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Archive for the ‘Arts & Letters’ Category

“The New Path,” A Poem by Bruce Craven

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Poetry on June 3, 2020 at 6:45 am

Bruce Craven is a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty in New York City. In addition to directing and teaching in a variety of executive programs, he teaches graduate business students his popular elective Leadership Through Fiction.  His book Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, was published in March 2019 by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.  The book is currently being translated into Russian and Turkish. He wrote the novel Fast Sofa (1993) which was published in Japanese and German. He also co-wrote the script for the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Tilly, Jake Busey and Crispin Glover. His collection of poetry, Buena Suerte in Red Glitter will be published in 2019 by Red Dirt Press. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.

 

The New Path

In the middle of the night, he saddled up his pony
& went for a ride. Willie’s Red-Headed Stranger,
1975, burns with vengeance, loss, hate. The story,
blended tunes, sparked on the road, compiled at home. Murder,
a preacher tormented. “Love is like a dying ember…” Crying
blue eyes, a now famous cover from the 15 tracks.
Raw production worried everyone. Who’s buying
this? “That album isn’t going to sell shit.” It’s a fact.
“Did he make this in his living room?” Career-ending
mistake! But outlaw Willie trusted himself. Bee Spears,
bassist, believed the boss’s instincts, not second-guessing
the man. Blue Eyes was a smash! Willie had traveled, performed; years
of living hard. Booze got him mean. Couldn’t quit tobacco. His fate?
Filled his empty cigarette pack with joints. Lung cancer took his dad in ’78.

“The Lamp & the Rider,” A Poem by Bruce Craven

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Poetry on May 27, 2020 at 6:45 am

Bruce Craven is a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty in New York City. In addition to directing and teaching in a variety of executive programs, he teaches graduate business students his popular elective Leadership Through Fiction.  His book Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, was published in March 2019 by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.  The book is currently being translated into Russian and Turkish. He wrote the novel Fast Sofa (1993) which was published in Japanese and German. He also co-wrote the script for the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Tilly, Jake Busey and Crispin Glover. His collection of poetry, Buena Suerte in Red Glitter will be published in 2019 by Red Dirt Press. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.

 

The Lamp & the Rider

Out my window is San Jacinto, the snow
sharp, peaked, crisp-white at pandemic
lockdown, Day One. Five weeks later: the peak glows,
pale white, at dawn, past my curtains. Anthemic
sirens insist someone has another crisis:
fire, crash, crime…our other tunes of bad news.
My wife said only 26 in our town, so far, have the virus.
This COVID concept album won’t stop the blues
of yellow desert birds in Coachella. They fly,
sing: “Eat, live, Saturday!” Tuesday, my sons camped
in our backyard tent — just boys. Me on the lawn under the sky,
old, but happy & know I’m lucky with Sherelle. The lamp
I lift as people die? Teach, write, help young heroes fight failure.
But who is the rider that cries like a baby, screams like a panther?

“Lost After Willie: The Show,” A Poem by Bruce Craven

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Poetry on May 13, 2020 at 6:45 am

Bruce Craven is a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty in New York City. In addition to directing and teaching in a variety of executive programs, he teaches graduate business students his popular elective Leadership Through Fiction.  His book Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, was published in March 2019 by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.  The book is currently being translated into Russian and Turkish. He wrote the novel Fast Sofa (1993) which was published in Japanese and German. He also co-wrote the script for the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Tilly, Jake Busey and Crispin Glover. His collection of poetry, Buena Suerte in Red Glitter will be published in 2019 by Red Dirt Press. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.

 

Lost After Willie: The Show

Roger drove us in his Pinto to Universal
Amphitheater, North Hollywood, to see Willie.
1980, before Roger’s second year in the universe
Of Texas A&M. Two women from New York City
Sat beside us. We were drunk, Roger & me.
Forty years later, I still remember bugging
the women, who were quiet, distant, looked Jewish.
“New York?! Really? Hilarious!” Forty years later, judging,
Is what I think I never did, remembering innocence.
How could north eastern women get references
Of the West? I was blind to my blindness, nineteen.
Roger and I must’ve talked ‘bout College Station. Hurt
The enemy! Roger wanted Apocalypse Now. He’d seen
The future. War. He wore creased Wranglers, Western boots, ROTC shirt.

Southern Exposure: “Branden Saved Years of My Life”

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on May 6, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at Atlas Society.

Section II features autobiographical reflections on Branden by his friends and associates Roger E. Bissell, Mimi Reisel Gladstein, Tal Ben-Shahar, Deepak Sethi, and Michael E. Southern. Limited space for review necessitates that I roll my thoughts on these reflections into one sketch. Compressing several autobiographical accounts into one summative analysis does not mean the accounts are unimportant or uninteresting. In fact, they are among the most enthralling contributions to the collection—in particular, Southern’s highly detailed tribute that contains a wealth of insight and information.

But the appreciative tone, personal nature, and intimate recollections in this section are difficult to fully and justly convey as a secondhand report. I thus urge readers interested in Branden’s private friendships and relationships to consult this part of the collection for themselves. I hope that highlighting a few anecdotes will suffice to show the depth and quality of the stories involved.

In one, Bissell relates that, while he was in high school, at the suggestion of his band and choral teacher, he read an essay by Branden. He then read Atlas Shrugged. Testifying to the transformative power of these experiences, he claims that the two texts “irreversibly changed” his life. He suddenly knew he should pursue music, ideas, and writing rather than mathematics. Southern had a similar experience: He read Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Breaking Free, and The Disowned Self, and immediately withdrew from graduate school and flew to California to meet Branden.

Bissell recalls an exchange in which Branden responded to a question about how effectively to promote Objectivism. The answer, Bissell says, was simple: “to be as rational and productive as you could be at whatever you most loved to do, and to let your success at that be your testimony to the worth of Objectivism’s principles.” Still recapping Branden’s response, Bissell adds that “Objectivism exists to help you live a good life, not to require you to sacrifice your one and only, precious, individual life to its furtherance.”

In another anecdote, Ben-Shahar recalls how Branden comforted him after the death of a friend in a plane crash. In yet another, Sethi remarks that Branden helped him, an immigrant, flourish in American culture by cultivating Sethi’s self-esteem. Later, Sethi and Branden used Braden’s self-esteem techniques on business leaders.

Southern, who also participated in such sessions, relates that they involved “a powerful mechanism for self-discovery,” namely an exercise called “sentence completions.” He tells the story of how Branden once called an agitated woman to the front of a room of 100 people to participate in sentence-completions. She discovered, at length and through many tears, that she had never properly mourned the death of her father, a heartbreaking revelation that jarred Southern to the point that he later raised concerns with Branden, who in turn applied the sentence-completion exercise on him. What happened next was surprising. Southern allowed himself “for the first time to voice . . . all the pain growing up without a father had caused me.”  “I was told throughout my childhood,” he recounts, “that I was better off without my father and continuously heard how much he had hurt those around him who loved him. And so I dutifully repressed the longing.” Southern thus realized firsthand the therapeutic benefits of Branden’s methods.

These moving portraits of Branden suggest that he valued friendships and mentorships. The contributors affectionately refer to him by his first name and dub him a “hero” and “my Aristotle.” Southern claims that Nathaniel and Devers Branden “saved years of my life.” Whatever else he accomplished, then, Branden clearly impacted the lives of those who knew him well. He satisfied felt needs and helped others take responsibility and achieve self-actualization.

SECTION III

Section III, the final section, will be the most trying for readers who, like me, lack training in clinical psychology—first because we have no background or abiding interest in the subject, and second because we have no expertise with which to evaluate the significance of these contributions to the field. Without knowing Branden’s importance or unimportance within professional circles, or whether his techniques and practices are rare or common, strange or normal, exemplary or bizarre, one has difficulty determining if this section represents a necessary corrective or merely wishful thinking. I get the feeling, though, that these contributions would not have appeared in a journal edited by professional clinical psychologists and that their value is therefore bound up in Branden’s significance as an historical figure.

The essays featured here respond to a Branden-inspired sentence-completion prompt: “If Branden’s works were studied by more academic and clinical psychologists…..” The five contributors then finish—or were supposed to finish—the sentence by saying what would have happened had the condition been fulfilled. Fittingly, they each have backgrounds in psychology, but surprisingly they steer wide of their cue and answer a different question from the one posed.  For instance, Robert L. Campbell, the coeditor of the collection, offers what he calls a “memorial tribute” that has more to do with Branden’s uniqueness among psychologists than it does with some hypothetical readership of Branden’s work. It comes off like an encomium and partly a sympathetic memoir, except for the reserved, professional critique of Branden’s inability to bridge the gap between exploratory research and clinical practice.

