Monday, October 30, 2006

The Neoliberals Seek Their Revenge For Questioning the Market God

This week, The New Republic's two editorials were both on the illegal immigrant debate, and how it's shaping the upcoming election. Peter Beinart, TNR's editor-at-large and pseudo-expert on Islamofascism (The Good Fight), takes the opportunity to take a jab at Thomas Frank, somewhat inexplicably, on this front.

"Who is the most left-wing commentator on mainstream television?" Beinart asks in this week's TRB column. "Keith Olbermann? Bill Maher? Not even close. I'm talking about a man who says both parties are 'bought and paid for by corporate America,' and calls lobbyists 'arms dealers in the war on the middle class.'"

Beinart goes on waxing poetic: "This latter-day William Jennings Bryan denounces the 'corporate supremacists' in Congress who write 'consumer-crippling bankruptcy laws, pass job-exporting free-trade deals, and raise the interest on college loans. He peppers his economic analyses with quotes from the labor-supported Economic Policy Institute. And he recently called the GOP's effort to link a minimum-wage hike to a repeal of the estate tax 'obscene.' I refer, of course, to Lou Dobbs."

Now, it should come as no surprise that, in the high-stakes ratings game of the 24-hour news networks' ongoing struggle for infotainment supremacy, an anchorman would stake out demagogic positions sure to appease the philistine masses eagerly eating up another day's worth of outrages. Anderson Cooper played the sensitive type at Katrina; Geraldo played badass in Baghdad; Bill O'Reilly tackles the real issues facing America (i.e., berating lawyers representing child sex offenders; does the guy even talk politics anymore? Did he ever?); so why should Lou Dobbs--formerly of Moneyline fame--be any different, and how exactly does this relate to Thomas Frank?

Apparently, because this is exactly the sort of person Thomas Frank has been demanding.

"For years, writers like Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas[?], have argued that what liberalism needs is a strong dose of populism. From Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace to Bill O'Reilly, the modern American right has defined itself against cultural elites. Liberals, Frank and others argue, must fight fire with fire: attacking economic elites with as much gusto as the populists of old."

Now, ever since the 1990s, The New Republic has repudiated its leftier past and embraced a Clinton-centric brand of neoliberalism: free markets, free speech, free elections. It's a perfectly valid philosophical position (and a much older one than Clintonism: Britain's The Economist was founded on the principle that free markets would help end slavery, and across the pond, "liberal" remains synonymous with free-market ideology), but sometimes--as Frank's own journal, The Baffler, has pointed out--the good-sense philosophy of liberalism gets wrapped up in an ideology every bit as compelling--and self-deluded--as Communism or Fascism. (Don't take the comparison too far, though: we're talking ideology, not its outcome; I don't want to overstate my case here.) And this is where Beinart is coming from: a paranoid, marginalized neoliberal front that is looking to lose--and lose hard--in upcoming elections, as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party starts flexing its muscles (Beinart used this same space back in August to defend Joe Lieberman against exactly this sort of payback). So Beinart here is really just fearmongering and smearing political opponents to his left as The New Republic's coterie struggles to survive in a rapidly changing political environment.

"So why aren't liberals cheering? Because, for Dobbs, taking on corporate America means taking on corporate America's thirst for illegal-immigrant labor. Dobbs is downright obsessive about the issue, and he isn't above nativist scare-mongering--calling Mexican illegal immigrants an 'army of invaders' who are bringing leprosy and malaria across the Rio Grande."

Sadly, as Beinart goes on to note, some are (Mother Jones, In These Times, but then who ever accused them of being good?). But the riposte to Frank is disingenuous.

