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CHRIS: I think it was Michael Emerling Cloud who once called this "The Late, Great Libertarian Macho Flash." Nathaniel Branden summed up a similar dynamic when he observed the rhetorical failures that often result when people say, in effect: "I give you one chance to grasp The Truth, and if you don't... to the Ninth Circle of Hell shall ye go!" There is a serious problem with that approach, in my view.
SUNNI: Absolutely. One of the things I find so ironic about Rand and her work is the way it provokes such heated debate among freedom lovers. Not that we need it, I know! -- but she was such a powerful advocate for logical consistency, yet many individuals who logically "ought" to like her work don't ...
CHRIS: I think a lot of people are turned off to Rand's "in your face" style. That could explain a lot. The very thing that attracts so many to her work, that remarkable, uncompromising black-and-white style, is the very thing that makes some others recoil.
SUNNI: That makes a lot of sense. I think it's also true that she's right about many things, and some people just don't want to acknowledge some of those truths. As I think you know, Chris, I credit Ayn Rand with awakening me to the freedom philosophy, via Rush's music, which I'd loved for years before finally reading The Fountainhead. When I first started browsing the web -- when it was pretty new -- I found an Objectivist email list and joined in, enthusiastically at first. But I was looking for individuals with a positive sense of life. Instead I found mostly close-minded, negative people who seemed much more focused on what I view as some of Rand's less-helpful ideas rather than her positive ones. So I moved on, and did find more positively-minded freedom lovers. Did I fall in with the wrong crowd, or miss something or someone?
CHRIS: Look, I've run into many of those same people. I'd like to think it's the wrong crowd and not endemic to Objectivism. But, in truth, there is a certain type of person who is sometimes attracted to a system that promises "certainty". We've seen this happen in various fundamentalist religious movements that are dominated not merely by negative people but by out-and-out nihilists. The extent to which any of Rand's readers treats her system as if it were a new religious dogma is the extent to which it will continue to attract "true believers." Whatever the influence of Rand, the Brandens, and the early Objectivist movement on this behavioral pattern, Rand was surely aware of the problem. She states in her lectures on nonfiction writing: "Philosophy cannot give you a set of dogmas to be applied automatically. Religion does that -- and unsuccessfully. The dogmatic Objectivist desperately tries to reduce principles to concrete rules that can be applied automatically, like a ritual, so as to bypass the responsibility of thinking and of moral analysis. These are 'Objectivist' ritualists. They want Objectivism to give them what a religion promises, namely, ten or one hundred commandments, which they can apply without having to think about or judge anything."
To which I might add: Amen.
SUNNI: Interesting ... But, while we're on the subject of wrong crowds, how goes the long-running Objectivist feud? Do you think there's any way that will be resolved?
CHRIS: Well, you know, I am hopeful. I think there is still an awful lot of partisanship in many Objectivist circles, but I suspect that, in time, as the principal figures who played a role in the old feuds pass on, they will be replaced by people who have less of a personal stake in playing out these feuds. I can tell you that I am very encouraged by some signs throughout the Objectivist world; I am encouraged by the growth in Rand scholarship and it is my hope that, in time, the walls that separate so many Rand scholars will begin to wither away.
SUNNI: Who are some Rand scholars you find noteworthy?
CHRIS: Among those from whom I've learned much, I'd list Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl, Tibor Machan, Eric Mack, Mimi Gladstein, David Kelley, and John Hospers, to name a few. I think that, whatever your views of Rand's aesthetics, or of the Kamhi-Torres book, What Art Is, those two Aristos editors (Michelle Marder Kamhi and Louis Torres) have done important work in opening up that whole underappreciated area of study to critical discussion. I'm proud to say that the discussion on this topic and others has deepened within the pages of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies with contributions from colleagues and friends such as Roger Bissell, Kirsti Minsaas, Robert Campbell, and so many others. And I have to say that even though I have interpretive differences with those who might be described as "orthodox Objectivists," I am very encouraged by the published work I've seen from Shoshana Milgram, Robert Mayhew, and Tara Smith. And Leonard Peikoff has always provided an important take on the centrality of integration in Objectivism; I also learned much from his course, Understanding Objectivism, and from his many lectures. These are writers and scholars from all over the Randian universe, and they are providing important contributions to a growing industry of Rand studies.
SUNNI: Wow. I don't recognize most of those names ... I'm more out of touch than I realized. What do you perceive as Rand's best contribution to the world of ideas?
CHRIS: For me, her best contribution is the fact that she had the chutzpah, the intellectual daring, to integrate, into a coherent whole, a vast philosophic enterprise that serves as an engine for radical analysis in the area of social theory. When I tell people that I'm fighting for her "radical legacy," I could very easily add Rand's own famous maxim: "And I mean it."
SUNNI: What do you think was the most unfortunate -- not necessarily the worst, but the one that in your opinion has thus far had a substantial negative effect -- thing about Ayn Rand?
CHRIS: That's difficult to say; I do believe there are certain stylistic quirks in Rand that have not served some of her followers well, especially those who try to ape that style. She often speeds to the bottom line of a judgment on, say, a particular philosopher, which seems to sweep away any and all complexities in that thinker's corpus. So, while I'm more apt to look for the rose petal, Rand is busy taking the hose to the manure. And that function is needed. But it's not easy to reach people working in other traditions if one always approaches them with the hose. Or the sledgehammer.
SUNNI: Like so many other endeavors, it requires a balance ...