October 2007 Archives

D'Souza is at it again with a pair of excerpts, following Alister McGrath's path by announcing "The Twilight of Atheism" and then declaring that "Atheists should say 'Thank god for Christianity'." D'Souza's statistics may show a "global revival of religion" in spite of other information pointing toward increasing but his conclusion is still unwarranted:

...Christianity is winning, and secularism is losing. The atheists may continue their fulminations, but they represent not the cry of victory but the cry of desperation. Deep down, the atheists realize that God is winning and atheism has no future.

Atheism only "has no future" if theism can be proven; since theists commonly refuse to even attempt a proof when asked, this seems highly unlikely. (I suppose that atheism could become futureless through a new Inquisition, but that seems--despite its attraction among Christianists, Islamists, and other fundamentalists--just as improbable.)

D'Souza then lauds Christianity for "the central role that Christianity has played and still plays in the things that matter most to us:" scientific progress, the "equal worth of every human life," and "modern notions of human rights." The combination of slavery, sexism, and homophobia belie the second and third claims, while the first is simply ludicrous:

...science is based on an assumption that is, at root, faith-based and theological. That is the assumption that the universe is rational and follows laws that are discoverable through human reason.

Science is based on what James Trefil calls the principle of universality. "It says that the laws of nature we discover here and now in our laboratories are true everywhere in the universe and have been in force for all time."

[...]

Christians were the first ones who envisioned the universe as following laws that reflected the rationality of God the creator. These laws were believed to be accessible to man because man is created in the image of God and shares a spark of the divine reason.

How, one wonders, does D'Souza reconcile this bilge with the Jehovah whose "rationality" is displayed in the Old Testament as jealousy (Exodus 34:14), cruelty (Job), rage (Deuteronomy 29:27-28), vindictiveness (2 Samuel 24), and capriciousness (Genesis 22)? Then there is the parable of Forbidden Knowledge (something that Jehovah decided shouldn't be "discoverable through human reason) and many so-called "miracles" (resurrections, a flood, stopping the sun in its course, among many other scientific and historical errors in the Bible) that violate the "laws of nature that are supposedly "true everywhere in the universe and have been in force for all time." No one knows where we would be now without centuries of impediments put in place by proponents of the flat-earth, geocentric, Galileo-silencing, Biblical literalists.

In the midst of his bloviations, D'Souza wanders into the thickets of Nietzschean philosophy, where he quickly gets lost:

Nietzsche argued that since the Christian God is the foundation of Western values, the death of God must necessarily mean the erosion and ultimate collapse of those values. Remove the base and the whole building will slowly crumble. For a while, Nietzsche conceded, people would out of custom or habit continue to respect human life and treat people with equal dignity, but eventually there would be ferocious assaults on these values, and practices once unthinkable such as the killing of people deemed inferior or undesirable would once again occur. This is precisely what we have seen in our time, and Nietzsche predicted that it will only get worse. [emphasis added]

Those words could only have come from someone who has never read Nietzsche's last work, The Anti-Christ, wherein he wrote the following:

I condemn Christianity; I bring against the Christian church the most terrible of all the accusations that an accuser has ever had in his mouth. It is, to me, the greatest of all imaginable corruptions; it seeks to work the ultimate corruption, the worst possible corruption. The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its depravity; it has turned every value into worthlessness, and every truth into a lie, and every integrity into baseness of soul. [...] I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are venomous enough, or secret, subterranean and small enough,--I call it the one immortal blemish upon the human race.... (§62, emphases added)

I'm at a loss as to what would be worse that "the greatest of all imaginable corruptions" that "has left nothing untouched by its depravity;" perhaps an eternity wasted reading D'Souza's dim fulminations would qualify.

D'Souza appears to be confused about the purpose of publishing excerpts of new books on the web. Authors often select passages from their books to show potential readers the worth of their writing and the importance of their analysis, thus inducing new sales. D'Souza is taking the opposite tactic: selecting vapid and insipid passages in a deliberate attempt to convince his audience to pass by his book as a poorly researched and poorly argued work of Christianist self-aggrandizement that makes numerous errors about both belief and unbelief.

Former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld is running from the long arm of the law, having fled France when charges were filed against him in the Abu Ghraib/Gitmo torture scandals (h/t: Rude Pundit).

You can run...

Christopher Hayes’ “The New Right-Wing Smear Machine” at The Nation discusses conservatives’ up-and-coming method of disseminating disinformation (in addition to Faux News, talk radio, wingnut websites, the conservative op-ed pages, and the Moonie Times): email hoaxes. Hayes dissects a few hoaxes that I mentioned here but omits several other obvious choices, including the recent exchange student/wild pig tall tale.

