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Posts in: February 2015

Protecting Interests 2: Electric Boogaloo

I’m still subjecting myself to Leonard Peikoff’s podcast, in part because I still find Peikoff funny, even though he’s clearly kind of losing it. (And the fact that he sometimes mixes it up on his podcast by posting extremely old recordings where he had his shit together only hammers that point home.) I think I may have explained that, even though I’m increasingly disagreeing with Yaron Brook, I still think it’s important to listen to his podcasts… Because basically, if I feel compelled to defend attacks on Objectivism, I should know what one of the chief spokesmen for Objectivism is saying to make us all look like idiots.

In the podcast from February 2nd, Brook fields the following question:

Q: Okay, the first question we have is kind of a follow-up on a previous answer I gave regarding the responsibility of the United States to protect the rights of its citizens abroad. The questioner posits that for U.S. citizens, the government should always be protecting their rights abroad and helping them if their property is seized or if they’re in trouble in a foreign country that it’s the U.S.’s responsibility always to protect its citizens.

A: In a sense, that’s right, but I don’t completely agree with her, ’cause I think she’s excluding the possibility, for example, that U.S. citizens are doing things that are really, really stupid. If the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, and some American decides to fly in there, or to sneak in there or whatever, I, as an American, do not want to be responsible for the action of this irresponsible individual. And they get captured by the North Koreans, and the North Koreans are doing all kinds of stuff…

I want my country engaged in activities that protect, in a sense, responsible citizens. If the government has already said, “Look, don’t go to North Korea,” and you do, I think you’re on your own. So I do think the government needs to present, in a sense, a list of countries, and what it’s willing to do given those countries. Certain countries should be off bounds for Americans in terms of government protection, where they know they’re not going to get that protection overseas.

Now, the second part of the question: she questions my arguing that the government should stand by American corporations whose property is seized overseas. She says, “Look, corporations are not individuals, and therefore, it’s not the role of government to defend them.”

So, what are corporations? This brings up a much bigger question. Corporations are just legal entities owned by individuals. So what’s the difference between a corporation and a self-proprietorship? If I have a business, and I own 100% of it, and I’m a U.S. citizen, and in the context of me running this business, the business opens up operations in Brazil, and I get tangled in some issue with the Brazilian government, is it the responsibility of the U.S. government to protect me? Well, I think she would say, “Yes, you’re a U.S. citizen. Even though it’s this business entity that’s in trouble, it’s 100% owned by you; therefore, it’s okay.”

But now we have a corporation, and the corporation is owned by a hundred different American citizens, or a thousand different American citizens, or a million different American citizens—it doesn’t matter. As an American corporation—the corporation is just a legal construct, but all it represents is the fact that it has lots of owners.

Now, here I’m not going to address all the issues of limited liability and so on; I’ve done that elsewhere. You can also get my course on the corporation from the Ayn Rand Institute eStore, where I delve into those. But here, just in the sense of protecting rights overseas, when you’re protecting the “rights” of a corporation, all you’re doing is protecting the rights of its owners. And its owners are—now, I’m assuming it’s an American corporation; therefore, its owners are Americans.

So, no, absolutely corporations’ property should be protected overseas by the U.S. government if it’s an American corporation owned by Americans. Your rights don’t end as an individual when you form a business with a bunch of other individuals, and form it in a legal way that’s called a corporation. We have to get rid of this whole animosity towards corporations that exists among so many people in the free-market world.

The same is true of free speech: it’s not that corporations have free speech; it’s that the individuals who own the corporations have free speech. Therefore, all the corporation is doing when it speaks is speaking for the owners. So, when we apply free speech principals to the corporation, it’s just extending the free speech rights that are with their owners to this legal construct. It’s the owners who have the rights, and through them, the corporation has rights. But again, a corporation is not an individual; it’s a legal entity which is owned by individuals, and those individuals’ rights don’t go away ’cause they formed this legal entity.

Boiled down to its essentials, the question is this: if an American citizen breaks a law overseas, is it the obligation of the American government to protect their rights? Brook’s answer is basically, “Yes,” with some conditions. For those unfamiliar with or confused by the Objectivist perspective on the role of government, answering “Yes” under any circumstances should be regarded as, at the very least, slightly insane.

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Yaron Brook’s Lord of Illusions

I told myself I was going to shut up about Yaron fucking Brook, but the son of a bitch decided to flat-out lie in the February 16th podcast.

There’s no purpose in quoting the entire Q&A. The questioner, dumb as a bag of hammers, suggested that American cities have a dearth of public parks (making the baffling statement, assuming Brook is directly quoting the question, that “there are no urban parks in America, with the exception of Central Park and maybe Golden Gate”), especially when compared to “socialist” countries in Europe. The questioner considers this “a clear failure of capitalist thinking.”

