On a first-day pass, I attended part of the annual summer Objectivist Conference in Orange County, California’s Newport Beach.
The town and venue are familiar. I’ve previously stayed at the Marriott Newport Beach for other Ayn Rand Institute-sponsored events. It’s a fine hotel across from Fashion Island with an attentive staff. A Starbucks affiliate capably serves coffee, food and drinks. I was writing on deadline during my visit, so I did not attend the ARI’s full OCON, which unfortunately does not offer a per-talk option. Most of the program was light, however, and did not entice me. Instead, I attended one day’s events and a few OCON affairs. The hotel’s restaurant and bar, where I visited with friends, clients and other intellectuals, were good for meetings.
This year’s conference, sponsored by Midwest manufacturer Relco, celebrates the 75th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel The Fountainhead and “how its themes of independence and integrity continue to resonate with readers of all ages.” Accordingly, English literature professor Shoshana Milgram, Ph.D., whom I interviewed for my exclusive report on Ayn Rand in Chicago, delivered a dynamic lecture (“Frank Lloyd Wright and The Fountainhead: The Full Story”) about the man who designed Fallingwater and the woman who created Roark and Galt and visited Wright at Taliesin.
The OCON lectures are shorter than they were in the past, which is unfortunate. So, Dr. Milgram delivered what can best be described as a dazzling account which breaks new ground in understanding The Fountainhead, Wright and Rand, whom my friend Dr. Milgram has profiled for a forthcoming biography. Hers is the primary impetus for my OCON attendance this year, though I also wanted to hear Aristotle scholar Robert Mayhew, whom I interviewed for his thoughts on Rand’s first novel, We the Living, lecture on humor in The Fountainhead. I had seen both Drs. Mayhew and Milgram present at OCON in Chicago several years ago and I consider them both top, leading new Objectivist intellectuals. Dr. Milgram’s talk at this year’s OCON was excellent, detailing newly disclosed research from Northwestern University archives, Wright’s introduction to Rand by Ely Jacques Kahn at New York City’s Commodore Hotel in 1938 and a fuller account of their exchanges over The Fountainhead.
The talk, which references Ayn Rand’s remarks on a never-reprinted Wright article and secret negotiations regarding the prospect of Wright’s working on the 1949 movie version for Warner Bros., explains why Ayn Rand was emphatic that Howard Roark is not based on Frank Lloyd Wright.
Dr. Milgram provides the literary perspective of Ayn Rand with impeccable skill. In my experience, ever since first attending the Virginia Tech associate professor’s talks in Southern California, she always does. She hunts for facts, goes by reason and, above all, she thinks for herself. Listening to her lecture on the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was fascinating, filling in gaps in my knowledge and helping me understand why it always seemed (and is often depicted as) one-sided, which Dr. Milgram breaks down and explains. I hope this talk, which is another reason ARI should consider offering single event OCON pricing, becomes available to the general public. The best compliment I can give OCON this year, and I am not saying this because Shoshana Milgram is a friend with whom I’ve worked, is that her presentation for the first time in my life makes me want to read an Ayn Rand biography.
A talk which did not tie into The Fountainhead, “Being a Rational Optimist” by ARI Chairman Yaron Brook, disappointed me. Since ARI founder Leonard Peikoff, who put in an appearance at OCON via video, ended his podcast, I do not listen to podcasts, so I don’t know whether Dr. Brook later expanded on his commentary. But it fell short of making a persuasive case for rational optimism. I attended with the expectation that he would probably convince me and affirm my pre-existing optimism in the future, which is qualified but real. Dr. Brook’s reasons include technology and life expectancy. He cited the fact that math and science are more widely studied. He went into some detail. But he failed to account for the discrepancy with his previous assertions in which he forecast doom or catastrophe within a 20-year time frame. Similarly, he did not mention, let alone address, alarming forecasts in Dr. Peikoff’s 1982 The Ominous Parallels or recent The DIM Hypothesis, originally presented as a series of OCON lectures.
Dr. Brook backed up his points by citing the late Steve Jobs and aviation entrepreneur Blake Scholl, a friend who addressed last year’s OCON in Pittsburgh. In reference to the standard of living, he cited the cost of an iPhone, which he said more than once costs “nothing” (which, especially if you calculate the cost of storage, apps, accessories and services, is not the case). Also, he praised Disney’s Pixar as making some of what he called “the best movies of the last 30 years”, a debatable assertion at best and I say this as someone who agrees with his remarks on Amistad and Argo. I agree with Dr. Brook that Americans generally tend to underestimate the role of the Enlightenment. But Yaron Brook’s argument that there is cause for optimism, which I’m inclined to agree with (and I have my own reasons to be optimistic), was unconvincing.
A better talk was “The Influence of Ayn Rand on My Life and Business Career” by Saxo Bank co-founder Lars Seier Christensen who, after 20 years as CEO, started his own private equity firm, Seier Capital. He made concise, convincing points about his business experience, which he delivered with humor. Christensen explained that there has to be a sense of purpose, or, as he put it, “some intention”, in making a dollar. In other words, he argued, one must choose to think about making money in some narrowly defined sense. He urged OCON’s audience, which ARI estimated at over 600 guests, to remember that there are no guarantees in life, that in business it is best to “fix conflicts on the spot” and he told us not to criticize for the sake of criticism. This is good advice backed up by his wealth of knowledge, experience and success.
Harry Binswanger gave a course on logic based on his book How We Know. The Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), which I attended from 2008 to 2012 when it was a four-year program, held a mixer for alumni, where I was able to talk with OCON speakers Ben Bayer, Robert Mayhew and Aaron Smith. I told Dr. Smith, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy, that I appreciate his session on idealism in OCON’s “Discussing Objectivism” series. Dr. Smith explored the nature and roots of Ayn Rand’s idealism, fully tethered to characters and themes in The Fountainhead, addressing questions such as: What does it mean to be an idealist? Why does Rand think that ideals are so important to have and to fight for? What is the connection between having ideals and having a self?
I’ve seen Dr. Smith speak on other occasions, such as when former CEO Jim Brown introduced him at an event in Orange County last year, and part of what I value is his ability to express himself as a searching philosophical detective and thinker. In contemplating idealism, for instance, he asked and answered each of those questions, emphasizing Objectivist virtues dramatized in The Fountainhead such as rationality, independence and self-esteem, which he stressed is impossible to exaggerate in terms of its importance. The material, pace and clarity in his presentations is very good. Dr. Smith communicates as if he seeks to be understood by a wide audience, a quality which is rare among today’s intellectuals, especially among Objectivists, whose best arguments can be lost on a general audience because they may come off as smug, defensive and dismissive. Reminding me of what Dr. Peikoff once wrote about addressing only those academics who act like human beings, or something to this effect, Dr. Smith gave an example from when he worked as a gymnastics instructor. He said he told his students not to “inflate your currency”. Aaron Smith argued for delivering true instruction when discussing Objectivism. Speaking about The Fountainhead character Peter Keating, he was not satisfied to merely identify and underscore Keating’s selflessness. He pointed out that Peter Keating failed to scrutinize his own actions and contrast his life with his friend Howard Roark’s.
In keeping with the theme of this year’s OCON — bearing in mind that the ARI and OCON ought also to be scrutinized — this is something every individual should strive to do.