Culture

Occulture explored.

Against Amnesia

By (d)anger | July 28, 2002 | Leave a comment

There are moments when life seems entirely impossible. All the crazy dreams of rebellion disappear. The desire to revolt against the society of the civilized is lost to futility, the open but empty hand. All of the late-night laughter filled conversations, the meanderings and wanderings of those intoxicated with thoughts of adventure, begin to seem naive and empty. One comes to the conclusion that one is accomplishing nothing: destruction and creation seem equally without attraction. One abandons one’s own imagination and returns to the old trap of fear. The existential idiot occupies one’s head.

Here is the point where the misery of this society completes itself. This society strengthens itself by continually forcing the individual to disappear: the individual disappears when the individual gives in to the misery of this society. One begins to accept the limitations imposed by this society as one’s own. To experience comes to mean to repeat oneself. One begins to feel one has nothing to offer in defiance, nothing to give: every gesture becomes a blank stare. Passion is pacified. Desire is rationalized away. The forbidden remain forbidden.

This supreme moment of misery marks nothing less than the triumph of amnesia. Such complete abandonment of life’s adventure is the surrender of one who has forgotten all previous rebellion and all previous desire to revolt. Memory has ceased to be a pleasure: the misery of the moment stretches backwards forever. Amnesia is essential to civilizing human beings: when one forgets the possibilities (the richness of past, present, and future) one is domesticated, one disappears.

Amnesia is the colonization of memory. One is forced to forget everything rebellious about one’s life. The colonized mind is less likely to imagine a total revolt against this society if all traces of earlier revolts are suppressed. Everything from simple negative gestures to the hand in the cookie jar to late night crimes make memory precious to the individual; as soon as these breaches are forgotten the present becomes less and less pregnant: the stem of the flower is cut before the flower blooms. One is in despair over the absence of past freedom simply because the residue of past freedoms have been purged from one’s memory.

When asked how one knows that freedom is possible the rebel responds with examples of past freedoms. The rebel remembers the events, movements, and moments of one’s past that mark breaks with the dominant order. One knows that freedom is possible because everybody has experienced freedom: the taste of paradise is in all our mouths. To forget this is fatal. Amnesia can be combatted by constantly digging back into our memories, by constantly becoming more and more aware of our mistakes and victories. No, we must not dwell in the past, we must be cruel with our pasts (and those who would keep us there), and yet we must be greedy with our pasts (and wary of those who would paint those pasts with the blackness of misery and impossibilities). Rebels must return to their own past with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a knife in the other.

–(d)anger

Reprinted from:
ANARCHY: A Journal of Desire Armed
B.A.L. Press
P.O. Box 2647
Stuyvesant Station
New York, NY 10009


A New Punk Manifesto

By Joel | April 21, 2002 | Leave a comment

Originally published in Profane Existence #13, reprinted from Making Punk a Threat Again: Best Cuts of Profane Existence 1989-1993.

Punk has done important things in its short history. (It’s done some really stupid things, too, but that’s for someone else to chronicle.) Out of the waste heap of middle class values and shopping mall aesthetics, we’ve built a culture that has allowed us to survive the postindustrial world while at the same time salvaging some semblance of our independence, freedom, creativity, and human integrity. As important as this is, it is now time for punk to enter a new phase. Punk has allowed thousands of youths to survive in this rat heap of a world through its music, zines, and communities; now it’s time to change the rat heap itself.

For the most part, punks, have historically been interested in shocking society. In North America, at least, punk’s political practice has been to reject the middle class values shoved down our throat. Being a largely white, middle class youth movement (again, at least in North America), punk’s relations with the outside world have been concentrated on shocking and rejecting that world, from the most political Crass punk to the drunkest Sore Throat punk to the sincerest Minor Threat punk to the most idiotic Exploited mall punk. About the only punk subgroup I would exclude from this generalization would be the wave of upper middle class straightedge and pop punk fans, although there are significant numbers of people in these groups who also spend most of their political activity (where “political” is defined as one’s relations with the social world) rejecting the morals and values of white bread America.

This rejection of our roots, our middle class backgrounds, is important, for (theoretically, at least) we are the inheritors of the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist world order. A prime position as defenders of the capital of the ruling class and the overseers of the underclass has been set aside for us by our parents, our upbringing, our culture, our history, and yet we have the moral gumption to reject it. As punks we reject our inherited race and class positions because we know they are bullshit. We want no part in oppressing others and we certainly want no part of Suburbia, our promised land.

However, as important as it is for us to reject our somewhat privileged backgrounds, it is also not enough. Our goal needs to be not to merely reject society, but to recreate it as well. Punk’s effectiveness up to now has primarily been negative in the sense that its primary political acitivity has been to criticize and reject America and everything it stands for. Now it is time to take positive action. We need to turn our anger and disgust with middle class America and creatively channel it into mass-based political action.

