New Face on Objectivist Flagbearers

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Yaron
Brook’s speech u2018Why We Are Losing the War' at GA Tech, March 17,
2005

Last
week I had the opportunity to see Yaron Brook speak. Dr. Brook recently
became president of the Ayn Rand Institute, succeeding Leonard Peikoff
as head of the u2018orthodox' Objectivist organization. I had previously
seen Yaron on a December
2004 O'Reilly Factor appearance
, which was frankly quite disturbing.
He called for increased brutality in Iraq and u2018[turning] Fallujah
into dust'; almost unbelievably Bill O'Reilly ended up coming across
as the voice of reason. I could not comprehend how someone advocating
actions so at odds with Objectivist ethics could now be at the helm
of the most definitive Objectivist organization. Still, to see him
speak seemed a good chance for this Objectivist to see 1) is Yaron
really as crazy about war as he seems? 2) is he at least solid elsewhere,
and 3) could new ARI leadership mean more tolerance of other schismed
Objectivist groups or libertarians? Armed with expectations set
very low, I decided to attend his speech, on why America is losing
the war on terror.

Speech
starting on a high note

Though
initially primed to hear a pro-war spiel that would make Rumsfeld
blush, I was somewhat taken aback by Yaron's introduction and first
points. He began with the clarification that u2018War on Terror' or
even u2018War on Terrorism' misrepresent the struggle and that a war
must be on people, not tactics. Though this idea is not original,
it was encouraging to see Dr. Brook starting out going somewhere
on the right foot. He then claimed the conflict was crippled by
not naming the enemy — Islamic fanaticism (and to Yaron's credit,
he never wielded the buzzword u2018Islamofascism'). He explained the
obvious relation between fanatical Islam and large terrorist acts
of the past few decades, as well as the dangers of a fundamentalist
religious philosophy which celebrates sacrifice, and spurns reason
and individualism. By not naming the enemy, foreign policy would
be misdirected; his assessment viewed Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah
and remnants of al Qaeda and Taliban as the real enemies. Also domestic
policies such as increased airport security measures would not only
be invasive but worthless if profiling was forbidden, treating a
grandmother as equal a threat as a 20-year-old male Muslim.

Yaron
also proclaimed moral relativism being widely taught prevents Americans
from feeling they are more moral than the terrorists. Though the
conclusion seems extreme when concerning Americans in general instead
of just a small ivory-tower subset, he kept emphasizing how losing
the war of ideas in universities was a key problem, and addressing
it definitely a focus of his and the ARI. Objectivists should emphasize
spreading the ethical justification for life, liberty and pursuit
of happiness to counter the evil influences prevalent in modern
academia. His example of Ward Churchill is legitimate in saying
that at least one person regards average Americans as no better
than terrorists. There probably are a few others in the same camp
as Churchill, but I daresay he is hardly representative of Americans
at large, or that even the average college student after four years
of a liberal-biased liberal-arts education would think of the WTC
victims as u2018little Eichmanns'. Some exaggeration aside, Yaron's
point that formal education works to create a moral vacuum and poses
a real threat to reason and laissez-faire still strikes as valid.

Root
(singular) of Islamic terrorism

Up
to this point, the new ARI president was pleasantly surprising —
no promotion of violence, and he had actually presented several
valid points. An oversimplified view of why terrorists attacked
the US, however, began a slide downhill. Per Yaron, the fanatics
attacked in Tanzania, WTC'93, 9/11, etc. because the US represents
the antithesis of Islamic fundamentalism — it was founded in the
Enlightenment and emphasized individualism, reason, life, liberty,
property and the pursuit of happiness. While this did not impress
me as a very probing investigation into the cause of the attacks,
it was somehow refreshing compared to the simple refrain heard all
too often — u2018they attacked us because we're free'.

Dr.
Brook gave his synopsis of Islamic terrorism, beginning about fifty
years ago (though not considering why that timeframe may have been
significant). He gave examples of ham-handed or counterproductive
US responses to terrorism, setting himself clearly apart from neoconservatives
by criticizing Reagan at least as harshly as Carter or Clinton.
However, he only recognized terrorist acts and immediate responses.
Any other US involvement in the Middle East for the past half century
such as sponsorship of Israel, the Shah, aiding Hussein, shooting
down a 290-passenger jetliner, or a long-lasting embargo on Iraq
are absent from Yaron's u2018why would terrorists attack us?' equation.
Likewise, motives explicitly stated by the murderers themselves
such as Yusef or Bin Laden were ignored. Yaron made it clear he
did not want such ideas to be considered either.

