A Note to Readers: I’ve made the decision to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring both my understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and why I struggle with publicly calling myself an Objectivist—primarily because of Dr. Yaron Brook and the Ayn Rand Institute distorting important aspects of her philosophy. This is part two of a five-part series. Read part one here.
Before I dig into my specific issues with what Yaron Brook said, I should say that Brook and I have always been politically misaligned. I want to believe there’s a level of honesty and good intentions in his attempts to make Objectivism more compatible with neo-conservatism, and to give him some credit, he hasn’t (yet) suggested Objectivism is in any way compatible with any religious beliefs (unlike the David Kelley-sanctioned producers of the terrible film versions, who inserted a scene in the third one set in a church in an attempt to suggest that Objectivism can support religion). I’m not sure if Brook honestly believes what he says (and is therefore an idiot much of the time), or is specifically tailoring what he says to make Ayn Rand more palatable to people who don’t actually believe in Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
Brook seems to want to attract the Orren Boyles of the world, almost at the expense of the Hank Reardens; this may be because he thinks that, once indoctrinated, those are the sort of people who will be most open to Rand’s philosophy. Coming from a secular liberal background, and having wholeheartedly embraced Objectivism, I absolutely disagree. I don’t think his method is the best. If he’s being intentionally dishonest to effectively trick people into hopping aboard the O-Train, that makes Brook a fraud. If he really believes some of the things he says, then he’s just a nut who will lure other nuts.
People should believe, with honesty and integrity, what they think is right, regardless of whether or not I personally agree with it. That’s a statement that, maybe, is the biggest indication of where I disagree with ARI. Their stated position, for example, is that Islamic terrorists are a threat to individual liberty and freedom, and therefore all Middle Eastern countries should be bombed back to the Stone Age—except Brook’s native Israel, the bastion of economic freedom and democracy. The reasoning? Thin the herd of dangerous people who disagree with us, and then pick off the rest before the dust clears. No need to win hearts and minds when brute force faster and easier.
Ayn Rand believed all religion, focusing mainly on the Judeo-Christian ethic, was a danger. She didn’t advocate war against them, however. She wasn’t against war in a clear-cut case of self-defense, but hell… The anti-communist to end all anti-communists was adamantly against the fights against its spread in Korea and Vietnam (“If you want to see the ultimate, suicidal extreme of altruism, on an international scale,” she wrote in 1967, “observe the war in Vietnam—a war in which American soldiers are dying for no purpose whatever”). She was even against World War II (part of her reasoning is that the U.S. got nothing out of its participation, and ceded far too much of Europe to the Soviet Union). Her reasons were nuanced and complex, but I’ll try to boil them down: war is pointless if the victors get no direct benefit from it (e.g., Canada invades us; we decimate them so they leave us alone), and a war fought for the purpose of forcing people to change the way they think (or, worse, simply killing as many of those who disagree with you as possible) is patently immoral.
ARI’s official positions on the War on Terror are as follows: bomb the Middle East back to the Stone Age, which will somehow force them to see the almighty power of the West and convince them that our way of life is in all ways superior; preemptive wars (such as the one in Iraq) are totally cool, because ineffectual saber-rattling from weak despots constitutes as much of an imminent threat as the attack on September 11th, 2001; torture is also totally cool, because it’s well within our rights to do whatever’s necessary to protect American liberty; we should have invaded Iran yesterday; ISIS would have never come into existence if not for our namby-pamby “just war” theory; even though they supported the alleged (fourth or fifth) reason for the war in Iraq—to spread democracy to the Middle East!—the Arab Spring’s grassroots attempts to do just that were worthless because it didn’t lead to a total and complete transformation into American-style “secular” democracies.
