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e.e. in the U.S.S.R.

In America, Arts & Letters, Books, Emerson, Humanities, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics on August 25, 2022 at 6:00 am

This piece originally appeared here in Discourse Magazine.

Born in 1894, E.E. Cummings—poet, painter, playwright, novelist—is known for his innovative idioms, very unconventional punctuation and experimental forms. He is less remembered for his staunch commitment to philosophical and political individualism, in the tradition of 19th-century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, which found its fullest expression in his opposition to the ascendent Marxism and communism of the early 20th century.

Cummings was raised by Unitarian parents around Harvard Yard (his father taught at the university) at a time when the chief modes of transportation were not yet by automobile. The ebullient young poet enjoyed his academic milieu with its residual transcendentalism. Even the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an allegedly cold realist then serving on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, acknowledged Emerson as his inspiration and wrote about “an echo of the infinite” and “a hint of the universal law.”

An urban center for publishing and speaking and all varieties of expatiation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was at the time home to American intellectuals such as William James, Josiah Royce and Charles Eliot Norton, as well as to the nascent pragmatism that would eclipse republicanism, Unitarianism and other New World paradigms in its importance to the identity of educated Bostonians and Harvard highbrows. Burgeoning industry generated prosperity and energetic commercialism in Boston and its surrounds. The Civil War had tempered the optimism of earlier generations, but vibrant efforts to fashion a uniquely American culture and to break free from the constraints of European customs and traditions continued to shape the growing market for newspapers and books.

In this stimulating climate, under his parents’ care, young Cummings cultivated his creative talents, especially for poetry. He entered Harvard University in 1911, published his first poem in 1912, graduated in 1915 and earned a master’s degree from Harvard in 1916. As a college student he became, according to biographer Susan Cheever, “a new man, an archetypal questioner, and with this newness would come a different kind of poetry.”

Originality was the hallmark of American writing long before Cummings. The national literature, such as it was, sought discontinuity and inventiveness. The crass humor of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), the gothic grotesqueness of Edgar Allan Poe, the bold activism of Margaret Fuller, the caustic realism of Edith Wharton, the performative independence of Henry David Thoreau, the shocking obscenity of Walt Whitman—each contributed to the paradox of the emergent American canon: its derivative novelty and mimetic resistance to outside influences.

Strictly rhyming meter and syntax in American poetry gave way to a rebellious free verse and democratic improvisation. The ostentatious vocabulary and syntactical pretensions of upper-class Europeans were not suited to rugged American prose, which—as in Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”—featured common speech, plain diction and vulgar colloquialisms. But how far could writers push boundaries? How could they transcend the inescapable past or reimagine inherited orthographies? Could language exist without recognizable precedents, rules or structures? What approaches had not been tried? What poems could satisfy the endless aspiration for American ingenuity?

Stretching the Limits

Cummings may have stretched the limits as far as they could go. His anarchic, avant-garde style signaled his rogue, rollicking individualism, which, in his view, defied the dehumanizing forces of collectivism. This is not the space to examine his extensive oeuvre or undertake close readings of his thousands of brilliant poems. Yet two acclaimed examples suffice to show the lyric distinctiveness of his curious method:

when my love comes to see me it’s

when my love comes to see me it’s
just a little like music,a
little more like curving colour(say
orange)
       against silence,or darkness….

the coming of my love emits
a wonderful smell in my mind,

you should see when i turn to find
her how my least heart-beat becomes less.
And then all her beauty is a vise

whose stilling lips murder suddenly me,

but of my corpose the tool her smile makes something
suddenly luminous and precise

—and then we are I and She….

what is that the hurdy-gurdy’s playing

[in Just-]

in Just-

spring          when the world is mud-

luscious the little

lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come

running from marbles and

piracies and it’s

spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer

old balloonman whistles

far          and             wee

and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

it’s

spring

and

the

goat-footed

balloonMan          whistles

far

and

wee

In the first poem we experience a traditional theme: tender, romantic love. The second, with its evocative images, vague figures, fragmented lines and unusual, disruptive punctuation, is like the scene of an abstract painting or photograph, a rendered moment, the sounds purely imagined.

