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Right Wing Propaganda and Poor Children 13 October 2007

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Journalism, News, Political Commentary.
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Hopefully, many of you already know that Pres. Bush vetoed the S-chip program which provides medical care to poor children through state mechanisms. The Democratic response was to deliver a plea to Pres. Bush through a 12 year old boy, Graeme Frost, and his sister, who had been severely injured in a car accident. The right-wing blogosphere got a hold of the story and began a smear campaign against the Frosts and their children, trying to discredit the Democrats. It turns out that none of the Republican claims about the Frosts is true, and yet the MSM continues to report the story as if there is doubt or the Frosts are tainted or the Democrats are bumbling idiots, even though it was the Republicans who got all the facts wrong and engaged in a smear campaign of a disabled 12 year old child.

It is amazing to me the utter lack of anything resembling ethics on the right side of the aisle over the past 20 years. The depth of Republican cynicism about democracy, truth-telling, debate, science, and let’s face it, human life is jaw-dropping. Even more distressing, however, is the utter lack of integrity in the MSM. Is journalism really dead? Can journalists not actually check the facts on the press releases coming out of party headquarters anymore? Has the function of the 4th Estate devolved into a mere delivery system for party and corporate PR?

Paul Krugman has an excellent analysis in his column today (hat tip to Salon.com’s Joan Walsh) of the whole Frost affair. Warning: read on an empty stomach.

American democracy in a state of total decay.

I Hate Hillary Clinton 29 June 2007

Posted by Todd in HIV/AIDS, Political Commentary.
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In the most recent round of babbling Democratic presidential hopefuls, Ms. Clinton let loose this gem, yet another in her long line of back-handed, veiled anti-gay-to-get-the-anti-gay-vote bullshit (quoted in Salon.com):

–On the number of black teenagers diagnosed with HIV/AIDS: “This is a multiple-dimension problem. But if we don’t begin to take it seriously and address it the way we did back in the ’90s when it was primarily a gay men’s disease, we will never get the services and the public education that we need.”

So in addition to prevaricating her position on gay rights over the past couple of years and speaking out of both sides of her mouth, and saying downright homophobic things about same-sex marriage and then appearing at gay events expecting gay people to fawn all over her–in addition to all of that, she misremembers history.

Who is this “we” who paid attention to AIDS, Madam Senator? It was the gay men and women who were in the streets, protesting, shouting, and demanding to be heard. It was the gay men and women who started the very organizations and research projects that are now addressing the global problem, even though gay men’s issues were basically shut out of the most recent world aids conference in Canada. It was not the government and it was barely any “liberals” in America. The “we” who paid attention to AIDS were the “we” who were dying. You, Madam Senator, don’t get to say “we” when talking about AIDS, no matter how many of your hair dressers or interior designers died.

She’s a panderer. She panders to the black vote by appealing to their homophobia; but tomorrow she’s be pandering to gay people talking about how much she loves them; then the next day she’ll be pandering to the anti-gay-marriage bigots but affirming her belief that “real” marriage is between a man and a woman.

Why gay people (let alone blacks and marriage-fascists) still even give this woman the time of day is beyond me.

Todd’s Hammer a Threat to the People’s Revolution 3 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Blog, Democratic Theory, Political Commentary.
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It’s official, folks. My URL has been blocked by the People’s Party of China. I guess there’s way too much freedom-talk and fornication here abouts, and we know how talk of freedom and sex disrupts the Maoist project of religious, social, sexual, intellectual and political repression (but not economic repression, of course: the Free Trade Zones are among the most Laissez-Faire in the world–hence the massive human rights and workers’ rights violations occuring there (not to mention massive polution)).

All hail the Great Mao!

See if the People’s Firewwall blocks your website: Great Firewall of China.

More on Public ‘Outing’: Ted Haggard — Hypocrite, Liar, Self-hating Homophobe 3 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Ethics, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, News, Political Commentary, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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haggard.jpgUPDATE: The AP is reporting from a source inside the NAE that Haggard has confessed to at least some of the allegations.

A former hustler by the name of Mike Jones went on the air in Colorado yesterday and accused the Rev. Ted Haggard — founder of a megachurch and current president of the National Association of Evangelicals — of using his services for the past three year (that is, paying him for sex). [See this Denver Post article, which pisses me off because of its equivocating and burying the evidence nearly half-way down the article; the paper bent over backward to make Haggard look innocent and honorable.]

