“Without private property in land, there can be no private property right at all, and without property rights no other kind of rights are possible.”—Letter, May, 1946, The Letters of Ayn Rand
“Where did you get the money for your first payment on that property?” “By playing the New York stock market.”—Francisco d’Anconia’s father to Francisco, Francisco to his father, Atlas Shrugged, page 108
Ayn Rand was no friend to Arabs. In response to a question about Israel and the politics of the Middle East on the “Phil Donahue Show” in 1979, she said, “Israel is an advanced, technological, civilized country amidst a group of almost primitive savages who have not changed for years, and who are racist, and who resent Israel because it is bringing industry, and intelligence, and modern technology” into the region. Later in the program, she added, “I don’t resort to terrorism. I don’t go around murdering my opponents, innocent women and children. That is what I have against the Arabs.”
In this context, Ayn Rand and Pamela Geller, photogenic operator of a website called AtlasShrugs.com and a self-described, Rand-admiring “blogress diva,” appear to be in sympathy. At least since 9/11, Geller and her husband Robert Spencer have kept up a banshee’s cry against what they view as a murderous Islamic conspiracy to destroy Israel and “Islamify” America. Stoking furor over the planned construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan—as well as proposed mosques in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Brooklyn, and Staten Island—Geller has organized national media campaigns and rallies against the incursion of all “stealth jihadists” in our midst. Her website is festooned with photographs of worldwide carnage wrought by Muslims–so the captions tell us–and “raps sheets” on Arab diplomats, imams, Islamist financiers, Grover Norquist, those who criticize Israel, and American politicians and soldiers who are Muslims. Among her arguments against what she calls the “Ground Zero Mosque” (the proposed site is actually two blocks north of the former World Trade Center, on privately owned property formerly leased by the Burlington Coat Factory and damaged by falling debris from one of the planes that hit the towers) are: probable future funding by the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi families with Al Qaeda links, and other Arab terrorist groups; likely psychological suffering by families of 9/11 victims and corresponding “insensitivity” on the part of Islamic developers of the site; the chance that body parts may still lie buried on or near the building site; and “noon calls to 9/11 and jihad.” Geller approvingly quotes a radio ad by New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who said, “[If elected], I will use the power of eminent domain to stop this mosque and make the site a war memorial instead of a monument to those who attacked our country.”
Eminent domain? In the name of Ayn Rand? That would be a new low.
Fund-raising hasn’t officially begun for the Manhattan mosque. Nonetheless, Geller’s detailed reporting on possible financial links between the new owners of the Park Place site (Soho properties, owned by alleged slumlord Sharif El-Gamal) and suspect Islamic charitable organizations is provocative. It may be valuable. It ought to be—and is being—followed up by news organizations and the attorney general of New York. If laws—and there are plenty of laws to call on in the Patriot Act—are broken by El-Gamal or his backers now or in the future, Geller will have contributed to the apprehension and prosecution of criminals.
But what of Ayn Rand’s fierce commitment to individualism? My reading is that Geller wants Americans to view Muslims collectively, as a global horde, and through popular fear and persuadable politicians strip them of the rights she correctly claims set us apart from totalitarian regimes and temperaments in the Middle East and elsewhere—and are being invoked, illegitimately, she cries, to dupe the complacent among us. For example: the equal protection clause of the Constitution (forbidding states to apply laws unequally to groups or individuals). For example: the right to private property and the principle that private property is a staple of a moral social order and freedom.
The Rand of We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged convinced me of the rightness and necessity of basic property rights—one of the many ways in which her ideas altered my thinking. Geller’s opinions and prejudices reflect those of Rand in her old age. In 1974, when the novelist and thinker was 69 years old and ill, she gave a riveting speech called “Philosophy, Who Needs It” at West Point. During a question-and-answer period afterward, a cadet asked how she felt about federal treatment of American Indians, as they were then called; this was about a year after the bloody standoff between government agents and Native American activists at Pine Ridge reservation. The cadet was a Native American, although Rand didn’t know that. She answered that American Indians had been in possession of the land for five thousand years, had done nothing with it, and ought to step aside and let it be developed. “It is always going to transpire that when a superior technological culture meets an inferior one, the superior one will prevail.” She didn’t mention force, but her tone suggests that she was speaking of something other than the harmonious forces of the free market. By this time, she appears to have concluded that money alone is not a sufficient guarantor for ownership. In “Man’s Rights,” (1963), she elaborated her ideas about property. No longer is the right to property unequivocal. It is predicated on use. “It is not the right to an object,” she wrote,” “but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object.”
That’s too subjective for me. “A man holds his property because it’s his,” Rand wrote more simply to a reader of The Fountainhead in July, 1946, “—regardless of how many parasites claim that they need it more than he does.” Until he commits a crime, that goes for Sharif El-Gamal and his planned mosque.
-Anne C. Heller
Note: I plan to visit the Ayn Rand Archives as a registered user in early October. If you have a particular research question based on my book or other reputable sources, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, with “AR Archives” in the subject line. I’ll report on what I find in mid-October.