Monday, October 5, 2009

Review of GODDESS OF THE MARKET: AYN RAND AND THE AMERICAN RIGHT

My review, as published on Amazon.com:

The publication of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns is perfectly timed to capitalize on the growing popularity of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in light of the recent economic developments that are predicted in Rand's magnum opus . This book also benefits from the distinction of being the first Rand biography written with access to archival material not available to previous biographers. It's no coincidence, then, that the two points of interest about this book, the personal and the political, intersect, but that is to the book's detriment. In trying to be both a biography and a discussion of Rand's influence on politics, it fails to be effective at either.

The intro claims that the focus is on "Rand's contributions as a political philosopher, for it is here that she has exerted her greatest influence," and that "the story of Ayn Rand is also the story of libertarian, conservatism, and Objectivism, the three schools of thought that intersected most prominently with her life." Yes, there is quite a bit of discussion about Rand's involvement with political campaigns and the relationships with the likes of Isabel Paterson, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises, but little of significance is revealed to those already familiar with these matters. The claim about the book's focus is undercut by Burns' overemphasis on the personal aspects of Rand, to the detriment of the discussion of the ideas. This is not primarily a book about Rand's political influence or influences, but about Rand herself, with the politics serving as a backdrop. And the publishers know where the money is: in the juicy gossip. (Witness the tag line on the inside dust jacket: "Worshipped by her fans, denounced by her enemies, and forever shadowed by controversy...".) That's why this book is of greater interest to "insiders," but for far more personal reasons than the current ATLAS-like state of the world...

Given the controversy surrounding Ayn Rand, a reader looking for an unbiased, non-partisan review might take comfort in Burns' insistence that she is "less concerned with judgement than with analysis," a choice that Burns says that Rand would "certainly condemn." Burns claims that she approaches Rand as a "student and a critic of American thought." But Burns' comment about Rand's "condemnation" foreshadows what's to come...Burns continues: "This book seeks to excavate a hidden Rand, one far more complex and contradictory than the public persona suggests." Already problematic for those expecting an in-depth analysis of Rand's influence on politics, this is where the problems begin for the "insiders" of the Objectivist persuasion in the battle over Rand the person.

There is hype around this book for its "unprecedented access to original, unedited journals." For those coming to learn about Ayn Rand via the current news headlines, this will probably mean little, especially since that material is not presented directly in the book, and because they are unlikely to be familiar with the material that was controversially edited. For insiders, however, this book is, for better or for worse, destined to be compared to James Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, which relied on Rand's unpublished diary entries. Valliant's book was criticized for the intrusion of the author's comments on those published excerpts, marring the experience of reading the evidence independently. But at least in the case of PARC, the excerpts are there to read. In the case of Goddess, the opposite is true; if Valliant's commentaries get in the way, then the criticism must apply doubly to Burns' book, where the reader does not see the unedited material themselves, only Burns' personal interpretation.

The problem of the "analysis" over "judgement" claim is apparent in the author's constant use of negative adjectives regarding Rand throughout the book, best exemplified by the claim on page 235: "There seems to two Objectivisms: one that genuinely supported intellectual exchange, engagement, and discourse, and one that was as dogmatic, narrow-minded and stifling as Rand's harshest critics alleged." This is very similar to the claims made by both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden. Burns does little to explain her opinions, a flaw compounded by the promotion of having access to unedited, archival material, which, at this point, comes to function as a crutch for the author to use as an argument of authority. Speaking of such arguments, Burns supplements the archival material with testimonies of various people from Rand's life. Sometimes, due to the writing style, those testimonies are intermingled with the author's narrative, making it difficult to determine where the quote ends and the author's voice interjects. The source material is selectively quoted and filtered through the author's voice. The footnotes to these quotes add little for the reader to verify on their own. (It should be said, as well, that the judgement of quotes that can be verified and used to portray a negative Rand often come down to a matter of one's personal values; what Burns or her interviewed participants might consider negative, another might consider a virtue, i.e., Rand's legendary non-compromising anger.)

These problems work against the celebration of the use of unedited material; given the battle over Rand's legacy (which, for the longest time, has been based on "he-said, she-said" testimony) and the claims on both sides of the Randian schism that this book will settle the score in their respective favor, the reader might expect some kind of "silver bullet" to clear up any doubts. This book does little service to either side of the schism. To her credit, whatever the basis for her negative opinions towards Rand, they are her own, and she acknowledges virtue and flaw in people on both sides. And, Burns, as an "outsider" to the Randian circle, is not responsible for the appropriation of her book for use in the insider schisms. Burns is certainly entitled to her opinions, but she probably would have been better served by not making the claim that she did in the intro. And Burns, by the promotion of the access to unedited material, put herself in the situation of carrying the responsibility of being the first biographer with access to that material, and carries the burden of having to explain her negative interpretations of Ayn Rand's ideas, even if independent of the schism. (In other words, "Who is Jennifer Burns?") Ultimately, despite the hype, all we have is another voice added to the din of claims and counter-claims.

What, then, for those interested in the case of the "real" Ayn Rand? For those who weren't there, we must think like computer programmers, in "if-then" logic. "If" what x says is true, then we have to deal with that scenario. If what "y" says is true, then we deal with that scenario. If "x" is right here, but "y" is right there, then we deal with that scenario. That's all it will ever be for most of us. After the publication of the Branden memoirs and the Valliant book, we are presented with more questions than answers, and the possibility that while Rand may have been ill-served by the former, she may not have been fully vindicated by the latter. With the failure of Goddess of the Market to live up to the hype promised by access to "unedited" material, readers of this and subsequent biographies must deal with such "filtered" material, both hostile and celebratory, by putting themselves in the position of "philosophical detectives," not only sorting out the fact from opinion and hearsay regarding Rand, but dealing with the premises of the biographer as well. For those independent of "schism" politics, and without first-hand evidence/experience, or verifiable documents/information (such as personal access to the archives), the best advice about this book is the same as Burns' own advice about the Branden memoir and the edited Journals of Ayn Rand: use with caution.