The Necessity of Knowledge

It’s cliché time at the cantina, my darlings, because I want to talk about a simple truth: knowledge is power.

In observing politics and religion, you soon notice a distinct abundance of stupidity. And I call it stupidity, not ignorance, because refusing knowledge is stupid. Everyone at times refuses knowledge, but some people raise it to an art form. It’s a constant in their lives. They can’t be bothered to think.

I thought of it watching the teabaggers get manipulated by the corporate lobbyists. These people were tools, and they were too stupid to realize it. It’s not that they were ignorant of what was going on – the information was out there in abundance. They had it in their own hands.

There’s a tradition in religion and conservatism that says, “Don’t question authority. Trust received pronouncements.” Therefore, you get people who can be told that Obama’s leading the country into socialism. They know this not because they’ve seen evidence, not because they know what socialism is, but because they’ve been told Obama’s a socialist, socialism is bad, and therefore Obama is bad:


A little bit of knowledge would’ve gone a long way, there. Knowing what these social programs are, how they can work, and why being a selfish stupid git isn’t the best survival strategy would completely disarm GOP attacks.

If people bothered to gain a bit of knowledge, they wouldn’t be snookered by Newtie’s latest “green coal” blabbering. They wouldn’t elect ignorant fools like Michele Bachmann and John Boehner who don’t know the difference between necessary and toxic levels of carbon dioxide, and exactly which greenhouse gas it is that cows emit. Note to Boehner: it’s not CO2.

A little bit of knowledge combined with an ocean of ignorance is a dangerous thing. Michele Bachmann’s statement that carbon dioxide is a vital part of life on earth may sound persuasive if all you know is that CO2 is what plants eat. If you didn’t know other things, such as what happens when too much of a good thing gets into the atmosphere, then you’d think she had a good point. Alas, too many ignorant and willfully stupid people do. And so the planet boils.

Speaking of global warming, Sen. James Inhofe has “a list of 700 prominent scientists who oppose global warming.” Wow! With that many scientists saying global warming doesn’t exist, there must really be doubts, right? Here’s where knowledge gives us the power to resist fake science, though, because knowing who those “scientists” are changes everything:

Like the Discovery Institute’s similar list involving evolution, there are some real laughers on the list. Like this one:
One of the listed prominent scientists is Chris Allen, who holds no college degree, believes in creationism and belongs to a Southern Baptist church.

Allen is a weatherman at the FOX-affiliated TV station in Bowling Green, Ky.

[snip]

The list also includes a retired professor with no training in climate science who says that the earth “couldn’t be more than 10,000 years old.” And these names were listed as “prominent scientists” in an actual Senate report.

Outrageous fucktards can get away with this shit only because people don’t know any better. They haven’t bothered to learn. They don’t know how to verify claims. They don’t know how to think critically. If all of us had knowledge and knew how to apply it, the Senate wouldn’t be disgraced by idiots like Inhofe, because they wouldn’t get voted in there in the first place.

Given enough knowledge, people wouldn’t fall prey to vitamin pushers. They wouldn’t get taken in by fake medicine. And they sure as shit wouldn’t get snookered by priests trying to use science to shore up their homophobia. No wonder the powerful religious, political and corporate interests hate knowledge so.

Knowledge is necessary to keep us from falling prey. Knowledge is our power. I suggest that as Elitist Bastards, we teach a lot more folks how to use it.

The Wisdom of Readers

Last December, inspired by George at Decrepit Old Fool, I wrote about cluster bombs and worldviews. Tonight, I received an incredibly insightful comment from Longo05. I’m reprinting it here in full, because it deserves an audience:

Hey, I literally stumbled onto this blog via stumbledupon and thought I would articulate with you on this issue.

Background: I am a current college student and former Marine Sergeant. I helped facilitate communication for combat operations in an infantry regiment. I am generally liberal and a fierce individualist. I don’t believe in nationalism, but do believe in military service. I say this mostly because I feel that the speaker is as integral to what is spoken, and whom it is spoken to.

I couldn’t agree more with you about accountability, and the individual accountability that a person is responsible when he or she fires a weapon. I think that the same goes for any munitions fired, generally. How can you not qualify a statement like that?

When it comes to cluster bombs, they are indeed force multipliers, but were also designed for a certain type of warfare. It is important to clarify that cluster bombs were not designed for urban operations; they were designed to engage large-scale, regular forces on a field of battle. These weapons are used in what we typically call a ‘force-centric’ battle, meaning that the battle is fought in an attempt to reduce the number of enemy combatants. This is also known as conventional warfare, if there are such things as conventions on a battlefield. I am afraid this is an oxymoronic term.

