State of the Union

Marilynne Robinson on Faith and Conservatism

Marilynne Robinson is a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and best-selling author who was awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. Despite her personal liberalism, Robinson’s work has won the admiration of many conservatives, as Robert Long explored in his recent essay, “Christian, Not Conservative.”

Over the summer, Robinson talked with Long about Christianity, President Obama, and her view of American conservatism.

TAC: You draw deeply upon Christian figures of the past in your work. Are there any figures in contemporary Christendom whom you find particularly inspiring or admirable?

MR: Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.

TAC: Are there any public figures in contemporary American politics whom you find particularly inspiring or admirable?

MR: I respect and admire President Obama. He and I (and John Ames) belong to the same denomination, the United Church of Christ, and this may make his ethos more understandable to me than it seems to be to many others. While he was still a senator, he and I both spoke at a UCC conference. He was attacked then for violating the separation of church and state. I think some kind of legal action was attempted. Since then he has been attacked for anything and everything, usually by innuendo that is in effect endorsed by media attention and political exploitation. There is a movement now that, intentionally in some quarters, works to embarrass and diminish that most American creation, the United States Government. To subject the President to constant whisper campaigns or outright rudeness is as much a strategy as to withhold funding from government and to paralyze Congress. The most essential obligation of any President in these circumstances is to maintain the status and dignity of the office, and he has done this with extraordinary grace and resourcefulness. I would have preferred to see him be President in better times, having some latitude to realize the policies for which he was elected twice. But in fact it has been his role to do a much harder thing, and he has done it brilliantly, with a humane self-possession that would make his and my Puritan ancestors (adopted in both cases) very proud.

TAC: What was it like to have President Obama tell you recently, “Your writings have changed me—I think for the better. Marilynne, I believe that”? 

MR: I was startled, frankly. It takes a good man to want to be a better man, and a very good man to acknowledge indebtedness, if that is the right word. I hope the example of his dignity and equanimity has made me a better woman.

TAC: What are you working on now?

MR: I have just finished a novel.

TAC: What does the word “conservatism” mean to you?

MR: For our purposes, it is important to consider the word as qualified by the adjective American. Conservatism should mean the carrying forward of the conception of polity and community that was asserted here at the end of the 18th century. Historically this has meant holding institutions we received as colonies and as Anglo-Europeans—slavery and the subordinate status of women, for example—to the standards articulated by the founders. Granting that the founders did not foresee the emancipation of women, surely there are few who would wish to argue now that essential American ideals were not realized when their equality as citizens was acknowledged. And so with the whole history of reform. The founding idea was that there would be a new order of things, guided by law and deliberation, with the dignity of the individual as its motive force, its method and its objective.

TAC: Are there any thinkers on the “right,” broadly construed, that you admire, any conservative strains of Western thought that you take inspiration from?

MR: Many of the earlier American writers, who were still in love with America and therefore conservative as defined above, are deeply important to me. None of them could be said to be of the “right.” Western, which I take to mean Anglo-European, conservatism is, fundamentally, nostalgia for an old order, hierarchical and pre-democratic. To acquaint myself with this thought-world I read some books of Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Oakeshott. I can’t imagine what, except for the attractive powers of a vacuum, could have installed them as conservative intellectuals. In any case, they exemplify this nostalgia I speak of perfectly.

TAC: In “Wondrous Love,” you criticize those who are reluctant to use government as a tool for practicing liberality and generosity. Is it possible, in your eyes, to be a truly “compassionate conservative” or a “bleeding heart libertarian“, to live according to the Christian vision of “open-handedness” while being skeptical of government redistribution?

MR: Skepticism is appropriate in all cases, especially where money is involved. There should always be checks and balances. We all know of non-government charities whose CEO’s have done very well for themselves. As Christians, we must be concerned with outcomes—are the hungry fed, are the naked clothed, are the sick visited. The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be. There is no analogy to be drawn between a beleaguered community governed, in effect, by a hostile and alien occupation and a modern society that can indeed govern itself and care for its own as it chooses. If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now. No talk of compassion impresses me when the tone of all reference to those who are struggling is hostile and judgmental. And of course anyone can be open-handed. But, as an American, I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans. The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of “redistribution,” a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.

TAC: Why do you think so many American Christians identify as political conservatives? What advice would you give to our readership, many of whom fit that description? 

MR: Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

TAC: What is the most under-appreciated book of the Christian Scriptures today?

MR: I don’t see much evidence that any of them is being given appropriate attention.

TAC: What is the hardest teaching of Christ for you to follow in your daily life?

MR: I work more or less constantly. This makes me inattentive and forgetful in any number of ways. I do consider existence miraculous in its nature, therefore revelation, but I forget to look at it. I neglect my friends. I hope the work I do makes up for all the good I might do and enjoy if I were less obsessive. I must say, however, that I enjoy every minute of this strange life, exasperating as it often is.

TAC: Do Christians have a duty to spread the gospel to people of other faiths?

MR: The first and last obligation of Christians is to be Christians. Christianity is a profound and beautiful faith, and when it is enacted as an ethos it is deeply attractive. Julian the Apostate, the emperor after Constantine who tried to restore paganism, attributes the growth of Christianity in the Roman world to their unconditional generosity to all the sick and the needy. They were also famous for the kind of fearlessness that rejects violence. When I see what so much of modern Christianity has become, I wonder if it is Christian enough to have a gospel to spread.

TAC: How does the eschatological vision of the New Testament fit into your understanding of the world? How do you understand Christ’s second coming?

MR: I expect to be very much surprised by the Second Coming. I would never have imagined the Incarnation or the Resurrection. To be astonishing seems to be the mark of God’s great acts—who could have imagined Creation? On these grounds it seems like presumption to me to treat what can only be speculation as if it were even tentative knowledge. I expect the goodness of God and the preciousness of Creation to be realized fully and eternally. I expect us all to receive a great instruction in the absolute nature of grace.

Robert Long, a summer 2013 editorial assistant for The American Conservative, studies philosophy of mind and of religion at Brandeis University. This conversation was part of his recent Marilynne Robinson profile, “Christian, Not Conservative.”

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Christian, Not Conservative

At a White House ceremony in July, President Obama told this year’s recipients of the National Humanities Medal, “Your writings have changed me—I think for the better.” He then turned directly to novelist Marilynne Robinson and said, “Marilynne, I believe that.”

It was a spontaneous acknowledgement of Robinson’s prominence in American life and letters, another honor atop the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and host of other prizes her work has collected. For a writer whose novels barely have plots and whose essays plumb the thought of John Calvin, Robinson is astonishingly popular—and not just among readers who share the president’s politics.

Her conservative admirers include Jeffrey Hart, emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth and a contributor for over 50 years to National Review, in whose pages he hailed Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead as a “masterpiece.” In Gilead, Hart found a rare spiritual gravity: “Despite the unaccommodating phase of ordinary culture through which we live,” he writes, Robinson’s “subject is holiness.”

As he explains further in his critical work The Living Moment, Robinson’s novel “consists entirely of a long letter written by the Reverend John Ames; it does have a plot, but it does not drive the reader urgently ahead. Rather, the letter, while recounting incidents, establishes a meditative pace, inviting you to read patiently, and soon with wonder. Precisely that is the philosophical point of the book: the experience of wonder, of Being.”

Gilead not only won the Pulitzer but sold enough copies to become “one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times”—as James Wood put it in the New Yorker—thanks to passages like this one, near the end of the book (and of Ames’s life):

Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? … Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.

Chief among the “precious things” Robinson honors is America’s religious heritage. She is in a sense a culture warrior, striving against what her essays call our “impulse … to disparage, to cheapen and to deface, and to falsify, which has made a valuable inheritance worthless.”

