Chris Sciabarra
Chris Sciabarra

Chris Sciabarra Responds

The Free Radical is to be commended for providing a forum within which to discuss the importance of strategy.

As Will Wilkinson argues, one of the essential elements of argumentation is that one must always take into account the interests of the audience that one addresses. The effectiveness of our rhetoric will often depend on how well we can bridge the gap between ourselves and our adversaries, whether they be on the socialist left or the conservative right. Rand, who was a master polemicist, understood these principles. While she was known for a theatrical public persona, she often showed keen insights — on display in her lectures on fiction writing and non-fiction writing — into the importance of reaching out to one's audience. In Letters of Ayn Rand, for instance, she replies to a fan, Sylvia Austin, who, as a religious believer, compared Roark to Jesus. Rand praised the fan's "honesty and seriousness," and explained the differences between Roark and Jesus, without attacking the motivations or psychology of the person who made the comparison. On another occasion, she advises John Hospers to write a text on her philosophy in a way that allows him "to maintain the position of an impartial, critical observer," while allowing her work to "be the antagonist of religious doctrines." Grasping the importance of Hospers' professional status, she adds: "I would much prefer to see Objectivism presented to the philosophical profession by you, rather than by myself — for the obvious reason that a presentation by you would lend it more objectivity in the eyes of the readers."

Nearly forty years after Rand wrote these words to Hospers, her work is now being presented to academia by a variety of professionals, creating an atmosphere for scholarly engagement. Most importantly, however, is that the engagement provides an opportunity to alter the current scholarly context fundamentally. Rand understood the value of using "given" concepts to communicate a vastly different substantive content, and, in so doing, challenge convention. She proudly declared the "virtue of selfishness" by wresting that word from those who viewed it in terms of brutality. Much like Nietzsche, she inverted the debate, "deconstructed" the meaning, and put "altruism" on notice. She did the same thing with "capitalism" — a word invented by the socialists — declaring it an "unknown ideal."

I take such strategies seriously. In my forthcoming book, Total Freedom, I trace the meaning of the concept "dialectics," disconnecting it from its Marxist practitioners, and using it as a libertarian tool. Similarly, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand allowed various contributors to disconnect an abused concept, "feminism," from its collectivist incarnations. One could reasonably disagree with this or that essay in the volume, but to trash the volume itself is to show no grasp of the way in which ideas are spread.

Though Robert White once understood my approach, he now thinks me a "second-hander" for wanting to speak to this "given context." But the context is what it is. And it is one fact of intellectual reality that we ignore at our peril. Robert reminds us that the Left "marched forward" against the context "with all the ferociousness of a jack-booted lesbian." And yet, if we are to universalize his own desire to "take a sledgehammer to" the context as the only legitimate strategy for Objectivism, our intellectual movement might soon resemble the Left's "Cultural Revolution," as championed by Chairman Mao. Wars require many complementary strategies to undermine the status quo. I'm willing to live in a world of diverse strategies without impugning the character of those whose strategies are not mine. Yes, there will be some who compromise their intellectual integrity when "academic respectability," rather than intellectual change, becomes the primary goal. But those who show nothing but contempt for serious scholars embrace the other side of a false dichotomy. They seek to hold back what is inevitable: Objectivism will not be constrained by the confines of an intellectual ghetto.

Ironically, while Marxism has been discredited fundamentally by a trail of barbarism, its victory did not come from the sledgehammer. It slowly infiltrated the culture in a way that has had a huge impact on the development of the twentieth-century academy. This happened not because of jackbooted proletarians who fought in the streets, but because Marx's ideas were discussed and dissected, critiqued and absorbed, by thousands of intellectuals world-wide. Over time, Marxism became an intellectual industry. We are only at the beginning stages of what might be a similar movement for Objectivism, as some of us ride the Randian wave, while creating a few waves of our own.

Finally, I would like to offer some thoughts of a more personal nature about this debate, because Robert White's vitriol has been terribly personal. Perhaps I should provide some context for the reader with regard to my intellectual relationship with Robert. About three years ago, Robert, rather taken by my Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical, contacted me via email, and asked me to comment on his work, which applied my tri-level model of Rand's social theory to his analysis of racism in New Zealand. For many months, Robert asked me for my input, commentary, and critical insights, presenting his final thesis with the statement that he was "indebted to Dr. Chris M. Sciabarra, visiting scholar at the New York University Department of Politics for his timely criticisms on a draft of this paper." I was flattered, and continued commenting on Robert's work over the many months that followed.

What happened is anyone's guess. If I were willing to psychologize, as he does, I'd say that something has led him to revolt with all the ferocity of a spoiled pupil against one of his teachers. The only appropriate response to his attacks on my "second-handedness" is: Methinks thou dost protest too much.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Department of Politics
New York University

Next: Lindsay Perigo has the final word (for now!).

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