Mar 302010

Robert Mayhew, the editor of Ayn Rand Answers, asked me to publish the following essay. I am more than pleased to do so.

On Ayn Rand Answers
by Robert Mayhew

In the early 2000s, I edited and prepared for publication a selection of Ayn Rand’s answers to questions, mostly from question periods following a number of her lectures. The result was Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A (Penguin-New American Library, 2005).

In her “Essay on Sources”, in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press, 2009), Jennifer Burns writes that Ayn Rand Answers is among those works that “are derived from archival materials but have been significantly rewritten”; and like Journals of Ayn Rand, she says, “they should not be accepted at face value” (pp. 292-93). She does not explain or illustrate what she means by “significantly rewritten”.

Burns was not the first to comment negatively on Ayn Rand Answers. For instance, on June 23, 2008, Roger Bissell posted on the forum “Objectivist Living” a side-by-side comparison of what purported to be a transcript of one of Rand’s Q&A and the rendering of it in Ayn Rand Answers. The differences were glaring. The problem, however, was that what he presented as a transcription of the original material was nothing of the kind. Nevertheless, his ineptness enabled him (in his own mind) to score a big hit against me and my scholarship. Not willing to let incompetent dogs lie, over a year later (Sept. 21, 2009) Dr. Robert Campbell (Professor of Psychology, Clemson University) decided to repost this inaccurate comparison on another forum (“SOLO Passion”).

Campbell saw no need to check the source himself–until Tore Boeckmann pointed out the gaffe. So prompted, Campbell listened to the relevant tape, and a week later (Sept. 28, 2009) perfunctorily apologized for not double-checking. One would have thought that Campbell had learned a valuable lesson–a lesson useful to scholars–namely, always to check one’s sources oneself. But that was not what he picked up from this experience, as we shall see. Rather, what he discovered in the first-hand checking that he did undertake was that I had edited some Q&As, and omitted others. Of course, he could have gleaned that from the cover of the book–from “edited by Robert Mayhew” and “The Best of Her Q&A”–or from the preface; but to him, this was a revelation.

So, armed with a sense of righteousness (and an indifference to copyright law), Campbell made it his mission to demonstrate on “Objectivist Living” the extent of my sins (see here). I spent an unpleasant couple of hours the other day reading his ‘work’, and the sycophantic and malevolent comments that followed most of his ‘revelations’. I won’t be returning.

Now it is worth pausing at this point to ask something that Campbell (and other critics) never stopped to ask: Why would Leonard Peikoff have approved of my editing such a collection? What was his aim? Surely this is necessary for an objective evaluation of Ayn Rand Answers.

When I asked Dr. Peikoff what Ayn Rand’s wishes were regarding this and other unpublished material, he answered that she had told him to do whatever he wanted with it–whatever he thought was best. And he thought it best to make this material available to the broadest audience possible: to those who read Rand’s novels and non-fiction, and would be interested in the additional information that such a collection contained, namely, her views on a wide variety of issues, many not discussed elsewhere. On a related point, Penguin Books would not have published and widely distributed a complete, unedited transcript of the Q&A (nor would any other non-academic publisher). Moreover, such a transcript would not be terribly accessible or as appealing to the general reader–to a typical fan of her novels. And since the book was aimed at such a reader, Dr. Peikoff also wanted to limit its contents to those Q&A that he knew to be consistent with her explicit philosophy, and in some cases to have them edited accordingly. I made this clear in my preface; I did not hide the fact that such editing was done. And of course, I knew that the transcripts and recordings were available at the Ayn Rand Archives (and that many of the recordings would become available online). I’ll add, finally, for what it’s worth, that Rand herself (in her 1969 non-fiction writing course) said of her answers to questions: “Sometimes, I may give an answer that’s almost publishable–but not quite. It might be good for a first draft, but it would still need editing.”

Campbell ignores any such considerations, and simply assumes that what the Estate should have done (if anything) was publish a complete and unedited transcript of the Q&A. This is clear from the level of editing that he regards as objectionable. The following is Campbell’s transcription of one answer, followed by the edited version in Ayn Rand Answers. I’ve placed in bold the differences between the two. They are minor.

“I think Mr. Kissinger is the most disgraceful and disastrous Secretary of State [applause] that we’ve ever had [more applause]. Mainly because of his philosophical views, if you know that he is an admirer and a follower of Metternich, which was the worst of the European approach to foreign policy and to power.”

