Continued thread on Randianism, reductionism, and more

The discussion, “How Randian website replied to polite explanation of traditionalism,”, has gone on and on, branching out into all kinds of interesting subjects. I recommend it.

Note: Just after I posted the above, the thread reached maximum size, so further comments are being continued here.

- end of initial entry -

LA continues reply to Jack R.:

But of course the Randians would see Communism and Christianity as equally ideologies. What is John Galt’s unreadable speech, but a long tirade, written in genocidal sounding language, on the twin “mysticisms,” the “mystics of muscle” (basically Communists and egalitarians), and the “mystics of spirit” (Christians), both groups being equally evil, equally anti-life, and equally deserving of extinction?

(I repeat what I said to Dana earlier: I do not mean that Galt is literally calling for people to be exterminated, but that his language of total dehumanization is similar that of the practictioners of mass extermination.)

Roger D. writes:

I think Dana is saying that one good way to get a traditional society is to create a free society. In a society lacking government regulation and subsidies, she is arguing, there will be (as once there was) a greater need for rationality, personal responsibility, and productiveness; a greater need for prudence, sobriety, and thrift; a greater reliance on the reputations of others and a greater concern for one’s own reputation, with a corresponding esteem for those behaviors—patriotism and cultural assimilation, marriage and child-rearing, decorum in conduct, speech, and appearance—that are commonly thought to be indicators of personal solidity and reliability.

Ryder writes:

I’ve read with considerable interest the thread on Rand and Objectivism.

While never an Objectivist, I was most certainly a libertarian in the days of my misspent youth. When I discovered Rand back in high school, I dived in. Reading Rand, both fiction and nonfiction, was a great pleasure for me. The apparent clarity and lucidity of her nonfiction writing was a breath of fresh air, both exhilarating and thrilling. In short, I was a fan.

And yet, something stayed my hand. Despite my great admiration for her at the time (approximately twenty years ago), I never called myself an Objectivist. Even at that young age, I sensed that something was missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Now, with a couple of decades of life experience under my belt, the thing that strikes me most about the Objectivist is his utter inability to grasp and appreciate nuance. The inspiring clarity that manifests itself in Rand’s writing, that causes people to rally to her standard, ultimately hobbles these people. It cripples them intellectually, leaving them with blind spots a mile wide. They want everything simple and clear—but life is not always so obliging.

To the Objectivist, the individual means everything, the group nothing. Hey, I guess you can call that a clarity of sorts. Never mind that the group provides the context in which the individual must live, and will go a long way to determining the options that he has in life. To speak of preserving the group, to value the continuation of whites as a people and the traditional West as a civilization, well, what are you, a collectivist?! A witch doctor?!

Please. It’s so ridiculous as to be almost funny to me now. Ten pages of Burke offer more genuine clarity and recognition of reality than can be found in a thousand pages of Randroid posturing.

They end up not advancing reason, but fetishizing it. Theirs is ultimately an impoverished, reductionist approach to life—an approach that ironically fails to deal with reality.

I remember reading Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand (needless to say, heresy in Objectivist circles). In it is detailed the extramarital affair between Barbara’s husband Nathaniel and Ayn Rand (also married, and 25 years Branden’s senior). I cringed as I read this thing, seeing the real world results of people who fetishize reason while simultaneously abandoning respect for traditional morality and the accumulated wisdom of the ages, not to mention basic human sexuality and common sense. The advancing in years Ayn, not exactly a looker even in her younger days, expected a sexual relationship with the much younger Nathaniel, because their mutual devotion to “reason” meant that they reflected one another’s highest values. Of course, the inevitable happened and Nathaniel ended the relationship and took up with a much younger woman. If memory serves, an infuriated Rand said something to the effect that he should still be interested in her romantically even if she were 80 and in a wheelchair. Tragedy mixed with sheer comedy.

Really amazing stuff. And, if the Objectivists demonstrated common sense, maturity and wisdom in their political writings, it would all be quite hard to believe. Sadly, such is not the case.

I’ve heard it said that an Objectivist seems like a very bright teenager … or an adult who doesn’t get out much. That sounds about right.

LA replies:

Thanks for this good comment. Also, highly recommended is Judgment Day, Nathaniel Branden’s account of his relationship and affair with Ayn Rand. It’s indescribable, horrifying, and revelatory about the practical human results of the Rand philosophy.

Ed D., who initially informed us about Randian host Diana Hsieh’s attack on a reasonable trad commenter as a “racist ‘t__d,” writes:

I go away for a few days and come back to notice that this topic just exploded! I don’t think I’ve seen so many exchanges posted to any of your articles.

