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The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand by David Kelley
Let us abandon the notion of a central authority with the power to define an orthodoxy & expel dissenters. As long as we think in such terms what we are thinking about is not a movement but a tribe ... Let us welcome dissent, & the restless ways of the explorers among us. These are the policies appropriate to an open system, a philosophy of reason.
With these words did David Kelley fling down a gauntlet to Leonard Peikoff in 1990. If Peikoff were the Pope of the Objectivist movement at the time, Kelley was its Martin Luther, nailing his colours to the mast as boldly as Luther had nailed his to a cathedral door in Wittenberg in 1517. Kelley didn't have 95 theses - he had Truth & Toleration. Unlike Luther, he was already outside the fold when he staged his act of defiance. Unlike other Objectivists who had been excommunicated from Peikoff’s Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), he was not going to slink away quietly. He was going to proclaim to the world his disgust at the methods & mindsets of the Objectivist hierarchy & establish an alternative organisation - a haven, in fellow-heretic George Walsh's immortal words, for "homeless Objectivists" - that was to be called the Institute for Objectivist Studies. Truth & Toleration was to be its manifesto. And so it came to pass. Ten years on, the IOS is now TOC (The Objectivist Center); Truth & Toleration has been reissued, with a modest measure of updating, as The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand. It is as stirring as ever.
In preliminary skirmishes, Peikoff had announced, brazenly, that Objectivism was a "closed system," "rigid, narrow, intolerant & closed-minded." Objectivism was simply the totality of Ayn Rand's works, & that was that. It was "immutable." People like Kelley who made any room for questioners, or significant room for innocent error, were "subjectivists" who should "drop out of the movement." Truth & Toleration was Kelley's response.
Both men claimed to be fighting about the nature of objectivity, yet both were in fact agreed about that; both portrayed objectivity identically (in Kelley’s words, " … truth is the grasp of reality by a knower with a specific nature, who employs the method required by his nature: observation, concepts, logic") & distinguished it from intrinsicism (the belief that knowledge is somehow "revealed" to, & absorbed passively by, the knower) & subjectivism (the belief that there can be no knowledge at all, just personal opinion). Each of these views, both agreed, precluded the grounding of values in the facts of reality. In this battle, Peikoff, as noted, was claiming that Kelley was a subjectivist; Kelley, that Peikoff was an intrinsicist. Each was accusing the other of sundering fact from value in the opposite way.
To non-Objectivist readers, such issues may seem like arcane, angels-on-pinhead irrelevancies; in fact, the question of whether values can be derived from reality rather than "revelation" or personal whim has profound implications for every area of our lives, & Kelley's rebellion - especially if Objectivism is destined to have the influence that Christianity enjoyed - can indeed be likened in enormity to Luther's.
Personally, I bade my time when the cataclysm occurred. I had enormous respect for Peikoff – had had the pleasure of being wined & dined by him - but was uncomfortable with precisely those characteristics among the orthodox hierarchy that Kelley was spotlighting. I must have started giving voice to this sentiment & been reported to Objectivist HQ! In 1993, I telephone-interviewed one of Peikoff's associates, Gary Hull, for a radio programme on Political Correctness. Shortly after, I received the following letter, reproduced here as written, wrongly-used comma & all:
I very much enjoyed our interview, however, some things have been brought to my attention which, if true, are disturbing. There are people in New Zealand who claim that you defend Libertarianism, that you attack Miss Rand and Objectivism, and that you believe David Kelley is the best hope for Objectivism. They cite, in part, your "Loose Thoughts" quotes of August 13, 1990 vis a vis your "youthful indiscretion" in signing a tribute to Miss Rand, and your admitting to being a "bit of an intellectual slut."
On the other hand, different acquaintances of yours deny these accusations, and insist that you are a person of integrity. Please tell me which of these is true. If it is the latter, then I apologize for the imposition. If it is the former, then I and the Ayn Rand Institute have been deceived.
I was dumbstruck. Here was the thought-policing of which Kelley complained, writ large, right in my own face! Any philosophical movement has the right to exercise "quality control," but this was clearly outrageous. Though supportive, I was not a member of the ARI, nor had I made any undertakings to them or even had any dealings with them in a long time. About what could I be "deceiving" them? On reflection, moreover, it seemed likely that Hull, whom I had never met, had not written this letter on his own initiative. He had mentioned prior to our recording the interview that he had been listening to a tape of a speech I once gave on the subject of rights. The tape had just been given to him by the only person in the United States to have a copy - Leonard Peikoff himself. Had Leonard said something like, "I haven’t heard from him in a while but I’ve been hearing things about him. Check him out!" as he handed it over?
