On May 14th 2005, David Kelley spoke on “The Ideas That Promote Terrorism” at a “March against Terror” sponsored by an organization called Free Muslims Coalition. Although I heard that Kelley was slated to speak at that event, I didn’t notice that his remarks were posted on the web site of The Objectivist Center until an alert NoodleFood reader brought them to my attention. I’ve grown weary of beating on poor Ed Hudgins, a man seemingly incapable of grasping even my basic criticisms. So I hoped that David Kelley might say something more interesting and revealing in such a speech. I was not disappointed.
Kelley begins by saying:
I am not a Muslim. Nor am I a Christian, or a Jew. My philosophy of life, Objectivism, is a secular philosophy. But we are gathered here to protest the evil of terrorism in the name of values that transcend differences in religion and worldview.
Since a person’s values are determined by his worldview, whether in the form of religion or philosophy, what values might possibly “transcend differences in religion and worldview”? What values might be consistent with a wide range of positions on the basic nature of existence, the nature and means of knowledge, and the standard of the good? In fact, no such free-floating values are possible, as Ayn Rand certainly understood. That’s why the complex abstractions of philosophy matter so very much!
Yet we should wonder: Of what values is David Kelley speaking? He doesn’t say immediately, but his last paragraph identifies them explicitly:
I appeal to all those, of any creed or philosophy, who stand for human life and happiness, for freedom, for progress and for its source–the free exercise of reason–to join in opposing those who want to control the mind, roll back progress, stifle freedom–and who are willing to kill and maim to do so.
In other words, people of “any creed or philosophy” can “stand for human life and happiness, for freedom, for progress and for its source–the free exercise of reason” — meaning that any view is compatible with any other, that logical consistency is unimportant, and that philosophy is irrelevant to life.
Really though, I shouldn’t be so astonished. Those comments just confirm my much-criticized interpretation of the last paragraph of Kelley’s “Party of Modernity” article. (In my public statement of disassociation from TOC, I wrote that David Kelley advocated “a pragmatic and superficial approach to political advocacy in which ‘allies and converts’ to the cause of freedom need not be philosophically grounded in the modernist worldview” in that article.) This latest speech merely offers a clearer and stronger statement of the same basic view.
Of course, most people are inconsistent in their personal philosophies, sometimes due to an honest failure to properly integrate. If we wish to encourage the better ideas of such people, then we must identify the contradictions, argue against the bad ideas, and argue for the better ideas via their proper foundation. We ought not overwhelm people with arguments, but we should take a clear stand in favor of rational philosophy — all the way down to the roots. That’s a necessary part of respecting others as a rational, thinking, honest people, I think. If we instead pretend that the conflicts between ideas don’t matter, we thereby encourage irrationality, disintegration, and carelessness. We also leave decent people open to the dangerous influence of the consistent advocate of their bad ideas.
Skipping a paragraph, Kelley continues:
The terrorists claim that violent jihad is the true path of Islam. I do not believe this for a minute. But I am not a Muslim. I have studied Islam and the history of Islamic civilization, but I am not a believer, I have not absorbed its traditions and practices, I do not know it from the inside. So it is not for me to say what is and is not part of Islam. Since 9/11, many people who knew nothing about Islam before have taken to citing passages from the Quran, either to prove that it does call for violent jihad or to prove instead that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. But you can’t tell what a religion means by citing passages out of context. Christians, too, can cite passages in the Bible to support different ideas about their religion. Like Christianity, and Judaism, and the other world religions that have endured for centuries, Islam includes many different sects and interpretations. Within the broad outlines of Islamic doctrine, the pillars of the faith, the meaning of Islam is a function of what it actually means to those who believe it, practice it, and study it.
The meaning of Islam is for Muslims themselves to determine in their thoughts and actions. If they believe that violent jihad is not compatible with Islam, then they are the ones who have the power, and the responsibility, for making it so. They and they alone must define what the religion means in the world today. But only if they make their viewpoint known. Unfortunately, it is the Islamists who have so far had the loudest voice. That’s why it’s vitally important for Muslims themselves to speak out against the terrorists and reject their actions as evil–absolutely evil, no ifs, ands, or buts. Too many Islamic spokesmen have taken “Yes, but” attitudes: Yes, the violence is wrong but Palestinians are still oppressed… or Yes, but there is still discrimination against Arab-Americans… or Yes, whatever. Well, yes indeed, these issues deserve our attention. But they do not justify or excuse murder and destruction. The “Yes, but” statements serve only to praise the terrorists with faint damns.
