Revisiting The Manchurian Candidate

Some time ago, after watching awful remakes of The Manchurian Candidate and Charade, I went on a rant against Hollywood remaking films that were excellent in the original. What was the point, I asked? How could the remakes not come out looking worse than the originals?

Calming down from that exhilarating bout of righteous indignation, I wondered if I may have been too overwrought and overestimated the quality of the original Manchurian Candidate. After all, I must have been in my early teens when I first saw it and I have often had the experience of revisiting books and films that I enjoyed when younger to find them disappointing the second time around. I had no such qualms about Charade, having seen it several times, most recently a few years ago. It is a certifiable classic, a must-see for anyone who loves films.

So I checked the original Manchurian Candidate out again to see if my memories were reliable. I can report that the original is still excellent and far superior to the remake. But it was interesting to me that my appreciation of it was very different this time around.

The first time, I saw it as a straightforward thriller and enjoyed it as such. This time around, I was much more taken by the political elements that it portrayed. This change in sensibility is understandable, given that in my teens I was not as interested in politics as I am now.

The politics were satirized by having the main political characters be somewhat over-the-top. The Communist brainwashers were portrayed as cold-blooded villains who had no sense of decency at all and killed without compunction, laughing while doing so. In one scene, the Communist brainwashers want to test the effectiveness of their brainwashing by having the brainwashed person kill someone. The Chinese person asks the Russian head of the spy program in America to have one of his agents killed in the test. The Russian head refuses, not because he is horrified at the thought of sacrificing one of his own people, but because he is already currently understaffed and doesn’t know if he can get a replacement!

The complexities of the cold war are also brushed over by having the Russians, Chinese, and Korean Communists portrayed as one big happy family engaged in evil against the US, ignoring the ideological tensions that existed between those countries at the time.

Meanwhile, on the American side, one of the evildoers was a parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy, portraying him as more of a buffoon and less sinister and malevolent than the senator who went on the witch hunt.

I had forgotten how good Laurence Harvey was in the original, giving depth and complexity and even sympathy to his character in a way that the sequel did not. Harvey was often criticized as a somewhat cold and wooden actor, but here he managed to turn that to his advantage and actually eke some good comedic moments from that persona.

What I mainly liked about the original was that all the gaping plot holes in the sequel that made it absurd were explained away by a few lines of dialogue here and there in the original. I hate it when films don’t take the trouble to make the plotlines coherent and believable, and assume that audiences won’t notice when things don’t make any sense.

The only area in which the sequel was superior was in the motivation of the character (played by Janet Leigh in the original) who was the love interest to the Sinatra/Washington character. In both films, the initial meeting of the two was mysterious and seemed to hint at some secret motive for the woman to force her attentions on the man. But in the original that storyline was abandoned and not developed the way that the sequel did.

So after examining the replay, my original verdict stands: Remaking The Manchurian Candidate was a colossal mistake.

POST SCRIPT: Putting the terrorist threat into perspective

Glenn Greenwald over at Unclaimed Territory has another good post supporting my contention (see here and here) that we need to look at the terrorist threat rationally, and not be swayed by the irrational hysteria that is being pumped up.. Greenwald says “The cause of this irrationality, this inability to view the terrorism threat with any perspective, is not a mystery. Terrorists like Al Qaeda deliberately stage attacks which are designed to instill fear in the population far beyond what is warranted by the actual threat-level posed by the terrorists. That’s the defining tactic and objective of terrorists. Fortunately for the terrorists, in the United States, Al Qaeda has a powerful ally in this goal: the Bush Administration, which for four years has, along with Al Qeada, worked ceaselessly to instill in Americans an overarching and excessive fear of terrorism.”

He quotes historian Joseph J. Ellis who in a New York Times op-ed says: “My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic…Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.”

The rapturites among us

After I wrote about the rapture letters, I viewed the film The God Who Wasn’t There (thanks to Aaron Shaffer (Manager of the Freedman Center) who loaned me the DVD) and the filmmaker included an interview with the creator of that letter writing site. He seems like a nice guy who sincerely believes that the rapture is going to occur in his lifetime. The film also says that an astounding 44% of the American public, like him, are either certain or think it very probable that the rapture will happen in their lifetimes! You can see the relevant clip from the film here.

This statistic is quite amazing. If you think about it for a minute it means that almost every other person you pass on the street, almost every other co-worker or fellow student believes that it is certain or extremely probable that she or he is going to be whisked into heaven within the next couple of decades. Who are these people? Where are these people? Are we living in two parallel worlds in which one group of people whom the rest of us are unaware of have this truly bizarre notion that Armageddon is going to occur very soon?

I must confess that I have never personally met anyone who has openly expressed such a belief. But a friend who reads my blog and had until then had never even heard of the rapture happened to mention this to a co-worker who casually said that yes, she believed in the rapture. My friend was stunned that this seemingly normal co-worker believed in this bizarre notion.

But even though I have never met a rapturite (rapturist? raptor?), I am curious about them. Do they buy life insurance? Do they worry about their children’s and grandchildren’s future? Do they plan and save for their retirement and old age? The US is notorious for the low savings rate of its people. Is this because so many people feel they do not have to worry about the future because they are going to be raptured away? It would interesting to do a number of correlation studies between people who hold rapture beliefs and all these other things.

Is this also why, as a nation, the US seems to be so cavalier in its attitudes towards protecting the environment and on global warming and energy and other resource conservation? Other nations take the threat of global warming far more seriously. Are the rapturites in the higher echelons of government? This would be serious because then would influence major policy decisions. Lest you think this is far-fetched, it was not so long ago that James Watt, President Reagan’s Secretary of the Environment, seemed to echo rapturite ideas.