To say that punk’s effectiveness has been entirely negative and reaction-oriented would be dead wrong, and I don’t mean to demean the accomplishments of punk by any means. To see the positive influences of punk, we need to look beyond the average mosher at an Agnostic Front gig and examine the smaller, more active community of punks who do zines, write mail, run independent labels and distribution services, organize gigs and/or demos, etc. The people in these communities do an enormous amount of very vital work, work that keeps us from going insane within this fucked up Amerikan society. That work needs to continue.

The positive political activities of punk primarily fall in two categories. One is our work in developing the punk community. This kind of activity includes writing fanzines, putting out records, setting up gigs, having picnics, distributing punk materials, writing mail, travelling, and simply hanging out with our good punk friends. The second kind of positive punk political activity is the focus on changing our individual selves. This includes vegetarianism/ veganism, emphasizing recycling, exploring racism, sexism, and homophobia in our punk communities and within ourselves, etc. As I’ve said, these activities need to continue. They are absolutely necessary in creating change, and in making change fun. After all, without punk, what would the disaffected middle class youth of Amerika have to listen to, the goddamn Grateful Dead? The Chili Peppers? Yeesh.

However, we need to add a third element in our goal to make positive change: organizing with other revolutionary elements in our society. In case you didn’t know, punk is and needs to be revolutionary. The fact that it doesn’t seem so indicates not that punk is liberal or reactionary but that we as punx have been selling ourselves short in realizing the potential of punk and our potential to thoroughly fuck up this society. Punk is one of the very few middle class youth cultures in North America that actually rejects middle class values. This puts us punks in a unique position, and we need to use this position as rejectors of the inheritance to our advantage and to the advantage of oppressed peoples by working with them: women, blacks, Native Americans, homeless, queers, i.e. the underprivileged. We’ve abandoned our middle class backgrounds, now it’s time for us to unequivocally side with the oppressed.

Punk rejects America completely. Punk demands something new. Punk is and needs to be revolutionary, and if you don’t agree, maybe it’s time for you to turn in your 7″ collection for a Columbia House CD Club membership. Just don’t be surprised when we bulldoze through your fucking house someday.

Punks do an excellent job, for the most part, in developing our own community. It’s time to take that experience into the larger community and infuse our spirit and creativity with mass-based revolutionary potential. We need to help organize and work towards a mass movement, one that’s set on destroying America as it stands and empowering the dispossessed. We need a revolution and it’s time for punk to be a part of it!

Further, we need to be more than superficial. We need more than another zine. We need to organize and get established in our local communities. We need to offer our collective strengths to the struggles of oppressed people, which, after all, are our own. I’m talking about expanding our present facilities, I’m talking about developing new ones. We need to continue to put out zines, but we need to get them out beyond the punk community, even if that means giving them away. We need to make better use of our present facilities and open them up to the rest of the community. Epicenter, the punk-run nonprofit record store and community center in San Francisco is an example of this, like when they opened their doors to the community as a meeting space for the General Strike meetings during the Gulf War and when they open their space for various community groups to hold their meetings. Not every city has an Epicenter, to be sure. It’s time to work with the rest of the underprivileged people in our communities and build them.

We need other new resources. We need outreach: punk soup kitchens, community groups, free stores, etc. We need to let people know that we are on the side of people, not privilege. The fascists are organizing in our communities; we need to beat them at their own game. Why do you think the KKK and the racist populist movement enjoys such success in poor farming and lower middle class communities? Because they actually go into those communities and work with the people there and help them in their struggles with the rich and powerful who are trying to destroy their lives (e.g. by helping farmers keep their land from the banks, etc.). We need to do the same thing, but we need to offer anti-fascist alternatives to the people who need help in empowering themselves. This will take a mass, broad-based movement, and punks need to take an active part in that.

The fascists are organizing in our communities; we’re not. Time to change. Make no mistake, war is coming to Amerika. It’s overdue. Look at the economy, look at the deteriorating condition of our cities, look at whatever you want. The New World Order of Bush and his lackeys is heralding in a new age, and it’s not going to be pretty. The New Right want a piece of you, the racist Right wants a piece of you, the upper class want to keep their piece of you. Are you going to let them? War is coming to Amerika, and it’s time to prepare, punx. We need to fight if we are to survive, and being punx, we undoubtedly can figure out a way to have a good time doing it.

Getting involved in the community does not mean we have to sacrifice our identities. We don’t have to “grow up,” look nice, act polite, or refrain from drunken binges to be revolutionary or to work with non-punks. We’re punks and we will change the world as punks. We need to help out those who need help in our community as punx and let folks know that we’re on their side and that we’re ready for a revolution, even though we’re white and largely middle class and male.

So what are we doing here in Minneapolis? Profane Existence is taking an active part in a new local anarchist group, Twin Cities Anarchist Federation. TCAF has just started, and our focus will be on community activities and creating solidarity with other groups in the Twin Cities struggling for self-determination as well as working toward, well, total social revolution. Further, Profane Existence will emphasize and document punk activities and punks who are getting involved in their communities. In this issue, check out the Anti-Racist Action piece.

