Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical
War for Men's Minds

Nathaniel Branden Interview, Pt. 1
by Alec Mouhibian

At 74 years of age, Nathaniel Branden sticks out like a silver thumb. Thanks to million-dollar smile and a rich contrast between hair and complexion, his appearance—much like the old Ronald Reagan’s—is illuminating, and it is matched with a desire to be illuminated. Nothing seems to warm him quite like a spotlight, whereas at the outskirts of attention, he seems out of place. Combine this with a brilliant gift and passion for interpersonal interaction, and it is not surprising that Branden has been the Magic 8-ball of Objectivism for almost fifty years. When he answers a question, one gets the impression that he is discovering and explaining at the same time. Which certainly gives new meaning to the phrase “likes to hear himself speak.” The fact that he responds with unnerved discomfort to any uninteresting question indicates that this impression is not merely due to charm.

I arrived at Dr. Branden’s Beverly Hills bearings with the goal of asking him about issues—topical and theoretical—he hadn’t publicly addressed before. Though I had originally hoped to avoid Ayn Rand as much as possible, it was perhaps inevitable that references would frequently be made to the chooser of the Chosen One. 

Dr. Branden is a practicing psychotherapist and multi-platinum selling author of several books, including The Psychology of Self-Esteem, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, The Art of Living Consciously, Taking Responsibility, and My Years With Ayn Rand. 

AM: I wanted to break the ice with something light. What, in one sentence, is the meaning of life?

NB: We are all responsible for creating the meaning of our own life…I don’t know that there is any general meaning apart from the meaning that each one of us gives to our life… Beyond that you could say, I suppose, that the meaning of life lies in the fulfillment of our faculties, of our potentials, of our capabilities.

AM: I’m sure we could turn that into one sentence, somehow. What did you think of Ronald Reagan?

NB: Let me begin by saying that I think he has been a much underestimated man by his opponents. I think that his understanding and handling of our relationship with the Soviet Union was brilliant. Gorbachev himself gives Reagan credit for effectively ending the Cold War. Are there areas where I would disagree with him? Sure. He was opposed to abortion. He did not believe in total laissez-faire capitalism. He did build up our national debt pretty enormously. But I tell you one thing he did that impressed me so much it almost wipes everything else off the mat. It’s something I found thrilling beyond words. And that was: he was in Russia, and he gave a speech in the University of Moscow. And the theme of the speech was to explain to the people there what American capitalism is. Here is the President of the United States, in a distinguished university in a country with whom we’ve had hostile relationships for decades—getting up, and in the most passionate yet totally non-belligerent way, explaining what economic freedom means, what capitalism means. It was so extraordinary in the moral clarity that he brought to his presentation that I’ll remember it, with great admiration, forever.

AM: One of the examples of Ayn Rand’s mental alienation from reality that baffles me the most is that, after supporting Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, she openly denounced Reagan. Yet it was Reagan who conspicuously embodied many of the characteristics she had wanted to see in a president: unabashed patriotism, pro-enterprise fervor, and moral clarity in regard to the Soviet Union. And he was the only one she told everybody not to vote for.

NB: Well unfortunately there are a number of examples one could give of this strange perspective that she had. I do think at times that she was very alienated from reality and a prisoner of her own ideology. A lot of the time, however, she was brilliant and really nailed issues properly. But occasionally she would come out with something like this that I was utterly flabbergasted by.

AM: What party are you registered with?

NB: The Libertarian Party.

AM: What do you think of the present state of the Libertarian Party?

NB: I don’t like it at all. It doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. I don’t know what I’m going to do this year. It’s a terrible year. When the choice is Bush or Kerry, we are in very deep trouble.

AM: Did you support the War on Iraq?

NB: If you asked me before the war began, I would’ve said no. I would’ve said that we should concentrate on hunting down Al Qaeda people. I shared the perspective of the folks at the Cato institute.  But, you know, if it’s true that Russia and certain other sources told Bush that Saddam Hussein most definitely did intend to launch something serious against America, and that should’ve proven to be true, attacking Iraq was the right thing to do. How it’s being handled and conducted is a different question entirely. People don’t remember, however, how many screw-ups and mistakes there were in World War II. Not anticipating properly and making mistakes that cost lives is nothing new or peculiar to Iraq. It happened in Korea and it happened in World War II, and it certainly happened in Vietnam. Television makes us all aware of everything—saying why didn’t they know this? Why didn’t they know that?—forgetting that if we held past presidents to the same standards, they should all be impeached.