I have not been able to find another source for the 44% statistic quoted in the film but the popularity of beliefs that strike me as bizarre no longer surprises me. After all, many people believe in miracles (89%), the devil (68%), hell (69%), ghosts (51%), astrology (31%) and reincarnation (27%), for none of which does there exist any empirical evidence whatsoever.

It can be argued that believing in the rapture is no more preposterous that the standard religious belief in a god who can intervene in the natural world, and that would be true. But the policy consequences can be very different. All these other religious beliefs have been around for a long time and are compatible with people having long term goals and interests. Atheists and non-rapture religious people can share common concerns about the environment and work together to create a better world for future generations. The rapture belief is particularly unsettling because it is such a short term belief and can have serious negative policy consequences that affect us all. Having such a large number of people subscribing to such beliefs can throw a real wrench into any planning for solving long range problems.

In the short term, it can lead to some wacky ideas. For example, there was a recent report that a group of evangelical Christians are planning a Biblical theme park in Israel that could also serve as a launching pad for the rapture.

If a crackpot idea appears on the horizon, can our old friend Pat Robertson be far behind? And sure enough, behind that theme park idea is that go-to man for every loony idea related to Christianity, whom I have come depend upon for a supply of black humor. Robertson can even explain why Sharon had a stroke. He says: “Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is being punished by God for dividing the Land of Israel. Robertson, speaking on the “700 Club” on Thursday, suggested Sharon and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995, were being treated with enmity by God for dividing Israel. “He was dividing God’s land,” Robertson said. “And I would say, Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the E.U., the United Nations or the United States of America. God says, This land belongs to me. You better leave it alone.” (See the video here.)

Why is Robertson so adamantly opposed to any plan for a future Palestinian state? One explanation for this is that the rapturites believe that the expansion of Israel is a precursor to the coming of the rapture and thus strongly oppose any plan that involves even the remote possibility of creating a Palestinian state, showing once again how damaging rapture beliefs can be.

This particular piece of Robertson buffoonery was too much for the Israeli government that until then had seemed to be willing to play along with the rapture idea (even though the rapture itself foretells a particularly nasty end for Jews) because of the booming Christian tourist industry it generated in Israel. They cut Robertson out of the deal. Whereupon he immediately apologized, proving that old adage “money talks.”

The Porpoise-Driven Wife

Bill O’Reilly warned us that allowing gay marriage would eventually lead to interspecies marriage and for once he was right, as can be seen from this story of a woman who fell in love with, and eventually married, a dolphin.

If some religious people are having conniptions over gay marriage, imagine what they will say over this. Can the Armageddon be far behind?

(By the way, whoever at Media Matters came up with “The Porpoise-Driven Wife” deserves a prize for the best headline of the year.)

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-2

Blogs are highly idiosyncratic and so hard to talk about except in terms of our own personal response to them. Clearly there are different types of blogs: those that dwell on the personal lives of the authors, those that highlight particular issues (e.g., evolution and intelligent design), those that seek to provide perspective and commentary on current events, those that provide longer, more analytical pieces, those that just provide an avenue for venting, those that provide an outlet for creative talents, such as fiction, poetry, and art, and other reasons to numerous to mention.

Why do people blog? What is the benefit? Again it is hard to generalize but here are my reasons. (I should note that I did not start a blog with these benefits in mind. I started it simply out of curiosity and the challenge of trying something new. I discovered these benefits only after the fact.)

The main benefit for me personally is that writing regularly forces me to sort out my ideas and clarifies my thinking The truth of E. M. Forster’s remark “How can I know what I am thinking until I see what I say?” becomes more and more apparent to me the more I write.

The blog also provides me with practice for improving my writing. I have been focusing in the past on clarity and logical thinking, but more recently I have been trying to see if I can write with better style, with more wit and humor, with better choice of words and structure. If readers have not detected any improvement in these areas, it just shows how far I have to go!

The blog also acts for me as a repository for ideas and sources that may be otherwise forgotten or misplaced. When I want to recall some fact that I have written about, the blog is the first place for me to look and it provides me with a place to direct people to look. In my TV appearance (see below), I spoke about the accuracy comparison between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica. When asked for the source of the study, I could not recall it immediately but it took only a few seconds to find that post on my blog with the relevant link, and send that information to the other panelists.

The blog also provides me with the first draft of writing for many topics. When the Dover trial verdict was announced, I was able to cobble together an op-ed piece from my blog entries in just a little over an hour because I had been writing about it already. The information was there, all I had to do was work on editing it for appropriateness. Because of the speed of the writing, it enabled me to get it published in a timely manner. I am planning on writing a few other pieces for publication, using the blog entries as initial drafts.

But perhaps the biggest benefit for me as a blog author is that I have been able to connect (and reconnect) with people whom I would have never met otherwise.

One obvious advantage of blogs in general is that it provides a much larger potential readership for people with ideas. I now read a much wider range of writers and cartoonists than I ever did before.

In my role as a reader of other people’s blogs, the advantages are huge. It saves time in reading newspapers and watching TV. I almost never watch TV news or the talk shows, but thanks to sites like Crooks and Liars and onegoodmove I get pointed to just the bits (both serious and funny) that interest me.

The blog provides me with access to knowledgeable people who write well on important topics. The mainstream columnists like David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or most of the other people who are published in the op-ed pages of the Plain Dealer hardly ever have anything interesting or new to say. I can read the first paragraph and guess the rest. But blogs like Informed Comment, Unclaimed Territory, Talking Points Memo, and Justin Raimondo mix sharp and perceptive commentary with useful information. And they write well too.

Finally the blogs provides knowledgeable and specialized information on topics that I am interested in and alerts me to news I might have missed, often gleaned from the foreign press or less well known sources.