For this reason her nonfiction, like her novels, attracts the attention of thoughtful conservatives. In a Weekly Standard review of last year’s essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Houston Baptist University professor Micah Mattix praises Robinson’s contrarian projects: defending America’s Puritans (and their forefather, John Calvin) from their caricature as dour fundamentalists, championing the Old Testament as wise and humane, and critiquing the reductionist materialism of the New Atheists. To all this, Robinson brings a “penchant for the ignored fact and the counterintuitive argument.”

The thread that unites these concerns is a tradition neglected today by left and right: liberal Christianity. Though the themes of Robinson’s work resonate with “crunchy conservatives” and others who emphasize virtues like duty, rootedness, and tradition, the author herself is a member of what she calls “that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.”

The decline of the Protestant mainline churches has transformed American religion since the protagonist of Gilead wrote his letter in 1956, as has the political polarization of Christianity. While there are exceptions—a small “secular right,” a more substantial religious left—in general the more often an American goes to church, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. In 2012, the overwhelming majority of religiously unaffiliated voters (70 percent) cast their ballots to re-elect Obama; an even larger majority of white evangelicals (80 percent) voted Republican.

Yet Robinson grounds her liberalism in her Calvinist tradition. She responded by email to a question from TAC about the identification of American Christians with the right:

Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

Though Robinson has written that she is “extremely reluctant” to talk about her faith, “chiefly because my belief does not readily reduce itself to simple statements,” her work is suffused with her religious sensibility: distrustful of over-precise dogma, emphasizing spiritual wonder and acts of love.

Like John Ames (and Barack Obama), Robinson is a Congregationalist, a member of the mainline United Church of Christ. And like Ames, she preaches—the occasional guest sermon for her congregation in Iowa City. Unsurprisingly, author and character at times echo one another.

Ames writes “I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do.” Likewise, Robinson, responding to a TAC query about her understanding of the Second Coming, demurs:

I expect to be very much surprised by the Second Coming. I would never have imagined the Incarnation or the Resurrection. To be astonishing seems to be the mark of God’s great acts—who could have imagined Creation? On these grounds it seems like presumption to me to treat what can only be speculation as if it were even tentative knowledge. I expect the goodness of God and the preciousness of Creation to be realized fully and eternally. I expect us all to receive a great instruction in the absolute nature of grace.

As Ames writes, “I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us.”

Calvin looms large in Robinson’s work: Gilead and its 2008 companion novel, Home, are surely the only bestsellers to hinge on a scene where a preacher ruminates about predestination. In her essays, Robinson presents Calvin as a Christian humanist—contrary to his stereotype as a cold-hearted theocrat—and his intellectual heirs as a vital corrective to our cheapened discourse.

As she tells TAC:

Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.

Most Americans still call themselves Christians, but Robinson finds our politics afflicted by a debased and un-Christian view of ourselves. “We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul,” she writes in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Instead, we “adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups.”

“Our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull,” she continues in When I Was a Child, and proposes an alternative anthropology: “What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?”

Calvin writes in the Institutes that man’s creation in the image of God establishes a duty of unlimited love: “The image of God, by which he is recommended to you,” he writes, “deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess.” The social consequences, Robinson believes, are clear: an “unqualified requirement of generosity” that is repeated again and again in the Christian tradition: in Deuteronomy, the Gospel, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.

In “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism”—a lecture she delivered at the Princeton Theological Seminary—Robinson observes, “There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them if we can.” This would mean a return to the moral seriousness with which our ancestors undertook their duty to the poor and needy.

“Those among us who call themselves traditionalists, and who invoke things like ‘religion’ and ‘family’ in a spirit that makes those honest words feel mean and tainted, are usually loyal first of all to a tooth-and-nail competitiveness our history does not in fact enshrine,” she writes in The Death of Adam. Later essays in When I Was a Child continue her attack on these purported traditionalists.

Conservatives are taken aback by the bracing tone here. As Mattix contends, when Robinson turns her eye on contemporary politics, her typical nuance and generosity can fail her. In her anger at what she sees as depredation, Robinson caricatures conservatism as a bundle of jingoism, mean-spiritedness, and tribalism, dismissing out of hand the notion that Christians who are conservative espouse limited government because they believe it best secures not only liberty but also prosperity—including prosperity for the poor. sep-issuethumb

Yet the caricature, if uncharitable, is at least understandable—just consider the willingness of Republicans to cut food stamps, but not corporate welfare, from the recent farm bill. As Robinson writes in When I Was a Child, Jesus does not say, “I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.”

Asked about “compassionate conservatism” and whether a Christian can fulfill the duties of love while being skeptical of government redistribution, she tells TAC:

Skepticism is appropriate in all cases, especially where money is involved. There should always be checks and balances. We all know of non-government charities whose CEO’s have done very well for themselves. As Christians, we must be concerned with outcomes—are the hungry fed, are the naked clothed, are the sick visited. The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be. There is no analogy to be drawn between a beleaguered community governed, in effect, by a hostile and alien occupation and a modern society that can indeed govern itself and care for its own as it chooses. If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now. No talk of compassion impresses me when the tone of all reference to those who are struggling is hostile and judgmental. And of course anyone can be open-handed. But, as an American, I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans. The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’ a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.

It’s little wonder conservatives are drawn to the liberal Robinson, when she not only writes beautifully but does so with a thoughtful Christianity that transcends our current political divisions and economic ideologies. Robinson’s critiques, if at times broad-brush, provide an always-needed reminder that the church should never allow itself to be simply the Republican Party at prayer. As Robinson writes in “Open Thy Hand Wide,” the Christian story is “too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale.”

Robert Long, a summer 2013 editorial assistant for The American Conservative, studies philosophy of mind and of religion at Brandeis University.


The Tweeting Philosopher

Many of Blaise Pascal's Pensees are 140 characters or less. (Wikimedia Commons / PD-US)
Many of Blaise Pascal's Pensees are 140 characters or less. (Wikimedia Commons / PD-US)

The imprudent tweet has endangered the career of many a professional—psychology professor and Congressman, to name two. Last week the University of New Mexico formally censured psychology professor Geoffrey Miller, who had tweeted in June, “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.” The tweet sparked outrage online that spilled onto the pages of the Atlantic.

(You already know about the ex-Congressman.)

Using Twitter, it seems, involves the following trade-off: in exchange for accessing a low-level stream of nonsense and chatter, you take on the risk of damaging your reputation permanently with the One Bad Tweet.

That’s why professor Brian Leiter advises graduate students, who already face perilous career prospects, to steer clear of public social media of any kind.

“The evidence is that first impressions are ‘sticky,’ and there is way too much risk that a bad first impression will be created by unfortunate or out-of-context remarks on social media, rather than a student’s work,” wrote Leiter on his popular philosophy blog, Leiter Reports, in response to a concerned graduate student’s request for advice.

A hiring committee member might overlook your brilliant, considered work on metaethics if he only recalls a gaffe like “Deontologists are full of crap screw you guys #TeamUtilitarian,” “So hungover during metaphysics lecture #YOLO” or “I think that Mitt Romney is a decent guy.”

Predictably, Leiter’s advice set philosophers atwitter on…Twitter. And, predictably, several of the tweets in response were under-thought and drew Leiter’s (likely permanent) ire,  promptly proving his point.

But philosophy professor Rani Lill Anjum, who maintains a list of philosophers on Twitter, sings the praises of Twitter. Initially a Twitter skeptic, she now encourages more academics to join her: for advice and encouragement, and even for help working through philosophical conundrums.

Twitter thinking is the opposite of philosophical thinking. John Campbell defines philosophy as “thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed.” Twitter, by contrast, is half-thinking at blinding speed. So why tweet?

The difference between Leiter and Anjum seems to come down to two issues: how well Twitter users are able to exercise restraint, and how well they can sift through the blather to find useful information. Anjum finds Twitter an “utterly friendly and supportive” place for philosophical discussion. But Leiter’s not buying it: ”Twitter is (by and large) a lot of childish noise, and I think only in the mind of twitter users is it shaping the world,” he writes.