As I've mentioned a number of times before, I find it strange how the political establishment responds to Frank; it's as if they can't accept that a liberal isn't a true-blue Democrat politico through-and-through. I don't mean to claim that Frank's some sort of visionary (What's the Matter With Kansas? is good, but not that good), but it's as if the commentariat refuses to accept that his book wasn't about what Democrats should be doing in order to win, so much as about trying to change the political discussion away from singing the praises of the free market and generating a healthy dose of skepticism regarding its shortcomings. Frank has plenty of scorn for Clinton, too; after all, it was Clinton and his neoliberal cohort that oversaw the rise of a faith-based market liberalism that Frank once dubbed "the God that sucked." Franks' thesis in What's the Matter With Kansas? had precious little to do with Democrats at all; instead, it was the story of how moderate (not populist) Kansas Republicans were overthrown by extremists. The extremists rose to power on the backs of the religious, blue collar right, but were beholden more to the rabidly anti-government, anti-tax, economic libertarian right. Frank argued persuasively that by using wedge issues to excite an evangelical base, right-wingers were overthrowing moderates while conversely working against the economic interests of their base and never actually coming through on their socially conservative promises to end abortion.

But when the D.C. commentariat read it, what with their inability to see politics as anything but an electoral struggle between Dems and Republicans, they saw it as a story of how Republicans were baiting-and-switching, and a call for Dems to appeal to economic populism to win elections. And given neoliberals' (like those at TNR) fear of retreat from economic libertarianism, that scenario was to be avoided like the plague. Hence Beinart's smug criticism of Frank's supposed populist position. Talking heads like Beinart fail to note that some of the heroes of Frank's book are moderate Republicans, honest politicians taken down by populist demagoguery and brutal electoral tactics (including anti-Semitic smear campaigns). And this is the same guy Beinart claims wants Democrats to engage in populist rabble-rousing? I think he confuses Populism with populism; Frank does have a lot of fondness for his state's Populist past (and it's true that the former more than occasionally engaged in the latter), but it stems largely from nostalgia for a time when the people stood up for economic equality against entrenched business interests.

So Beinart tries playing the immigrant card; good-hearted liberals, after all, are all on the side of immigrants, whilst economic populists, riled up by job-insecurity, are out for blood. It's an unfortunate fact that this is often the case, but not insurmountable for liberals of Frank's persuasion. The mistake Beinart makes it playing off electoral politics against questions of intelligent policy.

"[M]any Democratic challengers are staking out immigration positions to President Bush's right. And Democratic incumbents are doing the same thing. As The New York Times has noted, 62 Democrats backed the House's enforcement-only immigration bill this September, up from 36 who supported a similarly tough bill last year. And, in the Senate, a large majority of Democrats just voted to build a fence along the Mexican border. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg recently told The American Prospect's Harold Meyerson, the themes working best for Democrats this year among rural voters have 'a strong nationalist component,' particularly on 'trade and immigration.'"

For a neoliberal, it's bedlam, and for a decent liberal, it's disappointing to see the Democrats playing the race-card (no white Polish plumbers for us; the economic line here is also a skin-color one). But we need to be careful to distinguish intelligent economic policy that runs contrary to the neoliberals' agenda from simple demagoguery and race-baiting. In this case, the neoliberals are full supporters of immigrant workers to feed the economy's need for cheap labor. The magic of the New Economy, after all, was the juggling act between keeping growth high and inflation low, by making sure that the labor market never got too constricted so that it would push up wages. Neoliberals like Beinart love this stuff; folks like Thomas Frank and myself know full well that this magical agreement meant that the benefits of economic growth never made it to the majority of workers. In the last few years, we've heard a lot about the economic recovery (since the 1999 tech bubble bust) that denied gains to workers while stock prices and corporate profits exceed the halcyon days of the late 1990s. But that rests on the myth that the economic boom of the 1990s benefitted workers more than our current recovery. Increasingly, the reality that the boom of the 90s didn't pass on any real economic gains to most American workers is being established by academics like Jacob S. Hacker (The Great Risk Shift; a nice review appeared in the Times Book Review this Sunday). In fact, the real wages of American workers have remained stagnant since the mid-1970s, so our current lackluster recovery doesn't mark a shift from so much as an extension of the way the economy has distributed wealth across demographics for the last 30 years.

