Monday, December 11, 2017

Roy Moore's movement to promote the Ten Commandments in American civic life

For years, there has been a movement to place large monuments representing the Ten Commandments outside U.S. courthouses. An activist in this movement is Roy Moore, who is currently running to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate in tomorrow's election (Dec. 12, 2017).

Roy Moore's monument

In August 2003, Alabama's Judicial Inquiry Commission suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore because he refused to obey a federal court order to remove a 2.6-ton granite Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama state judicial building. Moore claimed that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of U.S. law. "Moore installed the privately funded monument in the early hours of August 1, 2001, without consulting any of the other justices on the Alabama Supreme Court," according to CNN. He personally supervised the installation. Three Alabama attorneys claimed offense and sued in October 2001. In 2002, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in favor of the attorneys and, upon Moore's appeal, in July 2003 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of the attorneys. Moore was given a deadline of August 20, 2003 to remove the monument. A week in advance of that deadline, he argued: "It is not a question of whether I will disobey or obey a court order. The real question is whether or not I will deny the God that created us." Responding to a last-minute appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to involve itself in the case.

Moore did not comply with the order to remove the monument and he was suspended with pay. The monument was moved out of public view on Aug. 27 and, the next day, about a thousand supporters of Moore rallied at the building. Rev. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, addressed the crowd: "The separation of church and state is not in the Constitution." Dobson also complained about rulings against prayer in public schools, abortion rights, and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, attributed these rulings to "activist judge[s]" and said: "The symbolism as well as the substance of this moment cannot escape us. One federal judge has placed the Ten Commandments in a closet. That came after the United States Supreme Court recently welcomed everything else out of the closet." Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove offered to display the monument at the Mississippi capitol building for a week "to show support for our common Judeo-Christian heritage."

It was not Moore's first time doing this:

"Moore was a circuit judge in Etowah County, northeast of Birmingham, in the late 1990s when he fought a lawsuit seeking to remove a wooden plaque depicting the commandments from his courtroom.

The legal battle propelled him to statewide office in 2000, when the Republican jurist was elected chief justice after campaigning as the 'Ten Commandments Judge.'" [CNN, 8/28/2003]

Choosing a version of the Ten Commandments to display, Bob Minor wrote in 2003, “is to take sides in centuries-old battles between Protestants and Catholics as well as in the history of anti-Semitism” and, furthermore, to accept the final commandment in its entirety is to accept a definition of property that includes a man’s “slaves, his animals, his land, and also his wife.“

As a result of Moore's 2003 protest, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed him from office in November 2003.

He returned to the bench when he was elected Alabama's Chief Justice in 2012. The previous year, he had expressed interest in running for President, but his early campaign in 2011 did not succeed.

Influence throughout the nation

In 2003, the city of Casper, Wyoming voted to move a Ten Commandments monument out of a public park where it had been since 1965 and into a separate plaza to be dedicated to showcasing history. The city had been threatened with two lawsuits: one from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and one from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. The latter wanted to install their own monument in the park to announce that a gay victim of a hate crime was burning in hell.

In 2006, the Christian ministry Faith and Action built a large granite monument outside its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The headquarters are located behind the U.S. Supreme Court, and "the group's president said the tablets were angled so that justices arriving at the high court would see them." It was vandalized in 2013.

In 2011, in Ohio, Judge James DeWeese, upon being challenged by the ACLU, removed a poster of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and replaced it with a poster called “Philosophies of Law in Conflict” [see it here] that contrasted the Ten Commandments with the “humanist precept” of "moral relativism." The poster asserted that there are “only two views: either God is the final authority, and we acknowledge His unchanging standards of behavior. Or man is the final authority, and standards of behavior change at the whim of individuals or societies.” The 6th Circuit ruled against DeWeese, who was represented by Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. (The ACLU had previously sued DeWeese in 2000 and 2008 for similar displays.)

In 2012, two state representatives in Tennessee, Mike Bell and Matthew Hill, "introduced a bill authorizing counties and cities to set up displays of 'historical documents and monuments and writings' that have been 'recognized to commemorate freedom and the rich history of Tennessee and the United States.'" Bell said that "the Ten Commandments would be one of them." [read the bill] Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said that the other documents mentioned in the bill were already legal to display, so the bill was only aimed at permitting the display of the Ten Commandments. Lynn pointed out that Protestants, Catholics and Jews recognize separate versions of the Commandments; half of the commandments are not reflected in current laws; and it is "absolutely false" that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of the nation's law.

In 2012, Oklahoma City placed a 6-foot-tall granite Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol in late 2012. (Two years later, a man who claimed to be mentally ill and off his meds and on a mission from Satan pissed on it and drove his car into it, and then walked into the federal building and threatened President Obama and the federal government.)

In 2013, American Atheists designed a 1,500-pound granite monument for the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Fla. in response to a Ten Commandments monument that had been placed there the previous year by an organization called Community Men's Fellowship. Bradford County agreed to allow the atheist monument following court-ordered mediation. (The county's attorney said: "What the atheists agreed to is something they could have originally been approved for without a year of money and litigation.") The atheist monument was funded by Stiefel Freethought Foundation and was to have "quotes related to secularism from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair" and the Treaty of Tripoli. American Atheists director of regional operations Ken Loukinen said: "We'd rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the Ten Commandments, we will have our own." Community Men’s Fellowship posted a statement on Facebook acknowledging 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.” In 2014, Florida's Levy County, which already had a Ten Commandments monument outside its courthouse, denied a request by the local group Williston Atheists to build a monument similar to the one in Bradford County. The Levy County Commissioners said that the proposed atheist monument did not meet county guidelines because the quotations in the intended design were incomplete.

In 2017, a new Ten Commandments monument outside the Arkansas state capitol was intentionally destroyed by a man who drove his car into it. It was the same man who had driven his car into the Oklahoma monument several years earlier.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

'Invasion of the Body Snatchers': Vulnerability and American Identity

Originally posted 27 August 2007 to the JVoices blog which will be taken offline soon.

In Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, alien seed pods fall to earth, grow next to sleeping people, produce emotionless clones of their bodies, and finally destroy the original humans. It is impossible to distinguish a cloned body from the original body, except that something is behaviorally amiss: they show no facial expressions and take no interest in anything other than their assigned tasks. The clones seem to have no purpose except to cultivate more seed pods to grow more of their kind. To this end, they communicate with each other swiftly and ruthlessly, through unseen channels. Their goal is world domination. Occasionally they attempt to justify this to humans by explaining that they are relieving humanity of its suffering. Finney’s novel was quickly made into a sci-fi film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and spawned a color remake in 1978.

Many interpreted the story as a social or political commentary, particularly in the wake of McCarthyism, when neighbors suspected each other of being secret Communists. In his essay published in Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, Robert Eberwein points to the different zeitgeists of the original film and the ’78 remake, and suggests a meaningful distinction between the symbolism of the “pod people” in the first film–with their implication of being swept up by some diabolical mass movement and losing free moral agency–and those in the second film, which “concentrated on conformity and surrendering the capacity to feel”.

This year, 2007, brings us the special effects remake. Without even seeing The Invasion, the first thing we notice is that “Body Snatchers” has been dropped from the title. That’s because there are no pods or “pod people” anymore. The alien pandemic now strikes in the form of an illness that renders its victim unconscious to his or her former self, and yet walking, talking, and ruthlessly coordinating the infection of more humans.

The film has also been updated to reflect the current world security situation and the violence reported via television and radio news every day. We are reminded, at the beginning of the movie, that suicide bombs exploding in the Middle East are causing massive casualties, and there are diplomatic standoffs in North Korea. We also see a Russian and Czech diplomat sniping at each other at a dinner party. These sorts of concerns contrast with the relatively peaceful, domestic lives of the well-to-do, white American protagonists.

After the alien sickness descends and turns people into mindless automatons, the world situation flips upside down. The U.S. city portrayed in the film becomes the scene of riots and general lawlessness because of the infected pursuing the uninfected. The police are the first to cross over, and when they show up it is only to drag someone off to forcibly infect them, so no one is able to call for help. But everywhere else on Earth (if the television reports are to be trusted), infected people have installed an instantaneous and permanent peace with each other.

