's unique role. As the creator of Objectivism, she had a legitimate authority to say what was in it and what wasn't, and so the original structure of the Objectivist movement did—by necessity—