I began my response to Hull as follows:
I am much puzzled by your recent letter. I would not have thought that unsourced, unspecified accusations were appropriate currency for anyone committed to benevolent rationality in his dealings with others ...
And went on, in part:
3) That I believe that David Kelley is the best hope for Objectivism. Well, the nature and content of your letter incline me to the view that his criticisms of the "thought control" aspects of the Objectivist "establishment" are on target. I'm sure he wouldn't concern himself with checking out alleged heresies on the part of some nobody half a world away.
4) My description of myself as a "bit of an intellectual slut." Whoever passed this on was guilty of context-dropping of massive proportions. I was referring to the devil's advocacy element of my then-job as a television interviewer, noting that it required one to adopt a variety of intellectual positions, without necessarily privately agreeing with any of them. I noted that one was expected to keep one's actual private opinions under wraps, and in that sense it was a "youthful indiscretion" on my part to sign the tribute to Miss Rand. (In actual fact, I wrote it.)
It was time, I decided, to take sides. I told Kelley what had happened, persuaded him to do some Soapboxes for my then-breakfast session on World Service New Zealand & struck up a friendship with him that endured for some years before becoming severely strained.
Why "strained"? Readers can find my version of events spelled out in some detail in my Free Radical editorials, "A Personal Statement" (Issue 36) & "Singing SOLO" (Issue 43). Essentially I came to believe that the IOS/TOC had swung too far in the opposite direction from the ARI - that it had lost its focus, its passion, its sense of urgency, & was indeed in danger of lapsing, in the name of "tolerance," into the very subjectivism of which Peikoff accused it. TOC, I said to Kelley, was in peril of New-Ageing Objectivism beyond recognition. David said he did not know what I was talking about - yet observe the last words of the following, part of the new Post-Script that he has written in Contested Legacy:
Here then is the first major change that the past decade has produced: an independent Objectivist movement now exists as a credible alternative to the Orthodox one. For all its diversity, this independent movement is united by the belief that Objectivism is a body of principles, not dogma, which every individual must learn, interpret, & apply for himself without pressure to conform or fear of moral condemnation for disagreement; & that open discussion & debate are vital to the growth of Objectivism as an open system.
Whatever philosophical credibility Truth & Toleration may have given these ideas as ethical principles, there were in 1990 no actual institutions attempting to put them into effect. There was therefore no experience to show that they could be practiced consistently - no inductive proof that what is moral in this respect is also practical. That was not a foregone conclusion. An intellectual movement must remain open to new extensions, refinements, & critiques of its principles in order to grow, yet it must remain true to its basic principles in order to retain its identity. It must keep its doors open to new people who do not fully understand or embrace its ideas, & eschew loyalty oaths & pressures to conform, yet still maintain, proudly & publicly, the full system of ideas that unites its members as a community. It must engage in civil debate with its opponents, & avoid irrational zealotry, without losing its passion as a cause or its commitment to victory over error & injustice. It was not a foregone conclusion that such balancing acts could be carried off without reverting to authoritarianism on the one hand or, on the other hand, becoming an ecumenical, "feel-good" movement that stands for nothing.
"An ecumenical ‘feel-good’ movement that stands for nothing"?! Precisely what I feared TOC was becoming! Kelley did know what I was talking about & did see it as at least a hypothetical danger, even if he maintained that it hadn’t come to pass.
Moreover, buried in the footnotes of Contested Legacy, most of which are the same as per Truth & Toleration, is a new one, a concession to those who had all along argued that Kelley was too tolerant - that in the name of welcoming dissent, he would tolerate & sanction anything if it were propagated innocently:
I would no longer say that issues of sanction arise only in cases where moral culpability is involved. One may oppose & take action to withhold aid from a people or groups that one believes are acting contrary to one's values even if one believes they are innocently mistaken in their beliefs & pursuits.
It's a pity that Kelley has not given more prominence to this shift in Contested Legacy. It is significant, not a mere footnote - & it is good.