“I think Mr. Kissinger is one of the most disgraceful and disastrous secretaries of state that we’ve ever had–mainly because of his philosophical views. He is an admirer and follower of Metternich, who represents the worst of the European approach to foreign policy and to power.”

Campbell comments: “Why Dr. Mayhew toned this judgment down is known only to him.” Actually, it is not known only to me (see below). In any case, Campbell clearly objects to anything beyond mere transcription. If he were more scholarly, he could have attempted to level an objection–with civility and arguments–to the very idea of editing this material, and make clear what he thinks should have been done with it. But he does not. Instead, he proceeds as if I were presenting a transcript–one that I have surreptitiously and grotesquely warped.

That a mere transcription of all the Q&A would not get a wide distribution or have a popular appeal, and that such material is already available to scholars at the Ayn Rand Archives, does not occur to Campbell. Instead, he discerns the motives for my editing in what he sees as my personal defects. He assumes that I dishonestly and presumptuously tried to pass off as Rand’s my own thoughts and words, and that I omitted–without explanation, and owing to evasion (“blank out”, he says)–any material that I decided was embarrassing. In his view, I undertook this editing to hide or sanitize what Ayn Rand really said. As I am affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute (Campbell calls me an ARIan, thus comparing me to a Nazi), my sole or primary concern is rewriting history to construct a barrier between the world and the flawed reality that is Ayn Rand. That I’m trying to do so despite the fact that much of this material is available (and all of it exists in the Archives), just shows (I guess) that I’m stupid as well. But I’ve met my match in Campbell: again and again (as he tells it) he catches me trying to pull a fast one.

Campbell and many others (e.g., see George Reisman’s Amazon ‘review’) see no difference between Ayn Rand’s Estate hiring a person to edit her unpublished extemporaneous remarks, after her death, and someone changing the wording of Rand’s published works without her permission while she was alive. Of all the context dropping committed by these people, this may be the worst. Ayn Rand was not alive to edit this material (with a few exceptions–more on those shortly). I regarded the aims of the Estate as laudable, and so I undertook to prepare this material for publication in the way described, under the guidance of Leonard Peikoff (the person alive most qualified to oversee such a project).

Now I mentioned before that Campbell did not learn from his experiences always to investigate sources himself. This failure is especially clear in a few cases (most notably the long Q&As on Solzhenitsyn and on the mini-series Roots) in which he seemed to detect radical additions and departures without parallels in the original recordings. Campbell could have done a more thorough check, looked into the possibility that there was some other source, or sent me an e-mail asking what was going on. (I would not respond to such an e-mail now.) Not Campbell. He accepts one of the policies he falsely attributes to his enemies (the ARIans), at least in the case of his enemies, namely, that wherever there is (what he takes to be) error, the motive must be dishonesty or some other flaw (like arrogance or slavish devotion to A.R.I.). As he explains these revisions, I simply took it upon myself to speak for Ayn Rand–to invent whole sentences and give her the words she was unable to find herself. He could conceive of no other possibility.

In fact, in these few cases I made use of The Objectivist Calendar (twenty issues, June 1976 to June 1979), in which Rand occasionally published (with her own edits, cuts, and additions) some of her Q&A. (Incidentally, the revised version of the above Kissinger-answer comes verbatim from this source.) In retrospect, I should have mentioned this in the preface or in a note. But as Ayn Rand Answers is a publication aimed at the general reader, and not a transcript for historians and other scholars (nor for the many pseudo-scholars who inhabit the Objectivish internet underworld), I regard this as a minor error–surely it pales in comparison to what passes for scholarship in the mind of Robert Campbell. And I can’t help but wonder whether these Q&A were the ones Dr. Burns (who spent years at the Ayn Rand Archives) was referring to when she declared that this material was “significantly rewritten”.

Dr. Campbell is scheduled to give a lecture at the Atlas Society‘s 2010 summer conference. Its title is “Who’s Answering: Ayn Rand or Robert Mayhew?” This speaks volumes about his seriousness as a scholar–and about the stature of the Atlas Society.

  • David

    It’s astonishing that Mayhew assumes as self-evident that an accurate transcription of Rand’s Q&A would not have been salable. Really?

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