Canadian “Human Rights” Tribunal 14 January 2008Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Islam, Journalism, Judaism.
Tags: Canada, Ezra Levant, free speech, human rights, inalienable rights, Muhammed cartoons
The more I read the opinions of Ezra Levant, former editor of Canada’s conservative magazine Western Standard (à la Weekly Standard…get it?), the more I disagree with him and nearly all of his wrong-headed politics. However, I stand with him on the issue of freedom of speech, expression, and conscience as foundational to a liberal society and to a functioning cultural democracy. Even if I conclude that he had unethical motives for publishing the cartoons of Muhammed from the Danish magazine, his intention should have no bearing on whether or not he should be free to publish them. The more I see Canada’s ridiculous “hate speech laws” in action (not to mention England’s and Denmark’s and Holland’s), the more convinced than ever I am that this kind of multiculturalism, although perhaps well-intentioned, when taken in the wrong direction can be a grave threat to liberal democratic values and, ironically enough, cultural diversity itself. Here’s Levant’s opening statement to Canada’s sham of a “human rights” commission in Alberta Canada from last week. Hear! Hear!
Hitchens on Free Speech 15 March 2007Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, History, Islam, Judaism, Law/Courts, Religion.
I have a love-hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens, whose columns in the Nation I used to love to read, but who continues to baffle me with an almost irrational support of the war in Iraq. But lately he has emerged as a modern-day Voltaire (at the risk of overstating), poking at sacred cows (i.e., religion) and insisting on the necessity and ultimate Good of radical free speech. Like Voltaire, he seeks purposefully to offend his reader-listener precisely because he can and believes he should be able to do so.
In Canada, hate-speech is against the law and several European countries are leaning toward outlawing “offensive” speech. This is a dangerous gigantic leap backward to Voltaire’s day, when people who said things offensive to the powers-that-were (i.e., the king and the church) were imprisoned, tortured, fined, or killed for speaking their minds. Here, Hitchens speaks at Hart House at the University of Toronto during a debate about the possible decriminalization of hate speech in the frosty country to our north.* Hitchens offends everyone from Canadians, to gays, to muslims and christians, to women, Austrians and people from Yorkshire. But he does so to make his point: Free speech must remain inviolate. Watch it knowing you’ll be offended at least once, and then listen for its core argument.
Thanks be to One Good Move for posting the speech. Here are a couple of excerpts on Youtube.
*Canadian multiculturalism is in some ways extreme in its niceness and its fear of offence, but rises to the level of anti-democratic principle as the government reifies racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities by funding them merely to exist. I love Canada, and was probably a black jewish lesbian from the Northwestern Territories in my last life; but I fear their efforts to create a pluralist utopia may actually end up destroying some basic freedoms.
Open House Jerusalem, the city’s GLBT organization, agreed to cancel their Pride Parade, and will have an enclosed ralley at a university stadium instead. In return, the Haredi (ultra-conservative sect) have agreed to cancel their protest and planned violence. The city says they didn’t have the police necessary, the army had refused to send help (they’ve just started a major offensive in Gaza), and they cited a fear of terrorists using the parade as cover for suicide bombings.
I’m all in favor of keeping my Israeli/Palestinian brothers and sisters safe from hateful, violent wingnuts, but I can’t help but feel like this is another loss for gay men and women, on the heels of the major losses for gay men and women in the United States this past Tuesday.
The Evangelicals who petitioned the Israeli government; the Vatican who denounced the parade as “offensive to the faithful”; the haredi Jews who threatened to murder gay leaders; and the Muslim leaders who threatened violence to draw police away from protecting the marchers have won in Jerusalem. And conservative Christians and Catholics, evangelicals and republicans have succeeded in enshrining homophobia into nearly every state constitution in the United States.
One bright spot: Mexico City instituted Civil Unions for same-sex couples today. I’m not sure, but I think this is the first form of gay marriage offered in Central and South America.
Anti-Semitism in Delaware 8 July 2006Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Judaism, News, Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
In the newly inaugurated “What the Fuck?” category, I just learned of the experiences of a Jewish family in Delaware who, along with another anonymous family, have sued the Indian River school district for relief from state-sponsored religion in their vehemently Christian public school. The family had to move to Willmington to escape retribution and ongoing harassment from the Christians. The story is apparently a couple years old, and I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of it, but I’m frankly so flaberghasted at the moment that all I can do is pass along this link to a run-down of events. [Edited to correct the link.]
Look at Street Prophets for a great commentary on recent developments. It appears that Stop ACLU (a fascist group who have no clue what a civil right is (see my commentary about related issues here)) published the name of the other family, who were subsequently harassed. [Thanks Belaja for the heads up!]
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.
[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.
Moral Art vs. Moralizing Art: “Munich” and Violence 12 March 2006Posted by Todd in Cinema, Ethics, History, Judaism, War & Terrorism.