It’s time to fess up. We’re punks, we hate society, and we want a new world. We’re revolutionaries. As revolutionaries, it’s time to work with the underprivileged and angry elements in our communities and to get organized. It’s in our hands, and we should expect nothing less from punk and from ourselves. We will make punk a threat again, together. Let’s do it!

Reprinted from Profane Existence with the understanding that: “Permission is granted to reproduce any written contents of this site for non-commercial use, so long as we are credited as the source”.


The Unlikeliest Cult in History

By Michael Shermer | February 11, 2002 | 2 comments

The following article is copyright © 1993 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice. From Skeptic vol. 2, no. 2, 1993, pp. 74-81.

Freudian projection is the process of attributing one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or objects–the guilt-laden adulterer accuses his spouse of adultery, the homophobe actually harbors latent homosexual tendencies. A subtle form of projection can be seen in the accusation by Christians that secular humanism and evolution are “religions”; or by cultists and paranormalists that skeptics are themselves a cult and that reason and science have cultic properties. For skeptics, the idea that reason can lead to a cult is absurd. The characteristics of a cult are 180 degrees out of phase with reason. But as I will demonstrate, not only can it happen, it has happened, and to a group that would have to be considered the unlikeliest cult in history. It is a lesson in what happens when the truth becomes more important than the search for truth, when final results of inquiry become more important than the process of inquiry, and especially when reason leads to an absolute certainty about one’s beliefs such that those who are not for the group are against it.

The story begins in 1943 when an obscure Russian immigrant published her first successful novel after two consecutive failures. It was not an instant success. In fact, the reviews were harsh and initial sales sluggish. But slowly a following grew around the novel, word of mouth became the most effective marketing tool, and the author began to develop what could, with hindsight, be called a “cult following.” The initial print-run of 7,500 copies was followed by multiples of five and 10,000 until by 1950 half a million copies were circulating the country. The book was The Fountainhead and the author Ayn Rand. Her commercial success allowed her the time and freedom to write her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957 after ten years in the making. It is a murder mystery, not about the murder of a human body, but of the murder of a human spirit. It is a broad and sweeping story of a man who said he would stop the ideological motor of the world. When he did, there was a panoramic collapse of civilization, with its flame kept burning by a small handful of heroic individuals whose reason and morals directed both the fall and the subsequent return of culture.

As they did to The Fountainhead, reviewers panned Atlas witha savage brutality that, incredibly, only seemed to reinforce followers’ belief in the book, its author, and her ideas. And, like The Fountainhead, sales of Atlas sputtered and clawed their way forward as the following grew, to the point where the book presently sells over 300,000 copies a year. “In all my years of publishing,” recalled Random House’s owner, Bennett Cerf, “I’ve never seen anything like it. To break through against such enormous opposition!” (Branden, 1986, p. 298). Such is the power of an individual hero . . . and a cult-like following.

What is it about Rand’s philosophy that so emotionally stimulates proponents and opponents alike? Before Atlas Shrugged was published, at a sales conference at Random House a salesman asked Rand if she could summarize the essence of her philosophy, called Objectivism, while standing on one foot. She did so as follows (1962):

  1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
  2. Epistemology: Reason
  3. Ethics: Self-interest
  4. Politics: Capitalism

In other words, nature exists independent of human thought. Reason is the only method of perceiving this reality. All humans seek personal happiness and exist for their own sake, and should not sacrifice themselves to or be sacrificed by others. And laissez-faire capitalism is the best political-economic system for the first three to flourish, where “men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit,” and where “no man may initiate the use of physical force against others” (p. 1). Ringing throughout Rand’s works is the philosophy of individualism, personal responsibility, the power of reason, and the importance of morality. One should think for one’s self and never allow an authority to dictate truth, especially the authority of government, religion, and other such groups. Success, happiness, and unrestrained upward mobility will accrue to those who use reason to act in the highest moral fashion, and who never demand favors or handouts. Objectivism is the ultimate philosophy of unsullied reason and unadulterated individualism, as expressed by Rand through her primary character in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt:

Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind (p. 1012).

In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours (p. 1069).

How, then, could such a philosophy become the basis of a cult, which is the antithesis of reason and individualism? A cult, however it is defined, depends on faith and deindividuation–that is, remove the power of reason in followers and make them dependent upon the group and/or the leader. The last thing a cult leader wants is for followers to think for themselves and become individuals apart from the group.

The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics.

If you find it hard to believe that such a line of reasoning could lead a rational, well-intentioned group down the road to culthood, history demonstrates how it can happen. The 1960s were years of anti-establishment, anti-government, find-yourself individualism, so Rand’s philosophy exploded across the nation, particularly on college campuses. Atlas Shrugged became the book to read. Though it is a massive 1,168 pages long, readers devoured the characters, the plot, and most importantly, the philosophy. It stirred emotions and evoked action. Ayn Rand clubs were founded at hundreds of colleges. Professors taught courses in the philosophy of Objectivism and the literary works of Rand. Rand’s inner circle of friends began to grow and one of them, Nathaniel Branden, founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), sponsoring lectures and courses on Objectivism, first in New York, and then nationally.

