Friday, December 09, 2005

Recent Items of Interest

Today Charles Krauthammer comes close to understanding the obvious about the Saddam Hussein trial in Iraq:

Although Hussein deserves to be shot like a dog -- or, same thing, like the Ceausescus -- we nonetheless decided to give him a trial. First, to demonstrate the moral superiority of the new Iraq as it struggles to live by the rule of law. Second, and even more important, to bear witness.
At least he agrees that Hussein "deserves to be shot like dog" -- this is something many Objectivists have understood all along. But contrary to Krauthammer's claim there's is no justification or need for demonstrating "the moral superiority of the new Iraq" and certainly not via a trial of a mass murderer. Dr. Yaron Brook at ARI states the case most clearly in a press release from December 2003:
"The values compromised or lost by going through an Iraqi trial would be far greater than anything we could possibly gain. By its nature a trial grants the defendant the presumption of innocence. With the evidence of his guilt so overwhelming, how can the Congress, the President or any honest person presume Saddam's innocence? A trial also grants the presumption that there could possibly be some sane defense of mass murder. That presumption should never be allowed. Worst of all, a trial would give Saddam a platform to address the world while under the presumption of innocence--an unconscionable concession to evil.
"Saddam is guilty of killing hundreds of American soldiers; he's guilty of initiating a war against the Kuwaitis; and he's guilty of murdering hundreds of thousands of his own people. This murderer deserves a firing squad, and the sooner the better."
Also today Caroline Click of the Jerusalem Post made this interesting point in her column "Arik and Iraq":

Quite simply the president has staked his presidency on the war in Iraq and he cannot afford to accept defeat on that battlefield. At the same time, the political weakening of the administration as a result of the unrelenting attacks on its handling of the war makes it unlikely that Bush will widen the war to include Iran and Syria (or Saudi Arabia) which serve as the principal bases for the terrorists fighting in Iraq. In the absence of a military option against any of these countries, it is difficult to believe that the Americans will be able to win the war in Iraq before the end of Bush's second term.

Bush's successor, regardless of his party affiliation, will not be personally invested in Iraq as Bush is. As a result the next American president will not be able to be counted on to see the war through to victory. In light of this, it cannot be ruled out that the US will depart from Iraq without victory.

I would have to agree that it's difficult to see how Iraq can be stabilized without initiating military action against Iran and Syria, yet I don't really see this administration doing so, unless Syria or more likely Iran provides a clear provocation. This is unfortunately necessary as our government refuses to consider all previous interaction with Iran as sufficient to justify a military intervention, even though ever since the embassy hostage taking, the Lebanese bombings of our Marine barracks and embassy in Lebanon, as well as hostage taking, the threatening of our publishers for publishing Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses", etc. it would seem we have had plenty of provocation.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Smear Followup (part 2)

(Continued from here)

Valiunas next criticises Ayn Rand's idea that "man is a being of self-made soul":
Human beings in [Rand's] view are entirely “self-made souls”: if there is no Creator, then man must be purely his own creation. But is a creature who arrives on earth through no will of his own, and whose nature, both as a human being and as an individual, is circumscribed by genetic endowment and other inscrutable strokes of fate. man is sole master of his destiny... Rand has no idea what being reasonable means, and no sense of men as creatures, each graced—whether by chance or design—with his own particular gifts, lacking others he may wish he had, and subject to all the pains of his individual nature and of human nature.
It seems Valiunas is here is taking a rather Augustinian view of man's life, or as Objectivists would term it a malevolent view. Contrary to Valiunas describes Ayn Rand does recognize that people come from different backgrounds and circumstances, as well as with different genetic endowments and this is evident in both her fiction and nonfiction. After all, she has both great and small, rich and poor, intelligent and not-so intelligent morally good and bad characters. It is also evident in her nonfiction, where she always emphasized that she is not morally demanding a certain level of intelligence but only the use of one's intelligence to one's fullest capacity.

However, she denies that one's background or genetics are fundamental to the formation of one's character, which despite Valiunas's denial to the contrary is entirely within our capacity to control and shape, so long as we are mentally free (i.e., not psychotic). Valiunas grudgingly admits that "[m]ost individuals are of course responsible for their actions," yet that rings rather hollow given his above endorsements of man's helplessness. It is rather strange to hear Conservatives sound like Liberals and in essence claim that individuals really can't help the way they are.

Valiunas concludes by criticising Ayn Rand's alleged disdain for "compassion":
As a champion of American democracy, finally, Rand is blind to the foremost democratic virtue, namely, compassion. She claims that reason scorns compassion, but that which she despises is in fact rooted in human rationality. Compassionate men of faith accept their gifts as an obligation to help others less gifted, while compassionate agnostics or atheists recognize that chance has a great deal to do with their own excellence, achievement, and prosperity, and, at best, they pity those whom fortune has not dealt with so generously.

There are of course reasonable limits to compassion: no one can be held responsible for everyone else, nearly everyone must bear some degree of responsibility for his own condition, and some individuals are so depraved by their own choices that they deserve no compassion from others. But Rand sees compassion as simply evil, an unreasonable obstacle to the pursuit of happiness by nature’s aristocrats, who owe everything to themselves and nothing to anyone else. In this sense, too, her failure as a writer and thinker is her failure as a human being, and her idea of what life should be is inimical to life itself.
Sigh...where to begin! First of all, long time readers of Miss Rand's writings will be suprised to find her described as "a champion of American democracy," given that she made quite a big deal of her advocacy of capitalism and her opposition to unlimited majority rule or "democracy." And they will be further surprised to find that her opposition to altruism turns in Valiunas's writing into opposition to "compassion" even though she was always careful to distinguish altruism from benevolence or compassion.

However, let's assume that Valiunas meant capitalism and altruism and proceed from there. Valiunas claims that compassion is "rooted in human rationality" yet his entire argument for the moral "obligation to help others less gifted" consists in the following claims.
  • Religious people will assume their good fortune is a conditional gift from God -- a gift conditioned on their sharing the gift with the less fortunate.
  • Non-religious people will assume their fortune is largely the result of luck and ought to give to less fortunate out of pity for their lack of luck.
Excuse me? This is supposed to be a rational argument? Sure, if you are willing to believe in a God, all sorts of things may follow, although what those things may be seems to be a subject that has been debated for millenia. For those of us who understand that reason and reality permit no such concept, however, pity does not usually result in moral obligations. Of course, Valiunas again backtracks somewhat arguing for "reasonable limits" on what one is obligated to give but on what basis? Aren't the Christian Saints still admired for practically giving it all to the less fortunate, up to and including their own life? Are they not according to the predominant morality, the most virtuous men that are held up as examples to emulate. Well, Valiunas does not want us to go to extremes. He seeks a compromised "compassion" where "nearly everyone must bear some degree of responsibility for his own condition."

I have to admit I'm regretting treating this "embarassing rejoinder" with as much respect as I have, as it does not deserve it. That it was published in Commentary, a magazine I used to respect is even sadder.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Smear Followup (part 1)

In the current December 2005 issue of Commentary Magazine, letters in response to Algis Valiunas's essay "Who needs Ayn Rand" from the September 2005 issue are published, as well as Valiunas's response to the letters. Unlike the original essay, the letters and Valiunas's response are available online (the letters begin on page 20 and the response follows, hat-tip HBL). As readers of this blog may remember, I wrote a long piece criticising the Valiunas essay back in September.

As already mentioned int the blog Passing Thoughts, Valiunas's response is "a truly embarassing rejoinder." It is however a good illustration how some Conservatives are simply unable to go beyond their preconceived views about Ayn Rand and their continuing stubborn refusal to take her ideas seriously.

First of all, Valiunas only concedes a single error -- "the publication date of Ayn Rand's first novel" even though numerous others have been pointed out to him in the letters preceding his response, including the fact that the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) was established in 1985, after her death, a fact he continues to ignore in his confusion of the Nathaniel Branded Institute with ARI.