Cummings famously embraced lowercase font (or, if you prefer, infamously avoided capitalization). The spatial arrangement of this poem—large gaps between words, for instance, or the swaying effect of differing line lengths—lends the impression that the wind has blown the letters and words back and forth, together and apart, and that the ominous perspective is that of a child who is unable to articulate clearly or cogently the evanescent flurry of activity he beholds.

Emerson coined “individualism” for the American lexicon to capture the “individualisme” that Alexis de Tocqueville recorded in the early 1830s in his observations while touring the United States. The individualism that Cummings developed was more than merely a youthful sense of bravado and self-importance that would moderate as his testosterone receded with age. It was deep-seated, rational and enduring—in a word, Emersonian.

Mentor. Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1857. Image Credit: Josiah Johnson Hawes/Wikimedia Commons

Lasting beliefs earn staying power through lived experience; trying circumstances force people to validate or renounce their convictions. Two pressing events reinforced Cummings’ individualism, which he exposited with an ever-maturing understanding of the dangers of totalitarianism.

One was his detainment during World War I, right out of college. He and novelist William Slater Brown had volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance service in France. Charged with espionage because of cryptic comments in their letters home, they were imprisoned for three months in holding cells at a military detention camp in the French town of La Ferté-Macé. Meanwhile the U.S. Department of State erroneously notified Cummings’ parents that he had been aboard the SS Antilles, which a German U-boat had torpedoed and sunk.

Cummings was released from confinement without commotion or fanfare shortly before Christmas 1917 and was stateside again by January. He would later portray this period in his autobiographical novel “The Enormous Room,” which biographer Richard S. Kennedy describes as a “symbolic attack upon all governmental structures whatsoever.”

Lenin’s Tomb

The other belief-affirming event was Cummings’ five-week trip to the Soviet Union in 1931, which hardened him against communism and its American supporters. During this trip Cummings kept a diary that became his second prose book, “Eimi.” The title is Greek for “I am.” In his 1958 preface, Cummings wrote, “To devotees of the Old Testament, this may suggest Exodus III, 14—‘I AM THAT I AM.’” Cummings’ signature “i,” rendered in lowercase throughout his poetry, lacks the grandeur and majesty of the Hebrew God. Yet, paradoxically, it seems mighty in its diminutive size: a sign of individuality that draws attention to itself, its power made perfect in weakness.

First published in 1933, “Eimi” abounds with bitter, biting critiques of collectivism and of its corollary, a planned economy. This diary-invective can be obscure, its plot sequencing at times difficult to follow. Guided by a derisory version of Virgil, Cummings—the mocking and mythical narrator, a 20th-century Dante—undertakes a depressing, disturbing passage through the “unworld,” Stalinist Russia: a nightmarish hell of senseless bureaucracy, unimaginative ideology and brutalizing oppression.

His first stop on this journey: “A singularly unbanklike bank:outside,mildly imposing mansion; inside,hugely promiscuous hideousness—not the impeccable sanitary ordered and efficient hideousness of American or imitation-American banks,but a strictly ubiquitous whenwhere of casual filth and aimless commotion and profound hoping inefficiency.” Such bleak, odd imagery and frank disgust anticipate the surreal, satirical episodes he later sees and records: propaganda plays, indoctrination speeches, a plethora of comrades, secret police, a socialist jail. The neologism “whenwhere” emphasizes the managerial pointlessness of Soviet administration, which homogenizes society into a monotonous, mechanistic mass of inept, brainwashed automatons.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Harry” Dana (grandson of the renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had died in 1882), a union-loving advocate of labor causes, a Harvard habitué and a lively expert on Russian drama, happened to be in Russia when Cummings arrived there. With entrée into Russian cognoscenti society, Dana was Cummings’ Virgil, introducing him to the glitterati, the literati and local theater. Anti-authoritarian to his core, Cummings was unimpressed. He “went to the Soviet Union with his eyes open and without an agenda,” explains biographer Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, but “his experiences there, in which he witnessed first-hand the privation and sadness of the Stalinist state, certainly helped him develop an agenda.”

