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The Passion of the Critics of Ayn Rand's Critics
I was one of those who resolved not to read James Valliant’s book, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, openly touted as “The case against the Brandens.” My position was—why gnaw at those old bones? The orthodoxy had confirmed the truth of Barbara Branden’s pathbreaking Rand biography by denying its most startling revelation—The Affair—all those years ago, with Peikoff having to be dragged kicking and screaming to finally acknowledging its veracity. Twenty years later the orthodoxy finally gets round to publishing a response to Passion (and Nathaniel Branden’s sequel) and we’re supposed to take it seriously? Did they finally muster up some facts and think of some arguments, two decades on? As the young folk say, “Yeah, right!” Moreover, trusted friends who had read it told me it dealt in the stupefyingly trivial, the numbingly tortuous, the excruciatingly inconsequential. It was boring. Once you put it down, you couldn’t pick it up, they said.
Still, I got talked into reading it in a thread right here on SOLOHQ. And I’m glad I did. It does none of the above. Rather, it pulls one up with a salutary start. It is a stark reminder of a litany of unconscionable deceits. It is an account pregnant with the tortured cries of the deceived, Ayn Rand, as she struggles to make sense of a monumental mendacity completely alien and inconceivable to her innocent soul. It has the ring of truth about it—and turns much of the Branden-painted picture of the private Ayn Rand on its head.
It must be stated at the outset that author Valliant is a prosecuting attorney by training, and he behaves exactly like one in his pitiless pursuit of the Brandens. The hell with a rounded portrait; he’s out to convict. These two are irredeemably rotten. Their smallest inconsistency is a Big Lie. He’ll discount or downplay any evidence that helps the defendants’ case. He’ll indict their memoirs as “valueless as historical documents” because of the self-serving lies with which he says they are riddled, but he’ll quote from them as though they’re truthful when it suits. (He’ll also, of course, quote from them to show they are untruthful when it suits.) And he’ll neglect to remind us as often as he should, perhaps, that the defendants have long since pleaded guilty to the main charge, in these very biographies he dismisses as worthless. For Prosecutor Valliant, there is no Statute of Limitations and no protection against double jeopardy.
It must equally be stated, however, that Valliant is not working to an agenda-ridden Branden-bashing brief drawn up by the Ayn Rand Institute. This is not a belated arousal of the orthodoxy via a stooge. Valliant is his own man. To be sure, the crucial exhibits—Ayn Rand’s private journal entries—were supplied by Leonard Peikoff, but these merely bolstered (enormously) conclusions Valliant and his associate Casey Fahy had already reached independently. (For Valliant’s own elucidation of this point, see the Ayn Rand Smeared Again thread on this site.) And it must further be observed that Valliant has at least had the courtesy to mount his attack on the Brandens while they are still alive to rebut it if they so choose.
The crux of the case is honesty, or the Brandens’ alleged lack of it. Valliant slams Barbara’s Passion and Nathaniel’s Judgment Day as “monuments of dishonesty.” He claims the Brandens continue to peddle their untruths to this day—often not by what they say but by what they don’t say—chiefly about The Affair and The Break. It is to these untruths, Valliant laments, that critics of Rand’s philosophy routinely repair in their attempts to tear it down.
Here’s the kind of pattern Valliant is talking about. In The Passion of Barbara Branden—her only public comment on PARC to date—here on SOLOHQ, Barbara says:
When Rand broke with Nathaniel and me, it appeared to her admirers that a near-impossibility had occurred: in the persons of Ayn and Nathaniel, two totally rational people had encountered differences that reason could not resolve. It was a deeply shocking and hurtful event, made much worse by the fact that the real reason for the break was not presented, leaving our students deeply confused and deeply hurt. I felt strongly at the time that the truth—that Nathaniel was in love with another woman and was unwilling to continue his affair with Rand—should have been stated if anything at all was to be stated. But Rand was unwilling even to consider this, and I had given her the most solemn oath of secrecy of my life.
Now this is unexceptionable, as far as it goes. But that's not very far. A more candid account would have depicted “the truth” thus:
Nathaniel was in love with another woman. He had been for four years. He’d been having sex with that woman all that time. He had deliberately and with excruciating cruelty deceived Ayn about it while assuring her that he remained romantically interested in her, stringing her along with extraordinary callousness. I was an active participant in that deception and cruelty for two of those years. The reason we deceived Ayn was that she was our meal-ticket, and we figured she'd cut us off if we told her the truth.
Now that is the full truth, and it’s much less appetising than the first version. Problem for Valliant, though—as earlier noted, the Brandens did actually ‘fess up to the full truth in their memoirs. So … where’s the beef?
Valliant’s beef is that the Brandens have succeeded in deflecting attention from the sheer enormity of their misconduct and given Objectivism’s enemies ammunition by painting a portrait of a Rand to whom it would have been near-impossible to ‘fess up and live to tell the tale: a portrait of an impatient, dogmatic, obsessive, humourless, psychologically ignorant, reality-removed, repression-advocating, rationalistic, manipulative moraliser with a hair-trigger temper who drove her husband to drink and her friends out of the park. She was the “woman scorned” than whom “hell hath no greater fury”—and her famous To Whom It May Concern, repudiating the Brandens, was simply a rationalisation of that fury. Contrast this unflattering picture—the one gleefully seized upon by critics—exhorts Valliant, with the actual Rand revealed in her journals:
*A Rand who gave endlessly of her time and intellect proffering Branden what amounted to psychotherapy, struggling to help him overcome problems that were actually fabrications by him designed to throw her off the scent of his clandestine affair with a young actress.
*A Rand who saw the fallacy of rationalism and repression in his problems as he falsely stated them and lovingly sought to haul him out of those traps.
*A Rand who virtually encouraged Branden to have a sexual affair with a younger woman as she came to realise that the age gap between herself and Branden must be a problem for him, notwithstanding his repeated reassurances that he would continue to find her desirable at any age. (All the while, of course, he was having a sexual affair with a younger woman!)
*A Rand who for four years erred on the side of the most charitable explanation possible for Branden’s increasingly erratic, baffling and hugely hurtful behaviour, even as her “stomach feelings” (yes, the “rationalistic” Rand—“stomach feelings”!) told her the man was actually rotten.
*A Rand who contemplated the continuation of her professional association with him even as she realised she would probably have to repudiate him personally.
*A Rand who, to herself, wished him “best premises—in the name of the best within him” even after she had finally come to deem him “the worst traitor and the most immoral person I have ever met.”
This Rand, to be sure, is far removed from the Ayatollah Ayn who makes up a significant part of the Brandens’ portraits, and one can only laud Valliant for his resurrection of her.
As one progresses through Rand’s journal entries with the advantage of hindsight, one wants to yell, “Nathan, you lousy bastard, tell her!!” One wants to yell, “Ayn, listen to those stomach feelings. He is a lousy bastard. Let go!!”
In the end, when Ayn was finally told the truth—by Barbara!—Nathan was hauled down to Ayn’s apartment for a protracted screaming-at and a face-slap or three. Terrifying and all though it must have been to be screamed at by Ayn Rand, he got off lightly. He should have been horsewhipped once a day for every day he had lied through his teeth to her.
That said, there are contra-considerations. Not all the blame for the carnage The Affair wrought can be laid at Nathaniel’s door. Four adults, one of them an epoch-changing genius, played with fire. Four adults knew they risked being burned. Four adults were burned, the epoch-changing genius most of all. What can one say, ultimately, except, C’est la vie!? And for all that Ayn might have accepted the intractability of the age gap intellectually, there remains the very silly “eighty and in a wheelchair” part of her scream-fest when her true, raw feelings were pouring out. There is an Ayatollah Ayn on display at times, as in her infamous and also-very-silly remarks about homosexuality. There is definitely a rationalistic tendency evident in her journals to over-intellectualise questions of sex and romance, areas in which the objective fact of the matter is that there’s much we don’t yet understand (see my essay, Romance and Rationalism). There are many positive aspects to the Brandens’ memoirs—especially Barbara’s, whose lyrical eloquence left this reader for one with an overwhelmingly exalted view of Rand, warts and all. Valliant the Prosecutor overlooks or minimises these considerations. But he has also made a persuasive case that many of the warts are illusory, or were grafted on by the Brandens.
Though Nathaniel is clearly the greater villain of the two, Barbara’s credibility certainly takes a hit. To take a simple, prosaic example—her description in Passion of the Rand/Phil Donahue interview, as Valliant points out, can be shown to be flat-out wrong by the simple expedient of slipping the video of the occasion into a video-player and observing what actually happened.
More ominously, Valliant shows that the evidence for Barbara’s assertion that Frank O’Connor was an alcoholic is flimsy at best. SOLOists know that she has sponsored and endorsed a similar claim about me on the basis of even flimsier evidence—and, more importantly, has not shown willing to retract in the face of overwhelming, unsolicited contrary testimony from friends who know me far better than she. If this episode is a demonstration of her customary journalistic standards and ethics, then readers should be wary of accepting anything she reports at face value. But this, frankly, does not compute with the Barbara I have interacted with happily and fruitfully over many years. My “stomach feelings” still find it hard to accommodate any portrayal of Barbara as irredeemably rotten or relentlessly dishonest, as Valliant would have her. I shall continue to go with my “stomach feelings” for now, even though her recent behaviour towards me personally—mirror image that it is of behaviour described by Valliant—has certainly given me grave cause for pause.
I owe James Valliant an apology for initially dismissing The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, sight unseen. This is precisely the kind of behaviour for which the ARI, rightly, gets condemned and ridiculed. James, I’m sorry. Your book deserves much better. It deserves the widest possible readership. Your research is unimpeachable and your achievement admirable. You have redressed serious injustices. But there’s part of the spirit of my initial dismissal that I hold on to—the notion that sometime soon we must move beyond the relitigation of Rand/Branden she said/he said-she did/he did. The important thing about Rand is that she was an “epoch-changing genius.” She’s also very dead—and as Joe Rowlands would say, the epoch is not going to change itself. We who grasp and love Rand’s ideas must get on with the business of injecting them into the rotten, nihilistic culture that swamps us. That is what is most important. Internecine warfare, while necessary and just at times no doubt, deflects us from this, our most urgent task … so the sooner we can put it behind us, the better.
In this regard, I can do no better than quote Rand as quoted by Valliant on the last page of his book:
There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days—the conviction that ideas matter. In one’s youth, that conviction is experienced as a self-evident absolute, and one is unable fully to believe that there are people who do not share it. That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.
Its consequence is the inability to believe in the power or the triumph of evil. No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice, or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.
With PARC, justice to Ayn Rand has been done.
Our challenge remains to bring a proper, human way of life within our reach within our lifetimes.
That is the best way we could honour our late, noble, much-wronged standard-bearer.
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