That’s fair enough, but perhaps Professor Leiter underestimates the ability  of academics like Anjum to create a  Twitter world largely sheltered from the noise and blather. For Anjum, Twitter is a place where a bunch of philosophers share ideas and encourage each other, with negligible occasion to embarrass themselves. It’s a small but inspiring feat, and it’s worth pondering how other communities might replicate it online.

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Why the NSA Debate Will, and Must, Continue

The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing. (Wikimedia Commons)
The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Obama’s decision to close embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa has added yet another twist in this summer’s NSA revelations saga. Lawmakers who have been briefed on the terror threat are calling it credible, specific, and alarming, according to the Washington Post.

But civil libertarians are alarmed that these threats will create a climate of fear in which the debate about the NSA’s vast data collection will be scuttled.

Glenn Greenwald, the reporter-activist who has served as a megaphone for revelations about and criticisms of U.S. government surveillance activities, went so far as to suggest that the embassy closings could be an effort to distract from the heightened scrutiny. He told Democracy Now,

Here we are in the midst of one the most intense debates, and sustained debates, that we’ve had in a very long time in this country over the dangers of excess surveillance, and suddenly an administration that has spent two years claiming that it has decimated Al-Qaeda decides that there is this massive threat that involves the closing of embassies and consulates throughout the world.

Even if we trust that the embassy closures are well-justified, we should still protest loudly when the specter of terrorism is used to distract from a vital civil liberties debate. Conspiracy or no, the embassy closings provide an all-too-easy way for NSA defenders to cudgel surveillance skeptics. That’s the real scandal, and it’s one we’ve seen before.

“These [NSA] programs are controversial, we understand that,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “But they are also very important … If we did not have these programs, then we simply would not be able to listen in on the bad guys.”

He was just one of several Congressional supporters of the NSA making the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the NSA.

Granted, not all lawmakers painted in as broad strokes (“these programs”) as Chambliss did. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) admitted that one of the more controversial NSA programs, the collection of cell phone metadata, was not necessarily involved in detecting the Al Qaeda plot. “You have to be careful how much you represent that any particular program has contributed to our security,” he told CNN.

Even if the NSA’s vast surveillance powers helped us “listen in on the bad guys” to prevent an attack, this fact should not weaken any truly principled concern about government snooping. The question has never have been, “are the NSA programs intrusive and useless?” but rather, “even if they are useful, how much privacy are we willing to sacrifice for the security they bring?”

Rep. Justin Amash, to his credit, pivoted directly from the embassy threats back to Constitutional liberties:

“It’s precisely because we live in this dangerous world that we need protections like the Fourth Amendment,” he told Fox News. “The framers of the Constitution put it in place precisely because they were worried that you could have national security justifications for violating people’s rights.”

“Chatter” is the word of the week—it refers to intercepted Al Qaeda messages. But it also describes our degraded conversation about civil liberties, in which the first hint of danger can shut down any scrutiny of the national security state.

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Justin Amash: Snowden Is a Whistleblower

Flickr / cc. Photo by Gage Skidmore
Flickr / cc. Photo by Gage Skidmore

A Republican Congressman told Fox News yesterday that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower, and not a traitor—another clear example of the shifting conversation on civil liberties on the Right.

Fox host Chris Wallace, clearly skeptical, asked Justin Amash of Michigan directly: “You still consider him a whistleblower?”

“Yes,” replied Amash.

Amash stressed that Congress could not provide effective oversight without Snowden’s revelations: “Members of Congress were not really aware … about what these programs were being used for, the extent to which they were being used.”

Late last month, Amash proposed an amendment to strip funding for an NSA program that collects the telephone records of people in the United States. While the amendment failed–narrowly–the vigorous debate it prompted exposed deep divisions in both parties in the NSA debate: it’s not Republican versus Democrat but civil-libertarians versus security hawks. As Jim Antle explained in TAC,

While the Tea Party was split down the middle, with many conservatives bucking the party leadership, civil libertarians on the left also revolted…Republican leaders can’t control the libertarians in their midst and are starting to conclude it’s better not to try. Civil libertarians in the Democratic Party are no longer allowing Barack Obama’s presence in the White House to keep them silent.

According to a Quinnipiac poll released last Thursday, a majority of U.S. voters agree with Amash’s recent comments: 55% percent of respondents say Snowden is “more a whistleblower” than traitor, 34% “more a traitor.”

Particularly interesting is the shift in Amash’s own party that these polls have highlighted. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the Republican demographic has been one of the most drastically changing in recent years. In 2010, 72% of Republicans said counterterrorism did not go far enough, which had fallen to 46% by this summer. And according to last week’s poll, Republicans almost mirror national sentiment: 51% of Republicans label Snowden a whistleblower.

Crucially, the poll was conducted before Snowden accepted asylum in Russia. Whether that will change the public’s mood remains to be seen, but Amash remained circumspect on that question: “He may be doing things overseas that we would find problematic, that we would find dangerous. We will find those facts out over time,” he conceded. “But as far as Congress is concerned, he’s a whistleblower. He told us what we needed to know.”

Nor have the recent al-Qaeda threats and embassy closings changed Amash’s mind; if anything, he says, these dangers should reinforce our wariness of expansive government powers:

“It’s precisely because we live in this dangerous world that we need protections like the Fourth Amendment,” he said. “The framers of the Constitution put it in place precisely because they were worried that you could have national security justifications for violating people’s rights.”


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The Politics and the Science of Disputing Evolutionary Psychology

From 'Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements' (Eadweard MuyBridge, 1887). Wikimedia Commons
From 'Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements' (Eadweard MuyBridge, 1887). Wikimedia Commons

There’s a brawl going down on the internet over the validity of evolutionary psychology. On defense for evolutionary psychology: biologist Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, possibly the most eminent evolutionary psychologist. On the warpath: PZ Myers, a developmental biologist, who argues that “most of the claims of evolutionary psychology are fallacious.”

Though Myers’ main line of attack centers on data and methods, the long and contentious political debate over Darwinian social science gets dragged into the fray.

While that argument has raged for decades, this century’s round opened with Steven Pinker’s classic The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, famously knocked down a naive “blank slate” theory of human nature: namely, that human behavior and preferences are entirely shaped by culture and thus endlessly malleable. Though it’s less widely held by actual scientists, Pinker demonstrated how influential Blank Slate thinking has been in the humanities departments, popular culture, and political philosophy.

Locke’s tabula rasa undermined the dogma and authority of aristocratic social systems, since it meant that no man inherently possessed any more wisdom or virtue than others–only what experience imparted. And indeed, the modern versions of the Blank Slate were bolstered by an appropriate wariness of ugly Darwin-justified racism and sexism.

But the Blank Slate is also a great foundation on which to build catastrophic social engineering schemes (Mao Zedong said “It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written”), as well as a wall behind which to hide PC shibboleths. Some racial strands of political thought have latched onto evolutionary theory, but certain strands of conservatism have welcomed the insights of evolutionary psychology because they reinforce the conservative intuition that human beings are not as malleable as the many on the Left want them to be.

That’s presumably why “Secular Right” plugs The Blank Slate in their reading list and Thomas Sowell praises it as anathema to “attempts to mold and control others.”

More recently, Peter Lawler’s New Atlantis essay, “Moderately Socially Conservative Darwinians,” argues that evolutionary psychology “reinforces the conservative lesson that we are not merely autonomous individuals but also social and relational beings.”

And so, unsurprisingly, politics gets dragged into the latest spat as well. Coyne accuses skeptics of evolutionary psychology of being motivated by ideology and politics:

Like the opponents of sociobiology thirty years ago, these skeptics object to the discipline because they see it as both motivated by and justifying conservative political views like the marginalization of women [!!]

