New Face on Objectivist Flagbearers

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