Hayes also mentions My Right-Wing Dad, a useful site for those of us dealing with family and friends who mass-mail these mistake-ridden missives.

amazon.com

Hitchens, Christopher. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2007)

Dedicated to Primo Levi, Hitchens opens this anthology of atheism with a pair of Levi quotes (from If This Is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved). At nearly 500 pages of god-free goodness, Hitchens has assembled a hefty supplement to several recent books (Huberman's Quotable Atheist and Konner's Atheist's Bible) of atheist-oriented aphorisms. The long selections clarify their authors' reasoning where the words of religionists often get increasingly muddled and obscure as their word-count increases.

The luminaries selected by Hitchens represent the darkness-dispelling efforts of millennia, and illuminate the main strands of freethought since the dawn of civilization. Between Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "How (and Why) I Became an Atheist" are forty-five other selections; every atheist except the most bookish will find some new thought here that is worth considering. As famed Utilitarian John Stuart Mill wrote, "The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments--of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue--are complete skeptics in religion..." (p. 60, "Moral Influences in Early Youth: My Father's Character and Opinions" from his Autobiography)

After the current crop of atheist polemics, this is the next indispensable volume.

Dinesh D’Souza now claims that “Why Atheists Aren’t Very Bright” in the latest excerpt from his new book, asserting that “atheists have been duped by a fallacy:”

The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. The Enlightenment Fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

He then asks, based on Kant, “What makes us think that there is no reality lies beyond our perception, reality that simply cannot be apprehended by our five senses?” The entire history of scientific advancement shows that our knowledge is not limited to mere sense-data. Take the simple example of the electromagnetic spectrum: although our eyes see only visible light, we are no longer blind to radio waves, x-rays, and ultraviolet light, to name a few. Similarly, we are capable of apprehending such seeming abstractions as gravity waves and neutrinos. Whether or not this progress will continue until “there is nothing more to discover” remains to be seen, but D’Souza’s allegedly omnipresent god is running out of places to hide.

D’Souza claims that atheists “are asking for experiential evidence in a domain which is entirely beyond the reach of experience,” and this is exactly correct: we are asking that theists provide evidence for their claims. In the absence of evidence, theists’ glib assumptions of the supernatural (gods, angels, devils, miracles, resurrections, an afterlife, etc.) are merely unsupported conjectures indistinguishable from Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot.


update (10/22 @ 2:01pm):
PZ Myers discusses D’Souza’s dimness here, and gives his “meaningless babble” a well-deserved rhetorical bitch-slap:

The atheist position does not rest on any claim of absolute perfect knowledge. It is based on a very simple principle: that we have to be able to explain how we know what we know, and support it with some kind of independently confirmable evidence. When people make extravagant religious claims, like this invention of D'Souza's that there is an independent reality supporting the one we can see, we ask, "How do you know that?" And what do we get? Silence. Or meaningless babble that skirts the question.

PZ Myers takes on Ben Stein here, based on Stein's diatribe about Christmas trees from a CBS interview nearly two years ago. Sadly, the points Myers makes are still relevant in the face of a seemingly intractable religious persecution complex. Here are two passages from Stein, followed by Myers' rebuttals:

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution, and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Atheists don't claim America an atheist country: it's a secular nation, a whole different beast altogether. It's one where we're expected to tolerate a whole range of different views, including atheism, and where religion does not have a say in how government is run. You also can't find Christianity in the Constitution; it's a secular document, just like my driver's license and my birth certificate and the rules for baseball are secular.

Christians are the majority in this country, and they're the ones doing the pushing. I'm getting a little fed up with the martyr complex of an 80% majority that whines about not being able to force their silly beliefs on the other 20%.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica, but we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.

I don't know who Nick and Jessica are either, so I certainly haven't felt any compulsion to worship them...and I'd be very surprised if our government were pushing oaths to Nick&Jessica in our classrooms, was establishing special Nick&Jessica-based charities, or if our president tried to justify his insane wars with the claim that Nick&Jessica wanted them.

Even us atheists are happy to allow you to worship your god however you want. We do object to the fact that the right-wing fruitcakes think we should also worship your god however you want.

Bravo!

James Ceaser writes the cover story in the latest Weekly Standard, wherein he supposes that the Democrats have inherited the mantle of “The Stupid Party” from the GOP (h/t: Amicus at Bootstrapping Andrew Sullivan). He posits a “progressive coalition of billionaires and bloggers” in which “[t]he allies of the wealthy, the bloggers, are the coalition’s hit men.” Leaving aside the simple fact that bloggers, myself included, are not on any billionaire’s payroll, Ceaser comes up with this whine about blogs:

Their websites not only constantly abuse thought, but show contempt for intellectuals, even while gaining influence among them. The language is often violent and vulgar. […] …the tone of MoveOn's recent New York Times ad assailing General Petraeus as "General Betray Us," far from being exceptional, is perfectly typical of the discourse preached and practiced by this so-called progressive coalition.