In “Eimi,” Cummings allegorizes his haunting visit to Lenin’s mausoleum, calling it the “Vision of Satan.” The revulsion with which Cummings illustrates the procession of bodies to the grave is palpable. Too lengthy to quote here, these lines scramble with intensity in the manner of the mourning throng—a “number of numberlessness”—which mobilizes toward “the Tomb of Tombs,” toward “Lenin our life!” and “Lenin our hope!” The tomb, discussed much earlier in the narrative, is “a rigid pyramidal composition of blocks; an impurely mathematical game of edges.”

The picture here is religious, or irreligious—the hallowed Lenin in his sacred space, wholly consecrated, absolutely revered. If Lenin is God, then his state—his government—is holy. Nothing could have been more frightening or distressing to Cummings.

Kennedy asserts that the concluding lines of “Eimi” attempt to “express something similar to an Emersonian transcendental experience, a mystical union with the creative force”:

silence is made of

(behind perfectly or

final rising

humbly

more dark

most luminous

whereless fragrant whenlessly erect

a sudden the!entirelyblossoming)

Voice

(Who:

Loves;

Creates,

Imagines)

OPENS

Notice the emergence of sound from silence: the voice a mode of agency, a source, a genesis, a conception. The result is as if to say, “You, reader, are now released from Soviet censorship, restraint and restriction; you have ended that chapter and may close this book; the future is yours to make.”

Standing Alone

Kennedy explains that the self-celebrating and increasingly embittered Cummings sometimes “felt isolated from other literary contemporaries, mostly leftists who shunned him because of his strong anticommunist views.” True Emersonian self-reliance means standing alone, if necessary, in the face of hostility and to the chagrin or ire of the naysaying multitudes. Cummings, “no base imitator of another,” struck out on his own, taking great risks with his poetry despite harsh charges that his writing was indecipherable, esoteric or impenetrable.

His acrobatic, often puzzling techniques represent aesthetically the prevailing motifs of his romantic, nonconformist individualism: imagination, life, emotion, instinct, spontaneity and love. His liberating eccentricity contrasts with the crushing, repressive and absurd Soviet system. “Eimi,” a sustained indictment of Marxism and communism, depicts the all-encompassing despotism of mobs as well as a cruel and implacable government run by myriad comrades who lack character or personality because they are subservient sycophants: dispensable units within an indiscriminate superstate of interchangeable agents and functionaries.

When the idiosyncratic Cummings died of a stroke in 1962, he was a household name, his stature secured by the blooming hippie, hipster subculture that, dissatisfied with current affairs, followed his lead in rejecting establishment standards and submission to authority. His obituary in The New York Times, published the day after his death, commences on the front page and, because of its length, extends to another section. He was a force, a giant of his time, a modernist trendsetter whose trends were insuperable, a transparent eyeball, the “i” and the person he decided to be, the Whitmanesque “me myself” who would not capitulate to badges, names, large societies or dead institutions. He was e.e. and E.E., living truly, seeing truly, acting singly. There can never be another.

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Time for a New University?

In Academia, Arts & Letters, higher education, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Philosophy on November 24, 2021 at 6:25 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty.

Higher education in the United States is in dire condition. Priced Out, a report by Neetu Arnold of the National Association of Scholars released earlier this year, describes several problems afflicting colleges and universities: profligate spending, administrative bloat, exorbitant tuition costs, massive student loan debt, mission drift, student radicalism—the list goes on.

What can be done to fix these challenges? Is it time to build parallel schools to rival too-far-gone institutions? Is there room for new colleges and universities predicated on the serious, unbridled pursuit of truth and open inquiry, free from the rigid orthodoxies, anti-intellectualism, and close-mindedness of wokeism and identity politics?

We might find out. This week brings word of the University of Austin, or UATX, a residential, brick-and-mortar, startup liberal arts institution backed by some of the sharpest, most independent voices in the public discourse. Its board of advisors, for instance, includes Arthur Brooks, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (also a founding faculty fellow with Peter Boghossian), Leon Kass, Robert Zimmer, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Nadine Strossen, Joshua Katz, John A. Nunes, Vickie Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, Stacy Hock, E. Gordon Gee, David Mamet, Glenn Loury, Sohrab Ahmari, and Wilfred McClay.

