Why religion should be criticized

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in October 2007.)

Much of the recent attacks on religion have come from those with a scientific background. But there are many atheist scientists (such as the late Steven Jay Gould) who have not wanted to criticize religion the way the current crop of atheists are doing. They have tried to find a way for science and religion to coexist by carving out separate spheres for religion and science, by saying that science deals with the material world while religion deals with the spiritual/moral world and that the two worlds do not overlap. Gould even wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life based on that premise.
This is not a new argument. Such appeals from high profile individuals tend to recur whenever there is a science-religion flare-up, such as during the evolution controversy leading up to the 1925 Scopes trial concerning the teaching evolution in schools. Edward J. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods (1997) writes (p. 121-122):

When the antievolution movement first began in 1923 [James] Vance [pastor of the nation’s largest southern Presbyterian church] and forty other prominent Americans including [Princeton biologist Edwin G.] Conklin, [American Museum of Natural History president Henry Fairfield] Osborn, 1923 [Physics] Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan, and Herbert Hoover, tried to calm the waters with a joint statement that assigned science and religion to separate spheres of human understanding. This widely publicized document describes the two activities as “distinct” rather than “antagonistic domains of thought,” the former dealing with “the facts, laws and processes of nature” while the latter addressed “the consciences, ideals and the aspirations of mankind.”

This argument, that the existence of god is something about which science can say nothing so scientists should say nothing, keeps appearing in one form or another at various times but simply does not make sense. Science has always had a lot to say about god, even if not mentioning god by name. For example, science has ruled out a god who created the world just 6,000 years ago. Science has ruled out a god who had to periodically intervene to maintain the stability of the solar system. Science has ruled out a god whose intervention is necessary to create new species. The only kind of god about which science can say nothing is a god who does absolutely nothing at all.

As Richard Dawkins writes (When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf, Free Inquiry, vol. 18 no. 2, 1998 (pp. 18-9), quoted in Has Science Found God?, Victor J Stenger, 2001):

More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.
There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them. (my italics)

Victor Stenger in his book God:The Failed Hypothesis (p. 15) points out that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres is also in contradiction to actual practice: “[A] number of proposed supernatural or nonmaterial processes are empirically testable using standard scientific methods. Furthermore, such research is being carried out by reputable scientists associated with reputable institutions and published in reputable scientific journals. So the public statements by some scientists and their national organizations that science has nothing to do with the supernatural are belied by the facts.”

Dawkins and Stenger make a strong case. So why are some scientists supportive of such a weak argument as that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping domains? Stenger (p. 10) suggests a reason:

Nevertheless, most scientists seem to prefer as a practical matter that science should stay clear of religious issues. Perhaps this is a good strategy for those who wish to avoid conflicts between science and religion, which might lead to less public acceptance of science, not to mention that most dreaded of all consequences – lower funding. However, religions make factual claims that have no special immunity from being examined under the cold light of reason and objective observation.

Is that it? Are scientists scared of criticizing religion for fear of upsetting the gravy train that funds their research? That is a somewhat cynical view but not one that can be dismissed easily.

Another possible reason may be (as I argue in my book Quest for Truth) that scientists are simply sick of arguing about whether science is compatible with religion, find it a time wasting distraction from their research, and use this ploy as a rhetorical escape hatch to avoid the topic whenever it arises.

Yet another reason may be that scientists do not generally know (or even care) what other scientists’ religious views are. A scientist’s credibility depends only on the quality of the science that person does, and all that is required for good science is a commitment to methodological naturalism within the boundaries of one’s area of research. A scientists’ attitude towards philosophical naturalism is rarely an issue. Because of this lack of relevance of the existence of god to the actual work of science, scientists might want to avoid altogether the topic of the existence of god simply to avoid creating friction amongst their scientific colleagues. As I said before, the science community has both religious and non-religious people within it, so why ruffle feelings by bringing up this topic?

But while I think that it is a good idea to keep religion out of scientific discussions since god is irrelevant when one is interpreting experimental results or comparing theories, there is no reason why scientists should not speak out against religion in public life. If we think that religion is based on a falsehood, and that the net effect of religion in the world is negative, we should not maintain a polite and respectful silence towards it. We actually have a duty to actively work for its eradication.

I think that Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) gave the best reason for campaigning against religion when he explained why he did so:

Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.

Exactly right.

POST SCRIPT: Rationality and religion

“Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” Here’s another great little video clip from the TV show House, that packs a lot of meaning into a couple of minutes.

Why we can easily do without religion

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in October 2007.)

The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious “moderates” who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious “extremism”. They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between “good” and “bad” religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate “bad” religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)

It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful answer, which you are unlikely to find here. But I’ll give it my best shot anyway.

Should religion be discouraged along the lines advocated by these books, by pointing out that evidence for god’s existence does not rise above the level of evidence for fairies and unicorns, highlighting the many evils done in religion’s name, and urging people to abandon religious beliefs because they violate science and basic common sense? Or should we continue to act as if it were a reasonable thing to believe in the existence of god, thereby tacitly encouraging its continuance? Or should religion be simply ignored? The answer depends on whether one views religion as an overall negative, positive, or neutral influence in society.

If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion is based on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we believe true knowledge is to be preferred to false knowledge. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc. All of them claim to provide a benefit (perhaps just emotional and psychological) to their followers, just like religion does, but few argue that that reason alone is sufficient to shield them from criticism.