If
I pickpocket you, and you retaliate by beating my child to a pulp,
there's obviously a world of difference between saying my unjust
action motivated yours versus my unjust action justified
yours. Pro-war pundits often are either unaware of – or actively
evade – this difference, preferring instead to consider any inquiry
into whether US foreign policy motivates terrorism as intrinsically
justifying and legitimizing the terrorists. To anyone who grasps
this simple difference, however, it's clear that there exists no
contradiction in both questioning some actions the US should not
have done anyway and which may have triggered a Muslim terrorist
response, and also condemning the immoral, treacherous and completely
unjustifiable actions taken by the terrorists. Unfortunately, Yaron
Brook seems to take the common nationalist route here, regarding
any concern about unjust US foreign policy actions as being an attempt
to put Americans on par with or below the terrorists, Ward Churchill
style. I do not doubt that many Islamic fundamentalists do hate
the positive principals on which the USA was founded and even hate
modern Americans they see as embodying those ideals. It just hardly
seems intellectually thorough to stop there, claiming that that
alone must suffice to explain why 19 murderers were so eager to
harm us that they were willing to train for years and kill themselves
to do so.

Yaron
Brook's prescription for the Middle East

Dr.
Brook baited the audience to ask about his exit strategy from Iraq,
which obligingly someone asked as the first question of the Q&A.
I added, only half-jokingly, u2018East or south?' Here we heard the
overview of his military plan for the Middle East, beginning with
Iraq where the majority of troops are:

  1. Choose
    one Iraqi city other than Fallujah. Level it with all civilians
    inside to serve as an example to those who had killed occupation
    troops.
  2. Troops
    leave Iraq to the east — i.e., invading Iran.
  3. Destroy
    Tehran — choice of conventional or nuclear means to be determined
    by whichever is deemed preferable by military tacticians.
  4. Destroy
    any infrastructure — power grids, water supplies, communications,
    roads — in the remainder of Iran. Yaron actually referred to
    this as a u2018Sherman's march' — nothing like a William Tecumseh
    Sherman reference to help bring things home to your Atlanta
    audience. Ironically, he described this as not killing civilians
    — though presumably he'd advocate killing any who resisted,
    happened to be on the roads at the time, etc. and obviously
    is attempting to blank-out the widespread death from famine
    and pestilence that would result.
  5. Put in
    power a pro-American leader from within Iran, or from outside
    if no local is deemed appropriate. Leave troops in Iran only
    to occupy the oil fields.
  6. Enter
    Afghanistan, conducting a serious hunt-and-kill search for Osama
    and other remnants of al Qaeda.
  7. If Osama
    or other key al Qaeda leaders are not found, continue number
    6 in Pakistan.
  8. Saudi
    Arabia and anyone else currently in bed with Islamic fanatics
    will be so intimidated by the examples made of Iraq and Iran
    that they'll cease tolerance of terrorism and purge themselves
    of any fanatics.

There
were a couple good ideas in there, starting only at Afghanistan
which is what action arguably made sense three and a half years
ago and which does not involve targeting civilians. However, the
Iraq and Iran steps unfortunately clearly answered my first question
about attending the speech — yes, Yaron Brook advocates intentionally
killing civilians. An audience member actually asked him to clarify
concerning leveling an Iraqi city — did he really mean to justify
killing all the inhabitants? Yaron replied that this would be moral
since the entire population was collectively guilty for not stopping
the insurgency. He did add as an afterthought that small children
would not be guilty, so you may feel sad about killing them, but
even that was no reason not to do so. With his statements, Dr. Brook
had clarified his departure from Objectivist ethics. Those familiar
with Objectivism know that the philosophy embraces individualism,
and abhors u2018collectivism', which refers not only to systems of wealth
redistribution, but to any invalid treatment of a collective as
primary, ignoring or subjugating the traits of individuals — e.g.,
as Ayn Rand condemned racism as a form of collectivism. Further,
Objectivist ethics recognizes the initiation of force as always
an immoral action, but the retaliatory use of force as just; these
concepts of course pertain to individuals, and become meaningless
or contradictory to attempt to apply to collectives. Yaron's plan
condoned both collective guilt and the vast initiation of force
against individuals. It was very disappointing to confirm the head
of the flagship Objectivist organization holds such radical and
deadly departures from Objectivist ethics.