A movie that successfully asks difficult and complex moral questions is rare. It is far too easy for art to fall into moralization, rather than morality. Moralizing art tells us the right answer, so that believers feel comforted in their moral superiority and unbelievers will see the error of their ways and experience a conversion. But moralizing art is never good art. Rather than fostering an opening of the heart and mind, encouraging a careful and compassionate consideration of difficult issues, it feeds us the moral outcome as if we were children in Sunday School. In order to make its point, moralizing art must rely on piecing together images and ideas in nearly propagandistic ways; in movies, this means easily-recognizable and readily intelligible representations that require no subtlety of thought, setting up situations that emotionally resonnate but are not in fact realistic, and most aggregiously in film, giving us two-dimensional characters that are actually no more than stereotypes. This year's winner of the Best Picture Oscar, "Crash", is such a moralizing film, reducing characters to stock types, and putting them in situations where, of course, their Evil is made clear. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times wrote today a great response to "Crash's" boosters: Race relations in today's Los Angeles simply don't work the way they are portrayed in the film. For me it is far more simple: "Crash" is moralizing art, and therefore bad art. It hits the viewer over the head with dumbed-down, simplistic moralisms, which aren't helpful at all in understanding the realities of race relations or drawing moral conclusions about race.
Moral art, unlike moralizing art, must be firmly anchored in realistic situations, must represent human beings in their complexity, their moral ambiguity, and show that in real life, morality is not clear and easy, but messy, dirty, and often bloody. Real human beings make morally wrong decisions constantly. Good people do bad things, and vice versa. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is a much more successful moral film. What I found impressive from the first 20 minutes of the film is the equanimity with which the violence was portrayed. There was no difference in style, technique, or point of view between Palestinian-perpetrated and Israeli-perpetrated violence. The film focuses on the Mossad group that is hunting down and killing those whom the Israeli government had pointed out as the planners of the Munich murders. The characters (and the audience) must grapple with the possibility that what the Mossad assassins were doing was, in fact, immoral. At the most basic level it asks what kind of response to violence is justifiable.
Because of the focus on the Mossad group, the audience is never asked to consider the moral issues from the Palestinian side. And so the movie fails as an examination of the nearly 100-year-old Palestine-Israel conflict (war?). Although it might be too much to ask a film about a group of Israeli assassins to equally humanize and explore the Palestinian point-of-view, I found the moments when Palestinians were represented to fall back into the moral ease of stock characters giving stock speeches. For example, as the team cases out a French-Palestinian's apartment to plant a bomb, his wife delivers a shrill speech about Palestine's suffering; and again, a PLO agent working with the KGB delivers an even more shrill speech to the Bana character. To the extent that these two scenes work at all, it is because of the effect they have on the main characters, who are visibly troubled by confronting real human beings whom they must kill. But these scenes do little to humanize the Palestinians for the audience. So this is not a good film about Israel-Palestine, and should not be interpreted as such. But that should not be grounds to dismiss "Munich" as a failure.
Rather, where the movie succeeds as moral art is in the gradual transformation of the main characters, as they confront what they have done and the implications of violence for violence's sake. When you talk with a man in his home and listen to his wife talk about the suffering of her people, and listen to his daughter play the piano, what then does it mean to murder him? What if he wasn't even involved in the crime you are murdering him for? And most poignantly in the film, what does it do to you to kill him? In other words, does perpetrating violence, even when you believe yourself to be morally justified, come back to damage you, to destroy your own moral self.
Some have dismissed the film as only so much "liberal Jewish handwringing," but if I were Spielberg, I would take that as a compliment. What is most remarkable and humane and worthy about liberal Judaism (and for that matter, liberal Christianity and liberal Islam) is its willingness and indeed its insistence on moral handwringing. Religion that teaches moral absolutes, a black and white world, is a religion that will easily fall into violence, be it social, cultural, or the infliction of bodily harm. Easy morality allows violence against "enemies" and clearly defines who those enemies are: anyone who is not like us. Liberal strands of Judaism, over the past 200 years or so, have stepped out of tribal formulations of ethnic identity and asked what it means to be a Jew among human beings. From an early script of "Munich" available online (the dialogue in the finished movie—where punctuation doesn't count—was more precise and polished):
We're Jews, Avner, Jews don't do
wrong because our enemies do wrong.
We can't afford to be that.. .
I don't know that we ever were that
decent. Suffering thousands of
years of hatred doesn't make you
decent. But we're supposed to be
righteous. That's what I was
taught, that's Jewish, that
beautiful thing. That's what I
And I think I've lost that. Avner.
I've lost that too.
Oh that's, that's —
That's everything. I've lost
everything. My, my soul.