Myers (who is an anti-theist and certainly no conservative!) brushes this aside:

I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us.

Even as Myers, Pinker and Coyne march into battle over methodology and assumptions about neuroplasticity and epigenetics, the specter of old political battles will hang over them. Scientific disputes inevitably bleed into political disputes, and vice versa, often with scant regard to logic. That doesn’t mean that we should shout down any scientists who attempt to overturn our political assumptions, assumptions to which nature is wholly indifferent.

So it’s perhaps useful here that Coyne, Pinker, and Myers are all secularists and atheists, showing that the disputes over evolutionary psychology are not a mere proxy war for other politics, but a genuine controversy over how the scientific community can account for our human nature.

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Reza Aslan, Fox News, and Bulverism

You’ve probably seen a clip of it already: Fox News aired a cringe-worthy interview of the author of the latest Jesus tell-all book on Friday, much to the delight of many on the internet. In the now-viral interview, Fox News anchor and religion correspondent Lauren Green shows zero interest in the arguments or content of scholar Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Instead, she leads off the interview with “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan’s eyebrows threaten to rise right off of his face, but he comports himself honorably in a painful ten-minute conversation that never moves past this misguided line of questioning: “It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”

But even if Green’s line of questioning weren’t laced with xenophobia, ignorant about the purpose of scholarship, or breathtakingly incurious, it would still be problematic. There is a deeper philosophical problem behind focusing on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument the following: Reza Aslan brings personal biases and prejudices from his Muslim faith to his study of the historical Jesus; the liberal media is breathlessly excited by Aslan’s book, even though it merely rehashes debates that have been going on in historical Jesus studies for decades, because that media tends to be hostile to traditional Christian faith.

In fact, there may very well be reason to believe those things. But to think that they have anything to do with the merits of Aslan’s arguments about Jesus is to engage in a logical fallacy that C.S. Lewis called Bulverism. He explains:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly… Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.

Bulverism a great way to score points while getting no closer to the truth, and it comprises perhaps 95% of writing about religion on the internet.

If you’re actually interested in Zealot, you shouldn’t care about Aslan, or Fox, but about the man from Galilee: what was he like? what did he teach? was he the Christ? If you’re looking for answers to that question, Aslan’s Muslim faith, Fox’s hostility, and any number of dreary facts about America’s cultural grievances are strictly irrelevant.

Textual criticism and and historical methodology can be boring and hard. Questioning motives and feigning outrage is always fun and easy, and serves as a particularly shallow way for people to engage in intellectual triage. That’s why interesting subjects only suffer when they get dragged into the culture wars.

And it’s why I’m going to try to keep reading my way through Zealot, as well as more orthodox takes like NT Wright‘s.

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Jonesing for Relief from Port Protectionism

Jacksonville, Florida, brings in coal from Colombia rather than West Virginia. Livestock farmers in Texas buy grain from Argentina instead of from America. Puerto Rico’s port at San Juan is losing shipping volume, even as the Port of Kingston in Jamaica is gaining it.

Why? Because an antiquated maritime law, the Jones Act, requires that all transport of cargo between two United States ports be carried by ships that are U.S.-owned, U.S.-built, U.S.-manned, and flagged in the United States.

That is, a ship from South Korea cannot go to Hawaii and then to San Fransisco. Foreign ships could not help with the BP oil spill cleanup without waivers.

William Keli’i Akina, the president of the Hawaiin think tank the Grassroots Institute, likens the law to a hostile blockade against Hawaii and Puerto Rico. But the vested interests that defend it—U.S. vessel owners, shipyards, unions, overland transporters—are so powerful that the last five presidents have all vocally supported it. Don’t expect repeal any time soon.

But some vivid illustrations of the law’s deep illogic in recent years have gained national attention. The act’s original purpose—in 1920, under the specter of German U-boats—was to ensure a “dependable” merchant fleet for the next “national emergency.” Nowadays, the Jones Act is the first thing to go in an emergency.

After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush waived the act for nineteen days.

During the BP oil spill, the Department of Energy offered a blanket waiver to buyers from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve—they could haul away the crude in any foreign-flagged tankers. When the White House got word of this, Obama’s advisors were “reportedly furious” (the administration switched to a case-by-case waiver program).

Everything about that episode supports the Washington Post’s summary of the law: “The Jones Act may or may not have achieved its original purpose, but shipping businesses and labor unions love the way it shields them from foreign competition.”

And that’s why repeal of the act is all but politically impossible. It’s a textbook example of rent-seeking: the benefits accrue to entrenched vested interests, while the harms are dispersed broadly and imperceptibly.

But Akina is optimistic that incremental reform of the Jones Act can gain momentum as a political cause. Puerto Rican politicians are increasingly vocal about the harms of the act to their island; Hawaiians question its role in sustaining a shipping duopoly on the island; Alaska has successfully carved out useful exclusions for certain industries.

In addition, the death of Senator Inouye of Hawaii, a consistent and powerful Jones Act supporter, “loosened the grip” of the law in Congress, says Akina. “I think it’s a great opportunity to seek reform.”

And last, and probably least, there’s a steady media drumbeat of Jones Act-bashing.

Consider this the most recent beat. Akina stresses that Jones Act reform could be a broad-based non-partisan cause, due to the act’s sheer clumsiness.


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The Church You Doubt, the Church You Love

fascinating New York Times article about doubt in Mormonism suggests that crises of faith are widespread not just among the marginally committed, but also the true believers and leadership. It points to a survey of more than 3,300 Mormon “disbelievers” released last year that found that over 40% of respondents had served in leadership positions.

Possibly more interesting than the survey itself, however, is the man who conducted it: John Dehlin, a graduate student at Utah State University, the founder of the “Mormon Stories” podcast, and himself a traveler in the gray area between faith and doubt in Mormonism.

When Mr. Dehlin went through an acute crisis of faith ten years ago, he felt there were few people he could turn to to help him, due to the stigma of doubt and disbelief.

Now, his mission is to create more acceptance inside Mormonism for people struggling with the historical and doctrinal problems of Mormonism–anguished souls like the respondents to his survey who write pleas like, “Please make sure the Church encourages its believers to avoid ostracizing a fellow member for such member’s disbelief” and “I try to participate so that our family can be together at church, but it is so hard when there is such a negative attitude towards people who have lost belief.”

(Mr. Dehlen’s survey defines “disbelievers”— perhaps problematically—as people who once believed but now deny that the Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” a key statement of Mormon belief.)

Post-crisis, Mr. Dehlin himself seems to deny that teaching. “I do believe in God,” he writes, “(though I don’t quite know what that means)”

And I believe that while God’s inspiration can often be found within the LDS church, I also see God’s inspiration in most churches, in nature, and wherever love and goodness abound (including amongst scientists, atheists, etc.).

I have no idea how much of “the gospel” is true/literal, and how much of it is symbolic/metaphorical.

However, like 20% of the disbelievers who filled out his survey, Mr. Dehlen also attends church weekly, where his bishop and stake president are aware of his activities and encourage him to remain active.

His current position is a strange mix, then, of skepticism and a desire to help people deal with contradictions in Mormonism. As he enumerates those contradictions in a video on his website, he pauses to assure his viewers, “There are believers who know all this, and who have found ways to have this not disrupt their testimony.”

His approach manages to draw anger from both sides: by believers who see him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and by ex-believers who see him as an accomodationist and coward.

“It seems the purpose of the board is to lovingly coax people out of the church, all while making them feel really great about it,” writes one commenter. “It’s a very misleading site…”

On the other hand, some who have left Mormonism see no good reason for him to still be sticking around.

Dehlin, for his part, wants the Mormon church to thrive—and to him, that means mostly sticking with the same orthodox beliefs he rejects. “I don’t want the church to fill up with members like me,” he says. “I don’t think that’s good for the church.”

