It was a rainy night and it was a huge event, with about 800 attendees. It took me about 25 minutes to get from the entrance of the Phoenician to the event venue, where I later heard that valets parked 400 cars for the event. It seemed as if the Phoenician wasn't used to hosting an event of that size, which can't possibly be true.
I was extremely surprised to see that the schedule for the event included an *invocation*. I have attended multiple Goldwater events in the past (such as the screening of "Mr. Conservative"), but this was the first time I had been to one that included a prayer. I noted at the table that it seemed disrespectful in the extreme that an event honoring an atheist would begin with a prayer. The prayer itself was an ecumenical, non-sectarian "meditation" (as the individual who spoke referred to it) of the sort likely to be as offensive to hardcore Christians as it is to atheists for its failure to appeal to Jesus Christ, but it was still a public verbal appeal to an imaginary being for his approval and support. It reminded me a little bit of the "Agnostic's Prayer" in Roger Zelazny's book Creatures of Light and Darkness, which goes like this (p. 40):
Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you [a man about to die in a "suicide show" who the speaker has put his hand upon the head of] be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.And I continue to fail to understand why Christians cannot abide by Matthew 6:5-7.
The dinner at the event was phenomenal, though portions were small (filet mignon was the main course). Steve Forbes gave a keynote speech which was well done; it was primarily a recounting of some of the basic principles necessary for economic freedom, such as the importance of the rule of law and a system of stable property rights. Regarding property rights, I was pleased that he commented on a survey of businesses and property in Egypt that found that most businesses and buildings were illegal under the country's laws, and noted that this is common throughout the world. Having recently read Robert Neuwirth's excellent book Shadow Cities, I'm aware that over a billion people in the world live in squatter cities where they are illegally occupying land and often develop their own informal property rights that are not legally enforceable but tend to be respected within their own communities. Countries which manage to give some kind of enforceable title to such people can dramatically unlock wealth and improve their conditions.
The part of Forbes' talk which most caught my attention, however, was his discussion of the current mortgage crisis. He stated that this is a mere blip, so long as the government doesn't overreact. He claimed that there is perhaps $400-$500 billion in losses hiding in securitized mortgage packages, which should be easy for the market to take since that's the amount lost in a bad day on the stock market. The concern is that government or bankers will overreact and withdraw liquidity from everyone (rather than just bad risks) at a time when it is needed. In my opinion, Forbes understates the risks because he repeatedly assumed that the problem exists only within subprime loans, which is already demonstrably false. American Home Mortgage of Tucson, which filed for bankruptcy in August, did not originate subprime loans at all, only "Alt-A" loans, which fall between prime and subprime. The root of the problem has been people of all levels of credit risk using their homes as ATMs who are now underwater, and in particular those using adjustable rate mortgages. This article from someone inside the mortgage industry sets out a worst-case scenario that I think is far more plausible than Forbes' rosy picture, which fails to account for the cascading effects of foreclosures, bankruptcies, and loss of real estate jobs on the broader consumer-driven economy. But in any case, he predicts that the mortgage crisis will be over before the end of 2008, so by this time next year we will know who is right.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's talk was actually an interview conducted by Darcy Olsen, the president of the Goldwater Institute, who asked her a series of questions about growing up in Somalia, her subsequent life, what motivated her to escape Islamic fundamentalism and her arranged marriage, and so forth. She was well-spoken (especially for a non-native speaker of English) and charming, and told of being inspired by works of fiction about individual freedom while living in a community that emphasized submission to family, tribe, and nation. Her sources of inspiration were all secular, of course, though surprisingly included Barbara Cartland romance novels and Nancy Drew mysteries as well as books like Huckleberry Finn.
Afterward, I stood in line to get my book signed, and had a chance to speak to her directly. Although I thought of asking her what she thought of being honored at an event that opened with a prayer, our brief exchange went something like this:
JL: Have you heard of the Internet Infidels?
AHA: No. (She smiles.)
JL: It's at infidels.org, it is a group critical of religion. Are you familiar with Ibn Warraq? [I had also meant to mention Internet Infidels supporter Taslima Nasrin, but couldn't remember her last name.]
JL: Some of his material is published there, though it mostly focuses on Christianity, since it's a bigger source of problems in this country.
AHA: I think I would disagree that Christianity is a bigger problem than Islam in this country.
JL: It's Christianity that has control of the government here.
And then I stepped away with my book, and joined the long line at valet parking right behind Barry Goldwater, Jr. I tipped my valet with a $20, which he seemed very pleased to receive, and then thought that I should have said "this is a tip from an atheist," since I saw several other people (not Goldwater) apparently fail to tip at all, even though they were more elegantly dressed and driving vehicles several times the price of mine.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali seems to be focused exclusively on Islam--not surprising given her history. Several of her answers were somewhat defensive of Christianity (no doubt appealing to her audience), at least by comparison to Islam, much like her response to me above. Yet the Bible contains teachings very similar to the Koran in regard to calling for the death of unbelievers, the subjection of women, slavery, and so forth--the difference is that there are fewer who endorse those teachings, perhaps in part because Christianity has gone through a Reformation while Islam has not.
UPDATE: Note that Wikipedia reports that Hirsi Ali has admitted to falsifying some information in her application for asylum in the Netherlands (specifically her name, date of birth, and claim to have spent time in refugee camps on the border of Somalia and Kenya), and her family disputes her account of her forced marriage, though Hirsi Ali has provided letters from family members (including her father) to the New York Times which substantiate her account. It was the exposure of her fabrications on her asylum application that led her to step down as a Member of the Dutch Parliament and led to Rita Verdonk saying that her Dutch nationality was therefore invalid, which was subsequently overridden by vote of Parliament.
This blog post quotes from a Reason magazine interview of Hirsi Ali that shows that she is somewhat extreme and illiberal in her position regarding Islam, as well as having some unusual ideas about Christianity (e.g., she thinks Catholics have a conception of God where there is no hell). One commenter at the Reason blog compared her to Ann Coulter. This post critiques her understanding of Islam as overly simplistic, like confusing all of Christianity with its most extreme fundamentalist varieties.
UPDATE (February 20, 2008): I've just finished reading Hirsi Ali's book, Infidel, and I highly recommend it. Contrary to my statement above, it wasn't the "exposure of her fabrications on her asylum application that led her to step down" as an MP; she had been open with many people, including the press, about having used the name Ali instead of Magan on her asylum application and claiming to be a refugee from Somalia instead of a resident of Kenya fleeing a forced marriage to a Canadian.