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June 28, 2006


Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* My copy of the July-August Commentary arrived yesterday and what did I see on the inside-back cover but an ad for a journal titled The Objective Standard.

Objective? Well, the headline said "At Last! A rational, principled alternative to the disastrous ideas of liberalism and conservatism." Hmm.

So I hopped on the web and looked at their site.

Turns out the Ayn Rand crowd is behind it. So they really ought to have named it The Objectivist Standard.

'Cause it sure ain't objective, if the web site's contents takeouts are any guide.

* That same Commentary issue has a Terry Teachout article I found interesting. Heck, I find almost anything Teachout writes interesting.

Rather than his usual music commentary, Terry riffs on a new biography of the late art critic Clement Greenberg by Florence Rubenfeld ("Clement Greenberg: A Life").

Greenberg famously championed the New York School of Abstract Expressionism and did much to launch the career of Jackson Pollock. Greenberg failed to appreciate the profound wonder and significance of most post-AE art and his career as critic sputtered to a crawl by the end of the sixties.

To my way of thinking, Greenberg's most dangerous notion (assuming Teachout got it right) was that there was an historical determinism in art that inevitably led to AE. This is the garbage I was fed in art history classes back in 1958-59. So now I have a better idea where my instructor got it from.

(Note to self: Suck in your gut and read more about art criticism of the 1940s and 50s. Yes I was alive then, but too young to read more than Time magazine's art coverage -- though they did regularly print color reproductions of what was hot in NYC at the time.)

Right now you'll have to buy the magazine to read the article. But try to remember to check their web site later this summer to see if they post it.

* And what have I been up to lately?

Getting rid of books. That's what.

Not to mention other stuff including file cabinets full of demographic data I Xeroxed over the years at considerable time and expense. Plus piles of really old (40-50 years old) issues of Time, Newsweek and car mags such as Motor Trend. And almost every issue of Road & Track from 1956 to 1990. (I haven't actually gotten rid of the magazines yet, but need to come up with some solution that doesn't involve keeping them.)

Last weekend I hauled a pile of books to Powell's in Portland and got a couple hundred dollars, selling all but four. I figure I'll need to make two more trips in July to get rid of the rest of the saleable ones. And at the end of the road, I'll still have a ton of books.

As attentive 2Blowhards readers know, I got married last month. Now I'm cleaning out my apartment so that I can move in with my bride later this summer. I hate getting rid of books, some of which I've had for decades. But, eventually, downsizing is inevitable so I might as well get started. The cold-blooded criterion I'm using is: How likely is it that I'll ever re-read the book or use it for reference.

Some books clearly are doomed to go and others are obvious keepers. It's the gray-area books that make the chore difficult.



posted by Donald at June 28, 2006


I sure don't envy you the job of doing book triage and selling them, but if a person HAS to clear out the books, I reckon Powell's makes it easier and the money doesn't hurt either. It's easier than trying to sell through the internet. And usually the people who buy at Powell's -- both the customers and the book buyers -- really do know and care about their subjects.

When my dad died, my mother sold his collection of chess books to the Green Dolphin Street bookstore in Portland. (I think it's gone now.) Once in a while she would go back to the store and "innocently" ask if they had any chess books. Then she would vastly enjoy the clerk's description of my father as a "major" chess player (he wasn't -- he liked to think about things, not DO them!) as he guided her to those books she was so relieved not to have to dust anymore.

Once in a while I buy a book that once belonged to someone I knew, and once in a while someone recognizes one of the books I've owned. This makes me feel better -- as though the books were molecules in the community blood stream -- not just abandoned to be pulped.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 28, 2006 2:18 PM

So your argument that Ayn Rand's philosophy is not objective is what?

Posted by: Robert Speirs on June 28, 2006 3:30 PM

'Cause it sure ain't objective, if the web site's contents takeouts are any guide.

Yeah. The title and summary are a dead giveaway to anyone familiar with the mindset. In case anybody missed my perspective last time around, what "objectivism" was in the days of Rand was: Rand's volatile, generally bitter emotions put into the semblance of a sturdy edifice with the mortar of shoddy reasoning, magnetic personality, and masterfully intimidating rhetoric. In other words, a classic personality cult. And what the movement is today: a little of the above to trap certain bright adolescents, but also a goofy kind of self-help movement for moorless upper-middle-class types who for some reason aren't Lutherans.

Switching gears: I'm also unloading a huge fraction of my library in the next few months, since I expect to be out of the country by year's end. It's a tough call between gifting many of them to a good friend with plenty of shelf space, or picking up a chunk of change. The triage is going to be difficult, but it should at least be fun going to Berkeley to hit the best available buying scene. I've even considered auctioning my prize: a beautiful 1895 complete works of Robert Browning. It feels at least reasonable now, but I'm sure there would be major pangs at some point. Still can't believe I found this for $14 just because I needed to reference a particular poem for some acquaintance I was with.

Posted by: J. Goard on June 28, 2006 4:28 PM

Well, I think Rand is delightful and funny and right about most things. The more I read of other thinkers the more I appreciate her, and in my gloomiest moments I begin to feel that she, not unlike Obi Wan Kenobi, is our only hope. But feh, I've had this conversation a dozen times and it never gets us anywhere.

As for books, I've noticed there's a hard and fast six week rule: Precisely six weeks after I throw a book out, I'll need it.