“I’ve read enough about Judaism to know that a church can’t thrive with predominately liberal members. Historically speaking, my understanding is a church needs a strong core of orthodox and orthoprax members to stay healthy and vibrant.”

This strange admixture of beliefs—a disavowal of the orthodox teachings of his church paired with fierce loyalty to the institution; a desire to help doubters stay in the church as liberals paired with hope that plenty of orthodox remain left over—is baffling, perhaps incomprehensible for outsiders to Mormonism.

And unfortunately, I could not speak to Mr. Dehlin for as long we would have liked. He had to leave for church.


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Do the Boy Scouts Hate the Overweight?

The chattering class is not happy with the Boy Scouts.

This Monday, thousands of Boy Scouts gathered in West Virginia for the National Jamboree, 10 days of camping and outdoor activities like rappelling, canoeing, and biking.

That’s about as good-ol-fashioned Scouting as it gets, in contrast with a year so far filled with public debate and strife. This June, the Scouts voted to allow openly gay Scouts youths while continuing to exclude openly gay leaders—thereby inviting scorn from all sides.

Yet even the Jamboree has become yet another occasion for Scout-shaming, as the word has gone out that the Scouts are persecuting their heftier members. In accordance with a policy announced two years ago, Scouts with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher have been excluded from the Jamboree, and Scouts with a BMI of 32 to 39 had to submit additional health information before being cleared to participate.

David Plotz, online editor of Slate, pegs the BSA as all-purpose discriminators (“Since they allow gay scouts, they had to find someone else to exclude”), while Lesley Kinzel, in the longest and most outraged critique of the policy, huffs:

It seems that the organization is trying to model itself on the boys’ most feared middle-school bullies, gamely prowling the halls between classes and ensuring that no boys exhibit the slightest inkling of weak, unathletic, or “girly” behavior.

Just like the Boy Scouts assume gay folks cannot possibly serve as good leaders and role models for kids, they also assume that all fat people—or rather, people with a BMI over a certain level—can’t walk a couple miles up a hill.

First, a quibble: anyone one who’s participated in Scouts knows that it consists largely of fat kids walking up hills.

Furthermore, a brief consideration of the policy shows that neither its effects nor its intent should be construed as fat-shaming. As J. Bryan Lowder, himself an Eagle Scout, points out, while BMI is a flawed measure of fitness, any teenager (as opposed to NFL lineman) with a BMI over 40 will almost certainly be unable to participate in or enjoy the Jamboree. And for the Scouts in the gray area,

I agree…that the higher scrutiny on BMI is out of whack, but having been to scout camp many times, I also doubt that the screening will be as harsh in practice as it sounds on paper. Scout leaders and site staff want, above all, for as many scouts as possible to have fun and be active, and so if there is a way for an obese scout to participate in a given activity, they are going to try to find it….

Nor is the emphasis on physical fitness in place to “shame” anyone:

Scout camps are usually remote and difficult to access, meaning that if a health crisis or injury does occur, it can be exceedingly difficult to get the victim to a hospital. Having seen a fellow scout airlifted by helicopter out of a gorge after falling during a climb, I can attest that this is a real concern that has nothing to do with shaming anyone.

The BSA’s national commissioner, not exactly a willowy figure, even publicly challenged himself to get in shape for the jamboree! Even if clumsily framed and articulated, the policy clearly comes from a spirit of concern and motivation, and not out of meanness—no matter what people would like to believe about the Scouts.

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The Consequences of Living with Afghanistan’s Culture of Child Sex Exploitation

For over a decade, NATO troops have been bewildered and outraged at the practice of pederasty in Afghanistan. This is one of the reasons that, several years ago, the American military recruited anthropologists to help the military navigate Afghan culture.

Like many anthropologists, Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago was deeply skeptical of the program, fearing that his academic colleagues would put a friendly face on violent occupation. But then he heard an NPR story about anthropologists working with the military, and wrote this for the New York Times:

Nevertheless the military [anthropologist] voices on the show had their winning moments, sounding like old-fashioned relativists, whose basic mission in life was to counter ethnocentrism and disarm those possessed by a strident sense of group superiority. Ms. [Montgomery] McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” and do some “hanky-panky.” “Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming. [emphasis added]

Granted, Professor Shweder and his fellow anthropologists are right and good to challenge “a strident sense of group superiority.” But countering “moral judgments” is anything but a “winning moment” when it involves older men having “hanky-panky” with young boys—what we in the West call child rape.

While the main victims of this practice are the children, encountering this cultural practice takes a considerable toll on US service members, despite the efforts of cultural sensitivity trainers.

Take Major Bill Steuber, who returned earlier this year from Sangin district, Helmand province, where he worked closely with Afghan local forces. While he made significant progress on challenges like fuel logistics and rule of law, he says, he could not crack down on the pervasive problem of his Afghan counterparts in the national police keeping “chai boys.” (In a VICE documentary filmed during his deployment, Steuber pleads in vain with an Afghan police chief to arrest commanders who are keeping boys on police bases.)

“I have a lot of guilt with that,” Steuber says. Even though he “did everything, wrote every letter, screamed up and down the chain of command,” he made little headway: “It’s not that people didn’t care. It’s just a problem that was so prevalent and culturally ingrained that it was literally just like pushing a boulder up a mountain with that issue.”

And at the end of the day, he believes, the military won’t jeopardize the entire mission by harping on the child abuse issue and potentially alienating its Afghan partners.

Steuber emphasizes that cultural training is important, helpful, and necessary. “But I refused to accept,” he says, “on an intellectual level, what the anthropologists and cultural advisers were telling me.”

I wear the uniform of the Marine Corps. And by wearing that uniform, and wearing that flag, I am therefore a proxy of the American people. Regardless of the culture we are fighting in, and helping to support, we do not tolerate those things. We as a people stand for individual freedom and liberty, and the protection of those people who are not strong enough to protect themselves…

So I told my men: be true to yourself. Be true to what your community, your parents taught you. If you see something that you would not tolerate at home, do not tolerate it over here. I never ask them to compromise their values over what some anthropologist thinks is Afghan culture.

Practically speaking, though, cultural relativism will likely prevail. It would be preposterously optimistic to think that, while helping a corrupt government fend off a shadowy insurgency in one of the poorest countries in the world, the US military could do much to “impose their values” against culturally sanctioned child sexual exploitation.

But that form of cultural relativism is not “heartwarming.” It is a scandal and a shame.


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The Tyranny of Not Being Clear


An important concept in psychoanalytic theory is castration anxiety, the fear of emasculation. The French theorist Jacques Lacan, one of the titans of 20th-century philosophy, used the imaginary unit i to elucidate this idea:

The erectile organ can be equated with the √-1, the symbol of the signification produced above, of the jouissance [ecstasy] it restores–by the coefficient of its statement–to the function of a missing signifier: (-1).

In Europe, intellectuals such as Lacan, Foucault, and Sartre have traditionally enjoyed a much more prominent place in public life than intellectuals in America. They go on TV shows. Or the cameras come to them and they hold forth, shirtless, in bed. On the continent, especially France, philosophers can be celebrities. It’s also true that European philosophers (and those working in “continental” philosophy) are typically more abstruse and obscure than America and England’s analytic philosophers, who prize clarity of argument.

The Open Culture blog flags the Lacan passage above as part of a fantastic post, wherein they suggest that it’s no coincidence that continental philosophers are both celebrated and ferociously difficult to understand. Instead, the obscurity is part of the reputation. So argues the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum in a critique of Judith Butler, who writes in the French poststructuralist style:

Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma.

Nussbaum and Open Culture are on to something important. Far too many bewildered undergraduates are made to suss out the arguments of thinkers who, in all likelihood, have not made a good faith effort to put forth a coherent argument. If you can’t understand Lacan above, the odds are it’s not your fault: it’s Lacan’s.

