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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Dear Ghate, It Needs More Cowboy


Onkar Ghate is a "senior fellow and chief content officer at the Ayn Rand Institute," and "the Institute’s resident expert on Objectivism," so his articles are an important gauge of thought leadership within Objectivist circles.  Last year I wrote a post titled, Onkar Ghate Loses the Plot, criticizing his article wherein he channels Ayn Rand's ghost to warn us about the rise of Trump.  More recently, I wrote a post identifying a more fundamental epistemological error that aims to both explain the flawed method underlying his Trump article and generally account for the hostility and controversy on political issues within Objectivist circles.  Am I being hypercritical of Ghate?  Yes.  These are not musings from some random person but articles that carry the imprimatur of the estate of Ayn Rand, and as such, they deserve heightened criticism.

In his latest piece, Ghate "shares some thoughts on the tribalist nature of American society today in light of the 75th anniversary of The Fountainhead."  Once again, this article displays a recurring error: context-dropping and rationalism.  As his very first example of "American tribalism," Ghate writes:
Cable news outlets now routinely support their side, right or wrong, and level strong criticism only at opponents. Imagine the vitriol Fox News would have directed at Obama had he bashed the U.S. intelligence services and FBI the way that Trump does.
In making such a claim, notice that he disregards important context and facts.  Through the work of investigative journalists like Sara Carter, Kimberley Strassel, and John Solomon, Congressional committees in both the House and the Senate, and Inspector General Michael Horowitz, it has become obvious that Obama weaponized the FBI and the intelligence services (as well as the IRS and the FISA courts) to serve his political agenda and Hillary's presidential campaign.  During the campaign, and since Trump's election, Obama appointees and holdovers like Loretta Lynch, James Comey, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Rod Rosenstein, and ex-intelligence big-wigs like James Clapper and John Brennan have been engaged in an ominous shadow campaign to prosecute, undermine, and delegitimize the Trump administration which is tantamount to a virtual coup d'etat on an elected President.

Now, if this is true, and it is, Trump has every right to bash the U.S. intelligence services and the FBI.  In fact, one of the most important reasons I voted for Trump was in the hopes that, if nothing else, he'd begin the process of dismantling this Deep State rogue's gallery which threatens to undermine civil liberties by hijacking these supposedly non-partisan agencies to spy on and persecute innocent Americans.

Yet Ghate, in seeming ignorance of these facts, equates the two sides, as if legitimate and warranted public accusations of government corruption are equivalent to the vitriol of those who obfuscate and lie to protect that corruption.  By covering these investigations, Fox News among many other conservative outlets have heroically helped to push back on the mainstream media's onslaught of anti-American propaganda.  Is Ghate really equating the likes of Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, Joseph DiGenova, and Alan Dershowitz to Joy Reid and Morning Joe - or equating a Rep. Trey Gowdy to a democrat shill like Rep. Adam Schiff? Does he even know who these people are?    

Ignoring facts and context, and leveling a tribalist charge at both sides, as if the two were nothing more than mindless warring collectives, is a dramatic example of context-dropping and rationalism that undermines the cause for political freedom.  Ignoring that one side is right and one side is wrong, at least in this particular context, also feeds the relativist narrative that both extremes are nothing but "ideologues" who stand in the way of "progress" (we know what that is).  In the very next paragraph, he writes:
Our elections are increasingly discussed in terms not of ideas but of how the white, black, Hispanic, old, young, male and female vote will fall. We then watch as white supremacists and Antifa members battle in the streets.
Here, notice how he implicitly grants Antifa some amount of credibility by implying they are a group who battles white supremacists.  Of course, Antifa doesn't just fight with white supremacists.  They are a violent fascist movement that attacks everyone who is not Antifa, including conservatives, Objectivists, Libertarians, and even liberal free-speech advocates.  The actual white supremacist movement is a small, fringe lot of nut jobs, whereas the cultural Marxists, and their Antifa brown shirts, dominate the universities and the mainstream media while propagating the vicious theory that "whiteness" is white supremacy - a chilling precursor to real fascism and genocide.

While Ghate tries to make the reasonable point that tribalism leads to these sorts of violent political factions, by dropping the context of the nature of Antifa and the larger identity-politics movement, he obfuscates the fact that it is primarily left-wing academics who are formally Balkanizing American society into victim groups and animating violent groups like Antifa.  Antifa uses the existence of these paltry fringe alt-right groups, who one rarely sees or even hears about, as a red herring to justify a broad attack on western civilization under the premise that western civilization is nothing but a fascistic regime of oppression and genocide (see Spike Lee's latest rant), which is why they quickly moved from tearing down statues of confederate generals to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  

These Marxists conflate defenders of actual individual freedom with literal Nazi's, proceeding to justify the use of fascist tactics against free speech and individual rights activists.  And Ghate plays right into their hands.

