Jackasses, fools, knaves, and miscreants

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently, President Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was in the news when it was leaked that he had referred to liberal activists who are complaining about Obama’s lack of follow through on his campaign promises as “f—ing retarded.”

While one might think that the real story here is the revelation of the contempt with which the White House views its most passionate supporters, Sarah Palin pre-empted that by once again complaining that her family had been slighted and that Emmanuel should resign for his slur that disparaged people like her son Trig who has Down syndrome. Palin seems to have decided that she can run on a platform of grievances against her family on whose behalf she demands privacy and respect, although it is she that uses them as props, Trig especially, and puts them forward in the public eye whenever it suits her purposes.

She faced some embarrassing moments when Rush Limbaugh, one of the key de-facto leaders of the Republican Party and before whom all Republicans must grovel, also used the term ‘retard’ repeatedly, but she tried to brush that off by saying that Limbaugh’s usage was acceptable because it was ‘satire’. Sometimes it seems to me that Palin actually enjoys being ridiculed.

The story developed even more legs when an episode of the animated TV program Family Guy (a comedy show that no one can accuse of sensitivity and good taste) had the son take out a girl with Down syndrome who describes herself as the daughter of a former governor of Alaska. (You can see the clip here.) The Palin outrage machine once again roared into the red zone.

But while I think Palin is in serious danger of further trivializing herself and being seen as a perpetual whiner if she keeps up this high volume campaign against slights from even cartoon TV shows, she does have a point that the casual use of words like ‘retard’ as insults should be discouraged.

Michael Berube, a professor of American literature who also teaches disability studies and has a child with Down syndrome, is someone on the opposite pole of the political spectrum from Palin but although he does not take offense nearly as easily as Palin does, he points out that it is somewhat unfair to use words like ‘retard’ to compare people who should know better and should be functioning at a higher cognitive level but are not, with people who, for reasons beyond their control, have diminished mental capabilities but yet are often exercising their capacities to the fullest and living exemplary lives. As Berube says, “Many, many morons and retards have very good judgment about some matters, whereas many, many ostensibly intelligent people make bafflingly, excruciatingly bad decisions.”

Many of the terms that are now used derogatorily are (or at least once were) clinical terms of description. As Berube writes:

Do you know any idiots? How about morons, or imbeciles? Retards, perhaps? People riding the short bus?

The first three items were once part of standard terminology in intelligence measurement: “moron” is the most recent of them, having been proposed in the early twentieth century by Henry Goddard. Before the twentieth century, “idiot” and “imbecile” were general insults, as they are today, though they too were once pressed into service as classifications. For those of you who don’t remember those days, “morons” had what we now call “mild” mental retardation, or IQs between 50 and 70; “imbeciles” had what we now call “moderate” mental retardation, or IQs between 26 and 50; and everyone below that threshold, whom we now call people with “severe and profound” mental retardation, were idiots.

A century ago, “Mongoloid idiot,” for example, was not (as so many people think) a slur. It was a descriptive term, a diagnosis.

Berube’s piece made me realize that I should re-evaluate my own occasional unthinking use of the words ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’ and their derivatives. (I never use the word ‘retard’ because that has always seemed to me to be ugly and hateful, reflecting more negatively on the person using it than the person it is directed at.) The question is what word to use as a replacement when one is confronted with people who are behaving in exceptionally stupid ways. Berube suggests that we look for a word that is descriptive of performance rather than capacity. In addition to possible Shakespearean insults such as knaves, gulls, hoodlums, and miscreants (a fuller guide to which can be found here), he also proposes fool, wuss, sap, chump, poltroon, schlemiel, and patsy as alternatives. He finally recommends the word ‘jackass’ as a good substitute. Of course this is a slur on an innocent animal that may be also functioning at a high level given its abilities, but we have to assume that the feelings of jackasses are not hurt, and that those who love jackasses will not take offense either. However, I think I will choose to go with the word ‘fool’ to describe a person, and ‘stupid’ to describe their actions, with the more exotic ones thrown in occasionally for variety.

Perhaps the final word on this should be given to Andrea Fay Friedman, the 39-year old woman who voiced the offending part in the Family Guy episode and, despite having Down syndrome herself, has a full life and active career as an actor and public speaker. In an interview with the New York Times, she manages to make two important points. One is that she thinks Sarah Palin does not have a sense of humor and the other is that she demonstrates with her own life why people with mental disabilities should not be spoken of disparagingly.