It is true that the Left’s tactics have become more like those of the swift-boating liars on the Right, but they are largely responding to the smear-over-substance atmosphere that the GOP has created. (Besides, a single ad by one group hardly compares to the relentless and orchestrated misrepresentations of the right-wing noise machine.) Conservatives who want to complain about the “tone” of political discourse need to take a long, hard look at their own glass house (Limbaugh, Coulter, Malkin, Drudge, Hannity, Savage, O’Reilly, TownHall, WingNutDaily, and the Freepers come to mind) before casting stones at the Left.

It is a disappointment, though, to see the Left ceding its moral high road in campaigning, and descend to the mud-slinging and name-calling level of the Right. Perhaps Ceaser is simply upset that, with all gloves off and the GOP’s tactical advantage lost, the Democrats are poised to make further electoral gains next year?

(Note: I would never ordinarily quote from Forrest Gump, surely one of the most overrated films ever, but it was the only title that came to me.)

I’ve been deliberately ignoring Ann Coulter’s media whoring in support of her latest book, trying to keep her pernicious influence at bay; Tim Rutten succumbed to her anti-charms, and I will briefly follow suit. Rutten opens his op-ed with these paragraphs:

Ann Coulter is buzzing from one talk show to another these days, peddling her new book. Our era values mindless contention as a kind of entertainment, and we don't just reward relentless self-promotion -- we admire it. Thus, Coulter's phenomenal success at marketing distasteful, mean-spirited books -- poorly written and spottily researched -- that otherwise would go all but unremarked upon by everyone except the rhetorical ghouls who haunt the political fringes.

Now, no Coulter promotional campaign would be complete without a calculated outrage -- a call for the forcible conversion of all Muslims, for example, or a demand for revocation of women's suffrage, an insult hurled at gays or the grieving widows of Sept. 11 victims. As more than one political consultant has remarked, the American far right is a carnivorous constituency, and it needs to be regularly thrown red meat. Coulter's singular genius has been to ignite tightly focused and timely controversies, thereby getting her ideological opponents to toss the scraps to her fans.

Coulter’s latest book needs no additional publicity of any sort, let alone from the deliberate baiting at which she excels. Maybe if we ignore her, she’ll go away and cease polluting out national discourse.

Dinesh D’Souza supposes the existence of “The Atheist Indoctrination Project” in an excerpt from his new book. He asserts that “the secularization of the minds of our young people…is to a large degree orchestrated by teachers and professors to promote anti-religious agendas,” and claims that “Just as some people oppose the theory of evolution because they believe it to be anti-religious, many others support it for the very same reason.” Really? “Many others” support evolution because it is an “anti-religious” theory? Name one, D’Souza. Just one. Until you can do so, STFU about your “orchestrated” educational conspiracy theory.

I daresay that D’Souza’s statement is supported solely by wishful thinking—or perhaps prayer. Evolution is an accepted theory because it fulfills the criteria of the scientific method, as does Newtonian gravitation, as does Einsteinian relativity. The supposed “anti-religious” criterion is nowhere to be found. D’Souza wonders at the absence of a movement “to fight for the teaching of photosynthesis” in schools. The simple answer is that there is no need for such a movement, because there are no religious reactionaries trying to prohibit the teaching of photosynthesis. The reality-based community doesn’t need to defend what the wingnuts have not besieged. Even the most rabidly literal bible-thumpers accept the method by which plants utilize solar energy, although they have yet to explain how plant life could have existed before the sun began providing light. According to the creation myth in Genesis, plants were created on the third day (Gen 1:11-12), followed by the sun on the fourth day (Gen. 1:16-17).

D’Souza complains that “The strategy [of secular teachers] is not to argue with religious views or to prove them wrong. Rather, it is to subject them to such scorn that they are pushed outside the bounds of acceptable debate.” Proof and debate are on the pro-science side of this divide; blind faith and dogma are on the other. Creationists and their allies have fostered a non-existent scientific “controversy” about evolution, and then demanded that we “teach the controversy,” thus smuggling their non-science into the science curriculum. If there is any scorn exhibited by D’Souza’s opponents, myself included, it is due to years of failed attempts to engage his side in anything remotely resembling a fruitful discussion.

Paul Krugman writes about the Right’s latest fit of unhinged ranting: Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize. Krugman calls it “Gore Derangement Syndrome” and asks, “What is it about Mr. Gore that drives right-wingers insane?”

Partly it’s a reaction to what happened in 2000, when the American people chose Mr. Gore but his opponent somehow ended up in the White House. Both the personality cult the right tried to build around President Bush and the often hysterical denigration of Mr. Gore were, I believe, largely motivated by the desire to expunge the stain of illegitimacy from the Bush administration.

