Chris Sciabarra
Chris Sciabarra

Reply to Robert White

I was startled to read this review of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. Not because the review was negative — I have come to expect such negativity from the narrow-minded orthodoxy — but because, in my experience, the reviewer, Robert White, had never given me any indication that he was among the narrow-minded. Some years ago, White sent me his fine piece, "Racism: A Radical Critique," which applied my trilevel "dialectical" understanding of Rand's social theory to the problem of racism in the New Zealand context. So it came as a surprise to see White quoting John Ridpath's "review" of my Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical, and to see him suggesting that I am among "those so-called Objectivists, the traitors among us, who seek to appease" modern academia. It is also disconcerting to see White characterizing the feminism volume as a further sign of the "destruction of Ayn Rand," agreeing with Robert Tracinski, who condemned the anthology not on the basis of actually having read it, but on the basis of its website! I can only wonder if White has followed in the spirit of Tracinski; he shows no sign of actually having read the volume with any of the degree of care that I've come to expect from him.

Reading a volume with a degree of care does not require that one agree with its contents. Indeed, as coeditors on the project, Mimi Reisel Gladstein and I frequently disagreed with our authors. In fact, we went out of our way to represent in Part One of the volume, "Looking Back," a number of highly critical takes on Rand published more than twenty years ago as one way of showing how feminists viewed her historically. But our disagreement with the critics did not prevent us from creating a forum within which to discuss Rand's relevance to feminism. In the process, it was my belief that we would give voice to many contributors who championed an "individualist" or "libertarian" feminism that was at odds with the collectivist wing of that movement. Moreover, the anthology provided us with an opportunity to have Rand represented as part of a wider Penn State Press series, "Re-Reading the Canon." Yes, the Rand work is on the same shelf as anthologies devoted to Derrida and Foucault. But it is also on the same shelf with collections devoted to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Kant, and Hegel. This is a remarkable achievement on its own terms. Rand is suddenly included in the "canon" — something that was unimaginable only a few years ago.

White does not seem to grasp that the process of penetrating the academy is long-term. It makes us not "peddlers of academic respectability" or "real-life Peter Keating[s]" to engage with academia. In fact, we are courageous warriors precisely with "the goal of reversing the trend of modern academia," because we are brave enough to engage the categories within academia in order to undermine their current forms. Sometimes, as a matter of strategy, one must be willing to inject oneself into a contemporary debate in order to make a difference.

How do the essays in Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand make a difference? Here is one of the essential problems in White's superficial reading of the volume's significance. For example, White dismisses Valerie Loiret-Prunet's essay on We the Living, and Karen Michalson's essay on Atlas Shrugged. Loiret-Prunet's central point is not a linguistic one — that Rand uses the number three throughout her novel — but a substantive one, that Kira transcends the dualities at work in the souls of Andrei and Leo, and that this model of human integration stands as a foil to both collectivism and atomism. Loiret-Prunet celebrates Kira as a triumph over human fragmentation, as a repudiation of "the typically collectivist political ideals of radical feminism," and as a challenge to all thinkers — left and right — to "rethink their political premises." How White could have missed this thesis is beyond me. Similarly, his reading of Michalson's essay on Dagny Taggart as "one of the strongest heroes in Western literature" dismisses "rubbish about myths of the Great Mother Goddess." Michalson herself challenges such myths as part of an overall challenge to left-wing feminists who have corrupted the culture with their visions of woman as victim.

Though White praises contributions from Wendy McElroy and Nathaniel Branden, he says that "the other essays left [him] sighing in resignation and disgust" — completely ignoring the contributions of such writers as Joan Kennedy Taylor and Sharon Presley, who stand opposed to the anti-individualist strains of feminism, and Diana Mertz Brickell, who views Rand's philosophy as a model for all human relationships. These contributors, and others, are quite sympathetic to Rand, and willing to use her philosophic contributions in a way that undermines the collectivist status quo within feminism. How many other volumes within a feminist series would have provided an avenue for an alternative individualist vision? How many other volumes would have allowed individualists to exhibit the relevance of Rand not merely for women, but for all individuals, for a human integration that, in the words of Loiret-Prunet, "transcends gender."

The orthodox school of Objectivism has not yet grappled with the process of ideological revolution. If its goal is not to "win over today's corrupt academics, but to replace them," such a victory will not occur by Stalinist purges. One cannot simply go into the colleges, fire those academics one deems corrupt, and hire alternative "Objectivist" intellectuals (of which there are few). Sometimes, one must be willing to provide alternative texts for colleges that engage both academics and students within the given context, while subtly shifting the terms of debate as a means to altering that context fundamentally. The left succeeded in this strategy of milking the "internal contradictions" of a system it sought to destroy. I have been quite publicly engaging in the very same subversive strategy, not because I seek academic respectability for Ayn Rand, but because I seek victory for the revolutionary individualist ideas that Ayn Rand embodied. I swore, on that basis, to drag Objectivism and academia, "kicking and screaming if necessary" into engagement with one another. That we are finally providing an opportunity for extended engagement is an extraordinary accomplishment.


Read Robert White's original review.

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