In a Blog’s Stead
Archives: November 2003

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Columbus, Iraq, and Manichean Imperialism

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I haven’t read Thomas Bowden’s book The Enemies of Christopher Columbus, but judging from the excerpts printed in the October 2003 issue of the Intellectual Activist (an Objectivist magazine), there is a disturbingly close connection between Bowden’s views on Columbus and the Bush regime’s current foreign policy.

Bowden sets out to defend Columbus’s reputation against his multiculturalist critics. Along the way he makes some good points – e.g., when he argues that “in his religious zealotry or his acceptance of slavery” Columbus “behaved with neither more nor less wisdom than his contemporaries,” and that he should be primarily judged not by the failings he shared with his contemporaries but by the qualities that set him apart – his independent judgment, enterprising spirit, and courage to explore the unknown.

From the fact that Columbus had his good points, however, does it really follow that the critics of Columbus are completely wrong-headed? For Bowden it does. If we are not to demonise Columbus, than it seems we must hagiographise him instead. All the critics of Columbus are “multiculturalists,” and to be a multiculturalist, in Bowden’s view, is to hold some combination of ethical relativism on the one hand and visceral antipathy toward Western civilisation on the other.

This characterization is of course quite wrong. Certainly some self-styled “multiculturalists” fit Bowden’s description, but it’s absurd to suggest that they all do. For a less hysterical definition of multiculturalism, see Bhikhu Parekh’s article What is Multiculturalism? and my comments thereon.

Bowden objects to the American Indian Movement’s description of Columbus’ discovery as “the beginning of the American holocaust, ethnic cleansing characterized by murder, torture, raping, pillaging, robbery, slavery, kidnapping, and forced removals of Indian people from their homelands.” Bowden doesn’t deny that the description is accurate, exactly; he grudgingly grants the existence of what he calls “particular instances of European mistreatment of Indians.” But he regards such grievances as fundamentally unimportant, in light of the great good that was achieved by the European colonisation of the Americas.

If you think this seems like an oddly utilitarian point for a Randian like Bowden to be making – the alleged legitimacy of sacrificing a few individuals for the sake of a greater social good – hold on, things get worse. In response to the question “Even if Western civilization is superior to Indian savagery, does that necessarily imply that Europeans had a right to displace the Indians?” Bowden replies: “Savagery and civilization cannot co-exist in the same geographical area. Civilized people must be able to depend on their neighbors to understand and obey the principles of individual rights .... Primitive peoples, who have not yet reached the concept of a universal moral law governing all human beings as individuals, cannot act on such principles .... In that context, the European immigrants had an absolute right to settle America and displace the Indians – by force when necessary.” Though he generously makes an exception for natives willing to assimilate, like “Pocahontas, who married an Englishman.”

Where have we heard this sort of thing lately? Oh yes, Ann Coulter’s advice about U.S. policy in the Islamic world: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” (Remarks like Bowden’s and Coulter’s are the sorts of lines one would hesitate to give a villain in fiction; they seem too over-the-top. Perhaps the reason fact is stranger than fiction is that fact has no shame.)

In light of the defense of Native American rights put forward by the great 16th-century Aristotelean classical liberals Bartolomé de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria, it seems that Bowden, himself (qua Randian) an Aristotelean classical liberal, is turning his back on his own intellectual heritage.

In addition to the morally indefensible claim that a higher level of civilisation constitutes a license to initiate force against the persons and properties of the less civilized, Bowden also makes the historically indefensible claim that, given the “savagery” of the Native Americans, European colonisation of the Americas could not be expected to have occurred peacefully. For a refutation of this assumption, see Carl Watner’s 1983 JLS article Libertarians and Indians: Proprietary Justice and Aboriginal Land Rights, which documents William Penn’s success in negotiating peaceful and consensual property transfers between natives and Europeans. (Watner also shows that the claim that European and native conceptions of property were entirely incommensurable is exaggerated.)