As a footnote, the Times made an interesting edit of the interview. One of Friedman’s full answers was:

I guess former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor. I thought the line “I am the daughter of the former governor of Alaska” was very funny. I think the word is “sarcasm.”

In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes.

The NYT eliminated the section in bold. I wonder why. Could it be that they did not want to flip the hair-trigger on Sarah Palin’s outrage machine once again? Too bad. It would have been interesting to see how Palin would have responded to such a sharp criticism from Friedman.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on the ‘retard’ issue

Sarah Palin’s double talk that Limbaugh’s use of the word ‘retard’ is acceptable because it is satire was a gift to real satirists like Colbert.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Sarah Palin Uses a Hand-O-Prompter
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Skate Expectations

The alleged arrogance of atheists-5: Rhetoric in politics and religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

In a response on the Machines Like Us website as to whether my three assertions:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

[Read more…]

The alleged arrogance of atheists-4: More on the conversion question

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

I want to address the crux of Jared’s objections to my post on the alleged arrogance of atheists, which was that my hope for a world without religion was essentially also a call for the elimination of religious people.
When we seek to eradicate what we think are false or harmful beliefs that are held by people close to us, are we trying to “wish them away” as individuals? Of course not. What we seek is to improve their lives on the assumption that believing things that are supported by evidence and have the potential of being true is better for people than believing things that have no evidentiary support and are likely to be false.

In that sense, I understand better the desire of evangelical Christians and Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses to convert the world to their beliefs. They are at least being consistent in wanting to spread what they believe to be true, though I disagree with their methods of thrusting their views on people, even strangers, without first ascertaining whether they want to discuss them.

So Jared, I am trying to convert you to atheism, just as I am trying to convert every reader of this blog who is a believer. Indeed, much of all forms of communication are attempts at persuasion over something or other. I do it not to “wish you away” but because I think you would be better off for being an atheist than a religious believer. It is no different from my attempts to convert people in general away from any racist, sexist, xenophobic, and any other form of bigoted views that they may hold that I think harms them and society at large. They too may resist. But to not expose people to alternative views in an attempt to wean them away is to not do them any favors. In fact, I think it is wrong to shield people from criticisms of their ideas because having one’s ideas critiqued are an important component of learning and growth. People may disagree and retain their beliefs, but that is a choice they have to make.

So if I think that trying to convert people to one’s point of view makes sense, why I am not knocking on people’s doors like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses or standing on street corners like the Jesus people, handing out tracts containing the doctrines of atheism, which would consist of blank sheets of paper? Why don’t I channel every conversation with relatives, friends, and colleagues into discussions about atheism? As a matter of fact, I almost never initiate the topic of religion in those situations and it is almost always the case that it is other people who initiate such conversations with me because they are curious about my views. And in those private conversations, I simply state what I believe and why, and counter their arguments for god. That’s it. There is no atheist equivalent of the ‘altar call’, of asking people to come to Jesus.

I do not try to convert people in person because personal relationships involve many facets and one cannot easily walk away from conversations about unwanted topics without some awkwardness. Thrusting a topic on people is generally not a good idea. People may not be interested in discussing the topic at that particular time and are merely going to get annoyed with you for what they view as an imposition. So the people I meet personally can rest assured that I am not going to collar them and talk about atheism unless they tell me they want to.

But in the public sphere such as this blog, people are free to read or not read, agree or not agree. People can choose to enter into the conversation or walk away. Ideas can be more easily discussed and critiqued as just ideas, apart from the people holding them.

If religious people hold their beliefs so dearly that they think that any criticism of those beliefs is an attack on their right to hold those ideas or even their right to exist, that is a misconception that they themselves have to overcome. In the public sphere, any idea or belief should be freely criticized in any way. To criticize an idea or belief strongly using all the evidence, reason, and rhetoric at one’s disposal is not to seek the elimination of the people holding those ideas and beliefs. It is to seek the elimination of those ideas and beliefs.

The last issue that I will discuss in the next and final post in this series is the issue of tone, which was implied in Jared’s response but stated more directly by kaath in his response on the Machines Like Us website.

