This may turn out to be the least-publicized call for a boycott ever, but I’m going to call for one anyway: Philosophers attending the APA Eastern Division Meetings this year should boycott the meeting of the Ayn Rand Society. Frankly, in my view, they should boycott the Society itself.
For twenty-five years now, the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) has vilified libertarians as “nihilists,” and declared them too evil to “sanction,” i.e., too evil to endorse or deal with.
IS LIBERTARIANISM AN EVIL DOCTRINE? Yes, if evil is the irrational and the destructive. Libertarianism belligerently rejects the very need for any justification for its belief in something called “liberty.” It repudiates the need for any intellectual foundation to explain why “liberty” is desirable and what “liberty” means. Anyone from a gay-rights activist to a criminal counterfeiter to an overt anarchist can declare that he is merely asserting his “liberty” — and no Libertarian (even those who happen to disagree) can objectively refute his definition. Subjectivism, amoralism and anarchism are not merely present in certain “wings” of the Libertarian movement; they are integral to it. In the absence of any intellectual framework, the zealous advocacy of “liberty” can represent only the mindless quest to eliminate all restraints on human behavior — political, moral, metaphysical. And since reality is the fundamental “restraint” upon men’s actions, it is nihilism — the desire to obliterate reality — that is the very essence of Libertarianism. If the Libertarian movement were ever to come to power, widespread death would be the consequence. (For elaboration, see my essay “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.”)
Justice demands moral judgment. It demands that one objectively evaluate Libertarianism, and act in accordance with that evaluation. It demands that one identify Libertarianism as the antithesis of — and therefore as a clear threat to — not merely genuine liberty, but all rational values. And it demands that Libertarianism, like all such threats, be boycotted and condemned.
“Boycotted and condemned.” I like that.
Despite some tricky-looking verbal gymnastics, ARI has not disavowed that view (and explicitly says that it has not). So vilification of libertarianism and libertarians remains the official view of the Ayn Rand Institute despite its paradoxical (that is, hypocritical) decision to make common cause with a few libertarian organizations.
The Ayn Rand Society (ARS) is a nominally distinct entity, but every single member of its Steering Committee is in some way affiliated with ARI. In any case, this year, they’ve decided to invite Yaron Brook as the main speaker at their APA Eastern Meeting (see the very first link in this post). Yaron Brook is the Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is therefore the man responsible for ARI’s continuing policy of defamation. ARS has invited him to address their meeting despite that fact, and absurdly enough, has invited two libertarians to respond to him. The Steering Committee’s knowledge of Brook’s institutional role–and of ARI’s ideological position–are, in my view, sufficient to justify a boycott of the meeting. (Read this exchange if you’d like a sense of Yaron Brook’s moral stature and his method of cognitive functioning. It’s best read in conjunction with this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education.)
It makes things worse that intellectually, Brook is a shallow propagandist entirely lacking in bona fide qualifications as a political philosopher. (Nonetheless, like all Objectivist pseudo-intellectuals of his type, he insists on describing himself as an “expert.”) It’s therefore a mystery why ARS’s leadership would have invited him to speak at the APA. In 2012, I asked both the late Allan Gotthelf (ARS’s founder*) and James Lennox (the current co-chair of ARS’s Steering Committee) why Brook had been invited. Neither of them had an answer. If you’d like an answer, feel free to ask Lennox or his co-chair Gregory Salmieri for one, and share what you hear from them. But my own inference is that they have no defensible answer to give. I also find it a mystery why James Otteson and Peter Boettke would have accepted an invitation to discuss libertarian politics with someone responsible for a mass-movement campaign of anti-libertarian defamation, but I suppose one mystery begets another.
I’m happy to say that I’ve convinced at least one major philosopher to back out of an invitation to speak at an ARS event, and have convinced a few prominent libertarians to let their membership in ARS lapse (or in the case of those who had already let it lapse, not to renew their membership). I’d like to add indefinitely to that list.
Whatever you do, don’t seek refuge in the excuse that philosophers are obliged to have conversations with those with whom they disagree on moral issues. (Scroll down in the link to my exchange with Matt Zwolinski.) The response to that is: “no kidding.” The question is whether philosophers ought to help burnish the reputation of organizations that suborn and facilitate decades-long campaigns of character-assassination. If you want to be a part of that of effort, feel free. But then take responsibility for being a part of it. And don’t complain when you’re treated accordingly. You’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
*Correction (added after posting): To be precise, Gotthelf was ARS’s co-founder, along with David Kelley and George Walsh. ARS was co-founded by the three of them in 1990. But Walsh died in 2001, and Kelley has not been active at the leadership level in ARS for decades. Gotthelf was the central figure at the heart of ARS, and was responsible for the decision to invite Brook.