Cautious neither to condemn nor celebrate Branden’s more peculiar methods, such as hypnosis or “energy therapy,” Campbell suggests that Branden’s career coincided with the rise in the prestige of clinical psychology. This temporal correspondence, however, did nothing to elevate Branden’s profile within the profession. In fact, Branden was, in Campbell’s words, merely “an occasional consumer” of psychological research who was accused of “pop psychology.” As Campbell does little to recover Branden’s reputation in this regard, or to mount a storied defense on his behalf, one wonders, only one essay into this section, whether Branden the practitioner should be written off as unserious or amateurish. Campbell tempers his vague criticisms with admiring praise and the attribution of his entire career to Branden’s influence. But the point of his essay is to portray Branden as an engaging and enthusiastic expositor of Rand’s ideas, not to evaluate Branden’s contributions to clinical psychology on their substantive merit.

Walter Foddis, a doctoral student in clinical psychology whose essay possesses the tone and style more typical of scientific writing, suggests that Branden’s work never gained academic recognition because he addressed a popular rather than a scholarly audience.  Foddis might have published his piece in a journal of clinical psychology because it is primarily about scholarly views of self-esteem with concluding remarks about the practical application of his argument in light of cognitive-behavioral theory. He reviews the relevant literature on self-esteem and traces its various treatments by researchers over time.

Branden is thus a mere stepping stone for Foddis to present his own model of self-esteem—in addition to a “qualitative and quantitative instrument” called the “Self-Esteem Sentence Completion Instrument” that can be employed in experimental studies with human subjects—which readers outside the field will be unequipped to measure and assess with proficiency or competence.

Foddis doesn’t tell us why Branden remains important to clinical psychology so much as he shows us through the working out of his own unique arguments and findings in which Branden plays a key role. Saying Branden is important to the field is not as convincing as demonstrating his importance by incorporating his ideas and research into novel studies and ongoing conversations. Of the contributions to this section, then, Foddis’s does the most to recover Branden’s professional reputation even though—or rather because—Branden is not the central figure. Perhaps inadvertently, Foddis, with his references to a pragmatist, William James, as a recognized authority, coupled with his passing mentions of “human fallibility and limitations,” reveals how much distance there is between scholarly consensus in the field of clinical psychology and the more abstract, less practical theories of Objectivism associated with Rand, who despised pragmatists and systems of thought premised on the putative restrictions and limitations of human intelligence.

Teresa I. Morales Gerbaud summarizes Branden’s theories rather than applying them as Foddis does. “Branden’s body of work on human psychology,” she pronounces, “exhibits a remarkably consistent thread of logical reasoning that shapes and defines critical ideas, including notions of the key role of self-esteem in human behavior.” She calls Branden’s work “pioneering,” “critical and compelling,” and “novel.” She praises his “visionary intellect,” “the authenticity of his method,” the “salience and importance” of his ideas, “the depth of [his] thoughtful words,” and his “carefully thought-out example” of the integration of conscious and unconscious modes of knowing. And she refers to the “deep gratitude for the joy and inspiration that his work has brought to my life.” These laudatory lines, even when accompanied by the contextualization of Branden’s ideas alongside those of other experts, do not prove Branden’s significance to his field. What they prove is that Gerbaud really likes Branden.

Whereas Foddis uses Branden’s work for practical and theoretical ends—as building blocks for original research—Gerbaud merely celebrates Branden, compliments his methods, and asserts his significance. Ironically, insisting on his greatness and importance without demonstrating the practical or theoretical value of his ideas may actually undermine Branden’s reputation. At a minimum, it makes him susceptible to accusations of the kind he leveled against Rand: that his popularity has more to do with the cult of personality and adoring loyalty than it does with the operative quality of his concepts.

Andrew Schwartz does more than Gerbaud to situate Branden’s innovations in their historical context. The most important of these were, he submits, Branden’s “theory of self-esteem” and “his clinical method of sentence completion”—elements of his work that receive regular and sustained treatment throughout this collection and that, according to Schwartz, were prefigured by the Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler. This chapter may lend credibility to Branden’s accomplishments, but the inexpert reader is unable to reach that conclusion with clarity or conviction.

Joel F. Wade’s descriptive essay functions as a “bookend” for this final section, corresponding as it does with Campbell’s opening essay in its approbatory approach and character. Like Campbell, Wade shares personal accounts of time spent with Branden and pays close attention to Devers Branden as well, who surely deserves the attention. Like Gerbaud, Wade has little negative to say about his friend and sometime collaborator. He privileges personality and anecdote over scientific validation of Branden’s working theories and clinical applications. Not that negativity is required, but critical distance and tempered critique add the kind of credibility that makes flattery appear well-earned.

It’s evident from a dispassionate reading that this section, however affectionate and endearing, will not establish or renew scientific interest in Branden among clinical psychologists. Its contents could have fallen in the earlier sections, or the second and third sections could have been collapsed into one, but in either case Foddis’s essay, a work of scholarship, would have seemed out of place.

The contributors to the third section represent a network of friends and associates, not a disinterested community of impartial researchers jealously guarding high academic standards and ensuring strict quality controls. They give Branden a pass. Those outside the field may appreciate the admiration of trained professionals who knew or followed Branden.  Yet even non-experts will recognize that clinical psychology as we know it will be virtually unchanged or unaffected by these eulogistic essays, which are worthwhile not because of what they reveal about clinical psychology, but because of what they reveal about Branden the man.

The soaring tone struck by most of the contributors to the final section would have been more fitting for the epilogue, although one doubts they would have matched the flair and sensitivity that characterizes the essay of Stephen D. Cox, a literary critic and English professor at the University of California in San Diego. Cox’s touching epilogue is principally about Branden’s literary labors and talents. He claims that he saw Branden “in a way in which, perhaps, nobody else saw him—chiefly as a craftsman, busy in a literary workshop.” It’s from this unique vantage that Cox shares his learned opinions. “Our relationship was almost entirely literary,” he muses, “almost entirely concerned with what is ‘beautiful’ in writing.”

The two men had their differences—one was a Christian, for instance, and the other an atheist—but they cultivated a relationship based on shared interests and a mutual love for the written word. They started off as pen pals—Branden having initiated the first contact—and quickly became members of a discussion group at Branden’s home. Then they met regularly, one-on-one, over lunch or dinner and talked about literature—everything from the structural composition of novels (Branden had been working on one) to diction and syntax and the romantic love triangle between three of Branden’s fictional characters. “I didn’t feel it was my role to question Nathaniel about the psychological motivation of his works,” Cox explains of this love triangle, which loosely resembles the complex relationship between Branden, Rand, and O’Connor. Voyeuristic types will, I’m confident, wish he had questioned Branden to elicit salacious details.

While several characters in Branden’s novel appeared, to Cox, “to represent different aspects of Nathaniel himself,” Cox didn’t see autobiography. Rather, the novel was, in his view, about “the mistakes, and the maturity, that can come with age,” as well as the need “to discover one’s course in life, even after one experiences great intellectual, material, and social success.” Eventually conversations about this novel turned into scrutiny of a draft play involving the same plot and theme; it turns out Branden was something of a dramatist in the vein of Henrik Ibsen. In fact, Rand had once gifted him thirteen volumes of Ibsen’s plays, which Branden later gifted to Cox.  “I’m looking at them now—a princely gift,” Cox remarks of these keepsakes, and you can imagine him sitting by his computer gazing wistfully at his bookshelf.

The Branden of Cox’s rumination is witty, charming, considerate, and friendly. When Cox says that “I never saw Branden try to impress anyone,” he implies that Branden was impressive in spite of himself. In the end, perhaps the most profound and lasting compliment that could be paid Branden comes in one simple line: “He was a fine literary companion.”

No appraisal of this collection could go without mentioning the excellent work of the editors, Campbell and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Along with Cox, Bissell, and Roderick T. Long, they have put together, at the end of the collection, what appears to be an exhaustive annotative bibliography of references to Branden to date. I’m not aware of any works about Branden that don’t appear on this list.

