NYC mosque and symbolism

Ari Armstrong has a thorough post on the controversial NYC mosque. Here are some good excerpts

…the building of Cordoba House represents a symbolic victory for America’s enemies, and blocking it would constitute a symbolic victory for America’s self-defense.
The question, then, is whether a symbolic display may ever properly be proscribed legally. My initial reaction is to say no; the First Amendment properly protects symbolic expression, and only actions (including active provocation of violence) properly may be criminalized.

I submit that it is precisely this obsessive agonizing over Cordoba House that reflects a posture of defeat and surrender. Why would people spend one minute of their time trying to get rid of some damned prayer center, when they could spend that minute urging the United States government to take decisive action against America’s true enemies? What exactly are our priorities, here?

As disgusting as the idea of a mosque being built in the vicinity of what was once the WTC is, it remains a symbolic victory for Islamists. Leonard Peikoff – in his podcast (transcript) – and Amy Peikoff – in her post – seem to suggest that this symbol represents an existential threat to America. Had someone other than Peikoff taken this position, I would have ignored it. But on more thought, there is something to it. As a rational person driven by logic rather than emotion, I do not attach much significance to symbols. But the same certainly cannot be said about the radical or even moderate Islamists. If a symbol can inspire radical Islamists to further violence – and a mosque on property that was destroyed by Islamic terrorists is certainly a powerful symbol – does it still remain “just a symbol”? I hold that the state cannot legitimately curtail a merely symbolic expression because a symbolic expression is an expression of ideas and not of action. Does that principle still hold when one deals with enemies who do not make that distinction? I am not really sure.

Here is an excerpt from Steve Simpson’s post on NoodleFood.

There’s an odd sort of contradiction at the heart of the argument in favor of cajoling a zoning board into denying the land owners the right to build. It consists in saying that the government will not use legitimate anti-terror laws to prosecute the owners if they support terrorism, but it will use illegitimate, non-objective laws and processes to accomplish the same ends. But if officials lack the will to use legitimate means to go after terrorists, why would they possess the will to use illegitimate means? Supporting this effort seems destined to fail, in which case those who have done so have thrown away principle for nothing at all. And if government is willing to go after the terrorists, why would we ever support using illegitimate means when we could support using legitimate means? Trusting the government with arbitrary power is always a bad bet.

It is clear that trying to prevent the construction of the mosque by taking recourse to bad zoning laws is a bad idea. But I don’t think that is the point of contention. The real question is – Is this really an issue of the right to property or the right to free expression? As Peikoff notes in his podcast, property rights are contextual. They presume a context of a mostly rational, freedom respecting society. It would be impossible to apply them in a society where people do not respect even the right to life. When one is dealing with precisely such enemies, does the context remain unchanged?

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Secularism, Enlightenment and India

A colleague sent me this link to an article in The Hindu and asked for my thoughts. From the article

For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.
…the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.

The existence of the public sphere [in Europe] was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.

Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government.
(Emphasis mine)

The article concludes with

Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

The article with its implied positive evaluation of enlightenment ideas and recognition of their relevance to the issue of secularism is very much welcome in an age where enlightenment ideas have almost been forgotten. But it itself suffers from an incomplete understanding of all the implications of these ideas. Protection of individual rights by the rule of law is not compatible with democracy (atleast as we might understand it from concrete examples today). Democracy is about placing the control of human affairs in the public sphere. Individual rights are about limiting the control of human affairs to the actual individuals involved, primarily by the recognition of private property. (This might seem unrelated to the issue of secularism and the influence of religion, but bear with me for a while.) This uneasy relationship between democracy and individual rights (note the difference in character between the French revolution which was essentially democratic and the American revolution which instituted a government for the purpose of protecting individual rights) persists to this day and has been the apparant cause of the failure of enlightenment ideas to have as large and lasting an influence as might have been expected. But that is not all. It is worth noting that pre-enlightenment Europe was neither democratic nor did it have any conception of individual rights. How did both ideas emerge out of the same intellectual change?

I am no historian – or even a good student of history – but it seems to me that the enlightenment thinkers never really rejected religion in all its implications. Religion offers more than an explanation of the world. It offers moral principles. The progress in science that made causal explanations possible led people to abandon the role of religion in understanding the world. Note that this progress has been lasting. Even the church today accepts that religion is not a guide to understanding the world. But there was no equivalent progress in moral theory that would lead people to abandon the role of religion in evaluating the world and guiding human action. The enlightenment brought about political, scientific and industrial revolutions. It did not result in any moral revolution. The moral base of religion – altruism – was not challenged at all. On the contrary, it led some intellectuals to believe that morality is mostly irrelevant to progress. For example, the character of Enjolras in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – the leader of an uprising, and in my reading, a mirror to Hugo’s own ideas – believed (if memory serves me right) that progress would be automatic and inevitable provided that people had access to (scientific) education. This was naive. Morality is indispensable to human existence.

It seems to me that enlightenment ideas split into two distinct streams. One stream could be characterized by the French revolution, militantly anti-religious and with an emphasis on democracy, equality and social justice. This stream secularized altruism without changing any of its fundamentals. It substituted God by society and the church and the king by the state. The other stream could be characterized by the American revolution, ambivalent to religion and with an emphasis on liberty and self-evident inalienable individual rights endowed by a creator. But a complex concept like individual rights cannot be self-evident. By not grounding individual rights in reason, this stream was left without a moral foundation independent of religion. The overtly-secular, altruist, democratic stream failed. It took Europe through several dictatorships, wars and misery. The liberal, pro individual rights but more religious stream succeeded. It allowed America to enjoy more than a century of uinterrupted peace and prosperity (except for the civil war that abolished slavery). But, over time, through lack of an explicit moral foundation, the American stream itself split into the modern secular Europe inspired liberals (an insult to the original classical sense of the term) and the religious conservatives seeking to conserve the political system of liberty with an incompatible base of altruist Christianity.