But let's look at Valiunas's various attempts to criticise Rand's views. He claims:
Socrates, that paragon of reason, famously declared that he knew what he did not know; this awareness of reason’s limitations distinguishes him from those pretending to knowledge they do not actually have. Rand is one of the pretenders: she believes—never proves—that human reason can answer every question, and that indeed her own philosophy does precisely that, once and for all.
It difficult to see what Valiunas is aiming at here. Ayn Rand argued:
Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
As far as I know she did not necessarily argue that human reason can answer every question (though that may ultimately be true). At any given time many questions may be unanswered. She did argue that if there is an answer, it would have be arrived at by means of reason, since that is the way man reaches answers. She also never claimed that her own philosophy answers every question. She explicitly acknowledged philosophical problems to which Objectivism as she defined it has no detailed answer (e.g., the problem of induction). She did have many crucial and original answers to questions in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and esthetics.

Ayn Rand did have reasons and proof for the answers she gave and they are elaborated in her writings, particularly her nonfiction books Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology as well as in the various other collections of her essays and lectures. It is true that she personally did not write a single volume tome on her ideas. However, during her lifetime she did endorse a lecture course as "the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism." In addition, there has for some time now (since 1991) existed a book based on the authorized lecture course, written by the original presenter and foremost student and heir of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff. If Mr. Valiunas had been truly interested in gaining an understanding of Ayn Rand's reasoning he could have consulted any of those sources but it seems that such research would get in the way of his berating Ayn Rand for her lack of proof for her ideas.

Let's continue to review Valiunas' claims:
In fact, Rand’s reasoning is founded on the very gobbledygook of imperious sentiment that she loathes as reason’s nemesis. She cannot demonstrate by reason the non-existence of God: rather, her pride tells her there cannot be a God, for to acknowledge that a perfect Being exists would be to admit her own inferiority, something her emotional constitution makes unthinkable. So she thought—more precisely, so she felt—at the age of fifteen, when she decided she was an atheist, and, as I noted in my article, she never really refined her basic thoughts or feelings on the matter.
To begin with, it seems an elementary error of logic to demand that Rand "demonstrate by reason the non-existence of God." The onus of proof is on him who asserts the positive. It can however, be shown that the Judeo-Christian God, when desribed in the traditional terms of infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. violates all sorts of basic axioms of existence and logic that the concept simply makes no sense and therefore that cannot have an actual referent in reality. (and this was in fact done in Peikoff's authorized lectures on Objectivism). Of course, if the monotheist then chooses to redefine God, he may escape this reasoning but again, the onus of proof is on him to demonstrate the existence of God. Furthermore, to assert as a criticism that Ayn Rand "felt" that there is no God and "never really refined her thoughts or feelings" is a little disingenous. Ayn Rand refined and clarified numerous aspects of her thought, including her views on religion, as can clearly be seen if Valiunas bothered to study her intellectual development. Frankly, the issue of God is pretty basic. Valiunas, like all Conservatives, tries to pretend that having faith in God and not believing in God are equally faith-based position and thus the Conservatives's ever present assertion of "faith-in-reason" -- but the facts are otherwise. It is a rational conclusion that no evidence for God has ever been found and it is rational to conclude that an impossible of concept of God cannot exist in reality. On the other hand, it is a faith-based feeling that God exists. The two are not equivalent.
(to be continued)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Empires vs. Victory

In a fascinating article in the present issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Angelo Codevilla, one of my favorite Conservative foreign policy experts, discusses the "current eagerness in foreign-policy circles to associate empire with America" when in comes to its role and engagements abroad. In the article, Codevilla reviews several foreign policy books across the political spectrum and offers some thoughts of his own on the topic.

Codevilla argues that "[b]y the 1990s, whether anyone liked it or not, and to the surprise of all, America was the only superpower. What should America do now, and why?"
He continues by defining a "triangle" of views:
Three options, in principle, soon presented themselves, in writings by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Joshua Muravchik, and Patrick J. Buchanan. Liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., writing in Foreign Affairs ("Back to the Womb?" 1995) argued that the American people endanger the world by insisting on deciding for themselves how to deal with it. For Schlesinger, this "unilateralism" is the functional equivalent of "isolationism." Only by harnessing the American horse to the world's cart have statesmen like Franklin Roosevelt caused the country to do good rather than harm. In short, the world needs to be saved from an America that will not play its proper role.
Joshua Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership (1996) is nearly a mirror image of Schlesinger's argument. His point of departure is the same as Schlesinger's: Americans are needed in the world, but would rather live their comfortable lives "than rule—or lead—others." But note well: Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that "there is no authority higher than America…. In short, America must accept the role of world leader." He is all for "unilateralism." He wants us, unilaterally, to lead the world where we think best.
Whereas Muravchik, like Schlesinger, sees the American people's unwillingness to involve itself in other nations' affairs as a problem to be overcome, Patrick J. Buchanan's A Republic, Not An Empire (1999) sees it as the foundation of America's character and success. For Buchanan the most obvious mistakes in foreign policy are forgetting the national interest and national autonomy, as Schlesinger's internationalists do; and making commitments that one cannot, or does not intend, or does not manage to keep—the tendency of such as Muravchik.

Codevilla concludes this section with the following comment:
The issues should now be clear: Should Americans use force to defend concrete interests, or to improve foreign peoples? What warrant is there for Americans to design and implement—not merely to prefer—a grand design for the world? Whence comes America's unique strength, and for what is America fit? Official explanations have been muddled.
Just to briefly inject my own views here, I think all three points of view wrong in different ways. Schlesinger is hopelessly utopian and altruistic. He would sacrifice the interests of this country to the world. Muravchik sounds better because he is seemingly more patriotic but is in many ways equally bad since he combines his patriotism with altruism with the result that he would have the US do what Schlesinger wants to do but under our leadership rather than the UN's. Buchanan's intention with respect to "national interest" is correct but it seems that his understanding of what that interest consists of is severely flawed and that makes his stance worse than useless. What is needed is a conception of national interest guided by the rational self-interest of the individual citizens of the US.

Codevilla follows the description of the "triangle" with a few more interesting book reviews from various parts of the ideological spectrum. On the right, "Colin Gray argues that the world needs a sheriff, and that the U.S. had better be it." On the left, William Odom and Robert Dujarric maintain that the US needs an "inadvertent empire" and "above all, maintain American institutions and guard them with military power. They advise us to 'cultivate liberal institutions' as the basis for international relations." Codevilla then moves on to a book by Niall Ferguson, a British Marxist academic. Codevilla summarizes Ferguson's book thus:
This Marxist imposition of preconceived categories onto historical events passes for sophistication, and is the essence of modern "realism" in international relations. In between much filler, the book combines the three classic tenets of European anti-Americanism: (1) Americans have always exacerbated their imperial grasping by their hypocrisy; (2) Americans are insufficiently experienced in hypocrisy and must learn it from the masters; and (3) Americans are both stupid and on the wrong side of things, and deserve the troubles they bring on themselves. These points were as familiar to John Quincy Adams as to readers of 20th-century Communist propaganda or today's European media.
Finally, Codevilla concludes with Ivan Leland, a Libertarian, and as we all should know, Libertarian foreign policy views are at times, indistinguishable from the far left. Codevilla explains:
...Eland goes on to blame American imperialism, and especially America's friendship with Israel, for the fact that Arabs kill Americans. In fact, his answer for every actual or possible controversy with foreigners is to blame America, and then advise us to give in. In practice, there are no interests to defend, and America never has justice on its side—only a gross and illegitimate hunger for empire.
Codevilla's own thoughts are far more in line with my own. Here's a good excerpt, the last sentence of which is my favorite line in the entire article:

All agree that the American people want no part of empire. But great power (so goes the near-consensus) requires exercising imperial responsibility. If the great power shuns responsibility (for sheriffing, for doing good, for spreading liberal institutions) the world will slide into war, and the great power will lose the peace.

This makes no sense. In fact, so-called imperial America does not peacefully enjoy its core interests, never mind the peaceful control of an empire, for the simple reason that it is not making war in order to establish peace, anywhere. The main question underlying the current, surreal discussions of American empire is whether Americans should or should not get involved in quarrels that they are unwilling, or unable, to end with peace secured by war.