Bowden’s claim that natives recognised no principles beyond the customs of their own group (“each tribe was a law unto itself, with brute strength the ultimate arbiter”) ignores such phenomena as the Iroquois Confederacy. Brutal acts and practices on the part of natives are proof of their barbarism; brutal acts and practices on the part of European settlers are unimportant exceptions to Western civilised values. Bowden also amalgamates and homogenises the hundreds of different native tribes – agricultural or pastoral, nomadic or town-dwelling, pacific or militaristic, they all seem the same to him. “These predominantly nomadic, stone-age tribes had nothing worth stealing.” (Except their land, of course. Is Bowden really prepared to claim with a straight face that the “Trail of Tears” policy was motivated by self-defense?)

For Bowden the “fundamental issue is whether the settlement of America by the bearers of western civilization over the past five centuries was good or evil.” Couldn’t it be good in some respects and bad in others – with both respects being important and non-negligible? Apparently not. Bowden favours a Manichean view of the world; in a remark that makes explicit the contemporary political relevance of his arguments, he writes: “As President Bush said to the nations of the world at the start of America’s war against terrorism, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ Those who would defend and uphold the values of Western civilization must be willing to make the same bold declaration to the enemies of Christopher Columbus.”

In adopting this Manichean stance Bowden no doubt thinks he is being true to Ayn Rand’s insistence on viewing the world in black-and-white terms. (The pages of the Intellectual Activist are illustrated by a heavy-handed and humourless cartoon feature titled, appropriately, “Black & White World.”) But he is not.

In “The Cult of Moral Grayness” (chapter 9 of The Virtue of Selfishness), Rand makes clear that the proper application of black-and-white evaluations is at the level of principles, not people: “most people are morally ‘gray,’” that is, they act on “mixed, contradictory premises and values”; but while there “may be ‘gray’ men ... there can be no ‘gray’ moral principles.” Rand thus never suggests that in judging an individual like Christopher Columbus or an historical event like the colonisation of America one must always make a blanket judgment of good or bad. On the contrary, she acknowledges the existence of “complex issues in which both sides are right in some respects and wrong in others,” and insists that in such cases “the most rigorous precision of moral judgment is required to identify and evaluate the various aspects involved – which can be done only by unscrambling the mixed elements of ‘black’ and ‘white.’” Far from rejecting all nuance in moral evaluation, Rand writes: “unless one is prepared to dispense with morality altogether and to regard a petty chiseller and a murderer as morally equal, one still has to judge and evaluate the many shadings of ‘gray’ that one may encounter in the characters of individual men.”

One can criticise Columbus, and the European colonisation of America generally, without either denying the existence of some admirable qualities in the colonisers or rejecting Western civilisation per se. In the same way, one can criticise U.S. foreign policy without being a terrorist sympathiser. The misapplication of black-and-white principles to the level of individuals and events leads Bowden into becoming an apologist for Europeans’ past oppression and murder of Native Americans; a similar mistake leads too many to become apologists for the United States’ ongoing oppression and murder of Muslims in the Middle East today.

Posted November 29th, 2003



Platonic Anarchism  PLATO, preparing to zap somebody with force lightning

I’ve come up with a new argument for anarchism. It goes like this:

1. If anybody should rule, philosophers should.
2. But philosophers should not rule.
3. Therefore, nobody should rule.
Any philosopher who denies (1) is excessively timid; any philosopher who denies (2) is excessively bold. Hence moderation demands assent to the conclusion.

Posted November 25th, 2003



Random Roundup

I just got back from a Liberty Fund conference in Boston; the subject was Herbert Spencer. It was good to see old friends and to revisit Boston and Cambridge. (But there’s an American flag sticker in the window of my old freshman dorm! What’s up with that?)

Neera Badhwar’s article Friendship and Commercial Societies has been added to the Guest Essays section of this website. Check it out!

I’ve had a number of posts this month over at the Liberty & Power group blog. So far they’re mostly just links to other things; but here’s the list:

Skirmish Over Spencer
Deficiency of Vision?
In Defense of Political Correctness
Sense of Death Objectivists?
Who Am I? Why Am I Here?
Hart on 19th Century French Radical Liberalism: Available Again
An Egalitarian Austrian?
The Politics of Self-Defense
I’ve also had a post on the Mises blog titled Trickle Down; and the latest issue of the Mises Memo quotes my translation of last month’s Le Monde article on the Mises Institute.