POST SCRIPT: White House duplicity

In my recent series of posts titled The End of Politics I described how the oligarchy that rules the US hides its power behind a screen of supposedly heated partisan politics. In particular, when it came to health care reform, I described how Obama and the Democrats choreographed this elaborate dance to hide the fact that they had no intention whatsoever of doing anything meaningful that would hurt the financial interests of their patrons in the health industry.

The latest White House proposals advanced in front of the so-called health care summit reveals this duplicity clearly for what it is. Glenn Greenwald dissects the charade in a must-read article.

The alleged arrogance of atheists-3: The conversion question

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

In the previous post, I said that the statement that Jared found offensive and hurtful is that “The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.” He said that “I think you really don’t get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them” and that it implied that I felt that “The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)” and that “to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification”, and as such constituted hate speech.

Actually, I really do get “how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith”. After all, I was one of those people once and am still surrounded by them in the form of friends and relatives. It is this very deep-rootedness that I identify as precisely the reason why religions are so persistent despite the lack of evidence in favor of them and the abundance of counter-evidence. What I don’t understand is why that fact should earn the believers of religions a pass from criticism.

I also frankly do not understand what is meant by to “wish away” people and propose their “nullification”. I assume it does not mean that I want them exterminated! Is the desire to “wish away” certain beliefs the equivalent of wanting to “wish away” the people who hold those beliefs? Surely not. What I think Jared means is that religious beliefs are such an essential part of people that losing them destroys them as individuals.

That assertion is flatly contradicted by the fact that many people have given up their once deeply held religious beliefs (to either join other religions or become skeptics) and been none the worse for it and even come out stronger. Just because a belief is deeply held does not give it some kind of immunity. After all, people deeply hold views that are racist, sexist, xenophobic, or exhibit other forms of bigotry. Some people also label themselves by the signs of the Zodiac and infer innate qualities based on them and even act on that basis by consulting astrologers and horoscopes before making important decisions. No one would seriously argue that the world would not be better off without those beliefs or that those views should be protected just because some people identify with them strongly, or that we are hurting those people when we try to convert them away from these absurd or noxious beliefs. Why is it hate speech to encourage people to use evidence, rationality, and reason in every area of their lives?

The only reason to argue that religious belief should be treated differently from those others is because religious beliefs are obviously good or beneficial and the others obviously bad. Religions have used that trope for years to try and shield themselves from criticisms. But isn’t that the very point in dispute? I don’t think religious beliefs are good or benign, even though religious individuals can be both. For reasons that I have given before, I think a world where religion has ceased to have people in its thrall and where people no longer identify themselves by divisive religious labels would be a better world than what we have now. But why should such a view constitute hate speech?

The issue of attempted conversion seems to be another element of Jared’s discomfort with my post because he says:

I’m not asking you to stop being an Atheist.
I don’t believe you are going to Hell.
I don’t want to convert you to my way of thinking.

I would just hope that when you publicly “wish us away” that you realize it’s not friendly. And if you know it and you don’t care – then its just not nice.

As I have said before, I don’t understand this disdain towards conversion. (See here and here.) In the first of those two links I said (slightly edited):

The present situation, where some religious people seem to think that politeness demands that they should refrain from claiming superiority for their own religion, seems (within the framework of religion) contradictory. After all, religious people presumably think that their faith is the most important thing in their lives, so why be so reticent about it? Like the many debates we have had during the primary elections, why not have debates as to which religion is the best and which god is the right one to be worshipped? If we can spend so much time and energy in selecting a mere president, surely we should be willing to do at least as much for something as important as the ultimate fate of people’s immortal souls?

I for one would enjoy listening to public debates as to why any one religion is better than the others.

Addressing Jared directly for the moment, if you think that your own religion of Judaism is true and that the god of the Jews is the one true god, then what is wrong in saying so and trying to persuade other people of it? I certainly would not be “offended” by such an attempt even though I would disagree with it. Surely you are a Jew (in the religious sense, not as a member of an ethnic group) because you think that it confers some spiritual benefit to you? Why would you not want to share that benefit with others?

Next: More on the conversion question.

POST SCRIPT: Diet fads

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on an industry that thrives on people’s ignorance.