The founding team consists of Pano Kanelos, formerly the president of St. John’s College who will serve as president; Niall Ferguson of The Hoover Institution and Stanford University; Bari Weiss, who made headlines in 2020 after resigning from The New York Times; Heather Heying, an evolutionary biologist; and Joe Lonsdale, a tech entrepreneur in the field of wealth management.

An impressive group. How will they ensure that UATX differs from the typical university, the kind that Arnold decries? For starters, they are steadfastly committed to free speech, robust debate, and unfettered questioning. “Our students,” Kanelos intones, “will be exposed to the deepest wisdom of civilization and learn to encounter works not as dead traditions but as fierce contests of timeless significance that help human beings distinguish between what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly.” He continues: “Students will come to see such open inquiry as a lifetime activity that demands of them a brave, sometimes discomforting, search for truths.”

Second, Kanelos et al. will distinguish UATX from legacy institutions by devoting their efforts to six principles (open inquiry, freedom of conscience, civil discourse, financial independence, intellectual independence, and political independence) and three pillars (open inquiry, a novel financial model, and an innovative curriculum). The repetition of “open inquiry” as both a principle and a pillar emphasizes the importance of that concept to UATX’s distinct mission. UATX is not about rigid orthodoxy or ideological conformity, but about curiosity, exploration, and self-examination.

Translating these lofty ideals into practice could prove difficult. Ralston College, which generated buzz for its similarly ambitious mission and curriculum, has never taken off. Back in 2010, Stanley Fish heralded Ralston College as “Back to the Future!” for its exciting, innovative approach to traditional learning and classical curriculum. Over a decade later, that prospective college hasn’t enrolled a single student. What will Kanelos and team do to ensure that UATX does not suffer the same fate?

I learned a few possibilities last month at the fall meeting of the Philadelphia Society, where Kanelos publicly announced the creation of UATX, and then at a three-day “co-creation” summit in Austin hosted by the Universidad Francisco Marroquín and the American Institute for Economic Research. At the latter, I discussed UATX with Kanelos at length, and the whole point of the summit was for inventive leaders in higher education to “crowdsource” or “workshop” pioneering ideas for improving university costs, governance, administration, instructional models, tuition—in short, anything that our large group could come up with. Some measures are simple: outsource or streamline anything extracurricular like athletics or clubs. Others involve partnerships with wealthy investors and businesses keenly interested in UATX’s success. For example, the young and wealthy Joe Lonsdale, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, is helping to fund and develop UATX. The missional obligation to abide by principles of truth-seeking and constructive disagreement guards against undue influence that donors might have on academic freedom.

UATX is in embryonic stage and, therefore, receptive to unique and imaginative suggestions, such as courses regarding sound money and cryptocurrency, yet it has a plan to ensure that its business model is viable and that its mission remains uncompromised. It aspires to launch a summer program in 2021, a graduate program in Entrepreneurship and Leadership in 2022, and graduate programs in Politics, Applied History, Education, and Public Service in 2023. By 2024, it will have established an undergraduate college with a rigorous liberal arts program that students must complete before choosing between different tracks, each organized under the aegis of a different center of academic excellence. My guess is that, although the ideas for these centers are mapped out, their design remains fluid, not fixed, and their rollout will require some practical flexibility.

Predictably, the media commentariat is apoplectic about UATX. Tom McKay intemperately refers to the university founders as “a sampling of the nation’s most intolerable contrarian columnists, right-wing pundits, and other stuffed shirts.” Without citing evidence for his opinion, Daniel W. Drezner emotes, “If its faculty even remotely resembles the board of advisers, the school would be assembling the most cantankerous, egotistical assortment of individuals since the Trump White House.” Claire Goforth claims that the announcement of UATX “comes from the minds of the nation’s most prominent reactionary bloggers and thinkers, who have become iconoclasts for their desires to break with the ‘woke’ movement they believe is brainwashing elite American academic universities and trickling down to the rest of the country.” Harsh words!