Look, I don’t think the Arab Spring turned out very well, either, but I wouldn’t call it a failure, because it happened the way it’s supposed to happen. I don’t really credit the war in Iraq for “causing” the Arab Spring, because if anything, the chaos in Iraq would scare neighboring countries away from democracy. I credit the slow loosening of arcane, mystic legal restrictions on personal freedom, along with social media access (legally or otherwise) allowing like-minded people to realize they aren’t alone, and maybe they can effect change for the better. Many attempts failed; Egypt probably ended up worse than it started off. There were many ideological failures—I recall seeing a Vice exposé of Egyptian revolutionaries that blamed capitalism and Western banks (not to be confused with the West Bank) for the socioeconomic troubles in their country—which always presents problems for revolutions. If the revolutionaries don’t have a clear, thorough ideological vision—and it was spurred mostly by angry young people, so probably not—what they’re doing will amount to a temper tantrum.
ARI would have us believe the proper thing to do is to bomb everyone, regardless of whether they disagree with their own country’s policies or not, because total warfare means civilians are expendable. Brook and the board at ARI actually believe that relentless assaults on civilians will cause the survivors to say, “Gee, this wasn’t American imperialism destroying our beautiful homeland—it was our rulers’ terrible, freedom-destroying policies that did it. Yay, America! We’re so grateful that we want to be just like you!”
How high are they to believe that’s a probable outcome, or even a possible one? Oppression—even the perception of oppression—fuels hatred more than anything else, so bombing the Islamic world into the tiniest of tiny minorities will not leave us with survivors too scared to fight back or too enamored of our wisdom to disagree with the rampage that killed their loved ones in front of their eyes. It will lead the survivors to band together, more unified than ever before, with one goal in mind: the total and complete destruction of the United States. The fact that they would, in this scenario, likely be a laughably small minority doesn’t detract from the fact that a small group of extremely hateful people can be much more dangerous—and, in some ways, much more influential—than the superpower that would now appear to outsiders to be the biggest, grossest bully of them all.
There is a degree to which I support a total war mentality. I do think, for instance, that the hammer should be brought down swiftly and severely on any enemies who are so cowardly, they have to resort to attacking elderly French cartoonists. Still, as far as I’m concerned, that’s only in the case of a legitimate war with a clear, stated goal against a clearly identified enemy nation—and only in legitimate self-defense against that nation. The War on Terror has never met those qualifications, and the ostensible goal of getting revenge on Bin Laden has come and gone. Regardless of what ARI might suggest, we’re not fighting an actual state that can actually forfeit its obligation to protect its citizens by murdering civilians abroad. It’s unconscionable to suggest all civilians of all Middle Eastern countries no longer have a basic right to life because of fringe lunatics. And again, contrary to what ARI advocates, we don’t have the luxury of simply declaring war on specific Middle Eastern states just because we want to. They, organized governments with actual militaries at their disposal, haven’t done anything to us—how is it self-defense to just decide we’re now at war with Syria and Iran? But hey, ARI supported the Iraq invasion until they changed their minds and then tried to erase any past positive statements on the subject.
Speaking of which, the War on Terror has become the perpetual wars of 1984; it doesn’t matter to anyone in government (or ARI) who the enemy is, as long as there’s an enemy. It will never end, because trying to destroy terrorism is like an endless game of Whack-a-Mole. Total war won’t end it; if, right now, Islamic terrorists are a tiny, fringe minority spread out in hiding all over the world, total war will bring them together with a common, open goal. You want to talk, as politicians always do, about emboldening the enemy? Let’s try nuking the Middle East and see what happens.
What’s the problem, though? Didn’t total warfare turn Japan into little kittens? Hasn’t it, historically, led the conquered to be docile and submissive? Doesn’t that, then, mean it will work in the Middle East? In order to accept that premise, you have to drop an insane amount of context. For one thing, you have to ignore that, for much of the history of the world, “individual liberty” as a concept didn’t exist. I can’t convince myself that conquered, oppressed peoples were ever truly happy with their fate, but it came with the territory. They fought, they lost, they got stuck living by their conquerors’ rules. If they had won, their conquerors would have suffered the same fate. I have to imagine a certain level of acceptance and resignation in such cultures, even if they weren’t pleased with the outcome. If there’s not resignation, though, there’s abject terror—and if terror is how we intend to win the War on Terror, what principle, exactly, are we fighting for?