And now that Mr. Bush has proved himself utterly the wrong man for the job — to be, in fact, the best president Al Qaeda’s recruiters could have hoped for — the symptoms of Gore derangement syndrome have grown even more extreme.

Krugman gave a name to the syndrome, but ThinkProgress had the details and David Neiwert had already identified it last week:

Al Gore has a habit of bringing out the worst in conservatives -- especially their eagerness to smear and their self-imposed ignorance about the nature of science and how the world really works.

No doubt, if they were ever self-aware enough to recognize this, though, they'd just find a way to blame Gore for it.

"too far-left"

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Last night, Bill O’Reilly claimed that “John Edwards has no chance to become president because he's simply too far-left for most Americans” and asked:

[W]ould you support President John Edwards? Remember, no coerced interrogation, civilian lawyers in courts for captured overseas terrorists, no branding the Iranian guards terrorists, and no phone surveillance without a specific warrant.

In a post dripping with sarcasm, Glenn Greenwald quoted some of our nation’s favorite “far-left” radicals (Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson) in support of “too far-left” ideas such as trial by jury, habeas corpus, and the fourth amendment. In an update, Greenwald notes:

It is also vital to note that Far Leftists have not only long crusaded for radical liberties such as "warrants" and "due process" but have also spouted the same dangerous foreign policy views now common among today's anti-war radicals, those Far Leftists trying to impede ongoing war with Iraq and a new glorious war with Iran. This dirty America-hating dovish radical, for instance, railed like an unhinged maniac -- with amazing specificity -- against exactly the same actions which the Irresponsible Far Leftists of today condemn.

The “dirty America-hating dovish radical” Greenwald cites is none other than George Washington, from his 1796 Farewell Address. It appears that Washington joins Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, Paine, and the rest of the Founders as being “too far-left” for today’s GOP and their media mouthpieces.

Daylight Atheism writes about the recent Barna survey supporting the book unChristian. DA’s introduction is great:

Over the last decade or so, the religious right has exercised virtually untrammeled power in America. They've commanded the allegiance of a majority of the population and have enjoyed tremendous influence and near-unchallenged power in popular culture, in the media, and especially in government. They have had abundant opportunity to make it clear to everyone what they most care about and what principles they advocate, and they have done so. And as their electoral fortunes waned, they have only become louder and more vehement.

There have been times these past few years when it was frustrating to be an American. While the religious right loudly proclaimed their intent to dismantle the Constitution's safeguards and impose their rigid, antiquated views on the rest of us, the traditional media was somnolent, and the populace seemed apathetic. I believe the religious right became so bold, so brazen in announcing their desires, precisely because they assumed the lack of resistance meant no one was paying attention.

After reviewing the study, DA concludes:

Though the demographic trends are now solidly against them, in all likelihood the religious conservatives will remain set in their bigoted ways right up until they fade out of history. Whether a new, more progressive Christianity will rise in their place remains to be seen. But in either case, this is tremendous news for secular and nonreligious Americans, confirming that a change is in the air, and that it may come sooner than we think.

To the Religious Right: We have seen your creed in action and found it wanting; we have watched your involvement in politics and found it disturbing. We are repulsed by your hypocritical moralizing, your distortions and misrepresentations, and your unreasonable demand that your beliefs be exempt from challenge and criticism. What evangelicals in this study perceive as Americans “becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity” is a warning that your lies will no longer go uncorrected, your scandals unexposed, and your bigotry unanswered.

The public square’s playing field is being leveled, and your previous position of privilege will soon no longer exist.

Get used to it.


P.S. On a lighter note, I’d like to wish a happy National Coming Out Day to everyone in the LGBT family!

Andrew Sullivan talks about those who would trade essential liberty for temporary security, and concludes that “in a choice between legalizing torture and the loss of American lives, I would choose the loss of American lives, including my own:”

This is not righteous victimhood. It is righteous self-defense. There are some things worse than avoiding all casualties in warfare. One of those things is abandoning the core meaning of what a country and a civilization stand for. If America does not stand against the torture of individuals seized without due process by an unchecked executive power, then American stands for nothing. In fact, if this standard had applied two centuries ago, America would not exist at all. The president takes an oath not to prevent any American life from being lost in wartime, but to protect and defend the Constitution which is the sole guarantor of such liberty. Churchill upheld that rule, even as London was reduced to rubble and hundreds of thousands of mother's children were lost. Washington made it a central hallmark of the meaning of his new republic. To destroy the constitution, the rule of law, and habeas corpus and to legalize torture in the false hope of saving lives is the action of those who do not understand freedom and who do not understand America. It is the action of cowards and slaves.

What part of "Live Free Or Die" do these people not understand? [emphases added]

In a simple statement, Sullivan has exposed the bed-wetting Islamophobes as the hysterical fear-mongerers that they are. Their ticking-bomb scenarios and fantasy mushroom clouds will not transmute their cowardice into bravery.