One of the great bonuses of Truth & Toleration was that in order to demonstrate what Objectivism is not, Kelley was obliged to specify what it is. Along the way he covered the waterfront in a whirlwind tour de force – the history of ideas & the role of ideas in history, the nature of philosophical movements, aspects of Objectivism still needing to be fleshed out, what is essential & what is optional in Objectivism. The section, "What is Objectivism?" is a masterpiece, reiterating the axioms & why they are axioms, drawing the aforementioned distinction between objectivity on the one hand & intrinsicism & subjectivism on the other, identifying the nature of free will & Rand’s solution to the notorious is/ought problem in ethical philosophy, showing the logical progression to individual rights & laissez-faire capitalism, reiterating the virtues consistent with these values. "Like any other philosophy," Kelley concludes,
Objectivism has an essential core: a set of basic doctrines that distinguishes it from other viewpoints & serves as a skeleton of the system [I disagree with Kelley’s "skeleton" analogy, though – I regard Objectivism as a well-muscled physique with some body parts as yet neglected]. The implication is that anyone in substantial agreement with those doctrines is an Objectivist. I believe that a great deal of damage has been done by refusing to take this attitude … In the name of preserving the purity & integrity of the system, Objectivists have too often relied on stereotypical formulations of Ayn Rand’s ideas. They have been quick to pounce on thinkers who might have been their allies. They have greeted new extensions of the system with a timid caution that reminds me of the Council of Scholars in Anthem, who spent fifty years debating the wisdom of accepting that radical innovation, the candle. These policies have discouraged independent thinking, they have driven away creative minds, they have kept Objectivism from being the living, growing philosophy it could be.
Ten years on, how well has Kelley succeeded in promoting Objectivism as a "living, growing philosophy"? Re-reading Truth & Toleration in its new incarnation, I was prompted to mix this question with all the personal water that had flowed under the bridge. I e-mailed David as follows:
In the time that has elapsed since, I can see that I have been guilty of "irrational zealotry" at times, though I think I have usually managed to pull myself up for it. Too late, on some occasions! It is a difficult balancing act, is it not? How to project the passion that a crusader must feel without turning into a mouth-foaming, foot-stamping petulant Peikovian?! I don't know that any of us has quite nailed it (though I look back on my own two IOS presentations as being pretty close :-))
In any event, re-reading the original text of Truth & Toleration in Contested Legacy, I am amazed anew at how right you were, how badly these things needed to be said, & what a debt of gratitude Objectivism owes you. (Remarkable, isn't it, that the orthodoxy have to this day made no effort to rebut or otherwise address your arguments? They just retreated to the trenches, & have been throwing out blind volleys ever since.) You did indeed create a "new & healthier Objectivist movement" - & for that I salute you again, even if I think that a good shot of adrenaline might make it healthier still :-)
The reference to "adrenaline" harked back to a telephone discussion Kelley & I had had after I made my disagreements with him public. Stating my belief that it was appropriate for Objectivists to be combative on occasion - much more so than TOC Objectivists tended to be - I said that after all, Objectivism was necessarily at war with contemporary culture. Kelley cut me off in mid-sentence to disagree, uttering an emphatic "No!" & proceeding to defend it.
Kelley did not respond to my "adrenaline" note, but in the January 2001 issue of the TOC's in-house magazine, Navigator, he wrote an important message to its readers. After repeated references to the "cultural wars" (!!!!) in which Objectivism was engaged, he announced the following:
As we begin a new year and a new volume of the newsletter, we have committed ourselves to the goal of making Navigator a public voice for the culture of rational individualism. Though we are conscious of our historical legacy, our focus will not be historical. Our aim is to join the present battle and fight for a brighter future. And though we rely on the philosophy of Objectivism as our chief intellectual asset, our focus will not be theoretical. Our aim is to present Objectivism as a new cultural vision by spelling out its meaning and implications in every field of cultural significance: intellectual trends, the arts, psychology and personal growth, social manners and mores, business, law, and politics. ...
This does not mean that we will abandon our commitment to Objectivism. On the contrary: Our goal is to gain wider exposure and support for the philosophy by showing how its principles illuminate contemporary issues, and by exposing the irrational assumptions and false dichotomies of our cultural opponents. But this goal does require a shift in our editorial focus. Navigator will not include material that is purely theoretical, or requires a systematic understanding of Objectivism, or is of interest only to Objectivists (except for our news section, where we will continue to report on activities at the center and elsewhere in the movement). Ayn Rand wrote in a way that was accessible and interesting to thinking people as such, regardless of whether they already agreed with her whole system. We aim to do likewise. ...