You’re right about what Andy said. The only reference to the term white that he made was when he said that America was 89 percent white in 1960. And someone named Sajid, presumably a Pakistani based on the name, actually replies that Andy dehumanized him? Hopefully (sadly in this day in America I’m reduced to hoping), Sajid doesn’t behave like Jiverly Wong in response to the hatred and dehumanization he’s felt at the hands of a traditionalist commenter on an objectivist blog.

Whatever little respect I had for Objec … Randianism is gone now.

Clark Coleman writes:

You gave (in the earlier, maxed-out entry) a good list of ideologies and the single principle that each is fixated upon. I know the list was not intended to be complete, but I think it would be useful for readers to contemplate why libertarianism (with “maximizing individual liberty” being its sole guidepost for evaluating all issues) should be on the list.

Because individual liberty is a significant part of our Anglo-American heritage, we often have a blind spot for libertarianism, thinking it is some sort of stunted conservatism. It is actually an ideology, as reductionist as any other.

Dana writes:

In reply to Ryder’s typical character insults, I am a 40 year old married woman with a great deal of life experience. I hold a BA in Religion Studies and a Law Degree. I have lived in a foreign country and traveled, I have devoted my life to studying ideas. It is possible to reject what every other person on the planet thinks is true without its being due to some character defect. Don’t people who trot out the trite, hackneyed “Objectivists are immature and lack life experience” canard know what an ad hominem argument is?

LA replies:

To Dana, I do not see character insults in Ryder’s comments. He is speaking of “The Objectivist,” the typical Objectivist. This is a legitimate way of characterizing an ideology and the typical traits shown by its followers. It does not mean that all people who call themselves Objectivists show these traits.

Ironically, I just had a debate yesterday with a self-described moderate Muslim, Supna Zaidi. And she is certainly moderate and reasonable and capable of civilized conversation. But the reason for this is that the Islam she believes in is not the real Islam, it is a highly attenuated, secularized, and, as she put it over and over, purely personal religion. But in reality, Islam is not a personal religion. It is a collective, shared, and political religion.

In the same way, Dana is a reasonable, civilized person, not an ideologue. But anyone who has had exchanges with Objectivists knows that this is not typical. Dana’s manners, language, the approach she takes to issues, are not like those of other Objectivists one encounters in the blogosphere. She does not, for example, reduce everything to an Objectivist formula. She has a variety of concepts, coming from a variety of sources, not just Objectivism. And the same applies to Roger D. So they could be considered as moderate Objectivists. And I would say that just as there are moderate Muslims, like Supna Zaidi, but no moderate Islam, there are moderate Objectivists, but no moderate Objectivism; or, if there is such a thing as moderate Objectivism, it is so small and weak in comparison with the main body of Objectivism that it is virtually irrelevant. The way that Objectivists typically manifest themselves to the world is as adherents of an unreasoning, totalistic ideology who think they have the only truth, and who have, at best, contempt for all others.

Supna Zaidi freely admits that there are no moderate Muslim mosques. She admits that all the recognized spokesmen of Islam are of the radical, jihadist variety. So I would say to Dana and Roger, is not the equivalent statement true of Objectivism?

I’ll close the comment with this thought. Was Ayn Rand a moderate Objectivist? No. She was an extreme Objectivist. And if the founder of a philosophy, a founder around whom a personal cult has existed for the last 50 years both during her lifetime and afterward, with Objectivists imitating her language, concepts, manners, literary style, quirks, prejudices, and, most of all, hatreds, is an extreme ideologue, can we not say that Ayn Rand is more representative of Objectivism than Dana or Roger, and therefore that Ryder’s unflattering portrayal of the typical Objectivist is valid?

Roger D. writes (this comment was received before LA’s above comment was posted):

As I am apparently one of the two self-confessed Objectivists participating in this discussion (Dana being the other), I would protest the statement that Objectivism values reason alone (even if you did get the assertion from an Objectivist). The supreme value in the Objectivist morality is an individual’s eudaimonia or well-being. In that, Rand does not really differ from Aristotle. She does differ from Aristotle in holding that rationality is the ultimate means by which a man judges what methods he needs to employ in order to attain and maintain the condition of eudaimonia. But to say that is not to say that reason alone is sufficient for eudaimonia. For example, reason tells us that a purely rational and abstract grasp of the values necessary for one’s well-being is not adequate to motivate us to pursue those values. Therefore, (reason tells us) we must also experience concrete manifestations of our values that assert them with the power and impact of an immediate perception. That, in Rand’s philosophy, is the role and value of art.

This thread began because you were pleased to discover an Objectivist who described traditionalism more or less correctly. I would hope, as it winds to an end, that traditionalists will attempt to understand Objectivism correctly (despite some Objectivists).