Power is not to be confused with empire, and empire is not to be confused with either war or peace. None of the above is to be confused with success. Not all great powers, or even imperial powers, confuse war and peace. The Roman republicans who built the great empire, Livy tells us, made their wars "big and short." Then they had peace as they wanted. Dead enemies are the firm foundations of peace.[emphasis added, G.R.]

And of course, putting the last sentence into effect heavily depends on understanding who one's enemies are. I can't help but quote more to drive the point home:
The sharp distinction between peace and war is peculiar, indeed—to successful powers. It is the essence of statesmanship. It certainly was characteristic of American statesmanship during the 18th and 19th centuries. George Washington's maxims, at once to "observe good faith and justice toward all nations," to "cultivate peace and harmony with all," and to "prepare for war" in order to earn peace, were hardly original. By contrast, the progressive notion (endorsed by Elihu Root, Nicholas Murray Butler, David Starr Jordan, and Woodrow Wilson, among others) that war could be abolished by reforming foreign governments and by collectively guarding the peace was very original. Wilson argued that reform and guardianship would eliminate the need for force amounting to war. He promised disarmament. His opponents countered that widespread meddling and commitments guaranteed war, and that disarmament guaranteed defeat. "Speak softy and carry a big stick," called the Rooseveltians. But Wilsonians abjured sticks, and spoke loudly. Traditional statesmanship won the 1920 elections. Confusion between war, peace, and "involvement" won the hearts and minds of American elites for three generations. America has had little peace since.
Lest I be misunderstood, I have to say that there are definitely some parts of the Codevilla's article that I find questionable. Here are some examples. In reviewing the Odom & Dujarric book, Codevilla writes that "[t]he book grasps at least one aspect of America's uniqueness: liberalism in its original sense. It stems from medieval feudalism: the absence of "such things as independent public rights," coupled with the absolute importance of religious conscience." [emphasis added] I am not so much bothered by the notion of "religious conscience" (though I disagree with that as well) as by the idea that liberalism somehow stems from medieval feudalism. I am frankly unclear to what Codevilla is referring but liberalism (in its proper 19th century sense) stems from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and has little to do with the feudal mentality.

Also, nowhere in the entire article, does Codevilla mention Iran, which, ever since the 1979 revolution, plays the starring role in terrorism. Codevilla has said elsewhere that "Iran is a problem that's on the way to solving itself." That was in December 2001. Since then it seems our problems with Iran have only grown and in fact it is now known that Iran has facilitated Al Qaida's attacks on us and the British in Iraq.

But these criticism aside, there's much to be gained by paying careful attention to the ideas in this article, particularly the last section. Codevilla understands what it would take to win this war. I hope for our sake that eventually we all do. I'll leave you with Codevilla's concluding paragraphs:

President Bush's reaction to the events of September 11 further muddied America's understanding of our relationship with the world. He could have addressed the fact that Arabs had struck America on behalf of causes espoused, and embodied, by a number of Arab regimes. He could have declared that in doing so these regimes had put themselves in a state of war with the American people—and he could have proceeded to undo our foes, regime by regime. That war would have left many enemies dead and many potential ones eager to avoid the experience. That, and that alone, is true peace.

Instead, President Bush deferred to parts of what some might call the U.S. government's "imperial infrastructure," the State Department and CIA, which have long-standing stakes in many Arab regimes, e.g., Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority. He absolved the regimes of responsibility, and proclaimed war on an abstract noun, "terrorism," to achieve some indeterminate global effect. In pursuit of this so-called war, he has raised America's rhetoric, profile, and presence around the world, harming many who do not count and killing few who do. Occupations are not wars. Criminal investigations are not wars. Democracy-building and nation-building campaigns are not wars. Unlike wars, they do not produce victory, nor its offspring, peace.

The United States is not at peace, and it is not making war. To this extent alone the accusation of empire—the dawdling kind that wastes its core resources—sticks. If we continue to trifle with empire rather than establishing peace, we shall reap stalemate, retreat, and the domestic strife that is empire's bitterest consequence.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Judeo-Christian Illusions

In Dennis Prager's latest column in his series defending "Judeo-Christian values," Prager argues that
The cultural civil war in which America is engaged is, in large measure, about American exceptionalism. Conservative America generally believes in the concept; liberal America generally finds it chauvinistic and dangerous.
I'm certainly sympathetic to the Conservative side of this debate, or perhaps more accurately, I'm vastly more opposed to the Liberals on this than to the Conservatives, even if I do find American moral judgment at times inadequately "chauvinistic". What prompted me to write about this column however is not its main topic but a throwaway line at the end of the column in which Prager notes that
Too bad more Europeans did not place a Judeo-Christian morality above secular law. There would not have been a Holocaust.
I have no problem with the fundamental principle involved here, namely that the moral and legal are separate domains and that there are clearly times when the legal code of a given locality is morally wrong and therefore, morally, ought to be opposed, sometimes even violently opposed. That is after all, the point of the Declaration of Independence which essentially argued that a legal authority can and ought to be changed if it violates the higher moral law.

My issue is with the claim that specifically a greater allegiance to "Judeo-Christian morality" would have provided the necessary resistance to the goals of the Nazis and thus prevented another Holocaust. If "Judeo-Christian morality" is to have an influence in the culture, it would have to be through its two main component religions, namely Judaism and Christianity, and of the two Christianity would be the more important since to the extent that Europe was religious on the eve of WWII, it was Catholic or Protestant. Judaism, only recently emancipated, did not, I dare say, play a significant role in shaping the ideas of most Europeans.

Let's assume the following assumptions of Prager are true: That Europe was largely secular on the eve of WWII and that a greater allegiance to "Judeo-Christian values" would have stopped the Nazis. Well, if the representatives of "Judeo-Christian values" in Europe were the Christian clergy, whether Catholic or Protestant, then we would expect them to be the centers of opposition to Nazism. We would expect them to have been the voices in the wilderness opposing the Nazis in the name of "Judeo-Christian values" that they support. What is the historical record?

Mixed, at best, as it turns out. Paul Johnson's History of Christianity is instructive in this respect. On the Catholic attitude toward Hitler he writes:
...Catholics felt no loyalty to Weimar; it was not 'nationalist' enough. And towards Hitler, who was, they were ambivalent. It is true that some bishops were initially hostile to the Nazis...In any case some of the Bishops refused to take a stand against the Nazis, and especially against Hitler, who was becoming increasingly popular...The fact is that most of the bishops were monarchists. They hated liberalism and democracy much more than they hated Hitler...Moreover once Hitler attained power, German Catholicism dropped its 'negative' attitude and assumed a posture of active support. This was carried through by the bishops as early as 28 March 1933, on a firm indication from Rome (advised by Pacelli) that there would be no Vatican support for a policy of opposition.

There's more that could be said and interested readers can read some of the details of Catholic response to Hitler in Johnson's book. Turning now to the Protestants, Johnson informs us that
...if the Catholic attitude toward Hitler was apprehensive and pusillanimous, many of the Protestant clergy were enthusiastic. The collapse of 1918 and the end of the Protestant monarchy had been a disaster for the Lutherans...most Lutherans were afraid their church would collapse once state support was completely removed. So they hated Weimar...Some of them, therefore, looked on Hitler and his movement as saviours.
Johnson also details various attempts by Lutherans to remove "the Jewish background to Christianity." The Lutherans, apparently, would resist any description of their values as "Judeo-Christian."

Nevertheless, even if we grant that much of what passes for Christianity at that time was hypocritical, it remains true that for a large number (the majority?) of devout Christians, Nazism presented little or no moral difficulty. Perhaps Prager should keep that in mind the next time he argues that that an increase in religious values can protect us from the evils of this world.

