Archived Writings
December 2001


Hope is a great falsifier -- Baltasar Gracian

The long and the short of it

    Peikoff's Genocidal Crusade
Against Islamic Terrorism

By Greg Nyquist


    There is nothing like a great national tragedy to revive the intellectual standing of fringe figures among the chattering classes. On September 10, 2001, Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s handpicked intellectual heir and the executor of her estate, had reached new depths of insignificance. It was not a matter of being held in low regard by the intellectual elite and the public at large. Mr. Peikoff was not regarded at all, one way or the other. He had fallen completely off the national radar screen. Many of his own followers openly scoffed him. The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), the organization he founded to advance the ideas of his mentor, was regarded even by many of Rand’s most fanatical admirers as a major embarrassment. Rumors of financial improprieties circulated among Rand’s disciples. It was said that ARI had become a cash cow for Peikoff’s favorite minions. Stories surfaced that Rand’s private papers, originally earmarked for the Library of Congress, were being sold to raise money for the institute. Chris Sciabarra, the leading Ayn Rand scholar in the world today, accused Peikoff and ARI of tampering with Rand’s work. And Peikoff’s own cousin, Barbara Branden, accused him of publishing stories and essays of Rand that Rand herself never wanted published.

    And so we find in Peikoff a man who, before September 11, was ignored by the general public and despised by many within the so-called “Objectivist” movement. Outside of a handful of true-believing zealots and implacable mediocrities, most admirers of Rand looked to renegade Objectivist David Kelley as their intellectual leader. Kelley’s own organization, “The Objectivist Center,” has rendered ARI obsolete. If it wasn’t for the fact that ARI controls access to Rand’s papers, no reputable scholar would pay any attention to it. All the best Rand scholars are affiliated with Kelley’s organization. 

    Peikoff’s handling of ARI’s rivalry with Kelley’s Objectivist Center is typical of how he deals with opposition and criticism. Anyone affiliated with Kelley is denounced by Peikoff as immoral and he breaks all relations with them. In an article entitled “Fact and Value,” Peikoff accused Kelley and Kelley’s followers of the crime of “tolerance,” which Peikoff described, in his usual pseudo-Randian verbiage, as a “crude…package-deal” that “does not need much analysis,” “a concept (or anti-concept) out of the modern liberals’ world-view” and “a further expression of the philosophy of subjectivism.”

    Under normal conditions men who behave as dubiously as Mr. Peikoff are soon regarded, when they are regarded at all, as cads. This appeared to be Mr. Peikoff’s fate before the events of September 11 gave him the opportunity to show himself in a new light. This is not to imply that Peikoff has recanted. He is as self-absorbed and intolerant as ever. Only now, because of his uncompromising views regarding the war on terrorism, he has been given access to a wider public who knows nothing of the darker side of his persona. Nor does this public have any realization that Mr. Peikoff still remains the most intransigent apologist for Ayn Rand’s worst excesses. Those who have seen Mr. Peikoff interviewed on Fox with Bill O’Reilly or have heard him on Michael Savage’s nationally syndicated radio program hear only the patriotic firebrand. Little do they realize that behind the blazing rhetoric is nothing but a shrill ideologue whose basic ideas contradict all the wisdom accumulated by centuries of conservative scholarship and thought. 

    If we examine Mr. Peikoff’s Philippic against “American appeasement” a little more closely, we will begin to notice some of the flies in the ointment. Peikoff commences his essay by accusing Truman and Eisenhower of surrendering “the West’s property rights in oil, although that oil rightfully belonged to those in the West whose science, technology, and capital made its discovery and use possible.” This surrender, Peikoff avers, occurred for “philosophical” reasons. The U.S. was “ashamed” of its selfishness and individualism. The Muslim countries, on the other hand, “embodied…every idea—selfless duty, anti-materialism, faith or feeling above science, the supremacy of the group—which our universities, our churches, and our own political Establishment had long been upholding as virtue. When two groups, our leadership and theirs, accept the same basic ideas, the most consistent side wins.”

    Peikoff’s take on the conflict between the Arab world and the West may have an aura of plausibility. Deeper penetration into the facts will reveal a far more complicated picture, one which has very little to do with the “philosophical” reasons which Peikoff regards as paramount.

    Is America guilty of surrendering its oil “rights” in the Middle East? In order to answer this question, we must examine Peikoff’s notion of “rights.” Peikoff regards rights as having “a specific source” in Rand’s ethics and in “man’s metaphysical nature.” Ethically, rights “rest on…egoism.” They constitute “an individual’s selfish possessions—his title to his life, his liberty, his property, the pursuit of his own happiness.” 