Middle Eastern culture is not the same as Imperial Japan. They have some overlap—a lack of individual freedom and a nationalistic streak, for instance—but there are key differences. Imperial Japan, like Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, refocused their societies to look toward the state as the primary and its leaders as the near-deified human representatives of that primary. They swept a majority of people up into a foamed-mouth fervor with the goals of expanding their beloved state and destroying anyone that threatened its supremacy. Agitators trying to argue against the irrationality of the movement were silenced. The Empire convinced its men to fight for a distorted perception of honor—honor above all things, because the Empire and its legacy are more important than their lives—and surrendered after two atomic bombs shocked them into submission.
It is now seventy years later. Nuclear bombs, while surely not desired, lack that shock value. Islamic terrorists lack any semblance of honor in their rhetoric and actions. They may have forms of state support, but nothing like the nationalist regimes of the 1930s-40s. It’s not the Iranian military goose-stepping in the streets, wanting to come and get us. More than that, the Islamic terrorists use Western military intervention in their states, and local violence against their people (especially the civilians they crouch behind), in order to recruit new terrorists. They use Islam, set up as their society’s primary in even the most moderate states, to coax committed Muslims into joining terrorist groups; they also use it to coax moderate Muslims into becoming more committed to their faith, paving a road to radicalization for those with minds malleable enough to be radicalized. They use the typical religious persecution complex, so total warfare will literally just provide more ammunition for that persecution complex. It will accomplish only two things: dramatically reducing their numbers, and dramatically pissing off those who are left behind.
To the degree that I support total war, it’s only in the sense that enemy civilians don’t take precedence over the lives of American soldiers. If the enemy nation is using its civilians as human shields to protect weapons or vehicles or strongholds—and many do, because they’re banking on us leaving them alone—then that enemy is an asshole, and it’s their fault the civilians get killed—and they will, and should. Part of the function of a country in wartime is to protect its citizens from that war, not to turn them into shields to protect the war effort. In a world with a better philosophical basis, it would be seen as a horror show engineered by the enemy leaders, not by bloodthirsty American soldiers. When the Germans sank the Lusitania, they did so because the British hid war weapons on a passenger ship in order to transport them safely. The Germans were portrayed as the villains there; they weren’t. The British risked the lives of everyone on that ship. That’s a big dick move to pull on your own people (not to mention foreign allies).
At the end of the day, though, we’re supposed to be Objectivists. We’re not (yet?) members of government, and we’re not war pigs. The battle we’re supposed to be fighting is for individual liberty and application of reason in everyday life. Isn’t the rational course to appeal to the reasonable faculties of the least religious among Muslims? The 500-year Golden Age of Islam was spurred by the rediscovery and spread of Aristotle, the man of reason and individualism whose philosophy inspired Objectivism. It ended when, among other things, Aristotelian thought proved too challenging to religious leaders. Given the choice to push Islam forward with the world by embracing the concept of ijtihad, or remain stuck with a set of principles that were already outdated by the end of the thirteenth century, their Empire chose the latter. Their leaders allowed their civilization to devolve from reason to unreason, because much like the rest of the world at the time, they valued religion over independent thought and subjugation to a collective (be it religious or political) over individual liberty. Islam didn’t have the wiggle room to reconcile these two opposing schools of thought, so its leaders suppressed one and promoted the other. Christianity probably would have done the same thing if the inbred Western philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries hadn’t come along and bewildered the Western world back into unreason.
The reason the West has failed to win “hearts and minds” is twofold. You don’t win hearts and minds with bullets and bombs (even applied in a “just” way); at best, you “win” obedience, a condition incompatible with individual rights. More importantly, the “better system” we insist we’re offering is as philosophically inconsistent as their current system, which they already think superior. Objectivists know America is sliding toward philosophical bankruptcy; that’s what we’re complaining about all the time. We have the consistent philosophy that contextualizes American values properly, without all the extra bullshit that makes us look like hypocrites and narcissists. So if we’re fighting to win the hearts and minds of fellow Americans by appealing to their sense of reason, why isn’t ARI championing the transformative effect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy in the Middle East? Why are they backing the religiously motivated neo-con wet dream of total warfare? That is not rational. Fighting irrationality with irrationality is a recipe for a holy war. George W. Bush wanted that; ARI is supposed to have more sense, isn’t it?
