TOC

2002-12-14

Longtime readers of this blog or of my essays know that I consider myself a recovered Randian. I first read Ayn Rand at the age of 13 and have been interested in her ideas ever since, although over time my differences from her approach have become significant enough that it would not be honest of me to say that I am a Randian or Objectivist. At this point I tend to describe myself as a Rand scholar (e.g., I have three essays forthcoming in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies and I'm currently doing fairly intensive research on Rand's philosophical and aesthetic debt to Nietzsche). Early in my intellectual "career" I was on the academic fast track, and planned to pursue a PhD in philosophy, probably with a specialization in Aristotle and Greek philosophy. Yet at some point in college I became disillusioned with academic thinking (probably when one of my professors told me that "it doesn't matter what's true, it matters what you can get published") and I decided that I would rather be an independent scholar in philosophy than to pursue the traditional path of earning a PhD, focusing my energies on publishing, hiding my ideas, begging for money from grant-giving organizations, and grovelling for tenure. Not that I don't have respect for people in academe: some of my best friends are academics. :) It's just that the academic life is not for me. I need more intellectual freedom than is possible in the ivory tower, so I've kept my distance, with the result that I can write what I want when I want. For me, it's all about freedom.

I've reflected before before on what I call the organizational imperative: the subtle shift from finding truth and creating value to perpetuating the organization that I have seen occur in every for-profit and non-profit corporation in which I've been involved. Early on, I saw this imperative begin to poison an Objectivist organization for which I initially held great hope: the Institute for Objectivist Studies (since renamed The Objectivist Center). I saw the focus turn from discovering truth to holding bigger conferences, attracting more donors, and maximizing media mentions. Now, years after I stopped supporting them, Diana Hsieh reports that spending on scholarly programs is being slashed at TOC in favor of cultural commentary, op-ed pieces, and "having an immediate impact". It's sad, but it seems TOC feels it's off the hook because "the donors want it this way" and "we must please our customers" and all that.

To which I say: horsefeathers. Did Howard Roark, the hero of Rand's novel The Fountainhead, start building Renaissance palazzos or Gothic revival skyscrapers because his customers wanted him to? No, he struggled along in the building trades and even worked in a granite quarry for a while. But he persevered and eventually found customers who wanted a Howard Roark building, not a pale imitation of ancient styles. Similarly, if the leaders of TOC really cared about scholarship, they certainly could refocus the organization, scale back, seek other supporters rather than the short-sighted ones who just want to have an immediate impact, and so on. But that would require leadership, integrity, and a willingness to work in the quarry for a while if necessary. (No one ever said idealism or individualism was easy.) Instead, we see that the highest priority is to maintain as much funding as possible, price no object (even if that price is a cheapening of one's intellectual standards). It's disappointing but, unfortunately, not surprising.

Rather than lament the change in priorities, perhaps this is a perfect opportunity for someone else to offer a competing product, such as scholarly conferences offered to smaller audiences and run on shoestring budgets. Even if such conferences were run by a non-profit organization, such an organization could (at least for a while) attempt to resist the siren song of the organizational imperative and seek out donors who really care about ideas (I'm sure plenty of them have stopped supporting TOC over the years in dismay at the decline in scholarly standards there). It can't be that hard to run a small conference: people do it all the time (in fact, I assisted David Kelley in running the first IOS Summer Seminar, my wife and I managed the second one, and I participated in the planning for a focused organization that put together what became the first Advanced Seminar at TOC: the Network of Objectivist Scholars). And who knows, the competition might be healthy. After all, wasn't Rand an arch-capitalist who glorified the free market? For too long, Objectivists have accepted an intellectual oligopoly in the market of ideas (or monopoly, if you believe in the folks at the Ayn Rand Institute ). If you ask me, it's time for some trust-busting -- from below.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal