Symbolism and Emotion

A Facebook friend of mine brought to my attention two answers that Ayn Rand gave in her Q & A sessions that might be of use to us in this discussion of the planned mosque near Ground Zero. The relevant answers can be found in Robert Mayhew’s edited collection, Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A on pages 94 and 101.

On page 94, Rand is asked, “What do you think about the killing of innocent people in war?” In her answer, Rand explains that, in times of war, the aggressor is properly seen as “stepp[ing] outside the principle of rights.” The consequence of identifying a country as an aggressor nation, she says, is that the principle that prohibits the killing of innocent persons, no longer applies to the killing of civilians in the aggressor nation. She acknowledges that the majority of people living under the government of the aggressor nation may even be innocent, and yet still, “they must pay the price for the sins of their government.”

The trick with applying Rand’s reasoning to the present case is that we are dealing not with an aggressor nation, but with an aggressor religious organization. Yes, there are some nations that can be identified as synonymous with it — Iran for starters — but otherwise it is an organization with members living throughout the world, some active, some quite passive. Do all of the members of this organization give up their rights, such that, as some people have been asking, we would be justified in, e.g., bombing all mosques in the United States? I think there are some rights that Muslims give up simply by identifying themselves with an aggressor organization. But this would be minimal (e.g., being subjected to heightened scrutiny in certain contexts, even without particularized suspicion). However, more extreme measures would be called for — e.g., deporting or imprisoning large numbers of people, or closing down mosques en masse — only if doing so was necessary to eliminate the threat posed by this enemy, with minimal loss of life on our side. And, at least in my judgment, I don’t think it is.

What is clear, though, is that with respect to the “prime movers” within the aggressor organization, the concept of rights is simply inapplicable. I’ve done a little reading in the so-called “Just War Theory” literature, and I think the following definition of “combatant,” given by philosopher Jeffrie G. Murphy, may be helpful. A combatant, writes Murphy, is anyone “who may reasonably be regarded as engaged in an attempt to destroy you.” Of course people can be “engaged in an attempt to destroy you” even if they are not the ones performing the physical actions entailing the proximate cause of your destruction. Providing aid and comfort is enough. And, if you’ve been following this debate, you’ve likely been pointed to sources supporting a reasonable belief that those behind the planned mosque at Ground Zero are such people. (Ed Cline’s article at Rule of Reason is the most recent example.) Whether those who own or operate other mosques in the United States are such people, is a different question, one I am not attempting to answer here.

So, while Rand is (unfortunately for us, perhaps fortunately for her) not around today to weigh in on this issue, I believe she would have thought it fantastic to defend the property rights of those behind the planned mosque near Ground Zero. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether she may even have quickly brushed aside the “rule of law” issue we’ve been discussing as well.

Which brings me to the point illustrated by Rand’s second answer: the importance of the image projected by America to the world, and the value of symbolism. On page 101 of the Q & A book, Rand was asked whether the U.S. should agree to sign a treaty to hand over control of the Panama Canal to Panama (Carter signed the treaty in 1977). Rand considered handing over the canal to be an “abysmal slap in the face to American achievement.” She said that, rather than “flatter the feelings or inferiority complex of South America,” we should “maintain our dignity, which we deserve.” She concluded by saying, “There’s no reason to give the Panama Canal away.” Note that, according to Objectivism, government should not be in the business of running and owning canals. And yet Rand thought, in the context, it was better to continue owning/operating the canal, than to be on the receiving end of a “slap in the face of American achievement.” Similarly, I think that, with respect to the planned mosque near Ground Zero, Rand would be very much concerned with what allowing it to be built would mean, how it would be perceived, both by our enemy, and by others around the world.

I don’t think one has to have a specialized grasp of Islam to appreciate most of the relevant meaning and symbolism here. Two towers, symbols of American freedom and productivity, were brought down by Jihadists on September 11, 2001. It was the worst, most horrific attack that has ever occurred on American soil. Muslims plan to build a mosque, which will preach the same religion that motivated those Jihadists, just a couple blocks away from the site of that attack. Moreover, they plan to open it on the 10th anniversary of that attack, at which time the Jihadists will no doubt still be at war with us. For more, including the significance of the name “Cordoba”, given to the organization behind the planned mosque, I refer you to an article by Raymond Ibrahim.