In my appearance on Feagler and friends, we had a cordial discussion about blogs but I sensed some skepticism about the value of blogs from the editor of the Plain Dealer and the host Dick Feagler, who is a traditional newspaper columnist. I don’t if I managed to persuade them otherwise, but we did have some follow up email communication after the show and I think Dick Feagler started to become more open to the potential benefits of blogs.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25′s Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-1

Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog. I had no idea when I started it with a very tentative posting on January 26, 2005 where it would go or that it would take the shape it currently has. I had no idea, though, that it would be as much fun, as useful (to me at least), or require as much time and effort as has turned out to be the case. One thing that it has done that surprised me is that it has made me almost addicted to reading, researching, and writing about the things that I care about and that, I believe, is a good thing.

(Sandy Piderit and Vincenzo Liberatore gave me some welcome encouragement on my first feeble attempt. Jeremy Smith’s comments on my first posting had some excellent advice which I have followed and would recommend to others thinking about blogging.)

This personal anniversary coincides with some local media attention on the role of blogs in the new media age. Two weeks ago I appeared on the Cleveland NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 to discuss this question and then last week I taped a show for the local PBS affiliate WVIZ channel 25 program Feagler and friends with Doug Clifton (editor of the Plain Dealer) and Denise Polverine (editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com). (See below for details about its broadcast on Friday and Sunday.)

In preparing for both these shows, I started thinking about the role of blogs. What role are they likely to play in the media of the future and what uses do they serve for the authors of blogs and the readers of blogs? It seems a bit strange to be pontificating about blogging after doing it for just one year. But blogging is one of those fields where the cliché “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” applies. Most people are surprisingly unaware of what blogs are so even someone with relatively slight experience (like me) is perceived as an “expert.” So in this two-part series, here are my opinions on the topic, for what it is worth.

Some of the more obvious benefits of blogs are the following:

  • They can focus and maintain attention of stories that the major media do not highlight or follow up (Like the plan to bomb al-Jazeera during the attack on Falluja in April 2004, or the Downing street memos of July 23, 2002 of the meetings between the US and UK governments to fix the intelligence in order to support the attack on Iraq, or the story of US and UK complicity in Uzbekistan torture.)
  • They can immediately correct the record when there are attempts by interested parties to mislead the public about important facts and the mainstream media does not act (example: NSA wiretapping, who benefited from the Jack Abramoff payoffs, the war on Christmas)
  • Can clarify complicated issues like the Valerie Plame leak.
  • It can be a rich source of material for future historians. In the past, people wrote a lot of long letters to each other and historian have used these to get an idea of what people really thought, as opposed to what they formally published. Such voluminous letter writing is rare now, but blogs probably will give historians a good idea of how ideas germinate and propagate.

But there are other benefits as well. It enables many more people to resurrect an older model of news and commentary, that of political pamphleteers and political newsletters like the one created by iconic journalist I. F. (Izzy) Stone. Victor Navasky writes that although Stone

“never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world. His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

“But Izzy also got and made news by reading the dailies, the wire services and such, and then following up where others had not thought to tread. He once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read “because you never know on what page you would find a page-one story.”

Most modern day newspapers and journalists don’t do that kind of close reading of documents, focusing instead on reporting on what people say at news conferences. Perhaps they lack the resources or it isn’t glamorous enough for them to do this kind of painstaking work. It requires a certain kind of passion and attention to detail to do that and bloggers are the people who are filling that niche, with individual bloggers specializing in their chosen areas of expertise. The internet enables such people to access an audience without going through all the hassle of printing and circulation, and we, the general public, can easily benefit from their research, quickly and efficiently.

For example, in its heyday, the weekly circulation of Stone’s newsletter IF Stone’s Weekly was 70,000. The top blogs, like daily Kos now get a half million visits a day! If I. F. Stone were alive today, I think he’d be the top-rated blogger too. It would have been a perfect fit for him.

This success of blogging has ruffled a lot of feathers in the mainstream media. As Glenn Greenwald comments:

The principal benefit from the emergence of the blogosphere is that it has opened up our political discourse to a much wider and more diverse group of participants. Previously, establishment journalists and their hand-picked commentators were the sole vehicle for the dissemination of political opinions. The only commentators and opinions which received any real attention were the ones which establishment journalists deemed worthy of attention. Those who were outside of the club of established journalists were ignored and unable to have their opinions heard.

All of that has changed with the blogosphere. The blogosphere is a hard-core and pure meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your pedigree is. You either produce persuasive arguments and do so with credibility, or you don’t. Whether someone has influence in the blogosphere has nothing to do with their institutionalized credentials and everything to do with the substance of what they produce. That is why even those who maintain their anonymity can be among the most popular, entertaining and influential voices. The blogosphere has exploded open the gates of influence which were previously guarded so jealously by the establishment journalists.

For precisely that reason, many establishment journalists have raging contempt for the blogosphere. It is a contempt grounded in the fallacy of credentialism and a pseudo-elitist belief that only the approved and admitted members of their little elite journalist club can be trusted to enlighten the masses. Many of them see blogs as a distasteful and anarchic sewer, where uncredentialed and irresponsible people who are totally unqualified to articulate opinions are running around spewing all sorts of uninformed trash. And these journalistic gate-keepers become especially angry when blogospheric criticism is directed towards other establishment journalists, who previously were immune from any real public accountability.

As I said on the TV show on the relationship of blogs to newspapers in the new media age, there will always be a place for traditional journalists who actually go out into the field and collect the primary information. Most bloggers cannot do that. Although an increasing number are attempting to do this kind of journalistic function, they lack the financial resources and official credentials that can get them in the door of official functions.

