America vs. Death-Worship: The Moral Meaning of the Coming War
By Harry Binswanger (presented at Columbia University on October 2, 2001)
Three weeks ago today, we witnessed the horror that was the opening blast of the coming war. We now face a titanic struggle that will define our era. But, remarkably, this grandscale, epochal clash is between two sides that are being carefully left unnamed. It is as if we could see the clash only in peripheral vision, where vague shapes and motion are perceived, but entities with firm outlines are not.
For instance, Steve Forbes described the clash as: "a hard fight against those who violently hate everything we stand for."
What is it that we stand for? No answer. Who are those who hate it? To say "Muslim fanatics" or "terrorists" is not enough. What are they fanatical about? What do they believe? And why do they hate the unnamed thing we stand for?
Vagueness on this scale is no accident. It is our own culture that forbids us to name what our enemy is, and even what values we represent. My task this afternoon is to name the forbidden names, to bring the clash into sharp focus.
This is not a talk on the practical steps our country should take, though I can answer questions on that in the question period.
Rather, I will be speaking to you about this conflict's moral meaning. To defend ourselves, we need to understand our enemies--and ourselves.
The meaning of the coming war is concretized for us in the image of a passenger jet smashing into the World Trade Center. Everyone senses, implicitly, the issues behind that image, which symbolizes everything. But an implicit sense is not enough to guide us. To understand the attack and grasp its meaning, it has to be analyzed in explicit, principled, philosophic terms.
What is the meaning of the attack?
First: Observe the target: the World Trade Center. What does the World Trade Center symbolize? It is well named: the center of world trade. It is the core of Wall Street, which is the base of New York City. New York is the dynamo powering America--the Great Satan.
The World Trade Center, Wall Street, New York, and America stand for capitalism. Capitalism is the system of trade, of exchanging value for value, to mutual benefit, in freedom. Our older enemies, the communists, attacked capitalism as exploitation, claiming capitalism destroys "true" freedom. That lie has collapsed. The West now understands that capitalism means freedom. But our newer enemies do not even pretend to value freedom. They do not invoke the term, ever.
The communists called capitalism "reactionary" and spoke of themselves as "progressives," working to bring a new world order in which, somehow, the masses would attain a higher standard of material prosperity. That lie has collapsed. Our new enemies damn wealth, damn progress, and seek a return to the Dark Ages. You have seen the images of Osama bin Laden and his primitive, bearded barbarians squatting in the dirt around their campfires in Afghanistan, invoking the dogma of their "prophet" from the literal Dark Ages.
Juxtapose that primitivism with the image of the World Trade Center, where free, proud men of intelligence, were working at their computers high above the towers of Manhattan--until the terrorist plane destroyed them. The moral meaning of the World Trade Center, as a symbol of capitalism is: individual freedom, the freedom to use one's independent mind to produce material prosperity, a rising standard of living, and individual happiness on this earth. Freedom, wealth, happiness--life. Those values are what America is under attack for.
Our enemies know this. They have named for us what we are afraid to name. Here is a quote from the Taliban:
"The Americans are fighting so they can live and enjoy the material things in life. But we are fighting so we can die in the cause of God."
Life or death--that's the fundamental alternative. America is the culture of life, life on this earth (there is no other). Our enemies are those who hate life. As Ayn Rand has identified, the alternative of life or death is the root of morality. If you choose to live, you must choose the goals and values that life requires. Since you are a particular kind of living organism, a human being, to live, you must accept and cherish the virtues required by man's nature.
What is man's nature? What is his specific means of survival? He is not equipped to survive by absorbing sunlight like plants. He is not equipped to survive by acting instinctively, in the manner of animals--he has no instincts, no automatic values, no innate knowledge of what he needs nor how to get it.
Man needs knowledge in order to survive, and only his reason, his intellect, can provide that knowledge. Only his rational mind can guide his actions to implement that knowledge to produce the goods he needs in order to live.
In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand wrote: "Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons--a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest . . . abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man--the function of his reasoning mind."
Life, for a human being, means the commitment to the fullest, most rational use of his mind.
Again, quoting Ayn Rand: "If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man's only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a 'moral commandment' is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments." (Atlas Shrugged)
But the enemies of man's life renounce reason in favor of mysticism. They reject thought and demand blind obedience. Our enemies are anti-mind. To be anti-mind is to be anti-life.