Although I discussed Campbell in the context of his essay contribution, I saved my praise for his and Sciabarra’s editorial efforts for the end of this review—not just because I have so far focused chiefly on the content of the essays (and hence, in large part, on the authors of those essays), but also because I wanted commendation of the editors to remain fresh on readers’ minds by placing it at the end.

Editors receive too little acclaim for their grinding and painstaking intellectual exertions, from proofreading and organizing to sourcing and advising. Editing can be a thankless, time-consuming struggle with little monetary benefit or professional recognition. Campbell and Sciabarra should be celebrated and congratulated for their significant, impressive work. They have accomplished what they set out to do: inaugurate a “critical reassessment” of Branden by providing his theories about Objectivism and his “eclectic clinical approach” with a wider audience. They demonstrate that Branden is an important figure in his own right, a man worthy of sustained attention and scholarly exploration.

If this collection inspires future studies of Branden, then Campbell’s and Sciabarra’s quiet industry will have paid off. And they will have enabled future knowledge about Objectivism—its principles, founders, and controversies—to multiply. The roots of such education may be bitter, but the fruit will, indeed, be sweet.

Nathaniel Branden, In His Own Words

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 29, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Atlas Society.

The inclusion of Branden’s lecture and question-answer session in this collection gives him a voice in his own commemoration.  Published here for the first time, and transcribed by Roger Bissell, the lecture was given to the California Institute for Applied Objectivism in 1996. Its tenor can be gleaned from the opening paragraph in which Branden compliments his audience for being “dedicated to the broad philosophical ideas of Objectivism, but not in a religiously constricted and independent-thinking-discouraging way.”

Here Branden echoes his implicit criticism of the ARI camp. Debates between the Branden-ARI factions go beyond the personal disagreements between Branden and Rand to a broader philosophical question: is it better, at the outset of an intellectual movement, to insist upon the purity of a set of ideas at the expense of its slower adoption or to engage in an open dialogue that allows for give-and-take?

This is not a subject that can be answered by labeling either side as “religionists” or “compromisers.” It’s a unique problem elevated to historical significance by the profundity and uniqueness of Objectivism. If Objectivism is the most exceptional philosophy to emerge in over two thousand years and one believes, as Objectivists do, that philosophy is the motive force of history, then the answer could reasonably impact the course of civilization itself. The stakes, in other words, are high for those involved.

The question-answer session thus raises an issue of great magnitude in the Rand-Branden divide: How should Objectivists relate to libertarians? The underlying debate is that, on one side, Rand and ARI reject the label “libertarian” or affiliations with libertarian groups (exceptions such as the Foundation for Economic Education and the Cato Institute exist) because they claim that self-identifying libertarians often embrace a sort of “libertarianism by any means,” foregoing philosophical foundations.

Rand and ARI have argued that because philosophy guides human thinking in all areas of life and constitutes a fundamental, salient force, it is unacceptable to categorize their beliefs under a name that permits any philosophical argument for a political conclusion. Objectivism is not primarily an economic or political calculus but a philosophical system whereby the means by which one arrives at conclusions matters. Branden and others critical of Rand have argued that accepting the libertarian label is unobjectionable and better promotes the popularizing and engagement that Branden values. Disciples of Rand disagree to varying degrees.

Branden speaks about himself in the third person (“you had to know Nathaniel Branden or Barbara Branden, and you had to impress them sufficiently to get an introduction to Ayn Rand”) and with superlatives of the sort employed by the sitting President of the United States (“the wonderfully exciting opportunity to read,” “a very special world, which is very close to being incommunicable,” “it was a very intoxicatingly pleasant and enjoyable way to process experience,” “we are somehow participating in this marvelous, exciting and inspiring reality,” etc.).

His accounts are fascinating; whether they’re entirely true is another matter. His portrayal of a dinner with Rand and O’Connor during which he articulated anxiety about the publication of Atlas Shrugged is telling, as is Leonard Peikoff’s announcement, on a separate occasion, that, as Branden puts it, “in six months of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, we’ll be living in an Objectivist society.” “Now,” says Branden of Peikoff’s comment, “we knew that this was excessive, and this couldn’t be true. . . . But what it also reflects is something of the highly excited, intoxicating mental state of the period.”

Stories like this help those of us who were not alive at the time develop a fuller sense of what these individuals were like. Branden and Rand and their followers set out to form an exclusive community and were often impatient with outsiders who didn’t understand their positions, or so Branden claims. He regrets that their tactic was first to insist on conformity before initiating dialogue with outsiders, rather than initiating dialogue with outsiders to recruit new adherents. “[I]t was very, very tempting to retreat into self-righteousness,” he reflects about his encounters with those who were not yet initiated into his manner of thinking. He also depicts the group—The Collective—as elevating Rand the person over her principles: “In those days, it was made abundantly clear to us that fighting for Objectivism meant fighting for Ayn Rand. Loyalty to Ayn Rand was an issue of the highest possible value in the hierarchy.”

Therein lies much of the controversy surrounding Branden and his legacy. These “fighting words” give the strong sense that battling for Objectivism meant battling for Rand. Those of us who were not present for the conversations, meetings, debates, and interactions of that time cannot speak to the extent to which this is true. However, the accusation seems at odds with Rand’s explicit statements enjoining those who studied her philosophy that thinking for themselves and making their own evaluations of every idea were the only rational means of ascertaining truth. She rejected arguments from authority, even or especially when she was the authority in question. Whether that was conveyed in her personal relationships, though, we cannot know. It is imaginable that someone with such a forceful personality, so certain in her beliefs and ideas, would be difficult to oppose and that the environment of The Collective may have made any but the most resilient participant demure in her presence.

Branden’s stories about Rand are almost invariably unflattering, which is understandable in the context of their personal conflict, but perhaps unproductive in maintaining his broader position of extolling her philosophy and even, in large part, her character. He argues for understanding her as “conflicted” and complex rather than saintly, but he hardly counterbalances his negative portrayals with anything positive. She is, in his renderings, almost universally cranky, rude, aggressive, and bitter—a figure who seems to have gained a following for her ideas despite her horrid persona.

Moreover, he sometimes assumes a condescending tone towards those associated with her. He represents Peikoff and George Reisman, for instance, as being inextricably caught up in her world, coloring Peikoff as an emotional dependent and Reisman as a social hostage. In all cases, however, Branden remains the sound-minded individual who, if a bit naïve in his youth, learned the error of the Randian ways and parted with her. This attitude dismisses some independent and analytical minds as fragile or conformist. One could argue that Branden’s characterizations of events weren’t wrong—again, we weren’t there and so don’t know for sure—but they also gloss over the fact that now, as older men of prominence, Peikoff and Reisman stand by her legacy and take her side in the split.

It’s clear that Branden detested what he portrays as a culture of loyalty that did not admit of dissent or disagreement and that, in his depiction at least, was unwilling to improve upon or revise Rand’s ideas, which some of her associates, again in his view, assumed to be without flaws. Branden locates the origin of this allegedly rigid groupthink in Rand’s early years. Defenders of Rand will disapprove of Branden’s characterization of this period as “the very dark side of the early years,” just as they may wince to hear Branden describe how her closest associates refused or hesitated to acknowledge their errors or ignorance about certain matters, as though they needed always to pretend to possess perfect knowledge. Although Branden criticized what he dubbed “Orthodox Objectivism,” of which he remained critical until the end, he was equally clear that he wished Objectivism to continue spreading, and he offered pointed suggestions about how to accomplish that, namely by gaining credibility and acceptance within the academy and finding publishers within mainstream peer-reviewed journals.

As much as I have hoped to avoid engaging the Rand-Branden split, it is a major part of Branden’s speech and the question-answer session deals with it. Given that Branden delivered the talk in 1996 and that, as he notes, he rarely spoke on Objectivism by then, one could take his comments as at least somewhat representative of his hierarchy of concerns on the subject. The talk and question-answer session reveal that his fallout with Rand remained a considerable part of his legacy and that he felt the need to defend himself by attacking Rand. That would explain why his answers can, at times, seem unfair to Rand. For example, asked why Rand supported Richard Nixon over George McGovern—rather than the Libertarian Party candidate John Hospers—Branden stated that she should’ve supported Hospers, that she was “uninformed” about libertarianism and political issues, and that she associated libertarianism with anarchism, which she despised. In truth, Rand had contempt for Nixon and a well-reasoned argument against Hospers, even citing his campaign views and the Libertarian Party’s platform. If I know this, then Branden certainly should, so his comment reads as if he’s giving her as little credit as possible and characterizing her as an angry zealot.

