Interview: How to Run an Objectivist Salon

Navigator: Perhaps you could begin by telling us something of the history of the New Intellectual Forum. Who started it, and when?

Enright: In 1985, a listing in The Objectivist Forum led me to contact Mike McCarthy of the Chicagoland Objectivist Principles Organization (COPO). My husband John and I began going to meetings of COPO at Mike’s apartment, where we met many Objectivists and libertarians. But because so many of the participants were interested only in libertarianism, the discussions tended to revolve around economics and politics. Attempts to move onto topics of ethics, esthetics, epistemology, or metaphysics disintegrated into arguments over the justification for the Objectivist point of view on these topics. This got boring. So, in 1987, I called up a number of the more clearly Objectivist participants and asked them if they wanted to start a discussion group that would presume a certain level of understanding and agreement with Rand’s ideas, and would build discussions from there. At first, the get-togethers were strictly by invitation only, because we were concerned about maintaining the level of the discussion. But we relaxed after a few years, when we saw that the participation of those who were not as Objectivist as the core group posed no problem. I think that our topics and the fact that the majority of the participants discussed matters using Rand’s ideas as a take-off point set the tone of the discussions. Also, I moderated the discussions, and politely discouraged getting off-topic.

Navigator: Could you sketch very quickly what a Forum evening is like now?

Enright: The purpose of the evening is to present ideas, information, and knowledge, often new identifications in Objectivism or other related areas. Our members share information about new fields of interest or findings, examining the theories and ideas of all kinds of thinkers in the culture. Typically, someone begins the discussion by giving a short talk on a topic of interest. In practice, this can range from throwing out a few questions for discussion to reading a paper. I try to discourage the latter, however, as it usually does not lead to the most interesting and lively discussions. To this extent, the New Intellectual Forum is pretty much what any Objectivist discussion group will be.

Where NIF may differ is that we have tried to surround the core discussion with some practices that, we feel, create the sense of an intellectuals’ and artists’ salon. And we believe that has contributed to the Forum’s success.

We get together once a month on Saturday night. Those who wish meet for dinner at a designated restaurant and then adjourn to a member’s home for the meeting. The remainder of the group goes directly to the meeting. About fifteen people usually show up for dinner, and twenty to twenty-five for the meeting, but we’ve had as few as twelve and as many as thirty-five. We always have a hostess or moderator or both to insure that the atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, and also to see that the discussion proceeds respectfully and remains on topic for the formal part of the evening. And we always show our appreciation to the presenter by clapping. Members are expected to bring something: a snack or dessert for the refreshment table, or maybe fresh flowers. About half bring something to any particular meeting. And the hostess insures that the table and tableware are pleasing.

Navigator: How important is this “salon” ideal, in your eyes?

Enright: I believe it is fundamental to the organization’s success. Ideas are the heart of NIF, but our attitude towards ideas—and each other—is no less important. All participants are treated with civility and respect, regardless of their level of knowledge and their agreement with Rand’s philosophy. Someone may vigorously disagree with another’s remarks, but no one tries to shoot down the person’s points and no one, ever, says or implies any criticism of anyone’s character because of his ideas. I have dropped out of Objectivist discussion groups because I couldn’t tolerate the intolerance!

However, I don’t want to give the impression that we are merely civil to each other, in a cold, impersonal way—there is a warm, fun atmosphere to every meeting. We’re interested in each other, eager to see one another and talk about personal events and achievements, as well as ideas. We have a lot of people who know the philosophy in depth and first-hand, but are not out to impress each other. When they disagree with someone, they don’t recite chapter and verse, but really try to explain why they think the person is wrong. At NIF, everyone’s ideas are examined according to facts and reasoning, and no one is ever “tested” on his knowledge of Objectivism and “accepted” or received opinions.

The discussions tend to be exploratory rather than adversarial and we don’t all come to one conclusion. As one member put it, “you feel like you have allies in finding truth—that our first loyalty is to the truth.” We also have a great appreciation of the variety of personalities among us, and the wide range of points of view, which can be especially helpful to finding the truth. As David Axel said: “It’s a club for individualism where individuals matter.”