In commenting on McCain's "Christian nation" remarks, Michael Medved insisted that "The Founders Intended A Christian, Not Secular, Society." Medved accuses First Amendment scholar Charles Haynes of "sweeping and profoundly misleading comments" that are "appallingly, demonstrably and inarguably wrong." Let's take a long look, instead, at Medved's own arguments; several of them fall into precisely those categories.

His claim that "THE FOUNDERS NEVER 'WANTED TO ESTABLISH A SECULAR NATION'" [caps in original] is refuted easily at several points. Most obvious is the "no religious test" clause in the Constitution and the First Amendment's prohibition of an established church. This passage from Jefferson's "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom" is also relevant:

"...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Medved's assertion that the Founders "WERE, ALMOST WITHOUT EXCEPTION, DEEPLY SERIOUS CHRISTIANS" [again, caps in the original] is disproven by history. Medved mentions that "assiduous study of the Bible" was "a lifelong passion in the case of Jefferson and Franklin," but shies away from Jefferson's cut-and-paste assembly of the volume now known as the "Jefferson Bible." Jefferson assiduously trimmed from his Bible such things as: angels, the Trinity, Jesus' divinity, miracles, and the Resurrection. Such temerity would hardly endear him to the Religious Right. Instead, he would swear "eternal hostility" against them just as he did against their forebears two centuries ago.

Medved even claims that "the most radical of the Founders, pamphleteer Thomas Paine, would fit more comfortably with today's religious conservatives than with the secular militants who seek to claim his as one of their own," but this assertion is just as ludicrous. For just one example, here is a passage from Chapter II of The Age of Reason:

...the opinions I have advanced in that work are the effect of the most clear and long-established conviction, -- that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world; -- that the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonourable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty; -- that the only true religion is deism, by which I then meant and now mean the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues; -- and that it was upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter.

John Fea observes at History News Network (h/t: Carlos at Talk to Action) that "Those who insist that America was founded as a Christian nation run roughshod over the historical record." Medved has provided several examples. Jon Meacham reminds us at the NYT that "A Nation of Christians Is Not a Christian Nation," and mentions the Treaty of Tripoli:

In the 1790s, in the waters off Tripoli, pirates were making sport of American shipping near the Barbary Coast. Toward the end of his second term, Washington sent Joel Barlow, the diplomat-poet, to Tripoli to settle matters, and the resulting treaty, finished after Washington left office, bought a few years of peace. Article 11 of this long-ago document says that "as the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion," there should be no cause for conflict over differences of "religious opinion" between countries.

The treaty passed the Senate unanimously. Mr. McCain is not the only American who would find it useful reading.

Mr Medved, please familiarize yourself with the American history section of your local library before again making a public spectacle of your ignorance. Returning to the issue of John McCain's remarks, Ira Forman (executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council) called McCain's remarks "repugnant" and added (h/t: SEB):

"Someone running for president ought to understand the Constitution a little better. Nowhere does it say the United States is a 'Christian' nation. How can we trust someone to uphold the Constitution who doesn't even know what is in it?"


update (10/15 @ 10:07am):
Daylight Atheism has a multi-point rebuttal to the "Christian nation" myth here, looking at ten important aspects of our nation that are either unsupported or explicitly rejected by the Bible. I'd love to see Christianists try to square such (secular) issues as (small-r) republicanism, separation of powers, religious freedom, and trial by jury with the textual evidence against them.

Reacting to this piece in the NYT on Democratic capitulation to Bush’s illegal wiretapping, Cenk Uygur announces that he has given up on current Congressional Democrats:

The Democrats are going to help Bush break the FISA law. They are going to change the law so that he doesn't have to get a warrant. They are going to ignore the fourth amendment and current federal laws. Why would you help the least popular president in history? Why would you allow him to keep breaking the law?

[…]

How is it possible to have any respect for these Democrats? Every day, I struggle not to call them cowards and weaklings. And every day they make it harder. They are truly pathetic. I'm so tired of encouraging them to grow a backbone. It's a hopeless struggle. I give up.

This ThinkProgress summary of the new RESTORE Act (more details are here) suggests that Uygur’s decision may be premature. Although the bill’s final form is still uncertain, Glenn Greenwald sees a familiar problem:

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever -- neither substantive nor political -- for expanding the scope of warrantless eavesdropping powers and especially for granting amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms. It is unconscionable even to consider any changes to FISA without full disclosure by the administration of how they used their illegal and secret warrantless eavesdropping powers in the past. In that regard, it is worth emphasizing that the administration from 2001 through 2004 (at least) was engaged in spying on Americans so patently illegal that the entire top level of the DOJ and the FBI Director threatened to quit if it continued -- yet we still do not know what they were doing then. How can that be? There is no justification for permitting that conduct to remain concealed from the American public, let alone from the Congress.

Warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty implicate virtually every critical political value assaulted for the last six years by this administration -- our basic constitutional protections, checks and balances and the rule of law. [emphasis in original]


update (2:52pm):
The ACLU comments on the current draft of the legislation here.

Sam Harris collaborates with Salman Rushdie to tell the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the LA Times:

Hirsi Ali may be the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust. As such, she is a unique and indispensable witness to both the strength and weakness of the West: to the splendor of open society and to the boundless energy of its antagonists. She knows the challenges we face in our struggle to contain the misogyny and religious fanaticism of the Muslim world, and she lives with the consequences of our failure each day. There is no one in a better position to remind us that tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.

Hirsi Ali’s situation is an unfortunate example of why free inquiry and open criticism of religion are so desperately needed. Without them, Europe under an Islamic Caliphate may degenerate from sporadic death threats and assassinations into something more horrific.

Dinesh D’Souza pimps his new book (What’s So Great About Christianity) at ClownHall while flogging the dead horse of a “secular assault” on believers:

The atheists no longer want to be tolerated. They want to monopolize the public square and to expel Christians from it. They want political questions like abortion to be divorced from religious and moral claims. They want to control the school curricula, so that they can promote a secular ideology and undermine Christianity. They want to discredit the factual claims of religion, and they want to convince the rest of society that Christianity is not only mistaken but also evil. They blame religion for the crimes of history and for the ongoing conflicts in the world today. In short, they want to make religion—and especially the Christian religion—disappear from the face of the earth.

It’s not the opium in and of itself that is problematic; we become concerned when use becomes abuse, and addiction takes hold. (See the last quarter-century of Religious Right antics for examples.)

Willfully wrong

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The very first sentence of George Will's latest column at ClownHall criticized Democrats for not reading a book (Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) that Will himself either hasn't read or didn't comprehend:

"Evidence that a Democrat has read Smith's great treatise against meddlesome government is as gratifying as it is startling."

The two fallacies in this sentence are (1) that Smith's work was written "against meddlesome government," and (2) that Democrats who have read it are rare enough to be "startling." (I'll leave aside Will's posturing that he is in a position to be gratified by someone else's erudition.)

Adam Smith did argue against much government "meddling" in the economy--such as tariffs--and even thought that "the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together" (Book I, Chapter 10) in cartels, but he was more complex an economist elsewhere. Although Smith recognized the importance of the division of labor for greater productive efficiency, he lamented "the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it" (Book V, Chapter 1). That is clearly an endorsement of governmental "meddling," as is his later argument for progressive taxation:

The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. [...] It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion." (Book V, Chapter 2)

The Modern Library edition of The Wealth of Nations begins with an introduction from Robert Reich, Clinton's Secretary of Labor; this undercuts Will's second fallacy. I daresay that Reich has a greater familiarity with and understanding of Smith than does Will and the other free-market fundamentalists currently infesting our op-ed pages.

For another counterexample to Will's thesis, check out Glenn Greenwald from a few days ago. Greenwald mentioned that Smith decried warring governments that are "unwilling and unable to increase their revenue in proportion to the increase of their expense" for war-making, noting that "They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war" (Book V, Chapter 3).

To quote from Reich again, "Smith's mind ranged over issues as fresh and topical today as they were in the late eighteenth century--jobs, wages, politics, government, trade, education, business, and ethics." Democrats may not cite Smith as frequently as conservatives do, but it is apparent that they actually read him when they do so.

Liberals need not avoid Adam Smith: He is not the petty plutocrat that his self-appointed spokespeople on the Right would lead us to believe. Many of our "great books" are similarly in need of rescuing from misrepresentation and misuse at the hands of shallow propagandists such as George Will.

This piece on contemporary Iranian typography is gorgeous (h/t: lambert at Corrente). For most of us, non-European languages can be more easily appreciated on a purely graphic level (line, shape, color) rather than as meaning; the pieces in this article are simply gorgeous, regardless of their meaning.

A Science magazine article from earlier this year, “Decagonal and Quasi-Crystalline Tilings in Medieval Islamic Architecture” (1MB PDF) provided a fascinating look at Penrose tiling in Islamic architectural ornamentation. (A less technical version is here at Science News.)

