The Downward Spiral

 Posted by on 25 July 2005 at 9:31 am  Uncategorized
Jul 252005

A few months ago, The Barely-Pretending-To-Be-Objectivist Center announced two major changes: (1) the change in office from Poughkeepsie, NY to Washington, DC and (2) the change in leadership from David Kelley to Ed Hudgins as Executive Director. I didn’t directly comment on the news at the time, although I hoped to do so. Although both of those changes have now taken place, I would like to offer a few observations on them.

First, on the physical move itself. Although the announcement says only that “the Center will continue its political and cultural advocacy, its educational and scholarly programs, and its development of the Objectivist community,” clearly the primary goal of the move is to become more involved with national politics. That’s the only reason to move to the dangerous, corrupt, expensive, and decaying city of Washington, DC — rather than, say, Boston or New York. Yet what is the point of that political activism supposed to be? TOC will advocate the same basic political positions as the existing libertarian think tanks, most notably the Cato Institute. So can TOC supporters expect some added value, like solid analysis of the philosophical ideals underlying current political debates? Surely not, as evidenced by Ed Hudgins’ routinely tepid, appeasing, and wrong op-eds such as The Human Spirit of Christmas, The Problems with The Passion’s Moral Message, and Flushing the Koran or Reason Down the Toilet?. Moreover, TOC has nothing like the large talent pool of smart, motivated, and committed experts which drive libertarian engines like Cato, thanks to its 15-year failure to cultivate Objectivist intellectuals. (Instead, TOC just recently re-hired Bob Bidinotto, the man who pioneered the colossal and expensive failure that was The Atlas Society.)

So why did TOC choose to move to DC? Because such is what TOC’s Trustees have wanted for many, many years. I suspect more than a few large donors were ready to pull the plug unless TOC attempted to give itself a Cato-style makeover. It will fail. TOC’s philosophical wrongs have already created insurmountable practical problems. The move to DC will only compound those problems, not solve them. (Certainly, TOC will burn though donor money much faster.) A few months ago, after hearing the news of the move, a friend of mine predicted that TOC would cease to exist and that David Kelley would be working at Cato within 5-10 years, if not sooner. I think she’s right.

Second, on the change in leadership. By all accounts, including from multiple TOC staffers, David Kelley was an truly terrible executive. (According to one staffer, a standard pattern went as follows: (1) some ill-conceived program would be launched, (2) it would fail, and (3) any similar but better proposals would be automatically rejected on the grounds that “We tried that and it failed.” That pattern makes sense of some of what I saw while involved with TOC.) So purely qua manager, Ed Hudgins is likely to be something of an improvement over David Kelley. Yet the fact that a man with such an inadequate understanding of Objectivism is now the Executive Director of The Objectivist Center speaks volumes about the lack of standards in the organization — and perhaps about its desperation too.

Freed from the burdens of management, David Kelley will now “devote most of his time to cultural analysis and philosophical research” — or so the announcement reads. He is even quoted as saying that he is “eager to focus now on writing, research, and working with students and other scholars.” If that is true (and I’m sure it’s not), it would be a dramatic departure not just from the standard practice of neglect of students at IOS/TOC, but also from David Kelley’s explicit claims to me about his lack of interest in mentoring students or even writing philosophy.

Happily, I’ve been gone from TOC for long enough now that I’m no longer privy to the current insider information. Yet even from my outside perspective, I can see that the organization has only gotten worse. That’s just what I expected. This move to DC is little more than a Band-Aid and a lollipop for appendicitis.

By two years ago, I was totally fed up with TOC’s hands-off approach to students and scholars, not to mention baffled by David Kelley’s resistance to addressing those problems. So I committed myself to honestly re-evaluating TOC’s founding philosophy by carefully carefully re-reading Truth and Toleration in light of my knowledge of the practical failures of the organization. When I finally did so a few months later, I could see that TOC’s major failures could be traced back to its founding principles. For example, the unwillingness to hold students and scholars to even basic standards of scholarship, e.g. by demanding that they understand the relevant principles of Objectivism before criticizing them, finally made sense, as that would be regarded as authoritarian, dogmatic, and generally contrary to the friendly tolerance of open-system-Objectivism. After that initial discovery, it wasn’t long before I realized that I couldn’t ever wish to be involved with such an organization.

My purpose here is not to pat myself on the back: I hardly think that I deserve praise for finally getting it right after ten years of being so horribly wrong. Rather, my point is that too many supporters of TOC, even though unhappy with the organization, seem unwilling to check their premises all the way down, as I was. Quite a few once-strong supporters of TOC have drifted away over the years due to discontent over the inept management, poor publications, and general floundering of the organization. Others continue some level of involvement, yet claim to be substantially worried. However, to my knowledge, none of these discontents have ever seriously reconsidered the founding philosophy of TOC by scrutinizing it with fresh and careful eyes in light of TOC’s history. (I do know of two former supporters of TOC who have seriously committed to doing so, once they have the time. I have no worries about either of them.) Of course, even for a honest person committed to Objectivism, such might not be enough. David Kelley’s errors are often cleverly concealed, particularly in Truth and Toleration. They can be difficult to discern for a person without an adequate understanding of Objectivism, without finely-tuned skills of philosophic detection, without a commitment to straight rather than charitable reading, and so on. But for those unhappy with the practical results of “A Question of Sanction,” a brutally honest second look is long overdue.

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