As the seminars increased in size and Rand’s popularity shot skyward, so too did the confidence in her philosophy, both for Rand and her followers. Hundreds of people attended classes, thousands of letters poured into the office, and millions of books were being sold. Movie rights for Atlas were being negotiated (The Fountainhead had already been made into a film). Her rise to intellectual power and influence was nothing short of miraculous, and readers of her novels, especially Atlas Shrugged, told Rand it had changed their lives and their way of thinking. Their comments ring of the enthusiasm of the followers of a religious cult (Branden, 1986, pp. 407-415):

  • After reading Atlas a young woman in the Peace Corps wrote: “I had undergone the loneliest, most inspiring, and heartrending psycho-intellectual transformation, and all my plans upon returning to the United States had changed.”
  • A 24-year old “traditional housewife” (her own label) read Atlas and said: “Dagny Taggart [the book's principle heroine] was an inspiration to me; she is a great feminist role model. Ayn Rand’s works gave me the courage to be and to do what I had dreamed of.”
  • A businessman began reading Atlas and said “Within a few hundred pages I sensed clearly that I had ventured upon a lifetime of meaning. The philosophy of Ayn Rand nurtured growth, stability and integrity in my life. Her ideas permeated every aspect of my business, family and creative life.”
  • A law school graduate said of Objectivism: “Dealing with Ayn Rand was like taking a post-doctoral course in mental functioning. The universe she created in her work holds out hope, and appeals to the best in man. Her lucidity and brilliance was a light so strong I don’t think anything will ever be able to put it out.”
  • An economics professor recalled: “After you read Atlas Shrugged you don’t look at the world with the same perspective.”
  • A philosophy professor concluded: “Ayn Rand was one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. There is no escape from facing the issues she raised. . . . At a time in my life when I thought I had learned at least the essentials of most philosophical views, being confronted with her . . . suddenly changed the entire direction of my intellectual life, and placed every other thinker in a new perspective.”
  • Another philosophy professor, this one disliking Rand and disagreeing with Objectivism, recalled after an all-night discussion with the philosopher-novelist: “She’s found gaping holes in every philosophical position I’ve maintained for the whole of my life–positions I teach my students, positions on which I’m a recognized authority–and I can’t answer her arguments! I don’t know what to do!” (p. 247).

There are thousands more just like these, many from people who are now quite successful and well-known, and give credit to Rand. But to the inner circle surrounding and protecting Rand (in ironic humor they called themselves the “Collective”), their leader soon became more than just extremely influential. She was venerated as their leader. Her seemingly omniscient ideas were inerrant. The power of her personality made her so persuasive that no one dared to challenge her. And her philosophy of Objectivism, since it was derived through pure reason, revealed final Truth and dictated absolute morality.

One of the closest to Rand was Nathaniel Branden, a young philosophy student who joined the Collective in the early days before Atlas Shrugged was published. In his autobiographical memoirs entitled Judgment Day (1989), Branden recalled: “There were implicit premises in our world to which everyone in our circle subscribed, and which we transmitted to our students at NBI.” Incredibly, and here is where the philosophical movement became a cult, they came to believe that (pp. 255-256):

  • Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
  • Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
  • Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.
  • Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and/or her work, the measure of one’s virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.
  • No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.
  • No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.
  • Since Ayn Rand has designated Nathaniel Branden as her “intellectual heir,” and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself.
  • But it is best not to say most of these things explicitly (excepting, perhaps, the first two items). One must always maintain that one arrives at one’s beliefs solely by reason.

It is important to note that my critique of Rand and Objectivism as a cult is not original. Rand and her followers were, in their time, accused of being a cult which, of course, they denied. “My following is not a cult. I am not a cult figure,” Rand once told an interviewer. Barbara Branden, in her biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, recalls: “Although the Objectivist movement clearly had many of the trappings of a cult–the aggrandizement of the person of Ayn Rand, the too ready acceptance of her personal opinions on a host of subjects, the incessant moralizing–it is nevertheless significant that the fundamental attraction of Objectivism . . . was the precise opposite of religious worship” (p. 371). And Nathaniel Branden addressed the issue this way: “We were not a cult in the literal, dictionary sense of the word, but certainly there was a cultish aspect to our world . . . . We were a group organized around a charismatic leader, whose members judged one another’s character chiefly by loyalty to that leader and to her ideas” (p. 256).

