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Hudgins on Egypt: the never-ending Objectivist love affair with Ronald Reagan

Ed Hudgins of The Atlas Society welcomes the military take-over in Egypt (none dare call it a “coup”) on the (legitimate) grounds that the election of Muhammad Morsi as president entailed a form of majoritarian theocracy. I don’t disagree with a narrow and cautious version of that claim. But in compliance with the principle of Objectivist political discourse that requires the abolition–in the name of “essentialism”–of all complexity, Hudgins forgets to mention that the military’s coup has also been endorsed by the ultra-Salafist partisans to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood (the National Salvation Front), who will now want (and probably get) a piece of the action under the new regime. Celebrations would be premature.

What I really object to, however, is the partisanship of the following claim:

In disputed elections the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president and a new constitution that the Islamists favored was adopted. But a democratic process is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a mechanism for protecting the liberty of individuals. George W. Bush foolishly heralded democracy out of its proper context. The 2006 electoral victory of Hamas thugs in Gaza, and the murderous and repressive regime they established should have made this point clear.

Yet during the 2011 revolution in Egypt Obama failed to articulate those principles. This should have come as no surprise. After all, in 2009, with hundreds of thousands of Iranians in the streets demanding an ouster of their Islamist despots, Obama refused to raise a voice for their liberty.

By contrast Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were loud and clear in their support for the millions of people suffering under communism, a message that gave hope and inspiration to those in the Soviet bloc struggling against repression.

Obama followed his moral cowardice over Iran with support for Morsi.

The first paragraph is fine. The second paragraph strikes me as longer on assertion than on argument. The third is a travesty. I’m old enough to have lived through the Reagan years–and old enough not to be fooled by rhetoric about Reagan’s supposedly elevated moral stature. Yes, people suffered under communism, but they suffered under other rights-violative regimes as well. How loud and clear was Ronald Reagan about apartheid South Africa, about Chile’s Pinochet, or about Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq? The answers, I’m afraid, are not a credit to the “Reagan legacy,” and have been an unacknowledged, invisible, but self-imposed albatross around the necks of his supporters.

For Reagan’s support, until nearly the very end, of apartheid South Africa, try this article on for size. My point is not that Reagan was a racist who literally favored apartheid, but that he wasn’t loud and clear in his support for those who suffered under P.W. Botha’s regime. As a teenager, I made sure to follow Reagan’s every word on South Africa, hoping for some clear sign of repudiation of the apartheid government. It was a years-long, often cringe-making, exercise in dashed expectations.

I don’t often invoke Edward Kennedy as a moral authority figure, but when it came to criticism of Reagan’s foreign policy in Central and South America, Kennedy was essentially correct. He nails the issues in this piece, written in 1987.

As for Reagan’s praise for Zia-ul-Haq–whose regime left something to be desired in the human rights department–have fun reading this set of speeches, in which the doughty moralist Reagan says nothing of moral substance, and lets Zia drone on about the imperatives of freedom and justice.

Reagan and Zia, 1982.

Reagan and Zia, 1982.

The Reagan years were not the happy face epoch that Reagan’s latter-day partisans would have us believe that they were. While Reagan et al managed to get us out of the economic doldrums induced by Carter et al (I’ll give him/them that), the Reagan years were, as far as our foreign policy was concerned, an immensely depressing time. And the truth is that we haven’t quite figured out how to negotiate the issues we encountered back then. The left made its excuses for the Soviet Union during World War II; the right followed suit and made excuses for anti-communist regimes during the Cold War. Ideologically speaking, there were few clean hands in this debate, and there are few to be found.

The intellectual manifesto of the Reagan years was Jean Kirkpatrick‘s essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards” (Commentary, November 1979), which I read to death as a budding IR student and aspiring Foreign Service officer in the late 1980s–and was bandied about as gospel in certain circles, assuming the status that the works of Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel Huntington were later to assume. This was the passage that provided the blank check for Reagan’s moral laxity about right-wing dictatorships:

Traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other re- sources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

A bit of warmed-over Burke, a bit of a priori handwaving. As an IR student, I remember reading and re-reading this passage over and over on the premise that it must mean something determinate but somehow beyond my ken; that she wouldn’t have written it that way if it weren’t somehow true; that her failure to provide evidence for her claims was really an indication of my ignorance of the evidence for them. She put things so authoritatively; who was I to judge? The greatest discovery I made when I discovered Objectivism was the repudiation of the self-repudiation implicit in that rhetorical question. Thomas Paine puts it this way in his argument with Burke in The Rights of Man:

Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: once dispelled, it is impossible to re-establish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant. The mind, in discovering truth, acts in the same manner as it acts through the eye in discovering objects; when once any object has been seen, it is impossible to put the mind back to the same condition it was in before it saw it.

Those of us who lived through the Reagan years saw and heard too much to be able to pretend now that Ronald Reagan was some kind of moral paragon. There’s no great virtue in becoming ex post facto cheerleaders for the world well lost. Nor, as a corollary, is there some virtue in pretending that Obama represents some sui generis evil of which Reagan was innocent. Truth to be told, Obama makes somewhat more sense than Reagan ever did. But truth also to be told, there is no yawning moral gap between them.

In any case, the time has come for a more candid and critical Objectivist discourse (and right-wing discourse generally) about Ronald Reagan. As a teenager in the mid-1980s, I longed for the day when he would leave office, and felt gratitude the day he did. He was no moral hero. In too many ways to count, he was an embarrassment. And he remains one. We should kick our hagiographical addiction to his rhetoric and image and either come to terms with historical reality–or move on.

Irfan

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3 Comments

  1. irfankhawaja says:

    Right. Which raises the question why Reagan is so admired among Objectivists. The explanation, I take it, is their commitment to the view that Reagan’s “principles” approximated Objectivist principles better than the then-existing alternatives. But I don’t think Reagan had any discernible principles. Since deregulation preceded Reagan in the Carter years, it’s not even clear to me that Reagan approximated free market policies better than the Democrats did (they might have done just as well). Even if he was more “free market” on some dimensions than the Democrats, we’d need to weigh those commitments against the Reaganite policies that were rights-violative, and figure out what mattered more. We’d need to consider alternatives to voting for Democrats or Republicans (or voting per se). And whatever the verdict, it would be a mistake to use Reagan as our normative benchmark decades after he’d passed into history, buying into the rhetoric of the “Reagan Revolution.” I’m at a loss as to understand why Objectivists (some libertarians, too, I guess) feel the need to valorize Reagan while ignoring all this.

    Incidentally, reading the comments in the item you linked, I thought I’d mention Eric Silverman’s book, The Prudence of Love: How Possessing the Virtue of Love Benefits the Possessor. It’s a Thomist defense of love as a self-beneficial virtue. Silverman goes out of his way to distinguish the Thomist defense of love-as-self-benefit from the Objectivist one. I don’t think he gets Rand right, but it’s one of the few Thomist discussions of Objectivism I’ve seen.

    Irfan

  2. it’s not even clear to me that Reagan approximated free market policies better than the Democrats did

    But who needs free-market policies when you can have free-market rhetoric?

    I thought I’d mention Eric Silverman’s book

    Thanks; I’ll give it a look. I selfishly hope I’ll love it!

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