The current operations in Afghanistan are considered non-conventional in nature, or asymmetric, or ‘population-centric.’ These are terms generally used to describe counter-insurgency, or COIN operations. It is the goal, ideally, to subordinate ‘hard power’ (military operations) to ‘soft power’ operations, such as: political means, stability operations, reconstruction, or any other operations that help to secure the local population and make the populations feel secure and safe. (A significant portion of these concepts and terms are explained in the U.S. Army Counter-Insurgency Manual, or can be found in a historical and contextual book called “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” by John Nagal )

The best way to achieve these operational goals is to place enough security on the ground to achieve an overt and trustworthy relationship among the local populace. This is why most people agree that the ‘surge’ in troops, which Gen. Petraeus instituted, in Iraq was instrumental in quelling, at least the last portion, of the insurgency.

These operations call for exactly the opposite of what the person you cited described. In fact, the best way to attempt to achieve victory in Afghanistan is too indeed place more troops in potential danger and then to place them in more danger by subordinating military operations to stability operations. In fact, tying our, if I may, hands is exactly what needs to be done.

As a matter of fact, many NYTimes article actually attributed a significant number of Afghani civilian deaths to targets of opportunity, i.e. unplanned missions on suspected combatants, and most notably to a lack of proper ground troops to monitor and ensure enemy status. This is something that military commanders are realizing more and more every day.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/23/world/asia/23military.html?pagewanted=print

There are countless articles that show that Defense Secretary Gates wants to reduce the military operations and budget in order to generate more Dept. of State responsibility and personnel, to better facilitate the ‘soft power’ function.

I think that whoever may have said that information that you cited was misinformed and had no right to speak on the matter. I also think that the term collateral damage is a term popularized by under sensitive and over stimulated Hollywood commandos ravaged by an antiquated machismo, bravado culture. I have never heard the term collateral damage in any military operation. I have heard civilian casualties and accidental, but I will note that they are usually attached to unfortunate, and senseless.

I think you might be surprised in how much caution is taken, how much regard for human life is honored, as it rightfully should. A friend, and subordinate, of mine was in Iraq during Operation Phantom Fury during OIF III, when they surrounded Fallujah and after a forced evacuation, considered anything left in the city a combatant. During house-to-house sweeps, they discovered a family that had not evacuated, and under those military parameters were within their jurisdiction to fire upon them.

Rightfully so, they identified the family and took the initiative to facilitate the families evacuation. They even ensured that they were attended by a medical staff and properly fed and hydrated (as they were under blockade-type siege for days). This situation cost them time and resources that were taken away from the conflict, but they did the right thing. They didn’t j
ust level houses to save their own Asses.

I don’t think that service members go out and dehumanize their enemies. It has been my experience that we don’t dehumanize the enemy because we don’t want to take lightly our responsibility. It’s easy to picture service members as systematic robots, if you watch enough bullshit television. I hope that people don’t, just as I have always explained to my Marines that the people we face are brothers, fathers, and sons as well. I explain that we need to treat the enemy as humanly as possible when they surrender, just as I was explained to and honored. I think it commonly known that service members, on both sides, are just trying to do right by our respective countries. We’re just trying to get home too, and will willingly get enemy combatants home as best we can, especially if they don’t want to fight.

I would also disagree that war is sometimes necessary. I think that it is intelligently agreeable that war is the worse possible event and the biggest tragedy of politics. War is not a sport, it is not a pastime, it is not romantic, and it is not necessary. No one person’s life is more valuable than another’s. No one country’s troops are more valuable than another’s. We’re all equal, and equally fucked and wrong when war is declared (or not in this instance).

I think that if we are going to blame people, we should start with our democratic constituency, politicians, and the media, every American that started the war, or sat by idly as it began. Militaries are coercive tools of diplomacy; so much as guns are tools of shooters. We believe that a shooter is responsible for the rounds they fire, and I believe that politicians are responsible for militaries they deploy. There is nothing natural about killing, and nothing normal about dehumanizing killing, not even for glittering generalities, like Democracy and Freedom.