But if you leave the “religious” component out of the definition, thus broadening the word’s usage, it becomes clear that Objectivism was (and is) a cult, as are many other, non-religious groups. In this context, then, a cult may be characterized by:

  • Veneration of the Leader: Excessive glorification to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity.
  • Inerrancy of the Leader: Belief that he or she cannot be wrong.
  • Omniscience of the Leader: Acceptance of beliefs and pronouncements on virtually all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.
  • Persuasive Techniques: Methods used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.
  • Hidden Agendas: Potential recruits and the public are not given a full disclosure of the true nature of the group’s beliefs and plans.
  • Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything about the leader and the group’s inner circle, particularly flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances.
  • Financial and/or Sexual Exploitation: Recruits and followers are persuaded to invest in the group, and the leader may develop sexual relations with one or more of the followers.
  • Absolute Truth: Belief that the leader and/or group has a method of discovering final knowledge on any number of subjects.
  • Absolute Morality: Belief that the leader and/or the group have developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code may become and remain members, those who do not are dismissed or punished.

The ultimate statement of Rand’s absolute morality heads the title page of Nathaniel Brandon’s book. Says Rand:

The precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.

The moral principle to adopt . . . is: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

The absurd lengths to which such thinking can go is demonstrated by Rand’s pronounced judgements on her followers of even the most trivial things. Rand had argued, for example, that musical taste could not be objectively defined, yet, as Barbara Branden observed, “if one of her young friends responded as she did to Rachmaninoff . . . she attached deep significance to their affinity.” By contrast, if a friend did not respond as she did to a certain piece or composer, Rand “left no doubt that she considered that person morally and psychologically reprehensible.” Branden recalled an evening when a friend of Rand’s remarked that he enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss. “When he left at the end of the evening, Ayn said, in a reaction becoming increasingly typical, ‘Now I understand why he and I can never be real soul mates. The distance in our sense of life is too great.’ Often, she did not wait until a friend had left to make such remarks” (p. 268).

With this set of criteria it becomes possible to see that a rational philosophy can become a cult when most or all of these are met. This is true not only for philosophical movements, but in some scientific schools of thought as well. Many founding scientists have become almost deified in their own time, to the point where apprentices dare not challenge the master. As Max Planck observed about science in general, only after the founders and elder statesmen of a discipline are dead and gone can real change occur and revolutionary new ideas be accepted.

In both Barbara’s and Nathaniel Branden’s assessment, then, we see all the characteristics of a cult. But what about deceit and sexual exploitation? In this case, “exploitation” may be too strong of a word, but the act was present nonetheless, and deceit was rampant. In what has become the most scandalous (and now oft-told) story in the brief history of the Objectivist movement, starting in 1953 and lasting until 1958 (and on and off for another decade after), Ayn Rand and her “intellectual heir” Nathaniel Branden, 25 years her junior, carried on a secret love affair known only to their respective spouses. The falling in love was not planned, but it was ultimately “reasonable” since the two of them were, de facto, the two greatest humans on the planet. “By the total logic of who we are–by the total logic of what love and sex mean–we had to love each other,” Rand told Barbara Branden and her own husband, Frank O’Connor. It was a classic display of a brilliant mind intellectualizing a purely emotional response, and another example of reason carried to absurd heights. “Whatever the two of you may be feeling,” Rand rationalized, “I know your intelligence, I know you recognize the rationality of what we feel for each other, and that you hold no value higher than reason” (B. Brandon, p. 258).

Unbelievably, both Barbara and Frank accepted the affair, and agreed to allow Ayn and Nathaniel an afternoon and evening of sex and love once a week. “And so,” Barbara explained, “we all careened toward disaster.” The “rational” justification and its consequences continued year after year, as the tale of interpersonal and group deceit grew broader and deeper. The disaster finally came in 1968 when it became known to Rand that Branden had fallen in love with yet another woman, and had begun an affair with her. Even though the affair between Rand and Branden had long since dwindled, the master of the absolutist moral double-standard would not tolerate such a breach of ethical conduct. “Get that bastard down here!,” Rand screamed upon hearing the news, “or I’ll drag him here myself!” Branden, according to Barbara, slunk into Rand’s apartment to face the judgment day. “It’s finished, your whole act!” she told him. “I’ll tear down your facade as I built it up! I’ll denounce you publicly, I’ll destroy you as I created you! I don’t even care what it does to me. You won’t have the career I gave you, or the name, or the wealth, or the prestige. You’ll have nothing . . . .” The barrage continued for several minutes until she pronounced her final curse: “If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health–you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years!” (pp. 345-347).

Rand’s verbal attack was followed by a six-page open letter to her followers in her publication The Objectivist (May, 1968). It was entitled “To Whom It May Concern.” After explaining that she had completely broken with the Brandens, Rand continued the deceit through lies of omission: “About two months ago . . . Mr. Branden presented me with a written statement which was so irrational and so offensive to me that I had to break my personal association with him.” Without so much as a hint of the nature of the offense Rand continued: “About two months later Mrs. Branden suddenly confessed that Mr. Branden had been concealing from me certain ugly actions and irrational behavior in his private life, which was grossly contradictory to Objectivist morality . . . . ” Branden’s second affair was judged immoral, his first was not. This excommunication was followed by a reinforcing barrage from NBI’s Associate Lecturers that sounds all too ecclesiastical in its denouncement (and written out of complete ignorance of what really happened): “Because Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, in a series of actions, have betrayed fundamental principles of Objectivism, we condemn and repudiate these two persons irrevocably, and have terminated all association with them . . . . ” (Branden, 1986, pp. 353-354).

