On a Bloggingheads conversation Freddie deBoer where is talking about the Jon Chait’s recent article on political correctness gone wild, he notes that points are given to those who are first to highlight the “problematic” aspect of something. Over time this leads to a constriction and strangulation of all open conversation, as the bounds of acceptability become progressively narrower. What I found fascinating is that it reminded me of something I read years ago in The Essential Talmud, where the author explains that rabbinical genius was discovered by means of further extending Jewish law into domains where it had not previously gone. The problem, which was left implicit, is that it often meant that the regulated behavior of observant Jews become more and more constricted. Much of the same applies to those who live by Islamic law, as well as Christian sects which begin to deviate into an orthopraxic direction. Once greater emphasis and reward is given to those who would make a case for the forbidding of a practice or belief, then the cultural ratchet is inevitable. And because of the dire theological consequences of transgressing what is forbidden the communal sanctions can be quite intense.
I am not particularly interested in exploring all the details of this line of thought. Rather, ruminating upon the fixation with identity and language discourse on the cultural Left, and the energy it draws, I have become convinced that the Koch brothers and their fellow travelling plutocrats have nothing to worry about. Though the Left talks a big game about economic inequality, dollars are not witches, and the rich are not numerous enough to build a witch-hunting academic career upon. This an age where Deng’s exhortation to get rich is glorious is applicable to the United States, the populist Right is inchoate and ineffectual, and the populist Left truly doesn’t exist.
It has come to my attention that Bill Maher has been making some pronouncements against Islam, and this has resulted fierce blow back from the likes of people such as Reza Aslan. Normally I don’t follow Maher too closely. I used to watch his show, Politically Incorrect, back in the 1990s, and though he had his moments of wit, humor, and insight, by and large his stock in trade was superficial buffoonery. So I generally do not pay attention to him. More recently he’s been espousing views which make him a fellow traveller with New Atheists. As a disagreeable person who enjoys some biting polemic I do appreciate the New Atheists for the role they play in the ecology of ideas. They do not hide behind the post-modern fixation on “tolerance” and “diversity.” But my ultimate judgement about them is that their foundational propositions about human nature are wrong. In other words, I stand with cognitive anthropologists such as Scott Atran as to the roots of religion. Though in the God Delusion Richard Dawkins exhibits some familiarity with this literature, in the end his rhetoric and central thesis seems to take it for granted that religion is a contingent cultural invention, and adherence is a feature of improper implementation of the principles of rationality. My own position, in line with cognitive anthropologists, is that supernatural ideas are relatively inevitable human intuitions given the architecture of our minds, which are far less dominated by the ability to reflexively reason than 18th century rationalists would have believed. The more elaborate specific institutional aspects of religion are also probably rather inevitable given the needs of mass society after the Neolithic Revolution. In other words telling people to stop being stupid probably won’t have the effect that the New Atheists think it should. People are just…well, stupid. I do have to admit that there seems a bit of irony in this, insofar as the New Atheists promulgate a world-view predicated on adherence to the empirical facts, but have the normal human bias to discount those data which conflict with their prior model.
But this is not just an issue with New Atheists. Many who disagree with the New Atheists on the cultural Left seem averse to grappling with the empirical facts when it comes to Islam, where because of the New Atheists’ lack of interest in social conformity they express truths as if they’re the child who sees the naked emperor. Richard Dawkins regularly makes bold and laughable assertions, outrunning his own knowledge base whenever he talks about things not biological. But sometimes those who rebut his claims also outrun the facts in their eagerness to “debunk” his unpalatable views. About a year ago I got into a Twitter conversation with financial journalist Heidi Moore, who basically decided that she had to correct my misguided views about Islam. Though I agreed that Dawkins’ contentions were rather excessively general and deterministic, I believed her own apologia for Islam was based on just as rickety a factual foundation. Somehow in the wake of 9/11 American liberals, and to a lesser extent the mainstream more generally, have transformed themselves into Hujjat al-Islam, or “Proof of Islam,” whenever confronted with “ignorance.” The curiosity here is that yes, their interlocutors are expressing ignorance. But in their rebuttals there is also a great deal of ignorance.
In the exchange above Bill Maher in contrast has clearly done his homework. The majority of the world’s Muslims hold quite illiberal views. Not all Muslims. And there are regions where Muslims hold views in line with Christian societies which have undergone secularization. But overall Pakistan is closer to the central tendency than Bosnia, least of all of because there are nearly 200 million Pakistanis today. You can read the Pew survey which Maher referenced yourself, it’s been out for years.* He’s clearly conversant with the details. The usual rejoinder from liberals out to the mainstream is “but Christians too….” Maher points out that this sort of equivalence is just not plausible. Rather, it’s a ploy. No ex-Christian atheist fears for their life, though they may experience social ostracism.