Note that no stream ever rejected altruism and it was the secular democratic, left-leaning intellectuals who upheld it most consistently. Now the case of India. Indian political leaders educated in Europe brought back the European ideas and attempted to foist them upon a servile, religious people. Worse, in attempting to fight colonialism, they absorbed Marxist ideas from Russia. Needless to say, they failed miserably, discrediting secularism in the process. As Gurcharan Das’s wrote in the article that I criticized in my last post, “Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists”. Marxism – the most consistent political implication of altruism, is only for educated idiots. The uneducated “masses” – that Marx had such a disdain for – never have and never will accept it. But the association of secularism with Marxism does indeed make the spread of secularism difficult.

Anyone concerned with the increasing role of religion in public affairs in general and political affairs in particular should be looking to discover/establish a morality based on reason. Until such a morality becomes culturally dominant, it will be impossible to eliminate the role of religion. But that is not something the secularists in India understand. For a concrete example, consider the expose of the Khap Panchayat system in Today’s Times. Read it here, here, here and here. From the last link,

Daryal Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers, adds that “shameless people (lovers) deserve to die.’’ He gives graphic accounts of lovers being “hanged, tortured or nailed to death”. But Singh stands alone in providing the only real explanation for what sustains this medieval system: bad governance. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It’s impossible for people to survive without the samaj. They can’t challenge it,’’ he says.

It would be difficult to mis-diagnose the problem worse. Even the villagers are more intelligent than that. They know that they are following a moral code. Providing basic necessities is not going to change their moral code. And what basic necessities anyway? From another article in the links

There are pucca houses, cobbled streets, wellfed cattle, neat schools and sprawling green fields. It’s easy to be impressed by the colleges and professional institutes that dot the area. But Sanghi, like most villages in this prosperous belt, has dark secrets to keep. Here, rape is casual, murder-by-pesticide of teenage daughters acceptable and it is routine to dispose of their bodies by burning them in cattlecarts.

Defeat the morality and religion – with all its mindless rituals and superstitions – will go away. But without challenging the morality and in the lack of any alternative (socialist ideology is not an alternative), religion will continue to grow in influence.

Property Rights and Philosophy – Applied Philosophy – 2

In an eminently readable article in The Objective Standard, Raymond Niles presents the history of the electric grid in America, the formation of state enforced monopolies and the unending stream of problems that has plagued the industry ever since. The thesis of his article is that the problems would not have arisen if the property rights of the utility companies had been recognized. From the article,

“In many cities, if not most, some form of bribery was required to persuade city officials to grant permission to build and operate an electric grid. Because electric utility systems could not be built without using the city streets, city officials were well positioned to coerce money and other terms from utilities. In Chicago, such extortion became an art form, perfected by members of the city council known as the “Grey Wolves.”

Having observed the city’s refusal to grant Yerkes a longer and more secure franchise, Samuel Insull stepped forward with a new idea; he proposed regulation of the electric utility industry at the state level. Instead of challenging the government’s control of the rights-of-way and the corruption it entailed, Insull accepted the government’s involvement and sought a seemingly superior and less arbitrary form of it.”

There are several aspects of this history that deserve analysis.

The motivation of the state officials:
It is notable that it wasn’t the state officials who wanted or proposed state regulation. They were merely exploiting an opportunity to extort money from others achievements – achievements which they could not have hoped to equal but were in a position to control. They either did not know or did not care that a system of extortion is unsustainable – that their victims could not continue to operate under extortion. They did not even have the vision to institutionalize their extortion into a system of regulation.

The motivation of the innovators:
The innovators like Insull were men who had the vision to build large profitable systems. They were driven by their desire to translate their vision into reality and were prepared to overcome any obstacles that others might put in their way. They had the foresight to realize that they could not survive under constant extortion and to seek a “seemingly superior and less arbitrary form of government involvement”.

The motivation of the regulators:
The regulators – the people who propose regulation or attempt to improve it or rid it of corruption – are usually motivated by a genuine but misguided desire to improve the workings of government. They do not necessarily want to expand the role of government, they don’t even see it as an issue. They don’t realize that a system of regulation is fundamentally corrupt – or if they do, they see no way out of it.

The growth of regulation:
The growth of regulation described in the article follows a familiar and tragic pattern. Innovators come up with a vision for a better future – a vision that if put into reality will give them large profits and improve the quality of life of all who deal with them. People in positions of political power see an opportunity to extort money by putting obstacles in their path. The innovators who rarely understand the political issues involved attempt shortcuts to get rid of the obstacles. The worthier innovators attempt to find long term solutions to the obstacles and legalize the process of extortion. Controls breed more controls with time.

This familiar pattern is not inevitable. It is important to realize that the people responsible for the growth of regulation are the innovators. Any significant change in the workings of a society – whether for better or worse – is initiated by its better men – the men of vision who can dream of something new and the men of action who can turn the dreams into reality.

Property rights form the backbone of any political system. Men cannot deal with each other effectively without holding clear, legally recognized title to the products of their efforts. Men cannot plan long range if their actions are controlled by the whims of regulatory boards. But a political system needs a foundation – an understanding of man’s means of dealing with reality, an understanding of the purpose of man’s life, an understanding of men’s interactions in a society and an understanding of the purpose of a political system. This foundation is philosophy. Without this foundation, any political system – whether it be democracy in India or theocracy in Iran or fascism in China – is headed in the same direction – towards chaos. As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, philosophy is difficult. But the first step in understanding and applying it is acknowleding that it is real – that it plays a pivotal role in the life of every man and that it can be discovered and understood.

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