Admittedly, Brook has a habit of mangling questions in attempts to paraphrase them, but here it sounded a lot like he read the majority of the question verbatim; it’s just that the question doesn’t make sense. I’ve never been to Europe, but I have lived in two of the biggest cities in this country, and it’s hard not to find parks. The Chicago Park District lists 596 parks, which excludes beaches. Many of them probably aren’t more than a city block, but there’s still Grant Park, Lincoln Park (which is significantly larger than Central Park), Jackson Park, Burnham Park… Los Angeles, of course, has Griffith Park, which is over five times the size of Central Park. That’s not even getting into forest preserves, state parks, national parks, and the wide open spaces a stone’s throw away from every American city.

More importantly, city parks are a feature of urban planning. In other words: a function of government. Even if the claim that there “are no urban parks” was true, even if it was true that American cities have fewer parks and/or smaller parks than European cities (and it may be; I don’t care enough to research the comparison), how is it a failure of capitalist thinking when it’s not up to private enterprise to fund, build, and maintain parks?

That’s what leads to Brook’s lie. He latched onto the questioner’s mention of Central Park and makes the outrageous claim that “Central Park was established by local businessmen [not true]. It was a private park [not true], established by private people [not true], on private land [not true]. It wasn’t established through so-called ‘urban planning’ [not true].”

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Idiot: The Life and Times of Reza Aslan — Part I: An Unexpected Journey

A Note to Readers: I’ve decided to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring Reza Aslan’s intellectual dishonesty. This is part one of four.

About a year ago—maybe a little more—I was nearing the end of my manuscript when I decided to do some research into Islam. I wanted to be fair, since the book spends so much time criticizing Judaism and Christianity. One of the characters is an atheist Pakistani woman, driven to her rejection of religion because of her mistreatment as a woman based on religious premises. I knew enough about Islam and Pakistani society to think it would be plausible for a very intelligent, perceptive woman to cut through the bullshit and reject its root cause…but I skirted around the specifics. For one thing, I didn’t know very much about it, so I wanted to avoid potential criticism based on my own ignorance.

More importantly, I was a total wuss. I knew Salman Rushdie had gone into hiding for years, I knew that attempts had been made on the lives of some Danish chuckleheads based on a dumb cartoon, and I knew that Theo Van Gogh was shot in the street like a dog for making a film critical of treatment of women in the Middle East. Isn’t it weird, by the way, that I have no fears revolving around what amounts to an attack of religion in general, and Judaism and Christianity in particular? But when I even contemplate the idea of bringing in the third Abrahamic religion (which is, specifically, why I chose to give one of the characters a background in an Islamic family in a Middle Eastern country), I’m terrified of getting too specific in my critiques or condemnations. Is that a problem with me, or with something else…?

At any rate, when I decided I should do some cursory research, one name popped into my head: Reza Aslan. It was possibly subconscious, because his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth had been released the previous summer. This might come across to some as hard to believe, but while I was writing Overzealous during 2013 and 2014, I pretty much lived life in a news vacuum. I knew nothing about what was going on in the world, hadn’t heard about Aslan’s infamous Fox News interview or the stupid controversy surrounding a Muslim author daring to write a book about Jesus. When I say it may have been subconscious, it’s because, despite my self-imposed ignorance, those things still happened, and I may have had some dim awareness that had put Aslan back on my mental radar.

Consciously, though, I thought of Aslan because he had a memorable interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart while promoting his previous book, No god but God, in 2006. He was very charming, he trotted out his exaggerated academic bona fides, and he specifically pitched the book as a history of Islam accessible to naïve Westerners like myself. Now that Aslan has been on my radar for awhile, I know he’s known (to me, at least) for dishonesty and pretzel logic; I haven’t gone back to rewatch the interview, so I can’t say that he claimed it was an objective history of Islam. Regardless, I had that impression when I remembered him eight years later.

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Idiot: The Life and Times of Reza Aslan — Part II: The Apologist

A Note to Readers: I’ve decided to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring Reza Aslan’s intellectual dishonesty. This is part two of four. Read part one here.

When I finished the book, I wished I had been able to get into that course in Middle Eastern history (from 622-present) back in college. Focusing much of the book on the early foundational history of Islam, Aslan left me feeling that I knew what Muslims believed their history to be, which as he says is “indispensable and historically valuable.”4 But is it true? Aslan’s book, riddled as it is with pretzel logic, contradictions, and outright lies, gave an overview that left me with as many questions as answers.