Yaron
and Objectivism outside war

As
long as he stayed on topics other than waging war upon civilians,
Dr. Brook proved very solid in presenting positive Objectivist ideas.
He reaffirmed the idea held dear by anyone who values one's right
to their own life that a draft was not only unnecessary, but unjustifiable.
He argued against economic sanctions, and spent significant time
speaking of the example of China. China's relative improvements
— u2018Hong Kong conquering China instead of the other way around' —
were praised, with cautious optimism that they'll continue on the
path to more personal and economic freedom; Yaron even mused about
when he'd have to move ARI to Beijing if China and USA each continue
their respective trends. He pointed out that embargoes or other
sanctions on China would almost certainly reverse their march toward
freedom, and cause more reversion to totalitarianism.

The
focus of the ARI seems to also be in line with its president's message
concerning destructive ideas pervading the universities. They have
long promoted involvement in education such as the Fountainhead
essay contest. The emphasis seems to be growing, though, with significant
work on getting Rand books to elementary and high schools, and now
seeding universities with Objectivist professors. These methods
— ironically key methods also employed by the von Mises Institute
— do seem to be definitely a logical approach in making inroads
on an educational system generally hostile to reality, reason and
liberty. Yaron stated dramatic success in the program of getting
professorships, going from 0 five years ago, to over a half-dozen
positions now, even in some notably liberal environments (e.g.,
one in UNC Chapel Hill). He didn't mince words about the idea of
changing the existing professors; reminiscent of the frustration
of early quantum mechanics physicists with the established classical
ones, he considers current professors beyond reason, and that they
must be replaced by new blood. Dr. Brook lightheartedly referred
to himself as an u2018optimistic Objectivist' in that he thinks their
education related programs will have significant impact in only
u2018a couple generations'.

Another
beacon of hope came between the lines of what Yaron said concerning
some of his views. He openly referred several times to points where
he disagreed with other Objectivists, even on presidential candidate
endorsement or particular interventionist policies. It surprised
me to hear someone from the ARI willing to say that someone disagreeing
with them is still an Objectivist. I had not bothered arguing with
Dr. Brook about war; his Iraq and Iran decimation policies had prompted
me to put him in the special category normally reserved for people
who think the world is 6000 years old and fossils were put there
to test our faith — i.e., beyond the reach of reason. However, the
apparent tolerance of Objectivist difference in views prompted me
to compliment him on this, and inquire if it reflected a new ARI
policy of recognizing the fact that Objectivists can in fact have
rational disagreements. I did not realize that would be a sore topic;
Yaron became very defensive, and apparently took it as an attack
on ARI and Rand. He made some snide remarks likely directly at the
IOS (David Kelley's group), and eagerly clarified that the ARI would
readily still schism over anything it considered philosophical.
I suspect that even the differences Brook admitted would have been
somehow defined as philosophical ones and caused rifts in times
past, so despite his haste in defending schisms, I'm somewhat optimistic
that the group is now somewhat more accepting of reasonable differences
in views.

Surprises

Dr.
Brook referred repeatedly to himself as an isolationist, which I
found more than a little ironic given the march from the Fertile
Crescent to Pakistan which he had outlined. He did clarify several
specific scenarios, though, which at least again built the distance
between himself and neoconservatives. He'd be happy to leave the
entire Middle East u2018to rot' once he was done. Though he applauds
foreign countries overthrowing dictators he said no American should
be sent to die to make any foreigner free. He stated if South Korea
or others cannot defend themselves against aggressive neighbors,
they too can rot. Yaron opposes nation-building, spreading democracy,
and regards fear of a u2018power vacuum' as misguided; demolished and
leaderless nations should be abandoned immediately by US troops
(with apparent exceptions for oil fields). Though appalled by his
collectivist and pro-initiation-of-force notions in Iraq and Iran,
I was generally impressed by his being isolationist at least when
set beside a Wilsonian.

The
most memorable example — since it was also by far the most significant
surprise of the evening — was Yaron revealing that he even opposed
invading Iraq. Though he was glad Saddam Hussein was deposed, he
regarded it as truly the wrong war, and for the wrong reasons. He
referred to even the name u2018Operation Iraqi Freedom' as belying a
misguided altruistic nature. He even said the Iraq invasion/occupation/nation-building
may be counterproductive since he viewed the January elections as
benefiting the Muslim fanatics. I didn't think till later about
how this revelation made the first step of his Middle East march
even more nonsensical — the annihilation of a city in Iraq before
pulling out could not even be whitewashed as somehow a military
target, but only a final act of spite. However, his opposing invading
Iraq to begin with took any of us familiar with his former writings
or TV appearances off guard, and almost certainly diminished any
Iraq-centered audience opposition to the ARI leader's views.

