A Nonpartisan Farce

 Posted by on 16 June 2006 at 9:54 am  Uncategorized
Jun 162006

Chris Sciabarra’s Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (a.k.a. JARS) describes itself in the following terms:

The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies is a nonpartisan journal devoted to the study of Ayn Rand and her times. The journal is not aligned with any advocacy group, institute, or person. It welcomes papers from every discipline and from a variety of interpretive and critical perspectives.

Is JARS the nonpartisan scholarly forum it claims to be? Should serious Objectivists publish in it? I think not.

A few months ago, someone noted that none of the three editors and eight advisors to JARS consider themselves Objectivists. Since many to most of the top-notch experts in Ayn Rand’s philosophy are Objectivists, that fact is a warning flag for Objectivist scholars. After all, the absence of Objectivists, particularly in the editorial staff, renders misrepresentations by attempted critics and defenders of Objectivism far more likely to be accepted without adequate challenge. So Objectivist scholars have reason to worry about whether Ayn Rand’s ideas will get a fair hearing in JARS. That absence of Objectivists also suggests that the journal likely has an implicit editorial slant critical of Objectivism, rather than neutral toward it.

Even worse, the primary editor and driving force behind JARS is Chris Sciabarra, a man whose “scholarship” deliberately mutilates and gibberizes Ayn Rand’s ideas in high postmodern fashion. His own work is a perfect expression of what he preaches: total subjectivism in the interpretation of Objectivism. Sciabarra explicitly rejects the idea that Ayn Rand’s works can be interpreted objectively — or even that the principles of the philosophy can be differentiated from concrete examples, judgments, and opinions. So the study of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is just the application of interpretative lens or another: dialectical, feminist, analytic, jungian, orthodox, religious, tolerant, or whatever. That Ayn Rand’s actual ideas are lost in the process is of no concern to Sciabarra. He just wants to make room for “more and more opportunities for different interpretations and developments within the paradigm provided by Rand.”

Predictably, those subjectivist principles are the principles by which Sciabarra edits JARS. As the mission statement says, JARS “welcomes papers … from a variety of interpretive and critical perspectives.” Translation: Anything goes. The results can be found within the pages of JARS: a hodgepodge of decent articles, superficial analysis, misguided criticisms, unjust interpretations, confused defenses, inane claims, and worthless crap.

Sciabarra often stresses that JARS is “nonpartisan” — in the sense of ideologically neutral, including independent of the views of its editors. However, the simple fact is that every publication, including academic journals, must be selective in the articles chosen for publication. And as the primary editor, Sciabarra’ his subjectivist approach to the interpretation of Objectivism clearly influences his selections for and editing of the journal. So when a scholar publishes in JARS, he may not be endorsing the views of the other scholars who also publish therein, but he is endorsing JARS’s anything-goes approach to Rand scholarship. (He may be doing so unwittingly — or voluntarily.) And that’s a good reason for serious Objectivist scholars to avoid and ignore JARS as disreputable. Plenty of other venues for publication, including academic philosophy journals, at least attempt to adhere to basic standards of scholarship, including fair interpretations of texts.

Moreover, Sciabarra does permit gratuitous and partisan swipes at ARI and its affiliated scholars in the pages of his journal. Consider the following two examples:

First, in an reply to an Aesthetics Symposium, Lou Torres responds to John Enright’s appeal to some ideas of Sherri Tracinski on architecture (JARS, Fall 2003, pg 129). He’s critical of Ms. Tracinski’s ideas — and that’s fine. However, in the corresponding footnote, he writes that Ms. Tracinski is “listed as one of the doctrinaire Ayn Rand Institute’s ‘speakers and writers’” (pg 144n32). Yup, “doctrinaire.” That’s certainly no plain descriptive term meaning “strict in interpretation” or whatnot. It means: “adj : stubbornly insistent on theory without regard for practicality or suitability n : a stubborn person of arbitrary or arrogant opinions [syn: dogmatist].” As far as I can tell, the whole footnote serves no purpose other than to identify Ms. Tracinski with ARI.

Second, in an article on “Ayn Rand in England,” Nicholas Dykes speaks of John Webb, whom he identifies as the President of the U.K. Objectivist Association (JARS, Spring 2004, pg 378). In the footnote, he then says of Mr. Webb, “Although associated with the Ayn Rand Institute, Webb has none of the aloofness that mars ‘official’ Objectivist organizations in the United States. He immediately offered help when he heard about my research project” (pg 398n4). This example is even more egregious, since Mr. Dykes insults a person who rendered him valuable assistance, not just some random ARI scholar.