For a morality of life, thought is not an end in itself--thought is this-worldly--a means to enhancing man's life. Man survives by reshaping matter to serve his needs, so a morality of life honors productive work. A morality of life regards the creation of wealth as a moral achievement.
The businessmen in the World Trade Center were creating wealth. They were practicing moral virtue, daily, by their productive work. Their work was the work of the mind, the work of coordinating the physical production of the entire globe.
Primitive, concrete-bound mentalities do not grasp how financial activities sustain man's life. To them, only manual labor, muscle-power, is productive. But by buying and selling, underwriting bond issues, speculating in futures, and the like, the men and women who worked in the World Trade Center used their intelligence to channel investment capital to its most productive uses. Their capitalist activities fueled the most productive, the most profitable, factories, farms, mines, and industries across the globe.
They, the victims of this atrocity, were the ultimate engineers of the worldwide production of material values, raising the standard of living of all participants in the global economy.
That is why they were targeted. That is what we stand for and why we are hated: because we want to live happily on this earth.
Don't take my word for it. Here are excerpts from the final instructions, translated from the Arabic, that the terrorists received before their flight of death:
"The love of this world is wrong . . . You should love the other world, and you should not be afraid to die.
"Purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters. The time of fun and waste has gone."
"Earthly matters" means the love of this life, the love of what man has produced--the skyscrapers, the computers, the stereos, the advanced medicines, the American standard of living.
All that is "fun" but it is "waste." It has no moral value, they hold. Life is waste. The other world, the mystical invention of a non-physical heaven, is the only thing that has moral value.
Continuing: "The time of judgment has arrived. Hence we need to utilize those few hours to ask God for forgiveness."
Forgiveness--for what? For the sin of living on this earth. For being human.
When Ayn Rand wrote these lines, in Atlas Shrugged, she could not have known how well they would apply today:
"Damnation is the start of your morality, destruction is its purpose, means and end. Your code begins by damning man as evil . . . It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accept his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start, not with a standard of value, but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good: the good is that which he is not.
"It does not matter who then becomes the profiteer on his renounced glory and tormented soul, a mystic God with some incomprehensible design or any passer-by whose rotting sores are held as some inexplicable claim upon him--it does not matter, the good is not for him to understand, his duty is to crawl through years of penance, atoning for the guilt of his existence to any stray collector of unintelligible debts, his only concept of a value is a zero: the good is that which is non-man.
". . . They do not want to live, they want you to die."
It's life or death--there's no escape, neither in philosophic principle nor in the coming war. There is no middle-of-the-road. Anytime you hear a sneer at "selfishness" you are hearing the voice of our enemies. To live is to live your life, the only life you can live. It is to use your mind, not to submit blindly to the assertions of others. To achieve full selflessness is to erase your mind and your person--to commit suicide.
Anytime you hear a sneer at "materialism," you are hearing the voice of our enemies. The attack on materialism is an attack on all values: there are no values without a material expression and base.
What of love, art, philosophy? Love has to be expressed in material form, in action in the material world, and it presupposes that the lover is alive, healthy, and has enough material resources to have time to care about love.
An artwork--a painting, a sculpture, a novel--has to be physically embodied and physically presented--presented to an audience that has risen above the struggle for bare subsistence and can afford the time and leisure to read a novel, visit a museum, or attend a concert. There are no music videos in the Dark Ages.
Philosophy? It has to be presented in physical form--whether it is the sound waves I'm making right now and the auditorium we are assembled in, or a book, or an article on a Web site. And the philosopher has to be able to make a living--a physical, material living--if he is to devote himself to such a time-consuming, long-range, intellectual task as philosophy.
Put it this way: for spiritual values to be pursued and propagated, people need money. When you hear an attack on money-making, you are hearing an attack not only on the physical side of life, but also on the spiritual side. For the material and the spiritual are two aspects of one integrated being: man. Man is neither body without mind--a chunk of meat--nor a free-floating spirit--a ghost.
Man's "spirit" is his consciousness, and his consciousness is part of his whole person. Man's consciousness depends upon his physical brain, and his consciousness's function is to guides his action in physical reality. To divorce mind from body is to accept the philosophy of our enemies.
Again, it is either-or. Either a morality of life or of death. Either the defense of man, his body and his spirit, or an attack on both. The people in the World Trade Center who died lost both their physical life and their consciousness. They lost it because our enemies believe you can pit one against the other, that there is consciousness beyond the grave, and that, on earth, the body can survive when deprived of the guidance of its highest spiritual element: the reasoning mind.