    Peikoff’s view of rights is “philosophical” in the worst sense of the word. It traces the origin of rights to speculative abstractions which could never influence human conduct in a world governed by the interests and passions of flesh and blood human beings. If you want to know where rights come from, you have to study the issue empirically, following the methods developed by scientists and scholars. 

    There are few scholars in American history whose research into the nature of human society went deeper than that of Yale sociologist William G. Sumner. In his classic work Folkways, Sumner describes “rights” as “the rules of mutual give and take in the competition of life which are imposed on comrades in the in-group, in order that the peace may prevail there which is essential to the group strength.” These rules arise directly out of the mores and are not, Sumner insists, the product of any philosophy. Rights arose only afterward, when reflective men began analyzing the taboos that governed society and developing them into an explicit philosophy. “Rights,” Sumner observes, “are philosophical propositions implicit in the taboos, and to the modern way of thinking [including Peikoff’s], they seem to be assumed in them; but they were never formulated or thought by anybody before the taboo was started.” 

    Rights, then, are not the product of philosophy, but are merely expressions of those “mores” or “folkways” which arise spontaneously in society, just as the grammatical usage arises spontaneously. Once they become embalmed in philosophical concepts, their practical force is often spent. They become nothing more than specious rationalizations of some faction. As Sumner himself observed, “Every civilized state now contains groups who are recalcitrant and protesting, expressing their pain in terms of violated rights. They were weaker parties in some collision of interests. There had to be a decision at last because life must go on; and the decision was enforced by society. This was a use of force, just as men settled disputes with women by force. All the great fabric of what we now prize so highly and justly as rights, has come out of such acts of force against some defeated parties.” 

    Sumner’s point about rights arising out of acts of force is an important one and reveals the empirical vacuity of Peikoff’s verbiage about the “West's property rights in oil.” Thinkers like Peikoff seem to believe that rights are a kind of metaphysical entity which hovers around the individual like an avenging guarding angel. But this is a modern myth which has no basis in fact. Rights, ultimately, can only be defended by force or fraud. Philosophical argumentation is completely without effect in such matters. As the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto aptly put it: “So as between the various social classes no principle of ‘right’ can be found to regulate the division of social advantage. The classes that have the greater strength, intelligence, shrewdness, take the lion’s share.” 

    Once we understood that without might, there can be no right, we can put our finger on what is wrong with Peikoff’s claim that America “surrendered” its right to the oil in the Middle East. In practical terms, no such right existed. Our claim to that oil was founded on one thing and one thing alone: force. We could have bawled about our “right” to those oil fields as much as we pleased. Until we were willing to back up our rhetoric with force, it would remain completely inefficacious—mere words where deeds were called for. 

    But why weren’t we ready to use force to defend our “right” to Arabian oil? Wasn’t our lack of nerve to defend the property rights of American corporations a result of our altruistic, appeasment-centered philosophy, just as Peikoff suggests?

    It is on this point that Peikoff’s view has the most plausibility. But we must be careful not to misconceive what was really going on when America and Britain “surrendered” their property “rights” in the Middle East. Maintaining those rights had over the years become increasingly onerous. As the West found itself confronted by the menace of Stalin’s communist empire, it no longer had the strength to defend the rights of a handful of corporations with economic assets in Third World countries. The time had come when these rights could no longer be defended by so-called “gun boat diplomacy.” They could only be maintained, as the English discovered in the Suez crisis and the French in Algeria, by many sacrifices. Nor is it fair to the leaders of that era to suggest that the West’s appeasement was motivated by the philosophy of “altruism.” When Sir Anthony Eden learned of Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez, he immediately asked his ministers to prepare an invasion. Sir Anthony immediately adopted this course despite the fact that under international law, the nationalization of foreign assets with due compensation (as Egypt had proposed) was the right of every nation. The reason why Britain eventually had to give in to Egypt’s demand had nothing to do with altruism or appeasement or any of the philosophical or moral reasons attributed by Peikoff. It had to do simply with the fact that England did not have the strength to defend its “rights” to the canal by its own strength. After Eden had asked his ministers to prepare an invasion, he was told that it would take at least six weeks. “That should have settled the matter,” states historian Paul Johnson. “A country which cannot invade a small Arab state in less than six weeks is not a great power and had better devise other ways of pursuing its interests.” 