Whatever one thinks of Branden, there’s merit and perhaps a degree of honor in his hope that “there is a tremendous area of work that needs to be done, that will be done, … that is nowhere to be found in the Objectivist literature.” His disagreements with other Objectivists did not lead him to give up on Objectivism or abandon its central tenets. He remained ever devoted to this philosophy even if his commitments to knowledge and learning lost him friendships and widened the gulf between his ideas and those of other followers of Rand. It is worth asking whether Branden, despite his implicit discounting of the early years as too preoccupied with “fighting for Ayn Rand,” did not spend much of his remaining years fighting against Rand. Did his autobiographical writings and the writings of Barbara Branden on their relationships with Rand take up too much of his post-Rand career as a psychologist and philosophical thinker?

“Nathaniel Branden’s Oedipus Complex,” by Susan Love Brown

In American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 22, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Atlas Society.

Because it is so titillating and provocative, Brown’s piece on Branden’s sexuality is the most memorable part of the opening section. Even its title—“Nathaniel Branden’s Oedipus Complex”—invites controversy.

Brown is concerned with Branden’s memoir, Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand. “I am,” she submits, “primarily interested in the narrative truth that Branden himself has constructed and how it lends itself to an oedipal interpretation.” Although Branden was a psychologist, or perhaps because he was one, Brown’s invocation of Freud seems both fitting and surprising. Freud, like Branden and Rand, was educated in philosophy. But Freud’s oedipal theories remain divisive and contested, not to mention opposed by both Branden and Rand. At least since Richard Webster’s publication of Why Freud Was Wrong in 1995, and probably much earlier, consensus among psychologists has held that Freud’s theories, many of them anyway, have been discredited. Yet Brown gives them full and unequivocal expression in her treatment of Branden.

Having left behind the phallic stage, transfixed by an unconscious castration anxiety, aroused by his loving mother and threatened by her loyal closeness to his father, the sexualized developing male child, in Freud’s paradigm, represses his feelings towards his mother or transfers them onto another female, one who is more appropriate for pursuit. When he reaches puberty, his excited feelings for his mother are reanimated; if left unresolved, they can cause eventual adult neurosis, the fading memory of the unattainable, ideal young mother serving as the inescapable fixation that blurs perceptions of reality. The thematic suggestions of this Freudian scheme characterize Brown’s curious approach to Branden.

That Branden would describe his mother affectionately in his memoir should come as no surprise. Absent any evidence of abuse or neglect, most adult males probably have articulated love for, and devotion to, their mothers. Whether these feelings amount to oedipal sexual attraction in the Freudian sense is open to debate. Branden was a psychologist and so wrote with a vocabulary specific to his discipline. “One consequence of my repression,” he said, “was that sometimes I failed to see that girls I liked returned my feelings.” Brown picks up on the word “repression,” hypothesizing about Branden’s “unresolved feelings about his mother” that implicated “his feelings toward his father.” Either Brown is on to something, or she overreads and overstates what was merely the retelling of an ordinary adolescent incident with no symbolic significance. The value of Brown’s analysis on this score is only as valuable as Freud’s theories are credible.

Branden moved out of his parents’ house when he graduated high school, as is customary for young adults of that age. Brown sees in this natural transition the carnal workings of an oedipal force that explains, in part, his budding relationship with Barbara Weidman, who became his first wife. Brown claims that, through Barbara, Branden “insinuat[ed] himself into a surrogate family and, out of that, tr[ied] to construct an ideal family within which he could at last resolve his Oedipal complex.” It so happened that Branden read The Fountainhead during this time of alleged psycho-sexual fantasy and stimulation, and Brown attributes his interest in the novel, not to his own agency, will, intelligence, or curiosity, but to instinctual sexual fixations that were mostly out of his control and subject to random events and chance relationships, such as the one with Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor.

Brown’s theorizing about Branden’s “genital stage” (a Freudian term she avoids) raises compelling questions: were Rand and O’Connor—who were around the age of Branden’s parents—surrogates for Branden’s natal family on whom he could project his sexual energies? Did Branden’s relationship with Barbara reenact the power plays between his own father and mother? Did Branden attempt to push away O’Connor as a male child in the phallic stage struggles through his rivalry with his father? Was Rand’s dedication of Atlas Shrugged to both Branden and O’Connor a signal that Branden had achieved sexual equality with Rand while supplanting O’Connor as Rand’s romantic interest?

Brown suggests that, through his affair with Rand, “Branden had effectively slept with his ‘mother’ and vanquished his ‘father.’” These and other stimulating conclusions demonstrate how Brown provides a unique and intriguing perspective even if her psychological hypotheses are ultimately untestable and thus unprovable. Rand’s admirers may take issue with Brown’s portrayal of Rand as increasingly needy and dependent on Branden’s affections as he grew apart from her. They may not like the effort to superimpose Freudian paradigms on complicated human experiences from long ago. But they cannot deny the magnetism of Brown’s analysis.

This article is the second installment of a review of a recent issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Read the first installment here.

The Legacy of Nathaniel Branden

In American History, Arts & Letters, Epistemology, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on April 15, 2020 at 6:45 am

This post originally appeared here at the Atlas Society.

The idea for a symposium on the life and thought of Nathaniel Branden came in 2012, two years before Branden’s death. Branden himself knew about and approved of the symposium but never saw it completed before he passed away.

The editorial board of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies conceived of this symposium as a wide-ranging, probing treatment of Branden’s vast and complex career, not just of his years with Ayn Rand. The response from potential contributors exceeded their expectations; they were inundated with submissions. What was supposed to be one volume became two. The once-slender manuscript grew to over 300 pages bearing the title “Nathaniel Branden: His Work and Legacy.”  This is the first such work of its kind to assess Branden as a central figure in both philosophy and applied psychology in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Although the contributors to this collection come from various disciplines and represent different, sometimes incompatible positions, the editors received no contributions from the more “fundamentalist” Objectivists, and none from scholars associated with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). The editors emphasize this fact in their prologue not to display resentment or animus, it seems, but as a sort of disclaimer—and explanation for the largely positive tone that characterizes much of the content here.

I have striven for impartiality regarding the Branden-Rand split and have, I think, made a good-faith effort to maintain the critical detachment necessary to write searchingly and decisively about this collection without sacrificing scholarly rigor or causing needless offense to students of Branden or Rand.

SECTION I

Section I of the collection is devoted to the so-called “Rand Years” of Branden’s career. It contains essays by Duncan Scott and Susan Love Brown and the reproduction of a lecture and question-answer session by Branden himself.

Scott, a filmmaker, tells the “truly epic story” of the improbable rise of the Objectivist movement that is attributable in part to Branden’s efforts. Scott met Branden but did not know him well. Filming Branden in 2003 for the Objectivist History Project, however, led him to realize Branden’s seminal role in the proliferation of Objectivism.

Scott credits Branden with popularizing Rand’s work and institutionalizing her lecture series. “The creation of a philosophy and the creation of a philosophical movement,” he says, “are not one and the same.” Undoubtedly Rand achieved the former on her own, but Branden is largely responsible for the latter, having responded to Rand’s fan mail, planned her events, established a newsletter in her honor, and spread her message across the globe to eager students and curious minds. These labors not only increased Rand’s following, but also lifted her spirits. Discouraged by negative reviews of her work, she began, with Branden’s help, to realize the extent of the impact her novels were having.

Branden popularized Rand as a writer of nonfiction and encouraged her to write about “racism as biological collectivism, totally incompatible with individualist philosophy”—a position that drew needed attention during the height of the Civil Rights Era. Scott succeeds in showing that Branden’s singular devotion to Rand during this period made him something of a publicist for, not just a disciple of, her work. He created vehicles for driving her ideas to vast audiences and made possible the formation of groups devoted to her philosophy. Without him, Rand may not have become the towering figure she is today.

In my next installment, I will cover Susan Love Brown’s piece on Branden’s sexuality.  Until then, I look forward to a lively discussion of the essays and my analysis online.

What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Human Connection

In Arts & Letters, E.M. Forster, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities on April 1, 2020 at 6:45 am

This post originally appeared here at the American Institute for Economic Research on March 19, 2020.

Only connect!” reads the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. That phrase possibly encapsulates Forster’s entire philosophy.

It is also contrary to the current commands of our authorities and the mass media: Stay home! Keep inside! Close down! Quarantine! Be afraid! Socially distance! Don’t gather in groups!