Before
outlining his plan with all its aggression, Yaron had briefly suggested
the ethically valid tactic of assassinating specifically murderous
dictators and terrorist leaders. I'd been encouraged upon hearing
this that he might really be on the right track, but unfortunately
this sensible view was lost as noise among his later arguments for
a broad swath of civilian annihilation across Mesopotamia and Persia.

Brook
also addressed, in his own novel way, another problem facing any
Objectivist war advocate — how it could not also be an initiation
of force against American citizens due to coercive funding. His
point was that a $200B occupation of Iraq may indeed be expensive
(presumably too much to be voluntarily funded), but he never supported
that. He argued that he would have attacked Iran rather than Iraq,
and continued with the intriguing, plausibly true — and ethically
disturbing — concept that voluntary funding of his plan would be
much more likely since obliterating a nation is far, far cheaper
than occupying it. This was another case where a surprising statement
took the audience, certainly including myself, off guard and probably
staved off some sensible questioning. Again it didn't occur to me
until hours later to wonder if Yaron thought even the massive US
standing military — paying over 1,000,000 personnel, maintaining
over 10,000 nuclear warheads and 10 carrier task forces, consuming
4% of GDP — could be voluntarily supported at all.

Other
surprises came out. Bound to raise the ire of typical pro-war conservatives,
Yaron was a Kerry voter. Given his venom towards libertarians outside
the Objectivist circle, it's no surprise Badnarik didn't get Brook's
vote; likewise I'd expect him to shun the other u2018major' 3rd
party candidates such as Nader or Peroutka who were also isolationists
for various reasons. Between Kerry and Bush, he condemned the Texas
Republican's pandering to the religious right. However, his unexpected
endorsement of Kerry largely appeared to be from frustration over
Bush staying the course in Iraq — hoping perhaps Kerry would have
directed his interventionist impulses elsewhere.

Another
completely unforeseen aspect of the speech is that Yaron Brook really
is a very capable speaker. He spoke to his audience instead of down
to them, already far outshining Peikoff or some other Objectivist
speakers. He could emote rather than voicing a dead monotone, and
appeared comfortable and at times animated when speaking. Yaron
came across as approachable and fielded two hours of questions after
a one-hour presentation. Most surprisingly, a few times he even
used something all-too-rare among some Galt idolizers — humor. A
few Objectivists may consider this blasphemy, but I think the ARI
now has as its president someone with more speaking charisma than
had its namesake.

Hierarchy
of ideologies

Throughout
the speech and especially the Q&A, several intriguing points
were made about the relative merit of various ideologies. According
to Dr. Brook:

  • Islamic
    fundamentalists accept a philosophy of self-sacrifice and death,
    not living for this world.
  • Communists
    are better than Islamic fundamentalists because their atheism
    meant they lived for this life rather than an afterworld, hence
    force could intimidate them. A communist may shoot at you if
    he had no fear of reprisal, but no communist would fly himself
    into a tower.
  • Moral
    relativists such as many liberal professors are beyond reach
    — the established professors cannot be reasoned with, only replaced.
  • Christians
    (who in strict Objectivist terms also accept a philosophy of
    self-sacrifice and death, not living for this world) are well
    worth talking to and have significant hope of coming to more
    Objectivist views, since Christians also recognize that morality
    requires right and wrong.
  • Non-Objectivist
    libertarians — most of whom subscribe to either a Christian
    absolute morality including non-aggression principle, or secular
    natural-rights based ethics — are the most dangerous, opposed
    to Objectivism, worse than liberal democrats, communists, or
    even nihilists.

I
would not say Yaron necessarily has outright contradictory views
as perhaps some of these could be cleared up, but I certainly found
it amusing how his assessment of ideologies seemed to contain some
non-transitive relationships.

The
condemnation of libertarianism outside Objectivism was particularly
telling. I knew it would be naïve to think with new leadership
that the ARI would outright embrace other libertarian groups. However,
he clearly answered my question on whether they at least gave up
the peculiar inverted criticism — i.e., condemning other libertarians
as worse than communists precisely because libertarians were closer
in belief to Objectivists. From this point in this writing I will
use u2018libertarian' in Dr. Brook's sense of only referring to non-Objectivist
libertarians; this is despite the fact that — much to some Objectivists'
chagrin — the philosophy's laissez-faire capitalism squarely meets
the defining libertarian characteristics of recognizing property
rights and the non-aggression principal.

