Aug 062003

The first anthropological survey of Objectivism was Jerome Tuccille’s It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand. This, so far as I know, is the second, and a good deal of field work has gone into it. Some of my best friends are Objectivists, and most of the others are recovering Objectivists. I’ve been to Objectivist boot camp, twice, and met most of the high-ranking clerisy at one time or another.

Objectivism attracts a disproportionate number of Jews, to put it mildly. The original Objectivists were the group, including Alan Greenspan, that gathered around Ayn Rand while she was writing Atlas Shrugged. They called themselves “The Collective” (a term fraught with too many layers of irony for me to parse in a single paragraph), and every last one was Jewish. A WASP Objectivist friend of mine once asked Michael Berliner, the chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, how many non-Jewish Objectivists there were. “Only you,” Berliner said.

It is also surprisingly popular with homosexuals, despite Objectivism’s at best ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality. The Internet is lousy with gay Objectivist and Rand-influenced blogs. It makes sense if you think about it. Jews and homosexuals are rootless and persecuted minorites who are logically attracted to tradition-busting philosophies. Objectivism is one; communism, in which they are also prominently represented, is another. The role of the Jews in the International Communist Conspiracy is well-known, and we oughtn’t to forget that three of the Cambridge Four — McLean, Burgess, and Blount — were homosexual.

Objectivists exhibit an odd cognitive dissonance about drugs — not their legalization, of course, but their use. The majority opposes them vigorously, on the grounds that man must be in full focus as often as possible and that drugs are a form of “blank-out.” But there is a good-sized pro-dope faction as well, although they usually know enough to keep quiet about it. Even Dagny Taggart and John Galt imbibed on occasion, illicit drugs are human inventions after all, and if we can improve on our natural state, well, why not? Several Objectivists of my acquaintance used to drop Ecstasy together every weekend. They had all carefully worked out their “Randian” rationalizations, of which “psychic lube job” was the briefest.

My predecessor Tuccille has many of the other details right. The early Objectivists, as he points out, did an awful lot of smoking, including almost every one of The Collective. After all, Ayn Rand smoked herself (from a holder, natch), as do all the heroes in Atlas Shrugged: the enduring symbol of Galt’s Gulch is the cigarettes stamped with the dollar sign. And Tuccille’s anecdote about Murray Rothbard and his unregenerate Catholic wife is true to the spirit of The Collective if not, perhaps, the fact:

Well, if Murray Rothbard’s wife was a Christian there could only be one logical explanation for it: she had obviously never read Ayn Rand’s proof that a Supreme Being does not, will not, and could not exist. Ever.

[Nathaniel] Branden hustled her into an adjoining room and sat her down at a desk with a handful of Rand’s anti-God essays. Joey, relieved to be out of earshot of all this talk of second-handers and floating concepts, pored over the pamphlets while the meeting continued in the other room. When she completed her assignment and returned to the gathering, the drone of conversation suddenly stopped and she found herself skewered by twenty pairs of drilling eyes.

Branden took the initiative. “Well?”

“I found it all very interesting, Nathan.”

“She found it very interezting.” Branden repeated the information to the others at no extra charge. “Anything elze?”

“The arguments are very good, but I’m still not an atheist if that’s what you’re getting at.”

Rand decided to take over. This was unquestionably a matter that demanded her personal intervention. “You haf read ze proofs?”

“They’re all very good and thought-provoking, Ayn. But you don’t shake a lifetime of religious faith with a few articles. I’ll have to think about it for a while.”

“You haf read ze proofs and you ztill inzist on wallowing in your mindless myztizizm? Faith is irrational which means…”

“Which means zat faith is immoral,” said Branden.

“Which means it is anti-life,” said [Leonard] Peikoff.

“Which means it is anti-man,” said [Robert] Hessen.

“Which means it is anti…anti…” said Barbara Branden, searching for a suitable phrase.