However prudent they may be under the circumstances, these imperatives seem strange, confusing, and unnatural. Most of us don’t like alienating ourselves from others for lengthy periods. In times of trouble, we want to help others. We want to do something. If the coronavirus has harmed our psychology, if it has bothered or disturbed us, it is probably because we feel so helpless and vulnerable in the face of its transmittable power. The only thing we can do is….nothing.

Perhaps there is a silver lining. Absent tangible contact with others, we find communities online and via information technologies. Can’t visit your elderly parent or grandparent in the nursing home? Here’s a web camera. Can’t make that meeting in Boston or Atlanta? No problem: chat on Skype or Zoom or Google. Can’t visit the Met? Happily, that opera is livestreamed!

None of this would have been possible, let alone conceivable, a century ago. Free markets and the innumerable innovations of countless entrepreneurs have improved our lives and institutions in ways we take for granted. As bad as circumstances seem, they could be much worse.

It is popular in some circles to caricature those who celebrate free markets as cold, utilitarian ideologues promoting a radically technocratic vision of society that is characterized by atomized individuals ruthlessly committed to wealth maximization at the expense of the less fortunate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Markets are about freedom, coordination, cooperation, collaboration, association, peace, commerce, prosperity, and exchange. They bring people together. They incentivize trade and honest dealing over violence and war, and voluntary consent over coercion and compulsion.

As the stock market tumbles and businesses shut down, as we quit spending money on everyday goods and pleasures, as we restrict travel and shutter restaurants and bars, perhaps we will begin to more fully appreciate the beauty and joy that a free economy enables.

I have spent the last week as a visiting scholar at AIER, enjoying the company of kind, hospitable colleagues while living in the grand and elegant Edgewood Estate. In sharp contrast to the coronavirus hysteria and panic I’ve seen in popular media, life here has been calm, friendly, warm, and studious. We dine together for each meal, maintaining the appropriate distance of course. We help each other clean rooms and wash dishes. We meet for cocktail hour each evening after a long day of rigorous research and writing. On these occasions we discuss our work, seek advice and feedback, exchange information and data, and test our theories and arguments. The ideas we bandy about don’t end right then and there. They form the basis of articles and of interviews for television and radio. They find their way onto AIER’s website, the traffic for which, this week alone, has hit unprecedented levels.

I have noticed during my time here, gradually and by slow degrees, something far more infectious than coronavirus: ideas. Even in self-imposed isolation, the keen intellects at AIER have managed to reach people across the globe, providing unique perspectives and key economic insights to those who most want and need it. A communicable virus has nothing on communicable ideas. AIER has met a negative force with a positive one that is stronger and more lasting.

As governments close borders and impose curfews, as militaries take to the streets to enforce martial law, as universities cancel in-person classes and companies send their employees home, it is important to remember how formidable, vigorous, and enduring ideas can be. Deirdre McCloskey’s seminal trilogy—Bourgeois VirtuesBourgeois Dignity, and Bourgeois Equality—surveys the places and periods in which culture, shaped by ideas, facilitated human flourishing to an astonishing extent. Rhetoric and the concepts it conveys are, in her account, the vital factors that explain economic growth in the modern era.

Imagine what could be accomplished if we proliferated ideas about freedom and liberty more widely and quickly than any contagious virus could ever spread. One person comes into contact with another, transmitting an idea, which is passed on to yet another, who shares it with friends and family. Before long the idea has captured the minds of hundreds, then thousands, then millions, then billions. The contagion is academic, not pandemic. It is good, not bad. It is transmissible through any communicative network and doesn’t require face-to-face proximity for its rapid diffusion.

Only connect!

This morning, over coffee, I watched the sun rise above the rolling hillsides and heard exuberant birds chirping in the trees. I realized, sitting there, taking in the sights and smells and sounds of the coming spring, that this pandemic, like all upheavals, will pass. Exhilarated, I sensed with growing intensity a feeling not unlike what William Wordsworth must have felt when he wrote that “in this moment there is life and food / For future years.”

For many, this is undeniably a dark, sad, and scary hour of sorrow and hardship, loss and pain. You may be mourning or suffering. You may be comforting a sick loved one. You may be locked away in your room. But take solace: light always drives out the darkness, and hope springs eternal.

Civility, Humility, and the Pursuit of Knowledge

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Libertarianism, Pedagogy, Philosophy on March 25, 2020 at 6:45 am

The following speech was given to the Furman University Conservative Student Society on February 24, 2020. The American Institute for Economic Research published this speech here.

Good evening.  I’ve come from Alabama, but without a banjo on my knee.

It’s always nice to be back at Furman University, my alma mater, where memories of my professors, late evenings in the library, campus strolls around the lake, football games, fraternity shenanigans, ex-girlfriends, meals in the dining hall, rounds of golf, great books and profound discoveries all come rushing back to me with haunting vividness and intensity.

The day I moved into my dorm room, just before orientation began, was sad and exciting and frightening and chaotic. I pulled out of my parents’ driveway in Atlanta that morning to the melodies of James Taylor singing that he was gone to Carolina in his mind. A couple of hours later I was gone to Carolina, too, but not just in my mind.

I parked my blue Ford pickup on the fields beside Blackwell where the SUVs and other pickups were parked or parking. My parents, who had followed me to Greenville in their car, parked in what’s now the Trone Student Center parking lot. Back then it was mostly dirt and gravel except for some paved spaces near the coffee shop, which became a Starbucks Coffee but is now, I’m told, part of the on-campus bookstore. My parents helped me to unload the stuff of my old life and to arrange my dorm room for my new life.

My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. I claimed one side of the room and began filling my dresser, desk, and closet with things. Since I appropriated one section of the room, I wanted my roommate, Bill, to choose the top or bottom bunk for himself. We’d spoken only once before, by phone, a pitiful attempt by two distant, disembodied voices to share in a matter of minutes deep convictions, career ambitions, and preferred hobbies. Bill informed me years later that our initial phone conversation had discouraged him. I was coming to college with my high school girlfriend, so he presumed I would be fully invested in passionate romance and uninterested in secondary friendships.

Were it not for my girlfriend, he would have been correct. She, a socialite and a cheerleader, was the type who always searched for bigger and better things, who elevated revelry to the supreme virtue. To keep up with her, I had to fritter away precious hours at parties and functions and bars. She grew bored of me eventually, and found herself in the arms of many other freshmen boys that year. Or rather, they found themselves in hers; she was the aggressor.

I was talking about Bill’s arrival. He materialized in the dorm room out of nowhere and with an entourage of relatives: his mother and Irish Catholic stepfather (God rest his soul) and his aunts and uncles and cousins and who knows what else besides. They swept into the room, a noisy spectacle, and everyone was introducing themselves and moving furniture and clothes and electronics and sporting equipment that was never used and encyclopedias that were never opened.

What would’ve taken my parents and me several trips to unpack took Bill only one. That’s how many people attended him and serviced his every need. It was impressive, really, as though I were in the presence of royalty. He was rich, in fact, and made a point of displaying his wealth. Only our dorm room seemed bare, too plain and unadorned for this princely graduate of a distinguished private high school in Columbus, Ohio. So the next thing we knew we were at the finest of fine establishments, Walmart, buying decorations. I had the clever idea to acquire signs with which to adorn our door: a stop sign, a men’s and women’s restroom sign, and whatever other signs I cleared from the hardware section. Bill eyed these curious treasures skeptically but assented to their purchase. He’d known me only about an hour. Best not to upset the poor Southerner over these procurements, the magnanimous Yankee must’ve thought.

By mid-afternoon our room was fully furnished. Our new hall mates stopped by to introduce themselves, allured by the bewildering array of signage on our door, which, in the Tate, would have resembled a modernist masterpiece: a condemnatory symbol of the directionless chaos of the consumerist decade we were leaving behind. (It was, after all, 2001.) A crowd developed in our room. We were instantly popular. Bill seemed to appreciate, at length, my unique design tastes.

Bill and I decided to look around after everyone left. Where, we wondered, was the laundry room? We needed to find out, maybe even to experiment with the washer and dryer since we had never used either before. We found the laundry room musty and tucked away in the basement. At least the machines, despite their coin slots, no longer required quarters. I noticed a button on the wall beside a green light. “To test carbon monoxide levels,” read an adjacent sign, “press button when light is green.” I didn’t know much about carbon monoxide, but suddenly had the urge to test its levels.