AM: So you think the reaction to the post-war situation is overblown?

NB: Americans tend to have a fantasy that everybody else at heart is just like them. And they don’t understand that there are other cultures that are totally different, such as the cultures in the Middle East. Very few people in the services are really trained and are really knowledgeable of the culture and aware of the kind of things they need to be aware of if the intention is to create a new nation there. So I think there is lots to criticize, even if one says the war could be justified. So I’m inclined to the side that says it wasn’t the best move we could make if the purpose was to protect our country. I would rather have seen the energy put to chasing Al Qaeda terrorists around the world.

AM: The question of how to treat different cultures brings us right to Abu Ghraib. The two cells where the abuse scenes took place contained the worst criminals in the entire prison. Do you think that, given the proper context, such treatment is condonable?

NB: I think it was stupid. It accomplished nothing good for the U.S. It didn’t accomplish anything good. It just allowed some people to let off steam. But I look at everything from the point of view of: what is the purpose of doing this? What are you trying to accomplish? Why do you think this will accomplish it? And I never could see the sense of that kind of thing—to say nothing of the morality…

AM: Even if it resulted in extracting information?

NB: I think a case could be made for that, if there was reason to believe that these people had information that could save lives. I think a case could be made for some forms of roughening up whom one deals with, but it can’t be coming just out of rage or exasperation. It has to be conscious, it has to be purposeful, and it has to be grounded in information.

AM: Now for a related issue, one that is as divisive among libertarians as it is at large. And that is Israel. Some libertarians believe it deserves all the financial support it gets. Other libertarians believe that it was our support of Israel that led to 9-11, that sure the Arabs hate us, but they wouldn’t hate us enough to strap bombs if it weren’t for our outspoken support of Israel and presence in the region. What do you think of the whole thing?

NB: Israel has always been a very good ally to the U.S. Their intelligence service is probably the best in the world. They are the only bastion of something approaching freedom in that part of the world. If we were going to support any country I could see why Israel would be a good candidate. However, I don’t know that there has not been an over-dependence on the U.S., which has been harmful to Israel, either. I don’t know that it didn’t slow down that transition from where they are to a freer country economically. Because, you know, they are a socialist state in many ways. And our financial contribution made it easier for them to continue in that role. So the point is that there are reasons to support helping Israel and there are reasons to support hands-off. Strictly speaking, I don’t see how one could defend this on an Objectivist/libertarian foundation. If you ask whether I think an Objectivist/libertarian philosophy would be opposed to helping Israel, I would say, “Yes, I think so.” Except the paradox is that Rand was a passionate supporter of America helping Israel. And God knows she was not a Zionist.

AM: And she supported foreign aid to Israel, which was the real contradiction.

NB: Well, they do a lot of the developing of our military hardware. They are a very important source of inventions and technology that translates into our military’s resources. Think about this: the United States, with almost three hundred million people, has the most patents filed by citizens in one year. Number 3 is India, with a population of almost a billion. You might be interested to know that the number 2 spot is occupied by a country with a population of only 5 or 6 million people. So there could be in there the basis for making a case that it is in America’s interests to secure the safety of Israel.

AM: That is interesting—I hadn’t heard that statistic before. Do you have any favorite contemporary political writers?

NB: Jean Francois Revel is a brilliant, brilliant writer. I just finished his book Anti-Americanism. I can’t recommend that book enough. Also, a book called Liberalism and Terrorism, by Paul Berman. That book did more to clarify what the War on Terror is really about, than anything else I’ve ever read. So I would recommend that very strongly.

AM: You also mentioned that you liked Camille Paglia.

NB: Oh, yeah. I get nothing but joy from reading her. She’s a very interesting writer.

[To be continued ...]

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