Another example of why I’m in favor of public outing: Individuals who actively fight against homosexual freedom and equality, or even who seek to maintain the cultural hold over homosexuality by teaching that it’s immoral, must have no expectation of privacy. This is not a question of simple hypocrisy. This is a man who uses his position of immense power and influence (he’s the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents millions of people) to work positvely for the oppression of an entire class of people. Although Barney Franks’ recent ascent to “Elder Statesmanhood” still confuses me, I have to agree with him on this issue: When you are part of an organization and/or you yourself are actively working to oppress the people who are like you, your self-hatred and your sexual behavior are public issues and reason for scorn and derision and for losing your job. I am absolutely in favor of public outing in this case, as I was in the Foley case.

I agree with Dr. Myers on Pharyngula, however, that these are not the rationales given by either the NAE or the DNC for why either Haggard or Foley are unethical and/or corrupt men. The evangelicals, when/if they accept that Haggard is a self-hating closeted gay, will simply see this as evidence that they are right, that gayness is indeed a moral disease, that gay people are deceitful and untrustworthy, and that they are justified in their campaign of bigotry. Similarly, the Democrats and liberals are using the Foley case to say that the Republicans are corrupt because they have closeted gay men in their ranks. This is a bit more subtle, but in its subtlety, may even be worse than the rather straight-forward homophobia of the NAE. The Democrats in their approach to using the Foley scandal are perpetuating the same association of homosexuality with deceitfulness and untrustworthiness. Mr. Franks has been the only congressman I’ve heard speak about this who, for obvious reasons, gets it.

There is also a problem with the liberal critique of the outing itself, which is that Haggard’s (or Foley’s) sexuality is a “private” matter. This is, albeit probably unintentionally, a subtle reinforcing of the Closet, something we’ve been trying to destroy for years. One’s homosexuality is as much a part of oneself as another’s heterosexuality. And when one is in a position of public power, one’s sexuality may very well be of issue in one’s actions in the public sphere. To insist that (homo)sexuality is private is to miss two important points: 1) our sexuality is always intimately public in the way we regulate sexual behavior, legally, morally, and socially; and 2) forcing homosexuality into the “private” is a coded way of insisting that it be hidden from view. The effect of taking the position that homosexuality is “private” is to maintain its position of shame; it says that in the public sphere, you can be gay as long as you don’t act gay (which is called “flaunting”). This is the oppression of the closet in our world where many gay people are openly gay: Their acceptability from context to context depends on their ability to “cover” their gayness. [I’m currently reading Kenji Yoshino’s analysis of this phenomenon, of which I’ll post a review later this weekend. Here’s an article-length piece by Yoshino in the New York Times Magazine on the same topic.]

In both the Evangelical and the Democratic critique of these two men, homosexuality is the culprit, the reason for their downfall. Both critiques miss the reality that it is the hatred of homosexuality, homophobia, and the social pressures of the closet (one must pass as straight to maintain social status and power in a homophobic culture) that created the corruption, not the desire to have sex with another man nor even the sex itself. Even Haggard’s adultery must be considered and evaluated in light of the demands of homophobia and the closet. It is not the same act of adultery as a straight man, who is not penalized for merely having the desire, and even when shamed for the adultery, it’s nearly always with a wink and a grin.

Catching Up 20 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Evolution, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion, Secular Humanism, Teaching, War & Terrorism.
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Wow, since I’ve been out of the blogging loop, so much has happened, I don’t think I’ll be able to catch up. So here’s a roundup of the things that have interested, fascinated, horrified and angered me over the past few weeks (in no particular order, other than how they popped into my head):

1) The Foley Affair: The man is a creep, not a pedophile. The Republicans have no shame, playing on pedophiliphobia (to coin a word) and homophobia for their own spin needs. It appears they have failed, however. I have no sympathy for closeted public officials who use their power and self-hatred to oppress gay people.

2) Outing Closeted Republican Politicians and Staffers: As many elsewhere have noted, there is nothing wrong with the outing of public officials. The only reason you could think outing was wrong is if you accept the premise that being gay is shameful or wrong in some way, which it is not. Although I’m more sympathetic to private individuals, elected officials have no excuses or expectations of privacy on this matter.

