The following is a letter to the editor from Mohamed Ali, a student of Physics at the University of Rochester.
I am a fan of the West. Alongside many other adherents of Objectivism—the philosophy of Ayn Rand—I celebrate the achievements of Christopher Columbus, venerate the West’s commitment to free speech, decry the effects of multiculturalism and want to defend Western Civilization from the threat of Islamic totalitarianism. This past year saw the ominous rise of the alt-right and its white nationalist sentiments. Members of the alt-right also describe themselves as defenders of Western culture and tradition. “I am the last son of the west” claims a character in an alt-right propaganda cartoon. To many, the Objectivist reverence for Western culture seems similar to the alt-right’s defense of the West. But, historically speaking, western people have been motivated by a mixture of ideas and values that changed over time. In this piece, I differentiate the ideas and values of the west that are revered by Objectivists from those revered by the alt right.
The alt-right’s Western ideal can be described in three words: tradition, race and religion. As a movement, the alt-right venerates the religious fervor, tribal loyalties, racial homogeneity, and restrictive hierarchies characteristic of the Middle Ages. The specter of a united European populace fighting against foreigners of a different race and religion excites them. The Crusades hold a special place in the minds of many on the alt-right because they believe the crusades represent a struggle that was at once racial and religious. No doubt that’s why memes celebrating crusader knights with the tagline Deus Vult (“God wills it”) appear on many alt-right pages online. In short, the Western tradition they promote is that of the pre-Enlightenment feudal era.
Of course, the alt-right shuns the Enlightenment—one of the best periods of Western history—arguing that it destroyed the hierarchies they admire. And indeed, there is a real contrast between the post-Enlightenment West and the West of the Middle Ages. At root, the Enlightenment project recognized man’s ability to reason for himself and sought to reorder society in a rational manner. Accordingly, it limited the power of state and church hierarchies over individuals. Proponents of the Enlightenment advocated for the universal application of reason to reach standards of morality, scientific truths and political systems that were true and good for all men. The result was a period in human history where religious persecution waned and progress in human knowledge and science led to technological breakthroughs that allowed people to live longer and better than before. America’s Founding Fathers were products of Enlightenment thinking—and Objectivists like me admire the principles at the root of the Enlightenment.
While it’s clear that the alt-right venerates a period of Western history which was motivated by ideas and values that as an Objectivist, I reject, it will pay to look more closely at how the historical ideas they venerate influence the policies they advocate today. First, racial determinism with respect to culture is a pillar of alt-right belief. In their view, culture and ideology are the products of race. The genetic stock of a population determines the worldview of individual members of that population: what they will believe, their standards of good and evil, the nature of their political society and all the ornaments of their culture. As Sam Francis, an early exponent of the views now coming from the alt-right, explained:
“The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”
The sculptures of Michelangelo, the alt-right believes, were not an expression of his unique talents and individual sense of life but rather an expression of the collective soul of his people. A volksgeist or racial spirit is what animates all the different elements of a culture in their view. They claim that all cultural achievements are like this, from the Sistine Chapel to the Apollo missions.
I also have a sense of appreciation for many achievements that took place in the West. The Objectivist view, however, does not rely on cultural determinism to explain such achievements. These achievements are the products of individuals (alone or in collaboration) and the choices they made as well as the ideas they accepted. And to the extent that such achievements as Michelangelo’s David inspire us to live better lives or actually enable us to live better lives (as advances in medicine do), they deserve our admiration. But the great achievements of history were the work of individual people who applied their power of reason to produce something new and good. The free will of human beings is what allows individuals to choose to create such values. No man ever had an instinctual, genetic push to build space shuttles or sculpt in marble.
Second, the alt-right’s belief that each race and people are genetically predisposed to certain cultures and belief systems leads them to conclude that such groups must necessarily clash if brought into close proximity. The end-policy they pursue is an ethno state—a racially homogenous state in which whites live apart and segregated from other racial groups. As Richard Spencer clarifies:
“Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.”
A multiracial society in their view would surely lead to conflict. Jared Taylor, a pseudo-intellectual and head of the alt-right publication American Renaissance, warns that diversity is dangerous. He believes that different races can’t help but be violent towards one another since they are predisposed to living and acting in ways which are exclusionary to others and will sooner or later clash.
Warring groups, the alt-right believes, are the necessary outcome of a racially diverse population. This gives rise to their antipathy to immigrants and their plight. The migration of Middle Eastern populations to Europe is not problematic because such populations hold bad ideas and may not value individual rights, but because they are racially distinct.
One may look at the rising threat of terrorism in France and rationally conclude that the issue lies solely with the doctrine of Islam, but the alt-right would disagree. As Mr. Taylor makes clear: “The truth is that Arabs–whether deeply Muslim or nor (sic)–are incompatible with France.” Nor is this an issue simply reserved for Arabs. In the same article Taylor applies the principle back to the United States, where he claims recent riots have led to a rise in racial tension. Taylor rhetorically asks: “Were [these riots] not proof that blacks–at least in certain numbers under certain circumstances–are incompatible with America?” Such brazen declarations of bigotry need no further elaboration.
Unlike the alt-right, Objectivism promotes the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence by providing a robust philosophical framework to defend them. Objectivism acts in the tradition of the Enlightenment which agrees that all men are born essentially equal and should be judged based on their individual choices. Ayn Rand made this very clear, when she denounced racism on the basis that it denies the independence of the individual. Objectivism’s celebration of the human mind and respect for productivity no matter the ethnicity of the producer leads it to uphold a policy that is unilaterally pro-immigration. In brief, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are to the Enlightenment view what tradition, race, and religion are to its eternal enemies.
Which vision of the West should we advocate for? Defenders of Western culture should be clear about their answer. It would be a grave personal tragedy to me if the vision of the West born in the ideas of the Enlightenment was lost to the specter of torch lit zombies marching mindlessly. I envision a West in which each man is judged according to rational standards, such as the ability to produce values and think rationally. I want to eschew race as a significant criterion in moral evaluation and prevent a return to pre-Enlightenment Europe where blood loyalties and religious zeal reigned. Because for the Enlightenment project to succeed tribalism and racialism must be confronted.
The Undercurrent is happy to offer student writers a platform for their ideas. Their submissions do not necessarily represent the views of the publication at large.