Those atheists who argue against seeking to undermine belief in religion and favor the other two options (i.e., tacit support or ignoring) usually posit two arguments. The first point is really one of political strategy: that by criticizing religion in general we are alienating a large segment of people and that what we should preferably do is to ally ourselves with “good” religion (inclusive, tolerant, socially conscious) so that we can more effectively counter those who profess “bad” religion (exclusive, intolerant, murderous). The second is that religion, even if false, can also be a force for good as evidenced by the various religious social justice movements that have periodically emerged.

I have touched on the counterarguments to the first point earlier and will revisit it later. As to the second point, that religion can be justified on the basis that even if not true it provides other benefits that make it worthwhile, discussions around this issue usually tend to go in two directions: comparisons of the actions of “good” religious people versus that of “bad” religious people, or comparisons of the actions of religious people with that of nonreligious people. But such discussions are not fruitful because they cannot be quantified or otherwise made more concrete and conclusive.

I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions: Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do family, friends, and even therapy. Provide a sense of personal meaning? So does science and philosophy. Provide a basis of morality and values? It has long been established that morals and values are antecedent to and independent of religion. (Does anyone seriously think that it was considered acceptable to murder before the Ten Commandments appeared?)

Now it is true (as was pointed out by commenter Cindy to a previous post) that religious institutions do provide a kind of ready-made, one-stop shop for many of these things and new institutions may have to come into being to replace them. Traditional groups like Rotary clubs and Mason, Elk, and Moose lodges, that mix community building with social service, may be the closest existing things that serve the same purpose. The demise of religion may see the revival of those faltering groups as substitutes. Some countries have social clubs that people belong to that, unlike in the US, are not the preserve of only the very wealthy. England has the local pub that provides a sense of community to a neighborhood and where people drop in on evenings not just to drink but to meet and chat with friends, play games, and eat meals. The US has, unfortunately, no equivalent of the local pub. Bars do not have the family atmosphere that most pubs do, though coffee shops may evolve to serve this purpose. It may be that it is the easy convenience of religious institutions that inhibit people from putting in the effort to find alternative institutions that can give them the cultural and social benefits of religion without the negative of having to subscribe to an irrational belief.

I cannot think of a single benefit that is claimed for religion that could not be provided by other institutions. Meanwhile, the negatives of religion are unique to it. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god. I am not saying that getting rid of religion will get rid of all evil. But it will definitely remove one important source of it. The French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) had little doubt that religion was a negative influence and that we would be better off without it. He said: “Which is more dangerous: fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion whereas fanaticism does; atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism causes crimes to be committed.”

While the evils done in the name of religion are often dismissed as aberrations by religious apologists, they actually arise quite naturally from the very basis of religion. When you believe that god exists and has a plan for you, the natural next step is to wonder what that plan is, what god wants you to do. To answer this, most people look to religious leaders and texts for guidance. As political and religious leaders discovered long ago, it is very easy to persuade people to believe that god expects them to do things that, without the sanction of religion, would be considered outrageously evil or simply crazy. (As an example of the latter, recall the thirty nine members of the Heaven’s Gate sect who were persuaded to commit suicide so that their souls could get a ride on the spaceship carrying Jesus that was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by the Earth in 1997.)

The belief that god is solidly behind you and will reward you for obeying him has been shown to overcome almost any moral scruples or inhibitions concerning committing acts that would otherwise be considered unspeakable. The historical examples of such behavior are so numerous and well known that I will not bother even listing them here but just look at some of the major flashpoints in the world today, where the conflicts (even if other factors are at play) are undoubtedly inflamed by perceptions that people are acting on behalf of their god: the vicious cycle of killings in Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (now thankfully abating), and between Hindus and Muslim in India.

Just recently, certain Islamic groups have called for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who is supposed to have drawn a cartoon disrespectful to Islam. This is yet another example of how religion seems to destroy people’s basic reasoning skills because for some religious people, it seems perfectly reasonable that they have to fight and kill to defend their god’s honor.

The obvious response to this call to avenge god by killing the cartoonist is to point out how absurd it is that humans think they have to protect their god’s interests by fighting and killing people. Do such believers think that god is some kind of mobster boss who has to have goons to carry out his wishes? Pointing this out would reveal the impotence of god and ultimately the absurdity of the idea of god. After all, any rational person should be able to see that if their god has the abilities they ascribe to him, he should be quite capable of taking care of himself. He can not only kill the offending cartoonist but even wipe the entire country of Sweden off the map to drive the lesson home that he will not be trifled with.

But our ‘respect for religion’ attitude prevents us from pointing out such an obvious truth, because it gets too uncomfortably close to revealing the absurdity of the underlying premise of religion. So instead what happens is some theologian is trotted out who argues that what their religious book is ‘really’ saying is that it is wrong to kill, despite the existence of other passages in the same religious books that have been used to argue to the contrary. And so we end up with yet another dreary debate between the so-called ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ about what god is ‘really’ like and what he ‘really’ wants from us.

This is why religion is bad. Not only is it false, it is dangerously false. Believing in such a false idea requires people to abandon rational thinking and makes even murderous intentions seem noble to them. If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving. I think that the conclusion is quite clear. The best selling atheist authors are, in the long run, doing us all a favor by directly confronting religion and showing that we would all be better off without it.

Film: The Road to Guantanamo

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in September 2006.)