The flip side of this of course is that some Christian conservatives and New Atheists argue for a Platonic and fixed character for Islam. For the New Atheists this follows from their thin and spare model of religious belief, which derives from elementary axiomatic errors. For many Christian conservatives it is derived from their religious beliefs, which they assume to be true. Islam, being false, is always going to be false. But taking a step back from the perspective of someone who believes all religions are fictions, and accepts a model of more cognitive and cultural complexity, it seems striking exactly how pliable religion itself is. If you read The Northern Crusades (against the pagan Balts) you may be struck by the similarities to the behavior of the Islamic State. And you don’t need to go back nearly 1,000 years, the Thirty Years War is more than sufficient in terms of barbarity. Religions are not special creations of god, they evolved from the history and minds of men.
It is true that not all Muslims present views which make one recoil. The problem is that in places like Pakistan enough do that if you violate the blasphemy law you may be killed rather quickly by those who have a less broad perspective. Even in Turkey, which is on the more liberal side in regards to religion, the ascendant Islamists have conservative views which lead them to chide women laughing in public. Depending on your views of the term “bigot” it is or isn’t bigotry to assert that the majority of the world’s Muslims are deeply illiberal, so it is not entirely surprising that atavistic neo-medieval violence periodically explodes out of the nether regions of the faith. But, it is also critical to question whether Islam is constitutionally so. Being that it is made up, like all other religions, I am quite skeptical of that. So there is hope if one keeps the faith that what goes down must eventually come up.
Does, on the whole, Bill Maher express obnoxious and superficial opinions? Probably, from what I’ve seen and heard. But the evidence above suggests that he’s not constitutionally incapable of honest insight.
* By and large Iraqi Shia are actually rather conservative in the broader Muslim world. I wonder of the low support (relatively) for the death penalty for apostates is a function of the rise of sectarian violence in the mid-2000s, where they saw exactly where a proliferation of takfiris leads.
In my post yesterday I made the comment that it seems that British media in particular seems to have a fascination with “different race twins.” The generalization derives from the fact that people who email me these stories tend to point to British sources, but I decided to Google it. I think I’ll stick by my assertion. These stories aren’t exclusively British, but they’re clearly driven by the British media.
But in the process of looking at stories on this topic I ran into a story in The Guardian on a pair of fraternal twins of different complexions who are now adults. These two are different more than in just physical appearance. One is gay and the other is straight. This section dovetails with something else I mentioned yesterday:
Alyson got used to the comments and the stares, the sniggers about their parentage and the “stupid things people said” when her boys were babies; but then, when Daniel and James went to nursery aged three, the twins’ skin colour plunged the family into controversy. “They were at this very politically correct nursery, and the staff told us that when Daniel drew a picture of himself, he had to make himself look black – because he was mixed-race,” says Alyson. “And I said, that’s ridiculous. Why does Daniel have to draw himself as black, when a white face looks back at him in the mirror?”
After a row with the nursery staff, she gave interviews to her local paper and TV. “I kicked up a fuss, because it really bothered me,” she says. “Daniel had one white parent and one black, so why couldn’t he call himself white? Why does a child who is half-white and half-black have to be black? Especially when his skin colour is quite clearly white! In some ways it made me feel irrelevant – as though my colour didn’t matter. There seemed to be no right for him to be like me.”
It’s a social convention that people of mixed black-white ancestry are black, especially in the United States. In fact in the USA black Americans themselves espouse this viewpoint, as is evident in the case of Barack Obama. But it does seem ridiculous that a mixed person whose physical appearance is more European would be forced to draw a self-portrait which was more African. Especially a child who has probably not internalized the various ideologies which adults take for granted in our societies. Madison Grant though would agree heartily with this decision:
Grant advocated restricted immigration to the United States through limiting immigration from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, as well as the complete end of immigration from East Asia. He also advocated efforts to purify the American population through selective breeding. He served as the vice president of the Immigration Restriction League from 1922 to his death. Acting as an expert on world racial data, Grant also provided statistics for the Immigration Act of 1924 to set the quotas on immigrants from certain European countries…Even after passing the statute, Grant continued to be irked that even a smattering of non-Nordics were allowed to immigrate to the country each year. He also assisted in the passing and prosecution of several anti-miscegenation laws, notably the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in the state of Virginia, where he sought to codify his particular version of the “one-drop rule” into law.
The Racial Integrity Act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into only two classifications: white and colored (all other, essentially, which included numerous American Indians). It defined race by the “one-drop rule”, defining as colored persons with any African or Indian ancestry.
Obviously today’s high priests of political correctness do not share the aims of someone like Madison Grant. But for the purposes of maintaining racial and cultural integrity (in this case, that of non-whites!) they have perpetuated a framework which came into being at a specific period of time in the 19th century, when white superiority was taken for granted, and the division between whites and non-whites was seen to be most useful. But in a genuinely multi-polar world this mentality is very outmoded. But ideologies often outlast their utility. Ask the Confucian Mandarins in 1900.