Monday, October 31, 2005


The connection between Iran and Al Qaida continues to be largely ignored even while the more intelligent observers such as Michael Ledeen attempt to draw attention to it. Of course, some people such as Leonard Peikoff have pointed out for some time that
Iran--not Iraq--is the primary threat to American interest in the Middle East and has been since it confiscated our oil fields in the 1950s. Iran is the major sponsor of international terrorism throughout the world and is the country most responsible for lethal attacks on American citizens. For these reasons, Iran fully deserves bloody retribution.
(from a 1997 op-ed). Peikoff
Meanwhile, while we continue to be engaged in Iraq, despite some calls for a larger military force, I have always been of the amateur opinion that what we lack in Iraq is not numbers but ruthlessness. While this article by an Army Officer on patrol in Iraq does not argue exactly what I had in mind, it does make the following relevant point
It is disappointing that intelligent people who are well versed in military affairs are capable of seeing a forest but fail to recognize that it is composed of trees, with some trees bearing more fruit than others. To put it in less abstract terms, we have enough troops in Iraq, but far too few of them are engaged in hunting down our enemies and training our Iraqi allies. Rather than maximizing the number of soldiers in Iraq, we should be focusing on maximizing the effectiveness of the soldiers who are already there.
The officer goes on to explain that
The so-called "tooth to tail" ratio is an issue that the military has always struggled to keep the lid on. Unfortunately, the lid is gone and the problem is out of control. Our tail is far too large and our teeth are far too small. Until we fix this, our problems will continue. We will continue to be frustrated by effectiveness well below our potential or we will pursue an economically unsustainable troop buildup. Neither is acceptable. We have more than enough troops in Iraq. We can and must use them more effectively.
And the last point certainly seems more in line with what I would like to see and would actually eliminate any talk of drafts or even recruitment targets.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Optimistic View

Having recently discussed some of the more pessimistic views on the present war, it behooves me to acknowledge that reasonable people have offered an alternative assessment of the conflict in general and the situation in Iraq in particular.

Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the October 27 New York Times claims:
AS the aggregate number of American military fatalities in Iraq has crept up over the past 13 months - from 1,000 to 1,500 dead, and now to 2,000 - public support for the war has commensurately declined. With the nightly ghoulish news of improvised explosives and suicide bombers, Americans perhaps do not appreciate that the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the effort to establish a democratic government in Iraq have been accomplished at relatively moderate cost - two-thirds of the civilian fatalities incurred four years ago on the first day of the war against terrorism.
and adds

Compared with Iraq, America lost almost 17 times more dead in Korea, and 29 times more again in Vietnam - in neither case defeating our enemies nor establishing democracy in a communist north.

Contemporary critics understandably lament our fourth year of war since Sept. 11 in terms of not achieving a victory like World War II in a similar stretch of time. But that is to forget the horrendous nature of such comparison when we remember that America lost 400,000 dead overseas at a time when the country was about half its present size.

Elsewhere, Hanson has written that

The United States military ousted Saddam Hussein from power in three weeks — in an effort designed to liberate Iraqis rather than aimed punitively against an entire nation. Some observers, however, on the eve of the war predicted a protracted effort to remove Saddam. Later, during the war itself, they warned further that we were supposedly bogged down in a sandstorm on the way to Baghdad.

In the ensuing 30 months, despite hundreds of horrific deaths and thousands of wounded, the military has never lost a single engagement with the terrorists. It has trained hundreds of thousands of Iraqi police and military units, and, now, with last week’s election, seen its hard work pay off in the ratification of the constitution. More parliamentary elections are slated for December.

Such relative optimism is not limited to conservatives such as Dr. Hanson. Objectivists associated with The Intellectual Activist, including Robert Tracinski and Jack Wakeland have argued along similar lines, most recently in a series of articles in TIA daily entitled "Iraq War Casualties" written by Jack Wakeland. After making similar comparison of American casualties to past wars, Mr. Wakeland writes
The good news about the war in Iraq is that it is Islamist militiamen, not American troops, who are taking losses approaching a debilitating rate.

How many of the enemy have we killed? American-led coalition forces have killed more than 15,000 enemy combatants, over 7,000 after the "End of Major Combat." (U.S. forces have accidentally killed about 8,000 Iraqi civilians.)

We have probably killed about 15% to 20% of all those who have taken up arms against us since the guerrilla war started. Another 15% or 20% have been captured, including many top leaders. Coalition forces have killed or captured at least 44 Baathists from the deck of 52, including Saddam Hussein and his two sons. About three quarters of the 10,000 Iraqis incarcerated in coalition-run prisons are insurgents. This includes more than 340 foreign terrorists who vowed to die in jihad, fighting.
Mr. Wakeland continues
Over the past 13 months, the insurgency has been damaged from Baghdad to Mosul, up and down the Euphrates from Fallujah to the Syrian border, and across the deserts of Anbar Province. It has been damaged to the point that American and Iraqi forces are now beginning to pick up or pick off top terrorist leaders. In the past month the enemy has lost the head of Baghdad's al Qaeda operations, their top financier in Syria, and the head of the Mujahedeen of the Victorious Sect Brigades (one of the largest of the dozen and a half major Iraqi insurgent groups, a group that has been active since June 2003).

The successful invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed the balance of power in the region, emboldening Rafik Hariri and the Lebanese to resist and then (after Hariri's assassination) to push out the Syrian occupation. The failure of the Iraqi insurgency to dislodge the United States has removed the only hope for the survival of Assad's regime. By doing the hard, bloody work American soldiers and Marines are accomplishing our nation's long-term anti-terrorism policy of moving the Arab world towards being a string of peaceful republics.
So the question remains, who is correct, the optimists or the pessimists? Since philosophy ultimately determines the course of history, the answer to this question hinges on how philosophically receptive the Arab/Islamic world and Iraq in particular is to the introduction of Western Liberal institutions such as representative government. Frankly, I remain more pessimistic because I still see the strong influence of religion and tribalism in the region, as witnessed for example in the continued hostility toward Israel. Therefore, I don't think that this experiment to create a "peaceful republic" of Iraq will succeed, at least in this generation. Of course I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Unintelligent Design

William Saletan has an excellent column in Slate on the absurdity of so-called "Intelligent Design" (ID) as an explanation of the origin of life. Here is a choice excerpt (Rothschild refers to Eric Rothschild, the lawyer opposing the school board in the Pennsylvania case, while Behe refers to Michael Behe, a proponent of ID):

Can ID make testable predictions? Not really. If we posit that a given biological system was designed, Rothschild asks, what can we infer about the designer's abilities? Just "that the designer had the ability to make the design that is under consideration," says Behe. "Beyond that, we would be extrapolating beyond the evidence." Does Behe not understand that extrapolating beyond initial evidence is exactly the job of a hypothesis? Does he not grasp the meaninglessness of saying a designer designed things that were designed?

Evidently not. "That is exactly the basis for how we detect designÂ?when we perceive the purposeful arrangement of parts," Behe declares. The essence of scienceÂ?that detection means going beyond perceptionÂ?escapes his comprehension. It also escapes his interest. He says his belief that the bacterial flagellum was intelligently designed could be tested, but he's never run the test. Why not? "I'm persuaded by the evidence that I cite in my book that this is a good explanation and that spending a lot of effort in trying to show how random mutation and natural selection could produce complex systems Â? is not real likely to be fruitful," he says. Who needs science when you've got faith?

Here's a relevant paragraph from Keith Lockitch, a Ph.D. in physics and junior fellow with the Ayn Rand Institute:
The insistence of "intelligent design" advocates that they are "agnostic regarding the source of design" is a bait-and-switch. They dangle out the groundless possibility of a "designer" who is susceptible of scientific study--in order to hide their real agenda of promoting faith in the supernatural. Their scientifically accessible "designer" is nothing more than a gateway god--metaphysical marijuana intended to draw students away from natural, scientific explanations and get them hooked on the supernatural.
The statistics regarding the U.S. public's belief in God vs. evolution betray a rather depressing ignorance of science, which was no doubt assisted by the new left's decades old assault on the foundations of scientific knowledge. Therefore it is in many ways no surprise that the public turns to religion for answers to the deepest question. They certainly won't find them from academics who claim there are no answers. But while religion may satisfy some, to anyone committed to reason and reality, religion's answers are always superficial and unsatisfying (and, needless to say, often carry with them consequences at times as oppressive on both a personal and societal level as those of the secular left). Hopefully the more rational individuals will become aware of the one alternative to both the skepticism and nihilism of the left and as well as the traditional religions: Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


I apologize for my absence. I was travelling recently and have since been quite busy at home and work.