3) Legalizing Torture and Creating a “Unitary Executive”: Where were the riots? Where were the protests? My students didn’t know this had happened and didn’t care. Why are Americans asleep on this issue? This is exactly what the anti-Federalists were afraid of back in 1789: An Executive would become a King. Meanwhile, we have become what we used to hate.

4) 650,000 Dead Iraqis: Although I think there may be some problems with the methods of this count, the point isn’t missed: Iraqis are suffering immensely under our efforts to “save” them. We must look at the consequences of our actions as a nation, and rethink them immediately. The solution we tried didn’t work (duh). Time for a new one.

5) Military Coup in Thailand: You cannot defend democracy from a corrupt Prime Minister by overturning the democracy.

6) Nuclear Bomb in North Korea and Bush’s Dissembling Remarks: Why did we attack Iraq? Why was one of the first actions of the Bush administration’s foreign policy machine, early in 2001, to cut off talks and withdraw an agreement with North Korea?

7) Reading, The Working Poor: Shipler’s book, a couple years old now, does an amazing job of painting the complex matrix of circumstances, personal choices, and social institutions that work to keep people on the bottom of our society on the bottom of our society. Without waxing overly sociological, he uses the research and brilliantly conveys the lived experience, the oppressive conditions, the physical and psychological effects of poverty. And he concludes by excoriating the right-wing view of government and it’s effect on tens of millions of people’s ability just to live in the United States.

8 ) Reading, The Trouble with Difference: I’ve been personally struggling with the effects of some kinds of multicultural theory and practice lately, as it seems to me that our focus on “cultural diversity” as an end-in-itself has actually led us to ignore real inequalities around us. Michael Benn Walter’s little book makes this argument eloquently (although sometimes lacking in what my sociologist brain requires: evidence) and powerfully. I’ll do a whole post on this book later this weekend.

9) The Economics of Working in Higher Education, or I Need a Raise: I realized yesterday that because of the funding of my University and the contract for faculty, I would be at this pay scale for 5 more years, with probably no cost-of-living increases (joke) and no merit increases (eliminated from our contract) and only a minimal raise when I get tenure (6%, I believe). That means I’ll be living like a graduate student for the rest of my life. In material terms, I’m starting to question if my 8 year ordeal to get a PhD and secure a tenure track position was really worth it.

10) England’s Total Misunderstanding of the Principle of Free Speech, or How Wrong-Headed Versions of Multiculturalism Will Fuck Us If We’re Not Smarter than the Brits: First, they throw an anti-gay bigot in jail for distributing anti-gay pamphlets; then they throw out a gay police association’s advertisement out because it was “mean to christians”. How could people in the land of John Stuart Mill have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the freedom of speech?

11) Michigan Rejects Intelligent Design: Hooray!

12) Teaching the Evolution of Mind to Freshman Science Majors, or How Can Freshmen in University in California Be So Clueless about Human Evolution?: A guest lecture this week went very well, as I tried to explain in 50 minutes the naturalistic theory of cultural evolution. What I wasn’t prepared for was a group of science majors who had no clue about the basics of evolutionary theory and how scared they were as I talked about “human ancestors” in trees and starting to walk upright and growing big brains. Surreal experience of the inadequate K-12 science education.

13) Nobel Peace Prize for the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh: I have always been sharply critical of capitalism in general, because of the social, human costs of an unfettered market. But in my old age, I’ve moderated a bit, to start thinking about how capitalism might be controled and used (I’m adamantly opposed to Market Fundamentalism and Laissez-Faire) to create the wealth necessary to alleviate poverty and suffering. The market is powerful, but not all-mighty. And so I was fascinated by this idea of “microcredit”, giving loans to small entrepreneurs in Bangladesh instead of large donations to often-corrupt governments in the developming world. Building a successful middle-class is a key part of democratization, because you have to have a social base of people who feel they have a stake in the society before they can have a participatory democracy.

14) Why I Have a Crush on Olbermann: Listening to him eloquently and bluntly thrash George W., & co., just makes me horney, baby.

