A few months ago, I reconsidered an issue that has often troubled Objectivists, namely that of the proper moral judgment of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. The catalyst was my discussions with a friend about issues surrounding my departure from The Objectivist Center. He presented me with some tough questions and compelling arguments about the dishonesty and viciousness of their portrayals of Ayn Rand, criticisms of Objectivism, and so on. So I resolved to revisit the issue as soon as I could afford the necessary time.
At the time, my opinion of Barbara Branden was already exceedingly negative. Just a few months earlier, I had read a few early chapters of The Passion of Ayn Rand for the very first time. I was immediately appalled by her constant psychologizing of Ayn Rand. My judgment was sealed upon watching her argue in the debates in my comments this spring, such as in this thread. Perhaps the worst was a post from May 4th in which she quoted this passage from Passion with a prefatory comment about how it showed that she “was not attempting to denigrate Rand”:
And yet, when one looks at the life of Ayn Rand, one must wonder if the dogmatic absolutism of her certainty, the blinding conviction of her own rectitude and her special place in the world, the callousness of her intolerance for opinions that were not hers, the unwavering assurance that she was alone to know the truth and that others must seek it from her — the eyes that looked neither to the left nor to the right, but only at the path ahead — the savage innocence of her personality — was not the fuel required for the height of achievement she attained. Just as when one looks at history’s great achievers one so often encounters the desperate loneliness and alienation which is perhaps the emotional price paid by men and women who see farther than their brothers, so one encounters these qualities in Ayn Rand. And one must wonder if they are not precisely the qualities that make possible the courage and uncompromising dedication of those who forge new paths through the unknown, enduring and persevering,shouting defiance at tne enormity of the opposition which follows them at each step of their lonely journey,and adding new glories to our world.
So much is wrong with that passage that I simply cannot afford to dissect it. So I must leave the task of noticing the psychologizing, the loaded language, the logical leaps, the absurd mischaracterizations, the change of subject, the implied mind-body dichotomy, and so on to my readers.
The history of my judgment of Nathaniel Branden is too long of a story to recount here, but it was generally positive at the start of my process of reconsideration. Nonetheless, the doubts raised by my friend’s arguments made it clear to me that I had to give his recent writings on Ayn Rand and Objectivism a second look. (It had been quite some time since my first look, as I read his memoir Judgment Day and his article “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand” in early 1994, just a few months after first reading Ayn Rand’s philosophic essays, but never since.)
I decided to start with Branden’s “Benefits and Hazards” article — and that was all I needed. In the article, Branden repeatedly mischaracterizes, confuses, and belittles Objectivist positions. He offers laughably weak criticisms of Objectivist ideas. He unjustly blames Objectivism for the confusions of people struggling to understand and apply the philosophy to their lives. (Again, I cannot afford the time to give details at present.)
As I’ve said before: With friends like these, who needs enemies!?!
All of that inanity has a special meaning coming from a woman like Barbara Branden and a man like Nathaniel Branden, namely that they know better. They deserve to be judged in light of the fact that they were experts on Objectivism, that they learned the philosophy from Ayn Rand herself, that they were teaching courses and writing articles on it. They are not confused novices struggling but failing to understand the issues. Theirs are not honest errors, but rather breaches of morality. And they deserve to be condemned and shunned by people who understand and value Objectivism.
In light of that judgment, this spring I privately banned both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden from posting comments on NoodleFood. How it happened is somewhat complicated, so bear with me. Paul and I had just recently returned from our two-week rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. During our absence, I shut down the comments entirely, as the debate had been raging out of control and into absurdity for far too long. After I returned to blogging, Richard Dover added two comments attacking Chris Sciabarra and Barbara Branden to my post about our trip. I was annoyed, to say the least. I replied thusly:
Thanks for the totally apt comments about the trip to the Grand Canyon, Richard. (Yes, that was sarcasm. Sheesh.)
Please folks, let’s not return to the insane discussions of last month. If that happens, I will simply have to close down the comments entirely, particularly if people are posting on totally irrelevant entries. I have no desire for my blog to become the place for people to spout nasty accusations back and forth. Thoughtful, relevant, and civil philosophical debate and argument is welcome. If that is not possible to you, do not post.