Zose z’s in Branden’s speech are not typos either. Yes, Nathaniel Branden, Canadian-born, went so far as to affect a Russian accent. Anyone who doubts it can hear the evidence on the tapes of his early lectures at the modestly-named Nathaniel Branden Institute. Tuccille notes elsewhere that Rothbard probably fell away from Objectivism because he was tired of hearing his name pronounced “Rossbot.”

Still, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand is over thirty and shows its age. The Rachmaninoff-loving all-black-dressing dollar-sign-pin-wearing chain-smoking Objectivist of the mid-60s has gone the way of the dodo. There is no longer one type of Objectivist, if there ever was. In fact there are four.1

1. Protractor. Protractor couldn’t care less about Ayn Rand the novelist, but Ayn Rand the philosopher drives him crazy. He can’t beat the arguments and is too honest to ignore them. Objectivism faintly embarrasses Protractor, like his Songs from the Wood CD, but not so much that he won’t adopt the philosophy or listen to the album. Protractor is second only to Bully-Boy in his familiarity with the Objectivist ouevre, which he picks over constantly in an effort to find something, anything, that he can quarrel with.

Protractor likes science; he is often a computer programmer. Only Protractor, because of his unfortunate habit of actually listening to arguments, can be converted to Objectivism as an adult. He has no role models among the Objectivist clerisy, but he does admire Mr. Spock.

2. Bully-Boy. Bully-Boy read The Fountainhead at twelve and mastered the finer points of the Objectivist epistemology by the time he was old enough for high school. To establish his bona fides, Bully-Boy will hasten to assure you that he doesn’t agree with everything that Miss Rand said. A popular point of contention is her article arguing that no woman should be President of the United States because no self-respecting woman would want to be President of the United States. See? I disagree with that. I’m no slavish follower!

Bully-Boy proselytizes tirelessly, but only with Protractor does he get anywhere. His habits are solitary, largely because no one can stand him. His best friend, if he has one, is Twitchy, never another of his own kind. Often he will serve as consulting ideologist to a school of Sense-of-Life Guys.

Bully-Boy aspires to join the clerisy, among whom his favorites include Nathaniel “The Most Rational Man on Earth”2 Branden (pre-1968 only), Leonard “I’m Not the Pope”3 Peikoff, and Harry “I’m More Randian Than Miss Rand”4 Binswanger.

3. Sense-of-Life Guy. It’s all good for Sense-of-Life Guy, who finds in Ayn Rand an echo of his own child-like wonder at the marvels of the universe. His favorite Rand novel, being the shortest, is Anthem, and he has never quite managed to read Galt’s speech all through despite several desultory attempts. Sense-of-Life may not be much for literature but he is very fond of pictures, in which his taste runs to Maxfield Parrish and airy-fairy British academic stuff like Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema. He often paints himself, with predictable results.

Sense-of-Life Guy is the most gregarious of all Objectivists, and is often, though by no means always, an enthusiastic advocate of Better Living Through Chemistry. Sense-of-Life Guy has no role models among the Objectivist clerisy, of whose very existence he is only dimly aware.

4. Twitchy. Twitchy has one overwhelming appetite that he hopes Objectivism, which seems to have all the answers, will either justify or cure. Sometimes it is for religion (“you haf read ze proofs?”), sometimes for drugs, sometimes for homosexual sex. He scours the Objectivist literature on his specialty, in which he is a match in learning even for Bully-Boy. A gay Twitchy once argued to me that it is “irrational” to choose a sex partner on the basis of gender because “one’s gender is not a moral choice.” Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer “got a light?”

Twitchy’s role model among the clerisy is David “Truth and Toleration” Kelley, ex-communicated for maintaining that it’s OK to argue with Marxists and Kantians. Twitchy always smokes. Wouldn’t you?

And now you’ll have to excuse me. I have a sudden strange hankering to listen to Songs from the Wood.

1Men only. Objectivist women, in my experience, are perfectly normal.
2Rand’s description (pre-1968 only).
3I only act like him.