The alleged arrogance of atheists-2: Public and private personas

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

My post about the alleged arrogant statements of atheists generated some interesting responses. In that post I asserted three basic assertions that I, as a new/unapologetic atheist make, and asked which ones would be considered arrogant or rude or offensive, which are the charges leveled most often at us. The assertions were:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

In this short series of posts, I will address two responses because they touch on two different aspects because they raise some important issues of general interest. One is by Jared Bendis, someone whom I have known personally for many years. You can read his full comment in the original post but I will excerpt the key portions and respond to each. The other response appeared on the Machines Like Us website and was by someone named ‘kaath’ whom I do not know personally.

Jared begins:

Mano, I have read your posts for years – and I know you in person. I’m often shocked about how confrontational your posts can be. I can’t imagine any other person I know not just discussing their opinion publicly but making clear their feeling on the beliefs of others.

Today I was hurt by what I read. I don’t think you meant it to hurt – I know it wasn’t directed at me personally – and I don’t think you will care for my counterargument but I felt I needed to say it: Today your words hurt me.

Jared is expressing a view that is not uncommon for those who know me personally and also read my blog. On my recent trip to Sri Lanka a very old friend of mine from boyhood days (who is religious) asked me out to lunch just so that he could have an extended private conversation with me because he too had found my blog to be very strongly worded against religion and he found it hard to reconcile with his personal impression of me. After our lunch, he said he understood why there is a difference and maybe this series of posts will similarly clarify it for others. Or maybe not.

As I have said before, my argumentation style in private forums (in my classes or in conversations with people) is quite different from that in public forums (such as this blog or public talks) which is why I may seem to have a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde dual personality to those who know me personally. Part of the reason for this difference is that unlike Dr. Jekyll, I have chosen to adopt a particular persona for my blog posts on atheism, for reasons I have spelled out earlier. Another reason is that people fail to distinguish the styles of discourse used in private and public forums and apply the standards that are appropriate for the former to the latter.

When you are talking with people directly, person to person, it is hard to separate an idea from the person expressing and supporting it, so it requires a much slower and gentler approach, in order to make clear that you are attacking the idea and not the person. But in public forums, ideas can and should be viewed under the clear light of reason and evidence, and even on occasion subjected to derision and ridicule, for that is the way we determine which ideas are durable and which are ephemeral, and how we distinguish between ideas that have value and the potential to be true and those that are meaningless or false.

Once an idea is out in the public forum, it is open to any and all forms of scrutiny. When you criticize ideas in public forums, you are not attacking any person, even though it is likely that many people will have identical ideas to the ones that you are attacking and may have explicitly expressed them. The people whose ideas are thus scrutinized may choose to take it personally, but that is their problem to deal with.

Coming back to the substance of my post, Jared agrees 100% with my first assertion so that is not the cause of the problems he has with my post.

While he does disagree with my second assertion that “Science and religion are incompatible worldviews”, he does not find it hurtful, so that assertion is also not one that causes offense.

It is my third assertion, that “The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural”, that he finds offensive. He says:

I think you really don’t get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them.

I could read your statement as
The world would be better off without Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (etc)

And I could read your statement as
The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)

Now I am not saying you meant that, but, to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification. And I read it as hate speech.

To say that my words ” The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural” can be taken to mean that I want the “nullification” of people who hold such beliefs, and to thus conclude that it is hate speech seems to me to be a stretch, and in the next post I will examine this point in more detail.

POST SCRIPT: John Cleese on genetic determinism

Film review: The Invention of Lying

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In a series of recent posts titled The Noble Lie (part 1, part 2, and part 3), I explored the idea of whether lies can have some positive benefits. The highly enjoyable film by comedian Ricky Gervais adds interesting perspectives to this question. (Note: Almost everything in this review about the film can be seen in the trailer below, so there are no real spoilers.)
[Read more…]

The danger of exceptionalist thinking

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Back in 2006, in a series of posts titled Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us, I spoke of the dangers that are inherent when any group of people start thinking of themselves as possessed of some mystic virtue that makes them intrinsically better than other people. (See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

Unfortunately, political leaders tend to feed that very evil. President Obama, like all presidents and other political leaders before him, repeats as a mantra and without proof that Americans have to be the best in everything. So when he talks to organized labor he will say that American workers are the best in the world, when he talks to soldiers he says that they are the best in the world, and when he speaks to business leaders he says that they are the best in the world. When he talks to high-tech leaders, he says that American inventiveness and ingenuity are unsurpassed. The only place where it is politically safe to criticize America is its educational system. It gets beaten up a lot, which is a little odd when all the things that Americans are supposedly the best at depend on the educational system for their success.