This is not some “Can’t we just all get along?” plea. It’s a demand: Say something worthwhile on something relevant to the blog post, or say nothing at all. If some people are unable to abide by that demand, I will remove my property as a forum for them. If that does not work, I will shut down the comments entirely.
You are in my house when you post comments on this blog. Act accordingly, or you shall be ejected.
Of course, I had to leave Richard Dover’s comments up for all to see, otherwise people would have no idea of the kind of comment which was so grossly inappropriate.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet informed Barbara and Nathaniel Branden of my decision to ban them from my comments when Barbara posted an inquiry as to why Dover’s comments were allowed to remain. I quickly deleted the message, as I didn’t want her in my comments. She posted again, I deleted again. Then Nathaniel posted, inquiring as to why Barbara’s comments were deleted but Dover’s remained. I deleted that too. Obviously, the issue could not be put off any further. So I set aside my work to write Nathaniel and Barbara the following e-mail:
Date: Tue, 08 Jun 2004 08:25:25 -0600
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Subject: my comments
Nathaniel and Barbara,
Since you two seem to be tag-teaming in your complaints about my blog yet again, I may as well write a single letter in reply. I regret the necessity of all that is below, but consider it your fair warning.
“Are Richard Drover’s comments that Chris Sciabarra and I are either liars or stupid among the comments that are allowed?”
I highlighted Richard Dover’s totally inappropriate and irrelevant comments as an example of that which I do not wish to see on my blog. To have deleted them would have destroyed the necessary context.
And speaking of that which I do not wish to see on my blog, let me say that you, Barbara, are no longer welcome to post comments. Any and all comments from you will be deleted, regardless of content. Your comments on my blog this spring confirmed the suspicions and deepened the objections raised by reading some early chapters of _The Passion of Ayn Rand_ for the first time last summer. As far as I am concerned, you have revealed yourself as vicious and dishonest through your own words. So I am withdrawing my comments as a forum for you. Go grind your ax somewhere else.
To answer your question, Nathaniel, such were the reasons why Barbara’s comment was deleted while Richard Dover’s remained: he was an example, she was unwelcome. Given our prior friendly relations, I regret to say that I must give you the same warning: If you post any further comments on my blog, they will be deleted. I recently twice re-read your “Benefits and Hazards” article, which is an embarrassing, unjustifiable, and inexcusable attack on Objectivism. Such transparently fallacious arguments against the philosophy are to be expected from the mouths of ignorant critics, but you certainly know better. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Together, you two have done more damage to the cause of Objectivism than I ever imagined possible. I regret that it took me so long to see that. But now that I do, I will certainly not help you do any more damage. I want nothing to do with either of you.
You can complain about this ban all you like to whomever you like, but you are not permitted to do so on my property, nor will I engage in debate with you elsewhere. My judgment will not be swayed by the intervention of mutual friends, as my mind has been solidly made up for some weeks now. I will be announcing the ban and the detailed reasons for my negative judgment on the blog soon enough.
I’m certain that I will be branded a crazy moralizer by you and others for making such strong moral judgments, but so be it. In my view, a stark choice must be made: either the Brandens or Objectivism, but not both. My choice is clear.
So that was that, or so I thought. Until now, I’ve refrained from any public announcement of or comment on my present views of the Brandens, as I wanted to present my full reasons in a long and careful post to the blog. However, recent events have compelled me to write up all of that quick background so that I might say a few words about more recent events on this blog. (Just FYI, I’m bothering to reprint the following comments in full because they will be deleted.)
Yesterday, someone named “Hellen Rearden” posted the following inquiry to the comments of this blog:
Monday, August 9, 2004 at 14:36:12 mdt
Name: Hellen Rearden
E-mail: Helen Rearden(at)cs.com
Forgive me, but I am new to Objectivism and to many of the issues you are discussing. I have read all of Miss Rand’s books, almost all of Dr. Branden’s books, and Barbara Branden’s biography of Miss Rand. For reasons I don’t yet know, I gather both Brandens are sort of anathema here.