15) Anti-gay Violence: Man Lured to His Death in New York: There seems to be a sudden spurt of anti-gay violence around the country these past few months, and it’s starting to piss me off.

16) The New Virginia Ballot Proposition that Would Ban All Legal Rights for Same-sex Couples: You not only have to outlaw same-sex marriage, but you also have to prevent all same-sex couples from having any legal arrangements or contracts with each other at all? What the fuck is wrong with America?

17) A Series of Rapes in the Castro: The anti-gay violence comes home, as a series of three brutal attacks on gay men in the Castro followed by sexual assault. The press and police keep talking about how baffled they are by a group of straight men raping men. That is just ignorance. Men have been raping each other for thousands of years, because it’s about power and humiliation. This is not a new kind of hate crime against gay men; it’s just that we now live in a society where we can actually talk about it in public. And in England they punish the gay policemen for saying that anti-gay Christians are legitimizing anti-gay violence?

18) Dissension in the Ranks of the ACLU and a Turning Point for What Has Been the Most Important Civil Rights Watchdog Group in American History: The dissenters are right to criticize the current board of the ACLU and to demand the open dialogue and disagreement that has been the hallmark of the organization until recently.

19) Mirror Neurons Are Cool: Don’t have much to say here, as I’m just learning about them. But they are fuckin’ cool.

20) Will Stephen Pinker and George Lakoff Please Stop Pissing All Over Each Other? Yeah, Lakoff is kinda a hack; but Pinker makes claims way beyond what’s warranted by his evidence. I’m just irritated at what seems to have devolved into a pissing match, instead of a constructive argument. This reminds me of some of the more irritating exchanges between Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould re: punctuated equilibrium.

21) Rethinking Sam Harris’s Book and Richard Dawkins’ Rationality Meets Salon’s Effort at Being “Provocative”—Dear God, I’m Tired of Religion: At first, I thought Harris’s book was overly simplistic, but as I’ve digested his argument over the past year, I’ve come to agree. Religious moderates must take responsibility for their part in making fundamentalism acceptable. And Dawkins’ interview in salon about his new book made me want to slap the interviewer.

Who’s Afraid of a Little Man-on-Man Action? George W.! 7 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Political Commentary, Sexuality.
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In the June 29th edition of Rolling Stone, Tim Dickenson analyzes the recent amendment vote that would have enshrined Ward and June Cleaver into the Constitution in his article “The Politics of Fear” (pp. 43-45). Laying aside all the problematic assumptions about history, biology, marriage and family that the right has to make in order to rationalize its social politics, Dickenson zeros in on the political viability of using homophobia as a strategy.

Creepily, Dickenson points to a parallel Republican move in the 1960 election cycle when they were fighting against inter-racial marriages. At the time, 16 states had anti-miscegenation laws and 70% of Americans opposed inter-racial marriage. In 2006, George W. Bush gave a speech in which he noted that 19 states have banned same-sex marriage outright and that 71% of Americans oppose recognition of same-sex relationships.

Although I’ve been on the receiving end of homophobia indirectly all my life and directly on more than one occasion, I still find myself naïvely baffled by it. What exactly is the fear all about? Guy Hocquenghem theorized in the early 1970s that it was a man’s fear of being penetrated anally, and of Western culture’s general disdain for anal sex. Feminists have long theorized that it’s a man’s fear of being treated like a woman (as abject) and a woman’s fear of never gaining social status as men pair off with each other instead of with them. There are of course status issues in American culture, where to be gay is nearly always to loose social status in terms of gender and esteem. And several contemporary studies have shown that the most violent of homophobes are probably homosexual, as their psycho-sexual responses are nearly almost always to people of the same sex.

Given monotheism’s virulent homophobia (starkly contrasted to the softer homophobias of Asian religions and of smaller pre-modern societies), it’s hard to believe that the origin of Hebrew homophobia was merely as a differentiation between Jews and their Babylonian captors, that is, as a social boundary. How did we get from social boundary to “he shall surely be put to death?” Given the multitude of societies who have functioned perfectly well with various homosexual roles, and the nearly universal existence of homosexual individuals across cultural boundaries, it is difficult indeed to believe that homophobia is natural in any way.