The people who are endangered are the columnists and the writers of op-ed opinion pieces. Because what blogs have revealed is that there are a very large number of articulate, literary, informed, clever, and sharp-witted writers out there who are worth seeking out, much better than the ones delivered to my doorstep every morning.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25′s Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

David Horowitz busted again

Most people are by now aware of David Horowitz’s publicity-seeking gimmicks, where he runs around the country trying to scare everyone with lurid tales of left wing academics gone wild, abusing their power by terrorizing conservative students. As long-time readers of this blog know, I became part of this story when I wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the March 4, 2005 issue of Plain Dealer about one such tale that I looked into and could not substantiate. This story was picked up by Media Matters and went national, and Horowitz supporters (and he has some supporters who seem to verge on the fanatical that seem almost cult-like) posted nasty comments, even threatening legal action against me, which was rather funny. I think Horowitz’s supporters are hoping I’d be eaten by bears, the fate of the children who made mock of the Prophet Elisha.

(For those of you not familiar with the Elisha story, you can read it in the Bible in 2 Kings, Chapter 2, verses 23 and 24. Elisha was on his way somewhere when “there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.” You might think that merely being called “baldy” by little children is hardly something that would faze a prophet of god, but Elisha, showing the same kind of peevishness as Horowitz, gets mad, murderously so. “And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” This act of horrific vengefulness against forty two little children for their childish insensitivity is attributed by the Bible to God, which should give pause (but won’t) to those who argue that the Bible is the source of all morality.)

As a result of my op-ed, the publication Inside Higher Ed investigated the charges I made and found that the facts of the story were far from what Horowitz had alleged. Horowitz acknowledged that he had not checked the facts of his story before making it public. For all the details of this somewhat bizarre episode, see my earlier posting The strange story of David Horowitz and the “Bush-as-war-criminal” essay.

You would think that after that episode, Horowitz would be careful to carefully check his stories in the future before going public. That would be the path taken by a prudent person. But you would be wrong. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed finds him being, if possible, even more cavalier with facts. (Thanks to commenter George for alerting me to this.)

On Tuesday, January 11, Horowitz testified at a Pennsylvania legislative committee in favor of his pet project, the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, and told another two stories of academic abuse. But as Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik writes:

David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has led the push for the hearings in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, admitted that he had no evidence to back up two of the stories he has told multiple times to back up his charges that political bias is rampant in higher education.

For example, Horowitz has said several times that a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University used a class session just before the 2004 election to show the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, but he acknowledged Tuesday that he didn’t have any proof that this took place.

In a phone interview, Horowitz said that he had heard about the alleged incident from a legislative staffer and that there was no evidence to back up the claim.

The other example Horowitz was forced to back down on Tuesday is from the opposite end of the political spectrum. He has several times cited the example of a student in California who supports abortion rights and who said that he was punished with a low grade by a professor who opposed abortion. Asked about this example, Horowitz said that he had no evidence to back up the student’s claim.

In the interview, he said that he didn’t have the resources to look into all the complaints that he publicizes. “I can’t investigate every story,” he said.

Fair enough. None of us have the resources to investigate every story either. That is why one should only write and speak about the stories that one can investigate, or for which one has at least some documentation. Or, failing even that, to at the very least say that what you are saying is based on a rumor. Most people assume that people have some basis for whatever they say and one has to respect that trust and make it clear when one is merely guessing or passing along a rumor. What is inexcusable is to do what Horowitz did, and go round making wild charges and acting as if you have supporting evidence, all the while knowing that you do not have anything to back it up.

But Horowitz’s reasoning is so bizarre one has to really wonder as to the level of his contact with reality. Here’s his defense:

Horowitz noted that when he publicizes such stories, he does not print the names of the professors involved, and that he has stated many times that a professor involved in such an incident would be welcome to write a rebuttal that he would post on his Web site. “I have protected professors. I have not posted their names and pilloried them. My Web site is open to them,” he said.

So he publicizes stories of doubtful veracity about anonymous people and then expects those people to rebut them! And when no rebuttals appear, he assumes that the stories must be true?

That’s a great journalistic innovation. Let me try it: I have heard that there is a professor in Ohio who forced a student to kneel on the ground and hit his head on the floor repeatedly, at the same time singing the Beach Boys hit song “Good Vibrations.” Okay, the story is on my website. If I don’t get any rebuttals, I’ll assume that it is true and will thus have a terrific scoop. See how easy it is?

But Horowitz has one last defense, the one that is always resorted to by those caught in such embarrassing retractions: that although the stories may be fake, they represent “deep” or “essential” truths.

Even if these examples aren’t correct, [Horowitz] said, they represent the reality of academic life. “Is there anybody out there who will say that professors don’t attack Bush in biology classrooms?” he said.

This was also the defense adopted by James Frey whose life story in his memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed by the website The Smoking Gun to be to be filled with fabrications and falsehoods. In an interview with Larry King, Frey accepted that he had altered details of his life, but defended its “essential truth.”

It won’t work for Frey and it won’t work for Horowitz. If academic abuse is so rampant, then it should not be hard to find documented cases of it. You cannot make up stories, unless you are a writer of fiction and label it as such. To do so and claim it as reality is simply wrong.

Okay, all you Horowitz fans out there who prowl the internet seeking to defend your dear leader from people who question his veracity, it’s your turn. I have seriously dissed your leader again. Show your fealty to him. Let’s hear some more legal threats!

Or at least unleash the bears.

POST SCRIPT: Capote

I recently saw the film Capote and it was excellent. It was a fine portrayal of how author Truman Capote essentially sacrificed his soul in order to get the right ending for his groundbreaking “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. It is a sobering reminder of what I read sometime ago, that writers will often be driven to sell even their grandmothers for the sake of their craft.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the case were terrific. I have yet to see a performance by Hoffman that is not first-rate. Although he usually plays a supporting role in films, the first film I saw in which he had a major role was Flawless in which he plays a female impersonator lounge singer saving up for a sex-change operation who ends up having to give voice lessons to a hard-bitten, macho policeman played by Robert De Niro. There’s a film premise you are not likely to see every day. Although this film did not get much publicity, it is well worth seeing on video.

Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be like John Cusack, having the ability to select scripts that are complex, interesting, and original.

The threat of terrorist attacks – 2

The recent release of an audiotape by Bin Laden offering a truce in the war may be used to kick off the election year season of ratcheting up the fear of terrorism.

In his message bin Laden points to attacks in other countries and promises a new attack on the US and explains the reason for not doing so earlier:

As for the delay in carrying out similar operations in America, this was not due to the failure to breach your security measures. Operations are in preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once the preparations are finished, God willing.

The Bush administration has reacted to the tape with its usual bluster, and the mainstream pundit class has responded along fairly predictable lines, vying with each to show who has the most macho response. As James Wolcott says: “What a pathetic, posturing, blowhard country we’ve become. Yesterday a new audio surfaces from Osama bin Laden, the man many speculated was dead. The media and political response was a phony show of “strength” and an embarrassing self-contradiction. Now it doesn’t take a terrorist expert to understand that when a charismatic figure who was instrumental in the deaths of 3000 Americans and remains [un]apprehended four years later extends a “truce” to the U.S., that this is hardly a sign of weakness. It is a gesture of supreme, serene hauteur.”

Justin Raimondo, Editorial Director of the excellent website Antiwar.com has a reasoned take on this latest development. He begins by pointing out that whatever one might think of bin Laden, he is nothing if not consistent in his behavior and seems to be a man of his word.

The “preparations” [bin Laden] talks about may be just about finished: at least, that is how it seems to me. If you examine bin Laden’s past pronouncements, and the public statements of al-Qaeda, a clear pattern emerges: there is a warning, followed by an attack – and a claim of responsibility. Bin Laden’s public persona is very consistent: he says what he intends to do, then he does it. We have no reason to disbelieve him, or to assume he’ll break the pattern this time.

Another pattern of behavior is that he always offers his enemies a way out: in the past, he has said that a change in U.S. foreign policy would have to mean a corresponding change on his part.

Raimondo then points out something that is often ignored in the media but has been clear to anyone who has actually read the statements of bin Laden, that while willing to execute murderous missions, bin Laden and al-Quaeda are not lunatics acting irrationally, but rational people carrying out a strategic plan that has well-defined goals.

[The videotape] confirms what analysts such as [Michael] Scheuer [a 22-year veteran of the CIA, counter-terrorism expert and the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror] have long said: that al-Qaeda launched its global insurgency in order to secure certain specific and strictly limited goals, the primary one of which is to rid the Middle East of Western military and political dominance. By announcing that the U.S. would henceforth not be interfering in the affairs of other nations, we would effectively bring the insurgency to an end – and the threat of terrorism against the U.S. homeland would cease. This bin Laden pledges, on his word as a Muslim. It would be foolish to believe he doesn’t take such a vow seriously, or utter it in all sincerity – just as it would be equally foolish to disdain his threats as baseless boasting.

Of course, according to the demonological view of bin Laden, which depicts him as an irrational monster entirely without any strategic sense – or even any genuinely religious conviction – he is not capable of sincerity. The offer of a truce had barely been uttered before it was rejected by the U.S. government, which announced that it doesn’t “negotiate with terrorists.” We negotiated with Stalin, with Hitler, with despots of every size, shape, and hue – and yet to do so with bin Laden, even if indirectly, is impermissible.

What bin Laden offers is straightforward:

We do not object to a long-term truce with you on the basis of fair conditions that we respect.

We are a nation, for which God has disallowed treachery and lying.

In this truce, both parties will enjoy security and stability and we will build Iraq and Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the war.

But bin Laden is pessimistic that his offer will be accepted for reasons that reveal an understanding of the workings of what President Eisenhower once presciently warned of – the power of the “military-industrial complex.”

There is no defect in this solution other than preventing the flow of hundreds of billions to the influential people and war merchants in America, who supported Bush’s election campaign with billions of dollars.

Hence, we can understand the insistence of Bush and his gang to continue the war.

Even during the Tiger and other insurrections in Sri Lanka, I never understood the hardline position of ruling out negotiations. If you don’t negotiate with your enemies, then how will you ever know what really drives their thinking and actions? After all, if the negotiations don’t succeed or are done in bad faith, you always have the option of going back to war. War always has to be the last resort.

Many people will not be aware (this news surfaced briefly and then disappeared) that soon after the events of 9/11 when bin Laden and al-Quaeda had been fingered as the culprits, the ruling Taliban government in Afghanistan said that the “government knows the whereabouts of militant leader Osama bin Laden and has him under their control. A Taliban official said ‘Wherever he goes, there are people assigned to him, and he cannot move around without their permission’ ” They offered to turn over bin Laden and others to the US but “added that bin Laden would not be turned over to the U.S. unconditionally, and said the Taliban would need to see firm evidence of bin Laden’s guilt before they would even consider any handover.”

The Taliban spokesman further said that “only an Afghan court can decide whether to turn him over to the U.S. or try him within Afghanistan itself. ”

What was Bush’s response to this offer? Summary rejection. “There’s no need to negotiate” Bush said, and went to war in Afghanistan.

And so here we are, more than four years later with bin Laden still making threats and the US stuck in hopeless wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the Taliban were not negotiating in good faith. But we will never know the answer to that question because that path was never explored.

The rejection of the Taliban offer by the US could not have been because the US had no links with the Taliban government because there is story behind even this story.

It turns out that the US government and the oil giant Unocal had been in secret negotiations with the Taliban for nearly a year to construct an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to India that passed through that country. But the talks broke down in August 2001 because the Taliban also wanted help in rebuilding their country but the US wanted to only build the pipeline and have nothing to do with helping Afghanistan restore its ravaged infrastructure.