Although it may be delightful to see thinkers like Lacan and Slavoj Zizek savaged, it’s also important to note that there is a necessary and proper place for obscurity and difficulty. There’s no rule of reality that says everything should be explicable in simple, precise language. The world is complicated, so our theories will have to be complicated–quantum mechanics comes to mind. But what is important is the good-faith effort to make yourself understandable, to make claims that can be defended or refuted.

Daniel Dennett calls for an appropriate balance between continental showmanship and the austere analytic style in his latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking:

There is a time and a place in philosophy for rigorous arguments, with all the premises numbered and the inference rules named, but these do not often need to be paraded in public. We ask our graduate students to prove they can do it in their dissertations, and some never outgrow the habit, unfortunately. And to be fair, the opposite sin of high-flown Continental rhetoric, larded with literary ornament and intimations of profundity, does philosophy no favors either. If I had to choose, I’d take the hard-bitten analytic logic-chopper over the deep purple sage every time. At least you can usually figure out what the logic-chopper is talking about and what would count as being wrong.

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Routine Child Rape by Afghan Police

An Afghan Local Police commander stands watch during combat operations in the Sangin district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 28, 2013, during Operation 38 Eagle. (defenseimagery.mil / Wikimedia)
An Afghan Local Police commander stands watch during combat operations in the Sangin district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 28, 2013, during Operation 38 Eagle. (defenseimagery.mil / Wikimedia)

In December 2012, Maj. Bill Steuber heard that three boys had been shot dead while fleeing the Afghan police headquarters. A fourth was shot point blank in the knee as punishment for trying to escape.

Steuber, a U.S. Marine in charge of the police advisory team in Sangin district, Helmand province, marched into the office of Qhattab Khan, the assistant district chief of police. Journalist Ben Anderson filmed the exchange for the new stomach-churning documentary, “This Is What Winning Looks Like.”

“Why was there a boy on that police base?” Steuber asks Khan, “What did that commander say to you?”

There’s sadness and anger in Steuber’s voice, because he already knows the answer: police commanders routinely abduct young boys to serve as “chai boys,” house servants who are also kept as sex slaves.

This extent of child rape in Afghanistan is hard to measure, but it’s a practice widely attested by journalists, human rights investigators, NATO soldiers, and Afghans themselves. As the White House considers how to wind down the war in Afghanistan, it’s worth reflecting on one of the saddest, most sordid of aspects of that sad and sordid war.

In 2009 the Defense Department was concerned that NATO soldiers were bewildered and outraged by the sexual practices of Afghan civilians and soldiers: seeing old men trying to fondle young boys, being shown cell phone pictures of children by their Afghan counterparts. The military commissioned an anthropological study, “Pashtun Sexuality.” In 2010 the San Fransisco Chronicle reported on the study’s findings:

For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means “boy player.” The men like to boast about it.

“Having a boy has become a custom for us,” Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. “Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”

The authors of “Pashtun Sexuality” venture that the practice of bacha baazi is a function of a culture of extreme fear of female sexuality. The Chronicle article cites a 29-year-old who told a reporter, “How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face?…We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful.”

The State Department has called bacha baazi a “widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape.” For instance, one military intelligence reservist related a story about an Afghan colonel who stood before a judge after he hurt a chai boy by violently raping him: “His defense was, ‘Honestly, who hasn’t raped a chai boy? Ha ha ha.’ The judge responds, ‘You’re right. Case dismissed.’”

Cracking down on this practice is nearly impossible, as the main culprits are often the very law enforcement and military personnel that the U.S. works alongside. In the documentary “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” (2010), police officials insist that sex traffickers of young boys will be arrested; later that day, two of the same officers are filmed at a bacha baazi party.

“I have told them not to keep them,” Khan insists to Major Steuber. Despite the fact that one of the boys tried to poison a police chief, he maintains that “these little boys stay willingly in the patrol bases and offer their asses in the night.”

Major Steuber proposes a joint raid the next morning to apprehend the child molesters. Later that night, it’s cancelled at the last minute by the Afghans. According to the documentary, Khan has since retired and no one has been charged or arrested.

“Try doing that day in, day out,” Steuber tells the camera later, “working with child molesters, working with people who are robbing people, murdering them. It wears on you after a while.”

Khan seems considerably less concerned.

“If they don’t f–k the asses of those boys, what should they f–k?” he asks at one point. “The p—–s of their own grandmothers? Their asses were used before, and now they want to get what they are owed.”


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The Conservative Agnosticism of George Will

With his signature bow-tie and aristocratic manner, it’s easy to picture George Will warbling hymns every Sunday in the pew of some old marble church in Georgetown.

The long-time conservative columnist majored in religion as an undergraduate, and follows religious debates with interest. Will has defended the unborn, and opposed the death penalty; he regularly excoriates the pro-choice movement, and gets worked up over the contraception controversy with Catholic institutions.

So you could be forgiven for pegging Will for a Catholic—or at least, Episcopalian or  Anglican.

But you would be wrong. Here’s Will, in a new piece for National Affairs, entitled “Religion and the American Republic”:

I approach the question of religion and American life from the vantage point of an expanding minority. I am a member of a cohort that the Pew public-opinion surveys call the “nones.” Today, when Americans are asked their religious affiliation, 20%—a large and growing portion—say “none.”

In an era when American conservatism is often confused with religiosity, a top conservative pundit’s confession of unbelief is startling. (Granted, Will has declared his unbelief before, though somewhat reluctantly and upon questioning, on The Colbert Report in 2008.)

Will’s recent admissions recall his 2005 column called “The Christian Complex” in which he urged Bible-thumping Republicans “not seem to require, de facto, what the Constitution forbids, de jure: ‘No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.’”

Will’s latest essay continues this defense of unbelievers in American politics: He argues that an individual’s faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God. He colors his arguments with tidbits about our heterodox founders: Washington would not kneel to pray or take communion; Adams was a Unitarian; Jefferson cared not whether his nephew’s studies “end[ed] in a belief that there is no God.”

Par for the course, so far, for a public nonbeliever; you can find similar arguments at your local Center for Inquiry. But from there, Will travels ground seldom tread by today’s avowed unbelievers: he warmly praises American religions both for the democratic impulses they impart and for the intermediary role they play between citizen and state. And if natural rights don’t require religion, they are “especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.”

The nones of America should “wish continued vigor for the rich array of religious institutions that have leavened American life,” he concludes.

Here Will differs sharply from today’s professional nonbelievers, who regard religious belief with something akin to revulsion, and who channel the old progressive view that religion must be eclipsed for humankind  to secure a long and prosperous future. The George Will model combines unbelief with a fondness for religion, not a fear of it.

Will’s increasing openness about his doubt mirrors an increasing acknowledgement of unbelief in American public life, also reflected in recent presidential remarks reassuring America’s churchless that “If you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship.”

The president offering this olive branch to the heathens among us? Not Barack Obama, but rather the man who prompted so many dark prophecies of theocracy: George W. Bush.


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Atheist and Christian Monuments, Side by Side

Rembrandt's Moses with the Ten Commandments / Wikimedia
Rembrandt's Moses with the Ten Commandments / Wikimedia

The first atheist monument on government property in America was unveiled earlier this week in front of a courthouse in rural Florida, and a creationist preacher would be glad to see more like it pop up.

More atheist monuments would be “great,” Eric Hovind told The Christian Post, because “It’s opening up dialogue and providing a place for people to come and reason together…”

Hovind‘s attitude is admirable, not everyone was in such a socratic mood on the monument’s inaugural day:

As a small group of protesters blasted Christian country music and waved “Honk for Jesus” signs, the atheists celebrated what they believe is the first atheist monument allowed on government property in the United States. …

About 200 people attended the unveiling. Most were supportive, though there were protesters, including a group from Florida League of the South that had signs that said “Yankees Go Home.”