Posted November 25th, 2003



A Constitution for Iraq

I hear that Iraq needs a new constitution. As it happens, about a decade ago I wrote a constitution – titled

Draft of a Virtual-Canton Constitution, Version 5
– for the Free Nation Foundation, and Iraq is welcome to use it. The constitution’s radically decentralised structure should be especially appropriate for a nation of rival factions, each fearing that one of the other factions might gain control of the central government.

I’ve also written a series of commentaries on my constitution:

Virtual Cantons: A New Path to Freedom?
Imagineering Freedom: A Constitution of Liberty. Part I: Between Anarchy and Limited Government
Imagineering Freedom: A Constitution of Liberty. Part II: Defining Federal Powers
Imagineering Freedom: A Constitution of Liberty. Part III: Virtual Cantons
Imagineering Freedom: A Constitution of Liberty. Part IV: The Rights of the People
Iraq is likewise welcome to employ these documents in interpreting its new constitution.

Since “Iraqi Freedom” was the chief purpose of the U.S. invasion, I am confident that the U.S. government will give full support to my proposal.

In other news: I’m currently visiting the University of Oklahoma to deliver a lecture on praxeology.

Posted November 15th, 2003



Thank a Veteran?

Today is Veterans’ Day in the United States. King Honda, a car agency in Auburn, ran the following ad in today’s Opelika-Auburn News:


It is the VETERAN, not the preacher,
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the VETERAN, not the reporter,
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the VETERAN, not the poet,
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the VETERAN, not the campus organizer,
Who has given us freedom to assemble.

It is the VETERAN, not the lawyer,
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the VETERAN, not the politician,
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the VETERAN
Who salutes the flag,
Who serves under the flag.
Is it really true that we in the United States owe what freedom we have to U.S. veterans? Certainly the Bill of Rights was made possible by veterans of the American Revolution, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were made possible by veterans of the Civil War. But none of those veterans are currently living. No American war in living memory was one in which the United States was in serious danger of being conquered by a foreign aggressor; hence no living veteran can plausibly claim to have played a role in defending our freedom.

In fact the U.S. government has used each of its wars as a pretext for increased violations of all the rights listed above. (Not that veterans should be blamed for this result; veterans and civilians alike have been victimised by the murderous militarist schemes of politicians.)

To treat veterans as the principal explanation of American freedom is to suggest that the chief threat to our freedom lies with foreign aggressors rather than with our own government. This may have been true in the early days of the Republic; it would be difficult to argue convincingly that it is true today.

The best way to honour Veterans’ Day is to ensure that we avoid having veterans in the future.

Posted November 11th, 2003



Misreading Rand

College ethics textbooks are notorious for offering distorted caricatures of the philosophers they discuss; but Ayn Rand, predictably, tends to fare even worse at their hands than such canonical philosophers as Aristotle, Kant, and Mill (though these latter thinkers would have plenty to complain about too).

Here’s an example that recently crossed my desk. The opening chapter of Mike W. Martin’s book Everyday Morality: An Introduction to Applied Ethics contains the following critique of Rand’s ethical theory:

Why would anyone embrace ethical egoism? Of course, the doctrine might appeal to selfish individuals who excessively and immorally pursue their interests at the expense of others or in callous disregard of them. Defenders of ethical egoism are not always selfish, however; sometimes they are confused.

Ayn Rand, in both her bestselling novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and in her essays in The Virtue of Selfishness, argues that if everyone focused exclusively on his or her own self-interest, society would improve. If each of us concentrated on what we know best, namely, how to make ourselves happy, then all would prosper. I think this is false. It would leave seriously disabled people uncared for, and leave us oblivious to people like Kitty Genovese who fall into desperate circumstances. It would also undermine friendship, love, and community, all of which depend on a willingness to care for others, not merely for one’s own sake, but for theirs.

