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Friday, December 26, 2014

Nathaniel Branden, Rest in Peace

True ideas do not need gatekeepers to cast out nonconformists

It was sometime in the late 1980s when I first met Nathaniel Branden, the objectivist psychologist and author who died recently at the age of 84. (If you’re not familiar with him, read The Independent’s bio of Branden.) I went to see his speech being hosted by the Heritage Foundation.

Not having updated my information about him, I still pictured him as the enforcer at the Ayn Rand circle in New York in the 1960s. I had once been cast as the character of Nathaniel Branden in a hilarious play written by Murray Rothbard about the Rand circle. I played Branden as I imagined him.

As I recall, his lecture in the late 1980s concerned how a large and expanding government strangles the human personality. We need the freedom to create, to experiment, to form our own sense of ourselves in order to realize our potential. Dependency relationships with the state, he said, discourage and distort that capacity. Big government, if we let it, makes us less than fully human.

I appreciated his talk, because it drew together political philosophy, economics, and human psychology in the same way that Ludwig von Mises did in his great 1920 work Socialism. Branden’s lecture was warm, humane, broad, and sensible. He came across as very intelligent (no surprise there) but also very reasonable.

He was clearly not the man I thought he was. He represented the Randian perspective very well that day. He showed how what many people regard as an intolerant creed (objectivism) could be quite useful in analyzing and describing the world around us.

I went up to him afterward and introduced myself. The crowds were thinning out, so we had a chance to talk at length. He was engaging and charming, and very thoughtful. We talked about various policy issues and some personal details. We spoke about Rand, of course (I had been reading her since I was 15 years old). As I think back on it, he must have, at some level, been ready to move beyond her for decades, but he was still very gracious in answering my questions.

I was so pleased to discover that this legendary figure — famous to me for being the paragon of intolerance — was so affirming and personable. Something was different.

From then on, I developed my own template for his life, based purely on what I imagined must have happened. He was a very young man in the midst of a very strange cultural moment. It was the height of the Cold War and he had read the writings of Rand, who was a rare figure in her time: an intellectual and novelist who supported freedom. He fell in love with her ideas and, eventually, with Rand herself.

It was a heady time, full of rampant and fanatical ideology on the left and the right. The flow of information was inhibited by the level of technology and by gatekeepers everywhere. There was no surfing the web, and there was little ongoing public debate. Social and intellectual groups existed only within physical spaces. The perception at the time was that everyone had to choose one group and double down on that choice. The Cold War mentality afflicted even the intellectual world: there were only trusted friends and external enemies.

Branden’s chosen mentor said things that few others were willing to say. As so many did, he found Rand compelling and courageous. To be her champion and gatekeeper, to be part of her inner circle and eventually its leading figure, was a powerful feeling. The cult of personality played a role, too. With his appointment as topic cadre member came a sense of belonging, the sure-footedness that comes with having found the whole truth. There were no more questions to ask, only doctrines to preach and enforce. And he did it was gusto.

After his disastrous falling-out with Rand, it took him some years to see the episode clearly. Eventually, he realized that a genuinely great idea does not need people who crack skulls, purge, condemn, and exclude. It needs people who explain, edify, listen, and learn. A great body of thought shines on its own, without shouting, extremist dogmatism, or the pose of omniscience. He never repudiated his objectivism or his deep love for Rand’s ideas, but he came to wear them lightly, as part of a life well lived.

Rather than an enforcer, he had come to see himself as a servant. He served objectivism well by being the more humane face of the inner circle to which he once belonged. He also sought to serve his readers and was busy putting out a nice shelfful of books. He came to see Rand’s philosophy not as a gnostic teaching intended only for purists, to be imposed with severity and shouting, but as a gift to the world, a perspective that illuminates the potential of the human person and the dangers of all barriers to self-achievement.

He learned that being principled does not require being a jerk, and that having convictions does not mean insulting your opponents. In many ways, he was a survivor, and the life lessons he learned were hard won. For the rest of his life after the break with Rand, he endured slings and arrows from Rand’s closest followers.

But he didn’t seem to have let the turn of events demoralize him. He kept working and kept producing, with high spirits and brave persistence.

And you know what I admire about him most? As far as I know, he never fired back at his enemies after being purged from their inner circle. And he continued to speak about Rand with genuine affection and respect.

The course of Branden’s life and work reveals lessons for everyone. He learned over time that true ideas do not need gatekeepers to cast out nonconformists, much less crusaders dedicated to crushing deviants.

Rather, the truth needs sincere hearts that believe with genuine conviction, public intellectuals who share their ideas generously while remaining open to new ideas, and adherents who shine the light of truth for all who seek it.

I think back to Rothbard’s play. It is a send-up of imperialist, fanatical ideology as driven by the cult of personality. The character who represents Rothbard is taken aback because, to him, the whole purpose of human liberty is to unleash the wonders and magnificence of the human personality — to provide the maximum amount of room for its creative expression in the world.

How interesting that Branden himself seemed to come around to that view: if we are to love liberty, we need to love it not just as a policy, but as a life principle. Nathaniel Branden spent the best and most productive part of his career explaining and modeling that idea.