Well, it’s early days, but I’m tempted to say, "That’s more like it." The old Navigator was an insipid publication, not so much a call to arms as a summons to touchy-feely group-grope sessions. I remember wincing at one particularly excruciating article on how to conduct an Objectivist "salon" which included a photograph of two people talking to each other, with the fatuous caption, "Objectivists know the art of mingling." (Please!) It was the old Navigator that awarded New Zealand, two years in a row, a gold medal for freedom, & captioned the kiwi as a "symbol of freedom." (Dear God!) This was the proximate cause of my falling-out with Kelley. If the new Navigator - & TOC – can summon up some crusading zeal without reverting to mouth-foaming irrationality, then it will better perform the "balancing act" of which Kelley speaks & be better able to embody an answer to the question, "Where’s the passion?!" Peikoff was correct when, disdaining the cold indifference of "dead fish," he asked:
Do any of you who agree with her [Ayn Rand’s] philosophy respond to it by saying, "Yeah it’s true" – without evaluation, emotion, passion? Not if you are moral. A moral person (assuming he understands philosophy at all) greets the discovery of this kind of truth with admiration, awe, even love; he makes a heartfelt positive moral evaluation. He says: Objectivism is not only true, it’s great!
At the same time, to revert to the other aspect of the balancing act, it would behove Kelley & TOC to ask themselves how well they have heeded his exhortations in Contested Legacy. Have they welcomed dissent & accommodated the restless ways of the explorers? If my own experience as a dissenter is any indication, they have not. They can be just as adept at treating dissenters as personae non gratae as the ARI. They can be just as haughty & snotty as the ARI notoriously are. I am not alone in this experience. In setting up my own SOLO (Sense of Life Objectivists) web site, I have been aided & abetted by several others who were initially attracted to TOC but who now, still, feel themselves to be "homeless."
How to present Objectivism with the fervour appropriate to its content & importance and the reasonableness required to accommodate honest inquiry & error? Reflecting further on the matter as I conclude this article, I am persuaded that "balancing act" is the wrong term, suggesting as it does a tightrope atop a dichotomy. It’s a question, rather, of integration, of eschewing any reason/passion dichotomy & harmonising the two. In a flagrant flight of irrationality, Peikoff lets his emotions run riot to the point of calling Kelley & TOC "slime" & saying he would rather see the world blow up than have to associate with them; Kelley, I sometimes think, would have difficulty condemning even Hitler as "slime" & would prefer to treat him as merely "mistaken" (I exaggerate for rhetorical purposes). That said, I cannot claim, as I acknowledged to Kelley, to have "nailed it" myself. In the end, as Luther admonished in his rebellion against papal authoritarianism, we must all march to our own drum-beat. Sometimes, inevitably, we will bumble, stumble & flail. But help is at hand – The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, above caveats notwithstanding, offers many invaluable, powerful, historically significant lamp-lights & warning signs along the way. Incontestably, it will be a proud part of the legacy of David Kelley.
PS - September 27, 2004.
In recent months, TOC & I have reconciled to the point where I was a speaker at TOC's 2004 Summer Seminar in Vancouver; to the point where, at that Seminar, the possibility of SOLO/TOC cooperation was discussed. For my part, I hope such collaboration comes to pass.
I would be failing in my duty as friendly critic, however, if I did not state for the record my disappointment that Navigator has so signally failed to help "establish Objectivism as a cultural force." It remains insipid. It is tired & turgid, tame & timorous. It lacks KASS - the "kick-ass" factor I discussed in my post-Seminar article, SOLO, TOC - and KASS. To paraphrase my depiction of the magazine's previous incarnation, it is less a call to arms than an armchair soliloquy, delivered in elegant but barely audible tones beside the faint embers of a once-roaring open fire. TOC-Vancouver persuaded me that the organisation sports sufficient talent & enthusiasm to wage effective war against contemporary crapolae, but with weapons as rusty & obsolete as Navigator the army is impotent. TOC's generals, I submit, must turn their attention urgently to making Navigator the cultural clarion it was intended to be.
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