Friday, April 07, 2006

The Objectivist Center's (latest) jihad against Ayn Rand

If we take it at its word, David Kelly's Objectivist Center seeks to communicate Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism to the world. If that is the Objectivist Center's mission, why then does the writings of its lieutenants have appallingly little to do with Objectivism, either directly, or indirectly?

Take as an example Edward Hudgins recent article "The Jihad Against Free Speech." In his article, Hudgins attempts to examine the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. In the process, he evades the fundamentals of the issue, fails to identify any Objectivist principle that might help clarify the matter, calls upon a wrong-headed argument to justify free speech, and generally presents a watered down series of asides as the Objectivist Center's answer to one of the most pressing challenges of our time. If one were unfamiliar with Ayn Rand and Objectivism, one would have to think that Rand was a mush-mouthed idiot if Hudgins' essay is to be taken as evidence of the caliber of her adherents.

My proof? Take the first paragraph of Hudgins' article:

The West once again has been forced to confront the clash of cultures. Muslims worldwide rage and riot over Danish newspaper cartoons that, in their eyes, commit the double sin of depicting Mohammad and satirizing him disrespectfully. Many Muslims consider any illustration of their prophet to be an insult to their religion. Of course, other religions often find their ideas and icons satirized or criticized. Yet rarely do they respond with death threats, riots, arson, and murder.
So Hudgins' defines the scope of the conflict as being between the West and its religions that do not respond to criticism with threats, riots, arson, and murder and the East with its religions that do. Right out the gate, Hudgins' undercuts the virtue of secularism and the West's respect for individual rights and reason.

It isn't until his fourth paragraph that Hudgins indicates the actual theme of his article.

There are three principles implicitly involved in the current cartoon controversy: free expression, tolerance, and sensitivity. While related, these principles are not identical. Free speech concerns politics, while tolerance and sensitivity concern social relationships and moral evaluations of our fellows. The distinctions and relationships between these concepts must be understood if we in the West, to say nothing of those in the Islamic world, are to get a clear picture of what is behind the cartoon controversy.
Ah, a clear picture. Let's see what Hudgins gives us to that end.

The first point he tackles is "tolerance." Hudgins writes, "many Westerners also think that the principle of "tolerance" requires that we take care not to offend the religious sensitivities of others, as a matter of respect."

No, that's multiculturalism. "Tolerance" means putting up with something that you clearly do not agree with because some larger issue checks your thinking, like respect for individual rights. If people think "tolerance" means "respect," for another's ideas good or bad, it's because the multiculturalists led them to it. Yet does Hudgins explore this point? No. Hudgins instead goes on to tackle free expression.

The human mind is the vital tool that allows us to discover how to survive, achieve values, and flourish. But thinking does not occur automatically, or collectively; we must each choose to focus and employ our own minds. Others ultimately cannot think for us. As individuals, we must exercise our independent judgment concerning how best to meet our needs and direct our lives.
I wonder who came up with that formulation and so will Hudgins' readers, since he never references Ayn Rand as the source for any of his ideas. Don't get me wrong though; this is a good thing, given what Hudgins is about to say next.

[One way ] we could deal with one another [is] by means of physical force and compulsion. The physically or politically strong would oppress others. Free thought, appeals to reason, and free expression would be dangerous to those with power, and thus would be restricted or stamped out.

But such practices would limit all the creative fruits of human intelligence--and the entire legacy of human achievement. A society based on force and compulsion cannot remain modern and productive. Where minds are not free to discuss, share, and actualize ideas, society at best can progress in fits and starts, and usually stagnate.
Heaven help the unproductive society.

Why does Hudgins' base his ultimate justification for free speech on the benefits such freedom brings to society? The mind is a selfish possession; the freedom it requires is just as selfish a value. Objectivism explicitly holds that the individual's life is the standard by which all values are judged, but here Hudgins omits that observation and instead jumps right to "society's needs" as his base value.

Is the omission of the individual and the enshrinement of society important? You bet it is. Which argument offers the essential terms of the debate? Which argument will sway the man on the street that an Objectivist seeks to reach: the one that shows him that freedom is society's collective right, or the one that shows him that freedom is his personal right? Worse, there is an explicit reason Hudgins' slips in the utilitarian argument for freedom over the Objectivist argument, and that reason is none other than John Stuart Mill. After describing the murderous history of religion in Europe, Hudgins brings Mill to the rescue, this time to discuss the "social role of tolerance."