I have heard that ‘it is better to fight them over there, than over here’ and that ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric too and I think that all those generalities are as idiotic as the people they work on. Generalities on subject matter as multifaceted and complex as these issues are cannon fodder for the simple-minded and should be dismissed with equally generalized sayings, with starkly opposing views such as: “Fighting for peace, is as productive as screwing for virginity.”

It’s going to take some time, and more than one reading, before I’ve absorbed all the lessons Longo05 managed to pack in here. And I hope he starts a blog of his own. I’ve got a lot to learn from him. I think we’d all benefit.

Muchas gracias, mi amigo. And the same to all of my wonderfully wise readers. You guys make this all worthwhile.

(An extra tip o’ the shot glass to whoever it was put me up on Stumbleupon. Thankee kindly! Welcomes to all those who dropped by for the cluster bombs and stuck around for the rest.)

It’s Not Enough

Cujo359, breaking down a Jane Hamsher post to its essential elements, points out why a candidate has to be far more than a strong progressive to win:

Often times when you make a decision can be the difference between being right and wrong. I could see myself early in this process backing someone like Geoghegan, thinking that he was good on the issues and therefore worth backing. I can also see myself, later in the process, asking the same questions Jane did: Where’s the organization? What’s the plan? Do we have resources in place? If I could see that the answers to those questions were unsatisfactory, I’d conclude that this candidacy wasn’t a happening thing.

Recognizing signs of trouble early on will be key to ensuring that we don’t waste time and effort on campaigns that won’t work. That’s why it’s good to have discussions like this, and for everyone to remember that this really is a learning process, and that the problem itself is always changing.

Listen to the Official Thinking Brain Dog of En Tequila Es Verdad, young progressive candidates, and you might just win.

Bugger This. I Want A Better World.

Just past the winter solstice, on the cusp of a New Year, my thoughts inevitably begin to play the retrospection game. I hate it. All of those end-of-year “Best of/Worst of” lists drive me crazy, my New Year’s resolutions are always the same, and it’s not like things magically change on January 1st. Every year I am firm in my determination not to indulge in the sillyness.

This year, the failure doesn’t sting. Gazing backward leaves my jaw agape. Just a few highlights: we found water ice on Mars. We learned that America’s government approved torture at the very highest levels. The world’s economy imploded with horrific speed. Barack Obama became America’s first African American president, and gave us all something to look forward to in 2009: a future.

And I became a blogger, joined forces with other brilliant bloggers, and started Carnival of the Elitist Bastards. This is of a piece with voting for Obama. I did all three things for one simple reason: I want a better world.

We can make that happen.

Several years ago, I read a graphic novel series called The Authority. You all know about Spiderman’s schtick – “with great power comes great responsibility.” Well, Jenny Sparks, leader of The Authority, takes that to its logical conclusion. If you have the power to change the world for the better, that’s what you do. No whining, no excuses. Do the job. Fix the world.

Together, we can do that.

We all have our special talents, areas of interest and expertise. We’ve put them to good use in these last many sailings, battling ignorance, expanding knowledge. We’re taking back the word “elitist” and making it respectable again. And it’s working. Have you seen the Elitist Bastards Obama’s stocked his Cabinet with? There’s a Nobel Laureate in there, for the first time ever.

Okay, so maybe we can’t quite claim responsibility for that. Not completely. But every one of us who voted for him has played a part in bringing wisdom back to Washington. I claim this year in the name of Elitist Bastard.

We have a chance now to make this a better world. Time we seize it with both hands.

This year, we shall make it our business to spread the love of learning. We shall ensure that the word “elitist” is once again a mark of distinction rather than a cry of derision. We will continue to beat down ignorance wherever it raises its dribbling head.

But we can go further.

Are you fed up with poverty? Act. Support the politicians who are working to eradicate it, volunteer, donate, train people for new and better jobs.

Fed up with ignorance? Act. Watch what your school board does. Push for better education standards in your country. Promote childhood literacy. Educate.

Fed up with war? Act. Push politicians to reach for diplomacy before they turn to armies. Get involved with programs that attempt to bring enemies together. Make people all too aware of the cost of war.

Fed up with global warming? Act. Get the facts out there. Support environmental groups. Plant a tree, green up your house, protest pollution. Roll up your sleeves and clean up a neighborhood.