I pressed the button. The fire alarm erupted; red lights flashed on and off. Bill shot me a glare that conveyed anger, panic, and amusement all at once. Which feeling prevailed, I couldn’t say.

We needed to flee. We knew it was illegal to stay in the building, but also that we weren’t in danger, that there wasn’t a fire, so we repaired to our room. The hallways were empty. No one saw us sneaking up the stairs. Once in our room, we determined to wait out the alarm. Eventually, we knew, everyone would come filing back when no fire was detected.

So we sat. And we sat. And we sat, completely silent. Then came a loud knocking at the door. Wham! Wham! Wham!

I stood, frightened. Bill stared at me, desperately shaking his head as if to say, “Do not open the door!”  I paused out of deference. The knock came again: Wham! Wham! Wham! “I’m sorry,” I said, “I have to open it.”  Bill buried his face in his palm.

I opened the door. There before me, standing six foot six, muscles bulging, stood a firefighter in full gear. From behind his goggles, which were affixed to his helmet, he looked me up and down, head to toe. This is it, I thought. I am going to be arrested on my first day on campus, and I’m taking my innocent roommate with me.

Speechless, I offered my wrists for the cuffing, obsequiously extending my arms. The firefighter lifted his goggles, revealing brown button eyes, and removed his helmet. He looked at me and then behind me, back at me and then behind me again. It struck me that he was examining the door. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought this was the bathroom.”

“The bathroom’s over there,” I said, pointing down the hall.

“Thank you,” he said, and walked away.

I closed the door. Bill sighed with relief and then he and I roared with laughter.

I remember my first day of class. It was early, Introduction to Philosophy with Dr. Sarah Worth. After class I walked back to the dorms. A guy named Jonathan Horn, who lived on what was then the Sigma Chi hall on the ground floor, intercepted me. He was animated and flustered. I had played little league baseball with him back in Marietta, Georgia, when I was seven or eight, but had not seen him again until orientation week. He was now a rising sophomore in college. I don’t recall how we established that we’d been teammates long ago, but we made the connection. He was the first student to show me around campus and to introduce me to the fraternity ecosystem. At this particular moment, he was frazzled and going on about how an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was confused, not really knowing what the World Trade Center was. “You know,” said Jonathan, “that tall building with offices and restaurants and stuff on top.”

I didn’t know, and had assumed that whatever struck the building had been small: a glider or an ultralight. I walked up the stairs to my room and turned on the television. Moments later a second plane—a large commercial airliner—crashed into the Twin Towers, and I saw, or at least seem to recall, people leaping from the monstrous building to their deaths. I was horrified and scared and confused, still so very confused, and tried calling my dad’s cell phone because I knew he was flying to New York that morning.

We had a land line in our dorm room: a phone that plugged into the wall. Only a few students carried cell phones back then. It was the first year I hadn’t worn a pager on my belt. My parents had given me a cell phone the week before, but I didn’t use it—and wouldn’t use it regularly until spring semester, when cell phones suddenly proliferated across campus. My dad didn’t answer his phone. I assumed the worst and tried calling mom. Eventually I got ahold of her. She had, she assured me, spoken to dad. He was okay. Now she was trying to locate her brother, my uncle, who’d also flown to New York that day, or maybe was in New York already for work. In either case, he was eventually accounted for.

The first day of college is disorienting and momentous, one of those rare occasions when you’re acutely aware of the gravity of the moment you’re experiencing. For my classmates, though, that day was disorienting and momentous, not just for us, but for the entire country, perhaps the entire planet. It marked the end of an era. I was a grownup, and so, too, was the United States of America. The ideas and books my classmates and I discussed that semester, and for the next few years, took on a furious intensity. Everyone, it seemed, was debating weighty and difficult questions: What was America? What was terrorism? Who was responsible for this attack? What was just war? What were the differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism? What was totalitarianism? What is Western Civilization and Eastern Civilization? Weren’t there other civilizations? What the hell was civilization? What was the difference between a conservative and a liberal? How do you accommodate differences in beliefs, feelings, and opinions within a diverse populace? What were facts, and how could people arrange them differently to produce competing narratives?

My high school sweetheart broke up with me a few weeks into freshmen year. I was devastated and buried myself in books. Bill, to his credit, grew concerned and suggested that I meet with his English professor, Judy Bainbridge, for advice and direction. He watched me reading and writing poetry in the evenings, slowly disengaging from the social scene, spending countless hours in the library with books that weren’t assigned in my classes. He thought I needed an intervention.

He was right. I met with Dr. Bainbridge and showed her some of my poetry, which did not impress her. I don’t remember much about our conversation, but I recall her recommendation that I take certain courses with certain professors, and also that I join both the college Republicans and the college Democrats so that I could be exposed to different viewpoints and learn to avoid ideological complacency. I followed her advice, joined both organizations, and throughout my time at Furman tried to keep an open mind about, well, everything.

I majored in English and quickly adopted convictions that I considered to be leftist—in particular in the field of economics of which I was ignorant—because I wanted to do good, be nice, and help those who were less fortunate. Turns out I still desire those goals, only now I have a more principled and mature approach that in our current intellectual climate would be considered conservative or libertarian. This approach is predicated, not on how much I know, but on how much I don’t know. I have F.A. Hayek to thank for my epistemological commitments.

The development of the legal system demonstrates the importance of maintaining conflict at the level of rhetoric and persuasion, the alternatives to coercion and force

I have spent over a decade studying former United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who, to my mind, is one of the most misunderstood figures in our country’s history—a punching bag for commentators of various political persuasions. His book The Common Law tells the story of the evolution of the common-law system from its rude and primitive origins, when violence and personal vendetta characterized the arbitrary rule of kin and clan, to a more mature and sophisticated system involving public fora, courts and tribunals, administrative procedures, impartial juries, and the emergence of general principles out of concrete cases regarding unforeseeable conflicts between antagonistic parties.

This tidy account details how vengeance and passion yielded to reason, rhetoric, and rationality as argumentation and persuasion took the place of blood feuds as the operative form of dispute resolution. I’m reminded of Aeschylus’s great trilogy, The Oresteia, which consists of tragedies that mythologize the founding of a rational Greek legal system that supplanted the carnage and recklessness of the grand age of Homeric gods and heroes who warred without end. You might find a distinctively American version of this myth in the television series Deadwood, which traces the development of government and law in a chaotic Western town.

I bring up Holmes and Aeschylus and Deadwood to suggest to you the immense importance of free and open dialogue, of rational argumentation and civil disagreement. Civilization itself—that is, a state of human society that is organized, peaceful, and prosperous, consisting of science, industry, arts, and literature—is potentially at stake when disagreement is no longer maintained at the level of rhetoric and resolved through persuasion and procedure. In the absence of ongoing conversation and debate, we risk falling into the chaos and violence and internecine strife that destabilize and destroy civil societies.

Before the Civil War, the idealistic young Holmes—then known as Wendell—flirted with transcendentalism. Having fought in the 20th Massachusetts during the Civil War and having experienced firsthand the carnage of battle, he spent his later career as a jurist seeking to accommodate disagreement, diffuse conflict, and moderate uncompromising political forces that threatened to bring about widespread violence. He did not want to witness another Civil War.

When I worked at the Alabama Supreme Court, I handled hundreds if not thousands of cases. Appellate cases provide edifying examples of the centrality of patience, humility, tenacity, and open-mindedness to problem-solving and unfettered inquiry. I would read appellants’ briefs that convinced me of the rightness of their clients’ positions. Then I would turn to the appellees’ briefs that seemed equally persuasive. Had I been tasked with deciding between the appellant and the appellee using my isolated reason and judgment, I would have struggled and despaired and probably arrived at erroneous conclusions. Fortunately, though, I had not only my colleagues to assist me, but innumerable precedents in prior cases and hundreds of years of development in the law to guide me. The appellant and the appellee were just two parties to a larger conversation that had endured in varying forms for centuries. Resolving their particular dispute required an exploration of the reasoning and rationale of several judges faced with similar facts and issues.

We learn by similar processes. Stuck between competing arguments, torn between opposing positions, we suspend judgment, or should, until we have analyzed the relevant facts and issues and mined the past for like situations and instructive examples. We should question our presuppositions and examine complex conflicts from different angles. Aware that knowledge is limited, memory is selective, and perspective is partial, we must avoid the trap of ideology, which causes people to choose what they believe and then to find support for it, or to draw complicated ideas through simplistic formulae to generate favored outcomes.