Writing for The Daily Beast, Noah Kirsch says, “Buried in the school’s FAQ section: it does not actually offer degrees, nor is it yet accredited.” Accreditors often require startups to operate for a period, even to grant degrees, as a prerequisite to accreditation. I do not know the policies of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board or the Higher Learning Commission—from which UATX will seek accreditation—but the fact that UATX isn’t accredited yet should come as no surprise.

The foreseeable ranting and naysaying among journalists and scribblers isn’t an impediment to UATX. The chief challenge for UATX, in fact, will be recruiting students. How will a UATX admissions office convince high school seniors and their parents that attending there can yield measurable returns on investment, that UATX has the staying power and credibility to endure inevitable criticisms and to flourish amid a rambunctious culture increasingly fractured along political lines. To make recruitment more manageable, UATX is starting backwards: with summer programs and M.A. programs before operationalizing the undergraduate program.

UATX must also be wary of faculty and staff seeking to abandon their posts at legacy institutions to seize on this new opportunity. “Hundreds of college professors pleaded to join [UATX],” reports Fox News. These professors must be carefully vetted lest they attempt to bureaucratize UATX along the lines of other universities, or, worse, sabotage the whole project. Even well-meaning academics have been acculturated to working and business conditions that, by and large, aren’t subject to market pricing mechanisms. UATX should hire in the manner of Hillsdale College, requiring interviews not just with each department but with the provost and the president as well.

UATX is that odd combination of traditional and innovative, pouring old wine into new wine skins. Its success could usher in a new era in educational reform. The stakes, it seems, are high. But my hopes are even higher.

“Branson,” A Poem by Bruce Craven

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, liberal arts, Poetry on July 15, 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.

 

Branson

The Live Music Capital of the World wasn’t good.
We were stuck in one spot. Artistically,
it sucked,” said Mickey Raphael. Willie should
not have committed months without simply
talking to Mark, his business advisor,
but Tillis brought tequila, weed, smiles. Shotgun
signed to play the venue-town for guitar survivors
in need of steady short sets, repeat forever. Fun
for some, sure, merchandise, tourists, but for outlaws?
No freedom. Still is still moving for Will, but no bus
was a cell. In the Ozark motel, Mark saw
the sleeping bag, the tent pitched on carpet. This deal’s a bust;
rust, not freedom. “Get me out of here!” Willie blamed
the road for his pain, but Branson was prison, just loss, just fame.

“Pancho & Lefty,” A Poem by Bruce Craven

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, liberal arts, Poetry on July 8, 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.

 

Pancho & Lefty

Willie and Merle were compared to bookends. Look
at the two brothers…and their shelf of music history!
They had a tour planned before Merle shook
off the world on his birthday. Penitentiary
life marked him early, double pneumonia stole
him from fans and family, 79. The Hag kept
on the fighting side until the end: playing shows,
recording Django & Jimmie with Will. His lungs ripped
from hard-living’s disease. Back in the Eighties, sleeping
in his tour-bus, Pedernales studio, 4:00 am, Will knocks,
needs Merle for a last tune. Not later, now. One take. Meeting
Shotgun the next day, Merle thinks about his vocals, talks
to Willie. Can we do another take, get it perfect? Will grins
The tape is sent. Townes Van Zandt’s song hits #1, wins.

What Austrian Economists Can Learn From Roger Scruton

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Britain, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on June 17, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative. 

The room is alive with happy discussion, the clanking of plates and silverware, hearty laughter, and the pitter-patter of smartly dressed servers buzzing about the room. Wine flows. We’re on the final course, awaiting dessert and coffee, when suddenly the lights dim, leaving dancing candlelight on the tables and the illicit glow of cell phones. On an enormous screen behind the stage comes a loud, hoarse voice: “It is a great honor to be named Defender of Western Civilization.”