We can do much more than we think, just by taking action. Signing a petition may not seem like much, but it adds one more voice, turning a murmur into a shout. Donating a few dollars may not seem like enough, but as we saw with Obama’s campaign, enough small donations add up to plenty of money for change. A few hours of your time may not seem like much, but a few hours may be all that’s needed to change someone’s life. Don’t hold back just because you can’t do much. Become a snowflake, as my character Ishaarda Telsuun recommends:

“The answer is leverage. Place a thousand snowflakes in precisely the right places, and you cause a thousand avalanches…. A thousand snowflakes can reach half the world.”

Ghandi said we must be the change we wish to see in the world. We don’t even have to become fabulously rich or powerful or prestigious to do it. All we have to do is add our snowflake’s worth of weight to the scales: enough of us together will make them tilt.

And then we change the world for the better.

Condemned to Repeat

EX PRAETERITO PRAESENS PRVDENTER AGIT NI FUTUR- ACTIONE DETVRPET


History became a living thing in Roz Ashby’s and Ken Meier’s hands.

On the first day of Western Civilization I, they handed out a quote and asked us to date it. It was a typical “kids these days” rant, full of complaints about their manners, their dress, and their stunning lack of respect toward their elders. Most of the class guessed it had been written in the 1950s or 60s. Professor Meier revealed, with a delightfully sardonic smile, that we were all wrong. The rant had been written by Socrates more than two thousand years ago.

Titian, An Allegory of Prudence

I still have the handout they gave us that day: “The Value of History” by Robin Winks. I’d signed on as a history major because I love the past. I hadn’t, until then, thought of it as something of urgent importance. But the professors’ punk, their impassioned lecture on the vitality and relevance of history, and Winks’ case for its value changed my perception entirely.

History wasn’t just curiosity. It wasn’t simply tradition and heritage, important to preserve for its own sake. It was also essential in order to understand the present and navigate the future.

“From the past the man of the present acts prudently so as not to imperil the future,” Titian inscribed on his famous painting. We should chisel that saying into every monument. Those who don’t take the past seriously, who treat history as a trivial handful of facts, interesting stories, and events that have no bearing on today, won’t have the wisdom to create a better future.

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason. Too many don’t listen to that warning. How many times have we weathered a crisis only to discover that it had all happened before? Individuals, organizations, entire nations have rushed themselves over cliffs that others fell from before, when a safe way down had already been discovered.

It’s true that things change, and no situation is exactly the same as another. Some people seem to believe those cosmetic differences mean there’s nothing to learn. And so, mistakes get repeated. Safeguards get torn down because no one seems to remember why they were put in place to begin with. Blinded by the present, looking toward the future, we don’t see what history is trying to show us. We strip away the protections that people made wise by the events of their own day put in place in order to protect the generations to come. We’re seeing the effects of that now, in a myriad of ways: our failed imperial experiment in Iraq, the erosion of our Constitutional rights, and the crisis in our banking industry brought on by the repeal of regulations enacted to prevent another Great Depression.

That was another age, those who disregard history say. Things are different now. And they plunge in, believing they’re blazing new trails when they’re traveling down well-worn roads.

The past is never truly past. “Great events have incalculable consequences,” Victor Hugo said in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some of those consequences echo down through ages. You can’t understand what’s happening now if you don’t understand what happened then. The effects are still being felt. What we do now will impact generations to come.

“This black page in history is not colourfast / will stain the next,” Epica warns in their song “Feint.” We can’t prevent that stain, but history can give us advice on how we can limit its spread.

Some things, perhaps, we’d rather forget. But as Chaim Weizman knew, “you cannot deny your history and begin afresh.” History comes with us, whether we will it or no. Denying it gets us nowhere. Embracing history, knowing it, allows us to accomodate its effects.

History is of great practical value, then. But that’s not the whole of its worth. It offers perspective and proportion. Knowing what others survived gives us hope for a future in dark times. It can put current events in context, just like your old dad giving you the yarn about having to walk to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways as a kid. I often take comfort from that when the world seems like it’s coming apart at the seams. It’s frayed, often torn, before. We always manage to patch it back up somehow. Civilization has been through worse. As long as we avoid following the same paths that led other ages to worse, we’ll probably do just fine. I tell myself that a lot these days, and I have plenty of history to prove it. From history comes hope.

There’s delight in seeing ancient people behaving the same way we do. We tend to get only the broad brushstrokes of history in school. We don’t get the delightful, everyday bits, the ones that tell us people are people everywhere. Read Socrates griping about the idiot kids in ancient Athens, or abu Nawais looking for his next drink, and you realize that they were people like us. There were fart jokes in the cradle of civilization and risque graffitti in Pompeii. The more you learn of history, the more you realize that the things we consider larger than life arose not from some golden age of supermen, but from mostly ordinary people doing their best to deal with times that were no more or less challenging than now. The best days are indeed behind us – but they are also now, and they are ahead. How much easier it is when we can pick the brains of our ancestors, pluck up their best ideas, and avoid their worst mistakes. It’s practically cheating!