A relaxed atmosphere is another part of the “salon” ideal. Although we have set topics and the presenter has an idea of where he wants to go, we don’t have a highly structured agenda.

Then, too, humor is used liberally during formal and informal discussions, but it is never sarcastic, put-down humor and rarely ironical. Rather, it tends to be silly, light-hearted, irreverent, and congenial; it adds an element of fun to the discussion that puts people at ease and keeps the tone of discussion friendly. Actually, John’s skill in the use of humor set the tone for its use from the beginning.

Navigator: What sorts of topics are discussed at NIF, and what have been some of the most popular topics?

Enright: Well, we’ve discussed the foundations of mathematics, the nature of beauty, hypnosis, Montessori education, and poetry, to name a few topics. But we especially like controversial topics. In preparation for this interview, I asked the group to recall some outstanding lectures and a few of those mentioned were: “The Ethics of Rational Risk,” “Children’s Rights,” “The Logic of Rhetoric,” “The Literary Art of Atlas Shrugged,” “Deontological and Consequentialist Ethics,” “The Right to Privacy,” and “A Rugged Challenge for Unrugged Individualism.” Of course, that’s a very partial list.

Navigator: Does the Forum insist that talks be accessible to those unfamiliar with the subject? Or would it allow a speaker to focus on a topic that is principally of interest to, say, professional philosophers?

Enright: We encourage presenters to frame their talks in a way accessible to the intelligent Objectivist layman, but no, we have no special restrictions and we have in fact had discussions principally of interest to professional philosophers. We’ve been told that the typically high level of discussion is intimidating to some people, especially those new to the philosophy. But the respectful and friendly way everyone is treated counterbalances that. And the level of a topic, quite frankly, does not greatly affect the number of people who attend, because they’re a lively bunch, always willing to learn something new. However, if people find the discussion completely beyond them, there is a chance to seek out other fare. After the formal presentation or discussion, we break for refreshments and members may or may not return to the principal discussion. They may remain in another room to discuss other matters of interest with those who wish to remain there too.

Navigator: Is there a formal or informal framework of belief that attendees are expected to have? Specifically, is Objectivism presumed to be the standard of discussion?

Enright: Yes. Objectivism’s basic principles are the taking-off point and the standard for our discussions. At the same time, we have gotten into some lengthy discussions of Objectivism’s ideas, and we frequently bring up and think over Ayn Rand’s fundamental premises to see whether they accurately conceptualize the issue at hand. But people are not coming in order to challenge Objectivism across the board.

Navigator: Many people have difficulty speaking in public. What percentage of the regular membership, would you estimate, has given a talk? And does the Forum ever invite nonmembers to speak?

Enright: Unfortunately, it’s true that people are reluctant to speak in public. As a result only about one-quarter of our members have been presenters. Nevertheless, we rely on volunteers for future presentations and we rarely have trouble filling future spots.

A practice I have developed helps find and encourage people to lead a session: When I hear people talking enthusiastically about a subject or issue, I suggest it would make a good topic; when they say they don’t know enough to give a talk, I urge them just to lead the discussion with a few questions.

We rarely use speakers outside the membership, although we’ve had David Kelley, Bob Bidinotto, Murray Franck, and Dario Fernandez-Morera come to talk. And we don’t rely on audiotapes or videotapes. We may discuss tapes that most of us have heard or seen prior to the evening. But our members really seem to enjoy the live give-and-take with each other, which is also one of the reasons they seem to prefer short talks.

Navigator: What would you say to people who are interested in starting a group but do not feel confident about lecturing on Objectivism?

Enright: That they don’t need to! People are more interested in discussing issues than in hearing someone else talk. In fact, we have found that, as often as not, a meeting that begins with someone’s posing a few questions will end up being among the more interesting.

Navigator: You’ve said Forum discussions have a moderator to keep things on track. Is this just to keep the group from wandering? Or does it include curbing someone who brings an obsession to the topic?