The English thinker John Stuart Mill understood how the free exchange of ideas in a society serves our interests. If we are mistaken in our beliefs, then in open discussion with others we will have a chance to see the error of our ways and come to the truth. If we are right in our beliefs, then we will gain a better understanding of the truth as we confront the errors of others.
John Stuart Mill's "understanding" came from his belief that free speech is justified by its value to society, not by its value to individuals. That's why Ayn Rand--the philosopher the Objectivist Center claims to represent--specifically faulted Mill for his arguments in defense of free speech. Writing in her essay "Thought Control" in the Ayn Rand Letter, Rand observed,

Society, [Mill] argued, has the power to enslave or destroy its exceptional men, but it should permit them to be free, because it benefits from their efforts. Among the many defaults of the conservatives in the past hundred years, the most shameful one, perhaps, is the fact that they accepted John Stuart Mill as a defender of capitalism.
Rand evidences the negative fallout from Mill's ideas by examining a 1957 US Supreme Court obscenity ruling. In its decision in Roth v. U.S., the Supreme Court created the "average man" standard for defining the boundary between protected and unprotected speech. By the Court's reasoning, speech loses its protection if the "average person, applying contemporary community standards [decides that] the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest." Such a standard is utterly unworkable and useless in defending the right to free speech and Rand was explicit in attacking it. Writing in her essay "Censorship: Local and Express," Rand observed.

The intellectual standard which is here set up to rule an individual's mind--to prescribe what an individual may write, publish, read or see--is the judgment of an average person applying community standards. Why? No reason is given--which means that the will of the collective is here taken for granted as the source, justification and criterion of value judgments.
So despite the clear conflict between Objectivism and utilitarianism, Hudgins' nevertheless calls upon Mill's arguments to justify free speech over Rand's.

Hudgins' position reveals yet again how utterly dishonest the Objectivist Center is in claiming that it is a champion for Objectivism. Ignoring Objectivism while embracing utilitarianism is an appalling stand for any alleged Objectivist to take, let alone a man in a leadership position of an ostensibly Objectivist organization. Yet Hudgins is far from finished. Defending the right to misbegotten speech, he writes:

While a civilized order defends the principle of free speech and tolerance, this is not to say that all opinions are of equal value or validity. But because reason is a faculty of individuals, such judgments must be made by each of us as individuals. The value of an expression of opinion--especially an unpopular one--is rarely apparent in advance. Value is also personal: what is useless or offensive to many of us may contain a vital piece of information or usefulness for someone else. These determinations cannot be made before the fact or even after the fact by collectives, or by governments.
At root, the right to free speech rests upon the fact that rational men will not suffer those who seek to squelch their ideas though force, and as a corollary, all speech that does not explicitly violate rights (such as fraud, slander or libel) is protected. Free speech is an objective value for all men.

So what does Hudgins then mean by focusing on the claim that "value is also personal?" That's not the same as saying a value is selfish or objective. A "personal" or "optional" value denotes a non-essential preference that differs among people; for example, I like vanilla ice cream and you may like chocolate. These optional values, i.e. non-essential choices, have nothing to do with the Islamic threat to free speech (unless Hudgins thinks freedom to choose things as banal as our favorite ice cream is also under threat from Islam).

The more realistic appraisal in judging Hudgins' aside is that he is simply afraid to say that all legitimate values are objective, rational and selfish. He tips his hand in the next few paragraphs, where he reveals just how large he thinks the domain of "personal values" is. He writes:

In recent years the Catholic Church has been the subject to harsh attacks for covering up for pedophile priests. Often, rather than kicking them out of the church and turning them over to law enforcement, church officials simply transferred them to other parishes where they continued to commit crimes against children. In the wake of the scandal, some Catholic apologists were offended by harsh, even obscene depictions of their religion. But they should have been more offended--as many Catholics in fact were--by the obscene cover-ups by their own church officials, to say nothing of the behavior of the priests themselves. Catholics should have focused on cleaning up their own house, and fortunately, many did.
How exactly did these Catholics clean up their own house, and how many years too late were they about it? Did they immediately quit the church and condemn the moral code treats a repressed sex drive as holy? Did they condemn the moral code that says we should turn our other cheeks to the priestly pedophiles and thus allowed the scandal to be hidden for over a generation? Did they bankrupt the pope who could barely keep his head up while his priests raped children? Why is Hudgins holding up the massive philosophic defects of the Catholic church as proof of "personal values" while raping Ayn Rand's philosophy in the process?