I look up, puzzled. There before me in magnified form, filling the screen, is Sir Roger Scruton, sitting beside a lamp, his face framed by a flux of flaxen hair, his chair squeaking as he readjusts himself.  It’s evening, both here and in England, and the sun is down, so the faint light beaming on his face through an obscured window betrays the disappointing reality that we’re watching a recording, not a live feed. The moment, at any rate, is exciting. Scruton goes on to ask, “What is a civilization?”  And to answer: “It is surely a form of connection between people, not just a way in which people understand their languages, their customs, their forms of behavior, but also the way in which they connect to each other, eye to eye, face to face, in the day-to-day life which they share.”

That, anyway, is how I recall the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 14th Annual Gala for Western Civilization that honored Scruton, who, because of his chemotherapy treatment, was unable to attend.

Sir Roger, as he’s affectionately known, departed from this world on January 12, 2020.  This erudite philosopher of a bygone era raises grave questions about the compatibility between traditionalism and classical liberalism, custom and markets, the individual and the state, convention and innovation. From Scruton, we can, I think, learn the following. That a society of modest scope and scale functions optimally when its people are good and virtuous, when they voluntarily organize themselves into charitable communities, fearing the eternal consequences of wickedness. That free societies thrive where crime is rare and private property rights are both recognized and respected, where families work hard and support one another and leaders are classically and rigorously educated, having wrestled with the greatest thinkers and texts from across the ages. That lasting social harmony develops in cohesive communities where solidarity involves kindness and benevolence and members do not superciliously dismiss received wisdom and norms.

Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands—first published in 1985 as Thinkers of the New Left, reworked and rereleased in 2015, produced in paperback in 2016, and reissued in 2019 as yet a newer edition—demonstrates that Scruton wasn’t tilting at windmills as conservative pundits and talking heads on television and popular media seem too often to do. Scruton’s chief targets were, not senseless and sycophantic politicians, but ideas. He traced these ideas to particular leftist luminaries: Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, J.K. Galbraith, Ronald Dworkin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Źižek. His concern was principally philosophical and cultural. He took ideas seriously and didn’t simplify or exploit them merely for entertainment value.

Scruton acknowledged that the term “Left,” referring to the object of his opprobrium, covers a wide range of intellectuals and ideological movements, but that all of these, to some degree, “illustrate an enduring outlook on the world, and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment, nourished by … elaborate social and political theories,”[1] namely those which hold “that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practiced by a dominant class.”[2] The word “Left” or “leftist,” then, suitably encompasses a multiplicity of views that, although singular in their particulars, hang together as a classifiable category at a certain level of generalization.

Scruton added that leftists “define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed,”[3] and that they pursue two abstract goals: liberation and social justice. The liberation Scruton refers to is not necessarily a libertarian version of personal autonomy; rather, it refers to “emancipation from …. ‘structures,’” e.g., from “the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society.”[4] The Left seeks to deconstruct and dismantle historic associations (families, churches, clubs, sporting leagues, etc.) that provide order and stability in the absence of overarching government rules and regulations.

If that’s “the Left” in a nutshell, then what’s “the Right,” according to Scruton?  In short, the Right is a community of individuals believing in the primacy of those personal relationships, prevailing norms, and controlling institutions that precede government, mediate between private actors and the State, and celebrate the intrinsic worth of every human being. “The right,” explains Scruton, “rests its case in representation and law,” advocating a “civil society that grows from below without asking permission of its rulers.”[5] The Right, accordingly, treats government as accountable to its citizens in light of its dangerous capacity for mischief and violence. The Right also recognizes the sinful, flawed nature of human beings and, therefore, attempts to offset or neutralize—rather than to amass or centralize—power.

By contrast, the Left promotes institutionalized coercion and centralized power. Its attempts to realize concretely the abstractions of social justice and equality necessitate the use of a forcible apparatus, controlled by a select group of people, to press resistant communities into compliance. “Who controls what and how in the realm of pure equality,” asks Scruton on this score, “and what is done to ensure that the ambitious, the attractive, the energetic and the intelligent do not upset whatever pattern it is that their wise masters might impose on them?”[6] No true and absolute equality of talent or wealth can ever be achieved in tangible reality because humans are wonderfully and brilliantly diverse, even as they are made, universally, in the image of God.