Most telling, Rand’s argument is based on a remarkable confusion. Her defense of ethical egoism appeals to our moral concern to achieve a better society and to have everyone prosper, even though ethical egoism asserts that the welfare of others is in itself irrelevant. Hence, her argument presupposes the validity of moral reasons it is designed to reject!
It’s hard to know what is the least uncharitable hypothesis here: that Martin read Rand but couldn’t understand her; that he read her, understood her, and chose to misrepresent her; or that he blithely undertook to summarise an author he hadn’t read. But one of these unflattering possibilities must be true – because although Rand does argue that society will do better if everyone is egoistic (though not because everyone knows their own interests best, something I doubt she even believes), she most emphatically does not offer this as the justification of ethical egoism. The opening chapter of The Virtue of Selfishness gives a complex metaethical justification of ethical egoism. Maybe Rand’s arguments work and maybe they don’t (for some of my own criticisms of those arguments see my Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand; for a defense on the other side see Tara Smith’s Viable Values), but she does give them; and since Martin mentioned the book they’re in, he obviously knows where to look for them. So why does he ignore them? Martin’s summary of Rand doesn’t meet the minimum standard of responsible scholarship.

For that matter, if Rand had given the argument he attributes to her, it’s far from obvious that the argument would be an inconsistent one. For could the argument not instead be interpreted as defending egoism indirectly by showing that the altruist critic of egoism is logically committed to embracing the egoist position?

Randians have incidentally had a fair bit to say about why should we have concern for the welfare of others; see, for example, David Kelley’s Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence and Tibor Machan’s Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society. Christine Silk’s online article Why Did Kitty Genovese Die? argues that Randian egoists would be more, not less, likely to help someone in a position like Genovese’s. These thinkers’ arguments may or may not succeed; but Martin’s assumption that there are no moves for a Randian to make here is a tad hasty.

Posted November 6th, 2003



Digital Straczynski Goodness on the Way

DVDs for the fourth season of Babylon 5 and the first season of Jeremiah, two of J. Michael Straczynski’s science-fiction masterpieces, are scheduled to be released in January, and are ready for pre-order now.

What are you waiting for? Order them now, before our planet gets hit with, like, a plague or something.

Posted November 4th, 2003



Friedrich Nietzsche, Paleoconservative?

In an article titled The War of Perverted Religion on LRC today, Bob Wallace offers a characterisation of Nietzsche’s philosophy with which I feel impelled to take issue.

According to Wallace, Nietzsche thought the “death of God” – what Matthew Arnold called faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” – would prove to be a catastrophic evil for humanity. Loss of religious belief among the cultural elites, thanks to “250 years of a science that had aggressively attacked religion,,” would usher in a new age of rationalism in which faith in science replaced faith in God. But human beings would still feel guilt, and without a God to forgive them for that guilt, they would turn that guilt into hatred of self and others, leading to barbaric conflict – “wars such as have never happened on earth.” Hence for Wallace Nietzsche was a prophet who predicted that the rise of secularism in the 19th century would lead to the dictatorship and mass murder of the 20th. One might almost think from Wallace’s portrait that Nietzsche was an advocate of religious faith.

I think this summary gets cause and effect reversed in Nietzsche’s social analysis. As Wallace reads Nietzsche, scientific rationalism leads to atheism, which leads to increased guilt, which leads to hatred of self and others. But as Nietzsche tells the story in The Genealogy of Morals and elsewhere, it would be more accurate to say that hatred of self and others leads to guilt, which leads to religious belief, which leads to scientific rationalism, which leads to atheism, which leads to relief from guilt.

According to Nietzsche, morality in the Christian sense arises among populations that are subjugated and oppressed. Unable to take literal revenge on their oppressors, the oppressed content themselves with an imaginary revenge; hatred builds up inside them as they construct an image of their oppressors, and soon of all who are strong and free and happy, as sinful and deserving of divine punishment. The notions of guilt, free will, heaven and hell are born. The idea of a vengeful, moralistic God is born from the psychological sickness of the oppressed.