It is undeniable that America is a leader in many areas of technology and in productivity. Those are statements that have an empirical basis. The very fact that it has been able to provide such a high standard of living for most of its inhabitants is evidence of that. The problem is that this evidence is interpreted as meaning that Americans must possess some innate mystical quality that has produced this result. It is rarely pointed out that there usually are a whole host of contingent factors that contribute. Empires have risen and fallen, and during their heyday they too tended to think that they were special people possessed with of some special gift or blessed by god. But this attitude can lead to a dangerous sense of hubris and lack of self-awareness.

In the previous post, I discussed how following the massacre by American forces of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha, the editor of The New Republic Peter Beinart acknowledged that it was an awful act but still tried to make the case that Americans are uniquely superior to other people. But even this grudging acknowledgment that the US can on occasion act as barbarically as other people and are thus slightly less than perfect was too much for neoconservative William Kristol, the man who loves wars against Muslim countries, the bigger, the broader, the better. He responded to the Haditha atrocity as follows:

What makes us exceptional is that we stand for liberty, and that we are willing to fight for liberty. We don’t need to “prove” we are different from the jihadists by bringing our own soldiers, if they have done something wrong, to justice. Of course we must and will do this. But our doing this “proves” nothing. Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to “prove” that we are “different from the jihadists”. The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.

Note that “Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to prove that we are different from the jihadists. The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.” Why is the idea offensive? Why don’t we have to prove that we are different? What makes us exempt from the requirements we routinely impose on others? Such a statement epitomizes American exceptionalism.

The neoconservatives are the last people who should preen themselves on their innate goodness, given their record of advocating truly horrible policies. Here is Glenn Greenwald writing about them in 2006 after their disgusting show of glee at the horror and destruction inflicted on Lebanon by Israel:

And the more one reads and listens to neoconservatives in their full-throated war calls, the more disturbing and repellent these ideas become. So many of them seem to be driven not even any longer by a pretense of a strategic goal, but by a naked, bloodthirsty craving for destruction and killing itself, almost as the end in itself. They urge massive military attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Iran — and before that, Iraq — knowing that it will kill huge numbers of innocent people, but never knowing, or seemingly caring, what comes after that. And the disregard for the lives of innocent people in those countries is so cavalier and even scornful that it is truly unfathomable, at times just plain disgusting. From a safe distance, they continuously call for — and casually dismiss the importance of — the deaths of enormous numbers of people without batting an eye.

But Kristol is merely an extreme example of a more general mindset. However terrible the result, any assertion that America is uniquely possessed of incorruptible wholesome virtues and incapable of doing evil acts does not require proof. It is just a given.

I wrote earlier about how the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia reveals the double standard by which the American political establishment reacts to events and how the media reflexively adopts that point of view. In another post, I discussed how corrosive this myth of America’s Essential Goodness is. In an interesting study of individual psychology published under the title of Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? (Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 4, no. 1, May 2003, p. 1-44), Roy Baumeister and co-workers found that people who had high self-esteem in the absence of any concrete reasons for it were more dangerous than other people because they reacted with anger and violence at any perceived threat to their inflated self-image. What applies to individuals may also apply to nations so feel-good pandering to your audience is not benign. You are not just breeding a harmless conceit. Beliefs such as these, in the absence of any substantive basis, can actually lead to harmful acts.

Immanuel Wallerstein outlined why he thinks that because of this self-image of innate goodness, both parties will never have a decent foreign policy. The article was written in 2006 before the Congressional elections that gave the Democrats majorities in both houses. He said that while he would vote Democratic, he was unconvinced that a Democratic Congress would do better.

Indeed, one has to doubt that the Democrats collectively have a better foreign policy to offer. The primary problem of the leadership of the Democratic Party is that it believes, at least as much as the Republicans, that the United States is the center of the world, the font of wisdom, the great defender of world freedom — in short, a deeply virtuous nation in a dangerous world.

