Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

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On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




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A Row of Ducks

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Have you ever thought about joining the jihad? No? Neither have I, at least not in the sense that I might be the one doing the joining. I’ve thought about others joining, though. I’ve thought about privileged American white kids who convert to Islam and join the fight to reestablish the Caliphate.

I’m not that interested in the kids of Somali or Pakistani immigrants, or other kids raised as Muslims, or even African American kids who answer the call to jihad. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that’s already been started. But middle-to-upper class white kids who convert to Islam and become the foot soldiers of Allah? This, I am interested in.

In his book Pragmatics of Human Communication, Donald B. Jackson tells a story about Konrad Lorenz, the now-famous ethnologist. One morning, some tourists walking past his front yard saw him waddling through the grass on his haunches, making quacking sounds. They thought that he was mad. What they didn’t know was that he was trying to convince a trailing brood of ducklings, hidden by the grass, that he was their mother. What they didn’t know was that Dr. Lorenz was developing the concept of imprinting.

Of course, the tourists may have thought that he was mad even if they had seen the little ducks, but there are two points in this story that remain relevant here. The first is the one that interested Lorenz: if you can get to a duck at just the right age, you can fool it into thinking that an Austrian scientist is its mother. In fact, it will follow almost anything that waddles and quacks. It may even follow a waddling caliph. The second point is the one that interested Jackson: a behavior that looks crazy in isolation may seem less so when the wider behavioral context is seen. So, to a hockey mom, seeing some young white guy from San Diego — I’ll call him Connor — dressed up sort of like Zorro shouting “Death to the infidel” in Arabic may seem a lot like seeing Lorenz waddling around his front yard quacking. But suppose, just suppose, that there are little ducks in Connor’s yard, too.

Here I’ll use the concepts of imprinting and behavioral context to help understand why jihad might appeal to Connor. Put another way, we’re on a duck hunt.

“Give me the children until they are seven, and anyone may have them afterwards.” — Attributed to St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer devotes a chapter to describing potential converts to mass movements in general. Two groups of likely recruits are of interest right now. The first comprises those who are “partially assimilated,” who “feel alienated from both their forebears and the mainstream culture.” (Hoffer assures us that those who live traditional lifestyles are usually too contented to be good candidates.) The second group comprises those who feel that their individual lives are “meaningless and worthless.” According to Hoffer, then, young people who have been successfully assimilated into a traditional belief system or the mainstream culture and see their lives as having meaning and purpose are less likely to answer the call to jihad. They have been, shall we say, inoculated.

American culture has changed slightly since Hoffer wrote his book in 1951. For example, according to the Gallup, the proportion of the population that considers religion “important” has fallen from 75 to 56%. (N.B., The 56% presumably includes jihadists.) The people who say they have no religion has grown from two to 16%. Generally, “faith tradition” and “traditional belief system” are today understood by those who use such terms to mean “archaic fictions.” In short, religious ardor has cooled. So, the program of inoculation by means of the traditional faith vaccine is not as widespread as it once was. This is our first little duck. Don’t worry, there are more.

“To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” — “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” Man of La Mancha, 1965

Efforts to assimilate the young into the evolving mainstream secular culture have changed, too. The melting pot has been moved to the back burner and the back burner has been put on simmer, to encourage diversity. The ranks of the Boy and Girl Scouts have been thinned and their once slightly grim mix of quasi-military discipline and Sunday school fun has been rendered more secular and humane. It’s been defrocked and declawed. In public schools, American history is now often taught as a litany of imperialism, racism, oppression, exploitation, and hypocrisy and, on the brighter side, as a continuing struggle against those persistent evils. Jingoism is just not happening.

Is it possible that a child who is asked to pledge allegiance to the flag of a country that, in his second period history class, is revealed to be vile might end up being less than completely assimilated into the mainstream culture of that country? I don’t see why not. Sure, America is ashamed of Wounded Knee, but should every non-American Indian be ashamed to be an American? Perhaps, but if Hoffer is right, failing to inculcate a modicum of patriotism in the minds of the young is a risky lapse in a program of mass-movement disease prevention, particularly in such a diverse society, where a little unifying vaccine may be just the thing to prevent an epidemic of say, jihaditis. Maybe St. Francis Xavier’s point was practical and secular as well: if children aren’t assimilated when small, anyone may have them afterwards, even the Islamic State. In any case, patriotic fervor seems to have faded. This is our second duck. Let’s keep looking.