Ayn Rand thought that giving away the Panama Canal would be tantamount to an “abysmal slap in the face to American achievement,” and would rather have our country continue to own and operate the canal, than suffer such a loss of dignity. What do you think she would have thought of (a) 9/11, and (b) the idea of a mosque built near Ground Zero? Do you think she would have had any problem with bending, twisting, or distorting whatever invalid laws were available to stop the latter, if all proper avenues for doing so were taken off the table? I don’t.

Thank you , Facebook friend who pointed me to these passages.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Symbolism and Emotion

  1. “Ayn Rand thought that giving the Panama Canal represented an “abysmal slap in the face to American achievement,” and would rather have our country continue to own and operate the canal, than suffer such a loss of dignity. What do you think she would have thought of (a) 9/11, and (b) the idea of a mosque built near Ground Zero? Do you think she would have had any problem with bending, twisting, or distorting whatever invalid laws were available to stop it, if all proper avenues for doing so were taken off the table? I don’t.”

    Thank you for pointing this out, Dr. Amy Peikoff.

  2. I am amazed at how many “Objectivist’s” have not read OPAR:

    http://www.peikoff.com/opar/home.htm

    Go READ a copy. It is AWESOME!!!

    Dr. Peikoff got very mad at me for saying this (at first) — but I did not appreciate the depth of Ayn Rand until I read his book.

    Life is awesome thanks to LP writing thisw book.

  3. “In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether she may even have quickly brushed aside the “rule of law” issue we’ve been discussing as well.”

    I think the conversation moved too quickly to the ROL issue. While it is obviously important, it is the “how” part of the discussion. The “what” (we should we do about the GZ mosque) portion is still debated. The ROL discussion diluted the moral discussion. The discussion moved to the “how” right at the point when the “what” was most controversial and unresolved.

  4. Jeff B.

    I think AR would have thought it quite novel to twist bad laws to stop the mosque from being built. I think Amy identified the essential argument in her piece in Cap Mag. To understand, one must first grasp the concept of Islam as an organized entity to disseminate hate and violence. As it took many a while to grasp that a modern nation state, Germany, was capable of the horrors perpetrated during WWII, so it goes with Islam. The trick being that such evil is now cloaked under the guise of religion. A religion of peace, right! Atilla and the witch doctor.

  5. Brad Williams

    Hi Amy, thank you for addressing this issue, I have learned from your posts.

    The rule of law is not the fundamental way to frame the question of blocking the mosque construction, something more fundamental is at issue. What is a proper law? A rule backed by government force which defends individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property. Thus, properly, the rule of law means to institutionalize the protection of those rights. In cases where a law is improper and following it is harmful to one’s liberty and property *but violating it would be catastrophic to your life* the rational thing to do is to follow it. This is the case with taxes: sending my money to the IRS is a great financial burden, but going to prison for tax evasion would not be a mere burden, but a living death. So I pay.

    Such a calculus does not apply in the present case. If following the letter of the law — all 80,000 pages of the Federal Registry — really means allowing the mosque to be built (which is doubtful), and if allowing the mosque to be built means showing the Islamo-fascists that their invasion of America will not, practically, be resisted, then in the name of Life and Liberty those laws need to be violated by our leaders. If no legal standing can be established for blocking the construction, government officials would be justified to simply refer to the principles in the Declaration.

    One does not, in reason, follow the letter of the law exactly when doing so means getting one’s throat cut — tomorrow or in ten years.

    Yes, setting a precedent of usurping the rule of law is bad. Setting aside whether that’s what this would be, how about setting a precedent of using government force to defend ourselves against those who are metaphysically committed to enslaving or murdering every free individual on the planet? The precedent of having a government that defends life and liberty is more important than the precedent of following the letter of every law on the books; or rather, it is the foundation: the defense of our lives and freedoms is why we have laws.