How the monument—a bench attached to a granite pillar inscribed with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists—came to be there, echoes other cases where non-believers have used an “us too!” tactic when challenging religious displays.

The Ten Commandments statue was installed in 2005 by a local Christian group called Community Men’s Fellowship. A local named Daniel Cooney enlisted the help of American Atheists, a ” friend with a big stick,” as he put it, to challenge it. According to a settlement agreement between Florida’s Bradford County and American Atheists, the area is a free speech zone, so any group may post a display.

This isn’t the first time a challenge to a religious display has brought not removal but counter-display, opening something of a Pandora’s box.

When a Pennsylvania school district allowed the Ten Commandments to be posted in school libraries, they were soon joined by the Wiccan “Cycle of the Goddess,” a history of gay rights, the Baha’i “Golden Rule,” and a pamphlet on atheism.

This summer,  American Atheists questioned the presence of Gideon’s Bibles at a Georgia state park cabin. Gov. Nathan Deal defended their “firm legal footing” thus:

“These Bibles are donated by outside groups, not paid for by the state, and I do not believe that a Bible in a bedside table drawer constitutes a state establishment of religion…In fact, any group is free to donate literature.”

As in the Florida free speech zone, the group took Deal at his word, and is currently collecting atheist materials such as God is Not Great and Why I am Not a Muslim to donate.

American Atheists admits that if they could, they would have no monuments at the courthouse rather than many, no books in the cabins rather than a whole library. The “me too” tactic is meant merely to push back against a defense of public displays of religion solely on free expression grounds.

Whether this tactic represents a temporary tactic or long-term trend, it’s certainly creating some interesting scenes along the way. And while the Southern League’s antics are more likely to attract national attention, hopefully more people will follow the example of Community Men’s Fellowship, who wrote:

We want you all to remember that this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don’t be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It’s their right. As for us, we will continue to honor the Lord and that’s what matters.


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Reviving “The Great Agnostic”

Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum / Wikimedia
Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum / Wikimedia

High school student Sarah Henry came from Kentucky to Washington, DC, to preach blasphemy this past Sunday.

“The improved man will believe only in the religion of this world,” she told an audience of some fifty heathens at James Hoban’s Irish Bar near Dupont Circle:

He will have nothing to do with the miraculous and supernatural. He will find that there is no room in the universe for these things. He will know that happiness is the only good…and that to do the things (and no other) that add to the happiness of man is to practice the highest possible religion. His motto will be: “Sufficient unto each world is the evil thereof.”

It was Henry’s first time competing in the Robert G. Ingersoll Oratory Contest, in which contestants deliver the speeches of nineteenth-century America’s “Great Agnostic.”

Ingersoll was a Civil War veteran, Republican power broker, and vocal critic of organized religion. You probably haven’t heard of him, but the purpose of the contest is to fix that. Steve Lowe, who started the annual contest in 2009, says he and other DC-area secularists want to revive the legacy of a great American “freethinker” who has been unjustly forgotten by history.

A superstar on the lecture circuit, Ingersoll was quite probably the most-heard speaker of the Gilded Age, surpassing even Mark Twain and presidents. His “Plumed Knight” endorsement speech for James Blaine in 1876 became the gold standard for nominations. He packed lecture halls with angry clergy, curious Congressmen, and common folk alike.

As eleven contestants took to the podium on such subjects as “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child” and “Is the Old Testament Inspired?” it became clear why Ingersoll was so popular: his speeches are high-minded without being overwrought, and shot through with a humanist humor and joie de vivre that are scarce in the New Atheist polemics, now that Christopher Hitchens is gone.

In the voice of contestant Mike Schmidtmann, Ingersoll took an editor’s pen to the 10 Commandments: “If Jehovah had been civilized he would have left out the commandment about keeping the Sabbath, and in its place would have said: ‘Thou shalt not enslave thy fellow-men.’”

In Ms. Henry’s chosen speech, Ingersoll preached Front Porch Republicanism:

The Improved Man will find his greatest joy in the happiness of others and he will know that the home is the real temple. He will believe in the democracy of the fireside, and will reap his greatest reward in being loved by those whose lives he has enriched.

In the spirit of the great socializer Ingersoll, once winners were decided—Ms. Henry, the youngest contestant, snagged 1st place and $250—the group retired to the bar.

Ingersoll’s star is on the rise, with the recent publication of Susan Jacoby’s widely reviewed The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Alan Jacobs tweaked it here at TAC). As Jacoby notes in the book, one of Ingersoll’s lasting intellectual contributions was to restore the godless Thomas Paine (“that filthy little atheist” to Teddy Roosevelt) to prominence among the founding fathers.

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Do You Know the Bible?

In one of the most ingenious interviews of “The Colbert Report” (at 5:00 below), Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) tells Stephen Colbert about legislation he co-sponsored to have the Ten Commandments displayed in both houses of Congress.

“The Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and respect,” Westmoreland explains.

Colbert deadpans: “What are the Ten Commandments?”

“What are all of them?” Westmoreland asks, dread creeping into his eyes. “You want me to name them all?”

It’s so embarrassing it’s hard to watch: Westmoreland ums and ahs through a few before admitting, “I can’t name them all.” (Quick quiz: can you?)

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently had his own Westmoreland moment. Lamenting the neglect of biblical principles in American life, Brooks wrote,

In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. …”

That this sentence didn’t catch the eye of Brooks or his fact-checkers denotes a basic ignorance of the New Testament, as Jesus did not travel to Greece. (The author of the quote is Paul, who did).

Alan Jacobs and friends had some fun with Brooks’ error this week:

The last time the Times flubbed a Bible quote, Eric Metaxas went into full-on culture wars mode:

In the world of Manhattan cultural elites, the Bible is mostly thought of as a quaint and useless artifact…Is the secular bias at the Times so pervasive that it has affected not just the writers but the fact-checkers too?

The Times is “out of touch with middle America,” he wrote.

It’s easy to beat up on Brooks, but there is in fact little indication that “middle Americans” crack open the Good Book much more than those “cultural elites” who fact-check the Times.

In recent nationwide survey, nearly a fourth polled believed that “the values and morals of America are declining” due to “a lack of Bible reading,” and 56 percent said the Bible should have a greater role in American society. But how many read the Bible regularly? About a fifth. As Christianity Today put it, Americans revere their Bibles so much that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition.

David Brooks, House Republicans, and everyday Americans alike love to appeal to “Biblical principles” or “Judeo-Christian morality.” Actually reading the Bible, not so much. As the Virgin Mary told the Thessalonians, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”


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The Temptation of Neuroscience

Undecided voters lay inside a sleek fMRI machine in late 2007. The magnetic coil pulsed, scanning the blood flow in their brains. Images of Hilary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, and other primary contestants flashed before their eyes.

The UCLA neuroscientists and Washington political operatives who ran the study presented their findings in a New York Times article, “This Is Your Brain on Politics.” The “voter impressions on which this election may turn” were displayed in a colorful slideshow of (statistical combinations of) brains: here the medial orbital prefrontal cortex is orange, indicating an “emotional connection” with Democrats; here the amygdala flashes, betraying anxiety about Mitt Romney.

At an American Enterprise Institute panel event last Monday, psychiatrist Sally Satel told the audience that this story alerted her to just how vulgarized neuroscience was becoming in popular culture.

“It really was a bit of a fiasco,” she told NYT columnist David Brooks, who was moderating a conversation with Satel and psychologist Scott Lilienfeld. “The fact that something lights up doesn’t mean you hate Hillary Clinton, or you’re going to vote for someone else. It almost read like a parody, the way they had boiled it down to an almost stick figure kind of narrative.”