Posted by: Brian on June 28, 2006 6:43 PM

Robert --

I suppose you deserve some reasonable response, after my previous post. Answering such a broad request with so much evidence out there is a tricky task with which ex-Objectivists like myself are often faced. This would be my summary, but I can certainly address specific points to you personally:

1) Major logical fallacies are frequent in Rand's nonfiction. See, for example, Michael Huemer's dissection of what is perhaps Rand's single most important argument (the derivation of normative "ought" from the nature of life, and the argument for her brand of "egoism") in his "Critique of Objectivist Ethics". Objectivists have responded occasionally with obfuscating rhetoric, but never, to my knowledge, with any real understanding of Huemer's objections. See also the book "The Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand", a collection of critical essays by largely sympathetic professional philosophers, which are generally ignored or grossly mischaracterized by Objectivist responses.

2) Rand and many of her major followers were (and are) in the habit of reviewing works and thinkers whom they have not read, and, moreover, often berating those among the ranks who would read opposing authors and try to take their arguments seriously.

3) Rand had many strong points of taste, for which she had nothing like a decent argument, but to which she demanded adherence among her circle with something akin to her attitude toward more reasonable ethical and political positions. This would include, at the very least: male-dominant sexuality, and the opposition to homosexuality; praise of some classical composers' "sense of life" and condemnation of others; dislike of facial hair; and, famously, tobacco smoking as a great virtue from which one practically needed a doctor's note to abstain.

4) Rand seems to have led a life very much not in accord with her explicit philosophy or her fiction, yet she expected to be acknowledged as an "ideal woman", and at least among the top two or three novelists and philosophers to ever walk the earth. See #2: she believed this without having read the overwhelming majority of either classics or major contemporary work in literature or philosophy, and without discussing the work she had read with the best critical minds of her day.

5) Excommunication is very much a real phenomenon among Objectivists. People whose conclusions differ on one point considered important by the torch-bearers are expected to indentify their error and come into accord with the full system. Persistent objections, however logical and amicable, have the power to break up friendships, marriages, and acceptance within casual social groups of Objectivists.

Posted by: J. Goard on June 28, 2006 7:24 PM

Did I know before today that J. Goard is a former Objectivist?

As for unloading books, the saddest cases I've heard of are when authors find their own books on sale at used book places with inscriptions in them -- in other words, they'd given copies to friends, with personal inscriptions, and the friend took it to a used book store and unloaded it. Life can be cruel!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 29, 2006 3:21 AM

I guess not.

I wasn't really near the center of things, and far to young for the influence of a living Ayn Rand, but I was certainly a teenager, through maybe 21 or 22, taking the stuff way too seriously while (fortunately!) studying real philosophy in a damn good department at UC Davis.

Posted by: J. Goard on June 29, 2006 4:10 AM

Every time I move, the expense goes higher. It's not because of more furniture, it's because I keep on collecting books and never get rid of them. It would be interesting to calculate how much money I've spent over the years hauling my library around the country. I regard them as a form of antiques. A comfortable horde of intellectual bric-a-brac, a warm and fuzzy stack of stuff. Sell my complete set of early 60s Ian Fleming novels? Surely, you jest.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 29, 2006 6:45 AM

"Real philosophy" "Ideal woman" "excommunication". Insults and slurs, no reasoning, no evidence. Ah, those oh-so-authoritative, "mainstream" philosophers! I can see why Goard is an "ex-objectivist", if he was one once. But I doubt if he ever really was.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on June 29, 2006 12:17 PM

Robert, I am quite familiar with the trick of accusing critics of being unwilling to use precise arguments, as if we were up to the impossible task of succinctly disproving an immense system of religious rhetoric masking utterly irresponsible standards of research and reasoning. I've referred you to Huemer's paper, available online, and you would rather run the very familiar lines of slamming professional philosophers as a class and essentially accusing me of having a fundamentally corrupt, deceitful character. You are proving my claim about what Objectivism makes people do.

I imagine that most people would take it as pretty good evidence of shoddy reasoning that: Rand's nonfiction is almost entirely devoid of footnotes to Plato, Kant, Hume, or Descartes as she is trashing them, let alone rigorous analyses of specific passages in their work, let alone reviews the alternative peer-reviewed analyses that exist. This fact combines with a biographical consensus to make it clear that Ayn Rand didn't care very much about, or have much of an aptitude for, real research or careful, objective analysis. If you're looking for dissections of particular arguments, I'm not going to rehash the Huemer essay, or Scott Ryan's book, or John Hospers' responses, or the essays in the collection I previously mentioned. You should be spending more time reading and considering them, and less time thinking about how best to describe them and me as corrupt.

Posted by: J. Goard on June 30, 2006 12:13 AM

Robert -- ... And the argument that Rand is/was objective? ...

I have no philosphical training to speak of (as readers should have figured out by now), but as a layman I (provisionally) think that "objectivity" depends upon (1) rules of observation agreed to by the interested parties, and (2) such rules including one or more measurement criteria. This still has the potential to make things messy, but that's life.

One important strength of science (and I'm basically on the Karl Popper team regarding philosophy of science) is that it does rely on measurement, and the rules of observation are widely (but probably not 100%) agreed upon.

Now take the statement "Ayn Rand is dead." I think she is, and so (if you'll allow me an assumption) do you. But, hypothetically, there might be some folks who would believe and claim that while Rand might be "clinically" dead, she remains "alive" through her books, followers, etc. Here is a case where the hypotheticals and I would have to forge an agreement regarding what kind of "dead" we are talking about.

Now when we slide from science towards politics, policy, morality, etc. metrics become harder to find or implement. And agreement on rules of observation become far more difficult to establish. And that is why I verbally raised my eyebrows about a journal using the word "objective" are part of its title: I simply do not believe such "objectivity" is possible. Which is why I thought substitution of "objectivist" seemed better. Truth in advertising, you know.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 30, 2006 12:05 PM

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