Yaron's
vitriol against libertarians was no less than from any ARI representative
past. He regarded them the enemy, worse than liberal democrats,
Christians or nihilists. He attacked two unfortunately true cases
of poor Libertarian Party political candidates — the 2002 CA gubernatorial
candidate who spat on an interviewer (and had LP endorsement dropped)
and the MT senate candidate who managed to tint his skin blue —
and held these outliers to discredit anyone libertarian. He also
knocked down one strawman — u2018communist libertarians' — an oxymoron
which I had never heard of before. It would not surprise me if someone
abuses the term u2018libertarian' in such a way, but they no more define
libertarianism than a self-proclaimed Objectivist Wiccan I knew
in college — who thought that trees have feelings and she could
see auras — defines Objectivism.

On
more philosophical grounds, Dr. Brook claimed that agreement on
ethics and politics are far less important than agreement on underlying
metaphysics and epistemology (with metaphysics as the most fundamental
level, then epistemology, ethics, politics), so the high-level-only
agreements with libertarians are superficial. I would tend to lend
this argument some credence; however Yaron himself contradicts it
in other statements. He considers moral relativist professors (i.e.,
a significant disagreement in ethics versus Objectivism) beyond
reach of rational argumentation. However, he considers Christians
(who have significant metaphysical and epistemological disagreements
with Objectivism) well worth talking to because Christians have
an absolute morality — a degree of agreement in ethics. I actually
consider his view on Christians sound, hence reject his poor conflicting
reasoning concerning libertarians.

Finally,
the ARI head made much hay of the fact that libertarianism includes
market anarchists. I regard the ancap/minarchy debate as one of
the most overblown and needlessly divisive in Objectivist and other
libertarian circles. If two people agreeing on rationality, non-initiation
of force and laissez-faire capitalism argue about a voluntarily
funded night-watchman state versus anarchocapitalism, it can only
be recognized as mental masturbation. The real challenge should
be could either of them tell us how to get from here to there! Yaron
again went against his previous point about lower branches of philosophy
being fundamentally more important, by saying that disagreement
on solely this point of politics means he could have u2018nothing in
common' with anarchocapitalists.

He
named no individuals' names when lambasting libertarians, but the
Ludwig von Mises Institute was singled out for attack — as an enemy
organization regarding Americans as worse than terrorists, and completely
opposed to Objectivism. The institute's founder is Christian and
anti-war, hence I might expect it to garner some animosity from
Dr. Brook; however, I wanted to double-check its content, the articles
the Institute has published, to see if they supported what Yaron
claimed of them. Searching www.mises.org articles for u2018terrorism'
or u2018Iraq' yielded a few articles, such as addressing the broken-window
fallacy applied to rebuilding after terrorist attacks, and that
the US should leave Iraq rather than reconstructing it and further
meddling in its economy — certainly nothing an isolationist like
Brook should take offense at. The Mises Institute's articles focus
on economic matters, from an Austrian school free-market approach.
Looking at the site this week, I find articles such as critiquing
the proposal of introducing a consumption tax, how the ADA harms
the disabled as well as the able, how Bush's u2018budget cuts' are a
myth, and celebrating the early rapid expansion of telegraphs due
to private industry. It would be interesting indeed to hear from
Dr. Brook how exactly these are completely opposed to Objectivism.

Conclusion

It
is clear the ARI now has a more dynamic leader, one who can hold
an audience's interest and deliver ideas. The growing school and
university approach to spreading Objectivism seems definitely on
the right path. Despite the discouraging ongoing intolerance of
other libertarians, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for fewer
formal rifts in Objectivism itself. Yaron's speaking ability and
eagerness to speak at live presentations and talk shows seems likely
to give it more exposure as well. The ARI president's charisma indeed
will be a double-edged sword. So disarming were his rhetoric and
the speech's surprises that I found myself having an overall good
impression of Yaron and thinking he agreed with me — and had to
remind myself that this same man had, in fact, also just advocated
a first-strike devastation of a city of twelve million. Polishing
a good presentation around on his few — but colossal — bad ideas
that diverge from Objectivist ethics could be very damaging indeed.
Yet applied to many other areas, he could be a boon to spreading
the philosophy's vital positive ideas. Despite his glaring issues,
I remain cautiously optimistic. As time passes and war fervor subsides,
the new ARI president's speaking should quickly turn instead to
those areas where he is solidly an Objectivist; if so I think he
can still be a beneficial force in promoting what really is a philosophy
of life, reality, reason and freedom.

March
30, 2005

Aaron
Bilger [send him mail]
lives in the Atlanta area, where he consults on any species of computer
software.

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