Enright: Well, I usually function as the moderator, so let me speak from that perspective. I do try to keep things on topic. But I don’t wield a gavel, and at times the discussion has wandered pretty far: I try to judge audience interest in the wandering by the amount of participation.

As for the second part of your question: We have never really had a problem with such people dominating our discussions, for several reasons. In the beginning, membership was by invitation only and thus we were able to weed out those not seriously interested in Objectivism. Secondly, if someone brings up issues or points of view too far afield from the discussion, for whatever reason, they are politely asked to defer their points until later, and they may take them up at the end of the formal presentation, or privately with those who wish. The judgment of the moderator, both ideologically and socially, is very important in this respect.

Navigator: Let’s talk about your membership if we may. How large is it and how can it be characterized?

Enright: The mailing list has fifty names. About ten people have been attending for ten years, and another ten have been with us for five years. The remainder are relatively new. The membership is about two-to-one male; 25 percent married or “attached,” many never married, some divorced. Many are serious intellectuals and pursue ideas as a major avocation, though they are also serious about using the ideas. But many members are very bright people who do little philosophical reading or writing, yet want to know how to employ the ideas in their lives. The discussions give both groups a lot to chew on.

Navigator: How do you find the names of potential new members, and how do you recruit them?

Enright: The first members were people I met at COPO; later on, regular members began inviting friends and acquaintances. At that stage, we got two or three new people a year. But about three years ago, our member Timothy Shell created a Web site and it has been our most effective means of recruiting new people. It offers information and pictures, a message center, and a link to the IOS Web site, among other things. I get several inquiries a month from the site and, since its inception, we’ve been adding seven to ten members a year.

As for turning new people into regulars: They come to us eager to find others with an interest in Rand’s ideas, and a friendly forum in which to discuss them. We give them such a forum. Newcomers are welcomed and are introduced to the other participants, invited to partake freely of the food and drink, and included in the discussion. Someone engages new people in conversation and makes them feel included. After participating in a few meetings, newcomers are asked whether they would like to give a presentation themselves. In all, I’d say that 25 percent of the people who attend in a year are new members, and, of them, half become regulars.

Navigator: Do you have a problem with drop-outs?

Enright: Not really. About two or three people leave every year, usually due to moving or life changes, such as the birth of a child. Very few people quit the club over ideological disagreements, even though we regularly have in-depth philosophical discussions.

Navigator: Doubtless there is more to running a salon than scheduling a series of lectures, so let’s discuss what it takes to make such an organization go. How many members would you say a club must have to start; and how do you retain new members?

Enright: If the people are intellectually serious and interested, I don’t think you need a minimum number. And as for retaining new members: Our experience shows that the most effective way is to offer lively, interesting, and reasonable discussions, held in a friendly atmosphere.

Navigator: What are some of the practical tasks that people must keep in mind when starting a group?

Enright: Well, running the group is not cost-free, so we charge members an annual fee of $20 per individual, $30 per couple, which covers mailing and refreshment costs, such as hot and cold soft drinks and paper goods.

Then you need a place to meet. For more than half of the past ten years, the meetings were usually held at Lynn and Richard Latimer’s house. Their generosity in offering the use of their home and Lynn’s graciousness as a hostess and her skill as a decorative artist created a lovely and special setting for our meetings, which I believe fostered conviviality. In recent years, the meetings have mostly been at my house because Lynn has been busy taking care of her elderly parents. You also have to decide on a time: We find that meeting on a Saturday night allows the members to stay as late as they (or the host) would like, and that this facilitates many more possible discussions and many more opportunities for people to get to know one another.

And then you have to keep people informed about forthcoming meetings. I have maintained a mailing list and been a center for information. Every month, I send out notices specifying the restaurant, times, meeting place, topic, and other items of importance and interest.

Navigator: Some groups meet at restaurants, so that no one has to be talked into hosting the event. What is your experience with public meeting places?

Enright: We think that meeting at a home rather than a restaurant is a crucial element. The home is less formal and more comfortable. The several rooms in a home allow participants to mingle more freely than in other settings. If a participant becomes bored or unable to follow the discussion, he or she can quietly and gracefully leave the room and retire to the refreshment table for a rest or to mix with other group members, thereby keeping all entertained without disrupting the main discussion. Finally, meeting at a home keeps the costs down for students and others on a budget.