I’m bringing up Brook’s and ARI’s view of war, even though it’s not entirely relevant to charity, because it shows their destructive views under his stewardship. There’s not a single clause or sentence, not even a single word, in Ayn Rand’s work that supports ARI’s view of foreign policy in the Middle East. ARI twists her words and concepts to support their arguments, but it’s little more than a simplistic corruption of her complex views. They are interpreters, and bad ones at that, claiming to speak for Ayn Rand without honoring the cornerstones of her philosophy: reality, honesty, integrity, and objectivity. Nowhere in the thousands of pages Rand wrote is there any indication that “self-defense” involves total warfare against anyone we perceive might someday in the future possibly be a potential minor threat, if the unlikely scenario that they figure out how to build a single dirty bomb to lob against our thousands of rocket-propelled nukes comes to pass. She would not have advocated using a bazooka to get rid of a gnat, particularly if the target is a single gnat hidden a crowd full of happily playing children. An attack is an attack is an attack. It’s not self-defense just because ARI wants it to be.
The ARI view transforms humans into chattel, who either need to embrace “American values” (even the distorted form of American values embodied by the country today) at the point of a gun, or perish by that gun. Contrary to Ayn Rand, who wrote in Atlas Shrugged, “To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument—is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality. Reality demands of man that he act for his own rational interest; your gun demands of him that he act against it. Reality threatens man with death if he does not act on his rational judgment; you threaten him with death if he does.”
This statement is made from Rand’s ideal Objectivist (John Galt) against an increasingly statist dystopia, and in context, she’s arguing that any form of coercion by initiating force leads people to act against their own will; after all, if it didn’t, force would not be necessary. But the statement cuts both ways. Who am I to argue that a jihadist is acting against his own self-interest? If he holds that, more than anything else—including his own life—the primary importance of this world is the spread of Islam and the creation of a global totalitarian Islamic state, I can disagree with him on every single level. If he attacks me or those on my side, he becomes the initiator of force, and I have every right to come down on him with as much force as is necessary to destroy him. But if he simply thinks the thoughts, and bitches and complains in a café in Lahore, what right do I have to approach him with a gun and say, “Start believing in Objectivism (or corroded neo-con values), or you’re dead”?
This one-on-one scenario is simply a microcosm of Brook’s entire argument, which is both philosophically inconsistent with Rand and ideologically inconsistent in itself. If his defense of total warfare against the Middle East is that they will not stop until they’ve destroyed the American way of life; that their religion gives them the tools to justify their actions; that even though it’s over thirteen unsuccessful years later and we’ve only made things worse and increased the instability and hatred that breeds terrorism against the West; that even though we took out the orchestrator of the September 11th attacks, we remain justified in not just a continued military presence but a crushing military presence, because their ideology supports the destruction of American values—then that is inconsistent with the fact that he is not advocating total warfare against the American Christian right, which fits the exact same bill. Acts of terrorism to destroy American freedom? Check. A religion that gives them the tools to justify their actions? A political environment that has bred instability and hatred? Check. But here’s one more box to check: those people live in the same fucking country that we do. They don’t have to sneak in, they don’t have to hide—some of them hold elected motherfucking political goddamn office. A tiny minority is choking out freedom within our borders, but Yaron Brook has never advocated total war against us—and nor should he. Nor should he advocate it against the Middle East, or anywhere else. Ayn Rand certainly wasn’t advocating total warfare against the Soviet Union, or the Christian right, or anyone else.
Coming Up in Part III: An exploration of two topics: why laissez-faire capitalism is the only economic system compatible with individual freedom, and how Yaron Brook corrupts Ayn Rand’s actual statements regarding charity among Objectivists in a free society. Also: who is the stupidest Objectivist currently voicing opinions in a semi-public space? (Hint: it’s not Yaron Brook.)