The difference could be explained with some midrashic effort. Perhaps the infected journalists deliberately painted a rosy picture of other countries, or perhaps it is possible for peace to be waged when only the highest government officials are infected with a virus that takes the form of mutual cooperation. But the film does not offer such explanations. What we actually see is a violent West and a peaceful East. And this is portrayed as an unacceptable, unnatural flip.

There are layers of “otherness” depicted in the film. One sort is nationality. We (Americans) eat breakfast with our families in nice clean kitchens; they (foreigners in the Eastern hemisphere) blow each other up. The other sort is the infection. We (humans) are unique, special, emotive; they (infected half-aliens) are uncanny and doll-like. These two sorts of otherness are interwoven in the following way: Normal humans are vulnerable and must endure daily life with a measure of fear. The infected humans lack this fear. Ironically, the humans fear losing their fear. Their vulnerability defines them; because of it, they exist and have identity. What they are ultimately most vulnerable to is the loss of their vulnerability. This vulnerability is also a peculiarly American theme, where, in the expected order of things, people from other countries are expected to actually be vulnerable and occasionally blow each other up, while Americans are only expected to feel vulnerable as part of their civic duty.

If McCarthyism was an interpretation for the 1950s, and social conformism was an interpretation for the 1970s, then a cultivated xenophobia in the name of self-preservation is an interpretation for 2007. Ever since the US suffered a terrorist attack, many have felt that the government and the media have tried to flash-freeze and cultivate fear in us. Six years later, the same enduring fear has started to become part of our culture and our very identity as Americans. Look how different regions respond to the alien invasion in the movie: the Middle East becomes quiet, Asia has peace treaties, but a continuous riot is launched in the name of catching the last remaining uninfected humans in the metropolitan United States and forcing them to be peaceful like everyone else on the planet. The horror! Run, don’t walk!

The aliens invaded. They came to bring peace. Peace stole our American identity. What is the identity and what is the mission we are trying to save?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Why the American president is a 'Despot's Apprentice'

According to Brian Klaas, who has studied despots and their victims in many countries, Donald Trump isn’t a despot — yet. He was democratically elected and is bound to the institutions of U.S. democracy. Yet much of what protects democracy are people’s expectations, not law. In “careening through the soft guardrails of American democracy,” the president “is corrupting political norms, as Americans gradually come to accept previously unacceptable behavior.” Ultimately the Constitution is “ink on a piece of parchment.” People must be responsible for upholding democracy.

How can we understand what Trump is doing and where he is leading the country? Klaas explains it in his excellent new book, The Despot's Apprentice, a lively and enjoyable read despite its grim diagnosis.

Distinguishing himself through unusually harmful deeds, hateful words, and useless noise

He does things that most other U.S. politicians of any party would never do. During the campaign, his staff tweeted an anti-Semitic meme of the Star of David, stacks of money, and the word “corrupt.” Trump never apologized; his Jewish son-in-law covered publicly for him. Trump attempted to prevent Muslims from entering the US, refused to release tax returns, criticizes Democratic opponents more severely than foreign leaders, and has refused to clearly condemn domestic hate groups. He has tweeted approximately 1,000 times about “ratings,” “crowds,” and “Fox and Friends” (a television show that “offer[s] only overwhelmingly positive coverage of his administration, even in the midst of its most egregious scandals”) but only 40 times about Afghanistan, 12 times about poverty, and about “human rights only once—to mock them”.

Sowing distrust of the press

Trump deliberately turns public opinion against journalists. As Klaas puts it, for a despot, “[w]hen you can’t bend the press to your will, the next best thing is to bend public opinion against the press itself.” In one poll, only 9 percent of Republican voters said they trust the press generally, and a large majority of Republican voters said they would trust information from Trump above information from longstanding respected news outlets (whether liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning).

In March 2017, Trump tweeted “Change libel laws?”, meaning he wanted to make it easier to prosecute the press for unflattering coverage, given that the New York Times has “gotten me wrong for two solid years.” Klaas pointed out that the complaint was about “’wrong’ analysis or interpretations of him” and not malicious or deceptive reporting. Prosecuting the press ought to be difficult to avoid a chilling effect; this is part of longstanding First Amendment interpretation. In June, Trump tweeted a threat against Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, to inflict sales tax on Amazon because he doesn’t like the coverage in the Washington Post. Another despot might think to threaten “something other than,” Klaas quipped, “a tax they already pay.”

The New York Times reported that a senior administration official discussed using the potential merger as “leverage” against CNN. “In other words,” Klaas said, “they are openly acknowledging a terrible conflict of interest—even embracing it, contemplating an egregious abuse of power—in order to threaten CNN into submission.” More childishly, Trump retweeted a video showing a person with “CNN” over his face being punched. The Internet user who modified the video had the word “Asshole” in his username and had also posted numerous comments “using the N-word and joking about killing African-Americans.” Trump thereby “amplified the voice of a racist who joked about murder while endorsing a culture permissive of violence against media representatives”.

Legitimizing outlets that lie

Years ago, Joseph Farah claimed that Democrats intended to open concentration camps, soybeans turn people gay, and Obama was born outside the US. Trump connected with Farah and promoted the so-called “birther” conspiracy theory about Obama. Trump also appeared on InfoWars which has claimed “that the parents of twenty young schoolchildren who were murdered [at Sandy Hook] made the entire thing up as part of a government conspiracy” and he has retweeted “people who peddle bogus conspiracy theories like the now infamous Pizzagate hoax, which falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC pizzeria.”

“It goes without saying that the president should never be even remotely tainted by such people,” Klaas said, much less encourage them.

More subtly, after a press conference in Riyadh featuring Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, American journalists had to rely on “a transcript from Saudi state television. In this absurdist twist, the world’s most powerful democracy had to rely on journalists from one of the world’s most brutal autocracies—one that lacks a free press—in order to report on a press conference featuring a US secretary of state.”

Telling his own lies

"In modern American history, no president has ever told so many easily debunked lies in such a short period of time," Klaas asserts. In this book he spends a lot of time explaining different types of lies and different motivations for them.

In the 2016 election, the popular vote went to Hillary Clinton. These votes were cast legitimately by American citizens, according to everyone who has looked into it, including Trump’s lawyers. It is Trump himself who insists, without evidence, that immigrants voted fraudulently. (Of course, “40% of American adults didn’t vote at all,” and therefore “[a]pathy beat Trump by 10 points”.) His electoral college win was fairly narrow yet he asserts otherwise. Lest we mistakenly believe that Trump cares in general about the validity of democratic elections, we must note how quick he was to congratulate the Turkish president Erdogan on his 2017 “win” of a rigged election and accept Trump’s own explanation of his “conflict of interest” in matters concerning the Turkish president due to owning property in Istanbul.

Six months into his presidency, when Trump claimed that he’d signed more legislation than any president since Harry Truman, he had in fact “signed fewer bills than Presidents Clinton, Carter, Truman, and FDR,” and none of them were the ten pieces of legislation that, as candidate, he’d promised to implement within his first 100 days as president “as part of his ‘Contract with the American Voter.’” Twelve of the 38 bills he'd signed simply “renamed buildings or memorials, made low-level appointments, or were procedural tweaks.”

In July, after giving a speech to the Boy Scouts of America “in which he thanked the children attending for voting for him (they can’t vote)” and then telling them about an orgy on a yacht, he said that “the head of the Boy Scouts had called him to say that ‘it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.’ This was untrue," Klaas writes. "The Trump administration later acknowledged that no such call had happened.”

Trump continues to insist on the guilt of the Central Park Five in a crime that occurred in 1989, “ignoring clear and acknowledged evidence that he was wrong about a clear-cut racist miscarriage of justice,” after DNA evidence and a confession pointed to someone else and the Central Park Five have been released.