So what does that mean? Well, it means that immigrant laborers are being screwed by being paid lower wages than Americans (and sometimes lower than the law allows), and the average American worker is being screwed because our jobs are being lost to lower wage workers, who are, as before, being screwed themselves. Does that sound like we're on opposite sides here? The neoliberals implicitly accept the good deal we get from immigrant labor; certainly they want ro curb abuses of migrant workers and expect a living wage, but fundamentally their position is, "Demand for these workers exists for a reason; let's not be hypocritical and respect that economic demand." They may criticize the president's plan for worker visas as not going far enough, but they don't support labor's attempts to change up the system by forcing companies to pay a living-wage to immigrant workers--that, after all, would mitigate the benefit of having them in the first place.

So this really is a situation in which the little guy loses out and the companies make huge profits; politicians then play the little guys off one another to win elections, and the companies get off free. I say, put the immigrants on the same level as natural-born Americans, prevent exploitative labor practices, and the demand for illegals begins to drop and a competitive labor market exists that does workers a lot better than the system we have now, which to one degree or another the neoliberals support. Fine the hell out of companies for employing illegal immigrants (why always the double-standard when it comes to tough-on-crime tactics with regard to corporate America?) and stop American companies from taking advantage of migrants and, in the process, putting Americans out of jobs. Beinart can't--or doesn't want--to see this; he's in love with the fairy tale that magically, this horrid situation will wind up benefitting everyone. The way of equitable economic policy does not necessarily lead to nationalist demagoguery; it's a low electoral tactic and nothing more, and we shouldn't let neoliberals like Beinart convince us to throw the baby out with the bath water.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Cranky Old British Scholars Duke It Out Over Jesus

The day after writing the previous post, a response to The New York Times Book Review's review of Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, I opened my mailbox and low and behold, there's another review of it in the new issue of The London Review of Books by Terry Eagleton, the eminent literary critic.

As I've written before (long before), I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Eagleton. For every startlingly brilliant essay I read by him, there appears another pretentious, ill-informed rant that I find plain objectionable. This new review falls into the latter category. First, I must point out that Eagleton is not only a clearly brilliant man and thinker, but also an extremely fine writer; there's something about older British academics--perhaps rote memorization of the classics--that makes their writing an immense pleasure to read. I might be revealing my innate literary nerdiness here, but it reminds me of those great introductory essays you can get in older Penguin editions of the classics, written in the Fifties or Sixties, which I always loved reading for some reason. Frankly, it's this quality that Dawkins has in common with Eagleton, and at their best they're rapier wits, their writings replete with rhetorical brilliance so painfully lacking in American writing; at their worst, they're pompous old whiners.

What I find so objectionable in Eagleton's review ("Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching," LRB Oct. 19) is a tendency I've noted in some other liberal/leftists commentators on religion (I wrote at length about Leon Wieseltier's tendency some months ago); they defend religion through an elegantly intellectual lense that abstracts religion so far from the lived experience that it renders it alien to most of its followers. And by "lived experience" I mean nothing more than how your average church-going Christian experiences religion in the US (and, I would imagine, Britain).

"There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice," writes Eagleton of Dawkins failure to appreciate the complexity of Christian theology and the philosophical problems associated therewith. "For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion."

He continues:

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

Personally, I find this passage hilarious; here you have an erudite scholar of literature demanding of an evolutionary biologist that he be able to respond to two 13th Century theologians, one of them far more obscure than the other, and then demands, outraged, "Has he even heard of them?"

Yes, yes, I get it: the history of Christianity is marked by brilliant thinkers and respectable scholars, the Gospels and Old Testament are often beautiful and even sublime works of literature. And I grant you, perhaps Dawkins went to far in trying to explain away religion's origins, moving too far from his comfortable scientific sphere to write a weakly defended polemic. But again, as I wrote in the last posting: Is it necessary at all for Dawkins to respond to Aquinas or be aware of Moltmann (additionally, note Eagleton's pretentious use of a last-name only reference to a work as though it should be general knowledge what that refers to; he is, you must admit, a brilliant writer) to disprove religion? Sadly, no, it is not; biology and physics have dealt a swift and fatal coup de grâce with no ostentatious hand-wringing or severed-head waving, and no amount of prognostication by scholars dropping names left and right, claiming each deserves special attention before any final call can be made, can change that.

"Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?)" writes Eagleton.

Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Fair enough, but a strangely relativist position again, and a potentially semantic one; here, Eagleton tries to defend religion against Dawkins' attack by turning Dawkins' own skepticism back on him. His anecdote about love is actually rather weak, I think: it's all fine and dandy to tell your bank manager you love some girl and him to believe; in the absence of contradictory information, why not? Tell him she's beautiful and shwo him a picture, well, he's got something more to go on than your word. Religion is like the love anecdote and that's a lovely thought; science is like the picture anecdote and, while arguably subjective, has a factual basis stronger than the prior anecdote. When the two conflict, then, I think I could say which one I believe would trump the other. Prof. Eagleton should remember that faith is not only that which survives doubt and skepticism, but potentially that which turns a blind eye to the truth and fact. A wife may have faith in her husband's fidelity, but it's a less generous thing to say about her when the two of you are outside the door of cheap motel from where you can hear the bedsprings popping and the choir teacher's car is parked next to his in the lot.

And then, as promised, the utter abstraction of religion from lived experience: "Jesus, who pace Dawkins did indeed ‘derive his ethics from the Scriptures’ (he was a devout Jew, not the founder of a fancy new set-up), was a joke of a Messiah. He was a carnivalesque parody of a leader who understood, so it would appear, that any regime not founded on solidarity with frailty and failure is bound to collapse under its own hubris. The symbol of that failure was his crucifixion. In this faith, he was true to the source of life he enigmatically called his Father, who in the guise of the Old Testament Yahweh tells the Hebrews that he hates their burnt offerings and that their incense stinks in his nostrils. They will know him for what he is, he reminds them, when they see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away. You are not allowed to make a fetish or graven image of this God, since the only image of him is human flesh and blood. Salvation for Christianity has to do with caring for the sick and welcoming the immigrant, protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not a ‘religious’ affair at all, and demands no special clothing, ritual behaviour or fussiness about diet. (The Catholic prohibition on meat on Fridays is an unscriptural church regulation.)"

Wow. That's almost Borgesian in its ability to wander a labyrinth of concepts; I also find it doubtful that most Christians would initially warm to the idea that Jesus was "a joke of a Messiah." If they knew what "carnivalesque" meant, they'd no doubt object to that description, too, since as good, austere Protestants they've spend a century fighting every expression of the carnivalesque in American cultural life, nor would they--as true believers--accept Eagleton's nevertheless correct historicist reading of the Bible which separates the God of the Old Testament from the Jesus of the New, for of course mainstream Protestant Christianity largely holds that the Bible is all but the work of God's own hand, and their theology, whatever else, does not hold much room for that sort of interpretation. (These are, after all, the same people who support Israel on the grounds that its existence means the Second Coming is approaching, and that soon the Anti-Christ will appear and be mistaken for the Messiah by the Jewish nation; as more than one Israeli commentator has written of American Evangilical support of his nation, "With friends like these...")

Certainly Eagleton's correct that the defense of the weak against the will of the strong is a basis of Christianity both originally and in the contemporary, but I find it hilarious that we works his critical genius at the beginning of the paragraph, interpreting religious beliefs in a way much different from what many of that religion's followers would accept, only at the end to dismiss out of hand the prohibition against eating fish on Fridays, still held by many Catholics out of habit if nothing else. He's correct; I recall no passage in the Bible that said I couldn't eat fish on Friday, but what's hilarious is that when he describes Christian beliefs it has virtually nothing to do with how mainstream Christians think, and when he describes a mainstream practice that affects millions, he dismisses it out of hand. The man's completely out of touch.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Why Should Darwinists Care About Creationists' Feelings?

In the Sunday New York Times Book Review was a review of Richard Dawkins' new book ("Beyond Belief," Oct. 22), The God Delusion. Dawkins, for those unaware, is an almost rabidly atheist biologist at Oxford whose bibliography is extensive. He's undeniably a brilliant evolutionary biologist whose contribution to the field in undisputed, but in the last couple decades most of his work has been directed towards criticizing and debunking creationism and the theory of intelligent design.

What struck me about the review (I must admit to not having read the book, nor am I likely to) is Jim Holt's fairly typical sort of liberal elitism in treating the issue.