    Finally, a very different point. Most of the defenses of allowing the mosque construction I have read seem to recoil from the prospect of a government blocking the mosque construction for *no good reason*, i.e., doing it “willy nilly”. I don’t think that is the issue, and I don’t think that is what LP described. If that were the issue, we should never say what the a philosophically corrupt government “should” do! Rather, as a rational observer, when I propose that government officials take an action, implicit in that has to be that they do it *for the right reason*. If government employees are going to block the mosque construction and bend the rules in doing so, they must do it understanding why it is the right action to take, and appreciating and voicing the rational justification for it. The question of what *totally* philosophically corrupt agents of the government should just *physically* do is not worth debating. Final cause matters.

    One might “object” that if the government officials had the right reasons for blocking the mosque, then by those same reasons they would first declare war on Iran anyway. That is true, but not really an objection. Where the question is not “what should the US government do in general about the Islamic totalitarianism?” but just “what should the US government do about the mosque construction?”, then the answer has to be: what should government officials do *on this issue* and why. And note that blocking the mosque construction does not contradict what the government should more generally do in the war, it coincides with it.

    To this point, it is not valid to project what a philosophically corrupt government might do after it blocks the mosque construction “willy nilly”, and use *that* as a reason for why the government should not have acted on the rational reason to block the construction. The question of the mosque construction has to be: what should government officials do, and, implicit in this, what must be their reasons.

  6. Another fine piece, Amy — thanks! (I’m done debating this topic in public, but I will share links to Good Stuff now and then.)

  7. eli

    I’ve been following these arguments, and I listened to Leonard Peikoff’s podcast on it, and I still can’t side against their property rights. I think if you go that route, you’d better declare all out war, no mosques allowed anywhere in the US, Muslims identified as enemies of the US, etc.

    How can anyone reconcile the idea of disallowing this mosque, but not other mosques? Because it’s offensive? Because it’s insulting?

    As an aside, I am curious how people advocate defeating Islam without declaring it illegal to be a Muslim in the US. When the enemy hides among innocents (whatever you may think of the ideology, there are some Muslims who do not support murderers), wears no uniform, has allegiance to no nation, and no geography, fighting seems pretty tricky.

  8. Paul Hsieh

    This discussion has been enormously clarifying to me. In particular, it’s helped me understand that if we’ve established that the NYC mosque indeed poses the kind of “objective threat” that we’re concerned about, then there is *no* property rights issue.

    On that point I am in complete agreement with Amy. And I was very much struck by the Panama analogy. It really highlights the price we would way pay if the mosque were allowed to stand.

    However, my main concern is still the “how” to block its construction — i.e., the rule of law issue.

    If Islam does indeed pose the threat we believe it does, then the only way we can effectively fight it is to identify it as such and make that case explicitly to the American people.

    That’s the only way to win — any other approach will simply lead to our defeat. If we just bury our heads in the sand and pretend that Islam is just another peace-loving religion, then we’ll lose. If we treat the jihadists as just a set of fringe extremists, then our tactics will fail and we’ll lose.

    And if we fight them with non-objective law, then we may gain some short-term victories, but we’ll still ultimately lose either by (1) those non-objective laws being only temporarily effective or (2) perhaps actually defeating the Islamists but with means which would then be turned against us next to destroy our freedom at home. Either way, we’ll still lose.

    Reality “accepts no substitutes”. Hence, if we fight the enemy with the wrong methods, then we’ll lose — the only question will be exactly how.

    It’s like being stranded in the middle of the ocean with nothing to drink but seawater, and dying of thirst. You might drink the seawater and feel temporarily better, but it won’t actually sustain your life in the end. Or you can not drink the seawater and die of thirst. As a pure fact of reality, the only way you will live is if you manage to create or find life-sustaining fresh water.

    But the “drinking the seawater vs. doing nothing” is a lose-lose proposition.

    I know some people are saying essentially, “This is an emergency. Let’s use the non-objective means now, while fighting as hard as we can to defend objective law in the future”. I can understand and respect that position. My biggest concern is that they may be overestimating the benefits we’ll derive and understimating the price we’ll pay.