There continues to be some fallout as the result of TV footage purporting to show American soldiers burning the remains of Taliban "fighters." I'm frankly frustrated by our continued appeasement of Moslem sensibilities. This is not a way to fight a war. My frustration is echoed in the following excellent essay by Bruce Thornton at Victor Davis Hanson's website. Here's his conclusion:
We may think we are projecting the strength of our values when we chastise our troops for sometimes resorting to unpleasant actions in order to win against a brutal enemy. But in fact, the message we send is that because we have doubts about our cause and our beliefs, we will second-guess and scrutinize our own behavior in the midst of a hard fight. Wars are ugly and cruel, as all violence is. To think that one can fight a brutal enemy within utopian parameters is to court failure and defeat. This does not mean that anything goes, obviously. But we have to be realistic about where those impassable limits lie, given the sort of irregular war being fought. We can argue about those limits later, but burning the bodies of dead murderers to my mind is a long way from actions completely out of bounds, especially if such actions will save the life of even one American and take us one step closer to achieving our goal. After all, we’ve had ample proof for decades that being nice and tolerant doesn’t cut any ice with those who fancy themselves the warriors of Allah.
All means cannot justify all ends, but some means can justify the right ends. Every war this country has fought employed terrible means that none of us would want to choose, but that were justified by the rightness and goodness of the end. If we truly believe that our goals in Iraq are just enough to kill and die for, then we should stop undercutting and second-guessing our troops in the field who are laying their lives on the line to achieve those noble ends. And if we don’t really believe in those goals enough to grit our teeth and do what must be done, as our fathers and grandfathers did in World War II, then we should pack up right now and go home.

The sentiment is also echoed at the Ayn Rand Institute where Alex Epstein argues that America's attempts to appease "Muslim opinion" are depraved and suicidal. Here's an excerpt:

So-called Muslim opinion is not the unanimous and just consensus that its seekers pretend. It is the irrational and unjust opinion of the world's worst Muslims: Islamists and their legions of "moderate" supporters and sympathizers. These people oppose us not because of any legitimate grievances against America, but because they are steeped in a fundamentalist interpretation of their religion--one that views America's freedom, prosperity, and pursuit of worldly pleasures as the height of depravity. They do not seek respect for the rights of the individual (Muslim or non-Muslim), they seek a world in which the rights of all are sacrificed to the dictates of Islam.

The proper response to Islamists and their supporters is to identify them as our ideological and political enemies--and dispense justice accordingly. In the case of our militant enemies, we must kill or demoralize them--especially those regimes that support terrorism and fuel the Islamist movement; as for the rest, we must politically ignore them and intellectually discredit them, while proudly arguing for the superiority of Americanism. Such a policy would make us safe, expose Islamic anti-Americanism as irrational and immoral, and embolden the better Muslims to support our ideals and emulate our ways.

Our war effort has certainly not been helped by the constant appeasement but I suppose to hope that the present administration will abandon it is pointless. It remains to be seen if we can win in spite of our lack of moral certainty.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Amazing (part II)

The first post in what may now turn out to be a series of posts entitled "Amazing" focused on a surprising editorial in the Los Angeles Times that blamed airline inefficiencies on government regulations. Today I noticed an editorial in the Washington Post that warns of Communists returning to power in Nicaragua and wonders why the Bush administration is not doing more about it(!). Here's how it starts:
MANY PEOPLE outside Latin America probably assume Daniel Ortega's political career ended 15 years ago when his ruinous attempt to install a Marxist dictatorship in Nicaragua ended with an election he decisively lost. The slightly better informed might suppose that his two subsequent electoral defeats, the allegations of corruption and child molestation that haunt him, or his single-digit rating in opinion polls have made him a marginal figure in Nicaraguan politics. Sadly, the truth is otherwise: Thanks to the weakness of the country's new democratic institutions, Mr. Ortega is close to regaining power and to broadening the Latin alliance of undemocratic states now composed by Cuba and Venezuela.
If true, this is indeed worrysome, particularly given the sympathy Cuba and Venezuela have had for Iran (for examples on Venezuela's contacts with Iran see here and here, for Cuba see here). The editorial details the recent machinations of Ortega and the Sandinistas to get back into power and mentions the support Chavez of Venezuela has given them. Toward the end the editors write:
Compared with Mr. Chavez's aggressive intervention, attempts by the Bush administration and other outsiders to save Nicaraguan democracy so far look feckless. The new secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, tried to broker a political compromise but pronounced himself frustrated when Mr. Ortega ignored his appeals to stop undermining Mr. Bolanos's government. The Bush administration managed to win congressional passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement this summer, but Mr. Ortega has blocked its ratification by Nicaragua.
These developments are worth watching.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Religion vs. Secularism in Society: The Consequences

It is a well known fact that Conservatives such as Dennis Prager insist that religious values are necessary for civilized society. Prager, in particular, in his "The case for Judeo-Christian values" series of columns, provides numerous examples of rather dubious moral positions supposedly the result of secular thinking (See for example here and here). On his radio show, Prager harps on Europe's moral spinelessness versus the relative moral courage of the United States to stand up against evil in the world and argues that the United States has moral clarity due to its religious values whereas Europe is morally confused due to its secularism. Furthermore, Prager and other Conservatives insist that only a return to greater adherence to religious values will solve the many domestic social ills that pervade our society such as crime and drug use.

However, a recent story in the London Times discusses an academic research paper (hat tip Paul at Noodlefood) which sheds some empirical light on the question of what exactly religious societies are like in comparison with secular ones. As discussed in the Times the research paper argues that:
RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.
Actually, the paper is a bit more cautious than that, though it does show the correlations implied. Keeping in mind that correlation does not equal causation, it seems nevertheless true that an absence of correlation would seem to be strongly suggestive of an absence of causation. The Conservative claim that religious values are necessary becomes a lot more dubious. Here's the relevant discussion from the paper itself:
If the data showed that the U.S. enjoyed higher rates of societal health than the more secular, pro-evolution democracies, then the opinion that popular belief in a creator is strongly beneficial to national cultures would be supported. Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developing democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.
And as always, it all depends on the data and here it seems that while the paper admits that the "study is a first, brief look at an important subject" and that it "is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health," the data used to establish the correlations does appear extensive.

Data sources for rates of religious belief and practice as well as acceptance of evolution are the 1993 Environment I (Bishop) and 1998 Religion II polls conducted by the International Social Survey Program (ISSP), a cross-national collaboration on social science surveys using standard methodologies that currently involves 38 nations. The last survey interviewed approximately 23,000 people in almost all (17) of the developing democracies; Portugal is also plotted as an example of a second world European democracy.
The rest of the data comes from the UN Development Programme and other sources. There is however one proviso:
Regression analyses were not executed because of the high variability of degree of correlation, because potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex, and because it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions. Nor were multivariate analyses used because they risk manipulating the data to produce errant or desired results,<5> and because the fairly consistent characteristics of the sample automatically minimizes the need to correct for external multiple factors (see further discussion below). Therefore correlations of raw data are used for this initial examination.
I'm not an expert in statistics so I'm not sure how much this undermines any of the conclusion. The paper was written by Gregory S. Paul, a researcher based in Baltimore, Maryland who does not seem to be associated with any University. It was published in the Journal of Religion and Society, "a cross-disciplinary, electronic journal published by the Rabbi Myer and Dorothy Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University."

Friday, September 30, 2005

Good News

The set of periodicals written from the perspective of Objectivism continues to increase. First there's of course Don Watkins's "online magazine for Objectivists" Axiomatic. Axiomatic will deliver "a series of articles that analyze Objectivism, apply Objectivist principles to other fields of study, or help you integrate Objectivism into your daily life." Axiomatic's first issue is premiering on tomorrow October 1. I have already paid for my 1 year subscription.