Last Sunday, I saw the powerful film The Road to Guantanamo (directed by Michael Winterbottom) at the Cleveland Cinematheque, that precious jewel in University Circle which screens films that one cannot see anywhere else.

The description of the film says that it is a “harrowing mix of documentary and reenactment. It traces how three British Muslim men who flew to a wedding in Pakistan in late 2001 ended up in Afghanistan, where they were arrested by Northern Alliance soldiers and accused of being Al Qaeda fighters. Though never charged with any crime, they spent two years in the American military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before being released. Their testimony anchors this sobering film that won the Best Director prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.”

The film differs from the normal documentary format, which usually consists of news footage mixed with talking heads, with a “voice of god” voiceover narration. Since the film deals with the treatment these people received in prison camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, which the Bush administration has gone to great lengths to keep reporters, lawyers, and human rights groups out of, there was no way that the filmmakers could have obtained any actual video news footage of their treatment in captivity.

So they went instead for the dramatic re-enactment, with actors and sets used to provide a visual representation of what the three young men (all in their early twenties) said they had experienced. And what the film revealed was the various forms of torture that the men experienced while in US custody.

There was no attempt by the filmmakers to claim that the film was anything more than what it clearly showed on the screen, which was the story as told by the three men. But Joanna Connors, the Plain Dealer Cultural Critic, clearly took offense at the film, using surprisingly harsh language in her February 15, 2006 review to denounce it. I say “surprising” because Connors is, if her previous film criticisms and columns are any indication, somewhat “liberal” in her outlook, and thus her reaction sheds an interesting light on how journalistic professionals see their role, which was the topic of last week’s series of posts on the media. (I have written elsewhere about the useful role that such ‘tortured liberals’ play in advancing the pro-war agenda.)

Connors’ review said the following:

[I]n the last few years, the multiplex has become the new Op-Ed page, a place for blunt, straight-up polemics on war, the environment, elections and other divisive subjects. Where films labeled documentaries once signaled “factual,” they now abandon all pretense to following journalistic methods and leave audiences in the dark, so to speak, about what is true and what is opinion.

Winterbottom’s film tells [the young men’s] version of what happened. Take note: It is their version, without any supporting evidence from neutral observers — say, human rights groups or journalists — or rebuttals from the British or Americans.

But Winterbottom doesn’t make that clear, or clear enough, given that he shows U.S. soldiers, and others, administering torture so brutal it makes the photos from Abu Ghraib look like fun and games.

Winterbottom blurs the line between propaganda and truth by using several documentary techniques: The shaky hand-held camera, the extensive on-camera interviews with the three men, the location shooting (except for the scenes at Gitmo, which were shot in Iran) — all signal “news” to audiences. He mixes these with “dramatic reenactments” of the events using actors, a cheesy technique straight out of “Crime Stoppers.”

Then Connors reveals how far she has bought into the administration’s arguments that in this “war on terror”, anything goes and normal legal safeguards, let along human rights, be damned.

Are the men telling the truth? Who knows? Their story has enough holes to justify their capture, imprisonment and interrogation. On the other hand, the refusal of the United States to allow lawyers into Guantanamo on behalf of the prisoners and news accounts about Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons and violations of international law weigh heavily on the other side. (my italics)

The idea that people can be kept in jail for three and a half years, not allowed to see families or lawyers, and subjected to torture (what she coyly refers to as “interrogation”) just because their story has “holes” is an amazing testimony of the power of this administration’s rhetoric of the ‘war on terror to cow even ‘liberals’ to go along with them. Are the three men telling the truth? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that they were not charged with anything for the entire time of their long captivity, and then when they were sent back to Britain they were released immediately by British police who could not find any reason to charge them. So the presumption has to be that the men were telling the truth. Does the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” not mean anything to Connors? And even if they were guilty of something, does she feel that it would that justify the treatment they received?

This kind of call for a fake balance is the result of the media propaganda model. While the suffering endured by the prisoners is very real, there is no evidence whatsoever that these concerns “weigh heavily on the other side” as Connors asserts. The Bush administration seems quite gleeful and unconcerned about violating all the norms of behavior and is pushing for even more leeway to use torture.

Connors sums up: “Whatever one’s views on the war or one’s political views, the enflamed, out-of-control situation in the Middle East makes releasing this movie deeply, almost unforgivably irresponsible.”

‘Unforgivably irresponsible’? Really? It is interesting that the administration has permanent license to make repeated unrebutted and unsubstantiated statements (which the media dutifully repeats) that claim that everyone they catch is an ‘evildoer’ or ‘bad guy’ or ‘terrorist’. These are staples of the current news and the lack of balance is not denounced as “irresponsible.” This is because the administration is always given the presumption of credibility, despite their shameful record of lies and deception. And yet, one person makes a film telling the story from the point of view of the prisoners, and suddenly there are demands for ‘balance’. This is a good example of how journalists internalize certain attitudes and do not realize they are serving in a propaganda system.

Given the state of the news media, it may be that this kind of documentary is the way of the future. One can see why mainstream journalists are worried by these developments and oppose them. The director of the film Michael Winterbottom has created successful commercial films (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo are among his credits) and uses his skills at dramatization to bring the events to vivid life. He knows how to create a dramatic impact. Since he is not a professional journalist (at least as far as I am aware) he may not have internalized the need to provide the kind of phony ‘balance’, which in actual practice means tilting the story heavily in favor of the government’s version of events in order to garner the approval of mainstream journalists.