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whaddaya got? — “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando as Johnny,1953

Fish swim, birds fly, and young people rebel. In ’60s America, the young (mostly the white, middle-to-upper class young) rose up against crew cuts, cocktails, war, three-piece suits, button-down shirts, organized religion, and white bread, embracing instead long hair, drugs, peace, bell-bottom trousers, tie-dyed shirts, mysticism, and granola. As intended, parents were apoplectic.

Parents today are made of mellower stuff. Offspring who are agnostic, long-haired, peace-loving, marijuana-smoking, vegetarian, and sport casual, colorful clothes are often a source of parental pride. In a rhetorically tolerant world that adores diversity and is deeply reluctant to be seen as judgmental, it just isn’t as easy to raise parental hackles as it once was. And what’s a rebellion without raised hackles? Boring, that’s what.

What’s a rebellious young person of privilege to do? Occupy Wall Street? You’ll be seen as either an unemployed mercenary or a naïve Marxist. Live off the grid? For a few weeks, maybe, but you’ll be back, and probably be considered a malodorous loser who just couldn’t hack it. Save the Whales? That is so ’80s. Buddhism? You’ll be meditating between your parents. Yawn.

Yes, it’s tough to be a successful young rebel today, but not impossible. In a world of tolerance, cultural diversity, and non-judgmental relativism, here’s what you do: adopt a faith that both preaches and practices intolerance, that scorns cultural diversity and demands strict adherence to religious laws governing every aspect of daily life, and that embraces harsh judgment, severely punishing every forbidden or shameful act. Just do that, and there is a better-than-even chance that your parents, no matter how open-minded they think they are, will become apoplectic. Your dad will probably say a very bad word. Your mom may clutch the drapes. It may be hard to be a rebel today, but, if you want to stick it to the man, just tell him that you’re going to join up with the Caliph and help impose sharia. Clearly, this is our third duck.

“I want to be a vampire. They’re the coolest monsters.” — Gerard Way, co-founder of the band My Chemical Romance

Not only are the young prone to rebellion, but they want to be cool. Don’t scoff. It is a very big deal in American culture to be considered cool. Millions seek it. Trillions are spent each and every fiscal year trying to achieve it. Older people who dismiss it as unimportant have usually just forgotten.

A large part of the universe of cool consists of dark matter. Think of George Chakiris with his switchblade in West Side Story, or Marlon Brando on his hog in The Wild One, or Al Pacino with his “little friend” in Scarface. Think of heavy metal, gangsta rap, and the Twilight Saga. The dark side of cool is alluring, all right, but never forget that cool is a competitive sport. To stay ahead in the competition, sometimes a guy has to adopt a style that is just a bit darker than the next guy’s, with coarser speech, a more menacing look, and deadlier weapons. The competition can spiral out of control.

Consider: a twenty-something student who moonlights as a pizza guy is flopped on the sofa in his apartment in San Diego with his iPad. He is bored. Surfing aimlessly, he stumbles upon a video of a white Toyota pickup speeding across the desert. There’s a black banner covered with white Arabic script flapping over the bed of the truck. A guy wearing wild black pajamas and a big black turban is standing in the back with one hand braced on the top of the cab and the other clutching an AK-47 that he is brandishing in triumph. His tanned, bearded face is lit with a dazzling, slightly crazed smile. The pizza guy’s eyes squint as he studies the face, then open wide as he draws back slightly. After a pause, he whispers, “Connor?” In the Dark Cool Olympics of 2014, Connor has just scored a gold. Duck four and counting.

“Deus vult!” (“God wills it!”) Pope Urban II, declaring the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont, 1095

In “The Story of the Warrior and the Captive,” Jorge Luis Borges tells two tales. The first is about the Lombard barbarian, Droctulft, who, faced with the magnificence of 6th-century Ravenna, switches sides to become a defender of Rome. The second is about a Yorkshire woman who, captured by Indians on the pampas in 19th-century Argentina, spurns rescue and casually demonstrates her rejection of her English heritage by leaping from her horse, drinking the hot blood of a freshly slaughtered sheep, then remounting and galloping off.

The ways in which the human hunger for meaning and purpose can be satisfied can’t be spelled out on a simple, numbered list. Furthermore, loyalties and bonds can be strong or weak, flexible or brittle, but not immutable. As Hoffer said, people who see their lives as “meaningless and worthless” are ripe for conversion. We must find a duckling that tells us just what kind of meaning and purpose jihad offers Connor.