Ultimately, the film shows men who are transformed by killing. They become paranoid, haunted, detached. They are morally mangled as they systematically kill other human beings. I suspect that on both sides of any conflict the oucome is the same, unless you have forced yourself to believe in the facile morality that justifies without question or reflection the perpetration of violence. I suppose the ultimate question, and perhaps the most fearful one, is whether someone who believes the facile morality, someone who refuses the moral question and kills or maims believing they are doing the Will of God or that they are fulfilling their patriotic duty actually feel the impact of taking human life. Palestine-Israel or U.S.-Al Quaida: one soldier facing one sniper—one insurgent with one hostage—one suicide-bomber on one bus—one military pilot and one apartment building—one assassin and one target.
Of Faith and Fear 2 March 2006Posted by Todd in Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Judaism, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
On my train commute tonight I listened to an interview with Hella Winston, a sociologist who has been studying the various Hasidim of New York City. (This is the second time I've had this kind of resonance with experience of orthodox Judaism, the first being when I saw Trembling before G-d, a documentary about the experience of gay orthodox Jews.) Winston's research studied the phenomenon of resistance and dissent within these relatively closed religious communities and the ways that people with doubts or questions, or people who feel restrained or oppressed by their communities deal with being "outside" the accepted norms. She spoke of sneaking books from libraries that had to be hidden from family and neighbors; going to movies or watching television that was forbidden; blogs and online communities; half-way houses in Manhattan; losing ties to family and community; depression and emotional turmoil; etc.
Many times in the past, I have been struck by the similarities between my Jewish friends' experiences and my experiences in Mormonism. Although I think that qualitatively speaking, Hasidic communities are far more tightly scripted than most Mormon communities are, the combination of Faith and Fear that marked the relationship of individuals who were, for whatever reason, "oustide" of the norm of their hasidic community also mark my personal experience of leaving Mormonism.
The Faith side is the all-encompassing theological (or Talmudic) representation of the world, such that one's perceptions are completely filtered through it. It also includes, in the case of the Hasidim, a powerful authoritarian structure of elderly men who are treated as prophets or, in some cases, messiahs. In the case of Mormons, it is a geriatric "priesthood" authority structure, which functions for all intents and purposes without check. Dissent in both communities is punished, sometimes mounting to being cut off or excommunicated. But I think what makes these religions so powerful in the lives of adherents, even those who are out of step, are precisely the communities that they produce. There is an incredible psychological strength that comes from being a part of this kind of faith community, a surety of knowledge about who one is and one's place in the world. My sense is that many minority or alternative religions develop this kind of communal bond, us against them.
These tight and all-encompassing religions, which are out of step with mainstream American culture, nearly always have built into them cultural hooks to keep individuals in, the Fear side of the equation. For the Hasidim, this outsider status is much more pronounced, as the practices of Hasidic Judaism mark an individual obviously to non-Jews as being outside of the dominant culture. Mormons also have practices that separate them from the mainstream, such as wearing garments, but these practices are more subtle and so Mormons can often "pass" among "Gentiles." For Hasidimm, there is often manipulation of their emotional ties to community, where their leaving or falling will adversely affect their families and friends after they leave. Both Mormons and Hasidim fear the loss of community and family; and must undergo the painful process of rebuilding a new world view structure after rejecting all or parts of their belief structures. Mormonism, being closer to the mainstream, also builds in theological claims, that if the church is true, then you are giving up eternity by leaving; older Mormon practices, such as blood atonement oaths and covenanting to die rather than give up the community have gradually fallen away since World War II, but it seems to me in my experience that many of the emotional sides of those bodily threat covenants endure within Mormon culture (my own temple experience was before the blood oaths were removed in 1990). For the Hasidim, it's more ethnic: they have a responsibility to maintain or perpetuate Jewish tradition into the future, and are abrogating their connections to thousands of years of tradition and to the true form of Judaism.
Being "other" in either of these two complex religious cultures and communities requires covering, or a constant self-monitoring to make sure not to accidentally reveal oneself as out of step.
In trying to figure out why Jewish experiences resonate with me, I used to talk with David Katzman at University of Kansas about the parallels between Mormonism as an ethnicity and the experience of Mormonism with the experience of Judaism. Although the histories are different and Judaism is older, larger, and more diverse, I continue to feel that resonance with my Jewish friends who have had similar experiences with their communities. Dr. Katzman didn't really understand what I was talking about until he visited southern Utah on his way to California; after his road trip, he was excited to tell me that he now gets it and sees why I think of Mormonism as much as an ethnicity as a religion. But there is also a kind of understanding that grows from being raised in such ethno-religious communities. Winston's equanimity toward her subjects touched me, as she was able to see these communities in their richness and complexity and she really liked and cared about the people she studied. Winston herself is a secular Jew, who approaches her critiques evenhandedly but with compassion. This resonated with my almost tribal connections to Mormonism, despite my atheism, sexuality and politics.