Objectivism, Alive and Well

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Jeff Foxworthy has made an indelible mark on the American lexicon with the phrase: “You might be a redneck if …” In the same spirit, minus the self-deprecating humor, you just might be a libertarian if you are reading this issue of Liberty. And once upon a time it was almost unheard of to become a libertarian without passing through the portals of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.

Ahh yes. Those were the days. The late ’60s, when the modern libertarian movement was born. Now, chances are that when you meet a libertarian, he has not read anything Rand has written. However, the wide dissemination of her ideas, largely through her novels “The Fountainhead” (1943) and “Atlas Shrugged” (1957), during the late ’50s and ’60s, gave birth to the movement as a popular force, and explains, whether you know it or not, why you are holding this publication in your hands right now. Bottom line: Rand is very, very important to libertarianism’s past, present, and future.

Since her death in 1982, organizations have formed to spread her ideas through the wider culture and protect her philosophy from misrepresentation and heresy, especially from those who claim to be her adherents.

A good example of an organization in pursuit of the latter purpose is the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), founded in 1985 by Ayn Rand’s “official” heir, Dr. Leonard Peikoff. Affiliated in the early days of ARI was the founder of what is now The Objectivist Center (TOC), Dr. David Kelley. In a nutshell, ARI represents the “orthodox” wing of Objectivism, whereas TOC represents the “reform” wing.

According to Kelley, the genesis of the schism was the 1986 publication of Barbara Branden’s biography, “The Passion of Ayn Rand.” While the biography paid tribute to the

ideas and influence of Rand, it also chronicled the dogmatism, intolerance, purges, and ex-communications that were rife within the inner circles of Rand’s cult-like following. Even worse, from the ARI perspective, was the revelation of Rand’s affair and subsequent break with Barbara’s husband, Nathaniel Branden, whom Rand once regarded as her key disciple and the person best suited to carry forth her philosophy upon her death.

Kelley likened the ARI response to Barbara’s biography to a circling of the wagons: an “us” versus “them” mentality pervaded ARI and its adherents. Into this maelstrom, TOe was born, and just this past Jul)!, TOe held its 17th annual weeklong conference in Orange, Calif.

It did not disappoint. Originall~ the focus of the conference was to engage scholars in the finer points of Objectivist philosophy. While this is still important, the conference has since branched out to engage participants not only in philosophy but also in politics and culture, aesthetics and application. So if philosophy is your thing, Tibor Machan’s lecture on Wittgenstein or Shawn Klein’s lecture on “Empiricism Without Skepticism” would be just what you went to hear. Prime examples of application would be Molly Johnson’S lecture on “Homemaking” or Jay Friedenberg’s “Yoga Practice for Objectivists.” Topics on aesthetics were largely scheduled in the evening, and sometimes included musical performances, such as “Romantic and Jazz Music” performed with commentary by Roger Bissell and Ben DiTosti.

For libertarian-Objectivist attendees the sessions on politics and culture held the most appeal and indeed the most

Both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden presented lectures, and they appeared together in a forum for the first time in 35 years.

 

“star power.” Both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden presented lectures, and they appeared together in a forum for the first time in 35 years.

I was especially impressed with Barbara’s talk “Rage and Objectivism.” Undoubtedly drawing on her own bitter experiences, Barbara described the destructive behavior of orthodox Objectivists, some of whom brand anyone who disagrees with them as “evil,” claiming that ideas, in and of themselves, as opposed to actions, can be evil:· what one thinks determines what one is.

This approach, Barbara warns, is a major turn-off to those new to the philosophy, and creates the phenomenon of “recovering Objectivists.” Objectivists cannot hope to bring others to virtue by condemning them as evil simply because they might have some mistaken ideas. The approach squares with TOC’s emphasis on an honest explication of ideas within a community of shared interests. TOC’s executive director, Ed Hudgins, put it well when he said that the group is “more open to vetting controversy. Therefore, our approach is to ask does it square with Rand or with reality?”

Having said that, one would be hard-pressed to overestimate the animus between various groups of Objectivists. James Valliant, author of “The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics,” a book critical of the Brandens, held a rival book-signing nearby during the conference. Now that’s passion, albeit misdirected. It’s dispiriting when people within the Objectivist movement (and the libertarian movement as well) exert more energy attacking kindred spirits than taking on the real enemies of liberty, statists of the left and right. To quote Robert Bidinotto, editor of TOC’s magazine, The New Individualist: “When we agree on 95 percent of the issues, we don’t need to conduct jihads over the five percent where we disagree.”

For me the highlight of the week was the pair of guest speakers who are not Objectivists: Howard and Karen Bald- win. It is their company, the Baldwin Entertainment Group, which plans to turn “Atlas Shrugged” into a movie. This has been a cherished dream of Objectivists for years, but I am convinced, after listening to their plans, that the dream is soon to become a reality. Here are the particulars:

  • TheBaldwinsalreadyhaveanimpressivetrackrecord of success; their company was behind two recent and highly successful movies: “Ray” and “Sahara.”
  • Themoviewillbeatrilogy, similar in length and scope to “The Lord of the Rings.”
  • The first draft of Part Ihas already been written by a very talented screenwriter who “respects and embraces the book.” According to David Kelle)’, who has seen the script, “it is true to the philosophical spirit” of the book.
  • Lions Gate is lined up for distribution and marketing.
  • They are looking for a big name to play the heroine, Dagny Taggart, so that the movie can get into international markets. Nicole Kidman’s name has been mentioned.
  • They have aggressively scheduled the start of filming for April 2007.
  • Their budget, for Part I alone, is $40-45 million.

 

The driving force behind the film is John Aglialoro, a TOC trustee, and the chairman and CEO of UM Holdings (the company that makes Cybex exercise equipment). He purchased the rights to the movie from Peikoff in 1992 and has been tireless in his determination to make this dream come true. The next big step in the project is to pick a director.

As the conference was drawing to a close, I had an opportunity to visit with Kelley and ask him what TOC hopes to accomplish by holding these conferences. His answer was wide-ranging. He said they were opportunities to explore and develop the philosophy further. He cited as an example the groundbreaking work being done in the field of cognitive science, which was the subject of Dr. Jay Friedenberg’s lectures on the subject. Kelley also emphasized the desire to

The film version of “Atlas Shrugged” will be a trilogy, similar in length and scope to “The Lord of the Rings. “

 

forge an Objectivist community, where attendees renew their interest in the philosophy and carry their enthusiasm and ideas to their friends, families, and the larger culture. Kelley sees this as an “in reach” program.

As of this writing, the dates and location for next year’s conference have not been set, although TOC likes to alternate locations from east to west coast, so as to maximize participation. Rand willing, I hope to take in the whole conference next year. Objectively speaking, and based on my first exposure, it should be great.

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