College should be about discovery, learning, and the acquisition and transmission of knowledge. It should involve inquiry and curiosity, challenge and exploration, forcing us to shape and revise our beliefs, to pursue clarity through rigorous study. The Book of Proverbs submits that fools despise wisdom and instruction.[1] To avoid foolishness, we must be teachable. And we must learn our limitations.

Learning our limitations

Across the hall from me, on the top floor of Manly Hall, during my freshman year at Furman, lived my friend Andre, a kicker on the football team.  He was affable and happy, the kind of person you wanted around when you told jokes because of his contagious laughter. He was much bigger than I was, though not as large, say, as an offensive or defensive lineman, and one day we wrestled on the floor right there in the hallway of the dorm. It was all for fun, but a real contest of manly strength with actual pride and reputation at stake. Several of our hall-mates watched and cheered as Andre wrapped me up like a pretzel and pinned me to the ground in an impressive show of force. At first I tried to maneuver out of his iron grip but, realizing I lacked the strength, I simply submitted, defeated and docile, waiting for him to release me.

I had lost, and was genuinely surprised by the ease with which I had been conquered. I realized that, given my size, I possessed only so much physical power, and that someone of greater size and strength could, quite efficiently, subdue me. You would think that common sense, or a basic understanding of physical reality, would have led me to that conclusion already, but I was young and hubristic. At some point, a short man must acknowledge he’s short. A slow man must acknowledge he’s slow. A clumsy man must acknowledge his inelegance. We’re not all mathematicians, rocket scientists, or geniuses. But to realize our fullest potential, to maximize our ability to know things and accomplish our goals, we must discover our strengths and weaknesses. We can’t be who we’re not, but we can make the best of who we are.

Aesop, a slave in the ancient world whose fables have been told since at least the 6th century B.C., tells of the Proud Frog, the mother of several little froglets. One morning, while she was away, an ox, not seeing the froglets, stepped on one and squashed him to death. When the mother returned, the froglet brothers and sisters croaked and squeaked, warning their mother of the enormous beast that had killed their brother. “Was it this big?” the mother asked, swelling up her belly. “Bigger,” the children said. “This big?” she said, swelling her belly even more. “Much bigger,” the children said. “Was it this big?” she said, swelling her belly and puffing herself up with tremendous force. “No, mother, the beast was much bigger than you.” Offended, the mother strained and strained, swelling and puffing, swelling and puffing until—boom! She popped!

You see, we shouldn’t presume to be more than we are.

I learned years after graduation that, while he was in medical school, Andre entered the great, ever-growing family of the departed, having taken his own life for reasons I don’t know and probably couldn’t understand. Even today it’s hard for me to imagine what could have driven this fun-loving, kind, strong, and generous person to such unbearable, unspeakable despair.

Channeling human emotions through debate and rhetorical fora

Human beings are emotional and passionate. Our feelings, our tendencies towards anger and wrath, are not, however, necessarily bad. If someone were to enter this room and commit some violent atrocity, we would be horrified and enraged. When we hear grievous stories of innocents who have been slaughtered, deprived of their possessions, hurt, mistreated, or oppressed, we fume and demand responsive, retributive action. Anger towards some people suggests that we feel strongly towards other people, that we have the capacity, in other words, to love deeply, bond, and affectionately associate.

But our anger and wrath must be constructively channeled. The legal system provides a mechanism for managing the pain, outrage, hurt, and anger that threaten to disrupt social harmony. Consider The Eumenides, the last play in the trilogy, The Oresteia, which I mentioned earlier. Here is the backstory. Clytemnestra murdered her husband, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, after he returned home to Argos from the Trojan War. She had taken a lover, Aegisthus, just as Agamemnon had taken a lover: the seer, Cassandra, whom Clytemnestra also murdered. At the behest of Apollo, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, avenges his father’s death by killing both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

Now the Furies—three enraged goddesses in the form of beasts who are older than the Olympian gods and goddesses—relentlessly and recklessly pursue Orestes to avenge the murder of Clytemnestra. Apollo has given Orestes temporary refuge in the temple at Delphi, but Clytemnestra’s ghost rouses the passionate, bloodthirsty Furies into uncontrolled passion. They are shocked and angered by unpunished matricide. Athena intervenes to assemble a jury and hold a public trial in which the prosecuting Furies will argue their case and Apollo will serve, in effect, as Orestes’s defense attorney.

The jury splits, leaving Athena to cast the deciding vote. The Furies worry that if Athena opts to acquit Orestes, she’ll usher in an era of lawlessness. They believe that order and the integrity of the ancient law depend on killing Orestes. To them, Orestes’s murder is especially offensive because Clytemnestra is the mother, the fertile figure, the bearer of life from whose womb Orestes emerged into the cosmos. An attack on the mother is an attack on life itself, on the very continuity of human existence.

Athena is faced with a seemingly zero-sum situation: she must either spare Orestes’s life and enrage the Furies, who will unleash their lethal rage on society, or give the Furies what they wish, namely Orestes’s death, and thereby inflame Apollo and the other Olympian gods. Violent revenge appears inevitable. A self-perpetuating cycle of violence seems destined.

The Furies are wild, destructive, and vindictive. Athena in her divine wisdom recognizes, however, that they are indispensable to the law precisely because of those qualities. If someone is murdered, the legal system must bring about justice and mete out coercive punishment. The emotions and passions that animate revenge must be mediated, however, through formal and public processes, procedures, and protocols to ensure that they do not spin out of control, infecting whole populations beyond the immediate parties to a case. The legal system, by bringing conflicts into the field of rhetoric, argumentation, and persuasion in open fora governed by procedural rules, mitigates the intensity of the parties’ passions and emotions, which must be channeled through formal institutions and subjected to public scrutiny.

So what does Athena do? She splits the baby, as it were, by voting to free Orestes and by promising the Furies a high seat on the throne of her city, where they will enjoy everlasting honor and reverence. Of course, she must persuade the Furies of the rightness of this resolution. She does so with such effectiveness that her persuasion is likened to a “spell”; the Furies call her rhetoric “magic.” “Your magic is working,” the leader of the Furies submits. “I can feel the hate, / the fury slip away.”

Like Holmes, Athena despised civil war. “Let our wars / rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy / our powerful lust for fame,” she says. “But as for the bird / that fights at home—my curse on civil war.” She has pacified the hateful Furies and established a system of conflict resolution, not just for this matter but for all future matters.

Dealing with the inevitability of conflict

Imagine, if you will, that you could press a reset button that erased all memory and knowledge of the past but that instilled in each of us one definite principle, namely that every person by virtue of being human deserves to live freely and peaceably until visited by a natural death. This button would provide humanity with a clean slate, as it were. A fresh beginning. But it wouldn’t be long before inevitable conflicts arose. Accidents would happen. People would get hurt. Emotions and passions would be inflamed as a result. We seem to be wired to favor family over strangers, and to desire healthy and prosperous lives for our children. We want to maximize our wellbeing, sometimes at the expense of others’ wellbeing. Given the option to help our children or the children of some faraway stranger, we choose our children, the beings we brought into the world, on whose behalf we labor, weep, and rejoice.

Even if we could start over, struggle, contest, fighting, and feuding would arise. In light of the inevitability of conflict, we must make every effort to restrain it at persuasion and rhetoric. The university as an ideal represents a kind of intellectual forum where the sharpest minds come to debate, not the case of a client, but of an idea. Courtrooms provide spaces for litigants to have it out, so to speak, whereas universities provide spaces for scholars to test and debate facts and theories.

Universities are like courtrooms where competing ideas are given a hearing; the principle of rule of law over arbitrary and tyrannical rule should govern inquiry on campuses

We could think of the university as a legal system in which intellectuals “litigate” differing viewpoints before juries of intellectual peers who are committed to the advancement of knowledge and the clarity of ideas. We evaluate legal systems based on their tendency toward tyranny on the one hand and rule of law on the other. A tyrannical legal system is characterized by arbitrary commands, private vendettas, rapidly changing rules and standards, retroactive application of new rules and standards, lack of procedure and due process, and ambiguity.