“He who cannot draw on three thousand years of history is living merely hand to mouth,” Goethe once said. When we neglect our history, we impoverish ourselves. History gives us a chance to live richly. When we can draw on thousands of years of knowledge and experience, we’re no longer condemned.

Sapere Aude!


Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.


- Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

The Enlightenment. Those two words send a cascade of awe and delight down my spine. They set synapses to firing like chains of fireworks. Names and ideas erupt from the sparks: Newton, Spinoza and Leibniz released science and mathematics from their classical and medieval cages and advanced them by light years in a virtual instant. Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau struck through chains and risked their lives to set human minds free. Locke, Smith and Montesquieu set forth major components of political and economic philosophy that led to democracy and capitalism. Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton created a whole new kind of nation from scratch. Beethoven, Mozart, and Goethe elevated music and literature to heights they had never known before.

Men, and not a few women, dared to know, and changed the world.

There had been hints of an awakening for centuries. A few flames burned dimly in the Middle Ages. A few flames flared up brilliantly during the Renaissance. But the Enlightenment was a conflagration, a wildfire beside a candelabra. In less than two centuries, the scientific method arose and began advancing knowledge at an incredible pace; the foundations of democracy and liberalism were laid and thriving nations built on them; education was no longer a prerogative of the fortunate few, but a practical gift offered to a broad swath of the population. The entire Western way of thinking changed virtually beyond recognition. All of those ideas we take for granted – freedom of religion, equality, political and civil rights, and countless more – emerged because of men and women who refused to remain ignorant.

Look at the lives and work of any group of Enlightenment thinkers, and you’ll see similarities. They were desperate to know and understand. They were determined to use rational thought to overcome superstition. They believed in man’s ability to understand the world. They didn’t believe religion had all the answers, or even most. They weren’t afraid to challenge established authority; indeed, they often risked their lives to do so. They found ways to make end-runs around the censors, evaded every attempt to silence them, and believed beyond doubt that what they were doing was right, necessary, and valuable.

They argued with absolutely everyone, each other included. They accepted no limits to their curiosity. There was nowhere to them that Man was forbidden to go.


All is not lost when one puts the people in a condition to see it has intelligence. On the contrary, all is lost when you treat it like a herd of cattle, for sooner or later it will gore you with its horns.

-Voltaire

In the salons of Paris, the coffee houses and Gresham College in London, in the dining rooms and halls of power all throughout Europe, intellect raged. Pamphlets, books, magazines, scientific papers all poured into the streets and captured the imaginations of men and women who then used those ideas to create new governments, societies, and values. Knowledge was passed into the hands of ordinary people, and those ordinary people did extraordinary things with it.

The two revolutions of the 18th century, the American and the French, get all of the attention, but neither would have been possible without the revolution in ideas that preceded them. Never before in the history of Western civilization had common people been entrusted to govern. Even Greece, that thriving original democracy, was more of an aristocracy than anything else. But the Enlightenment thinkers believed that all regular people lacked was education and the freedom to use their native intelligence. Given those things, a peasant could rise to rule. Peasants eventually did.

It wasn’t just the aristocracy and absolute monarchy that the Enlightenment thinkers overthrew. They broke the stranglehold religion had over the populace. Religion didn’t escape their scrutiny. The sacred got subjected to the same empirical analysis as the natural world, and where it was found wanting, it suffered the same scathing criticism unleashed on politics, pseudoscience, and ignorance. Some of them treated Christianity with respect and reverence, but they were in a minority. Most Enlightenment thinkers had no use for a Church that sought to keep people in ignorance and servitude, a faith that led to intolerance and claimed miracles it couldn’t prove, and religions rotten with hypocrisy.

“Let’s eat some Jesuit,” Voltaire wrote in Candide. Baron d’Holbach proselytized for atheism, churning out a flood of books and pamphlets proclaiming that there is no God, only nature, and that only a society of atheists has any hope of being truly moral. He often had to publish his books under innocuous titles to evade the censors. But other philosophes left nothing to doubt with theirs: among the books on offer was Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious. Pretty revolutionary for a world in which religion still ruled.

