סיכומי הרצאות ירון ברוק ואונקר גתה בועידה האובייקטיביסטית OCON 2008

Cultural Movements: Creating Change
Dr. Yaron Brook and Dr. Onkar Ghate and Dr. Dr. and Dr. summary by Paul Hsieh

For those who couldn't attend OCON 2008, I'd like to give a summary and review of the excellent 3-part lecture series by Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate entitled "Cultural Movements: Creating Change".  These were the centerpiece lectures of the conference and the anchor of the overall conference theme of "cultural change".

Each lecture lasted 90 minutes (including Q&A).  The topics covered in each lecture were as follows:

Lecture 1 – Yaron Brook – Introduction; free market economists; environmentalism.

Lecture 2 – Onkar Ghate – Religion in politics and culture.

Lecture 3 – Yaron Brook – The future of our culture; why and how Objectivists can engage in cultural activism!

I've created this summary from notes taken by myself and Diana.  However, the responsibility for any inadvertent errors or inaccuracies is purely my own.  By necessity, the material present here is a highly condensed version of the original lectures.  I expect that the full lectures will be available to purchase through the Ayn Rand Bookstore sometime in the future (or possibly even available as free content on their website, if the ARI chooses to release it in that fashion). 

After the lecture summaries, I've added a few concluding thoughts of my own.

Lecture 1 – Dr. Yaron Brook


Yaron Brook started by stating that if one wanted to make predictions about the future course of a country, it was essential to study its politics, its culture and ideas, and its sense of life.  These lectures would examine the influence of three important forces on American culture — free market economists, environmentalism, and religion. At the end of the series, he would then use those examples to make predictions about the future of America and extract lessons for Objectivists.

Free Market Economists

The 1970's marked a turning point in economics, as the Old Left declined in political power and numerous countries began partial adoption of free market policies.  Much of this was due to the intellectual activism of various free market economists and thinkers such as Hayek, Friedman, and Von Mises.  None of these thinkers were Objectivists, although many were influenced to some degree by Ayn Rand.

Despite the fact that these thinkers of the New Right had only an imperfect understanding of capitalism, they had a powerful effect on Western culture and politics due to their advocacy and defense of free markets, and their policies made life better for millions of people over the next 20+ years.

One of the keys to their success was the fact that they established think tanks, wrote numerous books and articles, published OpEds, and gave lectures.

However, their influence started to fade after 20+ years, primarily because their arguments were based on economics without grounding in a proper underlying philosophy.  Furthermore, many of these thinkers viewed capitalism as just a "better delivery system for altruism".  Hence by the 2000's, we started seeing a reversal of the global trend towards free markets and a new return to statism.

Because the free market economists failed to offer moral and philosophical arguments (only economic ones), they left a cultural vacuum ready to be filled by other forces willing to claim the mantle of morality – namely environmentalism and religion. 

However, the free market economists did buy us some valuable time, which is extremely important.


The modern environmental movement began with Earth Day in 1970, and was an outgrowth of the leftist anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.  Whereas the earlier conservationists of the 1950's wanted to preserve the outdoors for human purposes such as recreation and enjoyment, the modern environmentalists began promoting the idea of preserving nature for its own sake, and viewing human industrial and capitalistic activity as inherently evil.

The modern environmentalist agenda focuses on four major issues: pollution/toxic wastes, (over)population, preserving nature for its own sake, and "climate change".

Through their numerous forms of cultural, legal, and political activism, they have had a strong effect on America, slowing and/or stopping numerous industrial and business developments.

Much of their success is due to their strategy of activism, combining grass roots activism with writing books and articles, shrewd use of the courts, and aggressive injection of their ideas into the educational system.  As a result, most primary and secondary school students in the US hear nothing but environmentalist propaganda, and never encounter serious disagreement with those ideas.

Interestingly enough, despite their many successes, many of the more extreme (i.e., more consistent) environmentalists believe that they have *failed*.  They had hoped to create an "intellectual revolution" and a renunciation of industrial society, but this has not happened.  The extreme "deep ecology" movement is too nihilistic and too anti-man to have a broad appeal in America.  The American sense of life has frustrated the extreme environmentalists.  Americans are not yet willing to make the sorts of deep sacrifices for the sake of this ideology.  Some of the thinkers of the "deep ecology" movement also recognize that appeals to socialism are unlikely to work, and a few are looking towards partnering with another ideology for which Americans *will* be willing to make such sacrifices — namely religion.

Lecture 2 – Dr. Onkar Ghate


Many believe that the intertwining of religion and politics began with Reagan, but in reality it began in the 1960's.

During the 1960 Presidential campaign, JFK gave a now-classic speech articulating the importance of the "absolute" separation of church and state.  He stated that a President's religious views should be a "private affair". 

However by 2008, all candidates believed it to be important to trumpet their religious views as positives.  Even though some may be adopting this pose as a cynical ploy, they all feel this is what the voters want to hear.  So how did things change over that 40 year period?

In 1964, Goldwater stated that the cure for the country's ills was a return to religious morality.  Although he was soundly defeated, he did win in the South, where his message had an appeal.