Once again, by ignoring today's political context, and by taking a seemingly neutral stand with respect to today's right and left, he implies that today's right are nothing more than mindless partisans, represented by Fox News and "white supremacists," lashing out at their soulless mirror images on the left.  I can hardly imagine a more complete acceptance of a vicious left-wing false alternative (e.g., see this articleHow Freedom of Speech Warriors Mainstreamed White Supremacists).

Ayn Rand said that freedom of speech was the last line of defense on the way to despotism, and it is under attack in a way I have not seen in my lifetime.  Virtually every western country besides the United States is prosecuting "hate speech" which today, I guess, means criticizing Islam and tomorrow, could mean criticizing the President, Nancy Pelosi, or the Party.  While I do not endorse the entirety of today's right and its various constituencies, which includes even liberal civil libertarians like Alan Dershowitz, they are the ones who are fighting for freedom of speech and the rule of law.  What unites and animates this movement is opposition to the growing power of the left, who act through the universities to inculcate legions of students into cultural Marxism, which then seeps into media, corporate policies (which many Objectivists fervently defend), and ultimately laws that promise to stifle individual freedom and violently suppress dissent.


While Ghate's intention seems to be to emphasize and distinguish the power and importance of individual reason and judgment against rampant ethno-centric identity politics, it's important to understand what collectivism is and isn't.  First, he seems to imply a false alternative between collectivism and political movements, or groups as such, as if identifying with or acting as part of a movement within a given context, in this case fighting against the left-wing progressive agenda, is somehow contrary to the ethos of individualism.  This could be seen when he equated the validity of Fox News (the right) with Obama's corrupt cabal or when he implicitly equated opponents of Antifa to white-supremacists.

He then arbitrarily dismisses cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, as a collectivist who "teach(es) a lethal collectivist doctrine: that each of us is a product of our heredity and environment, unable freely to think or act." Does studying or being informed by a scientific view of the brain's physiology, cognitive bias in aggregate populations, or factors of psychology or culture automatically kick one into the pure determinist camp (see Pinker on his actual theory of free will)?   Claims like this, made outside the context of facts or even a reference of some kind, undermine his credibility.  Later he even seems to imply that any link to culture is a form of collectivism.  He writes:
Instead, too many of our schools teach students that their identities come from their “ethnicity” — an irrational stew of the unchosen and the passively accepted, such as the place they happen to have been born, the genes they inherited, the religious dogmas they follow, the clothes they wear, the foods they eat, and the traditions their ancestors practiced.
While it's true that identity should not be tied inexorably to ethnicity or cultural tradition as such, it's important not to endorse a false alternative.  Collectivism is the idea that you are determined by your membership in a group, i.e., that your fate is sealed by your class, the geography of your birth, or some factor beyond your control.  Individualism holds that each person possesses free will and reason and thus can make independent judgments.  However, rationality is not automatic - it is a potential.  People are influenced, by a myriad of complex factors including their evolutionary biology (facts studied by scientists like Steven Pinker), their family, and the culture around them, where culture is defined as the dominant ideas and customs prevailing in each country or geographical area.

It seems that Ghate, like many Objectivists, in the name of opposing collectivism and upholding individualism, regard the ideal individual to be, in some sense, impervious to factors such as biology, family, culture, etc. as if acknowledging that such external factors influence people (for the better or worse) is an implicit endorsement of collectivism.  Of course, this is a fallacy. 

Could a boy growing up in a communist dictatorship or an Islamist theocracy independently conclude that dictatorship is evil and that he is living in a hell hole?  Yes, it is possible, but it would take a heroic level of intellectual ability and fortitude to overcome the influence of his conditions not to mention a practical means to hear and learn better, albeit outlawed, ideas. That is precisely why we revere Ayn Rand, who amazingly recognized the evils of Bolshevism at a young age and could escape to the west.  It is why we marvel at Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others who heroically maintain fidelity to their independent judgment against the influence of their family, their culture, their government, and even physical torture.

This is not a denial of the potential of individualism, it is a statement of fact regarding the difficulty of practicing rationality and why we regard it as a virtue.  Moreover, it is an affirmation of the nature of human cognition.  It takes time and effort to learn and integrate new knowledge.  Broad ideas about the nature of man, reason, individual rights, the proper role of government, etc. are not self-evident.  They are complex concepts developed over hundreds of years, the results of which are woven into the fabric of our culture through education, law, custom, language, art and so on.

However, while independent rational judgment can overcome biology and cultural customs (except in extreme cases), and we uphold reason as the primary tool for achieving individual success, we should not dismiss the influence of outside factors or regard those who study these influences to be "collectivists," unless they wrongly hold that we are inexorably determined by these influences.