Other books might have seemed innocent enough until they were opened. Woolston’s Six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Savior proclaimed the Resurrection of Christ “the most notorious and monstrous Imposture, that was ever put upon mankind.” Voltaire, when completing the Philosophical Dictionary, wrote, “Theology amuses me. There we find man’s insanity in all its plenitude.” Jefferson removed all of the miracles from the Bible, a decision which Hume would have applauded.

The only sacred thing was the pursuit of knowledge. Rational thinking, empiricism, science, and intellect reigned supreme. The next world meant very little to them, if anything at all. People had to make a difference in this one. And that was exactly what they set out to do, and succeeded. They brought us the modern age.


A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to Farce, or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

-James Madison

The Enlightenment never truly ended: its results permeate every aspect of our lives. But there hasn’t been another time quite like it since. The passion for knowledge has been eclipsed. We’ve entered an age in which ignorance rather than intelligence is celebrated. As Kant said, it’s easier to be immature, to let others do the thinking. We become habituated to the yoke: we become afraid of freedom. “The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult,” Kant wrote. “Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone.”

He could have been describing our age.

Fundamentalist religion is attempting to rein us in. Governments want to control, not serve, the governed. This has always been the case. The powerful never relinquish power easily, and they always desire more power. It’s easier for them to take it from people made willfully powerless.

War, poverty, ignorance and despair are rising all around us.

We should be thrilled
.

After all, the Enlightenment grew out of a desperate age. Europe was torn by war, crushed by despotic governments, ripped apart by religious strife, and it was from this harrowing that the philosophes grew. When I look at the conditions surrounding the Enlightenment, I see clear parallels. Strife can destroy people: it can also galvanize them.

I think we’re standing on the cusp of a new Age of Enlightenment.

Bloggers are the new pamphleteers. What bloggers are saying today about politics and religion, life and learning, show the same spirit as those tracts poured from the pens of subversive thinkers who went on to redefine the foundations of the world.

Comments threads and message boards have become the new salons, where ideas are exchanged and intelligence elevated. Those discussions wouldn’t have been out of place in the most illustrious gatherings of learned people.

All we need is the passion, the commitment, and the courage those revolutionaries displayed. Nothing is beyond us. But we have to step outside of the little boxes we’ve put ourselves in. Scientists need to brush shoulders with artists. Writers need to converse with mathematicians. Political philosophers and musicians should mingle. That cross-fertilization of knowledge is what leads to world-shaking ideas, quantum leaps in human understanding.

Politeness and deference are sweet social ideas, but we can’t defer to those who would impose ignorance and superstition. Contention was the order of the day during the Enlightenment. We should never shy away from it. Conventional thinking will get us nowhere. The world is on the cusp of a crisis: we’re never going to get anything solved if we don’t break away from tradition and habit. We won’t solve a damned thing if we don’t risk capsizing the boat.

The philosophes changed the world not by force of arms, but force of mind. Their ideas, their writings, their experiments, are what changed the world irrevocably.

It can happen again. Ignorance has no power to stand against those who dare to know. And those who dare have the power to change everything.


Here and today begins a new age in the history of the world. Some day you will be able to say – I was present at its birth.”

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Desecration Done Right

Old news by now, I’m sure, but PZ did the deed. The cracker, the Koran, and a twist entry have all suffered an ignoble fate. And while none of the religious loons will see it this way, this little act of desecration should lead to some important considerations.

PZ’s post on this is a tour de force. It’s not about getting up the noses of the religious: it’s about the power of symbols, and the danger of letting the symbols have too much power. It’s about the use symbols have been put to that led to pain, suffering and death for those deemed other. I’ll just give you the closing paragraph, because it says everything that needs to be said:


Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity’s knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

Even if you think Jesus is your lord, and you believe God is great, the rest of that paragraph pertains to you. The moment you don’t think it does is the moment you run the risk of becoming one of those poor, deluded fools who believe that in order to save a cracker from an ignoble end, you must murder a human being. You disrespect your god by believing he is so limited that he can be injured by the actions of one non-believer. You show that faith is a fragile, hopeless thing, a weapon that harms rather than heals.

What is the sacred if it’s not something so transcendent that it can survive any attempt to destroy it?

It’s too bad so many people are so small and insecure that they miss the truth. I hope that PZ’s courageous cracker contempt drops the scales from at least a few of their eyes. Alas, I’m not holding my breath.