Now, I have just found out (hat tip Capitalism Magazine's blog Dollars & Crosses) that a new quarterly is in the works. The Objective Standard is "a quarterly journal of culture and politics written from the perspective that man’s life on earth is the proper standard of morality" and will provide "a rational, principled alternative to the ideas of both liberalism and conservatism." The site states that "[c]ontributing writers include Craig Biddle, Yaron Brook, Alex Epstein, Elan Journo, John Lewis, Keith Lockitch, Larry Salzman, and Lisa VanDamme." I am a big fan of quarterlies as they allow for longer in depth articles that are not spread over several issues. The Objective Standard premier issue is expected in spring 2006. I can't wait.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Today's Tidbits

I'll start today with this brief review of why there's no reason to prefer organic produce over the regular kind. The author, Tomas Brandberg, a recent Ph.D. in bioscience writes:
By most definitions an "organic" product must not contain genetically modified organisms and its production must not involve synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. We are supposed to think that organic products are healthier and also better for the environment. However, there is little evidence to support either of those claims. It is true that farmers usually depend on toxic chemical substances in order to keep insects and weeds at bay and it is likewise true that traces of some of these compounds can be found in food and also in humans. However, there is no indication that the measured levels are harmful.
In addition, Brandberg makes the point that the amount of farming land necessary for organic farming is far greater than regular farming, due to the low productivity of organic farming.

In general, I try to avoid organic foods as there's a greater chance that it contains toxic natural bacteria that are absent from regular foods, particularly if the organics are not washed properly.


At FrontpageMag, Steven Plaut writes of "[l]eftists emerging from the shadows of the American intelligence community" and weaves a depressing tale of ex-CIA operatives turning to the Anti-American and Anti-Israel right and left. He recommends Angelo Codevilla's classic Informing Statecraft, to enlighten individuals unfamiliar with the fact that the CIA has a long history of left-leaning and politically correct policies. I've read that book many years ago and can also recommend it. Codevilla is presently a senior fellow at The Claremont Institute, a Conservative think-tank.


In today's Wall Street Journal op-ed page is an important article (unfortunately its requires a subscription) by Charles Murray entitled "The Hallmark of the Underclass." Murray writes:
Watching the courage of ordinary low-income people as they deal with the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, it is hard to decide which politicians are more contemptible--Democrats who are rediscovering poverty and blaming it on George W. Bush, or Republicans who are rediscovering poverty and claiming that the government can fix it. Both sides are unwilling to face reality: We haven't rediscovered poverty, we've rediscovered the underclass; the underclass has been growing during all the years that people were ignoring it, including the Clinton years; and the programs politicians tout as solutions are a mismatch for the people who constitute the problem.
As I assume many of you remember, Charles Murray was the author of Losing Ground, a masterpiece of social science research originally published in the 1980's, that investigated the welfare state in some detail and to his great credit concluded that the best thing to do would be to abolish all welfare programs.

In his op-ed piece Murray goes on to explain that the fundamental problems of the "underclass" is not lack of resources, or opportunities, or job training but a fundamental difference in attitude. He distinguishes between people who happen to be low-income but are trying hard not to be, including "the middle-aged man working two jobs, the mother worrying about how to get her children into school in a strange city" and "the looters and thugs, and those ...women doing nothing to help themselves or their children. They are the underclass." He points out that the underclass has been growing; a fact which is evident from the statistics on criminality and illegitimacy. The prison population in 2003 was 2,086,000, the number of illegitimate births 35% for the entire population and 68% for blacks.

Murray concludes his piece by predicting the following for the aftermath of the recent hurricanes and inevitable onslaught of government programs to help them:
Five years from now, the official evaluations will report that there were no statistically significant differences between the subsequent lives of people who got the government help and the lives of people in a control group. Newspapers will not carry that story, because no one will be interested any longer. No one will be interested because we will have long since replaced the screens, and long since forgotten.
Murray is of course correct. The fundamental issue is philosophical and the people in the underclass lack the motivation to help themselves because they reject the better ideas that would support moving out of poverty. Unfortunately, the government over the last few decades has mostly reinforced the bad ideas. Conservatives frequently point to an increase in religious ideas as helpful but I think the self-abnegation that religions almost universally preach is no antidote to the irrational self-destructiveness of the underclass. Instead what they need is a philosophy that teaches rational egoism and the virtue of productiveness. Such a philosophy may be found in the works of Ayn Rand.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Around the web

  • I'm very happy to see Gus Van Horn has returned to blogging after leaving town to avoid hurricane Rita.
  • The Ayn Rand Society, "a professional society affiliated with the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division," and chaired by Dr. Allan Gotthelf, has posted an essay written by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, called "Ayn Rand and Objectivism: An Overview." The essay manages to condense a lot of technical information on Ayn Rand's ideas in a relatively small space.
  • The newly relocated blog Existence Is Identity has published a good analysis of the latest libertarian shenanigans.

I did finally finish reading Dr. Andrew Bernstein's superb The Capitalist Manifesto. I have briefly commented on it here. The book particularly excels in its historical analyses of various aspect of the pre- and post-capitalist world. For example, it analyzes in detail the idea that the Industrial Revolution led to a decrease in the standard of living of poor people and shows that the opposite is the case. This book is really a must read for anyone who wants to understand the true history of capitalism, including its intellectual origins in the Enlightenment and its materials results. The polemical sections are also a gem, as the idea that capitalism leads to imperialism, war, and slavery is thoroughly debunked. In addition, the book relies on Ayn Rand's Objectivism as a moral and philosophical framework within which to evaluate and understand capitalism. While the moral justification for capitalism will be familiar ground to Objectivists, Dr. Bernstein keeps the reader engaged with numerous concrete examples. Also, don't miss the appendix, in which the lives of the great industrialists are described in exciting detail.

Presently I am still trying to get through Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln. I am just passed the point where Lincoln got elected and the South seceded. However, war has not broken out yet. I haven't quite gotten as far in this book by now as I had hoped.

I am on the second to last chapter of The Abolition of Antitrust by Gary Hull. The book consists of a series of essays covering the economic, historical, legal, and philosophical cases for the elimination of antitrust law. Particularly noteworthy, in my opinion, was the chapter by Richard M. Salsman entitled "The False Profits of Antitrust" in which he traces the attitude of economics and economists to profits, capitalists, and entrepreneurs over the last few centuries. According to Salsman the attitude is largely negative and profits (and thus capitalists) are expected ideally not to be there. This obscene view appears to still be the norm today.

I have a long list of books to read that will follow the above. Perhaps I will detail them in a future post.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Latest Smear

While I have recently been quoted with a somewhat favorable view of the size of Commentary Magazine vs. the size of all other Objectivist publications so far published, I want to make sure that everybody reading this blog understands I am in no way endorsing the content of Commentary which is decidedly mixed and can be quite awful.

A recent example of the latter is found in an article in the September 2005 issue entitled "Who Needs Ayn Rand?" by Algis Valiunas. (The article is available on the Commentary web site, as well as on but a fee is required to read it. It may also of course be found in the print version of the issue in various bookstores). The short summary of the article below its title on the cover gives a clear indication that the author does not intend the question to be in the same vein as Ayn Rand's own book Philosophy: Who Needs it. It states that "[t]he work of the high priestess of reason continues to sell, but—with reason—her centenary has gone uncelebrated." Another hint of the author's attitude is that early in the article he writes that "Whittaker Chambers, in Buckley’s National Review,wrote a definitive takedown of her ideas."

Mr. Valiunas is of course referring to the so-called "review" of Atlas Shrugged published, as he mentions, in William F. Buckley's National Review. Enough has been written about Mr. Chamber's particular emotional outburst so I that will focus on the rest of the problems with Mr. Valiunas's article.

And there are numerous problems. To begin with it seems that in preparing this article Valiunas confined himself to three major sources: Barbara Branden's long discredited biography The Passion of Ayn Rand, and Ayn Rand's two major novel's, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The result is that he makes several factual errors that could easily have been corrected if he had spent the time doing a little more research.