In 1968, Nixon calculatingly went after the religious vote with some success.  In 1976, Carter promised to bring back morality to politics and ran as a "born again" Christian, winning many votes from evangelical Christians (although he subsequently disappointed them).  Many in the mainstream media started paying attention to this hitherto-neglected subculture in America.

In 1980, Reagan actively courted evangelical Christians, and this trend accelerated with Bush I in 1988 and Bush II in 2000.

In the meantime, the religionists had been gaining in numbers and strength in the culture at large from the 1930's to the 1970's.  The Scopes Monkey trial of 1925 drove many religionists underground, where they developed their own subculture, with books, music, educational curricula, and other products, mostly under the radar of the mainstream media.  Hence, when they became politically active in the 1970's, they took many by surprise.

Until the 1960's and 1970's, many of the religionists were content to stay out of politics.  But due to their opposition to many cultural trends of the 1960's, religious leaders began urging their followers to get involved politically to oppose what they called "secular humanism".  The Christians began to speak out on issues such as sex education, school textbooks, abortion, etc., in a belief that it was proper and moral to integrate politics and religion. 

Politicians and thinkers on the "New Right" formed alliances with the Christians, adopting many of the strategies of the left.  They created many grassroots single-issue organizations, think tanks with broader agendas, cultivated contacts within the media, and created a vast communications and fund-raising network to promote their ideas.  They also established their own educational institutions to train the next generation of intellectuals.

And "they wrote and they wrote and they wrote" — producing countless articles, essays, opinion pieces, etc., to get their ideas out.

The power of the religionists' appeal is that they offer an alternative to the nihilism of the left that repels many Americans.  They promise to fill that vacuum with positive ideas and principles.  This is one source of their power.

Although the American sense of life is not altruistic (i.e., we believe in hard work and success), the explicit altruist philosophy of Americans is one which makes them *feel guilty* for that success.  Religion feeds on that guilt, and this is another source of its power.

Lately, the evangelicals have started to move away from a primary focus on issues such as abortion and sexual orientation/conduct, and towards a broader range of issues which includes "social justice" and environmentalism.  Environmentalism and religion in particular have the potential to form a truly "unholy marriage", because in a crucial way they both need and complement the other.

The religionists have previously been concerned with issues in the spiritual realm, such as sex.  Environmentalists have previously been concerned about issues in the material realm, such as industrial production.  But a combination of the two gives each other strength, and feeds an ideology in which *your very existence is a sin*.  This alliance grants a powerful moral foundation for environmentalist condemnations of mankind's physical activities and it also expands the domains by which religion can assert control over man's spirit through guilt.

Although some "conservative" religionists may espouse support for a free market, this is an inessential accident of history.  The old guard of religionists came of age when the primary opponent was Communism, which was opposed to both God and the free market.  Hence, they supported religion and free markets as part of a package deal in opposition to Communism. 

But this linkage is unravelling, as it must given the premises of religion.  Religion emphasizes *sacrifice* as a primary virtue, and hence any earlier support for free markets will start to fall away, as we are starting to see in the younger generation of evangelicals.

Lecture 3 – Dr. Yaron Brook

The Future of America and Implications for Objectivists

The long term threat to America is religion, because it could unite the worst of both the Left and the Right.  Nor can we count on the fading American sense of life to save us.

The current American psycho-epistemology is oriented towards production, which requires long-range thinking and a willingness to challenge tradition for the sake of trying and creating new things.

In contrast, both environmentalism and religion oppose change and favor a "don't move" psycho-epistemology.  Environmentalism opposes man changing the material world in favor of stasis; religion opposes the active mind willing to challenge authority in favor of a "don't move" approach aimed at man's mind.  This "don't move" premise unites those two schools.

Hence, our American sense of life is in real danger.  If we lose this sense of life, then over the next 40 or so years, we could face a future characterized by erosions in basic freedoms, loss of material prosperity, and an authoritarian government under religious rule.  There may be ups and downs, but the final outcome will be inevitable if we don't act.  To prevent this dire future, we need real positive cultural change to take root over the next 20 or so years and we need to start acting *now*.

Our eventual goal should be a "culture of reason", one in which intellectual leaders have a deep respect for reason, the world is full of energetic rational producers, great and beautiful art abounds, and material prosperity is valued as moral.  Not everyone in this culture will be an Objectivist, but the principles of Objectivist philosophy would be infused throughout this culture.  It's hard to imagine such a culture now, but this can and should be our goal.

We may not live to see this future, but we can achieve a change in the right direction, moving us away from destruction and towards this future.  There is no "magic bullet" to achieve this goal — destruction is easy, whereas creation is hard.  But we need to make this cultural U-turn over the next 20 years, otherwise it will be too late.  And this goal is possible, if we are willing to work for it.  As a realistic goal in 20 years, we could see a culture in which Ayn Rand's ideas are in wide circulation.  Not everyone agrees with those ideas, but at least ideas such as "egoism", "rational self-interest", and "capitalism" (as we Objectivists understand them) are all part of the mainstream culture, being actively discussed and debated as a serious alternatives to the status quo.