Why, for instance, was Aslan so hellbent on making the argument that Muhammad must have been literate5, and later that he was a brilliant intellectual leader6 and social reformer7 (claiming that pretty much every idea expressed in the Qur’an was a needed move toward something that sounds a lot more like a westernized liberal Utopia of the present than anything resembling seventh-century Arabia, requiring him to upsell the rights of women8 and religious opponents9 while downplaying unsavory aspects like slavery10 and destruction of non-dhimmi enemies11)? Why did he try really, really hard to downplay Muhammad’s military career12 (by suggesting, for instance, that Muhammad’s frequent caravan raids were “in no way considered stealing… there was no need for retribution”13)? Why does he downplay the jizyah as a “special ‘protection tax’… that allowed Jews and Christians both religious autonomy and the opportunity to share in the social and economic institutions of the Muslim world”14? (I mean, that sounds pretty cool until you read about the jizyah in the Qur’an and hadith15.) Why, especially, did he flat-out lie about Muhammad’s union with Aisha (most reliable hadith give her age of marriage as six, and they all give the age of consummation as nine16, 17, 18; Aslan claims they were “betrothed” at nine, but “Aisha did not consummate her marriage to Muhammad until after reaching puberty,” which is not backed up by anything—and is never mentioned in his half-hearted endnotes)19? (Aslan also downplays the epidemic of female genital mutilation in Muslim-dominated countries; all of this would lead me to question his true feelings about women and female equality, except he’s generally full of shit, so there’s little point in speculating on a deeper meaning.)

I will give Aslan credit for one thing: No god but God gave me a nice launching pad to perform actual research. His book filled me with so many questions, and such an intense desire to understand the obvious obfuscation, that I was able to dig in and find much more scholarly sources on Islamic history.

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Idiot: The Life and Times of Reza Aslan — Part III: Overzealous

A Note to Readers: I’ve decided to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring Reza Aslan’s intellectual dishonesty. This is part three of four. Read parts one and two.

At the risk of sounding like I’m jumping on the right-wing “How dare a Muslim write a book on Christianity” bandwagon, let me be clear for those who haven’t read my other yammerings: I am an atheist. I’m not what Aslan and others call a “New Atheist,”22 nor am I “anti-theist.”23 People can believe what they want to believe; they can even yammer ceaselessly about it (I know I do). But if they can believe what they want to, then I can believe it’s really, really stupid. You know, like anyone who learns I admire Ayn Rand’s work may assume I’m really, really stupid. That’s what “tolerance” actually means, incidentally; it’s not a requirement to respect or revere others’ belief systems. Sometimes, the things others think are really, really stupid help an individual; as long as it doesn’t cause that individual to hurt others, I’m all for it, no matter how stupid I personally think it is. What does my opinion matter if it helps them?

But it’s the “hurting others” aspect that first made me question religion. A great deal of research has shown me that it’s not for me. At all. But I’m cool with religious people, except for two types that really bug me: first, the ones who use God to justify hurting people (I’m not just talking physically: emotionally, spiritually, financially); second, the ones who have made it their mission to convince everyone that their religion is great. Aslan falls into the latter category, vigorously arguing in favor of religion in general and Islam in particular.

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Idiot: The Life and Times of Reza Aslan — Part IV: “What You Bring to It”

A Note to Readers: I’ve decided to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring Reza Aslan’s intellectual dishonesty. This is part four of four. Read parts one, two, and three.

If strong faith and an emphasis on scriptural doctrine and traditional dogma change a person’s views, isn’t it also possible that even someone with a very moderate or even non-practicing relationship with religion might still be impacted by the tenets of their religion? A liberal, progressive Muslim like Reza Aslan might, for example, say, “In France, there is no limitation [on what you can and cannot say about oppressed or minority classes], particularly with regard to religion and race. And I think Charlie Hebdo was representative of this distinctly French value, and an argument that unless you agree with that value, well, then, you are not really French.” There’s actually no “might” about this: Reza Aslan, “scholar of religions,” did indeed claim that freedom of speech is a “distinctly French value” and implies that the right to free speech is what led some idiots to kill some old men for drawing cartoons. Somebody who tries very, very hard to paint an ancient religion with a brush of modern, progressive, egalitarian, multiculturalist politics implicitly argues that First Amendment rights ought to be limited in order to prevent the “clash of civilizations” that is hurting Muslims’ feelings.30 Isn’t it probable that such an idiotic comment could have only been uttered by someone who believes just the tiniest bit in the Islamic faith, as opposed to Catholicism or Judaism or anything else? And if Islam is the faith, don’t the specifics of the “symbols and metaphors,” then, have at least the tiniest bit of relevance in discussions of religious differences, especially when it leads to violence?

I think the effect religion has had on the world is a mixed bag: some good things, some bad things. What bothers me about it, in general, is the fact that all that nasty stuff that Aslan thinks people (both believers and nonbelievers) misunderstand, misinterpret, or take too literally is still there, whether he likes it or not. In his New York Times piece, he claims that the rampant contradictions of religious texts are actually a virtue, allowing it “to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires.” He then follows this with specific contradictory quotes from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an.31

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