• 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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