Barbara Branden in her biography, and Nathaniel Branden in his memoir, are accused of spreading lies and distortion about Miss Rand. But how is this known to be a fact? On what grounds are the charges made? How can any of us be certain what the truth is since I assume we don’t have first-hand knowledge?
Judging from some of the comments here, that seems to be self-evident, but to a newcomer it’s not self-evident at all.
Could someone on this list kindly offer some help?
I wrote the following reply:
Monday, August 9, 2004 at 15:05:22 mdt
Name: Diana Hsieh
Those are excellent and important questions for a newcomer to Objectivism to ask. I am presently working on a long article which does answer them, so I’m not going to say too much here. But let me offer a few bits of advice based upon my own personal experience.
(1) Listen to interviews with Ayn Rand and Q&A sessions in which she participated. See for yourself whether she engages in the sort of authoritarian, irrational behavior of which the Brandens charge her. When possible, directly compare the summaries offered by the Brandens to the actual event. (This is possible, for example, with AR’s first interview with Phil Donahue, which BB discusses on pages 391-2 of her biography.)
(2) Talk to people who attended NBI lectures. Ask them to tell you about the behavior of NB, BB, and AR during Q&As, etc.
(3) Re-read the early chapters of BB’s _The Passion of Ayn Rand_, paying particular attention to her claims about AR’s psychology. Notice whether those psychological conclusions are supported by the evidence she provides.
(4) Consider whether someone who was as irrational and psychologically twisted as BB and NB claim that AR was would be able to develop and advocate a consistent philosophy of reason over the course of a lifetime.
(5) In reading NB’s “Benefits and Hazards” article, try to determine whether his portrayal of the Objectivist positions that he then goes on to criticize are accurate — and whether his criticisms have any merit.
Personally, I don’t think that these issues are self-evident in the slightest. They are epistemologically complicated and morally charged. That’s not an easy combination to handle, particular not for someone new to Objectivism.
Good thinking! diana.
“Hellen” then responded:
Monday, August 9, 2004 at 16:45:35 mdt
Name: Hellen Rearden
E-mail: Helen Rearden(at)cs.com
Well, I appreciate your speedy response, but I can already see there are going to be troublesome complications.
I have met a number of people, now in their fifties or sixties, who were at NBI in the old days and who support Dr. Branden’s descriptions of some of Miss Rand’s behavior at those events.
Second, saying that at times Miss Rand could be autocratic is not saying she always was that way, and she most likely would be most careful to be balanced if she was being interviewed on the radio–don’t you think?
Third, I’ll re-read the “Benefits and Hazards” piece, as you suggest.
Most important, you ask me to consider if someone as troubled as the Brandens claim Miss Rand could be at times could produce work of literary and philosophical greatnes. I have two responses. Yes, I think it’s possible; great thinkers, scientists, artists are not revered for their mental or emotional stability. Next, I don’t think the man who wrote the books Dr. Branden has written could be the vicious, irrational character some people make him out to be. That’s one of the reaons I find this whole situation so confusing and bewildering.
I appreciate your kindness in trying to bring some daylight into all this.
And Don Watkins also replied:
Tuesday, August 10, 2004 at 6:29:15 mdt
Name: Don Watkins
You write: “Most important, you ask me to consider if someone as troubled as the Brandens claim Miss Rand could be at times could produce work of literary and philosophical greatnes. I have two responses. Yes, I think it’s possible; great thinkers, scientists, artists are not revered for their mental or emotional stability.”
To whatever extent that’s true, we are not talking about just any thinker. We’re talking about someone who discovered fundamental truths on a massive scale, including – for the first time in history – an objective code of morality. We’re talking about the author of *Atlas Shrugged*.
According to Objectivism, morality, in the most basic sense, means: to think. Ayn Rand didn’t stumble onto Objectivism, she had to devise it by looking at reality. You can’t do that and at the same time be a neurotic evader. It is simply not possible. The best evidence of Rand’s moral character, then, is her unequivocal rationality.