The visual power of film is probably what arouses the concern and ire of those who support the government. Paul Krugman describes in his September 18, 2006 column in the New York Times, the torture that prisoners of this administration undergo. He writes:

According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to ”stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours”; the ”cold cell,” in which prisoners are forced ”to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,” while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which ”the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,” then ”cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him,” inducing ”a terrifying fear of drowning.”

And bear in mind that the ”few bad apples” excuse doesn’t apply; these were officially approved tactics — and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.

I’m ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I’d be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured — and I’m not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantanamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent. (my emphasis)

These are strong words. His description of the methods or torture are disturbing but lack the kind of emotional punch that a visual representation can provide. When you see some of the very things described by Krugman on the screen, you are filled with revulsion. You wonder how any human being can treat any other human being like that.

This is why these kinds of documentaries are powerful. And dangerous. And why they will be opposed and denigrated by some members who see themselves as the guardians of the “objective” media.

See The Road to Guantanamo if you can. And see our tax dollars at work in the service of barbarism.

Shutting down Guantanamo and places like it around the world is an urgent need.

POST SCRIPT: Year in review

I normally find the year-end review stories in the media extremely tedious and skip over them, except for the lists of those who died. But I give an exemption to cartoonist Tom Tomorrow.

Merry Christmas or else!

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in December 2005.)

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, commenter John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term “Christmas shopping season” instead of the more generic “holiday shopping season”, since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written “Christmas” season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, former Fox News host John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O’Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to “save” Christmas by bringing back the greeting “Merry Christmas” and fighting those stores that have promotions saying “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O’Reilly replied “Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa.”

Meanwhile, the late Jerry Falwell, as always locked in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, said that he too was fighting to save that holy holiday and that he’ would sue and boycott groups that he saw as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon … wants to see “Merry Christmas” signs displayed prominently “if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season.”

And he isn’t worried if they offend people who aren’t Christian.

“They can walk right by the sign,” Wildmon said. “It’s a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation.”

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

It is truly pathetic to see grown people like Gibson and O’Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about something so trivial as to what is the proper thing to say at Christmas.

I just can’t take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people’s religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms.

When someone wishes me “Season’s Greetings,” I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or “Happy Solstice” or “Happy Festivus” or “Happy Newton Day” (the great physicist Isaac Newton was born on December 25) or any other greeting from any other religion on any occasion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me “Merry Christmas” and I reply “Same to you,” this is not an affirmation of Christian faith any more than “Season’s Greetings” is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one’s beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O’Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up, even if it is of dubious value in terms of ratings and garnering publicity.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reports on the kind of petty and absurd incidents that this ridiculous hyping of the ‘war on Christmas’ spawns.

I was a grocery store, waiting in line to check out. The man in front of me approached the cashier with a cart full of groceries. The cashier said “Happy Holidays!” Well, it goes without saying that the man was furious at this. How dare she not say “Merry Christmas”. He literally stormed out of the store in anger, leaving his groceries behind for the employees to put away. As he was leaving, he said “I’ll never shop here again!”

No doubt the man saw himself as a ‘true’ Christian. Whatever our views on this topic, can we at least all agree to not take our annoyance out on employees such as shop clerks and cashiers and waiters? These people are usually underpaid and overworked (especially during this time of year), usually have no say about company policy on how to greet people, and are routinely treated with lack of consideration, if not discourtesy and outright rudeness. People should never use their power as customers to vent their spleen on such employees, who have no option but to bite their tongues for fear of losing their jobs.

If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying “Season’s Greetings”, why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say “Merry Christmas” instead. Such mandated greetings are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used.

If Bill O’Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say “Merry Christmas” to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say “Season’s Greetings”, then he is in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

The question becomes different when we talk about the government taking an official stand on religion because this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential or adverse treatment is to invite discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy.

You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter. It is like the ubiquitous “Have a nice day”. You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required.

POST SCRIPT: Communion Whine

It looks like this War on Christmas lunacy has spread to England. Marcus Brigstocke delivers the appropriate smackdown.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Baxter and I would like to wish all the readers of this blog our best wishes for the season. May all of you find peace and happiness.

We live in a world divided by conflicts based on religion, ethnicity, and nationality. All such divisions are of human creation, have at best merely superficial meaning, and all came into being within the last four thousand years or so, a mere instant in the vastness of time that life and the universe have existed.

If everyone were to realize that, we can truly move towards a just and peaceful world.

So let’s spread that message.

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Betraying both principles and friends- the famous Milgram experiments.

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in February 2007.)

During the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings, some people who were called up to testify but did not want to inform on their friends and colleagues and name names, refused to answer questions using the Fifth Amendment, which says that people cannot be forced to give evidence that might incriminate themselves. While this was effective in avoiding punishment, others felt that this was a somewhat cowardly way out. The Hollywood Ten, including Dalton Trumbo, decided to use a more principled but risky strategy and that was to invoke the freedom of assembly clause of the First Amendment that says that people have a right to peaceably associate with those whom they please and thus do not have to say who their friends and associates are or otherwise inform on them.

In those charged times, this right was over-ridden and they went to jail for various lengths of time. Albert Einstein was actively involved in fighting these anti-communist witch-hunts and approved of using the First Amendment for this purpose. Writing in 1954 in the book Ideas and Opinions (Crown Publishers, New York, p. 34), he said:

Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin. … This refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution. If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

This kind of situation where one is compelled to turn in one’s friends is not uncommon, either in real life or in fiction. Harry Potter fans will recognize it in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Karkaroff reveals the names of other Death Eaters to the Council of Magic in the Ministry of Magic (a group remarkably like the HUAC) to avoid being given a life sentence in Azkaban under the dreaded Dementors.

