The Trees

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the books of Ayn Rand. After escaping from the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Rand became a famous American playwright, philosopher, and novelist. She has written many books – three of which I would urge everyone to read. The first, Anthem, is a lot like Orwell’s 1984. The second, The Fountainhead, is a longer novel expounding on her philosophy, which is known as objectivism. The third, Atlas Shrugged, is her most famous work and includes the most complete explanation of her views on economics and morality.

As a Christian, I reject a good bit of what Ayn Rand has to say. She defends capitalism eloquently but fails to understand exactly why it works better than socialism or communism. That reason, of course, is rooted in the Judeo-Christian idea of man as a fallen being. Man, by nature, is desirous of competition. He must try to best his neighbor and, therefore, cannot function in a system based on the idea of taking from each according to his ability and giving to each according to his need.

Nonetheless, atheist Rand comes to many correct conclusions without fully understanding the reasons why she is correct. That is why I am not at all uncomfortable recommending her books. There is much to be learned by studying the works of those with whom you disagree – and much to be missed by ignoring them.

For those interested in Rand, I also recommend a song that was inspired by a rock musician who reads her work. His name is Neil Peart – a member of the band “Rush.” Neil is the greatest rock and roll drummer who ever lived. He is also one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, Peart wrote “The Trees,” which fast became one of my favorite songs. I didn’t know at the time that the song was a stinging indictment of socialism and communism inspired by Neil’s reading of Ayn Rand novels. I’ve reprinted the verses below with some brief comments in between most verses.

There is unrest in the forest,
there is trouble with the trees,
for the maples want more sunlight
and the oaks ignore their pleas.

When I look back on it, I am somewhat embarrassed that it took me so long to figure out the symbolism behind the oak versus maple contrast. This is a classic Marxist over-simplification, which is intentional on Peart’s behalf. There were only two classes of people according to Marx – the “haves” and the “have nots” or, as he called them, the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat.” Here, the oaks are the “haves” or the “bourgeoisie” and the maples are the “have nots” or the “proletariat.”

The trouble with the maples,
(And they’re quite convinced they’re right) they say the oaks are just too lofty
and they grab up all the light.

This verse is interesting because it raises the issue of absolute versus relative poverty. When the maples claim that the oak trees grab up all the light they are exaggerating – actually, the author of the song, Neil Peart, is exaggerating for effect. Oaks are big trees, to be sure. In my own yard, there is an oak that is 100 feet tall that will eventually grow to be about 125 feet tall. But maples are big trees, too. I have a maple that is about 60 feet tall that will eventually grow to be about 80 feet tall.

Peart, quite ingeniously, shows that the “have nots” would be more accurately characterized as simply “having less than others.” Their problem is not that they do not have enough to get by. The problem is that, in their view, the oaks are just “too lofty.”

In other words, others have too much. That is the key phrase in this paragraph because it reveals that covetousness, rather than true need, is what motivates the maples. In reality, that is always the motive of the collectivist.

But the oaks can’t help their feelings if they like the way they’re made. And they wonder why the maples can’t be happy in their shade.

It is funny to me that the lyrics to this song were written just a few years before Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. After he took office, there was no small amount of controversy about his ideas concerning “trickle down” economics. Here, the oaks seem to reference the idea that their loftiness benefits others, too – this time, in the form of shade. This is a classic “trickle down” economic argument.

There is trouble in the forest,
And the creatures all have fled,
as the maples scream “Oppression!” And the oaks just shake their heads.
So the maples formed a union and demanded equal rights.
“The oaks are just too greedy; we will make them give us light.”

This is classic Ayn Rand. She focuses on unjustly taking from someone that which he has earned – noting that this always involves a violent struggle. The maples begin by screaming, and then they start demanding. Finally, they settle upon force, not reason, in order to obtain what they want. The results are always predictable.

Now there’s no more oak oppression, for they passed a noble law,
and the trees are all kept equal
by hatchet, axe, and saw.

This last verse is chilling because it reveals two truths about progressivism:

1) Progressivism is not progressive. Oppression is ended and equality is achieved not by advancing anyone but by retarding the achievements of some.

2) Social justice is punitive, not restorative. No one is restored under a progressive system, but people are often punished in order to guarantee equal outcome. That is another reason why Rand prefers to use the term “collectivism” rather than “progressivism.”

Ayn Rand was not a Christian. Nor was she one who professed belief in the Ten Commandments. Nonetheless, she understood that what is often packaged as compassion is really covetousness in disguise. We would do well to familiarize ourselves with her work in an age of “collective” historical amnesia. Screams of oppression and cries for revolution are never more than a generation away.