What troubles me about your post, however, is your next comment: “Next, I don’t think the man who wrote the books Dr. Branden has written could be the vicious, irrational character some people make him out to be.”
You can say this about Branden but not about Rand? Have you actually READ Judgment Day? If so, and if you’re honest, I can only say to Diana that we impatiently await your paper. It is badly needed.
Richard Dover then replied to Don:
Tuesday, August 10, 2004 at 8:36:39 mdt
Name: Richard Dover
Don: “Have you actually READ Judgment Day? If so, and if you’re honest, I can only say to Diana that we impatiently await your paper. It is badly needed.”
Anyone who reads both “Judgement Day” and the rewrite of it, “My Years with Ayn Rand”, will see that Branden is a liar.
Then two very strange comments appeared this morning. The personal information was that of Nathaniel Branden, but the comments themselves seemed to be be from “Hellen”:
Tuesday, August 10, 2004 at 9:42:15 mdt
Name: Nathaniel Branden
Your declaring that anyone who reads “Judgment Day” and “My Years with Ayn Rand” will see that Branden is a liar is not an argument, it’s an assertion. I’ve read both books and was impressed by the author’s honesty and ruthless self-examination. And I am not alone in this impression. To me, Dr. Branden’s love for Miss Rand comes through loud and clear, and that is one of the reasons I cannot understand the reaction of people such as yourself. What am I missing?
Tuesday, August 10, 2004 at 9:54:52 mdt
Name: Nathaniel Branden
I was really sorry to see in your answer to me the words “if you’re honest,” the implication being that if a person does not see things your way the only explanation is dishonesty. Was it your intention to intimidate me? Please think twice if that’s the message you want to send out.
Then finally, this one from “Hellen,” which repeats the charge of intimidation:
Tuesday, August 10, 2004 at 10:52:35 mdt
Name: Hellen Rearden
E-mail: Helen Rearden(at)cs.com
You write “if you’re honest.” I hope that was not meant to intimidate me.
I was quite puzzled, to say the least. After all, anyone could have typed in Nathaniel Branden’s name and e-mail address into a comment. Yet the comments themselves did seem to be from “Hellen.” And, as Don Watkins noted, both “Hellen” and Nathaniel had “cs.com” (i.e. CompuServe) accounts. So I checked my referrer logs. Although the IP addresses didn’t match exactly, all of those posted under “Hellen Rearden” and “Nathaniel Branden” were from the same ISP, the same one used by the real Nathaniel to send e-mail. And both used exactly the same browser, build and all.
So I wrote to Nathaniel, reminding him that he was not welcome to post in my comments and accusing him of “attempting to engage me and others in debate through deception.” We went back and forth a few times, then he finally told me his story:
Not long ago I acquired a girlfriend, new to Objectivism, utterly bewildered by the warfare between you-know-who and rage against the Brandens. She found it difficult to believe my explanations of how “the other side” operated. So I offered a challenge. Let her write to your list, as benevolently and openly as possible, and ask for insight re the war against the Brandens. My position was that no matter how benevolent and balanced her inquiry, someone on the Noodles list would–within the space of 3 exchanges–raise of the question of her honesty if she did not see things their way.
I won the bet.
After that, we were laughing so hard that I decided it was time to announce the farce over. So I wrote a message in my name.
Go ahead, my dear old friend, attack away!
I still say what I have said to you before: one day Leonard P. and his associates will be too much, even for you, and your natural intelligence will reassert itself, and you will leave the ARI world (if you are not excommunicated first)…and then all these exchanges will be understood in a different light.
With all good wishes,
So folks, there you have it. Nathaniel Branden, despite knowing that he was most unwelcome on my blog, chose to entertain himself and his new honey at the expense of my time and effort. He challenged her to deceive me and others, all while recommending that she write “as benevolently and openly as possible.” (However honest she may be, do not think that I would have bothered to answer such sweet little questions from Nathaniel Branden’s girlfriend!) And despite displaying such utter contempt for me in public and on my property, he’s sure that we’ll soon be good buds.
As of this morning, I did not need any further confirmation that Nathaniel Branden is a dishonest prick. But I got it anyway.