But the Republican strategy, electoral not political, is to tap into something viceral and knee-jerk, an emotional response that will tip the balance at the voting booth, pulling in seniors and evangelicals.

Dan Savage was a little more sanguine in his response to Dickenson:

I think one of the reasons you’re seeing so much sturm und drang from the conservatives is that they know that they’re losing the debate. … Republicans want to lock in the bigotry now, while they have what they perceive to be a majority. You can’t have Rosie on the View and Elton packing Mom and POp in at Caesars Palace and gay peole all over television, and then have these politicians run out there with a straight face and say that ‘gay relationships are a threat to the family.’ We are winning the culture — which is why we’ll ultimately win the political war.

If Savage is correct, then perhaps the more pertinent questions will be to look ahead to the time when gays and lesbians are fully equal citizens, and to figure out what will life be like then without an active opposition?

Random Food for Thought at 1 a.m. 7 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Political Commentary, Pop Culture, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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sam_harris.jpgFrom today’s Salon.com interview with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith:

It may sound paradoxical but it’s not. I’m advocating a kind of conversational intolerance. It’s really the same intolerance we express everywhere in our society when someone claims that Elvis is still alive, or that aliens are abducting ranchers and molesting them. These are beliefs that many people have. But these beliefs systematically exclude them from holding positions of responsibility. The person who’s sure that Elvis is still alive and expresses this belief candidly does not wind up in the Oval Office or in our nation’s boardrooms. And that’s a very good thing. But when the conversation changes to Jesus being born of a virgin or Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, then these beliefs not only do not exclude you from holding power in society; you could not possibly hold power, in a political sense, without endorsing this kind of thinking.

It should be terrifying to us because many of these beliefs are not just quaint and curious, like beliefs in Elvis. These are beliefs about the end of history, about the utility of trying to create a sustainable civilization for ourselves — specifically, beliefs in eschatology. These are maladaptive. For instance, if a mushroom cloud replaced the city of New York tomorrow morning, something like half the American people would see a silver lining in that cloud because it would presage to them that the end of days are upon us.

headshotbwpoint-80x120.jpgAnd from Mark Morford, columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle:

It is like some sort of virus. It is like some sort of weird and painful rash on your face that makes you embarrassed to walk out the door and so you sit there day after day, waiting for it to go away, slathering on ointment and Bactine and scotch. And yet still it lingers.

Some days the pain is so searing and hot you want to cut off your own head with a nail file. Other days it is numb and pain-free and seemingly OK, to the point where you think it might finally be all gone and you allow yourself a hint of a whisper of a positive feeling, right up until you look in the mirror, and scream.

George W. Bush is just like that.

Can you tell I’m having trouble sleeping? Thank god for reading and blogging.

The Root of All Evil?: Part 2—The Virus of Faith (Review) 5 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Cultural Critique, Documentary Film, Ethics, Evolution, Judaism, Political Commentary, Religion, Reviews, Science, Secular Humanism.
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Whereas when I watched Part 1, I found myself wishing Dawkins could be more social-scientific in his analysis of religion, watching the second installment I just found myself wishing he would slap some of these people, which is evidence of my own growing impatience with the power of religion in American society and of Dawkins’ equanimity (at least on film). Overall, I would say that Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, and would highly recommend it, even for showing to religious believers. My online acquaintance Bob McCue (who has posted thoughtful and detailed responses on this blog on the evolution of religion, here and here), has argued recently that the problem with the documentary as a whole is that it is basically preaching to the choir, that believers would not be swayed or moved to consider critically their beliefs by watching the film, and in fact might probably be turned away from the film by Dawkins’ apparent strident atheism. I find that to be especially true of Part 1, but perhaps less so of Part 2 for a couple of reasons.

First, Dawkins addresses directly the thinking and arguments of religion, especially of conservative brands of Judaism and Christianity. The Christians he engaged were difficult to listen to as they defended both their moral positions and their immoral actions. But what is worthwhile about Dawkins’ response is that he remains relatively calm and with more patience than I could muster, responds and engages their arguments with basic reasoned responses. Although I do still think that such engagement is, at the end of the day, probably a waste of time, simply because religious adherents don’t share the basic assumptions of scientific method or rational inquiry, I think that some people might be given pause by Dawkins’ simple insistence that they give reasons for their beliefs and actions. [Incidentally,I found it a stark lack that there were no imams interviewed for the program; and I also wondered how he would have addressed Buddhism and Hinduism (both of which, incidentally, have fundamentalist forms).]