Roger D. writes:

I would say that the analogy between Islam and Objectivism does not quite hold because of one man: David Kelley (admittedly a life-long friend). Expelled from the dogmatic Rand organization, he is now the head of a non-fanatical Objectivist organization in DC called The Atlas Society. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton in philosophy, and he has written a monograph arguing for an Objectivist virtue of benevolence. Given his credentials, his status, and his open attitude, a sane Objectivism cannot be fully marginalized so long as he lives. This is not to endorse everything published by The Atlas Society. But so long as they publish me, an avowed Objectivist Tory, I think one must say that a substantial element of the Objectivist movement is open to argument.

Ryder replies to Dana:

You are ignoring the major thrust of my post, which involved substantive criticism of Objectivism as well as observations about traits common to its practitioners. See LA’s post above, which I very much agree with. The post was not meant as an ad hominem attack on you (or Roger). I agree with LA that you and Roger do not operate in the “typical” Objectivist fashion, but my substantive criticisms remain.

My argument is, in short, that Objectivism seems unable to deal with nuance in an often messy world. It fetishizes reason, and in the process does not properly grasp reality—which, after all, is mostly what reason is for. The blind spots on areas such as race and tradition, to name just a couple, are too great to ignore. Objectivists seem willfully ignorant of externalities. There is no serious analysis of innumerable such issues, just doctrinaire and robotic dismissal out of hand. Hence the unflattering nickname “Randroid.” No nuance, just doctrine.

And while my post was not directed at you in particular, I will quote you on this: “It is possible to reject what every other person on the planet thinks is true without its being due to some character defect. ”

Yes, it is possible. It is also extremely unlikely that you are “right,” and every other person on the planet is wrong (unless we are talking scientific research instead of social arrangements). Possible, but extremely unlikely. Are you truly that wise? Are you truly that knowledgeable? Really?

Can you blame someone for placing more trust in the accumulated wisdom of the ages than in a lone individual who claims everyone else who has ever lived has been wrong? Is it not at least possible that tradition could be a better guide, or at least have real value in informing our decisions? Is it possible that it is not necessary or even desirable to reinvent every wheel?

In her extramarital relationship with Branden, Ayn Rand thought she was exempt from all of the lessons of the ages, not to mention biology and common sense. After all, she had her reason. Reality had other plans, however. Rand was not exempt from reality. Neither is anybody else. Apparently, her reason was not up to snuff, and a lot of pain and suffering was the result. Rand didn’t see it coming, but almost any of our grandmothers could have. Why is that?

LA writes:

Ryder writes:

“Can you blame someone for placing more trust in the accumulated wisdom of the ages than in a lone individual who claims everyone else who has ever lived has been wrong?”

Great statement.

April 21

Hannon writes:

I’ve learned a lot from this perdurable thread, as I am sure many others have also. One comment by Dana piqued my curiosity especially:

“Rand thought the U.S. in the 19th century was the height of human civilization and the closest we have ever come to what she was talking about, albeit still mixed. She didn’t think this because she thought everyone that lived then was an Objectivist, she thought it because it was a time when people in the U.S. were most left alone by the government.”

If we favor reduced government, this sounds like potential common ground between trads and Rands and some others. So how do we make arrangements to be left alone by government? Someone here said they wanted an Objectivist government in place. If that is a wish of Objectivists, what is their plan?

In other words, if trads and objectivists have the common goal of realizing a much reduced federal government, which of the two has better ideas as to how to get there from here?

In this context, what value are Objectivist objectives to the rest of us?

LA writes:

Earlier in this discussion (in the previous, maxed-out thread), Gintas asked if the reductionism we were talking about in reference to Objectivism and other ideologies was related to gnosticism. I answered:
Yes, it’s very much related to it. See Chapter Four of Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics: “Gnosticism—the Nature of Modernity.” Voegelin says that modernity in its various forms is a rebellion against the Christian articulation of reality into the transcendent and the immanent and an attempt to return the world to a less complex structure, a reality without the transcendent. But this can’t be done, because the transcendent has already been discovered, is already a part of human consciousness. Therefore the attempt to rid reality of the transcendent only results in the creation of substitute forms of transcendence, by squeezing transcendence into some immanent form.