The consequence of so much lying is to normalize it and make it a joke. Sean Spicer, Trump's former spokesperson, appeared on the Emmy awards in September, joking, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period...’” It was a reference to the first and perhaps most famous lie Spicer was instructed to tell: that more people had turned out for Trump’s inauguration in Washington than for anyone else’s inauguration, even though aerial photography, police records, and subway records indicated otherwise. The fact that Spicer could transform his lie into a public joke alarms Klaas. “When you live under the cloud of an incompetent government that routinely lies, jokes are a common coping mechanism,” Klaas explained, noting that he’s seen it “firsthand while living in authoritarian states.”

Sowing distrust of courts, intelligence agencies, science agencies, and the Congressional Budget Office

As a candidate, Trump said that a judge should recuse himself because of his “Mexican heritage,” which Paul Ryan called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Trump was “encouraging the public to believe that the courts and their representatives are not independent arbiters of law, but biased by their own race and therefore untrustworthy.”

Intelligence agencies determined that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Trump ordered them to find Iranian noncompliance within three months so that he would have a reason to back out of the deal. It is dangerous, Klaas notes, when intelligence agencies are asked to give "politically motivated findings rather than dispassionate, objective ones.” The information is already distrusted based on partisan identity. A poll in June found a Republican/Democratic split among the American public: Democrats accepted “the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community” that Russia interfered in the US 2016 election, while Republicans rejected this information.

Under the Trump administration, an EPA climate scientist was reassigned as an accountant. In August, “a group of scientists leaked their latest climate change report to The New York Times before it could be buried by the Trump administration. That’s a truly shocking canary in the coal mine—when researchers from thirteen government agencies, including NASA feel the need to leak the latest findings of a clear scientific consensus for fear that their government would refuse to publish it.” In September, Trump picked Rep. Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a climate change denier with degrees in business and psychology, to lead NASA.

He casts doubt on the “independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office” (“fake news” according to the White House, “deep state” according to Newt Gingrich), even though Trump’s own Health and Human Services secretary hired a Republican to lead it, so “it’s hard to see how it would be biased against the Trump administration.” Reports like the CBO’s “serve a crucial function in a democracy: they are the legislative scorekeepers that everyone can trust.” Today, however, “undercutting the gravitas and authority of independent institutions is crucial to eroding democracy and amassing greater power.”

Shrugging off other countries’ violations of human rights and democracy

As candidate, Trump publicly “mocked the international condemnations” of the 1988 chemical attack that killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja. He also endorses torture, which is “a crime under both international and American law” and “despite just about every military official in the United States disagreeing” that torture yields usable, accurate information.

Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016 as president of the Philippines, promised that he would assassinate journalists and give police impunity to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office. Under him, police have indeed been killing people in the street, and some people have been tortured. The European Union has condemned Duterte, but Trump gave Duterte a personal phone call to compliment his approach to crime.

Before Trump took office, he swore he would not allow Putin to invade Ukraine, something Putin had already done years previously. When a talk show host pointed out to him that Putin kills journalists, Trump responded on air, ”I think our country does plenty of killing also,” adding of the assassinations, “I haven’t seen any evidence,” and that Putin “hasn’t been convicted of anything.” (Most authoritarian despots are not convicted of their crimes, Klaas helpfully notes.)

While the European Union tried to push Poland toward better democratic principles, Trump chose to “endorse Poland as a model for the West” because, according to Klaas, he preferred Poland’s “good optics with rapturous crowds chanting, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’...he sold out democracy in a friendlier major European nation, in exchange for a good photo opportunity.”

Nepotism and conflicts of interest

Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner know about “jewelry design, how to run a fashion business, or New York real estate development,” yet are leading the way on “counterterrorism, trade deals, and how to cope with the threat of a nuclear North Korea.” Ivanka did not even register to vote in time to vote for her father in the presidential primary. Between the election and inauguration, she tried to sell access to herself for a coffee date for tens of thousands of dollars (before being forced to call it off as it violates political ethics). She was given the formal title “Special Assistant to the President” despite the Trump Transition Team having said she would not get a title. Klaas compares Ivanka Trump’s role to that of Gulnara Karimova and talks about Trump’s nepotism having reached a level

“unfathomable in other functioning democracies. It’s hard to imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel or British Prime Minister Theresa May surrounded by a cadre of men in uniform, jockeying for influence against a daughter and son-in-law. This is banana republic stuff. If this staffing pattern existed in some other country, with generals being hailed as saviors rescuing the people from the civilian leader, alarm bells would be going off for every pro-democracy monitoring group in the world.”

Klaas also discusses “a core tenet of democracy: that public service should be dissociated from private interest.” These conflicts of interest play out in numerous ways. “But at least Americans never had to wonder,” Klaas said, “whether Clinton failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide because he was worried about Clinton Tower Kigali, or whether Obama failed to stand up to Assad in Syria because his daughter Malia had a clothing line pending in Damascus.” In April, Trump’s family hosted China’s President Xi for dinner at their private resort. Ivanka Trump’s brand sells shoes that are manufactured in China, and, during that dinner, China approved the sale of new Ivanka products. In July, Trump praised Xi “hours after prominent human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobao died in China while in state detention for his outspoken pro-democracy, pro-human rights views”.

Anything else?

In addition to all the despot-in-training approaches above, Trump exploits the fact that “[p]artisanship has become more about tribal identity than about disagreements on how to govern American society,” and he wearies people with the sheer number of onslaughts “because you can’t fight 100 battles all at once. Citizens are forced to pick and choose.”

The conclusion by the author, an expert in despots, is that Trump is uncomfortably similar to one and can swiftly lead the country down the path to authoritarianism if ordinary citizens are not careful and do not make a greater effort.

Published in the US on Nov. 14, 2017, this book is a timely accompaniment to the neverending cascade of scandals besetting the president. If there is a book of similar quality challenging this argument or its conclusions, I am not aware of it. No need to "Buy Ivanka's Stuff," but I will give you a "free commercial" (as Kellyanne Conway might put it) and suggest buying The Despot's Apprentice.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

On tolerating intolerance: Thoughts from 'The Atheist Muslim'

Ali Rizvi begins The Atheist Muslim with his memoir of his formative years growing up Muslim and then proceeds to general atheist arguments. He is concerned about human rights and also about logical arguments for the existence of God. He identifies “when I let go of religion completely” as the moment when he learned that the Big Bang created time itself and therefore eliminated the necessary frame for the idea of creation.

The most valuable chapter for me is the sixth one, “Islamophobia-Phobia and the ‘Regressive Left,’” where he ties together modern identities and arguments for Islam and atheism. In this chapter, he begins by identifying as a “free speech absolutist” because individuals, not governments, should decide what constitutes “hate speech.” For one thing: “Criminalizing hate speech like France does infantilizes people. It doesn’t just take away someone’s right to speak; it takes away your right to form your own opinions and response to them.” Furthermore, “The uncomfortable truth is this: if you really wanted to ban all hate speech, the Bible and Quran would be the first to go. Next would be the preachers who read from them and quote them in their sermons.” (p. 132)

He goes on:

“In their well-intentioned effort to protect what they see as a targeted minority [people with Muslim identity], Western liberals unwittingly find themselves fighting to guard and protect the same backward values [of the Muslim religion] that their counterparts in Muslim-majority countries are fighting against.” (p. 133) He asks us to “Consider the case of my friend Raif Badawi, the liberal Saudi blogger who is currently serving a ten-year prison term with a sentence of one thousand lashes; or all the Bangladeshi bloggers who have been hacked to death for writing critically about Islam.” (p. 134)

It is more important now than ever to challenge and criticize the doctrine of Islam. And it is more important now than ever to protect and defend the rights of Muslims. Both of these must go together. … The only rational position between Islamic apologism and anti-Muslim bigotry is one espousing secular and liberal values. This is the only position that allows both the right to criticize bad ideas and the right to believe in them — both of which must be protected in order to set the stage for meaningful dialogue. (p. 135)

"Again, it’s crucial to emphasize the difference between criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. The first targets an ideology. The second targets human beings. This is an obvious, significant distinction, yet both are frequently lumped together under the unfortunate, reductive umbrella term ‘Islamophobia.’ Again, human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. Ideas, beliefs, and books don’t and aren’t. The right to believe what one wants to believe is sacred. The belies themselves aren’t. Challenging ideas moves societies forward. Demonizing people rips societies apart. If anything, it’s precisely because of how I’d seen ordinary Muslims suffer under theocratic policies and Sharia law that I wanted to start a dialogue to help shatter the taboo of criticizing religion." (p. 137)

Some nuance is missing here. Much of the modern debate over tolerance of sexual orientation has centered on the question of whether same-sex desire is something that one chooses or something that is an immutable feature of one's being, and therefore whether same-sex behaviors (and the tolerance thereof) can be said to be ideologically motivated. My point in bringing this up is not to shift the topic from tolerance of Muslims to tolerance of gays, but rather to suggest that a similar dynamic might be at play in assumptions about how much of religious belief is ingrained in someone's personality from an early age and can't easily be unwound upon mere instruction from others.