Yes, yes, I know it's not very fashionable to call the mainstream media elitist unless you're a right- or left-wing demagogue, but really, there is something to the idea. After all, you don't turn to a major newspaper for counterintuitive reasoning, and in the case of the seemingly never-ending struggle between science and religion, the liberal New York Times represents the worst tendencies of liberal elitists in this country. There's a sort of kumbaya attitude that suggests that if we could just live with mutual self-respect all of our issues could be water under the bridge, which seems to mask an intellectual pretension regarding the issue, much as the same as whenever a New York publication tries to appraise Nascar as though it were an exercise in cultural anthropology, filled with alien concepts and strange totems that can only be understood through lengthy, detached appraisement. You'd never guess, reading some 15,000-word essay by Jonathan Franzen or the like that Nascar fans even lived in the same country, let alone ate the same food, went to the same sort of churches and worked at the same companies as the readers of the article.

In his review of The God Delusion, Holt reaches for this point writing: "Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience. As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds."

Once I would have appreciated that point, and in a way I still do, but I think it stems from a more disingenuous set of tendencies in our culture than the rational criticism Holt pawns it off as.

Firstly, it's politically au courant amongst a certain set of American liberals to make good with Christians. The idea is that we have more concerns in common (healthcare, a balanced budget, education) than not (Iraq, Intelligent Design, Nascar), and that a reasonable electoral middle-ground can be found on the most contentious issues that divide the nation (pretty much everyone's been convinced that some restrictions on abortion are acceptable provided fundamental access is retained, and that gays should at least be granted some sort of civil union though marriage is, currently, off the table). This strategy jives well with the received wisdom of the day. Ever since Thomas Franks' What's the Matter With Kansas? was published, it's become "common knowledge" that Republicans win elections on a bait-and-switch program of appealing to social conservatives on issues like abortion and gay rights then carrying out a program of please-the-rich tax cuts and pro-business laws. (Never mind that Franks's book was not quite that simplistic or partisan, politicos and talking heads have an insatiable need to reduce all arguments to black-and-white, Dems-v.-Republicans logic.)

Secondly, it appeals to the centrist, libertarian and multiculturalist tendencies amongst the electorate to live and let live. Centrists are genuinely deferential. Multiculturalists (if they're not of the college-set) are genuinely deferential. Libertarians of course just want everyone else the hell out of their business, and more or less consistently support others' in their efforts as well, so long as it doesn't contradict with their own, at which point they seem to believe that dispute should be settled with a sort primeval struggle for survival of the fittest.

As I mentioned, at one point I shared Holt's opinion that critics like Dawkins are too strident and show too little understanding of others' beliefs. My introduction to Dawkins came following a growing interest in evolution and human migration spawned by the fascinating introduction of Jared Diamond's otherwise disappointing Guns, Germs, and Steel. More interested in human evolution than Diamond's case intensive arguments, I picked up Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. I, too, was turned off by his condescension and rhetorical fluorishes. He refers to even respectable attempts to prove the existence of God as "gloriously and utterly wrong." (No one has ever accused Dawkins of being a poor writer.)

But my opinion has changed somewhat over the years since. Whereas once I though deference was important, I now tend to feel that deference given is not exactly being returned. Perhaps I have been seduced by rage against the triumphalist excesses of the right, but in age in which the debate is over whether or not we're having a civilizational clash based on religion (Judeo-Christian west vs. Islam), my patience for those who demand respect and deference for their chauvinist religious beliefs has waned. Pluralism is fine, and I am an atheist by default rather than belief (I still question the verve with which some atheists rail against religion; surely a disbelief should not be able to inspire such virulence). But the chauvinist—these days everyone prefers the more loaded "fascism" as short-hand for the concepty—principles of many religious groups these days have pushed me away from a willingness to empathize.