Valiunas repeats Branden's mistaken notion of how Ayn Rand chose her name:
It was an unexpected letter from emigrant relatives who had settled in Chicago that propelled her westward like destiny’s guiding hand. Having inveigled an invitation to visit for six months, she embarked on English lessons, planning to write screenplays that would make her name and her fortune. In January 1926 she was off, with 50 dollars, a Remington-Rand typewriter, and a new name to go with her new country: Ayn Rosenbaum,soon to be further revised in the typewriter’s honor.
As David Hayes points out:
Barbara Branden’s 1986 biography of Ayn Rand has Alice Rosenbaum choosing the name “Ayn Rand” while in Chicago in 1926 and never telling her family in Russia about the new name. (pg. 71) However, letters from Rand’s family in Russia refer to the new name. Further, one such letter had been mailed from Russia before the family had yet received any mail from Ayn. Obviously, she had chosen the name before leaving and had told them what it would be. A 1926 letter by Ayn’s sister Nora with Nora’s hand-drawn illustration of the name “Ayn Rand” in theatrical lights, is reprinted in Michael Paxton’s companion book to his film Ayn Rand: a Sense of Life (pg. 71, remarkably the same page number as the Branden book).
Valiunas also seems to be confused about the Ayn Rand Institute's (ARI) history since he believes that:
Having realized her ambition as a novelist, Rand turned to philosophical essays detailing her Objectivist philosophy. These, too, sold phenomenally well. Her educational foundation, the Ayn Rand Institute, helped spread the word, as did her weekly column in the Los AngelesTimes explaining the news from an Objectivist standpoint.
As can be gleaned from checking the ARI's website, the Institute was established 1985, three years after Ayn Rand's death. Mr. Valiunas probably means the Nathaniel Branden Institute, but I am not convinced this is an innocent error. It seems to tie in too well with Valiunas's attempts to create an image of Ayn Rand as the narcissistic egotist.

This is evident when earlier he describes her transition to atheism thus:
She adored mathematics and logic, and at age fifteen she wrote in her diary: “Today, I decided to be an atheist.” Being anyone’s inferior was unthinkable to her, so God could not possibly exist.
I don't know if in the last sentence Valiunas is making an extemporaneous comment, or relying on Branden's biography, but I recall in the excellent biographical movie Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, a somewhat different reason was given. Namely, that it was unthinkable to her that there was something above Man, not her specifically. Put this way, it becomes a much more reasonable and less narcissistic proposition.

After Valiunas summarizes more or less accurately the plots of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, starts to evaluate Rand more explicitly.
What is one to make of it all? In Rand, soundness and charlatanry commingle. In the end, charlatanry prevails.
Freedom, individuality, achievement, reason: Rand takes these and other fine ideas and pursues them to the limits of sanity.
Having learned the lessons of socialist dystopia on her own body, she embraces a utopian fantasy of her own: only mingy compromise with collectivism stands in the way of the society without flaw, in which heroic individuals, loosed from Judeo- Christian tyranny with its insufferable God and foul altruism, will create the capitalist paradise. In her passion to reshape the world in accordance with her idea, Rand begins to sound like the tyrants she hates. Her capitalist revolutionaries speak of their opponents as “subhuman creatures,” “looting lice.” Galt’s radio address to the nation—he has commandeered the airwaves by some electronic magic—is positively Castrolike in its mad zealotry, running to over 50 pages and unfolding every half-truth and alluring lunacy Rand ever entertained.
I always find it amusing to see Conservatives, otherwise so insistent on the need for morality, belittle and dismiss any genuine example of passionate moral evaluation. Apparently, Rand through Galt should have been more diplomatic when discussing the people who in the story are tearing the country apart and leading to the downfall of civilization. I'm reminded of a line from the movie Robocop 2, in which, when it is pointed out to the mayor that the people with whom he wants to bargain are criminals, cries out: "Why are you labeling people?" In Galt's speech, Rand lays out the fundamentals of her philosophy, including her understanding of the nature and origin of morality. That she then proceeds to call a spade, a spade should surprise no one.

But of course, the real enemy for Conservatives is not a rational morality but reason as such:
Everything in Rand’s thought depends on her faith in reason, her conviction that any question has a clear and definitive answer. This unlimited faith in reason damages her as a novelist—there are no mysteries in her world, including no mysteries of human character—and also severely limited her as a moralist and undid her as a woman.
"Faith in reason" -- a common refrain among Conservatives. But one that, if properly understood, is clearly a contradiction. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence or in presence of opposing evidence. Reason, as Ayn Rand put it, is "the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses." To base one's belief on the identification and integration of factual evidence is clearly the opposite of faith, which disregards such evidence. But what is the basis for accepting reason in the first place you may ask? Isn't the acceptance of the validity of reason itself an act of faith? These questions betray an ignorance some of the essentials of metaphysics and epistemology. The metaphysical essential relevant to reason is the axiom of the law of identity or "A is A". Its epistemological implementation is the law of non-contradiction that is A cannot be non-A at the same time and in the same respect, which is the basic law of logic. Identity is a basic axiom of metaphysics and as such it is a fundamental identification of a basic fact of reality that all knowledge depends on. Thus, logic, which is the method of reason, is simply an epistemological recognition of the nature of reality. If one wants to succeed in reality, one must follow reason because only by following reason can one be in accord with the basic law of reality, the law of identity.

The last sentence of the previous quote is of course a reference to Ayn Rand's unfortunate affair with Nathaniel Branden. Valiunas proceeds to regurgitate the usual distortions from the Branden biography. One wishes in vain that he had taken a look at James S. Valliant's riveting The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, a book that gives quite a different view of some of the events that Valiunas describes. For example, Valiunas describes that the affair's result was that the "Brandens’ marriage collapsed and Rand’s husband swirled down the alcoholic drain." In his book, Valliant challenges both of these claims. He points out that both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden each had secret affairs from each other (the Rand-Branden relationship had been open and both spouses were consulted and gave their approval before any intimacy had been attempted) and that their marriage collapse was more likely a result of these dishonest dealings than the Rand-Branden affair. With respect to Frank O'Connor, Ayn Rand's husband, Valliant shows there is little real evidence to support the Branden's claim that he became an alcoholic.

Valliant also disproves conclusively the notion that Valiunas repeats, that as a result of discovering that Branden had a secret affair with a younger woman, "Rand nearly went insane in her jealousy." Valliant shows by examining Ayn Rand's personal notes at the time that Ayn Rand had long since given up on an intimate relationship with Branden and in fact was giving Branden, at his urging, psychotherapy sessions, in which she was trying to help him deal with his problems. In those sessions Nathaniel Branden continued to viciously lie to Ayn Rand (with the full knowledge of Barbara Branden) about his present feelings for her, as well as his secret affair with another young female student. It becomes clear on reading Ayn Rand's notes that the reason for Ayn Rand's complete break with Nathaniel Branden was not "insane jealousy" but the realization that Branden had been dishonest with her for years and thus on a scale she could hardly believe of someone whom she once referred to as her intellectual heir. Therefore, it ought to be no surprise that Branden's dishonesty and hypocrisy led Ayn Rand, upon her discovery of them, to completely disassociate him from herself and her philosophy, which considers these traits major vices. But one might mention that all of Branden's articles written during his association with Ayn Rand remain in Ayn Rand's books. Contrary to the implications of Valiunas, Ayn Rand did not rewrite history. The idea that Rand "destroyed [Branden's] professional reputation" is a myth. First of all, Branden is responsible for any destruction of his reputation via his own actions. Second, all Rand did was to severe the parasitical business relationship that Branden had developed with respect to Ayn Rand's ideas. Nothing less could be expected.

The fact is that Ayn Rand did not relish being the leader of an intellectual movement. That is why there was no Ayn Rand Institute during her lifetime, only a Nathaniel Branden Institute. While obviously she believed in the truth and importance of her ideas, as Leonard Peikoff has pointed out, she always wished there was a modern day Aristotle that would take her place. As a rational egoist she certainly believed in her own value but she was not a narcissist and did not run a cult. Unfortunately, with talent and fame came many admirers and fans, many of whom completely fail to understand and/or integrate her radical ideas. Among them was the biggest fraud Ayn Rand had encountered in her life but unfortunately she did not discover it for many years.

It really is a profound injustice that intellectuals continue to distort Ayn Rand's ideas and personal history. However, it is also a sign that Ayn Rand can no longer be ignored as she used to be. As the number of Objectivist intellectuals increases it will be come increasingly difficult to ignore Ayn Rand's ideas and eventually, I expect, to deny their truth. That is a time worth waiting for.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Science News & Controversy

There is a story in today's New Scientist about the advantages of embryonic stem cells (ESC) over adult stem cell in a particular research endeavor.
Embryonic stem cells from mice can patch up damaged heart muscle in sheep. With hopes of using less controversial, adult-derived stem cells now appearing shaky, the results could pave the way for effective treatments for heart disease in people.