“Criticizing, satirizing, and even mocking any belief system is never bigoted or racist.” (p. 143)

“When legitimately criticizing illiberal elements of Islam — as we might do any other religion or political ideology — elicits accusation of bigotry and racism, it abruptly ends an important conversation that needs to be had. Calling someone a bigot, racist, or Islamophobe isn’t a counterargument. It’s a lazy substitute for one. Yet we all fall for it.” (p. 146)

He quotes Reza Aslan: “People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion...Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text.” Rizvi challenges Aslan’s overstatement that religious texts have “nothing” to do with values. “So, every time a jihadist yells ‘Allah Akbar!’ and severs an infidel’s head from his body with a knife, citing verses like 47:4 and 8:12-13 from the Quran,” Rizvi asks, “you would blame every possible factor for his actions except the one that literally contains the words, ‘Smite the disbelievers upon their necks’?” (pp. 148-149) He also observes that blaming the people (identified, for example, by their culture that supposedly determines their values) does tend toward bigotry.

“Our criticisms of religion aren’t an attack on people, but a challenge to what we consider bad ideas that drive bad behavior, and the sacred status afforded to them. Our opposition to religion isn’t a demonstration of bigotry; it is a demonstration against it.

Bigotry against bigotry isn’t bigotry, and tolerance of intolerance isn’t tolerance.


Liberalism isn’t just about tolerance of dissent. It is also about an intolerance of those that don’t tolerate dissent.” (pp. 159-160)

Page numbers from:

Ali A. Rizvi. The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Fatal flaws in 'Mere Christianity' by C. S. Lewis - Part 1, The Moral Law

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis is a book beloved by millions of people. When I first read it out of curiosity, at age 18 and having just started college, I found it to be a string of fallacies. I did not expect ever to change my mind about this, but I did expect one day being asked to explain why. Nearly 20 years later, I reread the book, and here is my explanation.

My objections to the following 14 flaws in C.S. Lewis' positions and arguments only address the first part of the book. (The rest of the book is also flawed, but I have not yet written an explanation as to why I believe so.)

Part I - The Moral Law

1. He assumes that there are facts about moral right and wrong, that individuals generally have intuitive knowledge of the correct answers to these moral questions, and that moral obligation presents itself as an "impulse."

The moral law is a kind of natural law, except that, as distinct from physical laws such as the law of gravity, the moral law can be disobeyed.

He says we are full of instincts upon which it may be moral (or not) to act depending upon the situation. When one "hear[s] a cry for help from a man in danger," one may feel conflicting desires about whether to help the man or to keep oneself safe. There must be, then, "a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them." The Moral Law is not itself an instinct, but rather it is something that can judge between instincts based on circumstances.

The problem: For any individual in the moment, one impulse might win out simply because it is stronger than the other. It isn't logically necessary that there has to be an outside arbiter deciding which impulse is right. He is wrong to say that "this thing that judges...cannot [my emphasis] itself be either of them." From an evolutionary perspective, whatever tends to promote survival of individuals and groups will be the trait that is passed down. Another possibility is that these "impulses" might not be discrete, unchanging things, but might be facets of a dialectic conversation in which each "side" informs the other before an action is chosen. The "weaker impulse" might be seen as weaker in retrospect because it was the losing side, the path not taken, or a path that was ultimately taken but required a winding path and extra support. It is not really a weak impulse. It may be a strong impulse for the sake of which we have to fight against social or political currents.

But if Lewis is correct in that there really is a Moral Law, he needs to do more work to prove why it cannot be an instinct. Perhaps it is the only instinct upon which we always ought to act. If it is not an instinct, he needs to explain how it is that we are intuitively aware of it. By what mechanism does it work?

He furthermore says that "at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses."

The problem: It is unremarkable that we are most conscious of making a moral judgment when there is some kind of battle between impulses and we feel a calling to side with the one we might not automatically choose. Only when there is an internal battle are we aware that we are making a hard decision. Our “stronger” impulses let us run on autopilot, and our society endorses them and does not stand in our way; our "weaker" ones have to be consciously chosen and politically defended. This does not prove that there is a Moral Law that favors the "weaker" impulse and helps us decide.

Later he claims that the mistaken worldview he calls “Dualism” pits good and evil against each other as two equal forces. The two forces cannot be perfectly equal, he says, since the mere identification of one force as “good” reveals that “one of them is in a right relation to the real ultimate God and the other in a wrong relation to Him.” Also, the evil force cannot exist independently of the good force, since “you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness…badness is only spoiled goodness.” Thus, while Christianity maintains that there is a dualist war between good and evil, Christianity presents it more specifically as “a civil war, a rebellion,” with the devil himself as a fallen angel.

The problem: If he is here suggesting that a good God is stronger than an evil Devil, this doesn't align with his claim that in humans the impulse that tends toward the good is the weaker impulse.

2. His depiction of moral agreement and disagreement is extremely oversimplified.

On the subject of moral agreement, he says we can speak coherently of "moral progress," or "changing for the better" on a societal level, because of the assumption that "Reformers or Pioneers...understood morality better than their neighbours did....that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people's ideas get nearer to that real Right than others."

On the subject of moral disagreement, he says that people may "quarrel" when one points out an unfairness, cruelty, or forgotten promise and the other replies by rationalizing "that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse." Yet this disagreement simply illuminates, he believes, "some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are". When people are asked to account for their behavior and specifically to explain why it does not conform to a moral standard, they provide "a string of excuses as long as your arm". Lewis interprets this as meaning that "we believe in decency so much...that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking [the moral law], and consequently we try to shift the responsibility."

The problem: Assuming that moral truths are facts (rather than individual or social constructs) is a large assumption. Even granting him that assumption, he hasn't given samples of the varied types of moral agreements and disagreements. Our intuition about what is "right" is not infallible. How do we know when our intuition works and when it fails us? Surely there are examples when a majority of people are in agreement, but we want to say that the majority's conclusion is wrong. His example of a "quarrel" is limited to one specific scenario: one person calling out another on a violation of a shared standard, probably one of which they were both already conscious. Other kinds of quarrels include accusations of "violations" of expectations that were never articulated and arguably never existed, genuine disagreements over what the shared standard ought to be, or pleas for privacy and autonomy to make one's own way independently of others' expectations (i.e. a claim that the issue isn't properly a moral question at all). All of these would complicate his approach. He should also acknowledge that individual psychology helps determine one's moral intuitions, meaning that people care about different virtues and reach different conclusions (see the 21st century work of George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt) and that moral reasoning skills vary in sophistication based on age and other ability levels (see the work of Lawrence Kohlberg from 1958 onwards). These particular thinkers were not available to Lewis when, in the early 1940s, he gave his BBC radio talks that were later published as Mere Christianity, but the concepts are timeless and he might have begun to inquire about these problems himself. He should also acknowledge the role of power (in the sense of a dominant culture exerting control over individuals) in each individual's ability or willingness to come up with moral answers.

Here is one example of a moral disagreement. To the common objection that God’s salvation is exclusivist, Lewis says, “if you are worried about [the salvation of] the people outside [Christianity, who haven’t heard or can’t believe the Christian message], the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.”

The problem: To remain outside deliberately in this situation is to make a principled protest against exclusivity. To refuse to embrace a specific religion can be a form of protest. This does not reflect an underlying "agreement as to what Right and Wrong are" and an embarrassed rationalization of one's own disobedience. Rather, it reflects real disagreement about a fundamental assumption.