Given a binary choice between the Left and the Right so described, libertarians ought to side with the Right, cultivating a literate society characterized not only by self-ownership, free markets, and private property, but also by aesthetic appreciation, religious worship, obedience to successful and constructive customs, and concern for the souls and material wellbeing of the generations not yet born. Libertarians and conservatives can agree that everyone is plugged into vast networks of commerce and activity, however remote their neighborhoods or habitats. They can agree with Scruton that self-regulating, disciplined communities of caring individuals administer felt, proportional restraints more fairly and efficiently than do faraway government bureaucrats or impersonal agencies of mechanical functionaries who enjoy a compulsory monopoly on the implementation of force.

Scruton suggested that the Right, more than the Left, benevolently esteems the multiplying, bewildering variety of human behavior and interests. Whereas the Left reduces human beings to determined products of intractable systems and rigid social structures, the Right marvels in the mystery of quotidian experience, mining the past for evidence of good and bad decisions, prudent and imprudent courses of action, and workable and unworkable approaches to difficult challenges and exigent circumstances.

There can be no freedom, however, absent some authority. Conservatives and libertarians alike may locate that authority in mediating institutions of modest size, recognizing the importance of consent and localism, family and place, to good government. Scruton’s example shows that certain conservative cultural conditions enable market-based economies to flourish. Conservatives and libertarians may agree that, in Scruton’s words, “[Ludwig von] Mises and [Friedrich] Hayek between them destroyed the possibility of a socialist economy,” giving the “conclusive argument against it.” Mises’s and Hayek’s argument, a tenet of the Austrian School of Economics, involves the recognition that humans are fallible creatures with limited knowledge and perspective who prosper when society writ large values humility over hubris, and economic exchange over warfare or coercion.

Despite the rancor between them lately, conservatives and libertarians need each other. Dividing them unites the Left. Scruton was no libertarian, but his ideas, if thoughtfully considered by libertarians, could enable a more fruitful, contemplative, and beautiful libertarianism to emerge.

[1] Pg. 1.

[2] Pg. 3. Note: I have Americanized Scruton’s spelling so that, for instance, “practised” has become “practiced.”

[3] Pg. 3.

[4] Pg. 3.

[5] Pg. 286.

[6] Pg. 274.

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.

Russell Kirk on Higher Education

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, higher education, History, Humanities, Imagination, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 12, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal 

Russell Kirk isn’t known as a policy wonk. The Great Books, not the mathematical or statistical models of economic technicians, were his organon of choice. He devoted essays to broad, perennial themes like “the moral imagination,” “liberal learning,” and “the permanent things.”

Read his numerous columns about higher education, however, and you might come away with a different impression, one of Kirk as a political strategist with a strong grasp of educational policy.

Kirk wrote on a wide variety of issues involving higher education: accreditation, academic freedom, tenure, curriculum, vocational training, community colleges, adult education, college presidents, textbooks, fraternities and Greek life, enrollment, seminaries, tuition, teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, student activism, British universities, urban versus rural schools, boards of trustees, university governance, the hard sciences, grade inflation, lowering academic standards, libraries, private versus public schooling, civics education, sex education, school vouchers, university presses, and more.

One of his go-to subjects implicates several of those issues: federal subsidies. He believed that federal money threatened the mission and integrity of universities in numerous areas.

For starters, he believed that federal subsidies—and, it must be added, foundation grants—created perverse incentives for researchers, who might conform to the benefactor’s “preferences” and “value judgments.”[1] Recalling the proverb that “[t]he man who pays the piper calls the tune,”[2] he cautioned against financial dependency on outside influences, which, he worried, could impose ideological conditions on grants to advance or purge particular viewpoints.

Moreover, the grantors, whether they were foundations or the government, would, he believed, quantify the value of their funded work according to measurable outcome assessments that were “easily tabulated and defensible.”[3] The intrinsic value of reading Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, or Euripides, however, is not easily assessed in instrumental terms.