I think that events have shown that Wallerstein was prescient.

POST SCRIPT: Elliot Spitzer on The Colbert Report

The former governor of New York is one person who belongs in public office. It is incredible to me that someone with his talents should have risked it all for so little.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Eliot Spitzer
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

Pandering to the American people

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In any election to any public office in the US, all candidates have to agree that America is the greatest country in the world and its people the greatest people. This has to be asserted without proof or evidence. Even to offer proof or evidence is seen as shameful as not only must a politician take such statements as true, they must take it as so obviously true that it requires no evidence. Anyone who offers proof of any kind immediately becomes suspect as not being a true believer.

No politician ever paid any price for pandering shamelessly to the ego of the American voter, however ridiculous the claim. You can see this whenever someone criticizes the actions of the US governments or the military. Immediately the cloak of American Goodness is used to absolve the actions. Here is George W. Bush trying to dodge the question of whether he is pursuing a flawed strategy in his fight against terrorism by turning it into a criticism of American Goodness: “If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic. It’s just – I simply can’t accept that.” So according to him, some things are simply unthinkable, unacceptable on its face, whatever the facts and evidence may be.

I recall the time when Bush was (once again) using the events of 9/11 to pander. He said that after that disaster, how uniquely American it was for people to rush out and help one another. News reporters and analysts let this absurd statement go without challenge because it is an unwritten rule of journalism that you never challenge someone when he or she is operating on full pander mode. In fact, researchers find that whenever disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the people who rush to help and do the most good, are those in the vicinity such as family, friends, neighbors, and bystanders, even if they themselves were affected. The impulse to help others in times of great tragedy and need seems to be universal. It took comedian Jon Stewart to replay Bush’s remarks about the uniquely helpful Americans and add ironically “unlike, say, the Swedes who never help each other, ever.”

Iraq warmonger and editor of The New Republic Peter Beinart provides another example of pandering. This followed the massacre by American forces of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha. He used even this atrocity as an occasion for preening and smug self-congratulation.

This horrible story from Haditha powerfully underscores the liberal vision, which is this. We are not angels: without sufficient moral and legal restrictions, and under conditions of extreme stress, Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. What’s makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact. We are capable of Hadithas and My Lais, so is everyone. But few societies are capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again. That’s how we show we are different from the jihadists. We don’t just assert it. We prove it. That’s the liberal version of American exceptionalism, and it’s what we need right now in response to this horror. (my italics)

Note that after admitting that on rare occasions we can be the equal of others and commit atrocities too (but we do it only “under conditions of extreme stress” unlike, presumably, people in other countries who commit them casually, just for the fun of it), he then immediately points why we are still superior to everyone else. But his justification is absurd on a number of levels. Other societies never recognize their own errors? Other countries don’t bring killers to justice? Others don’t institute policies to prevent future occurrences? The number of atrocities committed by the US forces is decreasing? Where is the evidence for any of this? But evidence is not necessary when you are in full pander mode. Especially after some awful event like Haditha when there is the danger that people might fear that we are just like other people, the need of the hour is to absolve ourselves of guilt and make us feel good about ourselves again.

It would be nice to have a Tom Paine in politics today, Paine saw himself as a citizen of the world and one who believed that one’s obligation was to humanity before any nation. He is said: “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good” although the actual words he is quoted as saying is different:

“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good” is a line written by Thomas Paine in his political work Rights of Man (not Age of Reason, as many people believe). It’s often quoted in a somewhat different form, as “The world is my country, and to do good is my religion”; possibly because Robert Ingersoll quoted it that way (probably without checking the source), but it could have simply become popularized that way because, frankly, it sounds better.

Paine’s frank views on this and other topics (such as religion) did not endear him to the public during his own time, just as any politician who espouses such a global view today can give up all hope of being elected to any significant office.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on pandering

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Academic blogging

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

More and more academics are taking to blogging. Here is a sampling, in no particular order: Pharyngula (biology and science politics), Cosmic Variance (physics), Panda’s Thumb (biology), Volokh Conspiracy (law), Cliopatria (history), Brad DeLong (economics), Informed Comment (Middle East politics), Geniocity (law), Current Epigraphy (classics). You can see a comprehensive list of academic blogs classified by subject matter here.