How The GOP Beat Campus Censors

Back in January of 2016, I sent a letter to UNC-Wilmington President Jose Sartarelli, which was copied to all sixteen members of the Board of Trustees. I later published the same letter on TownHall.com. In my letter, I accused the university of having at least two policies that clearly violated the First Amendment. I then asked the administration to work with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to do an audit of our policies and then revise them towards the goal of attaining a coveted green light rating from FIRE. For those not familiar with the FIRE rating system, a green light simply signifies that a school has no policies that threaten free speech.

It should go without saying that when I sent my letter to the administration there was no guarantee they would respond. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when UNCW Board of Trustee Dennis Burgard responded within just a few hours. Burgard, who is a registered Republican, urged the administration to take my letter seriously and contact FIRE for an audit of our policies. Without his support, my letter would have gone nowhere.

Within the following weeks and months a constructive dialogue took place between FIRE and UNCW’s Office of General Counsel. During that dialogue, it was revealed that I had misstated the number of unconstitutional policies at my university. There were more than just a couple. There were nine. Working together with FIRE, my university abolished eight of them before the beginning of the fall semester of 2016.

Later on, negotiations apparently stalled. During an unexpected yet cordial encounter with UNCW’s lead counsel I was told that the exchange with FIRE had been “enjoyable” but that there were “disagreements.” Arguably, to the extent that UNCW had “disagreements” with FIRE, the university should have deferred to their judgment. After all, FIRE is the leading defender of campus free speech in America. In contrast, UNCW lost a costly federal First Amendment case just two years before they agreed to the audit by FIRE. I was simply trying to save the university from further embarrassment. Unfortunately, there was no progress for the better part of a year until another Republican got involved.

Enter Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest.

In the fall of 2016, Forest’s office decided to advocate for a modified version of a model free speech bill proposed by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. The bill was not perfect but it had many elements essential to free speech reform in the UNC system. For example, it virtually eliminated speech zones and speech codes. It also prevented universities from adopting official positions on controversial issues and then forcing faculty and students to espouse those positions. It also made universities educate students on free speech principles during freshman orientation. For students who wished to ignore those principles and disrupt speech, new sanctions were created – but they were accompanied by guarantees of due process for accused disrupters.

I was pleased to work with the bill’s sponsor, Representative Chris Millis, as modifications were made to the Goldwater proposal in order to address concerns raised by UNC administrators. As usual, the administration misled us and suggested they would support the bill under the condition that we made a few modifications. When they were made, the administration still opposed the bill.

But there was no denying the inevitable. When the bill got to the higher education committee all the GOP had to do was show up and outvote the Democrat opponents. The same was true for the vote in the house and in the Senate. Predictably, all of the opposition to the free speech bill came from Democrats.

Keep in mind that two prominent features of the bill were 1) That it banned speech codes that regulate the content of speech, and 2) That it banned speech zones that regulate the location of speech. Unbelievably, Democrat Representative Verla Insko was quoted as saying “My main objection is it’s regulating free speech.” Thus, Democrats characterized our deregulations as regulations in order to preserve campus censorship.

When the bill finally hit Governor Roy Cooper’s desk, he knew he could not sign it. To come out in favor of free speech would anger his leftist constituents and compromise his re-election. They would never forgive him for helping to break the stranglehold on the marketplace of ideas in the UNC system. Without campus censorship and young uninformed voters the Democratic Party would cease to exist. But Cooper could not officially vote against free speech, either. So he just let the bill become law.

Just one day before HB527 became the first law based on the Goldwater model, my university was given a green light by FIRE. It was the seventh campus in the UNC system to become a green light school. That makes North Carolina the state with the most green light colleges and universities – eight overall and seven in the UNC system.

Note that before Dan Forest got to work on what would become HB527, there was only one school in the UNC system with a green light. In the roughly six months that it took to move the bill through the House and the Senate and on to Roy Cooper’s desk six UNC schools got a green light.

After holding on to unconstitutional speech code and speech zone policies for a quarter of a century, these UNC schools suddenly gained an appreciation for free speech, right? Better think again. These schools, including UNCW, which got the green light 24 hours before HB527 became law, simply sensed the inevitable. They knew their policies were about to be struck down by law so they abandoned them at the last minute in a hypocritical effort to steal political credit from the GOP.

But let the record reflect that the DNC system, which owns the UNC system, was the enemy of free speech throughout the entire process. Remember that when they call begging for donations.