More fundamentally, Kirk viewed federal involvement in higher education as a step toward the centralization and consolidation of power at the expense of local variety. He foresaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education long before it occurred.[4] Fearing the growth of an “educationist hierarchy” or an “empire of educationism” corrupted by “sinecures” and “patronage,”[5] he favored small, private, liberal-arts colleges, which, he believed, flourished when they committed to mission and tradition.[6]

“The American college—the small liberal arts college—is worth preserving,” Kirk wrote, “but it can be preserved, in our time of flux, only if it is reformed.”[7] Kirk’s reform was reactionary, not progressive.[8] It rejected the popular focus on vocation and specialization and sought to train “men and women who know what it is to be truly human, who have some taste for contemplation, who take long views, and who have a sense of moral responsibility and intellectual order.”[9] Even if they can’t be calculated precisely, these vague-yet-discernable qualities of literate people are beneficial to society writ large, in Kirk’s view. In other words, there’s an appreciable difference between literate and illiterate societies.

Kirk decried the alarming escalation of tuition prices. In 1979, he wrote, “Attendance at colleges and universities is becoming hopelessly expensive.”[10] Forty years later, the costs of attending college have risen exponentially. Kirk opposed federal aid or scholarships to students,[11] but not, from what I can tell, for the economic reason that the ready availability of federal funding would enable universities to hike tuition rates to artificially high levels. Perhaps, even in his skepticism, he couldn’t conceive of university leadership as so systematically exploitative.

We continue to hear echoes of Kirk’s observation that the typical college student “oughtn’t to be in college at all: he has simply come along for the fun and a snob-degree, and his bored presence reduces standards at most American universities.”[12] Elsewhere, he claimed that “[w]e have been trying to confer the higher learning upon far too many young people, and the cost per capita has become inordinate.”[13] The question of why students attend college is closely related to that of the fundamental purpose of college.

Uncertainty regarding the point of higher education—whether it’s to develop the inquisitive mind, expand the frontiers of knowledge, equip students with jobs skills, or something else entirely—seems more pronounced today in light of technological, economic, and population changes. Moreover, it remains true that “most of the universities and colleges are forced to do the work that ordinary schools did only a generation ago.”[14] Shouldn’t higher education accomplish more than remedial education? Doesn’t it have a greater end?

Kirk certainly thought so—at least if higher education were properly liberal. “By ‘liberal education,’” he explained, “we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education.’”[15]

Kirk’s surprising wonkishness, and his facility in policy debates, always submitted to this overarching goal: Defending order against disorder, in both the soul and the larger polity.[16] “The primary purpose of a liberal education,” he said, “is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake.”[17]

The aspiration of policy wasn’t policymaking. Kirk’s short-term strategies serviced a paramount objective: Namely, to seek wisdom, virtue, truth, clarity, and understanding. You can’t simply quantify the value of that.

[1] Russell Kirk, “Massive Subsidies and Academic Freedom,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1963), 608.

[2] Ibid. at 607.

[3] Ibid. at 611.

[4] Russell Kirk, “Federal Aid to Educational Bureaucracy,” National Review, Vol. 10 (February 25, 1961), 116.

[5] Russell Kirk, “The Federal Educational Boondoggle,” National Review, Vol. 5 (March 15, 1958), 257.

[6] See generally Russell Kirk, “The American College: A Proposal for Reform,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1957), 177-186.

[7] Ibid. at 177.

[8] Ibid. (“our age seems to require a reform that is reactionary, rather than innovating”).

[9] Ibid. at 182-83.

[10] Russell Kirk, “More Freedom Per Dollar,” National Review, Vol 31 (April 13, 1979), 488.

[11] Russell Kirk, “Federal Scholarships,” National Review, Vol. 2 (November 24, 1956), 18.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Russell Kirk, “Who Should Pay for Higher Education?” Vol. 23 (May 18, 1971), 534.

[14] Russell Kirk, “Federal Education,” National Review, Vol. 4 (December 28, 1957), 592.

[15] Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” in The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by George A. Panichas (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 398.

[16] Ibid. at 400.

[17] Ibid.

Dr. Jason Jewell on Justice versus Social Justice

In Conservatism, Economics, Ethics, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Philosophy, Politics on February 5, 2020 at 6:45 am

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