Jacob Mchangama on Free Speech in Europe

In 2005, editors at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were concerned about a seeming climate of self-censorship on the subject of Islam. To assess the extent of that climate, they commissioned and published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The ensuing political crisis and violent protests around the world — the so-called cartoons crisis — underscored that the principle of freedom of speech is little understood or valued. That fact was on stark display, again, in the aftermath of the 2015 jihadist massacre at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

These crises were part of a pattern dating back to the 1989 Iranian death decree against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. The dominant response of Western intellectuals and political leaders has been to betray the principle of freedom of speech at every turn. We at ARI have been fighting against this global trend by championing intellectual freedom and the freedom of speech.

Where do things stand in Europe today? That’s the question at the center of my recent conversation with Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and writer based in Denmark. He’s a vocal advocate for freedom of speech, and I’ve found his support for that principle articulate. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and several scholarly journals. During our conversation, we talked about:

  • the facts surrounding the cartoons crisis, and the intellectual climate today
  • the repeal of Denmark’s blasphemy law, and how, while in effect, it had enabled oppressive regimes to justify their own blasphemy laws
  • a recent notorious case at the European Court of Human Rights concerning an Austrian woman’s disparaging comments about Mohammad

From the interview I came away with a renewed appreciation for the First Amendment’s protection for intellectual freedom — but also with a heightened concern that free speech in America is, at best, taken for granted, and at worse, devalued.

The Timeless Power of We the Living, Ayn Rand’s First, But Least Known, Novel

“Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid.”

The reek of that powerful disinfectant — used to abate the spread of lice-borne diseases — hints at the squalor that defines Petrograd. The city, in the years after the Communist revolution, is a study in filth, poverty, quiet despair. Returning to Petrograd by train is a young woman, whose posture and mien single her out. “She had a calm mouth and slightly widened eyes with the defiant, enraptured, solemnly and fearfully expectant look of a warrior who is entering a strange city and is not quite sure whether he is entering as a conqueror or a captive.”

Meet Kira Argounova, the heroine of We the Living, Ayn Rand’s first — but least known — novel.

Read on.

A Blind Spot Obscuring the Islamist Menace

Well before the Islamic State declared itself a “caliphate,” its leaders announced their aim plainly. But few took them seriously.

“Our objective,” stated one of its spokesmen, “is the formation of an Islamic state on the prophetic model that acknowledges no boundaries, distinguishes not between Arab and non-Arab, easterner and westerner, but on the basis of piety. Its loyalty is exclusively to God: it relies on only Him and fears Him alone.”

Having promised to establish such a caliphate — a society on “the prophetic model,” ruled by sharia (or religious law), a society indifferent to ethnicity and nationality, united only by faith — the Islamic State did exactly that on conquered territory, with its capital in the city of Raqqa (previously in Syria).

Having promised to “acknowledge no boundaries,” ISIS worked globally to spread its vision of a political-social order defined by sharia, leveraging social media and disseminating highly produced propaganda articles, magazines, videos.

Having promised loyalty “exclusively to God,” the group took the fight to the enemy: unbelievers. It inspired, fomented, and directed deadly attacks on infidels in London, in Manchester, in Brussels, in Ankara, in San Bernardino, California, in Orlando, Florida. Hit especially hard was Paris. In January 2015, jihadists massacred journalists at Charlie Hebdo and carried out a deadly siege at a kosher supermarket. Then in November, a squad of jihadists shot up sidewalk cafes and set off suicide bombs outside a soccer stadium and at a music venue, killing 130.

But the reaction of many intellectuals and politicians was denial. A common mantra held that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam” — an echo of the Bush administration’s assurance that the 9/11 attackers had hijacked a noble religion. The repetition of this phrase seemed to imply that wishing will make it so.

Read on.

Does Success in Life Require Compromise?

The issue of compromise comes up all the time, everywhere. To have healthy, meaningful relationships, we’re advised to seek out a middle ground. In the workplace, we hear, it’s vital that we compromise.

Even as some people insist that compromise is a guiding principle of social life, it’s clear that not every compromise leads to desirable outcomes.

Sometimes, it can be toxic to a relationship. Or, it can sink your business. Sometimes you need to say no. But when should you compromise — and when should stand your ground? How can you tell?

Ayn Rand’s philosophic analysis of compromise is enormously clarifying. It equips us to know when a compromise can enable win-win outcomes — and when, instead, we should refuse to give ground. In a recent webinar, part of our series Philosophy for Living on Earth, I discussed aspects of Rand’s view of compromise, drawing on her essay “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?”

I emphasized Rand’s observation that one should compromise only on the details or particulars within a mutually agreed principle, but never on a principle. When you buy a car, for example, you and the seller negotiate — come to a compromise — on the final sale price — within the mutually accepted principle of trade. But a “compromise” on a basic principle, on what you know to be true and right, is destructive: it means violating your convictions and selling out.

I strongly encourage you to read Rand’s essay “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” which is laden with insights that can help you navigate your personal relationships, your work, and your life. For more on Rand’s view of compromise, and the crucial role of principles in life, take a look at “The Anatomy of Compromise” (reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).

Here is the webinar with Q&A:

Why So Many People Struggle to Gain Self-Esteem

Ayn Rand held that self-esteem is not simply desirable, but an essential value in human life. It is no less important, no less necessary, than food and physical health. And on her view it is something within your direct control to achieve: each of us can attain it. Yet many people find it difficult. Why?

One major factor, which I mentioned in a recent webinar on Rand’s conception of self-esteem, stems from the fact that self-esteem is in part a moral assessment.