    The lack of realism in Peikoff’s analysis of America’s Middle East problem leads him to adopt a solution which, though it certainly has its appeal, would inevitably bring about more problems than it would resolve. Peikoff believes that the philosophical premises of American intellectuals have weakened the government's resolve to defend itself against terrorism. But in pursuing the logic of this position, he finds himself advocating measures that would only isolate the United States from the rest of the world and insure the end of U.S. power. He argues that the most important target in the Middle East is not Afghanistan or Iraq, but Iran. “Most of the Mideast is ruled by thugs who would be paralyzed by an American victory over any of their neighbors,” he writes. “Iran, by contrast, is the only major country there ruled by zealots dedicated not to material gain (such as more wealth or territory), but to the triumph by any means, however violent, of the Muslim fundamentalist movement they brought to life.” For this reason, “the U.S. can put an end to the Jihad-mongers only by taking out Iran.” “This goal cannot be achieved painlessly, by weaponry alone,” Peikoff admits. “It requires invasion by ground troops, who will be at serious risk, and perhaps a period of occupation.” Moreover, Peikoff advocates the “equivalent of de-Nazifying the country, by expelling every official and bringing down every branch of its government.”

    Would taking out Iran and “de-Nazifying” its governing elite really cure the Middle East of its terrorist problem. No, of course it wouldn’t. Iran’s Muslim fundamentalism goes well beyond its governing classes to embrace large portions of the governed masses. De-Nazification of Germany was possible because most Germans were not Nazis. But an equivalent “de-Nazification” of Iran would hardly be possible short of following a policy of mass extermination. Peikoff’s position, therefore, if followed consistently to its ultimate conclusion, would lead to something approximating the horrors of genocide.

    It is clear from some of the hints that Peikoff drops during the course of his essay that he would not necessarily shrink from following his policy to so great an extreme. At one point, he notes approvingly of Rumsfeld’s refusal to rule out the use of nuclear weapons. But even more disturbing is how Peikoff ends his essay. “The choice today,” he declares, “is mass death in the United States or mass death in the terrorist nations.”

    For those still angry or frightened by the events of September 11, Peikoff’s suggestion may sound appealing. But it is simply demagogic nonsense which, if it were ever taken seriously, would only lead to mass death both in terrorist nations and America. Such a policy would be tantamount to trying to defeat Islamic terrorism with American terrorism. It would alienate the entire world, including Europe and Canada, leading ultimately to the complete isolation of America from the rest of the world. This would not be a wise or practical policy. It would inevitably lead to the destruction of U.S. power worldwide. No country, even if it were in fact the world’s only superpower, can act in complete defiance of civilized morality and world opinion. 

    Peikoff’s advice is, at bottom, impractical and utopian. It is rooted on a naive view of human nature and politics. I have analyzed in depth the logical deficiencies and empirical shortcomings of Peikoff’s Randian philosophy in detail in my book, Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, the most complete critical refutation of the Randian sophistry to date. Rand, despite her opposition to socialism and left-wing humanitarianism, shared many common assumptions with the left, including the Left’s revolutionary view of man’s moral and epistemological potential. Rand believed that not only was moral perfection possible, it was necessary and even mandatory. “Accept the fact that…nothing less than perfection will do,” she once insisted. 

    Conservatives have long opposed this sort of perfectionism as a false ideal, certain to lead to disappointment and disaster. “That man thinks much too highly, and therefore he thinks weakly and delusively, of any contrivance of human wisdom, who believes that it can make any sort of approach to perfection,” wrote Edmund Burke. And the great Italian political scientist, Gaetano Mosca, gave this additional warning concerning the desire to achieve perfection in the matter of “justice”: 

Human sentiments being what they are, to set out to erect a type of political organization that will correspond in all respects to the ideal of justice, which a man can conceive but can never attain, is a utopia, and the utopia becomes frankly dangerous when it succeeds in bringing a large mass of intellectual and moral energies to bear upon the achievement of an end that will never be achieved and that, on the day of its purported achievement, can mean nothing more than triumph for the worst people and distress and disappointment for the good.

    Peikoff, deriving all his intellectual inspiration from the corrupted sources of Rand’s quasi-leftist view of human nature, is not fit to give advice on any important question of social policy. Lacking any knowledge of the fundamentals of realpolitik, his proposals can only serve to distract the individual from confronting the real problems at issue. Randian idealism about human nature and morality is incapable of providing guidance in a world that is far different than either Rand or Peikoff imagines it to be. By following it in their own lives, Rand and Peikoff have brought ignominy and ruin upon themselves and their cause. We should all be wary of taking advice from anyone inspired by such polluted intellectual currents.

    Greg Nyquist is author of Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, which readers can order from the publisher.  (Click the title name above.)

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