These facts are part of the very basis for why we regard political freedom as necessary to the proper life of the individual, and why family is so important in serving to educate young people to value and uphold reason and individualism from an early age.  It is precisely why we say we are fighting for the culture - the dominant ideas prevailing in our society.  We want the value of reason and individual freedom to be widely spread in such a way that these ideas naturally impact and affect every aspect of our lives.  

We can both exercise independent judgment and welcome inspiring cultural achievements while disparaging objectively awful cultures that espouse slavery and superstition.  Americans should admire the genius of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and the great industrialists.  We should be swept away by the uplifting art of Fred Astaire and Walt Disney.  We romanticize the Wild West and the rugged life of the American pioneers and the cowboys who symbolize the American spirit of hard work, freedom, and independence.  Growing up in a certain region deeply attaches one to his family, his ancestors, and his community, and the traditions of those groups - positive customs related to family life, holiday traditions, food, dance, art and the like.  This is an observable scientific fact that should be studied, understood, and embraced where it is positive - particularly if you have Italian ancestry like me and love pasta.

Dismissing the relevance or importance of primary cultural and genetic factors as merely "the place you happen to grow up" or "the genes you inherited" is an evasion of reality and, in my view, undermines the case for reason.  Even if we think these factors are usually marginal relative to the power of reason, the case for reason and the potential of rationality must be made within the context of these known scientific and qualitative factors.  While likely not his intention, Ghate's whole article and description of Roark in the Fountainhead, left me wondering if he sees the ideal man as a kind of wooden Platonic Mr. Spock-like vessel of reason pitted against a folk dancing robotic automaton.  The "resident expert on Objectivism" needs to do better.


Peter Smith said...

"Dismissing the relevance or importance of primary cultural and genetic factors as merely "the place you happen to grow up" or "the genes you inherited" is an evasion of reality and, in my view, undermines the case for reason."

The proper reason that the genes you inherit and where you grew up are dismissed by individualists and advocates of reason is because these are things beyong the control of the individual. Your ideas and actions are not. THAT's the reality.

So there are very, VERY few contexts in which these things matter to an individualist and they are very narrow in scope when they do. E.g. your genes may be important in terms of protecting yourself from certain medical conditions you might be predisposed towards.

Certainly these "scientific and qualitative factors" you keep bringing up have absolutely zero place in a political discussion and if you think any question about what a government should or should not do can in any way be affected by "where someone grew up" then you would be the one guilty of dropping the context, if nothing else.

The Rat Cap said...


As usual, you missed my point entirely and simply assert the opposite as true. So let me try again, not for you since you won't acknowledge my point or be swayed by it, but for anyone else reading this.

If you are born in North Korea, that is "beyond the control of the individual" so should you dismiss that fact? If you are born mentally challenged, that is "beyond the control of the individual", so should you dismiss that fact? If you are born in the inner city and your parents are crack addicts, that is "beyond the control of the individual" so should you dismiss that fact?

Do these examples not "matter to an individualist," and are they really "narrow in scope?"

Sometimes external factors are not important or irrelevant, sometimes they are. It depends. That's why I qualified my statement with even (in many contexts) "we think these factors are marginal to the power of reason..."

In my post, I argued that acknowledging, identifying or examining external influencing factors like genes, culture, family, etc. is not a denial of individualism, it is a statement of fact regarding the difficulty of practicing rationality and why we regard it as a virtue. Moreover, it is an affirmation of the nature of human cognition. It takes time and effort to learn and integrate new knowledge. "Reason is not automatic!"

In fact, you are dropping the very context of how we acquire knowledge about the validity and power of individualism. How did you come to understand (or maybe misunderstand) the concept of individualism? It takes time and effort to understand this concept first hand, to compare and contrast it to other alternatives, to experience the consequences in real life, and to consciously and positively uphold it as a value. Was that an automatic process like plugging an electric cord into a wall to power an appliance? Why do Objectivist institutions and activists even exist? Why do bad people exist? Shouldn't everyone come to these conclusions automatically according to you?

Understanding and making the case for rationality as a virtue requires understanding the full context of facts related to how our brains perceive and integrate facts into concepts. Denying these factors is a form of evasion and context-dropping.

This commentary was addressed to the implications of Ghate's writing which seems to dismiss these external factors and implies a kind of false alternative between collectivism and individualism.

The main point was that acknowledging these factors is not a denial of individualism nor is it an instance of collectivism. As true individualists, we should acknowledge these factors and stress the importance of rationality to overcome factors that make it difficult for people to realize their full potential. That is why we value proper education and activism to change the culture. If you were right, those things wouldn't matter.

Where was the "political discussion" you reference? Oh wait, there was none, because I was speaking to a proper, contextual understanding of reason and individualism and contrasting it with the implications of Ghate's article.