I have been speaking of "our enemies." I have deliberately left that somewhat undefined, with the terrorists standing as the clearest example. But now we need to understand who are the wider enemies.
The wider enemies are all the enemies of life. The enemies of life are not coextensive with the adherents of any particular religion, such as Islam, or the inhabitants of any particular region, such as the Arab world. There are Muslims who interpret their religion in a way that does not sanction terrorism. And there are atheistic Americans who do sanction it. The issue is not sectarian or geographic; the issue is the principles that are geared to the requirements of man's life and those that are set against it.
For instance, who do you think wrote this: "Man is made of mud and ashes. . . . Why are you proud, O mud? Wherefore art thou exalted? What are you, O ash, that you should boast. . . . O the vile ignobility of human existence! O the ignoble condition of human vileness. . . . Happy are they who die before birth, who experience death before tasting life."
These words were written in the 12th century, A.D., by Pope Innocent III. Would the Taliban disagree?
So the enemy is wider than Islamic fanaticism. Their fanaticism consists of taking seriously, consistently, the anti-life, anti-mind teachings that are essential to all religions. Radical Christians, as well as radical Muslims, believe that this world is evil, that man must surrender his mind, that true life begins after the grave. "Radical" means "fundamental." The issue is not one of labels or personalities, but of basic premises. Are you on the life-premise or the death-premise?
The enemy is an idea--the idea that man is depraved, that the mind is to be jettisoned, that life is a waste.
In America, most people do not take religion seriously. They mouth its slogans, but function routinely on the life-premise. They certainly do not think they would have been happy to have died before birth.
Of course, there are the Jerry Falwells and the bombers of abortion clinics, who do take their religious dogmas seriously. But anyone who merely gives currency to the slogans of life-hatred play into the hands of the death-worshippers.
For why is it that no one, from President Bush to Steve Forbes, can name the essence of what our side holds in this struggle? Why is it that they cannot go deeper than calling this an attack on freedom and on an (unspecified) American way of life?
Because to do so would put them in conflict with the Christian morality. They cannot say: we stand for life on this earth against the apostles of self-destruction. That would put them in conflict with religion and the morality of self-sacrifice. And, saying that would put them in conflict with the secularized form of religion, which is Marxism. Marxism--and the whole leftist axis--is nothing more than the Sermon on the Mount shorn of religious terminology. Whether it is "the meek shall inherit the earth" or "the proletariat shall overthrow the capitalists," the message is the same. Neither Christianity nor Marxism can defend the selfish, materialistic, life-loving meaning of capitalism's World Trade Center.
"What are you, O ash, that you should boast": The World Trade Center was a proud, exalted, boast. But it was only an implicit boast. Our own infection with the doctrine of submissiveness forbids us to name it. No one can say: the selfish, prideful pursuit of material prosperity is the moral ideal America stands for. No one can say: we are rich--and we have earned it; we mean to get ever richer.
As evidence, note that in all the praise of the heroism of the victims in this attack, you have not heard one word in tribute to the productive work of the traders, brokers, marketers--the men of capitalism--who were the actual target of the attack.
Where is the praise not just of fireman and policeman--who do certainly deserve praise--but where is the praise of the 700 dead bond traders at Cantor-Fitzgerald? Or the 80 murdered investment bankers at Morgan Stanley? These men, whose lives were snuffed out, included the most intelligent, rational, productive of people, those who had risen to the top rungs of the capitalist ladder, and worked 80-hour weeks in the service of man's life--their own and all of ours.
By the morality of life, they were heroes. But their virtue is of no interest and gets no recognition in our media. They were just money-makers, as if making money, and therefore enhancing man's life, had nothing to do with morality. Besides religion and Marxism, America has another, even darker, enemy: environmentalism. Of course, just as the average religionist or leftist is not consistent and, with some innocence, does not practice all that his beliefs require, so the rank-and-file environmentalist does not practice with consistency what environmentalism requires. But poison is poison, even if diluted, and like religious radicals, environmental radicals do know what they are after: the complete destruction of civilization. Ted Kaczynski must have rejoiced at the destruction of the World Trade Center.
I said that our enemies want to take us back to the Dark Ages; Ted Kaczynski is worse. On a Web site run by radical environmentalists, I found this from an interview with Kaczynski in prison:
"The reason I dropped out of the technological system is because I had read about other ways of life, in particular that of primitive peoples. . . . I read about anthropology in a book on human prehistory. I found it fascinating. After reading a few more books on the subject of Neanderthal man . . . I came to the realization that what I really wanted was not to read another book, but that I just wanted to live that way."