Connor submits to the will of Allah. He learns Arabic and reads the Holy Quran. He prays five times daily, facing Mecca. He fasts. He becomes a member of the global community of the faithful, the Ummah. All true Muslims become his brothers. He moves from the United States to the Islamic State, crossing over from Turkey. He works tirelessly to help reestablish the Caliphate, pulled down by nonbelievers in 1924. He becomes a soldier of Islam, fighting to convert or vanquish all nonbelievers and to spread the word of Allah as revealed by the prophet Mohammed. He fights to defend and expand the IS. He joins in the centuries-long struggle to let the entire world know and enjoy the peace of Islam. His life is filled with personal, cultural, political, military, philosophical, and religious meaning. And if he is martyred in this struggle, he knows he will live forever in paradise.

All of this is pretty heady stuff for a kid from the southern California suburbs who cut his religious and philosophical teeth on Harry Potter. In fact, his first, and unsuccessful, round of imprinting almost certainly happened quite by accident, as he followed the waddling footsteps of Master Yoda.

In his new identity as a salafist mujahid, Connor becomes Abdallah (“slave of Allah”). His new world is pure and clean. Alcohol is forbidden. Drugs are forbidden. Infidelity is forbidden. Immodesty is forbidden. Sexual perversion is forbidden. Pornography is nonexistent. Looking back on his old world, Abdallah realizes that it was corrupt and filthy. The people there lived like pigs (“zay khanzeer”). All the “whatevers” he has ever heard have been trumped by a single shout of “Allahu akbar.” He thanks Allah that he has been shown the way. And that is our fifth and final duck.

“And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid down to rest.”

— “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” Man of La Mancha, 1965

For readers whose hearts have been stirred by the call to jihad, as Connor’s was, I have prepared for your consideration a list of five perfectly reasonable alternatives.

  1. Become a Red Cross Volunteer. Take the training to become an Emergency Response Vehicle driver. It’s the best.
  2. Go to Europe, buy a bicycle and some light camping gear, then explore for three months or so. Get a topographical map so you can avoid the really steep bits.
  3. Get a folk guitar, learn the basic chords, then learn to play and sing as many Bob Dylan songs as you can. Start with “Desolation Row.”
  4. Build a tandoor in your back yard. Learn to cook tandoori chicken and naan. You won’t regret it.
  5. Read everything that P.G. Wodehouse ever wrote. Though somewhat dated, it is still hilarious. Bertie Wooster is a hoot.

Maybe these suggestions leave you cold because they don’t address your spiritual needs, or your need to assimilate in the mainstream culture, or your need to rebel, or your need to be cool, or your need to have meaning and purpose in your life, or maybe because they simply sound totally boring.

If that’s how you feel, there is one more alternative. Before it is presented, I have a request. Please read the list above one more time, and this time notice that in all five of the alternatives, no one gets killed, and no one gets tracked by a Predator drone, armed with a Hellfire missile. Surely, these are the kinds of details that one must take into account when charting the course of one’s life journey, don’t you think?

You read the list again? Really? Still not convinced? You’re sure? OK, here goes: Connor? You’re on the wrong side, man! Join the Marines.




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What's in a Birth Certificate?

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So, Barack Obama released his “long form” birth certificate and bought himself some temporary tactical advantage against Donald Trump and millions of angry conspiracy mongers out there. The document confirms, as much as any such item can, that Barack Hussein Obama II was born at 7:24 p.m. on August 4, 1961 at Kapiolani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu.

The lingering question of whether the man meets the constitutional requirements to be President of the United States — specifically, that he is a native-born citizen — is answered. He does. And, specifically, he is.

But, if you look a little more deeply into the hard typeface of the Certificate of Live Birth, you can see some evidence of the background that drives a person like Obama. Indulge me in a little armchair Freud.

According to the document, the president’s mother — Stanley Ann Dunham — was 18 years old when she delivered him. That’s very young by any reasonable standard, young enough to make the baby’s arrival seem reckless and ill-advised. A heavy burden to bear, especially when you were the baby in question.

And there’s the bureaucratic judgment in the Certificate’s explication that the mother’s name did not match the name of the child’s father. The 18-year-old girl signed the Certificate “Ann Dunham Obama,” a small act of revolt against the officious document’s implication of illegitimacy.

Good for her.

Many ask, now that Obama has released this Certificate, why he didn’t do it sooner. I have an idea. He’s been protecting his mother from the harsh judgment of petty tyrants.

How many bureaucratic sneers did she suffer, bearing and raising a mixed-race child in the early 1960s? How many dirty looks, when she carried him on buses or airplanes? Brought him to campus at the several universities she attended? Applied for passports? Applied for food stamps?