But back in real life, Dalton Trumbo’s letter reminded me of the famous and controversial 1962 Stanley Milgram experiment. Psychologist Milgram was interested in answering the question: “How is it possible that … ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience … Under what conditions would a person obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience.” His interest in this question was triggered by the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann who claimed in his defense that he was just following the orders of the Nazi government. Milgram was interested in the question of whether people would follow orders that went against their basic human instincts.

Most people have heard of this experiment in which test subjects, perfectly ordinary people, were willing to apply increasing amounts of voltage to an unseen person despite hearing the victim’s increasingly distressed screams of suffering. The screams were fake but the subjects did not know that and their willingness to impose so much pain has been marveled at.

Although I too had heard of the Milgram experiment, its full force did not hit me until I saw actual footage of the experiment as it is being carried out. The first segment (out of five) of is shown below but you really must see all five to get the full impact of it.

The video showed that the subjects were not callously or sadistically increasing the pain they were inflicting on the victim. In fact, most had the normal aversion to inflicting gratuitous pain on others, were really anguished, and wanted to spare the victim further suffering. They kept asking if this was the right thing to do and repeatedly sought reassurance that they were not causing harm.

What made them continue to inflict increasing levels of pain was that the person giving the instructions looked very official and respectable and authoritative, dressed in a white lab coat and speaking in a calm but firm manner. The clincher was that this official person told them that they were not responsible for the outcome of the experiment or the health of the victim, and that the official took full responsibility for both. This shifting of responsibility away from themselves enabled 60-65% of the subjects to overcome their qualms and push the shocks all the way to the highest level, despite the fact that they thought the victim had a heart condition, and to ignore the screams of the victim and his pleas to stop the experiments.

This is precisely the danger. As long as people feel that they are not responsible for the outcomes of an action, as long as there is some official-looking person telling them that all this is quite proper and normal and they are absolved from the consequences, they seem willing to do things that their basic human instincts tell them is wrong.

This explains why so many otherwise decent people are willing to condone the use of water-boarding and other forms of torture that are being carried out by the government. They have been reassured by the president, vice president, other high officials, and ‘respectable’ opinion makers, and that everything is fine and under control, that the victims are not really suffering any real harm and that these actions are necessary in order to achieve some greater good.

As Milgram himself reported:

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

This brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of yesterday’s post as to whether we would be willing to inform on our friends just because some government official asked us to. For myself, I hope that I would say no. The older I get, the more I value friends and the less I trust the motives and intentions, let along the competence, of the government and other official agencies to do the right thing.

The request to betray a friend is an ignoble one. But it is unlikely to come in the form of a bribe offered by some sleazy person in a dark alley. Instead it will come in the open, by very proper and official people, and the offer will be wrapped in the flag and decorated with bows that appeal to one’s honor and duty and patriotism. Failure to inform on a friend may well result in one being called disloyal and even a traitor. And ‘tortured liberals’ play important roles in this persuasion, providing an intellectual cover that makes people who instinctively revolt against violating their deeply held principles feel that they are somehow extremists and outside the norm.

As I said, in actual extreme situations there is no knowing what we will do. It is possible that I could be coerced into doing things that I think are wrong. But the action will still be wrong. Most of us do not have the internal resources to resist the more subtle pressures brought to bear on us by the modern coercive state and its propaganda arms. We have to systematically create those resources.

The Milgram experiment suggests to me that what gives us the strength to challenge authority is the availability of others to support us in our actions, to reinforce in us the belief that we should do the right thing whatever the authority figures might claim. And friends are our most valuable resource in this fight. I wonder what the result would have been if the people applying the shocks had had a friend with them.

In the end, friends are all we have. When we betray them, we become nothing and have nothing.

POST SCRIPT: Have friends, live longer

A study found that having good friends leads to more tangible benefits. It found that “People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent.” Close relationships with relatives or children did not have the same effect on longevity.

“[T]he authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage older people to take better care of themselves—by cutting down on smoking and drinking, for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.

Friends may also help seniors get through difficult times in their lives, by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem.”

Friends

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in February 2007.)

Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.

I have also written before that extreme hypothetical situations such as this one are not good ways of predicting how one would act if such a situation would actually arise because it is hard to predict how one would behave in situations which are far removed from those with which one is familiar. But such extreme hypothetical situations are useful devices to think about what principles one lives by.

If faced with the above scenario of betraying one’s friends, for some the choice will be simple. If the law requires us to cooperate with the authorities and inform on our friends, then that is the right, even honorable and patriotic, thing to do. Although they may disagree with the law, they may feel that they are compelled to follow it, that it is not our prerogative to challenge the law. While we may work to change it, good citizenship requires us to follow the law that is on the books and to obey, or at least cooperate with, the authorities charged with enforcing them.

But it is not that simple.

I started thinking about this about three years ago when a letter that Dalton Trumbo had written to a friend in 1967 was published in Harper’s magazine (March 2004, page 30). Trumbo, who died in 1976, was a very successful screenwriter who refused to testify and name people as Communists or collaborators before the McCarthyite-era House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) dealt with the events and atmosphere of that time.