Could it be that the events of 9/11 provided the Bush administration with an ideal opportunity to militarily overthrow the Taliban government and replace it with a new pliable one (like the present Karzai government) that would carry out the US government’s wishes on the pipeline, and this was why offers of talks were rejected out of hand? It is interesting that both Hamid Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad (the Bush Administration’s ambassador to Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban and now US ambassador to Iraq) were both consultants to Unocal. You can read the story of the oil pipeline negotiations (which also involves that bottomless cesspool of corruption that is Enron) here.

I think it is clear that bin Laden is fully confident that, given Bush’s track record and the state of political discourse in this country, Bush will not take him up on his offer of a truce. That must mean that this new statement is designed more to show the rest of the world that he, not Bush, is the reasonable person. When the next attack occurs, he will tell the world that Bush could have prevented it, but didn’t. And so more innocent people will die in the endless cycle generated by these propaganda wars.

We have to shift the whole focus of this debate from military posturing to realizing that terrorism is at root a response by the militarily weak to a political problem with political causes and hence must have a political solution that is arrived at by a realistic examination of the issues at hand and negotiations with the relevant parties. As Raimondo says:

How can we win the “war on terrorism”? It is the task of Sisyphus, in the context of current American foreign policy: in short, it cannot be done. If we define “victory” as the cessation of enemy activities aimed at the West, however, it is clearly within reach, but only if we venture outside the narrow parameters set by American policymakers, who somehow believe that global hegemony is a legitimate goal – except when it is pursued by someone else.

Raimondo takes direct aim at the foolish notion that al-Quaeda hates us for who we are and will not rest until all American women wear burkas and all American men grow beards.

No, they don’t hate us on account of our much-vaunted modernity: neither Madonna nor Sex and the City has set this jihad in motion. It isn’t Brokeback Mountain that enrages or concerns them: it’s all about our foreign policy of untrammeled aggression, our unconditional support for Israel, our support for tyrants from the Saudis to the butchers of North Africa, and our policy of enforcing a regime of low-priced oil on our regional satraps. As long as our rulers persist in this course, they endanger us all – and what is clear beyond any doubt is that we have no reason to believe they can protect us from the consequences of their folly.

Of course, even the idea of actually reading the statements of bin Laden and of carefully examining the al-Quaeda manifesto will be horrifying to some and painted as soft on terrorism at best and treasonous at worst. Somehow people have been trained to respond on the basis of perceptions and stereotypes and hysteria rather than clinically examining the situation before them and rationally weighing the options.

In Sri Lanka, the twenty-year old war finally resulted in a two-year truce when the government wearied of trying to wipe out the Tigers militarily, realized it was hopeless, and after years and years of refusing to talk with the Tiger leaders, started negotiations. Unfortunately, the aftermath of the tsunami and a change in government resulted in the negotiations almost breaking down and the risk of war and terrorism is dangerously increasing. But there are lessons to be learned from that and many similar experiences world wide, which is that fighting a determined and committed guerilla enemy is usually a war of attrition in which conventional armies and strategies, especially those fighting in a foreign country that has different language, culture, religion, and customs, are at a huge disadvantage.

Bin Laden says he is willing to wait us out if we choose not to negotiate, and he can point to a track record on patience with what they did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As he says:

Do not be deluded by your power and modern weapons. Although they win some battles, they lose the war. Patience and steadfastness are better than them. What is important is the outcome.

We have been tolerant for 10 years in fighting the Soviet Union with our few weapons and we managed to drain their economy.

They became history, with God’s help.

You should learn lessons from that.

The message of this tape signals an ominous development. It calls for careful examination and a reasoned response. Unfortunately, what we are likely to see instead, especially in an election year, is a competition to see who can look and speak the toughest.

POST SCRIPT: Hide! The sky is falling! Or something…

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, on target as usual, gives us Fear Factor: The terrifying world of the average conservative.

The threat of terrorist attacks-1

I have posted in the past about how the current administration likes to keep the populace in a state of constant fear. Succeeding in that task, persuading them that each one of us is under imminent threat enables the administration to undertake the systematic dismantling of the hard-won rights and civil liberties that underly societies that are truly free. It also enables them to rally voters to their side. I argued that we should fight this fearmongering.

Some of you may have noticed, for example, that since the elections were over in November 2004, we have not seen any dramatic announcements of terrorist plots, changes in the color-coded alert system, etc. (Quick quiz: Do you know what the current color is? Do you even care?) But there will be congressional elections this year and I anticipate that there will be an increase in the reporting of vague threats against major cities as those campaigns get underway. The rising bellicosity about Iran seems to be the preamble.

I should emphasize that in making this assertion, I am not underestimating the threat of future terrorist attacks in the US and elsewhere. Sadly, I think that future terrorist attacks are not only highly likely, they are almost inevitable. The recent release of the bin Laden audiotape (more on this tomorrow) only confirms this pessimistic view. What I am arguing is that you cannot fight this kind of terrorism with bluster and attacks on countries like Iraq that, as needs constant repetition, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and nothing to do with al-Quaeda.

Terrorists seek to frighten ordinary people. They do that by hitting ‘soft’ targets (places where people just congregate, without any special military or political or economic significance that warrant extra security) as dramatically as possible, so as to frighten people into thinking that they are not safe anywhere.

What complicates matters for anyone planning such a major attack and can deter them, just like for any ordinary criminal, is how to escape undetected after the act has been committed. It is this that largely restricts the options and opportunities for criminals to create a dramatic and deadly event.

But once a group has crossed a threshold and feels its grievances to be strong enough to be able to recruit people for suicide missions, and that soft targets of civilian populations are worthy targets, then the biggest deterrent against attacks is gone, and society is utterly vulnerable. Once people don’t mind, and even seek, dying for a cause, you have little defense against them and one’s safety options become highly limited.