3. He offers limited insight into when we should oppose others' moral agenda, and no insight into when our opposition should lead us to intervene and when it should remain a privately held belief.

He assumes that the moral consensus allows us to judge others. Even when the person being criticized does not admit to recognizing the law, they can still be held to its standard and blamed for transgressing it: "What was the sense in saying the enemy [in WWII] were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced?"

This is not an adequate investigation of how we should properly construe and defend human rights. A plausible competing explanation is that human rights are a political construct that was invented because it objectively improves people's lives and satisfies our subjective, empathy-driven concerns; that such rights are best understood and implemented in conditions of political freedom; and that when a society falls into totalitarianism there is a perceived moral need to rescue it or help it rescue itself from that condition so that human rights can be restored.

4. He downplays the significance of the diversity of moral opinions.

He assumes that, in its most general form, the content of the moral law is valid across all cultures: "Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked." The differences, he says, are "not nearly so great as most people imagine".

The problem: This is not a comprehensive statement on the extent of cultural diversity. He cannot just assume that human differences are not significant and meaningful. A man's attitude "that you must not simply have any woman you liked" may be a reflection of individual psychology, gender roles, or political power. It can be any or all of these things independently of whether it is also an objectively valid moral fact. Furthermore, if it is a moral fact, it is curiously devoid of content. What would be the use of a transcendent law that says only Thou shalt obey rules of sexual conduct? The content of the rule needs to be defined. If it is humans who write the content, and if this content can vary across cultures, that undermines Lewis' point greatly.

5. As part of defending the idea of shared core moral beliefs, he is too quick to dismiss the counterobjection of why atrocities happen.

He argues that significant collective moral lapses are not really exceptions to the rule that "everyone has intuition of correct moral answers" but rather that there must have been mitigating circumstances that confused the moral analysis. In the following example, he excuses moral error on the basis of factual ignorance. It was reasonable for English people to execute suspected witches, given – so goes his apology – the widespread, factually mistaken belief that some people were really evil witches, and that "surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did."

The problem: This implies that he should want to at least partially morally exonerate the Nazis due to their factually incorrect beliefs about the targets of their witch hunts, and that is an undesirable conclusion. More abstractly, he hasn't explained why a failure of factual knowledge should overpower, and why it should excuse the overpowering of, our usual empathy and political systems that serve as checks and safeguards on the possibility of human violence. Nor has he demonstrated how we know when we are disagreeing about facts on the ground and when we have a more fundamental disagreement about a moral standard – in other words, what is the distinction between scientific progress and moral progress, both of which are needed for us to be able to treat others well.

6. He suggests that virtue needs no explanation.

He says: "If we ask: 'Why ought I to be unselfish?' and you reply 'Because it is good for society,' we may then ask, 'Why should I care...' * * * You would have said just as much if you had stopped at the statement, 'Men ought to be unselfish.' And that is where I do stop."

The problem: This is a straw man. The interlocutor could give a better reply than that: for example, either about the evolutionary origins of unselfishness (why it can promote survival, and thus how we acquired it), or about the merits of being selfish or unselfish in any particular situation, since, as he acknowledged earlier, it does vary based on circumstance. Just because he did not provide a better answer doesn't mean there isn't one.

7. He wants to limit the way in which the Moral Law can demonstrate its existence.

He says "If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe" (which is fine), and then follows up with a more problematic statement: "The only way [emphasis mine] in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way." He says that this subjective experience of directly perceiving the Moral Law is the only way we can assure ourselves of its existence. Empirical observation of how we actually do behave cannot reveal the fact that we also have opinions of how we ought to behave.

The problem: It is not obvious what he means by saying that the Law can't be "inside the universe" yet can be "inside ourselves." Furthermore, his statement on behaviorism isn't obviously true. Psychological experiments are performed on animals to investigate their moral capabilities, and, based on this empirical observation, researchers draw conclusions about whether animals have opinions about proper behavior. An ordinary person who watches a dog and a fish would conclude that the dog has opinions of how it ought to behave while the fish does not. Whether or not this perception is accurate, it it is easy to form the perception.

8. He too quickly dismisses different spiritual approaches.

He disapproves of the humanist/evolutionary view of a Life-Force because he doesn't think people feel accountable toward it. It is just a pleasant idea and does not enforce moral behavior. The belief in absolute good and bad, together with the association of God with the absolute good, also precludes what he calls “Pantheism,” the belief that “the universe almost is God...and anything you find in the universe is a part of God.” This is, he explains, because some things are bad; therefore, some things are not part of God. It is God who gives us the ability to distinguish good from bad.

The problem: The charge of This is a pleasant idea that doesn't hold us accountable could also be said of more traditional ideas of God. A god need not recommend moral behavior and there is not necessarily any way for God to enforce it or any interest in the part of people on obeying it. Philosophy addresses this under the term "divine command theory."

9. He posits a God who is disappointed in us, and he mistakenly suggests that this belief is more comforting than atheism.

The Moral Law “tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.” We may conclude that God himself “is not soft,” since the Moral Law comes from God and tells us about God’s character. This makes God rather terrifying, since “if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do.” Yet atheism would be no comfort since it would amount to nihilism: “If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.” So we begin with despair. We should not seek comfort, but we should seek the truth about our situation and we may find comfort.

The problem: We will have concerns about mortality and posterity regardless of whether there is a God and whether we believe in God. Facing the truth of our evanescence is not specific to theism and is not necessarily comforting.

10. His theodicy (resolution of the question of why evil exists) is unsatisfying.

He says that God has given humans free will to obey or disobey. Why? Because God is “probably the same” as a parent who wants the children to learn. Generally, God helps us “love and reason” in the manner of a teacher who holds a child’s hand while it writes. God wants the world this way because it’s the only way there can be real meaning in human life rather than a world full of robots (“automata”). Furthermore, God invented humans to run on him as a car runs on gasoline, so we can never find happiness without religion or while arguing against God.

The problem: While other theistic approaches are no better at resolving this question, it is significant that he hasn't adequately addressed it because he acknowledged it as an important problem and he seems to believe that he has adequately addressed it. What's wrong? First, we have no reason to assume that a god would "probably" feel and behave "the same" as a human parent. Second, if we need this much guidance, do we really have free will in this department? Do we only have free will as a child has free will? Third, it is also demonstrably untrue that nonreligious people can't be happy.

11. The "Mad, Bad, or God" claim does not offer a full set of options.

He says that Jesus' claim to divinity means that we can only conclude that he was crazy, lying, or telling the truth. If Jesus was not telling the truth on this point, then he cannot be considered a great moral teacher. Lewis says it is “obvious” that Jesus isn’t mad or bad, so therefore he’s God.

Lewis says that Jesus identified himself with a God outside the world, not a pantheistic God inside the world, for two reasons: because Jesus was limited by his Jewishness and that meant he couldn’t be a pantheist, and because Jesus said he forgave all sins which doesn’t make sense unless he (as God) was personally offended by the sin.

The problem: Those reasons are invalid. Anyone in any time or place can have a sense of mystical oneness with God, and anyone can be self-righteous or sensitive enough to believe they are injured by other’s conduct that really doesn’t concern them. The potential explanations that Jesus was a mystic or that he was self-righteous would lead to a different conclusion than Lewis’. Lewis' conclusion is not as obvious as he asserts it to be. In the Mad-Bad-or God argument, he bypasses alternatives such as the idea that Jesus was honestly mistaken or speaking metaphorically, as well as the observation that the written record of this character named Jesus, at least of these particular words, may have been more of a literary or folk representation or a theological lesson than anything historically attributable to an actual person. And it is not clear why the same argument that constitutes a great moral teaching when spoken by God is mad or bad if spoken by a human. It might mean something a little different but it isn’t pure wrongness and evil.

12. He admits that his religion's beliefs and rituals are weird.

Just as God created human sexual reproduction, God created mechanisms for transmitting and strengthening Christian belief, he says. This stuff may initially seem weird to us because we didn’t invent it. However, it’s real and it works.