By contrast, rule of law consists of general, regular, stable, and public rules regarding fundamental fairness that play out in established processes, procedures, and protocols. The university and the legal system realize the benefits of receiving and transmitting knowledge through open dialogue and debate, of resolving complex disputes through argumentation rather than physical force and intimidation, of settling controlling precedents through the aggregated decisions of innumerable minds, of suspending judgment on controversial matters until discovery procedures and deliberative processes have been exhausted, and of appealing contested judgments to additional, impartial bodies that will analyze the facts, evidence, and operative rules from a more removed vantage point.

Violent protests, no-platforming and de-platforming, dis-invitations, the shouting down of controversial speakers, or of blacklisting, harassing, threatening, or doxing them—these push us in the direction of arbitrary and tyrannical rule rather than the rule of law. They foment anger and outrage and privilege immediate vengeance over rational, procedural argumentation. They inhibit learning and deprive others of the opportunity to understand people and issues with greater clarity. They rouse emotions and passions that are antithetical to civility and humility.

College students should, in my view, think of themselves as judges in training—not in the sense that they will preside in courtrooms or manage and decide cases, but in the sense that they will be constructive participants in their civic and intellectual communities, cultivating the standards, norms, and discernment necessary to improve the lives and institutions of their family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, cities, counties, states, and country. They may not render binding judgments, but they will exercise judgment.

You cannot refine your logic and reasoning, your critical thinking, your ability to formulate cogent arguments, without considering diverse ideas with which you disagree. And when you identify an idea with which you disagree, you should adopt a Socratic approach to it, asking question after question until you grasp at a deeper level why you disagree and how to articulate your disagreement in a manner that persuades others to your position.

Good judges are patient, diligent, competent, credible, independent, and impartial. They avoid not just impropriety, but appearances of impropriety. They eschew favoritism. Confidence in their office and judgment depends upon their integrity, high standards of conduct and method, and prioritizing of truth, evidence, and fact over private interests and biases. They are not influenced by familial, financial, or political factors but courteously committed to fair processes, correct answers, sound research, substantiated arguments, and reasonableness. The best judges and professors I have met over my career are those whose personal political convictions, and whose attitude regarding partisan elections or newsworthy current events, were unknown to me.

The lesson of the Furies is that violence breeds violence, and that coercion breeds coercion. If you stifle speech, rough up speakers, intimidate them, prohibit them from airing their opinions, you generate backlash, maybe not right away, maybe not in a form that you’ll immediately recognize, but forces will work to meet your anger with anger. Intellectual inquiry has difficulty flourishing in a climate of radioactive anger and toxic outrage.

Unleashing fury upon those who express views with which you disagree will only jeopardize your credibility, and might just empower the ideas you’re seeking to discredit. Ideas that appear taboo or transgressive often spread when powerful forces seek to suppress them. The paradox of the martyr, of course, is that his or her power resides in defeat, in death. The voice of the martyr is loudest once he or she has been permanently silenced. There’s a reason why passive resistance and civil disobedience are so effective in the long run.

The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus had told him—perhaps through a vision or a revelatory inner voice—“My power is made perfect in weakness.” Another paradox: strength resides in meekness and mildness. If you are utterly convinced of the rightness of certain views that you sincerely hold, then constructively to advance them, to see them succeed in the long run, you should air them from a position of meekness and mildness. Spreading them with coercion or force will probably fail. Even those who outwardly manifest the signs of a convert might inwardly reject the views they purport to have adopted. Beliefs are dubious that depend for their advancement on the use of coercion and force. A resort to violence in the name of an idea suggests that arguments for that idea are unpersuasive. In the absence of articulated reasoning against certain views, those views gain credence and currency. Attempting to stamp them out through coercion or force is counterproductive.

Civility and humility are therefore indispensable to the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge.

I’ll end with the wisdom of Aesop’s fable “The Cat and the Fox.” The fox, you see, was braggadocios, boasting to the cat about all the things he could and would do if he were attacked by hunting hounds. The modest, sensible cat replied to the haughty fox that she, having only one simple trick to escape dogs, wasn’t so clever. “If my trick doesn’t work,” she sighed, “then I’m done for.”

The fox, laughing, mocked the cat for her lack of cunning. “Too bad you’re not as smart as I am,” he taunted. As soon as these words issued from his snout, a pack of hounds descended upon him. The cat resorted to her one trick and escaped. The fox, however, tried several tricks, each craftily, but they didn’t work. The hounds snatched him up and tore him to shreds, filling their bellies with bloody fox meat.

Friends, my fellow Furman paladins, don’t be the fox. Please, don’t be like him. There are always dogs—and cats for that matter—who are better and smarter than you are. There are always powerful forces beyond your control. Be sensible lest they swallow you up. Be humble and teachable, know your strengths and weaknesses, and suspend judgment on important and controversial matters until you have considered them from different angles and, if possible, examined all relevant data. Unless and until you do these things, you won’t acquire and transmit knowledge with your fullest potential.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Proverbs 1:7.

“Saint Stephen,” A Poem by P.W. Bridgman

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Poetry on February 26, 2020 at 6:45 am

P.W. Bridgman is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer of poetry and short fiction. His most recent book—a selection of poems entitled A Lamb—was published by Ekstasis Editions in 2018. It was preceded in 2013 by a selection of short fiction entitled Standing at an Angle to My Age (published by Libros Libertad). Bridgman’s poems and stories have appeared in The Moth Magazine, The Glasgow Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman, The High Window, The Bangor Literary Journal, The Galway Review, Ars Medica, Poetry Salzburg Review and other literary periodicals, e-zines and anthologies. Learn more at www.pwbridgman.ca.

Saint Stephen[1]

Did he doubt or did he try?
Answers aplenty in the bye and bye
Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills
One man gathers what another man spills.

“Saint Stephen”
by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia

Stephen embraced an old word, dredged up from obscurity by chance:
a word encountered in the florid prose of Edward Bulwer Lytton.
It lodged in his mind, fastened itself to his meditations.
Despite its modest provenance, the word captured just what he was seeking.
Indeed, it was le mot juste, the inevitable word. The word was ‘pellucid’.
Its crystalline perfection scorned all that his murky faith held high.
Clarity was what was missing. As conviction rises, so falls mere belief.
But mired in mere belief (a qualified belief at that), he longed for discernment,
for the bright line. Stephen’s tiresome questions made his priest wonder and sigh:
Did he doubt or did he try?

The agile mind is an unruly horse. An honest priest will admit as much.
This was Stephen’s conundrum. He yearned to rise above mere belief.
He sought conviction. He pursued a considered acceptance of doctrine.
But his unruly horse’s hooves kept kicking up dirt, leaves and twigs.
Between him and the bougainvillea beyond—so rapturously beautiful—
his agile mind always interpolated a dusty thicket of doubt and, try
as he might, it would not clear. Far indeed from a pellucid view!
Did God expect him simply to check his intellect at the door?
Stephen’s priest shushed him with the same, drooping battle cry:
‘Answers aplenty in the bye and bye’.

A more-than-usually-competent London solicitor, Stephen had nonetheless taken
a modest position with a not-for-profit. He wrote scholarly articles
on the law of trusts. His treatise in the Modern Law Review urging
a more liberal use of the cy-près doctrine was cited by the House of Lords
twice in decisions worth millions to struggling charities. NGOs were elated,
residuary beneficiaries dismayed. Evermore like Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills,’
the banks were overdue for a reminder that Law comes qualified by Equity.
Stephen was quietly pleased to have prompted it.
Long live principles first set down with quills!
Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills!

It was his beloved Forster’s Howards End that confirmed Stephen as a small-s socialist.
Mr. Wilcox’s portentous words to Margaret caused the book to tumble from
his twenty-year-old hands: ‘The poor are poor, and one’s sorry for them,
but there it is… As civilisation moves forward, the shoe is bound
to pinch in places.’ Bloody, bloody hell. He set his face, indeed his life, against all
the Henry Wilcoxes, in time using Equity to thwart them, to challenge their wills.
Now, there was a confirmation worthy of the word. Law and Equity gave him nuance
and subtlety to be sure, but unlike scripture, they supplied some bright lines too.
And tools to make the shoe pinch where it should. Scalpels. Mallets and drills:
One man gathers what another man spills.

 

 

[1] This decidedly English glosa takes its source poem quatrain (its cabeza in Spanish, from whence the glosa form is derived) from the song, ‘Saint Stephen.’ The song appeared first on the Grateful Dead’s album, Aoxomoxoa, and then again on Live/Dead. Both LPs were released in 1969 (the year the present poet turned 17).

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