This happened in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. Once the sense of grievance among the Tamils was high enough that the Tigers could recruit members for suicide missions, they were able to attack targets, even highly guarded ones, with impunity. They were able to kill high ranking politicians and military figures, even the Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, as well as high profile targets like the parliament, the Central Bank, and the main airport. And the Tigers were patient, another important weapon in their arsenal. As one can imagine, after all these attacks, there was a tight wall of security around the President of Sri Lanka. But the Tigers patiently planned and waited for years while one of their cadres established an innocent identity that enabled him to get close to President Premadasa and one day he exploded a device that killed him and the President, among others.

It strikes me that what is going on with al-Quaeda is similar. The sense of grievance among their members is huge enough that they seem to have no trouble recruiting people for suicide missions. This is especially so since they have the added incentive (that the Tigers do not use) of claiming that god is on their side and approves of their actions. The US attack on Iraq also seems to have become one of their best recruiting messages, enabling them to convince their followers that the US has evil designs on the entire Middle East and the Muslim world and its resources. They seem to be also very patient. And they are not hesitant to attack ‘soft’ targets if need be.

If I think that an attack is almost inevitable, why am I saying we should not live in a state of fear? Because the threat is random, and should be placed in the context of other random threats and we should respond accordingly. For example, I know with certainty that large numbers of people will die in car crashes this next year, many of them due to no fault of their own. It will be just a random event. I know with certainty that many people will die in other kinds of accidents or be murdered. Many people will die due to hurricanes and earthquakes. And again it will be due to no fault of their own. Another random event.

Any one of those people who die in such random events could be me. In fact, the probability that I will die due to one of these causes is much greater than that due to a terrorist attack. And they will all be random. So why should I live in fear of a terrorist attack more than these other things? It does not make any rational sense.

The administration argument that we should be willing to give up all rule of law and to effectively declare Presidential actions to be above the law is going to be successful in the court of public opinion only insofar as we are driven to a state of almost panic-like fear about death by terrorism. It may be true that by creating an almost police-like state where anyone can be arrested, detained indefinitely, tortured, and even killed without recourse to law we might marginally improve the chances of avoiding a terrorist attack. Is that a deal we want to make? At least shouldn’t we have a say in whether such a deal is made?

All of us make trade-offs involving risks, costs, and benefits. For example, we are told that eating certain foods, avoiding others, getting lots of exercise, stopping smoking, and doing a whole host of other things may increase our lifespans. But there is no guarantee. We are instead talking about very small changes in probabilities and we all decide which ones are worth doing and which ones are too onerous and take the fun out of life.

Extra safety can almost always be obtained, but often at an extreme price. How much are we willing to pay? Some people (Jonah Goldberg and his ilk come to mind) are willing to let other people pay the high price to increase their sense of safety, but I am assuming that most of us have not sunk to that level. (This cartoon by August J. Pollack captures the Goldberg mindset exactly. Pollack follows it up with a survey sent to Bush supporters asking them how far they are willing to go in their support for Bush.)

This does not mean that I think we can do nothing about terrorism. Tomorrow I will look at other options.

POST SCRIPT: Fighting bad science reporting with actual data

George Mason University’s STATS website is doing a valuable service. It is looking carefully at sensational science-related news stories and checking if the data actually match the claims of the reports.

See, for example, its 2005 Dubious Data Awards where they set “The Record Straight on the Year’s Biggest Science Reporting Flubs,” which include the meth drug scare, poison popcorn, and today’s teenagers supposedly alarming obsession with illicit drugs, alcohol, and sex.

Religion and respect

Last month I posted a tongue-in-cheek article about the “rapture letters”. Most readers found it amusing but I was gently upbraided by one who said that I was making fun of the deep and sincere beliefs of many people and not being respectful of them.

It is undoubtedly true that I was having fun at the expense of the believers in the rapture but that exchange with the commenter caused me to think about the relationship of religion and respect.

In some respects, all the major religions are in principle fundamentally disrespectful to those of other faiths. For example, most Christians and Jews and Muslims believe that there is some special benefit that accrues to them from their beliefs that is not available to members of other religions. This benefit may be in the form of entering heaven or being raptured or whatever. Such people may not go out of their way to publicize this special benefit but it is there nonetheless. Members of each religion believe that those with other beliefs are simply wrong.

Is such a view disrespectful of the faiths of other people? I believe it is. If I believe that god likes my religious group specially and is going to give us a big reward when we die, while sending members of other religious groups straight to hell or someplace equally unpleasant, that belief inherently disrespectful of the beliefs of others, even if I don’t explicitly and openly declare it.

Actually, it could be argued that the atheist approach is the most respectful to all because the future that the atheist envisages is exactly the same for everybody, atheist or otherwise. In the atheist framework, there is no preferred group at all. There is no advantage to being an atheist, except the intellectual peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about how to reconcile the workings of the natural world with existence of a supernatural deity.

I have often wondered why (say) some religious people are so touchy about anything that they see as disrespectful towards their religion. I remember in Sri Lanka there would be periodic uproars because some business in the West had adopted the image and name of the Buddha to market some product or service. There would be demonstrations and protests and marches. I could never see the point of it. If you are happy with your own religion, why do you care what other people say about it?

All this phony fuss about the so-called war on Christmas is another example of this. If I was a born-again Christian (or the equivalent in Judaism or Islam or any other theistic religion) and believed that when I die I was guaranteed to go to heaven or be raptured or the equivalent, then frankly I would feel pretty content and not care one whit what other people say or believe about my religion. After all, my own future is secure, and it is the people who are sneering at me that are sure of going to hell. One should feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed and angry.

Conversely, since I am an atheist, it does not bother me in the least if some people think that I am heading to eternal damnation. The effect on me is the same as if they say they believe in unicorns or the tooth fairy. I would have the same lack of reaction if people should mock atheism.