    So here’s my “elevator pitch” conclusion:

    It’s always important for the government to wield its powers in an objective fashion.

    But when we’re in a war, it’s super-important that government act objectively — precisely there may be special situations in which using force may be appropriate that wouldn’t be in normal contexts.

    And during such extraordinary times, it is when our government *most* needs to operate with the proper conceptual and moral clarity — and when deviation from that requirement of survival would be especially disastrous.

    • Obviously a government acting objectively to stop this mosque would be the ideal. But I would settle for it acting to stop the mosque at all, with the majority of Americans stepping in to provide the moral clarity on behalf of our deficient government. Polls show that a majority of voters in NYC oppose the mosque: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/07/01/2010-07-01_more_than_half_of_new_york_voters_oppose_ground_zero_mosque_plan_poll.html

      And that’s NYC!

    • Guest

      If Islam does indeed pose the threat we believe it does, then the only way we can effectively fight it is to identify it as such and make that case explicitly to the American people.

      That’s the only way to win — any other approach will simply lead to our defeat. If we just bury our heads in the sand and pretend that Islam is just another peace-loving religion, then we’ll lose. If we treat the jihadists as just a set of fringe extremists, then our tactics will fail and we’ll lose.

      And if we fight them with non-objective law, then we may gain some short-term victories, but we’ll still ultimately lose either by (1) those non-objective laws being only temporarily effective or (2) perhaps actually defeating the Islamists but with means which would then be turned against us next to destroy our freedom at home. Either way, we’ll still lose.

      This is exactly the same point I made on Noodlefood, and your wife called me obsessed, a coward, and subhuman. I guess she didn’t like it when, instead of describing it through the context of “If conservatism and liberalism does indeed pose the threat we believe it does, then the only way we can effectively fight it is to identify it as such that make that case explicitly to the American people.

      “That’s the only way to win – any other approach (Libertarianism) will simply lead to our defeat. If we just bury our heads in the sand (ie: if we act like Libertarians and concede that individual rights needs no philosophical justification), then we’ll lose.

      “If Objectivists fight conservatives and liberals with philosophically-empty rhetoric about liberty, then we may gain some short-term victories, but we’ll ultimately lose either by (1) the altruist-collectivist culture will run us out of power in short order or (2) perhaps actually establishing individual liberty but with means which would make a long-term defense of what we’ve gained impossible. Either way, we’ll still lose.”

  9. I agree with Paul. The more I think about it, an actual (proper) declaration of war is necessary. That does not include our ridiculous “war” against Afghanistan or our dwindling occupation of Iraq. Neither opponent represents the enemy that will fund and erect this mosque.

    I cannot see how an objective basis for an extraordinary action by government would exist short of a declaration and prosecution of war against Iran, with attendant action against Saudi Arabia, and with the clear understanding that radical Islam is our enemy.

    Absent this, I think the mosque must be allowed to stand, just as all the other mosques stand, and just as the Cuban, et al., missions to the United Nations stand.

    Iran today is a hostile country (as are Cuba, North Korea, etc.) but, in legal fact, it is not one we are at war with. Same is true of Saudi Arabia.

    If our government confiscates the mosque given our current legal context, it amounts to a capricious abuse of government power, and a dangerous expansion of the government’s ability to violate *our* rights.

    • To be clear, I do consider the mosque an objective threat for essentially all the reasons cited.

      I made these comments below in an email discussion, but they expand on my rather terse argument above:

      First, the mosque does represent an objective threat. It will morally and physically embolden and sustain the Islamists. It will properly be seen as an unusual beachhead, strategically placed nearly adjacent to the scene of their greatest physical victory over the Great Satan. All radical Islamists everywhere (and perhaps most Muslims) will properly view our willingness to permit its construction as a craven act of weakness, which it is. I think it is fair to view this in nearly military terms as a beachhead on our shores, which will form a powerful base of operations for radical Islamists to soften Americans towards their message, recruit actual new terrorists, and further their goals in sundry additional ways.

      This is why it would the United States should not permit it to be built.