Confusion reigned supreme in both the Collective and in the rank-and-file membership. Mail poured into the office, most of it supporting Rand (naturally, since they knew nothing of the first affair). Nathaniel received angry responses and even Barbara’s broker, an Objectivist, terminated her as his client. The group was in turmoil over the incident. What were they to think with such a formidable condemnation of unnamed sins? The ultimate extreme of such absolutist thinking was revealed several months later when, in the words of Barbara, “a half-demented former student of NBI had raised the question of whether or not it would be morally appropriate to assassinate Nathaniel because of the suffering he had caused Ayn; the man concluded that it should not be done on practical grounds, but would be morally legitimate. Fortunately, he was shouted down at once by a group of appalled students” (p. 356n).

It was the beginning of the long decline and fall of Rand’s tight grip over the Collective. One by one they sinned, the transgressions becoming more minor as the condemnations grew in fierceness. And one by one they left, or were asked to leave. In the end (Rand died in 1982) there remained only a handful of friends, and the designated executor of her estate, Leonard Peikoff (who presently carries on the cause through the Southern California based Ayn Rand Institute, “The Center for the Advancement of Objectivism”). While the cultic qualities of the group sabotaged the inner circle, there remained (and remains) a huge following of those who choose to ignore the indiscretions, infidelities, and moral inconsistencies of the founder, and focus instead on the positive aspects of the philosophy. There is much in it from which to choose, if you do not have to accept the whole package. In this analysis, then, there are three important caveats about cults, skepticism, and reason:

  1. Criticism of the founder of a philosophy does not, by itself, constitute a negation of any part of the philosophy. The fact that Christians have been some of the worst violators of their own moral system does not mean that the ethical axioms of “thou shalt not kill,” or “due unto others as you would have them do unto you,” are negated. The components of a philosophy must stand or fall on their own internal consistency or empirical support, regardless of the founder’s personality quirks or moral inconsistencies. By most accounts Newton was a cantankerous and relatively unpleasant person to be around. This fact has nothing at all to do with his principles of natural philosophy. With thinkers who proffer moral principles, as in the case of Rand, this caveat is more difficult to apply, but it is true nonetheless. It is good to know these things about Rand, but it does not nullify her philosophy. I reject her principles of final Truth and absolute morality not because Rand had feet of clay, but because I do not believe they are either logically or empirically tenable.
  2. Criticism of part of a philosophy does not gainsay the whole. In a similar analogy as above, one may reject parts of the Christian philosophy while embracing others. I might, for example, attempt to treat others as I would have them treat me, while at the same time renounce the belief that women should remain silent in church and be obedient to their husbands. One may disavow Rand’s absolute morality, while accepting her metaphysics of objective reality, her epistemology of reason, and her political philosophy of capitalism (though Objectivists would say they all follow from her metaphysics). Which leads me to the third caveat.
  3. The critic of part of a philosophy does not necessarily repudiate the whole philosophy. This is a personal caveat to Objectivists and readers of Skeptic alike. Rand critics come from all political positions–left, right, and middle. Professional novelists generally disdain her style. Professional philosophers generally refuse to take her work seriously (both because she wrote for popular audiences and because her work is not considered a complete philosophy). There are more Rand critics than followers. I am not one of them. Ayn Rand has probably influenced my thinking more than any other author. I have read all of her works, including her newsletters, early works, and the two major biographies. I have even read the Brobdingnagian Atlas Shrugged no less than three times, plus once on audio tape for good measure. Thus I am not a blind critic. (Some of Rand’s critics have attacked Atlas without ever reading it, and Objectivism, without ever knowing anything about it. I have encountered many of these myself. Even the pompously intellectual William Buckley spoke of the “desiccated philosophy” of Atlas, “the essential aridity of Miss Rand’s philosophy,” and the tone of Atlas as “over-riding arrogance,” yet later confessed: “I never read the book. When I read the review of it and saw the length of the book, I never picked it up.” Nothing could be more irrational.) I accept most of Rand’s philosophy, but not all of it. And despite my life-long commitment to many of Rand’s most important beliefs, Objectivists would no doubt reject me from their group for not accepting all of her precepts. This is ultimately what makes Objectivism a cult.