Some academics contribute to group blogs, thus relieving themselves of the pressure of being solely responsible for creating new content, while some are individual blogs. As a reader of many blogs, I can testify that they save me an enormous amount of time. Although I never watch TV ‘news’ shows (the ironic quotes because they have hardly any news), I have a good idea of when something truly newsworthy happens because blogs alert me. Furthermore, blogs provide me with immediate knowledgeable and specialized information on topics, written by people who care enough about the issue to take the time to study it in some depth and develop expertise in that area. This is different from most mass media journalists these days who, because of budgetary cutbacks, are forced to be generalists skipping from topic to topic and unable to devote a lot of time to detailed study of policies and issues. By harnessing the energy of engaged and informed volunteers, blogs also enable the kind of close reading of official texts that an older generation of journalists like I. F. Stone did with his newsletter.

One important function that academic blogs may play is as a trail of the evolution of ideas. In the old days, academics used to write letters to colleagues where new ideas were discussed and refined and these letters have been valuable for understanding how ideas evolved. With the advent of telephones, easier travel to conferences and meetings and email, written records of embryonic ideas are harder to obtain. Blogs may well be the source material for a future generation of scholars. have of blogs

Blogs also quickly focus attention on stories that the major media do not highlight (because it contradicts then ruling class narrative) or follow up or simply get wrong. The plans by the US to bomb the offices of the news organization al-Jazeera or the Downing street memos are good examples. Blogs can also immediately correct the record when there are attempts to mislead (example: NSA wiretapping, the war on Christmas,) and can clarify complicated issues like Valerie Plame, Abramoff scandal, NSA wiretapping, etc. Best of all, it enables more people to follow in the steps of I. F. Stone’s Newsletter which at its peak had a weekly circulation was 70,000. Now dailyKos gets a daily hit count of many times that.

The reasons why anyone blogs is probably as varied as the number of bloggers itself but I would like to suggest some reasons why they do:

  1. The discipline of daily or otherwise regular writing helps to both stimulate thought and increase writing output.
  2. The internal dynamic of academia tends to push people into very narrow areas of specialization (i.e., they know more and more about less and less), and thus when it comes to their professional writing output, they tend to stick to their very narrow field of expertise. But most academics are also generalists, having wide interests and interesting opinions on a huge range of topics, which formerly had been restricted to personal conversations. Blogging provides an outlet for such people. I personally enjoy the freedom and opportunity to range far and wide on my blog.
  3. Blogging creates links with others and networks of new communities. Academic conferences serve that role too but are more expensive to attend and limited in the range of people one meets. Blogging can be seen as extensions of conferences.
  4. Writing a blog can be a means for testing out early versions of ideas.
  5. The feedback and comments feature often stimulates new ideas.
  6. It is much easier now to assume the role of a public intellectual. Before one had to publish a book or an article and that took time and there was no guarantee that it would be published at all or be widely read. Blogging has greatly lowered the barrier to becoming a public intellectual, more people are doing it, and the tide is shifting away from disapproval of such a role. Some, like political scientist Juan Cole and biologist P.Z. Myers, have become well-known to the public and the media purely as a result of their blogging.
  7. There is an increasing realization among academics that the general public has no idea what they do, why they do it, and what benefits they provide society. Scientists especially have been surprised at the rise of anti-science movements that oppose the teaching of the theory of evolution and advocate religious alternatives. Blogging is the most efficient way to increase public awareness of science by providing informed commentary on the new scientific advances that emerge each day.
  8. Some academics relish the exchange of ideas but are socially somewhat awkward and inept. It has been suggested that academia maybe has a higher fraction of people with Asperger’s syndrome, people who are high functioning intellectuals but are very poor at picking up the everyday interpersonal cues that are so essential to being able to have cordial relations. Blogging enables such people to navigate that minefield better.

While more and more academics are taking to blogging, there are reasons why some are wary of joining the group.