While writing the last sentence, I tried to think of a concrete example of what someone might say to mock atheism, and failed. I realized that it is hard to actually mock atheism since it does not have a belief structure that can be parodied or ridiculed. It is simply the absence of belief in a god. One can reject it, but it is hard to ridicule it.

POST SCRIPT: Appearing on TV tonight (See update below)

UPDATE: At the taping today, I was told that the broadcast of this show would be at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29.

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on TV tonight (Friday, January 20, 2006). It will be at 8:30pm on WVIZ channel 25′s Feagler and friends. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton will also be on the program.

The taping is this afternoon and I am assuming that the show will be broadcast tonight and not next week.

Morality exists independently of, and prior to, religion

There were some very thoughtful and lively comments to yesterday’s post on the topic Should atheists come out of the closet?

It was suggested that one of the other reasons that atheists might feel uncomfortable about revealing their point of view is because of the common perception that morality is derived from religion and that to say one is an atheist is to run the risk of being thought to have no moral standards and be capable of any atrocity.

This view does persist in the face of evidence (and arguments) to the contrary. For example, Marc Hauser and Peter Singer in their paper Morality Without Religion reported on the results of survey of 1500 people, asking the following questions:

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally “obligatory,” “permissible,” or “forbidden.”

1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ____________.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _________.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

Taken the quiz? Here are the results of the study:

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test [http://moral.wjh.edu]. On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

Gregory S. Paul did a transnational study that argues that being religious actually leads to negative social consequences. In his study titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies published in the Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005), he finds:

Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in religiosity in favor of secularization in the developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary science correlates negatively with levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly.

Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel argues that the idea that morality is derived only from religion does not make logical sense. He says (p. 331):

Let us suppose…that moral values comes only from God’s authoritative word, that moral value is by definition that which God commands. If so, then if God commands us to love one another, then loving one another is morally good, by definition. However it is equally true on this view that if God were instead to command us to hate and enslave all those who are of a different race then, still by definition, the hate-filled slave – holder would be morally good and praiseworthy. Similarly, if God were to have created us such that our purpose was to kill each other for fun, then the peacemaker would be a demon and the serial murderer would be a moral saint, again by definition. Indeed, the creationist will likely say that such ideas move beyond irreverence and into blasphemy and that it is impossible to think that God would ever command such immoralities. However, notice that such a reply would contradict itself in the mouth of someone who says that morality is merely that which God commands…Plato’s point is that this view – that God’s authority as the origin of value – is fundamentally flawed. It is rather the second view that makes more sense, namely that God commands something because it is indeed good. That means, therefore, that goodness must have a basis that is independent of God. The lesson for us here is that…the existentialist fear is ill-founded – the possibility of value, purpose, and meaning are not lost even if God does not exist.

Of course, I do not expect these arguments to persuade anyone who is convinced that it is only belief in god that prevents people from torturing and killing people, without even pausing to reflect on the seeming contradiction that it is a supposedly religious President Bush who actually authorizes both these things.

POST SCRIPT: What Christians think about atheists

One intrepid atheist blogger (Lya Kahlo) spent two months at Christian websites and chat rooms engaging the natives in dialogue about what they thought about atheists, and compiled an interesting set of lists. Of course, Kahlo does not claim any scientific status for this highly idiosyncratic survey.

Kahlo reports on the 11 most common misconceptions about atheists:

1. Atheists hate god/are jealous of theists

2. Atheists are arrogant and don’t want anything “superior” to them

3. Atheists have never experience religion

4. Atheists have never read/don’t understand the bible

5. Atheists just don’t want to receive the truth

6. Atheists are bitter/angry

7. Atheists just don’t want to admit they sin

8. All atheists support abortion/evolution/liberal politics/communism/fascism/etc

9. Atheists are gay

10. Atheists want to destroy/limit religion

11. Atheists think they know everything

There are also lists of the five most common excuses for having no evidence of the existence of god, the 14 most commonly used fallacies, and others. Check out the site. There are some surprises. It’s fun.

Should atheists come out of the closet?

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should “come out.” I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should ‘come out of the closet.’ The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one’s work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a ‘man of the Book,’ made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

During the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them “You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts.”

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the ‘right’ faith and the other person’s is the ‘wrong’ one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT 1: Praying for other people’s souls

After my op-ed on intelligent design was published in the Plain Dealer following the Dover case, I was woken up at 5:30am the next day by someone who had clearly disliked my article. The point of his call was to tell me to read some book (presumably in favor of intelligent design) and he proceeded to spell out the name and the author. I interrupted to ask him if he knew what time it was and he replied “I can only pray for your soul.”

When people say they are praying for someone else’s soul, what they really mean depends on the context. When friends and members of my family say it, they really do mean it and are worried that my atheism is going to bring me to a bad end. I am touched by their concern and appreciate the thought.

But when someone who is obviously annoyed with you or disagrees with you says it, then you know it is insincere. When such people say it, what I think they are really saying is “I can’t wait for judgment day when I can see you rot in hell and gloat over you.” But because such people feel the need to preserve a publicly pious face, they sanctimoniously say “I will pray for your soul” instead.

Here’s my advice to such religious people. If someone annoys you, do not expect to get any appreciation when you say that you are praying for their soul. If that person is an atheist, he or she will probably laugh at you (internally if they are polite people) for saying this, because atheists don’t think they have an immortal soul, remember? And if that person is religious, he or she may be offended at the implication that you are tighter with god than they are and have some sort of say in what happens to their soul. Nobody likes a “holier than thou” attitude. Just ask the Pharisees, if you can find one in your neighborhood. Or better still, ask Pat Robertson.

POST SCRIPT 2: Bush on Global Warming

President Bush, looking surprisingly like actor Will Ferrell, shares his views on global warming. (Thanks to reader Anne for the link.)