In essence, Islam is whatever its adherents want it to be, limited only by its Five Pillars of Faith. Muslims may ignore, reject, or revise any of the teachings found in its scripture, even if their meaning is clear and undisputed. In fact, Muslims positively ought to do so in order to render the religion less hospitable to terrorists. So Kelley does not reject the idea that “violent jihad is the true path of Islam” on the grounds that his study of the sacred texts and history have shown that the religion is fundamentally one of peace and tolerance. Rather, he rejects the very of idea of anything like a “true path of Islam.” The nature of religion is to be subjectively defined by its adherents.
As my astute e-mail correspondent observed, David Kelley’s subjectivist vision of Islam parallels his subjectivist vision of Objectivism as an open system. If we paraphrase his comment on Islam to apply to Objectivism, it reads: “Within the broad outlines of Objectivist doctrine, the fundamental principles of the system, the meaning of Objectivism is a function of what it actually means to those who believe it, practice it, and study it.” That’s nothing but the open system in a nice little nutshell!
Absurdly enough, this open system view of Islam isn’t even compatible with its Five Pillars. The first pillar states that “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.” Since the Koran is the word of God as transmitted through the prophet Muhammed, any Muslim who ignored, rejected, or revised its teachings would be violating its basic tenets.
Moreover, Kelley’s application of the open system to Islam isn’t even consistent with his own discussions in Truth and Toleration. There, he specifically contrasts the open nature of philosophic systems with closed systems like “religions and totalitarian ideologies” (T&T 58). Yet I’m not sure that matters, since Kelley may not even believe this argument about Islam as an open system. (I don’t think it has any of the superficial plausibility of his argument about Objectivism.) Perhaps he regards it as the only plausible method of rendering the Islamic world less interested in blowing us to smithereens. (I’ve heard prominent intellectuals involved with TOC defend intellectual dishonesty about Islam on just those grounds.)
In general, if Muslims wish to persuade their brothers in faith that Islam preaches tolerance, values life, and supports democracy, so be it. I regard such arguments as deeply disingenuous based upon my extensive readings on Islamic doctrine and culture from college. They merely attempt to glue a cheap veneer of secular values overtop the stinking heap of Islamic mysticism, primitivism, and authoritarianism. Certainly, I would never wish to take part in such intellectual dishonesty.
However, the alternatives are not limited to either passive resignation to terrorism or dogmatic preaching to nobody. The proper approach is the clear, consistent, and uncompromising advocacy of reason — as practiced by Ayn Rand all her life. We cannot hope to persuade a person to choose reason over faith, life over death, happiness over sacrifice, freedom over statism, and prosperity over poverty — unless we are intellectually honest and clear enough to present those as the either-or options. We cannot hope to change a culture by encouraging people to graft values like reality, reason, independence, and egoism onto a foundation of God, faith, authority, and altruism. At best, the result will be the construction of a mental wall between a person’s abstract ideas and his concrete choices, i.e. between philosophy and life.
If we are uncompromising champions of reason, some younger Muslims may be persuaded to abandon Islam for a more rational philosophy. Yet most will not be — but they may be influenced to varying degrees over the years. If the message is watered down by compromise and delusion, no substantial change for the better is possible.
I won’t bother discussing the rest of Kelley’s speech, as I think I’ve said enough already. I did want to comment on this endorsement though:
I salute Kamal Nawash for the absolute, unqualified stand he has taken, and for his courage and commitment in speaking out. I salute the Free Muslims Against Terrorism for sponsoring this rally. I urge everyone to support them and make common cause with them.
Mind you, this bit of text constitutes an explicit and wholehearted endorsement of a pro-Muslim organization in a speech that never criticizes Islam, religion, faith, or whatnot. That the “Free Muslims Coalition” is deeply tied to Islam is evident from its web site. On its About Us page, the group describes itself as “promot[ing] a modern secular interpretation of Islam which is peace-loving, democracy-loving and compatible with other faiths and beliefs” and “encourag[ing] Muslims and Arabs to be proud of their faith and at the same time critical.” On its Democracy page, the group justifies its advocacy of democracy on the grounds that “Islam is a religion, not a blueprint for the creation of a modern state” such that “the Koran does not contain sufficient guidance for the creation of a state.” (If only it did provide such a blueprint, presumably we would be obliged to adhere to it!) On its Terrorism page, the group claims that in “a modern day context… no holy war needs to be waged; there is no clear and present threat to Islam.” (If only Islam were threatened, then we could slaughter the infidel!) In other words, Islam governs all, even if only as rationalization.
