Libertarianism, Objectivism, and Rage

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Libertarianism, Objectivism, and Rage

a talk by Barbara Branden

reported (with gratuitous wise cracks) by Roger Bissell

November 22, 2005

The prelude: Early in the evening of Monday, November 21, my wife, Becky, and I braved the horrific L.A. rush hour traffic and motored up from Orange County (the county with a peel) to a very special meeting of the Karl Hess Club in West Los Angeles. (We heartily recommend the cuisine at the meeting site. Billingsley's Restaurant served up a delicious trout and a mouth-watering tri-tip steak.) Arriving relatively late, Becky and I had to sit at separate tables (but situated so we could still make goo-goo eyes at each other :-), and I managed to snag a seat at the table of honor, already occupied by Dr. John Hospers, former SOLO contributor Jim Kilbourne, emcee and noted sci-fi author Brad Linaweaver, Karl Hess's niece, two other folks whose names I have forgotten, and the evening's speaker (and another ex-SOLO contributor), Barbara Branden.

The dinner chat: Linaweaver, good-natured agnostic that he is, shared his chagrain over having converted his ex-wife from Baptist and Democratic leanings to Episcopalianism and Libertarianism, after which she promptly divorced him. I suggested that if he was willing to be a sacrificial marital animal, he could save quite a few young ladies that way. He also mentioned how Nietzsche is a perennial college favorite over Kant, when students are given a choice of whom to study or write about, and in the same vein (?), I lamented the fact that the philosophy sections of bookstores have shrunk in recent years, to the point that philosophy has become a... "niche" The head table seemed to be a bastion of Bush supporters in an otherwise largely anarcho-libertarian group. Linaweaver vigorously pressed his case that while Bush is a good President, Reagan was a great one -- more, that Reagan was arguably the greatest President of the 20th century. I offered to endorse this claim, if Linaweaver would reciprocate by endorsing my belief that Bush is the greatest President of the 21st century. At that point, Linaweaver became very abusive, calling me a bastard and a smart ass, even baring his teeth at me. (At least, he seemed to become harshly judgmental. :-) I also had some brief interaction with Jim Kilbourne and Barbara Branden, both of whom I was meeting for the first time, and both of whom had ncie things to say about my writing style, which they appreciate for its clarity. Actually, what they said was that they appreciate the fact that I make it easy for them to disagree with me. <sigh> Jim and I also discovered that we have the same two favorite Puccini arias: Nessun dorma from "Turandot" and O mio babbino caro from "Gianni Schicchi." When I introduced myself to Barbara ("Hello, Barbara, I'm Roger Bissell"), she responded, "Well, of course, you are!" (Indeed, who else would I be!) Her quiet, intense, friendliness won me over, so I immediately set aside my automatized mind-set of harsh judgmentalism to Enemies of Objectivism and decided grudgingly to open-mindedly consider what she had to say.

The Agora: Various people did their show and tell of events and products they were involved with. It was announced that Barbara's talk was being video-taped with her permission, and that it would be marketed pending her approval of the tape.

The talk: Barbara said that on a wide range of controversial topics, nearly everybody seems quick to anger; families and long-term friendships are damaged or broken up by things that can't be unsaid. She partially understands the reasons, which she will share with us.

Barbara gave three examples from her personal experience: (1) When she questioned on an online discussion group why James J. Martin had a long-term association with an anti-semitic organization, the IHR, if he wan't anti-semitic himself, Barbara was met with angry abuse and vicious sarcasm and lost a 30-year friendship in the process. (2) On an Objectivist blog, when some were trying to justify Leonard Peikoff's denunciation of David Kelley for speaking to a libertarian group, Barbara pointed out and documented that Peikoff had twice appeared at book-signing parties at Laissez-Faire books after excommunicating Kelley. She was accused of dishonesty and evasion and banned from the blog, and she and Nathaniel Branden were branded as "Enemies of Ayn Rand and Objectivism." (3) Recent discussions of the 1968 Split are polarized around people painting Nathaniel and Barbara as villains and Rand as being irrational. In summary, Barbara said, "these people are all nuts!" But why are they behaving this way? Barbara suggested that we set aside those with stored resentment and hatred, who seem to explode just to vent and shock others and look at more complicated factors.