No editor worth his salt should allow such swipes to be published in his journal, not even when hidden in the endnotes. I’ve never seen the like in any philosophy journal, not even in the midst of heated debate amongst people who hate each other passionately. Such insults ought to be excluded from the pages of any reputable journal, precisely because they discourage those insulted from contributing to the journal in the future.

That Chris Sciabarra permits insults of ARI and its scholars suggests yet another way in which his personal views influence his editing of JARS. So what is Sciabarra’ view of ARI and its scholars? Let’s see…

He charged Leonard Peikoff with “unprofessional, unscholarly” and “completely disgusting” “airbrushing” for omitting Nathaniel Branden’s name from a reference in The Voice of Reason. (In contrast, he refuses to even acknowledge the extent and gravity of Barbara and Nathaniel Branden’s lies about Ayn Rand.)

In an article for Full Context entitled “Orthodox Interpretations of Ayn Rand,” he claims that the work published by “the orthodoxy” (i.e. the Estate, ARI, and ARI scholars) is usually only a “regurgitation of everything that Rand has said before.” He accuses “the orthodoxy” of “engag[ing] in the rewriting of reality” and “airbrush[ing].” And he concludes by saying that “the orthodoxy remains so hermetically sealed from any other influences, so fearful of ‘impurities,’ so careful to erase mistakes and personal foibles, that it risks marginalizing whatever legitimate contributions it might offer.” Those claims are false and/or unjust, as Sciabarra well knows.

In an essay on “Objectivism and Academe,” he misrepresents the motives for refusing to engage in the debates in JARS (and the like) as nothing but party loyalty. He writes: “Ambrose Bierce once defined politics not as ‘the art of the possible,’ but as ‘a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.’ Some of Rand’s more orthodox followers give substance to Bierce’s insight. What I mean by partisanship here is not simply the taking of a strong position in the intellectual give-and-take. It is support of a position based not on the correctness of the ideas, but on the source of those ideas — the group, the faction, or the party from which the ideas emanate. Partisanship is the opposite of objectivity.” In fact, ARI scholars do have principled reasons for their actions — and Sciabarra is aware of them.

Oh, and let’s not forget that he calls ARI scholars “prostitutes” in private discussion.

More recently, Robert Campbell (the associate editor of JARS) has been busy posting digs at ARI, including bizarre conspiracy theories. His misrepresentations of the closed system view of Objectivism are almost as absurd as those of Sciabarra.

Ask yourself: Would I like to work with editors who publish such claims about me — and my colleagues? Could I expect them to treat my views fairly — or insist that others do so?

Even if we set aside the most serious complaint about JARS, namely that the journal fails to uphold basic scholarly standards (like objective interpretation), the fact remains that Sciabarra’ invective against ARI scholars, particularly when coupled with the publication of unwarranted and unprofessional snide remarks about them in JARS, is reason enough for those scholars to refuse any dealings with him and his journal.

When queried about this general issue by Jim Valliant, Sciabarra said, “But, yes, James, I agree that it is a problem that a number of ARI-affiliated scholars have not published in JARS. It is not because they have been shunned.” In fact, no ARI-affiliated scholars have published in JARS at all, with the exception of Andy Bernstein’s quickly-retracted two sentences. So the problem is not just “a number of ARI-affiliated scholars have not published in JARS,” as Sciabarra put it, but that none have (really) published. True enough, those ARI scholars have not been “shunned” by JARS — merely vilified beyond all civil bounds by the very people who would be editing their articles. For any ARI scholars familiar with Chris’ charges against them, to publish in JARS would be an act of enormous self-abasement. Somehow, I doubt they’re eager for that.

Since that’s how Chris Sciabarra wants to run his Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, he could at least be honest enough to drop the “nonpartisan” label, instead of routinely hiding behind it. He ought to admit that while JARS is not positively aligned with “any advocacy group, institute, or person,” it clearly is aligned against some. And perhaps he could follow IOS/TOC/TAS’s lead by renaming his journal to something more appropriate.

Don’t worry: I won’t hold my breath for that slightly refreshing breath of honesty.

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