Postscript, December 18, 2014: I just happened to read an interesting article, “Meeting Ayn Rand on the Las Vegas Strip,” by John Paul Rollert (of the University of Chicago’s business school), that sheds interesting light on my call for a boycott of the Ayn Rand Society. The article is a report on this past summer’s ARI conference in Las Vegas, featuring Yaron Brook, among others. This passage, on a session on inequality, is particularly revealing of Brook’s approach to intellectual discourse:
“The Left dominates our intellectual world,” Brook declared. And yet, despite its success, the stated aims of the Left are merely a pretext for an agenda far more sinister than anything contained in the Democratic Party’s platform or, for that matter, a Michael Moore movie. Take the professed concern for the growing disparity between the very rich and the rest of America: The liberal impulse to address this gap may seem rooted in a sense of fairness or even a desire to promote social cohesion, but viewing it as such is extremely naïve. Indeed, it takes at face value the rhetoric of the Left, which keeps one from seeing it for what it really is: the language of a decades-long con game. “What they’re really after is not the well-being of anybody,” Brook explained. “They want power. They want to rule us.”
It gets worse. For if “the intellectuals” use fear-mongering around the so-called problem of inequality to seize power, they wield it in favor of a nihilistic vision of the human condition. They aim to systematically undermine and annul the great achievements of heroic men and women, an effort that will not only corrupt the “American sense of life” but one that stabs at the very heart of Ayn Rand’s vision. “We need to tell the truth about these bastards,” Brook said. “We need to reveal them for what they really are. We need to expose them to the American people for what their agenda really is. They’re haters. Their focus is on hatred. Their focus is on tearing down. Their focus is on destroying.”
ARI’s pretense at intellectual respectability is a laboriously-constructed affair. Those affiliated with it realize that if ARI’s intellectuals are to be taken seriously, they must convince their non-Objectivist interlocutors that they take those interlocutors seriously, and want to engage constructively with them. Taking them seriously means treating them with respect, and treating them with respect means not poisoning the well in disagreements about their views. The preceding passage shows those interlocutors what the rest of us have long known: it’s an act.
Anyone who attends Brook’s presentation at the APA will be treated to Brook-in-genteel-mode, Brook-as-he-presents-himself-in-a-prestigious-academic-setting, where his reasonability and ARI’s are under scrutiny and on the line. If you decide to attend his session (against my advice) ask him what he means by “We need to tell the truth about these bastards,” and “Their focus is on destroying.” What truth? What bastards? Who is focused on destroying what? Why not be explicit for a change? Does he mean the ones in the room next door? The ones who run the APA? The ones running the job interviews for the jobs his Objectivist Academic Center-groomed job candidates so desperately want? If so, tell him to say so. If not, ask him to explain.
It hasn’t occurred to Brook that someone might regard inequality as a proxy variable for structural injustices in an economy, including injustices caused by rights-violations. It hasn’t occurred to the apologists for the supposedly new and improved ARI that Brook’s well-poisoning is a direct implication of his avowed allegiance to Peikoff’s “Fact and Value.” Nor has it occurred to academic philosophers that their coy and “sophisticated” defenses of dishonesty and phoniness find perfect expression in the likes of Brook–someone they’d likely regard as a mortal enemy, but whose practices they’ve unwittingly come to rationalize. If there were any justice in the world, Thomas Nagel and David Nyberg would be forced to attend the ARS session and have an awkward conversation with Yaron Brook: Brook would have to call them “bastards” intent on destroying the world, and Nagel and Nyberg would have to face in Brook the perfect exemplification of both Nagelian concealment and Nybergian dishonesty. Frankly, if that meeting happened, I’d go to the session.
Incidentally, Rollert gets a lot of things right in his essay, but gets some things wrong. For one thing, he buys into the myth that “when it comes to ‘real’ philosophers–a designation that, for better or worse, indicates a perch in a Philosophy Department–Objectivism mostly goes unmentioned.” Not quite. Again, not quite.
He also seems to equate radicalism with “escapism.” But Socrates, Aristotle, and Locke were all in their own way radicals. Arguably, so was J.S. Mill. None was an escapist. Contrary to Rollert, there’s no intrinsic connection between escapism and radicalism.
Finally, this seems to me wrongheaded:
By and large, when it comes to questions about the structural shortcomings of capitalism, the most persuasive answers will be of a dry and technical nature. They won’t savor of the sulfurous clash between the forces of good and evil….
There’s no reason to think that questions about the structural shortcomings of any political system should be reducible to issues “of a dry and technical nature.” The structure of a political system is something set by people. People have free will, and can be held responsible, not just for what they choose to do, but what (and how) they believe. If people culpably embed injustice into the very structure of a system, claims about structural shortcomings will not merely be “dry and technical.” They’ll be about justice and injustice, and that will “savor” of the clash between good and evil. No one thinks that structural racism is a merely “dry and technical” issue. There’s no good reason to think that other structural matters are “dry and technical,” either.
That is something that Rand got right, and it’s something that non-Randians might (ironically enough) learn from her. “Nothing made by man had to be; it was made by choice” (Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 37). What was made by choice can be judged in moral terms, and that goes for the structural shortcomings of political systems as well.
As I was saying, not all choices are dry and technical. Just look at ARS’s choice to invite Yaron Brook to speak at the APA.