I believe (and here I speak strictly for myself and not for the Skeptics Society or any of its members) that reality exists and that reason and science are the best tools we have for understanding causality in the real world. We can achieve an ever-greater understanding of reality but we can never know if we have final Truth with regard to nature. Since reason and science are human activities, they will always be flawed and biased. I believe that humans are primarily driven to seek greater happiness, but the definition of such is completely personal and cannot be dictated and should not be controlled by any group. (Even so-called selfless acts of charity can be perceived as directed toward self-fulfillment–the act of making someone else feel good, makes us feel good. This is not a falsifiable statement, but it is observable in people’s actions and feelings.) I believe that the free market–and the freer the better–is the best system yet devised for allowing all individuals to achieve greater levels of happiness. (This is not a defensible statement in this forum. I am just setting the stage for my critique of Rand.) I believe that individuals should take personal responsibility for their actions, buck up and quit whining when facing the usual array of life’s problems, and cease this endless disease-of-the-month victimization. Finally, I wholeheartedly embrace Rand’s passionate love of the heroic nature of humanity and of the ability of the human spirit to triumph over nature.

So far so good. I might have even made it into the Rand inner circle. But I would have been promptly excommunicated as an unreformed heretic (the worst kind, since reformed heretics can at least be retrained and forgiven), with my belief that no absolute morality is scientifically or rationally tenable, even that which claims to have been derived through pure reason, as in the case of Rand. The reason is straightforward. Morals do not exist in nature and thus cannot be discovered. In nature there are just actions–physical actions, biological actions, and human actions. Human actors act to increase their happiness, however they personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral when someone else judges them as such. Thus, morality is a strictly human creation, subject to all the cultural influences and social constructions as other such human creations. Since virtually everyone and every group claims they know what right and wrong human action is, and since virtually all of these moralities are different from all others to a greater or lesser extent, then reason alone tells us they cannot all be correct Just as there is no absolute right type of human music, there is no absolute right type of human action. The broad range of human action is a rich continuum that precludes its pigeonholing into the unambiguous yeses and noes that political laws and moral codes require.

Does this mean that all human actions are morally equal? No. Not any more than all human music is equal. We create standards of what we like and dislike, desire or not, and make judgments against these standards. But the standards are themselves human creations and not discovered in nature. One group prefers classical music, and so judges Mozart to be superior to the Moody Blues. Similarly, one group prefers patriarchal dominance, and so judges male privileges to be morally honorable. Neither Mozart nor males are absolutely better, only so when compared to the group’s standards. Thus, male ownership of females was once moral and is now immoral, not because we have discovered it as such, but because our society has realized that women also seek greater happiness and that they can achieve this more easily without being in bondage to males. A society that seeks greater happiness for its members by giving them greater freedom, will judge a Hitler or a Stalin as morally intolerable because his goal is the confiscation of human life, without which one can have no happiness.

As long as it is understood that morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures, one can become more tolerant of other human belief systems, and thus other humans. But as soon as a group sets itself up to be the final moral arbiter of other people’s actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it is the beginning of the end of tolerance and thus, reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group, dangerous to individual freedom. This was (and is) the biggest flaw in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, the unlikeliest cult in history. The historical development and ultimate destruction of her group and philosophy is the empirical evidence to support this logical analysis.

What separates science from all other human activities (and morality has never been successfully placed on a scientific basis), is its belief in the tentative nature of all conclusions. There are no final absolutes in science, only varying degrees of probability. Even scientific “facts” are just conclusions confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement, but never final assent. Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is the heart of its limitation. It is also its greatest strength.

Bibliography:

  • Branden, B. 1986. The Passion of Ayn Rand. New York: Doubleday.
  • Branden, N. 1989. Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Rand, A. 1943. The Fountainhead. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • _____. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
  • _____. 1962. “Introducing Objectivism.” Los Angeles Times, June 17.

Sola Evidencia

By Jashan A'al | November 11, 2000 | Leave a comment

A great many times I have heard an argument for the existence of a Creator God that, while very persuasive, is founded upon a glaring oversight of logic and what I refer to as the “metaphysics of physics.” The principle that my refutation of this argument is founded upon, is something which I generally call SolaEvidencia , or in more ‘proper’ Latin, Solum Testimonium — “The Sole Evidence”.

The argument begins something like this: anything which exhibits a high degree of order and patterning, which a creation would logically have, must therefore be evidence of a Creator. In other words, our world — being a highly patterned item — is much too logical and delicately balanced in its form and function, to be a product of sheer chance. Thus, there is a Creator. A God.

With the first part of this argument, I am in whole-hearted agreement. Our world is extraordinarily unique, with all things in balance and exquisitely fit together into a masterful jigsaw puzzle of life. Plants and animals feed off one another, the sun hits our planet just right, we have just the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the atmosphere, we are the perfect distance from the sun and the other planets. In short, our world is a pretty amazing little place. It abounds with patterns and things which just “can’t be coincidence,” so to speak. “If things were not so patterned,” argues our anonymous Theist, “we would not exist.” This is true, I respond. “So this is proof,” says the Theist, “of the Creator of the Pattern.” This, however, is not true.