      *However,* for this to happen the United States government *must* state the nature of the threat, at least to sufficient degree to make the case that an exceptional, war-like act must be taken, one that would otherwise be considered destructive of the right to property, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

      The fact is, we are in a de facto state of war with Iran, et al., and their ideology is our enemy. However, our government is pretending that no such war exists. It is that *evasion* that is so deadly. That is the context that makes a governmental action against this mosque so risky to *our* individual rights.

      Without properly naming the reason for this exceptional action by government, its action can only be construed as a legitimization of a capricious exercise of government power. If such use of power is sanctioned by authorizing its use while evading the full reasons for it, it will only be a matter of time before the sundry power-lusters demand the use of such power to stop their own pet enemies.

      Without properly providing the moral and legal basis for the government’s taking of an emergency, exceptional action such as shutting (or preventing construction) of the mosque, all that will remain is that the government has gained a fresh expansion of its ability to take *capricious* action.

      This will embolden the Left to squelch radicals on the right. It will embolden the Right to squelch their enemies on the Left. It will unleash Cass Sunstein on all of us. And all of these cockroaches of control will head in one general direction: the suppression of free speech. That is the ultimate “take-away” message from the closure of the mosque, that certain *speech* is so offensive that it can be terminated.

      Yet if we were in war or if the enemy were properly named, the enemy’s speech can be properly silenced. Moreover, the safeguard to our liberty is that we know that this is a *temporary* state, one that will end when victory is achieved. In contrast, to take this action “on the sly” without a proper justification is to call for an open-ended and permanent expansion of government’s power, without any specified basis for terminating that exceptional exercise of power.

      This is why this issue does boil down to the rule of law. Exceptional reasons must be stated to suspend the *normal* application of the rule of law. Are those reasons being stated in this case? The simple answer must be no because the primary voices against the mosque are Christian fundamentalists (yes, Objectivists are speaking out, but we are not the dominant voice). This whole thing becomes a “my God versus your God” battle because the Christian fundamentalists, apart from their sometimes good American sense of life, can offer little else as justification for their beliefs.

      My bottom line is that the mosque is evil and rightfully inflames passions against it. But exercising those passions to close down the mosque will endanger our liberty.

      • Ashley King

        “*However,* for this to happen the United States government *must* state the nature of the threat, at least to sufficient degree to make the case that an exceptional, war-like act must be taken…”

        So not necessarily a declaration of war but state the nature of the threat. How about, this man Rauf is a supporter of Hamas and Hamas is a terrorist organization? Also, how about the NYC mayor in lieu of our president, since I doubt Obama will do anything?

  10. J.Holden

    This debate has been a good thing for Objectivism because it highlights an issue that Objectivists have been somewhat slow to address, and that is how to classify and deal with Islam proper. Up until this point, Objectivist commentators have been using the terms “radical Islam” or “Islamo-Fascism” or “Totalitarian Islam”, etc.. All these terms give credence to the idea that there is a non-radical Islam or a non-totalitarian Islam. There is not. There is Islam with its eternal call to Jihad and then there are those who are lax in their practice of Islam.

    The Ground Zero Mosque raises questions far beyond just the construction of this Mosque. It raises the question of:

    1) Whether to classify Islam itself as solicitation to commit murder.

    2) Whether Islam should be banned in the West.

    3) Whether Muslims should be allowed to immigrate into the West and if so, under what conditions.

    4) Should there be mass deportations of Muslims from America and Western nations?

    5) What strategies should govern our war policy with Islamic nations. Should we even try to de-Islamize these nations or just destroy them.

    6) Should American foreign policy concerning the Middle East be to effectively quarantine the Islamic Middle East and separate Middle Eastern Muslims from non-Islamic humanity.

    7) How important will domestic energy policy be for these objectives. Can we ever really expect to fight a real war against Middle Eastern nations if we our own domestic energy industry is so socialized.

    These are all difficult questions but I think they need to be answered. One of the many criticisms leveled against Objectivism (especially by Conservatives) is that it is an unrealistic philosophy which is incapable of sustaining a civilization. I have seen Conservatives argue that America can not be defended from Islam on Objectivist and “pure individualist” grounds. Essentially the argument is that Objectivism is a suicide pact. I don’t believe it is but until now I have not seen any serious attempt by Objectivists (barring some exceptions) to address the real nature of Islam and the real threat posed by *Muslims*. Its about time we are having this conversation.