Yet Hudgins is still not done. Now lecturing on "sensitivity," he writes:

Related but not identical to tolerance is the practice of sensitivity. Sensitivity means taking account of the possible emotional reactions that others might have to the expressions of one's ideas in whatever medium--writing, the spoken word, art, even cartoons.

But should a thoughtful individual take account of the possible emotional reactions of individuals as a principal determinate of how he ought to act toward or speak to them?
No, not in the context of defending one's right to free speech. But here Hudgins seems to imply the answer is "maybe." After acknowledging that Christians and Muslims who seek to impose their creed on others by force are immoral and should be opposed, he backtracks:

In social or private settings, I still might act with some sensitivity when in the presence of a particular Muslim whom I know to be an individual of generally good moral character, who favors a more enlightened Islamic culture, and who shows respect for those who have different religious beliefs. I have no desire to gratuitously insult such a person. But to extend that sensitivity to all Muslims, including the ones who reject the fundamental principles of a free society--to fail to defend the core political and moral principles of a free society for fear of giving offense to religiously motivated opponents of freedom--is to treat faith-based feelings as equivalent, even superior, to a reasoned belief. In fact, it would require the sacrifice of reasoned belief to irrationalism.
So at dinner parties or on the golf course, Hudgins explains to the world how to don the veil of sensitivity when confronted with acquaintances who hold irrational views. Well thank goodness for that, because clearly the epidemic of obnoxious and inappropriately condemnatory dinner guests and golf buddies has been begging to be addressed for far too long.

We, of course, have the present threat to our freedom of speech to contend with. Hudgins now shifts his focus to the question of people who act on vicious ideas and threaten freedom.

In a free society, we can't prosecute individuals merely for holding or advocating noxious ideas. However, a country's policies towards immigration and citizenship, including voting rights, should be informed by the need to protect the values of freedom. And those who act on treasonous viewpoints, actively conspiring to giving material "aid and comfort" to our nation's international enemies, should of course face legal prosecution and, where applicable, deportation.
This is true, but it is unsophisticated analysis and it evidences little understanding of Objectivism. Yet again, Hudgins frames the debate in terms of "society's" rights, but the only legitimate frame is the principle of individual rights. Speech is only dangerous to individuals when it equals an act of force, such as fraud, the attempt to communicate a clear and present violation of people's lives (such as a conspiracy to commit theft or murder), or treason and revolution against a free government. It is our selfish right to our lives that allow us to defend against such attacks under the law.

It is important to recognize that the Islamists are not just attacking our "society," which many in the West may not give a care for one way or another; the Islamists are attacking you, me and our neighbor's individual right to form our own judgments and share these judgments with others. Yes, this time, it's personal, yet Hudgins repeatedly disconnects the debate from the individual and rests his conclusions upon nebulous terms like "society." That is weak--and it is the province of those who are ashamed of selfishness.

After all, if Hudgins was interested in advocating selfishness as a virtue, he would be far more focused on showing that the debate over the nature of Islam is of crucial importance to rational men--the very men the Islamists seek to silence. Hudgins would be focused on showing how the Islamists are exploiting every corrupt philosophic gimmick they can find to justify the West's self-censorship, and how the West's own philosophic failings are allowing them to do it. His article would read like a rallying cry instead of a watered-down slosh of asides, afterthoughts and appeals to conventional ideas.

I have read that the Objectivist Center sent copies of the magazine Hudgins' article appeared in to all the members of Congress and their staffs. This is a problem, because if Hudgins' philosophic mish-mash is being equated with the considered opinion of real Objectivists, our work in changing the terms of the debate in our culture has become that much harder.

I seriously hope that all the recent defections and changes-of-heart among the Objectivist Center's staff and supporters will once and for all propel this organization completely into the fringes where it belongs. The Objectivist Center is of zero service in the advance of Objectivism and it deserves to be identified and treated as such.

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