The problem: The common thread is evolution, not divine creation. Sexual reproduction works the way it does because it evolved that way. Religious beliefs and rituals also evolved (socially), and therefore they probably serve a function, too, but it is not necessarily the function that the adherents of those religions believe them to have.

13. He identifies God's suffering as Jesus as essential.

God came to Earth to suffer and die to have that experience so God could help us with our process of repentance, too. If God has special expertise or ability in the “suffering and death” department, that’s all the more reason to accept him as a teacher.

The problem: God’s qualifications to teach need not concern us. Some of our human teachers have suffered more than others, and that does not determine our ability to learn from them, even on subjects like repentance. The issue is whether we need to believe in a limited, temporary version of free will that is sufficient to give meaning to life or if we will adopt a more wholehearted humanistic outlook.

14. He believes the world will be forcibly ended.

After all this talk about free will, he abruptly says that God will come back into the world and take it by force. God delays his return because he wants to give us a chance to use our free will to believe in him.

The problem: He leaves many unanswered questions, such as: Why more than one generation delay? Give everyone alive a chance to exercise their free will, then let history reach its conclusion. What is the purpose of delaying the conclusion for two thousand years to observe so much exercise of free will? And, if it is free will that gives meaning to life, why ever take it away at all? Wouldn’t the end of history take away the meaning of life? To put the choice as he might: If there is a purpose to ending the world, go ahead and do it already; but if free will gives meaning to life, then give us unending generations of that.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

'War eunuchs' in Hirschfeld's 'The Sexual History of the World War' (1930)

In 1930, Magnus Hirschfeld published Sittengeschichte des Weltkrieges in German. Panurge Press produced an abridged, adapted English translation as The Sexual History of the World War in 1934. Another English edition was produced by Cadillac Publishing Co. in 1941. The last one, since 2015, is available to read free online through the Internet Archive. Chapter 12, "Genital Injuries, War Eunuchs, etc." includes the following information.

"Above all, it was shot wounds in the testicles and also injuries to the spinal marrow which induced a complete disappearance of the sexual functions. Injuries of this sort were not uncommon during the war which explains their frequent occurrence in literature. Yet it appears that poetry gave much more attention to this problem of emasculation during the war than did science. One of these cases became famous in medical literature because the patient became a subject for transplantation experiments."

Dr. Robert Lichtenstern reported having to remove both testicles from a soldier in 1915 in Vienna due to an infected gunshot wound. The patient immediately ceased to have erections "despite various devices calculated to arouse him"; he rapidly lost his facial and body hair; and

"he read nothing and manifested no interest whatever in the war....For the most part the patient sat near his bed or at the window, ate voraciously, slept a lot, and busied himself with absolutely nothing at all. The loss of both testicles resulted in a remarkable increase of adipose tissue, especially around the neck which gave the patient a peculiarly stupid appearance."

Doctors then transplanted another man's testicle into him, with these alleged results: "Various castration symptoms, such as adiposity, altered trichosis, loss of libido and psychic indifferentism, all receded temporarily so that the patient actually entertained the idea of marrying."

Dr. F. Pick's study found "commotion neurosis" in 10 out of 25 officers and in 7 out of 75 soldiers. These men were unable to ejaculate and in some cases also unable to get erections. Pick attributed this to physical and psychic stresses of battle, including sexual abstinence.

Several literary passages are referenced in this same chapter of Hirschfeld's book:

From an author named Bruno Vogel: "I saw Sczepczyk again. With amazing precision his generative organs had been shot from his body. 'Herr Leutenant,' he whispered, a little bit ashamed and in deep confidence, 'Herr Leutenant, and I have never yet had a girl.' He gladly accepted the cigarette I gave him and I softly stroked his hair and forehead. Finally I slipped my hand over his eyes and, as a little smile of pleasure curled over his mouth, I pushed my mercifully brutal sword into his side." The title was not mentioned, but possibly this was Vogel's Es lebe der Krieg! (1924).

The Siberian diary of Edwin Erich Dwinger The Army Behind Barbed Wire: A wounded soldier says that his wife (whose picture shows her to be "a perfect child-bearing machine") wanted at least six children. "Until now we weren't able to have any children because there wasn't any money for them." When he is told that he cannot have children due to his wound, "he turned around slowly and walked to his bed, stretched himself out painfully and never spoke to anyone else until they sent him to Siberia. It is significant that we meet the tragic figure of this emasculated man further on in the novel, but at this later stage, he rejoices that he does not have to suffer the sexual hunger which the others are being plagued by."

The poet Ernst Toller has a man named Hinkemann who "may be regarded as the final literary formula of the emasculated soldier who returns home from the wars, and the inability of his wife to continue a veritably inhuman sacrifice in his behalf....we are dealing with a group of men who will never be able to find their lost happiness by the side of a woman. From every outcry of Toller's hero, we hear the whole dismal and appalling tragedy of a creature who has gone through the vast hell of war, and it is a cry which can never be silenced. How brutal is the reply to Hinkemann by his wife's seducer, Paul Grosshahn, who rebukes the cripple for seeking to keep his wife a nun. Hinke- mann is informed by the seducer that he is in reality nothing more to his wife now than a ground for divorce!"

Panurge Press and other early 20th century distributors of erotic books

Jay A. Gertzman's Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940 gives an engaging history of the difficulties in New York City with distributing literature that had any sexual content. "The federal antiobscenity statues, lobbied through Congress by Anthony Comstock in 1873 and enforced just as powerfully half a century later, called their wares 'obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile.' * * * By the early 1920s, a group of young New York publishers was providing Americans with literature from European writers whom the older publishers considered too subversive to touch. Beginning in 1922, a series of court rulings made it more difficult to suppress sexually explicit material that could not be termed flagitious by any general consensus." (pp. 1, 10)

The most detailed figures in Gertzman's history include Esar Levine of Panurge Press (Esar was editor, and his brother Benjamin was business manager) and Benjamin Rebhuhn of Falstaff Press (he ran it with his wife and nephew). The Levines and Rebhuhns both had mail-order businesses and were close friends with each other. "Many Panurge titles were transferred to Falstaff in 1936 (and reprinted as new editions), and later became property of Metro Books, distributed by Benjamin Levine." (p. 30) The most important character is probably Samuel Roth, whose Golden Hind Press at 122 Fifth Avenue was raided on October 4, 1929. (p. 16) These men endured repeated prosecutions and incarcerations.

The majority of the names of booksellers in this narrative belonged to Jews. "In New York at least, during the period from 1880 to 1940, many [erotica dealers] were members of Jewish immigrant families," Gertzman writes. He adds that "German immigrants were skilled printers, lithographers, and typesetters". (pp. 28- 29)

"Although avoiding ethnic scapegoating, John Sumner [secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice] sometimes specifically described the purveyor of 'obscenity' as a Jew (or Italian or German). Rooted in his opposition to erotic literature was a fear of contamination by the unclean outsider. Society as a whole, as well as the immigrant neighborhoods, was in danger of contagion. Sumner's annual reports stigmatize individuals arrested (whether convicted or not) as 'foreign looking,' 'mentally defective,' 'exhibitionists,' 'fly-by-night.' 'Most of these defendants,' he wrote in his 1928 report, 'were of the young, radical, irreligious and over-educated type. Their personal writings wherever found, indicated an utter disregard for the law, public decency or any of the proprieties of organized society. They are literally anarchists.'" (p. 45)

The Panurge books were overpriced for the Depression era. Consequently, "Panurge classified its clients into groups. There were twenty-five 'prominent individuals'...ten 'professors'; fifty 'army officers'; twenty 'reverends'; two hundred eighty 'lawyers'; and fourteen hundred 'doctors,' including more dentists than physicians — thirty-five fully typed pages were needed to list them." (p. 57) Gertzman also says: "Judge Learned Hand appears to have recognized the more complex reality, when he found Esar Levine guilty of pandering to prurience with the circulars for his Panurge Press books. He refused to admit into evidence the Panurge Press mailing list, with its 'professors,' 'army officers,' and 'physicians.' 'Even respectable persons may have a taste for salacity,' he wrote." (p. 144)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Alan Turing's story as told in the film 'The Imitation Game' (2014)

"The Imitation Game" (2014) stars the actor Benedict Cumberbatch playing the mathematician Alan Turing. Turing was famous for his work on early computers. During World War II, he worked for the British government on a team that deciphered intercepted Nazi communications. His successful cryptography is believed to have shortened World War II.