And how soon did little Barack II realize that authority figures judged his mother harshly? That official forms made unfriendly assumptions about her marital status? How quickly did other kids say unkind things about his . . . unconventional . . . mom? Kids in Hawaii. Kids in Kansas. Kids in Indonesia.

The facts around Stanley Ann Dunham’s life are hazy and are likely to remain so. This is the haze created by family members protecting a loved one they know needs the help. A foolish daughter. An eccentric mother.

There are different versions of when or even whether Stanley Ann and the elder Obama married. Apparently, they never lived together as husband and wife; and the President’s own wife has said that his mother was “very single when she had him.”

There’s a hard edge in that last bit, even from his wife. Young Michelle Robinson — from an intact, upright, churchgoing family headed by a father who was a civil servant — had plenty of occasions to judge foolish teenage mothers on food stamps. You can practically hear it in the very that she uses to modify single. Michelle wasn’t going to bounce around a bunch of motley state schools with a baby on her hip; she was going to Princeton.

For most of his 50 years, Barack Obama has been protecting his mother from judgments and slights. Since she passed away in the ‘90s, he’s been protecting her ghost. He’s the archetypal high-achiever from a dysfunctional family. That’ll never change.

And that archetypal sort is precisely who seeks the presidency in this dysfunctional age.

Trump and Obama’s other antagonists have already moved on to press the President to make public his transcripts from college and law school, as previous presidents have. Their assumption, which Obama himself has tacitly acknowledged in his memoirs, is that he was a mediocre student who advanced through elite academia on affirmative action preferences.

Here’s a prediction: Obama will never release those transcripts. His birth certificate — his entrance into this world — is a testament to what the Babbitts deemed his foolish mother’s recklessness and immaturity. But his Ivy League degrees are the armor he built to protect her and himself from those judgments. And slights. And dirty looks.

He’s not going to lower that.

And, in this narrow Freudian context, good for him. It isn’t a good idea, tactically — and it’s poor form, personally — to mess with a man’s coping mechanisms.




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Terror at 30,000 Feet

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The old joke about the statistician who drowned in a lake with an average depth of one foot is a reminder that while the mathematics of probability theory are rock solid (er, within a certain range of error), the questions that the numbers attempt to illuminate are a bit more slippery. To put this in another way, a statistic is only as valid as the manner in which the question it tries to answer is framed. And there’s the rub: a question can be spun in such a way that the answer will confirm any sophistry.

This insight was recently brought home to me by Tyler Cowen’s wonderful Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting and Motivate Your Dentist. But even libertarian economists can fall prey to their inner biases. (I haven’t discovered whether Cowen calls himself a libertarian or not, but following Rush Limbaugh’s opinion that all economists worth their salt are libertarian, I suspect he is.)

At one point, Cowen briefly discusses fear of flying, citing various statistics that “prove” that flying is, hands down, much safer than driving a car. When one compares mortality rates per mile traveled and per passengers involved, the conventional figures decisively prove their point.

So why am I not scared of driving? As Ayn Rand famously stated, “Check your premises!”

Having taken flying lessons (and having had to land a single-engine plane that lost power), I have a slightly different take on the matter. A Cessna 150 with a perfectly centered dead engine practically lands itself, slowly gliding down at the proper angle, needing only a steady hand to keep it from diving into a stall. By comparison, a multi-engine jet with the reduced glide ratio that results from swept-back wings, and the out-of-balance weight and thrust from an off-center, suddenly faulty engine, almost requires a miracle to land safely.

Cowen, along with many others, believes that fear of flying is irrational. Now, I consider myself a rational empiricist, but when facing a flight, I gird my loins and make sure my affairs are in order. And I don’t think my fear is irrational. Yet I had never really tried to work out the problem until I read Tyler Cowen, who skewers popular fallacies as only a libertarian economist can. My conclusion is that he may have embraced a popular fallacy himself.

A stalled car engine is an inconvenience for, perhaps, half a dozen people at the most, while a stalled jet engine is a likely death sentence for hundreds of passengers. Having a pigeon fly into a car’s grille is startling, but it has far from the same consequences as having a pigeon fly into the cowling of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine.

The questions I would pose to determine the safety of flying vs. driving would be: What percentage of mechanical malfunctions in cars result in fatalities? And how many fatalities? But what percentage in planes? I’m willing to bet that mechanical malfunctions (or operator errors) in an airplane cause way more fatalities than the same problems in a car. Different premise, different conclusion.




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