Continue reading

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

The Dramatic Story of Making “The Fountainhead” Movie

The movie adaptation of The Fountainhead was first released in theaters in July 1949, and it featured two of the era’s biggest stars, Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. But the making of that film was itself a dramatic story.

It’s a story of “how Ayn Rand sold the screen rights to The Fountainhead — without selling out.” That’s how Shoshana Milgram, a scholar who has studied Rand’s life and writings in depth, has described it. To learn about the making-of story, I turned to Dr. Milgram, a professor at Virginia Tech, whose knowledge of Rand’s intellectual and literary development is truly encyclopedic.

During our conversation, Dr. Milgram shared a wealth of fascinating details about Rand’s role in adapting her novel to the screen. Warner Bros. Studios hired Rand to write the script. Although the scope of a two-hour movie required a considerable delimitation of the story, Rand was intent on ensuring that the film would convey some of the distinctive thematic aspects of the book.

During filming and then in editing, there were further challenges that Rand had to navigate gingerly. For example, there was the attempt to substantially alter the meaning of a climactic courtroom speech that Rand viewed as critical to the theme. (Rand wrote about that conflict in a previously unpublished letter, now available on ARI’s site.)

Finally, we also talked about Rand’s delimited purpose in selling the film rights and her evaluation of the finished product. Near the end, Dr. Milgram shares her own thoughts about the film and a 2017 Dutch-language stage adaptation of The Fountainhead by the director Ivo van Hove.

The interview assumes some knowledge of the basic plot of The Fountainhead novel — though we tried to fill in some context and avoid plot spoilers for those who’ve not yet read the book.

Remember DVDs? Along with the feature film, these sometimes included a short behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film. My interview with Dr. Milgram offers something like that kind of background for The Fountainhead adaptation.

A Conversation with Graeme Wood: What ISIS Really Wants

The Islamic State, or ISIS, was a grotesque enigma when it burst on the scene in 2014. After conquering vast tracts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS became notorious for beheadings and crucifixions, and for reinstating the practice of slavery. But to what end? What did ISIS really want? It soon became clear that our political and military leaders lacked anything like real understanding of the ISIS phenomenon.

Graeme Wood, a staff writer at The Atlantic, set out to answer a few simple, yet crucial questions: What is the Islamic State? Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The resulting article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” went viral. By one reckoning, it received more than a million pageviews the day it went online. It became one of the most-read digital articles of 2015, garnering nearly 100 million minutes of reading time.

Wood’s article was remarkable for debunking a common perception of ISIS as essentially a collection of psychopaths who had hijacked Islam for their own decidedly secular ends. His research led to a different conclusion: ISIS is in fact deeply Islamic. Its ends and means are bound up in sincerely held religious belief.

Building on that article, Wood wrote The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, and recently I caught up with him to discuss his writings on jihadists. We explored the findings of his research, some of the opposing views, or counter-arguments, regarding what’s essential to the Islamic State, and the unwillingness of some scholars to take seriously the religious character of ISIS. Among other topics, we touched on the issue of “Islamophobia” and how it impedes discussion of jihadist ideas (an issue that came up in the attempt to shut down a panel discussion on Islamism that Wood and I took part in at University of Rochester).

A key takeaway from this conversation is that our intellectual and political leaders vastly under-appreciate, if not ignore, the role of ideas in animating the jihadist phenomenon.

Why Ayn Rand Opposed “Extremism”

What is “extremism”? Seems obvious, many people would say: just look at the actions of a white supremacist who shoots up a mosque or synagogue. Or a jihadist’s suicide attack. There are many other vicious acts that we commonly label as “extremism,” which one dictionary defines as “the holding of extreme political or religious views.”

But this term is nowhere near as clear as it seems.

Consider other views that are “extreme” (outermost, farthest from the center, calling for drastic steps). For example, when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was an “extreme” political view to be against monarchy and for individual liberty. At the time of slavery, it was an “extreme” view to be an uncompromising advocate for abolition. And, whereas racism and Islamic totalitarianism are vicious, clearly it is morally right to be for liberty and abolition. But all of these examples — given how the term is commonly used — could be labeled “extremism.”

Continue reading.

Why Rand Was Right to Testify Against Hollywood Communism

In 1947, during what some call the “McCarthy Era,” Ayn Rand was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on the influence of Communism in Hollywood. She appeared as a “friendly witness.”

The standard verdict on these hearings, and on Rand’s participation, is unequivocal condemnation: The hearings were an inquisition that destroyed the careers of “blacklisted” filmmakers, ruined lives, and trampled the First Amendment. And the “friendly witnesses,” such as Rand, who testified voluntarily, were guilty of abetting an anti-Communist witch hunt.

The only problem with this standard assessment is that it’s totally wrong.

Continue reading

 

 

 

Photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash

The Vice of Nationalism

Nationalism is clawing its way back. At a rally last October, Donald Trump galvanized the audience by declaring himself a proud nationalist. Europe, too, is witnessing the growing influence of political parties advocating nationalism. Even as nationalism has entered the political mainstream, it remains intellectually disreputable.

But Yoram Hazony, a political scholar, wants to redeem nationalism and rehabilitate its reputation. His book The Virtue of Nationalism is bound to resonate with a swath of intellectuals and voters, here and in Europe, who thrill when Trump and other politicians hammer on nationalist themes. Hazony presents a conception of nationalism with soft edges, one that is supposedly compatible with some measure of liberty. And therein lies part of the book’s danger. It is calm, erudite, and theory-heavy. The book attempts to provide a serious, intellectual case for embracing nationalism.

Read on.

 

 

Photo by Dawid Małecki on Unsplash