(Update: Michael Blowhard comments. Mg comments. Uruloki comments.)

  28 Responses to “An Objectivist Bestiary”

  1. Is "Songs From the Wood" really an Objectivist favorite? I had always thought it was a cult classic only among Tolkien/Celtic/D&D-obsessed 70s geeks like me.

  2. I’m an old college Objectivist, but more of a Heavy Horses man. Yeah, Songs from the Wood would be in my top five, but still, TAKE THAT, BESTIARY MAN!

  3. Michael: What Colby said.

  4. Aaron, it is really quite remarkable. You only know about a dozen people and yet you manage to make them all archetypes somehow.

  5. A dozen, counting myself. But I don’t make them archetypes; I find them that way.

  6. Were I to analyze myself according to these types always a risky proposition I’d have to say that I’m sort of a Sense of Life Guy, with aspects of Bully Boy.

    I don’t proselytize, but I do disagree with Rand (largely with regard to aesthetics). I’m quite accepting of others’ beliefs, can argue with them if they want to, can let it go if they don’t. I don’t do drugs, don’t smoke, but do drink, sometimes once every few months, sometimes once every few minutes. I do try to be gregarious, though I don’t always succeed.

    My least favorite Rand novel is Anthem, actually.

    Am I a hybrid, or separate from the established types?

  7. Ian: One sees hybrids like you occasionally. But no one is separate from the established types. First, when did they become established? And second, where do I send my bill?

  8. I used to think there were only two types of Objectivists: those who used the philosophy to justify malevolent acts as "moral" and those who were constitutionally weak but who needed an intellectual basis to develop a spine. Im glad you cleared me up.

  9. Well, you cleared it up for Bill Kaplan, but not for me.

    I know many people who admire Rand–and get it–but simply do not fit your categories. I know several straight, male Objectivists–from a variety of age groups–who agree with all of Rand’s fundamentals–aren’t embarrassed in the least way by it–come from WASP backrounds–aren’t too keen on proselytizing to anyone–and have barely learned how to use their P.C.’s at work. Since I’m a lawyer, most of them are lawyers, too. But they have normal, human lives and hardly ever think explicitly about Objectivism, except when politics or religion come up. They will say, however, that Rand changed their lives, gave them the confidence to leave some dead-end job, etc. Hell, they are firm atheists, but like NOT to advertize the fact….

    If I gave Auggie, Bruno, Michael R., Steve, etc., your "Bestiary," they would have no idea what the hell you were talking about. They would never have wasted their time with Tuccille and have no aspirations to enter any kind of "heirarchy." They ran out to see "Sense of Life" and couldn’t stand the movie "The Passion of Ayn Rand," but, due to wonderful ignorance, don’t care about Rand’s sex-life. Steve’s a Viet Nam war hero who teaches law school, never did X, has a wife with MS and a young son he named "James." He is nowhere near anything you describe. I also know this real estate agent who …, well, never mind, you get the point. They don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet, either.

    These guys would be INSULTED by your "Bestiary"–and have every right to be, don’t you think? If you only know a dozen people, Hatch, I’m guessing that I have to be the model for one of your stereotypes. The closest fit is "Bully-Boy"–but I have no such"aspirations"–and don’t know anyone who does. My habits have been exhaustingly gregarious lately… I had some success "proslytizing" you–you are interested enough to write on the topic–does that make YOU a "Protractor"?

  10. But which am I? I feel left out of your twelve if I’m not in there somewhere, Aaron.


  11. Jim:

    "They will say, however, that Rand changed their lives, gave them the confidence to leave some dead-end job, etc." So their testimony confirms my spine-in-a-philosophy theory.

    Do you know any bad guys who love Rand? I do. A vicious liar who justifies every improper act with a claim of self-interest. He named his daughter Dagny.

  12. The one Objectivist in my life is a woman, and you are right that she doesn’t fit the types given. Any conjectures about why women would escape these descriptions?

    Also, I would have guessed Rush to be the band of choice.