Thus equality becomes a god (and inequality becomes the devil). Tolerance becomes a god (and intolerance becomes the devil). Personal freedom of choice becomes a god (and any restriction on freedom of choice becomes the devil). The economy becomes a god (and any non-economic values become the devil or at best contemptible and irrelevant). The German race becomes a god (and Jews become the devil). The black race becomes a god (and the white race becomes the devil). Diversity becomes a god (and [white] homogeneity becomes the devil). Sex becomes a god (and any restraint on sexuality becomes the devil). Female empowerment becomes a god (and [white] men become the devil). Materialist science, incarnated in Charles Darwin, becomes a god (and God becomes the devil). Randian reason, incarnated in John Galt, becomes a god (and God becomes the devil). And on and on. And each of these gnostic ideological movements hates the others (or many of the others), without seeing their shared commonality, as reductionist attacks on the order of being. This is a picture of modern society.

In connection with that discussion I was just looking at my copy of Voegelin, and I found a relevant passage that explained gnosticism very clearly. I googled some of the text so that I could copy it from the Web instead of having to type it out, and found the passage online: at VFR, in an entry from several years ago called “Gnosticism defined.” Here it is;

When I was first reading about gnosticism many years ago, I came to the conclusion that, with its many possible meanings and manifestations, it was too complex and difficult a concept to be useful in ordinary discourse. Then I came upon this passage in Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, p. 124, in which Voegelin successfully identifies the core principle that is common to all forms of gnosticism, the enlargement of the soul so as to include God within man, and thus eliminate the frustrating and uncomfortable experience that God is outside and above man:

The attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt at bringing our knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith, will afford; and Gnostic experiences offer this firmer grip in so far as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man. This expansion will engage the various human faculties; and, hence, it is possible to distinguish a range of Gnostic varieties according to the faculty which predominates in the operation of getting this grip on God. Gnosis may be primarily intellectual and assume the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence, as, for instance, in the contemplative gnosis of Hegel or Schelling. Or it may be primarily emotional and assume the form of an indwelling of divine substance in the human soul, as, for instance, in paracletic sectarian leaders. Or it may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler. These Gnostic experiences, in the amplitude of their variety, are the core of the redivinization of society, for the men who fall into these experiences divinize themselves by substituting more massive modes of participation in divinity for faith in the Christian sense.

Gintas replies:

Even the little bit about Gnosticism that you’ve discussed—the way you’ve summarized it so clearly—emboldens me to try Voegelin again. I’ve dug up my (unread) copy of The New Science of Politics and I’m starting. I’ve started before and failed; that Voegelin quote you cite was once a dense mass of inscrutability to me, I kept stumbling over “immanentization” and “divinization” and “transcendence”, but I’m starting to be able to make sense of it.

LA replies:

On that page in my copy of NSP, there is a marginal note written by me many years ago:

Definition of gnosticism on this page is the best, in that it is sufficiently cogent to be used in ordinary discourse. My earlier view, that gnosticism is too complicated a concept for ordinary use, is wrong.

Description of types of gnostic experience: (1) Knowledge of mystery of existence; (2) Experience of in-dwelling God. (3) Activist redemption of society. What all these have in common is expansion of soul so as to include God within man.

However, G., this does not mean that NSP is easy. it can be frustrating book. The way to read it is to get what you can out of it, and not break your head on the more obscure parts. However, it is one of the most important books I’ve read. Its key concepts, which are entirely original, such as his treatment of representation, such as his treatment of gnosticism, became central to my understanding ever since. Without this book, the perspective of VFR would not exist or would be significantly diminished.

April 22

Roger D. writes:

I can’t believe the Rand thread is still continuing, but I did want to say something about the comment by Gintas.

Yes, Rothbard was an Objectivist personally acquainted with Ayn Rand, and I was not. Rothbard reports that there was an oppressively authoritarian atmosphere in her circle. Fair enough. Perhaps there was.

But if the authoritarianism Rand exercised over the first orbit (her immediate Objectivist acquaintances) did not carry over to the second orbit (Objectivist acquaintances of Rand’s Objectivist acquaintances, which I was), then it seems difficult to argue that authoritarianism was inherent in the doctrine itself and the movement itself.

We must distinguish, mustn’t we, between two types esoteric/exoteric movements? In the 1930s, communists presented themselves to the world as “democrats in a hurry.” But everyone who became a member of the Communist Party was subject to intense discipline exercised from Moscow. The exoteric image was simply sucker bait. Very different was the situation in which personal friends of Ayn Rand were subjected to intense discipline (assuming that is true) but the next generation of important young Objectivists scholars (to which David Kelley and I belonged) experienced no such authoritarianism. And that remained true even after David became an acquaintance of Rand. Under the circumstances, it would seem, such authoritarianism as existed was more psychological than philosophical.

Not to drag this out, but on the issue of music: Under Ayn Rand’s oversight, her acolyte Allan Blumenthal gave a series of lectures on Western “classical” music in the early 1970s, and he made it very clear that—although Rachmaninoff was admirable—Mozart was divine.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 20, 2009 03:27 PM | Send

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