  1. The early image of bloggers as no-life, under-employed losers, living in their parents’ basement and merely venting, may cause academics to worry about how they might be perceived by their peers. This view is changing slowly. A colleague of mine used to blog under a pseudonym for fear that being known as a blogger would harm his chances of being taken seriously as a scholar and getting tenure and promoted. He now feels that there is enough acceptance of blogging to do so under his own name.
  2. Blogging takes time, which academics always complain that they have very little of.
  3. It requires you to write, which everyone including academics, hate to do, even though it is an important part of our work.
  4. It is not yet part of the traditional reward structure in academia.
  5. Academics who speak directly to the general public (for example, by writing popular books or magazine or newspaper articles) are often viewed by their peers as not being ‘serious’ or merely seeking fame. The more successful you are at doing this, and the more famous you become with the general public, the less seriously you might be taken by your peers.

But despite these disadvantages, I expect blogging to become even more popular among academics.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and the Promised Land

The alleged arrogance of atheists

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Over at Machines Like Us, my post on introducing the label ‘Unapologetic Atheist’ started a lively debate in the comments section. In the course of it, people have once again raised the charge that unapologetic atheists (also known as ‘new atheists’) are rude and arrogant and uncivil and needlessly hostile towards religious people. (The cartoon strip Jesus and Mo comments on this charge of ‘atheist bile’.)

The catch is that we are never told exactly what statements fall under these categories. To so to try and clarify things, I will list the statements that I commonly make and I would be curious to know which ones religious people find objectionable and why. So here goes:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

Everything else I or any other new/unapologetic atheists write follow from these premises and are arguments designed to support and advance them. (Jerry Coyne has a nice summary of the atheists position.) So are the above statements rude, arrogant, hostile, uncivil, etc.?

To help us make a judgment, let us formulate what the opposite pole of those statements might look like:

  1. There is more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are compatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be worse off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

If any statement in the first set is rude, then by symmetry one should concede that so is the corresponding opposite statement. I think that I am safe in saying that most people would say that the second set of statements are completely inoffensive. In fact such statements are routinely made by religious apologists and are praised as ‘moderate’. And yet you never find atheists saying that religious people are being arrogant and rude because they say that god exists and atheists are wrong. It is this difference that is telling.

So if what we atheists say is rude and hostile, why doesn’t it hold true for the opposite? The situation is even worse than a mere lack of symmetry. Religious people don’t feel that there is anything wrong in even saying that nonbelievers are going to hell and making absurd demands in the guise of seeking accommodation. In fact, that is their standard shtick, as my conversations with the Jesus people showed. (See here, here, and here.)

I think I know what really offends religious people about what new/unapologetic atheists say and why. What they want us to say is that belief in some form of traditional religion is somehow respectable and rational to believe in. What they desperately want to avoid is having their beliefs lumped in with all the other evidence-free superstitions, like astrology or witchcraft or Scientology or Xenu or Elohim or Rael or unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When we say that there is no credible evidence for any of these things and hence they must be treated equally, they get upset. They desperately want to distinguish themselves from what they consider to be fringe beliefs but they cannot find any meaningful criteria by which to do so. So they want us to stop reminding them of the embarrassing fact that they are no different.

If you listen to the many debates that have been held on whether god exists what you essentially hear from the religious side is the plaintive cry “Please, please don’t say that our beliefs are irrational. Please, please say that it is reasonable for us to believe in Jehovah/Yahweh/Melvin/Jesus/Harvey/Allah/Krishna/…(circle the name of your preferred god or insert your write-in candidate) and we will join you in denouncing things like astrology, witchcraft and the like.”

But of course atheists will not say that because to do so is to give up atheism and we are not going to do so without evidence.

Atheists are confident that there is no god or other form of supernatural agency. Having believers simply say we are wrong or even going to hell does not offend us because they never provide any evidence in support so why should we care? But religious people know that they have no evidence to support their belief and are embarrassed by the thought that their beliefs are irrational and unscientific, and haunted by the fear that they are wrong. Rather than shutting their own ears to avoid hearing things they dislike, they want us to shut our mouths.

Maybe I am wrong in my analysis of why believers make the charge that new/unapologetic atheists are arrogant. So here is my request to those who believe it is true: Tell me exactly what statements that the new/unapologetic atheists make that are arrogant/rude/uncivil and why.

POST SCRIPT: Bertrand Russell on atheism and its implications

This clip reminds us that the ‘new’ atheism is pretty old.