So how do we get there?  What can we do?

First, it's important to recognize that getting Ayn Rand's novels into the hands of high school and college students is just a *beginning*.  One should not just donate money to the ARI Books Project, then sit back for the inevitable victory of Objectivist ideas.  History is not deterministic.  Instead, people need to be exposed to the right ideas *over and over again*.  Throughout history, the spread of good ideas has required both *truth* and *persistence*.

We must therefore act as teachers.  Because we are trying to upset the philosophical base of our culture (and not just repackage altruism in a new guise), we will have to do lots of teaching, speaking, and above all *writing, writing, writing*.

Making inroads into academic philosophy departments is important, but not enough.  We need "new intellectuals", not just "new academics". 

We must also be *proud* advocates of our ideas, not apologizing for them or taking a "value-free" approach. 

Our goal should be "many small and meaningful changes" in the culture.  Although our long-range goal is to see the culture moving in the right direction, we need to fight for our ideas today.  Every Objectivist can do this.

We must also offer Objectivist ideas as a positive alternative, not just make criticisms of the current bad ideas.  People are persuaded not by criticisms of a negative, but by promotion of a positive ideal.  This is where religion gets its strength and what makes it such a threat.  Hence, we must offer Objectivism as a positive that offers solutions and leads to happiness and success in the here and now — i.e., "a philosophy for living on Earth".  To be persuasive, we must offer a positive, inspiring alternative to the status quo.

At the practical level, this includes the following steps:

1) Educate yourself.
2) Get involved.
3) Be a good communicator – friendly, civilized, and focused on values.
4) Speak, write, and engage others on issues of importance to you.

There are numerous areas in which one can work.  One can work in ad hoc groups devoted to tackling specific issues from a moral basis (such as FIRM's work on free market health care or the Houston activists who fought zoning).  One can work on promoting rational education at the local level or creating Romantic Art (not the same as "Objectivist Art"). 

The ARI cannot and should not be working on all these issues — instead its mission is to expose young minds to Ayn Rand's ideas and to develop and spread her philosophy. 

Individual Objectivists can complement the ARI's work by speaking, writing, and providing moral support to others doing the same.  This will expose even more people to Ayn Rand's ideas and buy us time against our enemies.  This sort of activism need not take up a lot of time.  Sometimes just speaking up at a meeting or writing a letter to the editor can have more effect than you can imagine.

We can also shore up the better elements of our culture by forming appropriate alliances, so long as it doesn't compromise our integrity or sanction wrong principles.  Through such alliances, we can give those allies the necessary proper philosophical foundation for their ideas and expose them to our ideas.  There are many opportunities to work with others on specific issues (defending abortion rights, opposing antitrust, opposing creationism in education, etc.) in a principled and effective way.

This job seems daunting.  It will require time, money, and work, but it is doable.  And it will become easier as more "new intellectuals" start arriving on the scene, also speaking, writing and further "softening the culture" for Ayn Rand's ideas.

Our best allies are reality and the American sense of life.  The ideal world that we are imagining is much more appealing to Americans than the bleak world offered by the environmentalists and religionists.  Their visions clash with both reality and the American sense of life, whereas our vision fits with both.

Hence we must master the facts and stress the philosophy.  Objectivism gives explicit philosophical voice to the American sense of life, and Objectivism is the *American philosophy*.  This positive message must be communicated to Americans while that senses of life still exists.  If we find shared values with Americans and support their virtues, we can help Americans translate that sense of life into conceptual terms. 

Yaron Brook concluded by saying, "Our job is to convince Americans to save America."

[The final lecture ended with a standing ovation from the audience.]


Some closing thoughts of my own: 

This was an alarming yet inspiring set of lectures.  It was alarming in that Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate concretized in chilling detail the magnitude and urgency of the threats facing us.  But it was also inspiring in that they offered a vision of a positive future that I want to live to see, as well as giving enormously valuable theoretical and practical advice on how we can effectively fight for that future.

If we make the cultural turnaround that needs to take place in the next 20 years, then future historians will someday look back on this set of lectures as a seminal event in American history.  Given that it is likely that many of us will be alive in 20 years (and possibly even in 40 years), then many of us will directly experience the fruits of our action (or lack thereof). 

I for one want to live in that future "culture of reason".  I think we have a legitimate shot at getting there, but I also recognize that it is by no means certain.  I also know that if we sit back and do nothing, then we *definitely* won't get there. 

All I've ever wanted in life is a fighting chance at achieving my goals, and we have one here.  And even if I eventually lose, I want to go down swinging, and swinging *hard*.  I sure as hell don't want the bad guys to win by default simply because I didn't choose to act to achieve my values.

This sort of activism should not be viewed as any sort of grim duty.  Instead, it should be viewed as a magnificent *opportunity*.  This will be a fight for the noblest of goal — the future of America.  I've only become active in this fight in my own small way over the past year or so.  And I also want the world to know (borrowing the words from the great American admiral John Paul Jones), "I have not yet begun to fight".

And I hope to see you all on the front lines.

Paul Hsieh, MD

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