Barbara focused on several key ideas: (1) The erroneous notion that there are "inherently evil ideas," and that you can judge a person's moral character by judging their convictions and thoughts. Someone who has "evil ideas" in effect is someone who disagrees with us, and they are thus evil people, and it is acceptable to denigrate and abuse those who disagree with us for that reason. By establishing their evil, we also fortify our own purity. We all agree that Muslim Fundamentalism is a serious threat, but does this mean we should damn all Muslim Fundamentalists, even a 13 year old boy? His context is that Muslims are heroes and Americans are the Great Satan, and he doesn't know any better. Was Andrei in We the Living evil? He eventually rejected Communism, once he saw its evil, anti-life consequences. If he were alive today, he would not be a Communist. Young people often brand something they dislike as "the most evil." They exaggerate, with no historical context to back it up. Ideas aren't evil, only people are evil. And people often err not because they are corrupt to the core, but because life is difficult. Why keep trying to sell your ideas in the world, if people are that evil? We have the right to make mistakes in life without being damned. We have the right to appropriate anger -- e.g., at the disastrous consequences of ideas and actions -- but not to unjust moral outrage at another's errors. If you don't like being treated as a destroyer because of your ideas, don't do that to others. (I am reminded here of the Frozen Abstraction Fallacy, written about by Rand in "Collectivized Ethics." She gave the example of altruists who regard egoism as not a morality; it is the same error for egoists to regard altruism as not a morality.) (2) The erroneous notion that just because you have a certain perception of reality, others must have it, too. E.g., we see what bad consequences ideas lead to, but others may not be aware of it. Barbara always saw piles of dead bodies when people advocated the draft. Pro and anti gun people both envision innocent victims if their opponents' ideas prevail. Our ideas are not self-evident to our opponents. Rarely do people disagree out of sheer perversity. (3) The vast oversimplification of the psychology of others. We are mentally complex creatures. As a set of principles of human action, psychology is still in its infancy. It is a relatively new science, its methodology is not agreed upon, and its philosophical base is not firm. We understand some motivations, not all. Various proposed theories (e.g., Freud's) have holes. Self-esteem is central, and one day, when it is scientifically validated, we'll have a theory of human action, but today we can't psychologize and assume we know each other's minds. Nobody evades knowingly. There is a big difference between conscious, willful evasion and being dimly aware that you aren't looking in all the directions you should be looking. Holding questionable ideas is usually the result of self-induced fog, not simple, crude evasion. Yet, "evasion" is the Scarlet Letter of Objectivism. When all else fails, say that someone is guilty of evasion. The motive here seems to be moral authoritarianism, the desire to keep people in line, not just disagreeing with them, but holding them in moral contempt and judging them as evil when they disagree. A tip: if you fly into an immediate rage when challenged, it may be a sign that you are not sure about your beliefs. Another label, "Social metaphysics," where you were supposedly guilty of finding reality not in facts but in the opinions of other people, used to be the cancer of Objectivism. This, too, seems prompted by moral authoritarianism.

In conclusion, Barbara asked: isn't there enough pain in the world? Wouldn't it be nice if someone for a change erred in being too lenient in judging others? There is a great lack of empathy these days. Judging people without empathy and awareness of their context won't change people and won't change the world. It will just make us outcasts. We should strive for a realistic, sympathetic understanding of others rather than morally condemning them (unless they deserve it, such as racists who deny the Holocaust or think it was a good thing).