Once reality is interpreted in religious terms, Truth becomes identified with God. Religious believers come to value Truth because Truth is divine. Scientific rationalism – the dogged quest for Truth no matter how unpopular one’s conclusions – is thus born out of Christian piety. Scientific rationalism then turns back on its origin and refutes the ideas of God and free will; the notions of guilt, blame, and resentment begin to wane. In undermining its religious foundations, scientific rationalism also undermines itself; if Truth is not divine, the dedication to it need not be so uncompromising.

For Nietzsche, then, the death of God ushers in not an age of scientific rationalism and heightened guilt and resentment, but an age in which scientific rationalism, guilt, and resentment begin to wither away.

In Nietzsche’s view, however, the post-guilt era could take either of two forms. It could lead to the heroic, life-affirming mentality that Nietzsche identifies with the “Overman”; or it could lead instead to the “Last Man” – i.e., to nihilism, stagnation, and the sort of mass society that Nietzsche identifies indifferently with socialism and libertarianism. The verdict of history is not yet in. But he hoped that the Overman option might be in the offing, and for this reason he celebrated the death of God as a glorious event, albeit a dangerous one.

In effect, then, Niezsche predicts an era either of exciting, dangerous, healthy individualism or of boring, safe, unhealthy democratic collectivism. Neither option corresponds very closely to the mass-murdering totalitarian regimes of the past century.

Nietzsche did predict the coming of “wars such as have never happened on earth.” But his claim was not that these would be the bloodiest conflicts ever, but that they would be the most important conflicts ever. By comparison, all previous battles had been fought for penny ante. Nietzsche’s point is thus closer in spirit to the Rand quotation that heads this blog page: “A political battle is merely a skirmish fought with muskets; a philosophical battle is a nuclear war.” Thus it is far from clear that Nietzsche can be credited with predicting the genocidal wars of the 20th century; indeed, it is not clear that Nietzsche was speaking of wars in the military sense at all. The nihilistic horror he feared might be coming in the future was not so much mass murder as the bovine contentment of the “Last Man.”

I hold no particular brief for or against all this. I think Nietzsche’s ideas, like those of most of the great philosophers, are a mixture of insight and wrongheadedness, deeply intertwined. But I do think it is a mistake to portray Nietzsche as though he were a cultural conservative, alarmed at the insidious effects of secularism. After all, Nietzsche ended The Antichrist with the proclamation:

I raise against the Christian church the most terrible of all accusations that any accuser ever uttered. It is to me the highest of all conceivable corruptions; it has had the will to the last corruption that is even possible. The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its corruption; it has turned every value into an un-value, every truth into a lie, every integrity into a vileness of the soul. ... I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great innermost corruption, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means is poisonous, stealthy, subterranean, small enough – I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind ... And time is reckoned from the dies nefastus with which this calamity began – after the first day of Christianity! Why not rather after its last day? – After today?
These are hardly the words of a thinker who regards the death of Christianity as a terrible calamity for humankind.

Wallace also writes that he has “never considered [Nietzsche] a philosopher in the traditional sense of the word,” since he is “not familiar with his ever writing about universals or epistemology or any of the other topics philosophers usually cover.” In fact Nietzsche had a fair bit to say about metaphysical and epistemological issues, albeit in his own inimitable fashion: see, for example, his discussions On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense, On the Prejudices of Philosophers, and “Reason” in Philosophy. And Nietzsche’s brilliant mini-essay How the “True World” Finally Became a Fable demonstrates incisively the self-refuting character of metaphysical antirealism.

Posted November 3rd, 2003



No More Missing Link

From now on each post on this blog will have its own permalink. I’ve also gone back into the archive and assigned permalinks to all my previous posts. The permalink is listed at the bottom of each post. Whiggish progress!

Posted November 2nd, 2003



Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht

I’ve just been added to the Liberty & Power group blog. The bloggers are mostly antiwar libertarian historians. Check it out!

Posted November 1st, 2003



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