Of course, I’d rather be friendly with the Free Muslims Coalition than with Hamas or Islamic Jihad. That’s not the point, however, since that’s not the choice at hand, now or ever. The point is that David Kelley is promoting a pro-Muslim organization in both word and deed. He is thereby sanctioning Islam, albeit only when dishonest enough to deny its true nature and implications.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to compare and contrast this explicit sanction of Islam with David Kelley’s implicit sanction of the subjectivism of libertarianism in his talk to the Laissez Faire Supper Club so many years ago.
In that talk to the Laissez Faire Supper Club, David Kelley clearly identified reason, egoism, and mind-body integration as necessary to any proper defense of liberty. He openly criticized those who defend liberty on the grounds that we shouldn’t force anyone to conform to our inherently subjective notions of right and wrong. Given the content of his speech, it can seem more than a bit strange to say that David Kelley sanctioned subjectivism in giving it. That’s pretty much what he says in defense of it in “A Question of Sanction“:
The sole purpose of the occasion was to hear my explanation of why individual rights and capitalism cannot be established without reference to certain key principles of Objectivism: the absolutism of reason, the rejection of altruism, and the commitment to life in this world as a primary value. Since I explicitly criticized libertarian ideas that are incompatible with those principles, I was obviously not endorsing them.
Understanding the criticism leveled at this talk requires understanding the precise way in which the libertarian movement is thoroughly subjectivist. Obviously, not all libertarians are subjectivist in the substantive sense of opposing the initiation of force because right and wrong are just a matter of personal opinion. After all, many libertarians advocate some particular moral foundation for liberty, whether utilitarian public good, vague common sense, Christian scripture, or even Objectivism. However, that doesn’t rescue the libertarian movement from the charge of subjectivism, but only confirms it. The movement is wide open to any claimed foundation for liberty, no matter how absurd. So while each individual person might have his own preferred moral foundation, his libertarian alliance with others simply on the basis of claimed agreement with the principle of the non-initiation of force amounts to an admission that his moral foundation is optional. Even if he claims otherwise, his actions speak louder than his words.
Peter Schwartz makes his general point in his essay “On Moral Sanctions“:
If one wishes to reach those who have been defrauded by Libertarianism, it cannot be done by speaking under the auspices of the defrauders. It cannot be done even if one’s topic is why Objectivism offers the proper foundation for genuine liberty. Such a talk grants Libertarianism precisely the moral sanction it seeks and thrives on. Libertarians will readily listen to a talk on Objectivism and liberty–and the next day they will invite someone to speak on why the Bible is the only basis for liberty–and the next week they will hear someone argue why only skepticism and amoralism can validate liberty, etc. They lap this up. It is all entirely consistent with Libertarianism. It is consistent with the philosophy that philosophies and reasons are irrelevant to a belief in “liberty.” By speaking under the roof of an organization dedicated to purveying Libertarianism, one concedes that Libertarianism does in fact value liberty (and is simply confused about the proper means–i.e., Objectivism–by which to gain that end). Once that fatal concession is made, Libertarianism has obtained the basic moral sanction its survival requires.
The contradiction, then, is this: The handful of Libertarians who may be open to reason need to be told that Libertarianism as such is anti-liberty and that Libertarian organizations should be boycotted. But this cannot be conveyed via a talk which is itself sponsored by a Libertarian organization.
Paul also developed an excellent analogy on this point in his Fable of the Cardiac Surgeon.
So over the course of more than 15 years, David Kelley has moved from the implicit sanction of libertarianism to the explicit sanction of Islam. In light of his pragmatist rules of association, I’m not surprised.
However, I am astonished that any claimed Objectivist could sanction such activities by continuing to associate with The Objectivist Center — whether by donating money, speaking at conferences, or defending their activities. I have some small hope that a few will soon wake up to smell the now-overpowering strench of stinky garbage. I hope they do so sooner rather than later, as they already have much explaining to do.