As a result of his refusal to name names, he became one of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and could not get work anymore. He was also convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced in 1950 to 11 months in prison. After being released, he lived abroad but his work was still sought after and his screenplays appeared under pseudonyms and fronts until 1960 when influential actors like Kirk Douglas got him re-instated. One of his screenplays (under the pseudonym “Robert Rich”) even won an Academy Award in 1957 for the film The Brave One.

In his letter, Trumbo makes some important points about the nature of the choices that we have to sometimes make:

[A] prominent and liberal producer was quoted as saying: “Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. Regardless of what you think of informing it has become a part of the law. The committee and its requirements are part of our time; they are the country; they are the flag. That’s the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard.”

The more I think of that the more I disagree with it, and the more puzzled I become about the workings of the mind that produced it.

I know and can read the First Amendment as well as anyone. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. The Warren Court has carefully and specifically outlined the exact method by which persons can refuse to inform. It is almost as if the court had decided to provide citizens with a textbook on how to avoid turning informer.

Thus the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions, the dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That’s the problem: choice. Not compulsion. Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? The committee does not come and ask us to change our minds and give them names and reinstate ourselves. Who is it that denies us work until we seek out the committee and abase ourselves before it?

Since it is neither the court nor the law nor the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer itself. It is he, and not the committee, who applies the only lash that really stings – economic reprisal: he is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories.

Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon the country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life, as he sees them, oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement that committee would have no power at all, – what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

Then in a moving series of montages, Trumbo reflects on the wide range of jobs he has had all over the country and the wide variety of people from all walks of life that he has met on that journey.

And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: “Would you like a man who told on his friend?” – there would not be one among them who would answer, “Yes.”

Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country. Such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.
….
I look back on two decades through which good friends stood together, moved forward a little, dreamed that the world could be better and tried to make it so, tasted the joy of small victories, wounded each other, made mistakes, suffered much injury, and stood silent in the chamber of liars.

For all this I am grateful: that much I have; that much cannot be taken from me. Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been the city would have stood and the world have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won’t fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried among its ruins than be found absent a second time.

Every time I re-read Trumbo’s letter I am moved by its eloquence. It is a powerful statement about what good friends, acting together, can achieve and our responsibility to our friends.

POST SCRIPT: The shoe hurled around the world

I have not written anything about the incident where an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at Bush. There was more than enough chatter about it elsewhere. The best commentary that I encountered was by Bob Garfield on the weekly radio program On the Media.

The problem of tipping

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in November 2005.)
I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don’t routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one’s life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to repeatedly confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.

I feel that people should not have to depend upon the kindness of strangers (which is what tipping is) to earn a living wage. Anyone who works full time should be able to make enough to live on, which in the US means roughly doubling the current minimum wage, although there is strong regional variation.

I hate tipping because it seems like it is meant to force people to be nice to me. In general, I find people to be nice and polite and helpful without the need for extrinsic motivators for such behavior. I think that almost all people are like that and do not need to be paid to extend the common courtesies of life to one another. People smile, greet each other, assist each other if necessary, all because we feel a sense of empathy and oneness with those around us, not because we expect some reward.

But when I tip someone, I feel as if I am implying that that person performed that act of kindness or service because of the expectation of payment. And to me this cheapens that human interaction, transforming it into a commercial transaction. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to personally do about it. I tip people because I know they are not paid well and depend on tips to make ends meet. But if at all possible, I try to bury the tip so that it is not obviously an exchange of money between the person being tipped and me. In restaurants, I add it to the bill and pay by credit card so that no money directly changes hands between the server and me.

But in some cases, you cannot avoid a cash exchange so I try to avoid situations where the tip is the only money that exchanges hands, but instead is part of the overall cash payment. For taxis, for example, I can add it to the fare so that I am not due any change and so can act like I am paying just the fare. If that is unavoidable and I have to give a cash tip to a person that is not part of a payment for other goods and services, I try as much as possible to do it when the recipient is not there, like leaving it on a restaurant table when leaving, or leaving it in a hotel room when checking out.

But there are some situations, such as with porters and hotel doorpersons and bellhops, where the tip cannot be so disguised. I try as much as possible to avoid those situations by doing things myself as much as possible and if I cannot do so, tip as unobtrusively as I can.

We do not live in an egalitarian society. Society is stratified by class and wealth. But tips seem to rub everyone’s noses in that reality in a particularly revolting way. The jobs that depend on tips seem to me to encourage servility and an almost feudal sensibility, throwing us back to a former age where the ‘noble lords and ladies’ dispense largesse to a fawning and grateful peasantry. Fortunately I do not spend time in places where wealthy people hang out and where there is an expectation that you will be waited on hand and foot and treated obsequiously. I live largely in a world where people carry their own bags, do their own chores, and open their own doors, or do so for others simply out of politeness.

Perhaps I am overreacting to what is ‘normal’ practice, seeing a deep social problem where none exists. But then I wonder how I would feel if the university did not pay me a living wage but instead had tip jars in each classroom and I had to depend upon satisfied students to give tips after each class supplement my income. A colleague tells me that in the old days of the Greek philosopher-teachers, students would pay them for each class if they were satisfied, so this is not an unheard of practice. What would that do to the student-teacher relationship? I cannot imagine that it would be good. So why is it good for other relationships?

What I would really like is for everyone to be paid a living wage.