The discussion: Lineweaver asked if Barbara thought that Reagan was great because he saved us from Communism, and she agreed. My wife, Becky, said that people who are attacked become defensive, and it is hard for them to keep an open mind to our ideas or for us to persuade them; and that when you listen to another's point of view non-judgmentally, it is more likely they will be open to your point of view; Barbara agreed with this. One guy offered the distinction between moral condemnation that "X is bad" and moral judgment that "X is bad for me," and that the latter guides you in what to do, while the former offers only anger and not guidance. I asked about the role of suppressed anger and use of drugs and alcohol which de-inhibits people who become more angry and belligerant, and I asked if Barbara was going to write a book about this topic; she said no, but she was working on a book that was related to the topic. Another guy suggested that personality type and addiction were behind people's efforts to control others; Lineweaver and Barbara said that we really don't have enough data to know that these are causing people to be controlling and judgmental. Neil Schulman, a Jewish guy, asked why it wouldn't be OK to be friends with an anti-Semite or a member of a racist group? It was suggested that this only gives them legitimacy ("some of my best friends are Jews"). Steve Reed suggested that the Internet shears off context, and we regard each other as disembodied intellects, rather than persons, and he apologized for unfortunately breaking off relations with various people because of this. A guy supporting gun owner rights told of his attempts to persuade a legislator to favor concealed carry laws, giving her much data and argument to support his claim, and she was still unconvinced and didn't want to hear more; he asked if she was being unreasonable. Barbara said you can't tell, and she suggested that one of the biggest mistakes she made in earlier years was feeling that she had to accept any argument that she wasn't able to refute, instead of saying, "It still bothers me, and I'll have to think about it."

All in all, it was a very stimulating, fun evening. Barbara's talk was very well received, generating a standing ovation and much friendly discussion. The lack of rancor and antagonism was surprising and heartening. We don't usually attend Karl Hess Club functions (the only other one being a talk by John Hospers on his relationship with Ayn Rand), and we probably won't in the future, but this event was well worth the time and money to attend it. And the time and effort to write it up and share with you, gentle reader. :-)

Additional comments

There's a reason why early media coverage of the Objectivist movement wrote about "The Cult of Angry Ayn Rand." It's not an illusion, and it's not all justified, and the unjustified anger has a very harmful effect on our ability to effectively communicate ideas. Yes, indeed, I have been guilty of inappropriate anger, way too many times, as a matter of fact, and I don't doubt that I will again. But I'm criticizing a behavior that undermines values. Apologies are fine, but when the behavior recurs too often, the apologies lose credibility, as they should. Bad habits are better broken sooner, than later.

Basically, Barbara advises against getting angry at people just because they disagree with you, which we both see happening a lot. She believes that one must reserve one's wrath for people who behave viciously -- e.g., Nazis, racists, etc. -- not people who, for instance, oppose concealed carry gun laws. (Both pro and anti gun folks "see" bodies of innocent victims as a consequence of their opponents' goals, and both sides would do well to remember that in their discussions, rather than assume that what is "self-evident" to them is so to the other person.)

My wife and I agreed that Barbara she struck us not as an angry person, but one who was anguished over how much inappropriate anger is unleashed in the world, particularly in the Libertarian and Objectivist movements, and how destructive this is to our attempts to communicate our ideas to others. She also struck us as a person singularly devoid of having a chip on her shoulder -- unlike...some people.

Perhaps I should have used another word than "struck"! BB seemed like a very gentle person -- a very empathetic, intense, wise, and gentle person. My wife and I both liked her immediately, and we both find it sadly laughable that BB is regarded as an "Enemy of Objectivism."

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  • 10 years later...


Rand had a striking presence. As biographer Barbara Branden described Rand upon her arrival in America at age 21: “Framed by its short, straight hair, its squarish shape stressed by a firmly set jaw, its sensual wide mouth held in tight restraint, its huge dark eyes black with intensity, it seemed the face of a martyr or an inquisitor or a saint. The eyes burned with a passion that was at once emotional and intellectual — as if they would sear the onlooker and leave their dark light a flame on his body.” Later in life, chain smoking and sedentary habits took their toll, but Rand was still unforgettable, as book editor Hiram Haydn recalled: “A short, squarish woman, with black hair cut in bangs and a Dutch bob.… Her eyes were as black as her hair, and piercing.”

Her eyes were incredibly deep and intense.


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