Brook and Pipes at Harvard: A Review

What a great event. To recap, the title was The Threat of Totalitarian Islam. The panelists, Drs. Yaron Brook and Daniel Pipes, were well-spoken and compelling, the audience was engaged and civil, and big, controversial ideas were discussed as if it was perfectly normal for intelligent people to engage in a reasoned exchange of ideas. (would that it were not such a surprise!)

As I mentioned yesterday, I was concerned that the event would be marred by disruptions. It wasn't. From what I observed, the Harvard Objectivist Club did a good job of setting up the event, security was there (three beefy campus policemen in uniform), and the moderator did an admirable job of setting the civil tone and then enforcing the "one succinct question" rule.

The audience was surprisingly positive and receptive to the ideas presented by both panelists. It was apparent that Pipes was the more well known to the audience, but I heard many positive comments after the meeting. One in particular sticks in my mind, where someone said "Brook was quite impassioned, wasn't he? With reason and individualism..." and it was said in a positive, not sarcastic tone.

The event itself was different than I expected. The format was 5 minutes each from Dr. Brook and Dr. Pipes to lay the foundation of the ideas they advocated, and then questions from the floor. I must admit that when I heard that the majority of the event would be audience questions -- which means that the event would be shaped largely by the level of rationality and relevance of random people's questions -- I was wary of whether I'd get anything out of it at all. But with few exceptions, the questioners raised interesting points and Brook and Pipes had ample time to develop cogent arguments.

I didn't take notes, so my recollection may not be entirely accurate here, and therefore I'm not going to try and recount the individual questions and answers. At least three Muslims asked questions, and though one went on for some time before the moderator and members of the audience called out for him to get to his question, I wouldn't call it a disruption. Many questions centered on Israel, and both Pipes and Brooks called upon a wealth of historical information to counter common misperceptions about the creation of Israel, and the idea of nationalism in the Middle East versus the Islamist notion of a caliphate. One questioner raised the topic of recent Saudi contributions to Harvard and other universities ($20M each) and Pipes made a fascinating point about the fact that this minuscule amount of money, compared to the overall Saudi cash outlay designed to spread Wahhabism ($5B per year, est.), actually does little for the three universities that received it. He posited that it has a greater impact on the rest of academia, sending the message "If you play by the rules, and don't hire certain personnel or take certain positions, then you too could get a hefty check."

Dr. Brook effectively and piercingly exposed the underlying and implicit ideas behind many of the questions, and presented a clear argument in favor of identifying and confronting the Islamist threat, and in defending our way of life. After just over an hour and roughly 10 questions that focused on the threat of totalitarian Islam and our response to it, someone asked a much needed question that hopefully helped the audience understand why Dr. Brook was making the points that he was.

The questioner said something along the lines of "We've been talking about the threats, but perhaps we could turn it around to a positive side. Would you describe what it is we're fighting for, what uniquely American values we need to protect, and how they are different than other cultures?" As soon as he asked this, I realized that this was crucial to providing the necessary context for others in the audience to really "get it", and I was very glad he asked it.

This gave Dr. Brook the opportunity to extol the virtues of Western civilization, the ideas of individual rights and the political system that protects them, and the superiority of that system over all other cultures. As he said that, I heard scoffs from some sections of the audience, because of course "how can anyone judge one culture to be superior?" But this didn't dissuade him, and in fact he pressed the issue, tracing the values and prosperity of America all the way back to the philosophy of Aristotle and the identification of reason as man's basic tool of survival, and then outlining the other times in history when a philosophy of reason made it possible for cultures to make great advances.

Regarding the experience of being at the event, it was very interesting and I think I got a lot out of it. I am more looking forward to tomorrow's Ford Hall Forum talk, however. While I enjoyed the panel discussion, I didn't learn a significant amount. Rather than hearing new ideas presented in a new way, it was more like watching a political debate (though in this case, ideas were actually discussed, rather than evaded). You know all the answers, and the interest factor is in "how is he going to handle this question?" It's closer to entertainment. Again, that's not a bad thing in itself, and it's likely a good way to disseminate ideas to a wider audience. But for me, I'd rather hear a long detailed talk about a specific issue by an intellectual who has something new to say. So I'll wait until tomorrow at the Old South Meeting House, and hear Dr. Brook speak on Woodstock's Legacy: The Rise of Environmentalism and the Religious Right.


Shea said...

Wasn't Robert Spencer supposed to be there?

C. August said...

Yes, I forgot to mention that. They announced that he was "unable to make it." The rumor floating around the hall was that he was ill, not that it matters particularly.

I wondered afterward whether having three panelists would have made it better or not. As it was, the audience was able to ask plenty of questions, and the two remaining panelists had plenty of time to expound their views. Though I did hear one audience member lament that "Spencer is such a great speaker... it's too bad he couldn't come."

Jenn Casey said...

It's about time you posted your report! I expect a full detailed analysis of the FHF by midnight tonight! (See how I'm funny?)

Sounds like a it was interesting and informative. I am going to JUMP at the chance to see Dr. Brook the next time he's in Atlanta. I missed him the last time he was here for some reason.

It's wonderful that these ideas are getting out there, isn't it? How many people attended?

C. August said...

Yes, I'm basically a slacker. I'll make sure to get the Ford Hall review up by tonight, though. Of course, it won't be based on anything because it won't happen until tomorrow, but that shouldn't matter, right?

But seriously, I agree that it's good the ideas are getting out there. However, it's hard for me to evaluate how effective it is. Is just the fact that the event occurred positive? Or would there be some quantifiable result we could measure? This question tempers my enthusiasm somewhat.

However, when I said that my overall impression of the audience was that they were receptive and positive, I neglected to draw a correlation between that, and the other fact that a large majority of them were there only for Dr. Pipes. While Pipes seems quite rational and was for the most part in agreement with Dr. Brook on most things, he is not an Objectivist, and thus refrained from taking stands on things like the moral superiority of a culture that respects individual rights. There's no indication that he doesn't feel that way, but he also doesn't promote that view.

My point here is that assuming 60% -- to pick a reasonable sounding figure -- of the receptive audience knew nothing of Objectivism, this was a great venue in which to present some ideas to these people and to "plant some seeds and let them germinate."

You asked about numbers, and I'm and absolutely terrible at judging crowd size. It's one of my anti-superpowers. However, I just used the Interwebs to find the seating capacity of the hall -- 312. I'd guess it was roughly 70% full, so let's pick a round number and say 200 people were in the audience.

Lynne said...

Well, I am both relieved and pleasantly surprised to hear that it was so civil (I read that the one in Berkeley was too, but could hardly believe it).

Now you can compare and contrast last night's event with Thursday's. While you're making up your report early, perhaps you can throw in some predictions about the response of the second audience.

It should be a good event.

Monica said...

I saw Yaron Brook speak on the topic of Just War Theory at Boulder. No disruptions there, either, but I suspect the title of the talk attracted less would-be problems. It was inspiring, and afterward I heard similar comments from young college students: that Brook was definitely impassioned and morally confident.


Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the report, and I hope to see you tomorrow night!