This is certainly not entirely fair, and of course as I mentioned it is a personal response to the contemporary political situation. But a deeper sort of evolution has happened with my thinking on the issue, and it stems more from the politicization of the issue than from the politics of it, if that makes any sense. What truly disturbs me about the Christian right's embrace of Intelligent Design was not so much that it was an attempt to introduce religion into our schools but rather that it marked the rather startling embrace of cultural relativism by otherwise orthodox believers. That is, Intelligent Design asserts that the universe by its nature suggests an intelligent designer created it with a purpose. The identity of that designer/creator remains to be determined. In other words, as a political move to overthrow "materialism" in scientific education (as was described in the now-infamous "wedge document" published by the Discovery Institute here in Seattle, the center of Intelligent Design thinkers) and inject a religious element to the explanation of the universe, they were willing to compromise, asserting that (1) it was a theory comparable to evolution, and (2) that God was not the most important part of it. That comes dangerously close to putting us on a slippery downward slope to mediocrity, which in the end may have been the political strategy (they've never suggested, that is, that evolution be taught in Sunday school as an equally valid belief). I personally doubt the skepticism publicly expressed by Intelligent Design theorists who wanted to parade their supposedly scientific credentials. It was a political attack rather than an honest disagreement over ideas, and the philosophical precedent its success would have set in American education is horrifying in its potential to snowball out of control. If any group with a grievance can impose its beliefs as an equally valid explanation, well, then we could all actually wind up learning about Flying Spaghetti Monsters.

In such an environment of intellectual disenguousness and politicking, I now find it thoroughly reassuring that there's someone like Dawkins beating a dead horse and assailing his critics with vitriol equal to their own. Polite conversation is not a prerequisite for intellectual discourse, and the paternalistic shooshing our side perennially gets from the likes of Times book reviewers has grown tedious and counterproductive. It's reminiscent of Bill Cosby's infamous criticism of Eddie Murphy's use of the word "nigger" in his stand-up; Cosby thought it was bad for African-Americans to encourage the use of a derogatory term by using it publicly, no matter how they used it privately; Murphy simply responded that he didn't know he was still supposed to try to act good in front of the white-folk.

Lastly, what I find most exasperating is the tendency of the mainstream media--particularly in the wake of the Mohammed cartoon fiasco--to expect automatic respect for the other side. European Muslims humiliated themselves by rising to the bait; for good reason the likes of the ADL don't spend time responding to Holocaust-deniers: it just grants them credibility. Similarly, when people like Holt chastise unforgiving atheists like Dawkins for "failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be" automatically suggests they deserve philosophical consideration. My guess is--and I would agree with this point--Dawkins would say that starting from a purely logical train of thought, one does not need God or religion to explain the cosmos and the fact that something exists, whether it be matter or people. That story has little need of supernatural input or deus ex machina given contemporary science's successes. Therefore, Dawkins does not need to address the careful considerations of religion's role in society that Holt throws at him ("Many thinkers — Marx, Freud, Durkheim — have produced natural histories of religion," or "For those who want to understand the weaknesses in the standard arguments for God’s existence, the best source I know remains the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie’s 1982 book 'The Miracle of Theism.'"). That comes later, to explain why religion exists. Biological complexity may or may not explain the origin of religion, but religion is certainly not necessary to explain the origin of biological complexity. Holt, by assuming that we must start with responding to the fact that people have developed religion, holds Dawkins to account for failing to do so; that's a little too nonjudgmental in my view, and even if Dawkins is being polemical, a polemic based on science need not abandon its rational basis to make its point to give due credit to its opponent; in fact, to do so would be intellectually dishonest, something that Holt should perhaps consider with regard to his own middle-brow, pseudo-liberal multiculturalism.

For those who are interested in a very good essay rebutting Intelligent Design and who want to avoid Dawkins's tendentious prose, a highly recommendable article by Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago appeared in The New Republic in August, 2005: "The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Case Against Intelligent Design".

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Kettle, Meet Your Good Friend, the Pot

From "The Epilogue", by Ruth Franklin, in the Oct. 2 New Republic:

But victimization does not erase historical agency. Not only are victims still capable of criminal acts, but their victimization can sometimes function as the psychological foundation for their criminal acts. No matter what depredations have been perpetrated against a group, that group must still be responsible for its own actions.

This is from Franklin's obligatory monthly review of books on the Holocaust, but I was surprised that The New Republic had the balls to publish a passage like this; I wonder if they have the balls to apply the same sort of reasoning to the government and military of their precious Israel?

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