Secondly, I found the actual science, albeit watered down, to be strong. Two main points from evolutionary and cognitive sciences are given: a) that children are genetically set up to absorb information from their surroundings and will accept information given to them by authority figures; and b) that we are genetically selected for altruism, the biological source of our basic morality. On both points, Dawkins raises the scientific evidence as reasons for his positions, namely that children should not be subjected to harmful ideas that create faulty and dangerous morality and that moral behavior is not based on a divine lawgiver.

I also found Dawkins to be magnanimous in his dealings with the likes of Michael Bray, who was arguing for why murdering OB-Gyns who perform abortions is morally justified. Dawkins notes that he could tell Bray was sincere and at base a good man, but that because of his religious views, he couldn’t see the moral complexity of the issues and the immorality of his own position, which he simply passed off to God. Equally frustrating to me was Dawkins’ conversation with the pastor running a Hell House in Colorado. For those not in the know, about 15 years ago, an Assemblies of God congregation staged an “alternative” haunted house for Halloween, wherein people would see, in stead of monsters, the fate of torture and damnation awaiting sinners in the next life. Rather than engaging Dawkins’ arguments, Keenan Roberts simply resorted to “witnessing,” that it is God’s law and he must scare children so that they’ll not burn in hell. [I highly recommend the documentary film Hell House as a bird’s eye view into the social construction of hell and sin and the inner workings of a conservative evangelical school, congregation, and family.]

Dawkins quoting Steven Weinberg (1979 Nobel Laureat in Physics):

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you’d have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

As a normative, I would argue that moral positions must be supported and held provisionally as we would any proposition about the world. That means that moral positions must be accompanied by reasoned arguments and evidence, just as we would expect of any other kind of position, political, economic, etc. The primary disconnect between people of faith and people of reason is precisely there: for a person of faith, the morality is a given, an end-in-itself, beyond critique and examination. This faithful position is held without realizing that their own moralities are historical and culturally specific, even though they experience them as transcendental and divine. Either that gap must be bridged or we must find a way within democracies to rein in the power of this kind of thinking.

Democracy: A Journal of Ideas 4 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, History, Political Commentary, Politics.
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Reading through the blogosphere last night I stumbled upon what looks like a possibly great new quarterly journal about the trials and travails of democracy today. Taglined “a progressive” journal, the inaugural issue (Summer 2006) had some really fascinating content, including two excellent review essays, one about the House of Representatives and another about Islam in Europe. Features on public funding of medical care and the failure of neoconservatism round out some interesting reading. Check it out. I’ll be probably be posting some responses to some of the articles over the next couple months as I digest them.

Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

From the editors’ message to readers:

Yet we launch this endeavor at a time when American politics has grown profoundly unserious. As they have amassed more power for themselves than at any point in nearly a century, conservatives have grown tired in their thinking as it’s become clear that their ideas have failed. But instead of stepping into the breach with a coherent response, many progressives have adopted a compulsive fixation on electoral posturing and crafting the message of the day. Progressives too often have come to eschew bold ambition, preferring to take shelter in the safe harbor of “realism” and “competence.”

The times demand more. We are undergoing a profound transformation in our economy, in the nature of global realities and national security threats, and the character of American democracy and society. This transformation has rendered obsolete the comfortable assumptions of the 1930s, the 1960s, the 1980s–and even the 1990s. As progressives have during previous times of similar flux, we must craft a response that moves beyond the mere criticism of the right wing or a rigid adherence to the past. We need a twenty-first-century progressivism that builds on our proud history, is true to our central values, and is relevant to our times.

The Root of All Evil?: Part 1—The God Delusion (review) 1 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cultural Critique, Documentary Film, Islam, Judaism, Philosophy of Science, Political Commentary, Religion, Reviews, Science.
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dawkins_richard.jpg

[My review of Part 2—The Virus of Faith can be found here.]