It’s the “stick figure narrative” that’s being formed out of neuroscientific research and inserted into law, politics, and culture, that Satel and co-author Lilienfeld seek to dismantle in their authoritative, accessible new book Brainwashed: the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.

The wild exaggeration of neuroscience—both of specific findings, and of the field’s primacy in understanding human nature more generally—has drawn the ire of savvy bloggers and tome-writing intellectuals for years. The exposure of Jonah Lehrer, neuroscience’s most prominent popularizer, as a plagiarist and a fabricator also occasioned a critical look at the popsci genre he championed. But Satel and Lilienfeld’s book may represent the high water mark of anti-pop neuroscience writing so far: it is widely reviewed, and Brooks plugged Brainwashed in his weekly New York Times column. (Brooks freely admits he himself has succumbed to neuromania: “I wrote a book a couple years ago of mindless neuroscience, and it did really well!” he quipped at the AEI event.)

Anti-pop neuroscience, as opposed anti-neuroscience, is the key distinction. Satel and Lilienfeld want to clean up the riffraff because neuroscience done right is a sophisticated and promising field of inquiry. They are not here to argue, as Brooks did in his recent column, that the mind is not the brain, or even that we have free will outside of the causal chain of our neural firings.

Rather, the uses and abuses of neuroscience are more illustrative as a story of our tendency to get ahead of ourselves. Our perennial thirst for elegant mechanisms and overarching narratives, noble in its own right, can lead us to take lazy shortcuts and place our hope in the Next Big Explanation, whether phrenology, Freud, or Freakonomics. Culture, history, and politics are complicated, confusing, and mostly boring. With the recent successes of neuroscience, it’s easy to wish that the chatter of narratives, prejudices, habits, and emotion could be replaced with the clinical pings of the fMRI machine.

But for now, at least, it would seem that neuroscience has a long way to go before it supersedes our other ways of knowing: “This Is Your Brain on Politics” identified two 2007 candidates who had failed to fire up the neurons of swing voters, indicating impending trouble for their campaigns. They were John McCain and Barack Obama.


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Egypt’s Blasphemy Laws–Still a Bad Idea

It’s a strange variation on a common theme in post-revolution Egypt: the country’s burdensome laws against blasphemy are being used to punish anti-Christian hate speech.

A hard-line Muslim cleric received an 11-year suspended sentence Sunday for tearing up and burning a Bible, Egypt’s official news agency said.

Cairo’s Nasr City court sentenced Ahmed Abdullah and his son was given a suspended sentence of eight years over the same incident, the Middle East News Agency reported. The two were ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($700). The ruling can be appealed.

Abdullah ripped up a Bible and burned it during a Sept. 11 rally by ultraconservative Salafi Muslims in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, protesting an anti-Islam film produced in the United States.  (AP)

In Egypt’s Islamist tilt, these laws have increasingly been applied against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, a religious minority comprising about ten percent of the country. Earlier this month a Coptic Christian lawyer, Rumany Mourad, was sentenced to one year in prison for “defamation of religion” on the basis of a private conversation he had at a law library with two of his Muslim colleagues. Hearings in the case were reportedly “characterized by a heavy presence of Islamist lawyers and their supporters,” one of whom suggested the death penalty, reports Amnesty International.

Last Tuesday, an elementary school teacher, Dimyana Obeid Abd Al Nour, 24, was fined US$14,000 after her students accused her of praising the Coptic Pope and disparaging Mohammed in the classroom.

A Coptic activist asked at the time of Al Nour’s imprisonment, “Why is defamation of religion a one-way street, only for the benefit of the Muslims, while Christianity is defamed every day?” He pointed out that Ahmed Abdullah’s public Bible defamation had gone unpunished.

His question is a fair question, but not the right question. With Abdullah’s conviction, Egypt’s blasphemy laws have been used, for once, to protect Christians from hate speech instead of censure them, but this is no cause for celebration. Blasphemy laws themselves, and not their application, are the problem.

“This ruling is bad,” says Nina Shea, a Hudson Institute scholar who has written a book about blasphemy laws. “The whole blasphemy regime is bad. Minorities get prosecuted disproportionately, and it’s a way of shutting down debate. You could say, ‘Well, burning Bibles, burning Korans should be off limits.’ It never seems to end there. It’s a slippery slope towards banning ideas about religion and expressing rejection of religion.”

“It’s tempting for religious people to be demanding,” she says, noting that as a religious person she finds Abdullah’s actions abhorrent. “That’s the problem, though—it creates sectarian sense of grievances.”

“They think that they can gain greater social peace if the government regulates speech against other religions,” she explains. “Usually that is not the case—just the opposite, it creates jealousy and grievances.” When one religious group sees a member convicted of blasphemy, she explains, it can use that precedent to call for the prosecution of another group.

Moreover, once the government takes a role in regulating religious expression, it rarely sticks to policing the extremes. “The temptation is always to go further to curtail speech and expression,” explains Shea. “You can’t contain this once you go in that direction.”

As tempting as it may be for Egyptian Christians to feel relief at receiving seeming equal protection under the law, no one should praise this ruling. The equal prosecution of blasphemy is at once far too low, and impossibly difficult, a standard to keep.

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The Banality of Good

With the release of the new biopic “Hannah Arendt,” about the political philosopher’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, you can expect to be hearing a lot of Arendt’s concept “the banality of evil.”

Arendt famously saw in Adolf Eichmann (one of the key logistical organizers of the Holocaust) not a raging anti-Semite who delighted in murder, but a pencil-pusher who became a workaday tool of genocide merely by unreflectively and diligently following orders.

Critics of Eichmann In Jerusalem believe that Arendt, a great thinker but incompetent court reporter, was duped by Eichmann: Eichmann was in fact a racist true-believer, as were thousands of his countrymen, who did not “blindly” follow orders but became “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Furthermore, Ron Rosenbaum has urged the abandonment of the banality of evil on more general grounds: it denies the reality of conscious, willful, knowing evil.

But apart from the specifics of Eichmann and the Holocaust more generally—a still-raging debate I dare not touch—Barry Gewen reminds us why the “banality of evil” is in fact an important concept, a call to action:

Arendt’s approach was unyieldingly universalistic. Her analysis of Eichmann was a demand for individual responsibility, an insistence on the need constantly to exercise personal choice, whatever society might dictate. This is a cold ethic, as severe as Kant’s, so difficult it has a quality of the inhuman about it. For who among us can maintain the unceasing moral awareness she calls for? [emphasis mine]

The citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a largely Huguenot village, rescued over five thousand Jews from Eichmann’s ilk in occupied France. But this was by no means inevitable: when the town’s church community tried to secure promises to help the anticipated stream of refugees, the townspeople largely refused. As James C. Scott recounts in Two Cheers for Anarchism (reviewed for TAC here), they only changed their minds when the Jews began to arrive:

The pastors’ wives found themselves with real, existing Jews on their hands, and they tried again. They would, for example, take an elderly Jew, thin and shivering in the cold, to the door of a farmer who had declined to commit himself earlier, and ask, “Would you give our friend here a meal and a warm coat, and show him the way to the next village?” The farmer now how had a living, breathing victim in front of him, looking him in the eye, perhaps imploringly, and would have to turn him away…

Once the individual villagers had made such a gesture, they typically became committed to helping the refugees for the duration. They were, in other words, able to draw the conclusions of their own practical gesture of solidarity—their actual line of conduct—and see it as the ethical thing to do. They did not enunciate a principle and then act on it. Rather, they acted, and then drew out the logic of that act. Abstract principle was the child of practical reason, not its parent.

Francois Rochat, contrasting this pattern with Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” calls it the “banality of goodness.”

The pastors’ wives answered Gewen’s question: Who can maintain unceasing moral awareness? None of us—our moral reasoning fails us constantly. We need, it would seem, to have our neighbor constantly put before us, his suffering shown to us.

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