To live as a Neanderthal. Has hatred of Homo sapiens ever reached a lower level than that? What would such a subhuman existence entail? Kaczynski explains: "I don't think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses. That's why I think the consequences will be something like the Russian Revolution, or circumstances like we see in other places in the world today like the Balkans [or] Afghanistan. . . . This does, I think, pose a dilemma for radicals who take a non-violent point of view. When things break down, there is going to be violence and this does raise a question . . . for those who realize the need to do away with the techno-industrial system: if you work for its collapse, in effect you are killing a lot of people. If it collapses, there is going to be social disorder, there is going to be starvation, there aren't going to be any more spare parts or fuel for farm equipment, there won't be any more pesticide or fertilizer on which modern agriculture is dependent. So there isn't going to be enough food to go around, so then what happens? This is something that, as far as I've read, I haven't seen any radicals facing up to."
Can there be any compromise with that? Is the Dark Ages the middle-of-the-road between the World Trade Center and the virtual extermination of the human species?
It's either-or. As Ayn Rand wrote: "In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube."
But compromise is the cult of our intellectual and political leadership. At this moment, we are building a coalition against terrorism that includes almost all the states that sponsor terrorism--including Iran and Iraq--while excluding Israel. Why? Because we do not have the courage of our convictions. Or, more precisely, because our convictions have been undercut by the anti-reason, anti-life philosophy of our intellectuals.
In today's New York Times (October 2), the Ayn Rand Institute has taken a full-page ad--which I quote from on this point:
"The greatest obstacle to U.S. victory is not Iran and its allies, but our own intellectuals. Even now, they are advocating the same ideas that caused our historical paralysis. They are asking a reeling nation to show neighbor-love by shunning 'vengeance.' The multiculturalists--rejecting the concept of objectivity--are urging us to 'understand' the Arabs and avoid 'racism' (i.e., any condemnation of any group's culture). The friends of 'peace' are reminding us, ever more loudly, to 'remember Hiroshima' and beware the sin of pride.
"These are the kinds of voices being heard in the universities, the churches, and the media as the country recovers from its first shock, and the professoriate et al. feel emboldened to resume business as usual. These voices are a siren song luring us to untroubled sleep while the fanatics proceed to gut America."
Look at where the anti-war, anti-absolute movement is headquartered. Right here in our universities. For decades, the universities have preached moral relativism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and deconstructionism. What are you taught? That all cultures are equal--except America's which is damned as imperialist, selfish, greedy, environment-raping. You are taught that America must apologize to the rest of the world for the "sin" of our productive success, but, simultaneously, that there is no such thing as a rational morality. You are taught that happiness is a proof of superficiality, that to be truly in touch with deeper truths is to suffer existential angst. You are taught that words have no objective meaning and texts must be deconstructed, that logic is arbitrary, that certainty is impossible, and that science is a matter of "shifting paradigms," not the discovery of truth.
Would the Taliban disagree? The academics preaching this line are our homegrown Taliban. They are disarming America in this, our fight for survival. I ask you, when you go back to your classes, to listen to the ideas they try to indoctrinate you in, and ask yourself: is this on the premise of life, or the premise of death?
America has held a contradiction from the start. It is the contradiction between two opposite premises, one implicit, one open. That contradiction is a pro-life spirit and political system resting on a morality left over from the Dark Ages, a morality of death. To be victorious in the coming war, we have to root out and destroy not just terrorism from abroad, but also the enemy within. The enemy within is ideas based on the premise of death: the ideas of submission, sacrifice, humility, and their corollaries: unreason and anti-absolutism.
Ayn Rand wrote these words 40 years ago, but they are even more meaningful now: "Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequences of freedom, justice, progress and man's happiness on earth--or the primordial morality of altruism, with its consequences of slavery, brute force, stagnant terror and sacrificial furnaces.
"The world crisis of today is a moral crisis--and nothing less than a moral revolution can resolve it: a moral revolution to sanction and complete the political achievement of the American Revolution."
To defend America, we need the proud moral confidence of knowing that ours is the morality of life. It's either-or. Either the morality of life or the morality of death. The choice is yours. Thank you.
Dr. Harry Binswanger, author of The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts, is a member of the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute and teaches philosophy at the Institute's Objectivist Graduate Center. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand--author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
For more articles by Dr. Harry Binswanger, and his bio, click here.