POST SCRIPT: Sand sculpture

I have always been impressed with the time and effort that some people put into such temporary things as sand sculptures. Here is one in Italy where tons of sand was used to create a huge nativity scene which includes approximately 200 figures and 100 animals.

Beware of the ‘tortured liberal’

The reason I usually disdain labels like liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican that are bestowed on people by the media is that their main purpose is to establish the author’s bona fides with specific segments of the population as a means of influencing them on what to think about a particular issue. For example, many people who consider themselves liberals take their cues from what prominently labeled ‘liberals’ say. So if you can get a ‘liberal’ spokesperson to advocate a policy, many liberals will take it seriously even if the policy is antithetical to their values. This was on prominent display during the lead up to the Iraq war, when many so-called media liberals were swept along by the hysteria of that time.

Media analyst Edward Herman writing in 2002 astutely identifies the value of people like the allegedly ‘leftist’ Christopher Hitchens to furthering the aims of the pro-war one party state.

Christopher Hitchens is a real asset to the war party, because he is a facile writer and covers over by vigorous assertion and imagery his new reactionary politics and the feeble intellectual defenses he musters for it. His value is enhanced by the fact that he is a “straddler,” that is, a man in transition from an earlier left politics to apologetics for imperial wars, but with a foot still in The Nation’s door and a harsh critic of Kissinger and Pinochet. He is therefore presentable as a member of the “rational left” or left that has “seen the light.” Such folks are much honored by the mainstream media.

I have noticed that in the lead up to wars, National Public Radio (frequently labeled as ‘liberal’) becomes effectively National Pentagon Radio, so enamored do they become of military strategy and hardware. In 2003, I could barely listen to their Pentagon correspondent Tom Gjelten, so pro-war was his coverage, so admiring of the technical prowess of the US military, that he seemed to forget about the devastating toll on ordinary people at the receiving end of all the so-called ‘smart bombs’ that he rhapsodized about.

Or take another allegedly ‘liberal’ commentator, the Washington Post‘s columnist Richard Cohen. His relentless navel-gazing and total self-absorption is on display in his column on Tuesday, November 21, 2006 (Page A27), where he talks about how he was for the Vietnam war before he turned against it, then describes how he was similarly for the Iraq war before he turned against that too. Despite his fascination with himself, he does not even see the clear pattern that he himself describes: That he always supports the wars the pro-war party wants, bleating his timid opposition only when it is too late and public opinion has turned conclusively against it.

Things are precisely the same with Iraq, and here, too, I … originally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat — and not just a theoretical one — to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war — silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. (my italics)

It is incredible that Cohen thought that violence against other people was justified because it would make us feel better. Also he says his support for the Iraq invasion increased because he was annoyed by what antiwar activists were saying. For such people it is always about them and their feelings, and not about others. We should kill people in other countries because it will make us feel good. Of course, we should use violence in a ‘prudent’ manner, whatever the hell that means, because we are (of course) good people.

Do not be surprised when people like Cohen (like Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon) use their belated critiques of the management of the Iraq war to re-brand themselves as being ‘war critics’ in order to promote the next war. They will wave their ‘liberal’ flag as a cover to hide their past and disguise their true role. This mindset is endemic in the ruling class.

David Edwards of Media Lens writing in February 2003 warned us to be careful of the ‘tortured liberal’ in the media: “There is nothing tortured about it – media fortunes have long been made by mastering the ‘liberal’ art of appearing to care while doing nothing to oppose those who clearly do not give a damn. This is what earns the nod from the powers that be.”

The role of these ‘tortured liberals’ is not to demand that governments abide by the constitution, international law, and accepted legal and moral principles, but instead to persuade the public to go along with whatever geopolitical policies the one party ruling class determines is necessary. They do this by creating a fake consensus by excluding those who disagree. Right now the goal is to get people to believe that before the war ‘everyone’ thought that invading Iraq was either a good thing to do or unavoidable. This is manifestly false. In fact, the opposition to the war worldwide was overwhelming.

On February 11, 2003, prior to the Iraq war, we had a forum at Case where many speakers (including me) exposed the fraudulent case being made for war and its immorality and illegality, let alone the absence of credible evidence. None of us were full-time journalists or analysts, merely ordinary people with day jobs. If we, simply by not limiting ourselves to the US mainstream media, could see through all the lies being spread, why could not these so-called liberals in the media? Because they are ‘tortured liberals’ who, as Edwards points out, know exactly what role they must play to keep their privileged positions.

Media analysts Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon just released their annual list of The Stinkiest Media Performances of the Year and the “WHO WOULD HAVE PREDICTED?” award goes to the New York Times:

The Times op-ed page marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion in March by choosing “nine experts on military and foreign affairs” to write on “the one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wish they had considered in the prewar debate.” None of the experts selected had opposed the invasion. That kind of exclusion made possible a bizarre claim by Times correspondent John Burns in the same day’s paper: “Only the most prescient could have guessed … that the toll would include tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, as well as nearly 4,000 American troops; or that America’s financial costs by some recent estimates, would rise above $650 billion by 2008.” Those who’d warned of such disastrous results were not only prescient, but were routinely excluded from mainstream coverage.

Note that the people I have criticized are considered ‘moderate’ commentators, so-called ‘reasonable’ people, ‘centrists’, ‘liberals’, and even ‘leftists’. I am not even bothering to analyze the ravings of people like Michael Ledeen and William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer or third-tier pundits like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and the like.