The calligraphy shown at PingMag isn’t as mathematically interesting, but the graphic creativity puts it on just as high a plane. I could spend hours examining this stuff…

Sam Harris’ talk from last week, “The Problem with Atheism,” is online at the WaPo/Newsweek On Faith website. In it, Harris calls the label atheist “a mistake of some consequence:”

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

Harris suggests that we should:

...not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

PZ Myers responds at Pharyngula:

I'm sorry, Sam, but complaining about your name and fishing about in a dictionary for happy words you can appropriate is such a Republican thing to do. I much prefer the forthrightness of an out & proud movement. […]

Those labels you denigrate — "atheists," "humanists," "secular humanists," "naturalists," "skeptics," "anti-theists," "rationalists," "freethinkers," and "brights" — are useful rallying cries for the tiny, scattered bubbles of rationality drifting in the sea of superstition and ignorance. It's how we find each other and grow. It's how we build whole communities working for a common cause, rather than acting as isolated individuals.


update (10/8 @ 12:02pm):
Daylight Atheism criticizes Harris here, writing that “I don't think Sam Harris was entirely off the mark. I think he's identified a real problem - I just think he's misdiagnosed the solution:”

If we consent to our adversaries' prejudice and flee from the terms they have already slandered, what will stop them from poisoning any new term we come up with to describe ourselves as well? (We can already see members of the religious right pouring bigotry and invective on terms like "secular humanism".) We should not surrender this ground to them, or any ground. Instead, we should fight them on their own terms and refuse to back down when attacked.

Harris suggests that we "should not call ourselves anything", but this is too facile. if we do not name ourselves, we will be named, most likely by our adversaries. Refusing to give a name to who we are and what we stand for will only create a vacuum that religious conservatives will gleefully fill with lies and distortion. Rather than give them such an opportunity, we should take the initiative to say what we believe, and we should do it loudly and with pride. That will serve as a rallying point for those who agree with our ideals, and it will deny bigots the chance to define us in terms that they find most convenient.


update 2 (10/9 @ 10:38am):
Sam Harris responds here, writing that “much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety.”

Ouch.

PZ Myers rebuts Harris here:

I give lots of talks on evolution, and I handle lots of questions. I rarely go out of my way to use the words "atheist" or "atheism" in them — I'm not reluctant to say what I am if asked, but it's not central to the topic. However, I do not need to use the evil word "atheist" to get certain people angry: all I have to do is dismiss religious explanations for evolution as "the product of religious metaphysics and superstition". A recent example was my talk in Stillwater, where I did not say I was an atheist or demand that others be atheists, but did plainly reject religion as a way to answer questions of our origins, and that was sufficient to trigger the usual foot-stomping and finger-pointing.

Sam Harris is living in a fantasy world if he thinks he can criticize religion and merely by leaving the A-word off, he will win everyone over to his point of view. It won't. The theists aren't stupid.

finding fascism

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Glenn Greenwald’s post on the Right’s incessant—and inaccurate—cries of “fascism" on the Left makes an important observation:

One of the rules of political discourse that we had until quite recently -- enforced most vigorously by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and The Simon Wiesenthal Center, among others -- was that nobody was allowed to invoke Hitler and Nazis as a political insult. To do so, we heard constantly, was to trivialize Nazisim and the Holocaust and exploit that imagery for cheap political gain.

[…]

Just in the past few months alone, there is virtually no prominent anti-war or liberal group that has not been branded as Hitler and Nazis by the most influential factions on the Right. If one's goal were to trivialize Hitler and Nazism and the Holocaust, one would do exactly what the Right is doing -- brand every political opponent as Hitler and Nazis on a virtually daily basis. Yet the groups that have anointed themselves proprietors of those terms, and which have in the past expressed such righteous outrage when those terms were used against the Right, sit by meekly and silently.

Sara writes at Orcinus about the current “proto-fascist” administration:

The bald historical truth is that fascism always comes out of the right wing. Its proponents are, on one hand, economic royalists working their will by merging their corporations with the government; and on the other, rural True Believers willing to commit violence to perpetuate their own serfdom. […]

While leftists can certainly be totalitarians (as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao amply demonstrated), they're not fascist. The right wing is often confused on this point; but we should not be. The 20th-century communist experiments threw the corporations overboard, and relied on bureaucracy and urban-based secret police rather than rural thugs to keep people in line. It's the same authoritarian impulse -- and thus no less ugly in the end -- but it's not correct to call it fascist.

As with Rush Limbaugh’s “phony soldiers” slur, the Right generally gets a free pass to do things for which the Left is widely condemned for doing; that’s our (so-called) “liberal media” in action.

Kevin McCullough’s accusation that “Liberals Make Atrocious Parents” yanked my chain, as does much of the bullshit ladled out at ClownHall. McCullough rails against the “twisted views on family, sex, and parental responsibility” displayed by the Democratic candidates during a debate last week, but his conclusion is nonsensical. The candidates’ answers to Tim Russert’s question about basic sexual orientation information (Clif at Sadly, No! fisked McCullough’s errors regarding the children’s book King & King) were bland and tepid remarks about supplying their children with important information: that same-sex couples exist, and that they do not need to be feared.