  13. Women escape because they have a sense of proportion about the importance of their beliefs, or, as some men I know like to put it, opprobriously, they are less intellectual.

    Sure, Rush is the band of choice, but everyone knows that. Only field workers like me know about Tull.

  14. One sees hybrids like you occasionally. But no one is separate from the established types.

    Not really sure if this comment is in jest or not, I hope so.

  15. Bill:

    I don’t know the circumstances of your life any more than you know the circumstances of mine–or my friends. Therefore, I do not know whether you have any kids or an ailing parent to support. I do not know whether you have had an opportunity to do what you really loved–even though it meant leaving a high-paying job with a good deal of security. Under certain conditions, such a career-move can take more than factory-standard backbone. Unless, of course, you are like a lot of libertarian critics of Rand that I know. You know, computer-geeks who have no kids, are not even married (indeed, have a hard time getting laid at all), and, of course, dripping with knee-jerk hostility towards all admirers of Rand–even the ones they have never met before.

  16. Jim:

    I think you got me all wrong. I dont harbor any sort of hostility to Rand, as her philosophy and literature has enriched my life intellectually as well as monetarily. I am probably the only person (other than Peikoff) who can quantify an amount, in dollars, that Ms. Rands philosophy actually earned him. (In asking for the fee which my partners warned me was excessive in the extreme, I had the mantra Rearden Metal pulsating through my head. Like Rearden Metal, I perceived the service to be both highly valuable and unique. When I got nearly my asking price, everyone said I had balls. What I actually had was a memory of Atlas Shrugged.) I admire her writings and believe that she was courageous in the extreme in the atmosphere of her times. In fact, I believe spine-in-a-philosophy is a refreshing tonic to the learned passivity or active malice of academia.

    Having said that, Objectivists must realize that, like the students of Islam in our prison systems, Rands students will not always be models of fair play. Think of it as Ragnar killing his victims. People who are attracted to the philosophy of self-interest, in major part, misperceive the message of Rand as that of Herbert Spencer.

    To me Rand is valuable for a number of reasons. First, she elevates philosophy and reason to their proper, preeminent places. Second, she persuasively makes the case for man being the measure of action. Third, she consistently reminds us of the relationship between morality and economics.

    Her failings are, however, numerous and I will not expound upon them here.

  17. Bill:

    Thank you for the clarification. To admire Rand is to court criticism from all quarters, and the empty tittering ad hominem gets old. One longs for substance in a sea of "sociologies" (Aaron is wrong–Walker and Rothbard both got "anthropological" in their attacks on Rand, too)–designed to keep people laughin’ at the whole thing.

    I do take issue with comparisons to Communism–like Aaron’s–comparisons to Islam–like yours–even more than I take issue with being called a "bully." (Aaron, I hope, knows me to be gentle. As I recall, he was rather disappointed when I wasn’t more rhetorically harsh in my first discussion at his dad’s house…) But, please, Rand’s students were the widest assortment of contrasting figures ever assembled by one teacher–they were destined to fracture.

    When the intellectual history is written, they will be seen
    as relatively independent minds, not lock-step conformists
    at all. You are only exhibit number 9,999,999 yourself, it

  18. Casey: I didn’t answer Jim here because I thought his argument was disingenuous. He ostensibly objected to my particular categories when clearly his real objection was to any categories at all. Objectivism is a revolutionary movement, such movements tend to attract certain personality types, and it’s reasonable to ask what those types are. This is not ad hominem, Jim to the contrary, unless it is employed as an argument against Objectivism, which it certainly was not.

    I can’t quite buy into your distinction between those who read Rand on their own and those who were converted by someone else. All Objectivists of my acquaintance were convinced by Rand, not one of her epigones. How they happened on her books is beside the point. The more useful distinction, as I suggested, is between those who read her as adolescents and those who were a bit older. Protractor and Bully-Boy are distinguished largely by the age at which they read her.