In the film, Turing is portrayed as a reclusive personality without strong ties to friends or family. He knows from an early age that he is attracted to other men. This was illegal in Britain at the time; sexual relations between men were punishable by prison. He is briefly engaged to a fellow codebreaker (Joan Clarke, played by the actor Keira Knightley), but he breaks it off with her, admitting his true feelings.

When finally convicted of "gross indecency," Turing was given the choice between prison and a "treatment" of chemical castration that was supposed to moderate or eliminate his sexual feelings. Both possibilities devastated him; Turing chose treatment. The film depicts him as gaunt and frail after beginning the chemical castration. He lasted one year on treatment and then committed suicide on June 7, 1954 by biting an apple poisoned with cyanide.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The long and misguided history of swearing in on Bibles

Using any particular religious scripture for the swearing-in ceremonies for politicians and court witnesses poses the obvious problem that not everyone endorses the content of the given scripture. If someone does not believe at all in a particular God or scripture, then they may object to being forced to invoke this foreign or disagreeable belief system. Even if they are willing to recite the words and mimic the gestures, their oath would not carry the intended religious weight, since they do not believe that this particular God holds them accountable. This problem applies on a "sliding scale" to people who believe in the Bible in diverse ways or with loose or inconsistent interpretations. People do not all believe in the same God in the same way, and there is no sense in making them recite words that presume they do.

For example, president-elect Donald Trump, who was raised Presbyterian, was heavily influenced by the so-called "prosperity gospel" and doesn't currently belong to any church, according to Ken Briggs, writing for the National Catholic Reporter in January 2017.

In secular contexts, swearing on the Bible is nonsensical and causes dissension. Its practice for politicians' swearing-in ceremonies in the United States nevertheless has an interesting history that can be traced hundreds of years back to England. Melissa Mohr explains it well in her 2013 book "Holy Sh*t:  A Brief History of Swearing," which is about the history of oaths as well as obscenities.

When England was a Catholic country, swearing oaths on physical copies of the Bible held a prominent place in the culture. A religious movement whose adherents were known as Lollards opposed this practice in the early 15th century, as did Quakers in the 17th century. Lollards were willing to swear verbally by God, but were burned at the stake for being unwilling to swear on the Bible. Quakers would not swear at all, which meant that they couldn't take oaths of allegiance and couldn't testify in court. Mohr writes, "A good technique for getting rid of a Quaker you didn't like was to accuse him of doing something illegal. Whether or not he was guilty, when he refused to take an oath his property would be confiscated and he would be thrown in jail for contempt of court."

Aware of this religious history in England, the American founding fathers aimed for a more secular start to the nation in the 18th century. The U.S. Constitution prescribes this presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." This secular statement avoids the difficulties that presented themselves in England. Article VI of the Constitution additionally clarifies: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."


The term 'book-oath' goes back at least as far as Shakespeare's Henry IV. Part II contains the words: "I put thee now to thy / book-oath: deny it, if thou canst." In pre-Revolutionary America, swearing on the Bible served as a religious test "designed to marginalize infidel deists like Thomas Paine, and religious dissidents especially like members of the Dutch Reformed Church," according to information received from Ray Soller.

Placing one's hand on the Bible

Despite this, many U.S. presidents have recited the oath with their hands on a Bible. George Washington did so at his first inauguration. (For the next several presidents after him, there are only persistent but unconfirmed national myths.) The next well substantiated claim to this is for the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, at his inauguration in 1829, followed by the eleventh U.S. president, James Polk, who also kissed the Bible when he swore on it at his 1845 inauguration, an event that was publicized by telegraph. Social critic and comic Dean Obeidallah singled out "two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, [who] did not use a Bible at their swearing-in ceremonies," but many others certainly did.

Saying 'So help me God'

David B. Parker wrote for the History News Network:

"...we have no convincing contemporary evidence that any president said 'so help me God' until September 1881, when Chester A. Arthur took the oath after the death of James Garfield. William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt said 'so help me God,' as has every president since then. But before 1933, we have good evidence for only four (of thirty-one)."

Of potential interest, see "Kiss the Book...You're President...: 'So Help Me God' and Kissing the Book in the Presidential Oath of Office," Frederick B. Jonassen, 2012 in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 20, Issue 3, Article 5.


In the nineteenth century, England's laws for swearing-in ceremonies were challenged by the elections to Parliament of Lionel de Rothschild and David Salomons, who were Jews, and Charles Bradlaugh, who was an atheist. The Jews' proposed modifications to the oath were not accepted, while the atheist was willing to swear the Christian oath but was denied the opportunity. For showing up to work in the chamber to which they'd been elected, Salomons was fined heavily and ejected from the room, and Bradlaugh was arrested and jailed. With perseverance, eventually the Jewish Relief Act (1858) and the Oaths Act (1888) enabled non-Christians to complete the oath of office.

A secular approach seems the obvious solution to the conflict. U.S. CIA Director John Brennan was sworn in on a copy of the U.S. Constitution in 2013. Yet some politicians, seeing that Christian politicians swear in on Bibles, wish to swear in on a copy of their own religious text. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim to be elected as a member of the U.S. Congress, was sworn in on a copy of the Koran that was published in 1764 and was owned by Thomas Jefferson. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) participated in the ceremony and also placed her hand on the book.

Endorsers of the Bible, meanwhile, often are reluctant to allow others the opportunity to use their own texts, so the conflict perpetuates itself. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) took advantage of Ellison's pending swearing-in to release a statement calling for stricter immigration laws, without which, he said, "there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran." Goode claimed that restrictions on immigration, particularly from the Middle East, "are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped." (All this, despite the fact that Ellison is African-American and was born in Detroit.) Similarly, Dennis Prager, a talk-show host and a member of the council that oversees the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., complained about Ellison's anticipated use of the Koran. He said he feared that the nation would "abandon its Judeo-Christian values" and that he himself, as a Jew, would "get hurt" as a consequence. At their base, Goode's and Prager's expressed concerns are not about the ritual use of the Koran in American politics, but rather about Muslim Americans in public service.

Debates like this occur in many countries. For example, Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," is written from a Jewish point of view and refers to Jews living freely in their land of Zion. This often causes distress for the one-quarter of Israelis who are not Jewish. In the February 2013 swearing-in ceremony for new parliament members, several Arab politicians left the room to protest the words of the anthem. Mere suggestions to make the language more inclusive, even when those suggestions are vague and are made by Jewish politicians, still prompt strong opposition.


In short, the use of the Bible for swearing oaths originated hundreds of years ago as a Catholic tradition, and despite some Protestant opposition and American secularist reform, the practice continues today. The custom is confusing and unnecessary. Unless one literally believes in a God who holds people accountable for their oaths, one cannot believe that such an oath has any inherent force that makes people keep their promises.

From an irreligious or non-literal religious perspective, the only extra force of a public religious oath lies in its potential activation of reverence and shame in the oath-taker. But this assumes that the oath-taker (or perhaps the audience) has certain religious sensibilities. Not everyone does, so mandatory swearing on Bibles is a transparent affront to individuals' true belief systems. It is a coercive effort to tamp down intellectual and religious diversity in favor of a public show of conformity. Some find the ritual inspiring, but others find it off-putting. Therefore, it discourages unity while being mostly useless in enforcing promise-keeping.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on Dec. 10, 2013. It has been significantly revised in January 2017 thanks to input from Ray Soller.
Image by: Adrian Pingstone, 2005. The photograph is of a Latin Bible made in Belgium in 1407. © Public domain. The Bible is on display in Malmesbury Abbey in England. Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Avoiding and correcting false beliefs

People believe these things

Lawrence Davidson characterized the arguments in Rick Shenkman's 2008 book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter as saying that Americans are: "(1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble." Davidson then said that this is "a default position for any population," but that it is still a concern when, for example, "polls show [that] over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30 percent don’t know what the Holocaust was." Such confusion isn't unique to the United States. "In the middle of March 2008," wrote Javier Cercas (translated by Anne McLean) in The Anatomy of a Moment, "I read that according to a poll published in the United Kingdom almost a quarter of Britons thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character."