What our Theistic friend fails to realize is that the world we see is the Sola Evidencia — the sole evidence of the many factors which may have influenced its creation. We see only the final product which successfully formed — we do not see the failed beginnings of life and amino acids which attempted to form when the seas were too hot, nor the wilted cells of primitive animals which were exposed to deadly levels of the sun’s radiation in early time. We see that we are the perfect distance from the sun, with the perfect combination of atmosphere — no, this is not so! We see organisms which adapted to a specific set of conditions, not conditions which are specifically adapted to the organisms. Were we to have grown on a planet which a 10 degree lower average temperature and a higher gravitational pull, then would we not see this as the perfect condition? Of course we would! It is the perfect condition for our growth, because we grew beneath these conditions. The failed experiments of life, the mutations which would have survived wonderfully in the conditions of another world with its 10 degree difference and added pull of weight, we do not see. It is said that the odds of this world appearing by chance are that of a print-shop explosion producing Webster’s Dictionary. Perhaps this is so — but you are not seeing, and indeed cannot see, the hundreds of millions of other explosions which have been swept away from site by Time’s firm hand.

Imagine, if you would, this other world. The world we mentioned earlier. The creatures on it are accustomed to what we regard as bitter cold — they view this as ‘mild’. The pressing of gravity makes our bones ache and joints throb in pain — they do not even notice it. “Look,” they say, “Everything on our planet is perfect, as if planned. We are just the right distance from the sun, we are just big enough to have good gravity, and we have just enough oxygen to breathe.” Yet we regard these conditions as imperfect for life and indeed hostile. They see perfection because they know nothing but these conditions — that is how they have always known it, and these conditions are what their species has spent millions of years adapting to live in. Bigger, better, stronger, more. When they look at us, they are horrified! This planet is much too hot to support life, and the atmosphere (having mostly floated away due to the very weak [in their eyes] gravity) is much too thin. If you didn’t die from suffocation, your blood would boil in your veins! Yet we regard it as perfect and patterned, because for millions upon millions of years, our ancestors have adapted to these conditions as best possible. Because they have never known anything else.

This is the trap of the Sola Evidencia — we mistake the cause for the effect, and the effect for the cause. We see the “now” as the “always was” — we see the patterns which survived and grew stronger, but not the countless failed experiments which have expired into obscurity. Of course the world is marvelously complex! Of course there are patterns in every nook and cranny, order in every tree and rock. The world functions as an exquisitely balanced and fine-tuned machine, because this is what has worked. What did not work, the not-so-successful patterns, the haphazardness which perhaps lasted for a while but then failed again, we have no evidence of. Our only evidence is that we exist. Our only evidence is but one grain of sand in the beach of history and happenstance.

We mistake the perfection in our adaptation and evolution as perfection in the environment. And quite possibly our adaptation is perfect, or nearly so — this is all that we see. For had we not adapted so perfectly, we would not have lasted long enough to debate if the world came to be by design or random chance. Had we not found our niche in the chaos around us, and thus contributed to the pattern as had millions of lifeforms before us, we would not exist at all. Our current ability to debate such metaphysics is entirely dependant on the success of our “patterned” evolution, to what we see as a “patterned” world.

We see perfection in our environment, because we have attained perfection in our adaptation to it. Had we not attained this perfection, we would not exist to see it. We are, ourselves, the sola evidencia.


Rand’s Works

By Psyche | November 11, 2000 | Leave a comment

The majority of Rand’s time and efforts were centred around her writing through which she expressed her passion for her philosophy. Rand wrote four novels, which are still in print today (as are all her published works – as well as those which were not published by her). We the Living (first published in 1936) was the most autobiographical of her novels as it was based on her years under Soviet tyranny. It was her second novel, The Fountainhead, however, that gained her “lasting recognition as a champion of individualism” and was her first major breakthrough in projecting her philosophically “ideal man” in novel form. The theme described in Anthem (1938) was “the meaning and glory of man’s ego,” which reflected her reverence for man and man’s ego. The novel that best captured Rand’s complete philosophy was “dramatized in the form of a mystery story ‘not about the murder of a man’s body, but about the murder – and rebirth – of a man’s spirit’” in 1957 in Atlas Shrugged. She considered her work in communicating her philosophy to the world complete after it received much of the same criticism that The Fountainhead had. Rand felt that it wasn’t understood and should be recognized as the greatest novel of all time and in fact some held that it was. “However, the attacks significantly outnumbered the raves” (202). Despite the fact that public opinion seemed to dislike it, the book made incredible sales, and remained on The New York Times best-seller list for a long time.

Other fictional works of Rand include a play titled Night of January 16th (1934) and a collection of short stories published by Peikoff two year’s after Rand’s death titled The Early Ayn Rand (1984) which includes passages cut from The Fountainhead.

Rand also printed many non-fiction works in The Objectivist Newsletter, which began publication in January 1962. It was co-owned by Rand and Branden, who were listed as publishers and editors with Barbara Branden as the managing editor.

Works Cited:

  • “An Objectivist Bibliography.” The Ayn Rand Institute. (Pamphlet).
  • Branden, Nathaniel. My Years with Ayn Rand. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.

Page 5 of 6« First...23456