  11. Ashley King

    Hi Amy,

    Are you saying Islam is an aggressor religious organization or just those who advocate actual war against the infidel?

    Just three hundred years ago, before the Enlightenment, Europeans killed so-called witches because the Bible says so. Today, most Christians think this is silly, while some may think it is true, but restrain themselves. Of course, some Christians do kill in the name of saving “the unborn.”

    Now, Muslims have a text that says kill Jews, slay the infidel. Today in the western countries, some Muslims think this is silly and outdated. Many (majority?) sympathize with it, but restrain themselves and do not act on it. A few carry out their duty, as they see it, and you get Fort Hood.

    The Muslim countries have not yet had the benefit of an Enlightenment. Yet in Iran there is a regime that has been at war with us for decades, and a unhappy populus, some at least who seem to be motivated by modern western desires for freedom and individual rights.

    Internationally, we are at war with Iran in the real sense of their attacking us. Philosophically, Saudi Arabia funds the Wahhabist madrassas that indoctrinate the jihadis, like the Taliban. I see them as the enemy. Egypt and Jordan are not my cup of tea, but I don’t think they are our enemy.

    Domestically, those Muslims who financially support terrorist organizations like Hezbolla, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood I think are our enemy. We have the right and obligation to shut them down. They are the ones carrying warlike jihad.

    Those who are silent or passive make me nervous. But if they restrain themselves and do not act on their sympathies, then can we properly shut down their mosques? I don’t think so. The Rauf mosque has got to be stopped because he gives financial support to the flotilla attacks on Israel.

  12. Ed Matthews

    Here are a couple thoughts on the matter.

    1. Obama has pledged $400 million in aid to Palestinians, which really means to Hamas. How does that not make him (and the US) a state sponsor of terrorism?

    http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jun/10/world/la-fg-obama-mideast-20100610

    One argument against the mosque’s existence is that it will promote terrorism. If that argument is sufficient to justify demolishing the mosque — in the absence of government identification of the mosque’s supporters as terrorists or terror supporters — then what would one say to the argument that Obama should face a similar fate? (One objection could be that the symbolic, moral, and intellectual support from the mosque will do more damage in the long run. I’d answer that $400 million will do more damage in the short run.)

    2. I have no problem using nonobjective laws to shut down the mosque, on the grounds that it is a greater evil and more immediate threat than that posed by a US government even more capricious in violating our rights than it is at present, and like Ayn Rand’s answer to the question of accepting government scholarships, it is okay to use them so long as we oppose their existence.

    As I wrote before, we are stuck with this situation because the government refuses to name the enemy. Until that happens, we will continue to lose this war. We need the power of an actual declaration of war to be invoked.

    The final act of concept formation — of assigning a word to a concept — cements the concept in the user’s mind, enabling it to be fully functional within his consciousness. There’s a parallel case here: by naming the enemy and declaring war on them, the context becomes crystal clear and there is no ambiguity about such situations.

    This is why it is imperative to make clear who the enemy is and is not, and why. If we can communicate that much to the general public, so that the average person knows and understands the reasons, the government will have no choice but to identify the enemy by name and declare war.

    I hate the idea of the mosque, but it is a symptom of a conceptual cancer that is metastasizing rapidly. Let’s cure the cancer rather than focus on a symptom. Let’s get the public to understand who our enemy is.

    • Ed Matthews

      By the way, it is important to note, too, the role the government should play, and only the government. One can imagine someone seizing something close to some of the arguments and using that to justify vigilante attacks on the mosque. In war, soldiers are given instructions as to whom the enemy is; they may not kill indiscriminately. It is because they are acting under the direction of the government and have their authority. But a government who does not direct their soldiers to fight an enemy not only prevents the soldiers from doing their job, but also prevents citizens from defending themselves in times of war. This is another reason why the declaration of war is so important, legally and morally.

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