In 2014, the National Science Foundation said that only a slight majority of Americans polled were able to correctly respond that viruses can't be treated with antibiotics and that 26 percent said that the sun revolves around the Earth.

Since 2014, a small but growing group of "Flat Earthers" has met regularly in Fort Collins, Colo., with sympathetic meetings occurring in a half-dozen other U.S. cities. A leader recalls seeing a YouTube video that promoted the idea of a flat earth. “It was interesting, but I didn’t think it was real. I started the same way as everyone else, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just prove the earth is round.’ Nine months later, I was staring at my computer thinking, ‘I can’t prove the globe anymore.” The article in the Denver Post says of this group: "Many subscribe to the 'ice wall theory,' or the belief that the world is circumscribed by giant ice barriers, like the walls of a bowl, that then extend infinitely along a flat plane." Today in 2017, searching YouTube by the exact phrase "flat earth" (with quotation marks) yields three-quarters of a million videos.

In 2010, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received funding amounting to 0.00014% of the U.S. federal budget. CNN/Opinion Research found early the next year that "Forty percent of those polled believe funding the CPB receives takes up 1 to 5 percent of the budget, 30 percent believe public broadcasting takes up 5 percent or more of the budget and 7 percent of respondents believe the non-profit receives 50 percent or more of the federal budget." The final cohort of respondents who thought it was more than half of the budget may also suffer from general mathematical or political illiteracy, but it seems fair to say that many people have false beliefs about the funding for public broadcasting. (For comparison, when a Roper poll in 2007 accurately informed participants that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) receives funding equivalent to about $1 per American per year, half of the respondents said this amount was "too little.")

"There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know. For years I’ve said this to my college students as a way of telling them that learning should never stop. But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, at a certain point, there should be shame in not knowing," Charles Taylor wrote in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe. He fretted over "creative-writing students who have never heard of Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison; journalism students who can’t identify the attorney general; students who don’t know what the NAACP or the Geneva Convention are."

"The emerging narrative of this election is that Donald Trump was elected by people who are sick of being looked down on by liberal elites. The question the people pushing this narrative have not asked is this: Were the elites, based on the facts, demonstrably right?

* * *

That Trump voters chose an easily disprovable myth over readily available facts is one sign of their willful ignorance.

And still this imperviousness to fact pales next to the racism and xenophobia and misogyny — in other words, the moral ignorance — that Trump’s supporters wallowed in. All of the condescension of which liberals have been accused can’t begin to match the condescension of the current storyline that Trump voters are too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed to be held morally responsible for their choices.

* * *

The apologists for Donald Trump voters have given their imprimatur to a culture that equates knowledge and expertise with elitism, a culture ignorant of the history of the country it professes to love and contemptuous of the content of its founding documents."

It isn't clear from this brief column how Taylor thinks factual knowledge and moral knowledge might be related. Most people would say that moral knowledge depends on drawing conclusions that incorporate factual knowledge. (For example, you have to know whether someone else is threatening you before you can properly decide how to act in "self-defense." As another example, you have to know whether a crime occurred before you can express your opinion about it. Berel Lang wrote: "...the most extreme Holocaust 'revisionists' — Faurisson, Rassinier, Butz — do not deny that if the Holocaust had occurred, it would have been an enormity warranting moral reflection, judgment, and whatever else followed from these, presumably including condemnation and punishment; they deny only that it did occur."). Some would also say that moral knowledge is not merely a concatenation of ordinary beliefs and social agreements but that it exists in some separate sphere.

Brian Klaas' 2017 book The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy provides this example of people willing to give up a democratic norm due to a false belief about how a previous election was conducted.

“According to a poll taken in August 2017, 47% of Republicans believe he [Trump] won the popular vote — even though he lost it to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. Even more horrifying, 68% of Republicans mistakenly believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 contest. And here’s the authoritarian kicker for good measure: 52% of Republicans surveyed said that they would support postponing the 2020 presidential election if President Trump suggested that doing so was necessary to ensure that only legal citizens could vote. Democracies die when presidents can postpone elections based on the mythology of a pernicious lie.”

We care more about facts when we feel good about ourselves

“The 2000 [presidential] campaign was something of a fact-free zone,” said Brendan Nyhan, who was an undergraduate at Swarthmore at the time and who subsequently founded a political fact-checking website called Spinsanity that led to a book All the President's Spin. In his doctoral program at Duke University, he moved on to ask, as Maria Konnikova put it: "If factual correction is ineffective, how can you make people change their misperceptions?"

From Konnikova's article:

"Until recently, attempts to correct false beliefs haven’t had much success. Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol whose research into misinformation began around the same time as Nyhan’s, conducted a review of misperception literature through 2012. He found much speculation, but, apart from his own work and the studies that Nyhan was conducting, there was little empirical research.

* * *

One thing he learned early on is that not all errors are created equal. Not all false information goes on to become a false belief — that is, a more lasting state of incorrect knowledge — and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct.

* * *

When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.

[For more examples of how this might work, see these Disruptive Dissertation blog posts. In religious thought: "The specious claim that human calamities are caused by an angry God" In political thought: "False reports that President Obama is a Muslim"]

Konnikova went on to say:

In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior.

* * *

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would."

It is also important to note the difference between actually believing something and merely claiming to believe it to maintain one's public image. Public image is more obviously related to one's identity and also to one's material interests. Alexander C. Kaufman provided this example:

"In December 2006, Exxon Mobil Corp. convened a two-day summit of environmental and ethics experts at a rural retreat near the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia....For decades, Exxon had funded far-right think tanks that seeded doubt over the scientific consensus on climate change. [The new CEO Rex] Tillerson and Ken Cohen, Exxon’s PR chief and chair of its political action committee, wanted to broaden the company’s political reach. One step was changing their messaging about climate change, moving away from the denial the company had been attacked for supporting....Not long after the summit, Exxon began to modify its public stance on climate change."

Sometimes what is claimed publicly is done to maintain relationships and make money. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky on how the American mass media operate:

"But a critical analysis of American institutions, the way they function domestically and their international operations, must meet far higher standards; in fact, standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences. One has to work hard, to produce evidence that is credible, to construct serious arguments, to present extensive documentation — all tasks that are superfluous as long as one remains within the presuppositional framework of the doctrinal consensus. It is small wonder that few are willing to undertake the effort, quite apart from the rewards that accrue to conformity and the costs of honest dissidence."

Nyhan's work, by contrast, seems to be about more privately held beliefs.

So they say

Albert Einstein said, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former." Elbert Hubbard: "Everyone is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day. Wisdom consists in not exceeding that limit." George Bernard Shaw said it would be better to know that one does not know: “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” As hope, nonetheless, the words of Phyllis Bottome: "There is nothing final about a mistake, except its being taken as final."


"Why Americans Are So Ignorant: It's Not Just Fox News," Lawrence Davidson, Consortium News, April 8, 2013.

Javier Cercas. The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination. (2009) Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. p. 3.

"Poll: Americans way off on public broadcasting funding,", April 1, 2011.

"Highlights of the 2007 Roper Public Opinion Poll on PBS."

"Yes, there is shame in not knowing." Charles Taylor. Boston Globe. Dec. 19, 2016.

Berel Lang. Heidegger’s Silence. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996. p. 14.

"I don't want to be right," Maria Konnikova, New Yorker, May 19, 2014.

"Rex Tillerson Supposedly Shifted Exxon Mobil’s Climate Position. Except He Really Didn’t." Alexander C. Kaufman. Huffington Post. Dec. 26, 2016.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988. p. 305.

Elbert Hubbard, quoted in The Village Voice, quoted again in The Week, Feb. 22, 2013. p. 19.

George Bernard Shaw, quoted in, quoted again in The Week, July 18, 2014. p. 15.

Phyllis Bottome, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted again in The Week, June 13, 2014. p. 15.