Navigator: How many “key” people does a club need and how can it persuade people to take up the main chores?

Enright: We haven’t really faced this problem, because I have done a good deal of the organizing over the years, with major help from Lynn Latimer and others off and on. But I do think you need at least one person who has an executive bent, that is, someone who can figure out what needs to be done, how to organize people and ask them to do things, and can follow through-someone who is regularly going to get the jobs done: sending out notices, recruiting presenters, and so forth. It has to be someone for whom these activities come easily, because running the club is “extracurricular.” Of course, the club could try to parcel out parts of the task to a number of people: however, that arrangement would probably still need a person to oversee it, unless the people were particularly good at coordination. For many years when my children were young, I sent out the notices and arranged for the speakers, but the meetings were usually held at the Latimers’ house.

How to retain such people? On the one hand, a good club is its own reward, especially for people who really enjoy the company of others with similar interests and a taste for discussion. Knowing that others are getting a lot out of what you’re doing can be inspiring, too. Still, it’s important for the other members to be supportive of the executive’s and hostess’s efforts: volunteering to help with problems, working for and at the meetings, and expressing their pleasure and gratitude for the work done by the organizers. Our club has given presents and plaques of appreciation to the hostesses and organizers.

Navigator: If your group needed to convince members to take on some major roles, what would you mention to demonstrate “It’s worth it”?

Enright: I would rely on their own experience. That is, I would just go and ask people who I know really value the club, assuming they were also people who had the talents needed for the particular roles. Perhaps I would need to explain to them why I was asking them to do something, or give them some advice about how to get the job done—but their own enjoyment of the club would be the most persuasive argument possible.

However, to start a club and make it run successfully, you need at least one person who thinks such an endeavor will be valuable, and who can create the right atmosphere: Only after that is done will participants be convinced by experience. One thing I’m attempting to do with this interview is to communicate how enjoyable and successful a club can be, to people who have not yet had the experience. Anyone in search of more information can reach me at 773-233-8684 or jenright@interaccess.com, or visit our Web site athttp://www.bomis.com/nif.

Navigator: Have you seen signs of an Objectivist community emerging from the Forum?

Enright: Absolutely! Many participants go on to become close personal friends. In fact, the friendships, networking, and encouragement that we have afforded to each other over the years have been quite energizing to our members. The journal Objectivity was born from these relationships, and many members have turned their NIF presentations into articles or lectures at the IOS summer seminar. I believe Objectivists need a lot more organizations like NIF to serve their social and emotional as well as intellectual needs. In the long run, this kind of activity will expand the presence of Objectivism in the culture.

Navigator: At the 1997 IOS Summer Seminar, Bob Bidinotto spoke about what Objectivism can learn from religion. Are there holiday-like occasions that the Forum celebrates regularly? If so, what are they?

Enright: We have parties at least twice a year: an anniversary barbecue or picnic, which is usually held close to the Fourth of July—although last year we had our anniversary party in the fall, at Montrose harbor on Lake Michigan, where we had a gorgeous view of downtown Chicago. The other event is a Christmas party (or Solstice Supper to those who really detest religion). There, we play a delightful present-guessing game that teaches the members a lot about each other. I would be happy to explain the game to anyone who is interested.

Navigator: By way of closing: What would you say to those thinking of starting a club?

Enright: I have eagerly looked forward to the Forum’s get-togethers every month for the last ten years: the presentations have ranged from at least interesting to fascinating, usually full of delightful information, and the discussions have been invariably stimulating. It has been an opportunity to stretch my intellectual muscles once a month. It’s a great place to learn about other, utterly unique points of view and have my mind changed-for the better. So, my comment to Navigator’s readers: If you want something like this in your life, make it!

This interview was conducted for Navigator by IOS editorial director Roger Donway. All photos courtesy of Marsha Enright.

http://www.atlassociety.org/showcontent.aspx?ct=11&h=51

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