Given the drubbing that the Republicans have received in the last two elections we should not be surprised to see even the neoconservatives trying to disguise their past and move into key positions in the Democratic party, in order to continue to give their views some clout. They will be aided in their transition by the mainstream ‘liberals’ in the media who will not be so rude as to dig up their past statements.

Because they all benefit from a mutually convenient agreement to forget the sordid roles they have played in the past.

POST SCRIPT: Requiem for a campaign

Matt Taibbi, one of the best gonzo journalists around, sums up the McCain campaign:

It sounds strange to say, but this election season may have done to the word “Republican” what 1972 did for the word “liberal”: turned it into a poisonous sobriquet that no politician with bipartisan aspirations will ever again welcome. The Republicans didn’t just break the party — they left it smashed into space dust. They weren’t just beaten; the very idea of Republican conservatism was massively rejected in virtually every state where large chunks of the population do not believe in the literal existence of a horned devil, and even in some that do.

The ironic thing is that the destruction of the Republican Party was a two-part process. Their president, George W. Bush, did most of the work by making virtually every mistake possible in his two terms, reducing the mightiest economy on Earth to the status of a beggar-debtor nation like Pakistan or Zambia. … But John McCain and Sarah Palin made their own unique contribution to the disaster by running perhaps the most incompetent presidential campaign in modern times. … Instead of a plan, they had an endless succession of dumb ideas scrapped at the 11th hour in favor of even dumber ones.

You should read the whole thing.

No more benefit of clergy

In England in the Middle Ages, clergymen, monks, and nuns were exempt from the jurisdiction of secular courts and could be tried for offenses only in ecclesiastical courts, a practice known as giving them the ‘benefit of clergy’. While that legal exemption has ceased to exist, it seems like we still grant religious people a similar benefit, the exemption now being from the ‘laws’ of logic and reason.

In Tuesday’s post, I described the highly intricate rules that observant Jews have to follow if they are not to contravene what they are told to be god’s dictates, as interpreted for them by their priests or rabbis, and risk being struck down by a thunderbolt if they should so much as turn on a stove without first checking to see if a current was already flowing. What is interesting is that people who don’t give a passing thought to the nitpicking rules of their own religion are often incredulous about the nitpicking rules of other religions.

For anyone outside that belief system it seems incredible that people could take such rules and prohibitions seriously. It is undoubtedly true that many people, who in other areas of their lives would be highly skeptical of arbitrary rules laid down by authority figures based on old documents of uncertain origins, swallow without question the claims of their own religious authorities. Why is this? Why do such people not apply the same critical thinking and the same appeals to reason and evidence to these rules that they would apply elsewhere?

I think it is a consequence of an over-expansive interpretation of the ‘respect for religion’ trope. All that ‘respect for religion’ should mean is that people are perfectly free to believe whatever they want and to practice their beliefs as long as they do not harm others. If they want to tie themselves up in all kinds of knots about when and how they are allowed to turn their stoves on and off, they are perfectly entitled to do so.

But ‘respect for religion’ as commonly understood has become much more than that. It has come to mean that the rest of us must treat these beliefs and practices as reasonable. As a result, such beliefs are never questioned because all the others who think such rules silly, when confronted with believers who follow them, nod our heads and act like their behavior is perfectly rational. We keep our incredulity to ourselves. We have allowed the words ‘religion’ and ‘god’ to give the most absurd ideas and practices a veneer of intellectual respectability.

It is bad enough that we treat the evidence-free idea of god as something reasonable to believe in, we are also expected to hide our amazement that any 21st-century person would even want to worship a god who views lighting a fire on the Sabbath or taking a communion wafer out of a church or the transgressions of similarly petty and arcane Muslim and Hindu and other religious rules as worthy of punishment.

As a contrast, if someone we knew suddenly adopted the practice of, every hour on the hour, spinning around in a circle shouting “Wubba! Wubba!” and explained to us that a space alien had visited him and told him to do that, we would view him with concern as having become unhinged. But label that practice with the word ‘religion’ and the space alien with the word ‘god’ and suddenly the act is transformed into something that requires respect and deference and the person even becomes admirable for being so devout and faithfully observant. If left unchallenged, over time that ‘religion’ might acquire a mass following, the way all other religions did.

Journalist H. L. Mencken had the correct attitude. Writing a couple of months after the Scopes monkey trial ended in July 1925, he strongly defended Clarence Darrow against those ‘moderate’ religionists who had criticized his questioning of William Jennings Bryan, because Darrow had made all religious beliefs look silly.

Mencken wrote:

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act. Bryan went there in a hero’s shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense. He came out a wrecked and preposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs. Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

People should be perfectly free to practice their religious beliefs as they wish. And common courtesy demands that we should not actively seek out such people and pour scorn on their beliefs and practices. But if people make absurd and unsubstantiated statements in public as religious leaders and their followers routinely do, they should not expect to be immune from challenge or contradiction, any more than a person who makes any other statement on any other topic that is unsupported by evidence or reason.

Merely because a statement springs from religious beliefs should not give it any immunity from the normal rules of discourse. It should not have the benefit of clergy.

POST SCRIPT: The best Christmas movie

Forget It’s a Wonderful Life. You need to watch The Ref (1994) with Denis Leary, Judy Davis, and Kevin Spacey. It’s hilarious.

In this clip, the first four minutes are the opening credits containing seasonal schmaltz that leads you to expect the usual fare, before the film suddenly veers off. (Language advisory.)