“It’s clear now that adult stem cells are unable to become myocardial [heart muscle] cells,” says co-author Michel Puceat at the Macromolecular Biochemistry Research Centre in Montpellier, France. “This would have been the best cell population, because they come from the patient, but there is no doubt that embryonic stem cells are much better.”
Some critics of ESC research funding continue to insist that "[t]he case against ESCs is scientific" but it seems there appears to be more and more science to contradict them.

Of course, I too am a "critic" of ESC, just as I am a critic of all government funded scientific research. Scientific research is not a proper function of the government (except possibly indirectly for war and defense purposes). The government is the agency that has a legal monopoly of force in a geographic area. Force and mind are opposites. It's really no wonder that government funded science is highly politized and thus highly suspect. Nevertheless, while we have government funded science it behooves us to disregard religious (and thus irrational) objections to specific research proposals. We may be far from having complete separation of state and science but at least the separation of state and church ought to be intact.
Another news report from New Scientist discusses a recent paper in Science magazine which claims a connection between global warming and increasingly frequent stronger hurricanes.
A massive global increase in the number of strong hurricanes over the past 35 years is being blamed on global warming, by the most detailed study yet. The US scientists warn that Katrina-strength hurricanes could become the norm.
Dr. Patrick Michaels, research professor of environmental sciences, University of Virginia has written a critique of the paper that looks quite damning to my eyes. It's true that the data the Science paper looked at, which used satellite data from 1970 shows the trend and correlation identified as can be seen from the graph below.

Figure 1. (A) the total number of category 1 storms (blue curve), the sum of categories 2 and 3 (green), and the sum of categories 4 and 5 (red) in 5-year periods. The black curve is the maximum wind speed observed globally. (B) Same as (A), except that the numbers are presented as a percentage of the total annual storm count. (taken from Dr. Michaels article -- click on graphs to see original size image [GR])

Unfortunately for the Science paper's authors, Dr. Michaels points out that the correlation appears to break down when earlier data is added to the picture.

Figure 2. Same as Figure 1, except for the analysis is for only the North Atlantic basin and begins in 1945. (taken from Dr. Michaels article -- click on graphs to see original size image [GR])
As Dr. Michaels points out:
The conclusion many draw from papers such as these is that anthropogenic global warming from the burning of fossil fuels by humans is causing more lethal storms. A closer look, though, reveals not human actions but rather natural cycles are the primary cause.
And he concludes:
While the impacts of the currently active hurricane period are being felt especially hard in the United States, there remains no scientific proof that human contributions to an enhanced greenhouse effect are the root cause.
Today's Commentary (part 2)

On the domestic front there was an interesting editorial in today's Washington Post about the recent Vioxx lawsuit. The editorial describes the lack of science behind the recent judgment:
Unfortunately for Merck, scientific facts didn't play much of a role in the first Vioxx trial, which ended on Aug. 19. The Texas jury in that case awarded $253.4 million to the widow of a man who died of a heart attack triggered by arrhythmia, which is not a condition Vioxx has been proven to cause. The jury, declaring that it wished to "send a message" to Merck, decided to make an enormous symbolic award anyway. Besides, said one juror afterward, the medical evidence was confusing: "We didn't know what the heck they were talking about." Because Texas law limits the size of jury awards, the final cost to Merck is likely to be closer to $2 million. But the precedent set by the jury is ominous. Merck is facing about 5,000 similar lawsuits. If every one of those costs the company $2 million, the total price will come to $10 billion -- if, of course, a company called Merck is still around to pay it.
While the state of willful scientific ignorance in this country is depressing, it's certainly nice to see the generally liberal Washington Post take what amounts to a pro-business stance. The editorial proceeds to argue that since Merck, for the most part, practiced due diligence by going through the regulatory process and by pulling the drug off the market they don't deserve this kind of "disproportionate financial punishment." The Washington Post also points correctly to the consequences for consumers should the number of such lawsuits increase:
In the long term, using the courts to "send a message" to Merck isn't going to help consumers. If the result is an even more cautious FDA approval system and a more cautious pharmaceutical industry, that will keep innovative drugs off the market for much longer. More people will die waiting for new treatments. The cost of producing new drugs will rise dramatically. Already, there are whole areas of medicine -- women's health during pregnancy, for example -- that are made so risky by liability issues that companies may stop doing research in them.
This is good as far as it goes. But we can take the point to its logical conclusion. The FDA as such represents a formidable barrier to innovation, not to mention a violation of the rights of both pharmaceutical companies and individuals to trade freely without government interference. A company, particularly a company manufacturing drugs on which the life or death of its customers may depend, must build a reputation for quality. It is the importance of that reputation to the company that will best protect consumers, not government force.
Today's Commentary (part 1)

There seems to be quite a bit of interesting things to comment on today. Let's start with the inevitably depressing results of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza which are detailed by the insightful Caroline Click in the Jerusalem Post (free registration may be required) and on the Center for Security Policy web site. As Glick describes it:
In Gaza, now empty of all Jewish presence, the Palestinians lost no time in taking charge of events in their own special way. First came the firebombing of the synagogues. We were asked indignantly by such paragons of virtue as PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas, "Well, what did you expect to happen?" As if it should go without saying that the Palestinians will exploit any opportunity to show us their contempt for all things Jewish.

After the firebombing came the looting of the destroyed Jewish communities. Then came the looting of the hothouses which had been bought for the Palestinians by wealthy Jews in the US who decided to buy them so that the Palestinians could reap what their expelled Israeli brethren had sown.

Sometime between destroying the abandoned synagogues, looting the destroyed Jewish villages, tearing apart the hothouses, throwing grenades at IDF patrols guarding Moshav Netiv Ha'asara and shooting mortars at Sderot, the Palestinians discovered Egypt. At the direction of Hamas, and with the help of PA militias and Egyptian soldiers, thousands of Palestinians crossed the wall separating Palestinian Rafah from Egyptian Rafah. Among the merrymakers, unknown numbers of terrorists crossed back and forth shuttling arms and reinforcements into Gaza in unknown quantities. IDF commanders looked on, and impotently stated that there is a high probability that al-Qaida operatives are among the newcomers. Oh well.
In addition we have this piece from World where the point about Egypt is elaborated:
TEL AVIV — Israeli military sources said hundreds of weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank rockets and bomb components, have been smuggled over the last three days from the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip.

The sources said Palestinian insurgents brought the equipment from Egypt in wake of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

So far, more than 10,000 Palestinians have crossed the Gaza border and made their way to towns in eastern and northern Sinai. The sources said they included hundreds of operatives from Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, some of whom directed the flow of Palestinians into Sinai.
It is really quite difficult to see what potential long term gains Israel achieved with the so-called "disengagement". It seems quite clearly to be a disaster and, as all of us who opposed this move pointed out, a completely predictable one.

Ms. Glick also describes the outrageous attempt to criminalize Israel's conduct of war:

On Tuesday, Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog tried to go to London. But once his El Al plane landed he was alerted by the Israeli embassy that if he alighted at Heathrow he would likely be arrested. An anti-Zionist British-Israeli "human rights" lawyer by the name of Daniel Machover, in cooperation with the Israeli group Yesh Gvul, filed a lawsuit against Almog charging him with war crimes in a British court. So alerted, Almog stayed on the plane and went home.

Triumphant, Yesh Gvul's spokesmen in Israel announced that in addition to Almog, they were in the midst of filing complaints for war crimes with British courts against eight other senior IDF commanders. Among them are former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon and current Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz. Hearing this, Ya'alon cancelled his plan to fly to London next week.

And many of you probably thought that the left was bad in the US. Fortunately, the Almog arrest warrant was canceled; unfortunately, it was canceled "on technical and procedural grounds and it did not imply that Almog or others are immune from future legal proceedings in Britain." This is a very ominous development and not just for Israel.

I'll continue my commentary in a separate post.

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