Rebirth of Reason


ARI's Yaron Brook at GA Tech - An Incredibly Surprising Lecture
by Tom Blackstone

When you are a person like me, who studies intellectual subjects constantly and has formed his views after deep thought over many years, you get used to your view of the world being confirmed time and time again. The views that other people express are always ones you have heard before. The arguments they make you have already considered and either agree with beforehand or have already found them lacking. You get used to the idea that you are much more enlightened than everyone else and that you cannot expect them to teach you anything new. Even worse, when you try to teach THEM something new, they will usually be completely ungrateful and will even accuse you of trying to "push your philosophy" on them. Never in the world would you expect someone to prove you wrong or to cause you to think about things in a new way.

And yet, that is what happened to me last night when I went to see Yaron Brook, the Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute at Georgia Tech, give a lecture last night on "Why We Are Losing The War."

I have always been an outspoken critic of the Ayn Rand Institute, believing that their views were a distortion of Objectivism. To me, they had always seemed like a bastion of everything that Ayn Rand had railed against: conformity, dogmatism, adherence to authority, collectivism. In particular, I had been appalled at some of the essays I had seen coming out of ARI advocating the war in Iraq. I couldn't imagine how someone calling themselves "The Ayn Rand Institute" could advocate what is essentially a neoconservative view of foreign policy. After all, Ayn Rand was a self-proclaimed "isolationist."

To my dismay, I noticed that alot of people who value many of the principles that Objectivsm advocates—rationality, independence, freedom, thinking for yourself, questioning authority—were nevertheless steering away from Objectivism because they believed it was some kind of crazy cult that advocates going to war with everyone in the world.

I had resolved to fight ARI at every oppurtunity. I had told people that ARI was doing more damage to the Objectivist movement than all of its enemies combined, and that supporting them was like shooting yourself in the foot. I had made a determination to explain to people time and time again that ARI does not accurately represent Objectivism.

So when I found that ARI's new Executive Director was giving a speech on foreign policy at GA Tech, I jumped at the oppurtunity to confront him and show him up for the fraud that he was.

As the lecture began, he started talking about 9/11 and the threat of Islamic terrorism. He stated that America is fighting an ideological war against an enemy that is commited to nihilism. He said that they want to crush the American values of reason, science, and human progress. "They hate us because we are a secular nation," he exclaimed.

I thought "yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah, get to the part where you say we have to 'spread democracy' in Iraq." Then the unthinkable happened: he said something like, "We really shouldn't have gone into Iraq, because Saddam Hussein didn't support Islamic Fundamentalism. Iran was a much better target."

I stared in disbelief for quite some time, and wondered what the hell I should do now. If he doesn't support the war in Iraq, the wind gets blown out of my entire argument. Nevertheless, he still supported many other interventionist sounding policies, so I wrote down a question to ask him.

It took raising my hand for a long time before he finally got to me, but here is the question that I asked him:

"I agreed with alot of what you said tonight, especially when you talked about the values of rationality and science. But I have some concerns as well. I've been studying Ayn Rand's philosophy for 9 years, and I've read all of her books. What I've found in Rand's writings in foreign policy is that she is usually very skeptical of the neccesity of the United States engaging in war. In fact, in her essay, 'The Roots of War' in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal she condemns every U.S. intervention that was entered into in her lifetime, including U.S. involvement in World Wars I & II, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. In another essay called 'The Chickens Homecoming' in Return of The Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, she specifically attacks 'interventionism' and defends 'isolationism.' Yet many of the policies you advocate sound very interventionist by her standards. How do you reconcile your views with that of Ayn Rand's?"

At this point, I expected him to accuse me of misrepresenting Rand's philosophy. But instead, he said I was absolutely right, that Ayn Rand was an isolationist, and that he agreed with her. Then he went on to say that America had no business whatsoever trying to "spread democracy"or rid the world of  "weapons of mass destruction." He said the Vietnam and Korean wars were wrong. He said that if the South Koreans can't defend themselves now we should "let them rot." Then he said "The only justification for war is when the United States is attacked or there is undeniable proof of an immenent attack." After that, he explained that Iran's Islamic Fundamentalist government is harboring Al-Qaeda cells and is trying to develop nuclear weapons. He said he didn't care if the Islamists took over all of the middle east, "as long as they don't mess with us," but that they had shown that they would not keep to themselves.

As I listened to this guy answer my questions, I was shocked at how completely reasonable he seemed. He contradicted everything I had been led to believe about ARI from reading essays on their website and from seeing him on television. He wasn't some kind of cult fanatic. He was simply a reasonable person with very strong views, just like me.

At one point he talked about how some Objectivists disagree with him about the idea that we shouldn't be trying to "spread democracy." My friend Aaron asked him, "You mean people disagree at ARI? I thought you guys didn't tolerate disagreement." He replied, "No, we disagree about all kinds of things. We just don't disagree about the fundamental principles of Objectivism. You've been misled about ARI from the very beginning." Afterwards he said, "There are some mean people who support ARI, but there are mean people in every movement. Don't judge the whole movement by a few individuals."

After the lecture ended, I went up to Dr. Brook and thanked him personally for answering my questions. I told him about Georgia Objectivists. He gave me his card and said he'd love for us to host a meeting in which he could come and speak and tell everyone what ARI is all about and what kind of things it does. I told him we would try to set that up.

Afterwards, several members of Georgia Objectivists along with members of the Fellowship of Reason who had attended the lecture went to dinner at Fellini's Pizza. We were all talking about what an amazing speaker this guy was and how well he had answered people's questions. Several of us wondered aloud how in the world we could have been so wrong about ARI. What we figured out in the discussion is that it seems that Yaron Brooke is a significantly different person from the people you usually hear about, such as Leonard Peikoff and Peter Schwartz. Brook apparently realized that there were problems in ARI and has been trying to fix them. Now he is Executive Director, and the possibilities are practically limitless.

There are still many things Brook argued for that I am not sure I support, but that is not really the point. The point is that he is a reasonable person who makes arguments based on Objectivist principles. I now have a very different view of the Ayn Rand Institute, and I don't think that view is going to change anytime soon.

Now I have to deal with the hard part: how to reevaluate my life's work with one less enemy to fight. But that's a "problem" I'll be happy to deal with.
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