    You don’t see the walking parodies any more, as I also pointed out. What you do see is plenty of Randians, who are opposed to any sort of drug use on what they consider principle. They may be square, but they certainly exist. Of course it is true, as you and Jim say, that Randians work in all kinds of fields, but so what? You’ve never seen a psychologist and an actor who were a lot alike?

  19. When the accusations get this nasty, I know I’m on to something good. I’m not just "bully" now, I’m a liar, too, Hatch?!

    And, I’m still one of your "best friends"?! Wow! (I’d look into that, maybe with professional help!)

    Of course, I generalize about everything, including Objectivists–after all, I am an Objectivist.

    Here’s one–they tend to be independent minds with a wide variety of personalities and interests. (Your example of drug-use is a perfect case in point.) Try putting Ditko, Greenspan, Rothbard, Peart, Efron, Callahan,(can we put YOU in there, too, Aaron?) etc., all in one room…I suspect it would spontaneously combust from the tension!

    No, Hatch, your categories are just stupid and don’t even apply to the people that we both know. YOU are the liar, not me: please name just one person–only one–you know well and who is bucking for the "clerisy" as you allege. You don’t know any, do you?

    Now, that’s "disingenuous." (It’s also what shrinks call "projection,’ Aaron.)

    To my knowledge, the only person you ever really knew who ever had such an ambition is there in Manhattan with you, Hatch–not out here in California.

    Thanks for the good laugh, though!

  20. You think the categories are stupid; maybe they are. But they certainly make better reading than your anodyne "generalization" about Objectivists.

    As for the rest, please stop it. To be disingenuous is to say one thing — which may well be true — when you really mean another. It is a rather distant relative of lying.

    You are not a literal "bully" any more than I would be a literal "protractor." That’s just silly.

  21. I’m not saying that no other generalizations are applicable–just that yours are not. I could say "duh!"–but that would be too obvious.

    O.k., Hatch, you were merely being "disingenuous," too.

    Still buddies?

  22. Ha, ha, I am honored to be associated with as a sense-of-life-guy but really I cannot not take any credit for appreciating Parrish, Leighton, and Alma-Tadema. My taste runs more towards major players, even the likes of Duchamp but for reasons that are way out of the range for me to get into here. I once shocked a famous couple known for their scholarship, over dinner in a Greek taverna by stating I would much rather own The Fountain then I would a painting Parrish or someone like him. And then there is Picasso, who would be in my top 3 or 4. Hint: conceptual play scores high on my list.

  23. That’s very interesting. I like Duchamp myself, who was the funniest man in the history of art, but I can think of a lot of things I’d want to own before Fountain none, however, by Maxfield Parrish.

  24. One more correction: it is ad hominem when you ascribe a certain agreement or disagreement with some position of Rand’s to a need (psychological? developmental?) to establish one’s "bona fides"–as opposed to sincere conviction.

    Also, public disclosure of one aspect of our recent private email exchange is in order: it seems "Protractor" is admittedly more "ruthless" than the (ever so metaphorical) "bully."

  25. Or do you mean that Duchamp was the biggest "joke" in art history? Ha, ha. I lean in that direction, but you have got to give the guy kudos for turning art history on its end by his cynical gestures. Amazing. But Aaron we are then quite in agreement you would take a Duchamp over Parrish! Good man.

  26. I loved reading the archtypes. I’m not sure if they perfectly describe all Oists, but then again I’ve never met one in my life. I am the lone Randian in the philosophy dept at my university. I find myself to be different than these 4… though very much a sense of life guy. My reason for accepting Oism originally was that is agreed with my personal philosophy in almost every way. Where ever a contradiction did exist (such as the existence of G-d), I checked my premises, one of them was wrong. To date it seems that Oism has never been wrong. I do not agree with Rand on everything, in particular I disdain her later actions. Cursing Nathaniel Branden’s reproductive organs because he went with another woman is not befitting of an Oist.

  27. Bernie,

    Why do you believe the Brandens about such things with their track-record of lies?

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