In McCullough’s mind, this means that liberals “believe in lack of restraint, defying of limits, and excess” and “wipe away other important elements of behavior like self-control, purity, moderation, and even delayed gratification.” Where “Conservative parents teach disciplined behavior,” liberals “demonstrate negligent or intentional contempt for their children and society.” For the sin of liberals teaching their children basic facts about sexual orientation, McCullough believes—to use his other slanders on liberal parenting—that we teach our children to play with hot pans and act like “hellions” in public places.

McCullough’s argument is little more than the accusation that we liberals are atrocious parents for not raising our children to be homophobic bigots. Teaching our children—not blinding them with dogma—is the primary task of parents’ lives, liberal as well as conservative. McCullough may judge our efforts a failure, but I suspect that posterity will disagree.

The ALA's "Banned Books Week" (from 9/29 to 10/6 this year) has a great purpose:

BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.

Bypassing the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, 1990-2000," I decided instead to spend some time with the three primary works of the Beat generation: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (poem and retrospective), Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. These works were all "unorthodox and unpopular" in their time, but are now regarded as classics of the mid-twentieth century.

The soft bigotry of low comprehension that leads churches, school boards, and parent groups across the country to protest art that they do not understand often hardens into charges of obscenity and cries for censorship; these three works have had their share of troubles with the law, but all were eventually exonerated. My first Quote of the Day comes from a book about Burroughs, and sums up the Beat attitude toward life and the arts:

"The touchstone of Beat was a defiant naïveté - a stubborn refusal to allow their songs of innocence to be stifled by their experience of corporate America. Against a world of bovine maturity and faceless conformity they sought to unleash the potential of the moment, finding it in the orgasm, in jazz and in their communal solipsism."

(Graham Caveney, Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs, pp. 89-90)

During the half-century since the Beat revolution, the gay influence on our cultural life is more pronounced than ever. From Bernstein to Broadway to Brokeback Mountain, from Queen to "Queer Eye," Fran Lebowitz's observation from two decades ago still rings true:

"If you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture you would be pretty much left with Let's Make a Deal."

("The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community," New York Times, 13 September 1987, H22)

Whether one loves or loathes their sexuality, raw language, and drug use, the Beats helped to bring the reactionary 1950s to a close; I shudder to imagine how sterile American culture would be like without their influence. Banning the Beats' books only served to make heroes of them, turning reviled outcasts into revered outlaws and enticing more people to pick up their works. One hopes that Banned Books Week have the same effect, albeit in a non-totalitarian manner.

James Risen co-authored this NYT article on Bush's torture regime:

When the Justice Department publicly declared torture “abhorrent” in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations.

But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures. [emphases added]

Responses to the Times’ revelation have been as severe as the interrogation itself. There are only 474 days to go until the end of our long national nightmare, until we can begin repairing our national reputation at home and abroad.

amazon.com

Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (New York: Grove Press, 2004)

Although drug use isn't a prerequisite for reading Naked Lunch, it may be an aid for comprehension. The first of Burroughs' "cut-up" novels, Naked Lunch has the hallucinogenic feel of a drug-fueled nightmare gone sour, a bad trip with no guide but the rambling and scattered narrator. Burroughs himself appears in the book under the guise of William Lee, a junkie on the run from the law, but is not a presence in enough of the vignettes (Burroughs calls them "routines") to add any cohesiveness to the book. One strains to find any sort of narrative or thematic substance, but this is to be expected due to the book's genesis. As the editors mention in a note after the body of the novel:

The novel was not created according to a predetermined outline or plan, but accumulated through a decade of travel and turmoil on four continents and continually edited and reedited not only by its author but also by his close friends Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. It went through innumerable partial and "final" drafts, mostly in Tangier, Morocco, and took its final shape only when Maurice Girodias told Burroughs in June 1959 that he needed a finished text within two weeks, for publication by his English-language Olympia Press in Paris. (p. 233, "Editor's Note" by Barry Miles and James Grauerholz)

Burroughs imagines a series of "Steely Dan" dildos (p. 77), and includes an odd "routine" about a man who taught his asshole to talk (pp. 110-12), but the violent sex and sexualized violence are jarring amid the humor. Burroughs' obsessions with anal sex ["...we see God through our assholes in the flash bulb of orgasm...Through these orifices transmute your body...The way OUT is the way IN..." (p. 191)] and ejaculation combine with his descriptions of heroin and hanging to create an undifferentiated mass of disturbing material whose presence in the courtroom should have surprised no one. (The failed 1966 obscenity case against Naked Lunch has the dubious honor of being the last brought against a novel in the United States.)

Naked Lunch's presence on one's bookshelf will likely still raise some eyebrows. The book's series of disturbing visions and its portrayal of drug-induced madness overwhelm the cautionary postscripts from Burroughs on his personal experiences with narcotic addiction. Nietzsche's warning about gazing into the abyss is especially relevant here.

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