There has been much ado about Richard Dawkins’ Channel 4 two-part documentary, The Root of All Evil?, mainly because of Dawkins’ almost strident atheism and because of the relatively inflamatory title. [The video is not yet available in North America, but both parts are currently downloadable from Google Video, Part 1 here and Part 2 here.] Having been raised in a pretty orthodox Mormon household and having family on both sides who are quite religious now, I tend to be less afraid of religiosity in general than Dawkins seems to be. And I do sympathize with the religious impulse, the desire to beleive in something greater, for an explanation of both the uncertainty and fickleness of life as well as the disappointment with the realities of our existence.

When I realized I no longer believed in God, I found myself with twin wounds, one left by the loss of community, the other by the loss of submission to something greater. Dawkins seems to miss these dynamics completely, the importance of communal bonds and identity formation in people’s desire for and attachment to their religious beliefs. On Bill Moyers’ new series, On Faith & Reason, Collin McGinn said that when he left faith behind he found the world without God to be so much more vibrant and rich than it ever was with God. Although I did also eventually arrive at that conclusion, the years it took me to separate myself from religion were painful and transformed my most basic world view. The difficulty in replacing one’s world view and/or accepting the full implications of rationality and science can be quite overwhelming, but the documentary presents Reason as an easy englightenment, to which folks should easily convert.

So the main problem I had with the documentary emerges from my personal experience combined with my training as a sociologist: Dawkins doesn’t seem to fully understand how and why religion has the power it does on people, the role that it actually plays in people’s lives to give them meaning. All he seems to be able to see is its irrationality and anti-scientific mindset, along with the horrifying moral consequences of such belief. I had no qualms or disagreement with Dawkins on these points, but the documentary seemed to set up two categories of religion and science without addressing the complexities of why people believe in the first place and why it can be so hard for an individual, emotionally, socially and psychologically, to leave a faith-community. An exploration of these dynamics can help us understand more deeply why people refuse the evidences of science and rational argument; and more importantly it could help us understand to have more productive dialogues with the faithful, something of utmost importance if we are going to save our democracies around the world from collapsing into theocracies.

Another quibble I had was that the documentary painted religion with such a big brush that suicide bombers and rabid fundamentalists are lumped in with the millions of religious who fight injustice, hunger, and violence world wide. Human religions are vastly diverse and have multiple and contradictory consequences in the real world. It is problematic to ignore these deeply moral aspects to many of the world’s religious. I don’t point this out as an apology for religion, but rather to insist on seeing religion as a form of culture in all its complexity. Dawkins’ points about rationality and science stand even in the face of the morally positive aspects of religion.
[Dawkins has responded to many aspects of these and other criticisms in The New Statesman and in a great interview with the Infidel Guy.]

In all other aspects, I found the documentary to be a solid explanation of why scientific thinking and rational thought should prevail over religious belief, especially in the public sphere. Dawkins’ discussions with the likes of Ted Haggard illustrate clearly the problems of having rational discourse with some kinds of faithful. Haggard refuses the most basic premises of rational thinking and evidentiation of argument and insists, in an odd religious postmodern twist, that all ideas are of equal value and should be given equal time. He even goes so far as to accuse Dawkins of arrogance for making scientific assertions. In another interview on Point of Inquiry, Dawkins points out the arrogance is actually making assertions for which you have no evidence whatsoever and expecting that no one will criticize your position.

As I’ve been musing lately about the merits of rationality and especially about my own work in social theory and method, I find myself frustrated by the simple fact that many people simply, willfully refuse to accept the basic mode of rational thinking. McGinn pointed out that both the academic left and the religious right have been assailing rational thought in an odd sort of allegiance for the past 30 years, where on one hand postmodern philosophy and on the other fundamentalism make similar claims that require belief without evidence and refuse the most basic of rules of logic and empirical reasoning. It may simply be that it is impossible to have that discussion where those premises are not shared. For the academic left, perhaps more empirically and rationally minded researchers can work harder to actively engage in advocating the methods of rational inquiry; and perhaps for the religious right, the best we can do is continue unceasingly to fight for the fundamental principles of democracy that would allow them their religiosity without infringing on social progress. One debate, on the left, is ongoing and will probably work itself as postmodernism continues to lose its caché outside of the humanities; but with Dawkins, I do fear the power of the fundamentalist mind whose morality is clear and justifies violence and coercion to remake society in his or her image.