The Nuclear Posture Review and the Future of the Arsenal

The right and the left in this country have achieved a state of MAD (Mutually Assured Demonization). The recent attempts by the legacy media to whip up hysteria over threats of violence to those who voted for the health bill is a case in point. There was a time, not that long ago, when these “objective journalists” would have gotten away with it. There was no comparably audible public voice on the right to oppose them. Now there is, in the form of talk radio, powerful blogs, and Foxnews. Result: They only succeeded in, once again, making themselves look silly. The Right was in their face immediately, pointing out, among other things, the gross hypocrisy in the double standard they applied to violence and threats of violence depending on whether they come from the right or the left.

Overall, this form of MAD is a good thing. The sanctimonious, condescending attitude of the journalists of yesteryear was getting very old by the time Rush Limbaugh finally appeared on the scene. However, it does have its drawbacks, in the form of increasing levels of political polarization and the associated pious posing on both the right and the left. Indeed, when it comes to the ostentatious striking of sanctimonious public poses, the right has, at long last, achieved parity with the left. Reasoned debate becomes difficult when both sides are only interested in occupying the moral high ground.

Consider, for example, the right’s overwrought response to the latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR is a document submitted to Congress each year by the Department of Defense setting forth what the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy should be. The latest version contains a watered down “no first use” provision according to which we won’t respond with nuclear weapons even if attacked with chemical and biological weapons, with the caveat that for nations that don’t play according to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, everything is still on the table. Some of the other more significant provisions include:

• The United States will not conduct nuclear testing, and will seek ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

• The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.

• The Administration will study options for ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of nuclear warheads on a case-by-case basis, consistent with the congressionally mandated Stockpile Management Plan. The full range of LEP approaches will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.

The response Tunku Daravarajan at The Daily Beast:

I despair of this latest episode of gestural theater designed to make the U.S. look exquisitely reasonable (should we call it “Jimmy-Cartesian”?), but which in truth results in the U.S. looking flaccid, or worse, complacent. After all, who gains from a presidential posture that has, in effect, stigmatized our most potent deterrent? In terms of foreign policy—or, better put, foreign clout—the U.S. is going through a startling period of auto-emasculation.

and from Roger Simon at PajamasMedia:

Like some looney member of Code Pink, our president is abandoning the nuclear deterrent adhered to by every American president since Truman. And he is doing it in a manner that makes absolutely no sense… What are we to make of this and the man who is adopting this policy? Does he hate us? Does he hate this country? What would he do if there was, for example, a massive small pox attack on the U.S.? Send in the infantry? Call in the Marines? Try to reason with whoever did it and recommend they negotiate as the fatal disease spreads to millions of people?… Now I detest nuclear weapons as much as the next person, but this approach seems — I hate to repeat myself, but I will — deranged.

Now let’s think about this for a moment. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the ultimate reason for having a nuclear arsenal in the first place is to protect our security. What if Tunku and Roger, being human, and therefore not infallible, are wrong? What if, just hypothetically, the policy set forth in the NPR really will make us more safe, and the policy they prefer less safe. They have not limited themselves to a reasoned response to the NPR, setting forth, in their opinions, why they think it will not enhance our safety. Rather, they have villified the people who support it, accusing them, not only of being wrong, but of being crazy. When you demonize people, you make it very difficult for them to respond to your objections in a reasoned manner. Being human, they are more likely to strike back, trading tit for tat. I would even go so far as to say that, in some cases, that is the only rational way to respond. It seems rather obvious that convergence to correct policy decisions is not a likely outcome of this process of mutual demonization.

That is the reason that, as I have maintained elsewhere, when it comes to policy decisions as weighty as those relating to nuclear policy, moralistic posing, with all the associated pushing of emotional hot buttons, should be set aside in favor of some semblance of rational discussion. The goal here, I assume, is to survive. Let us, then, dispassionately consider what we should best do in order to survive.

According to Steve Schippert ant Liberty Pundits, the NPR not only does not serve that goal but is, in fact, pointless.  In his words:

There is none, really. Not beyond rhetoric and “historic” moments and – dare the Los Angeles Times say it – a “manifesto.”

No point at all – but for one critical aspect lost in all of the arguing back and forth. Clarity is dead. Nuance and the foolish self-assurance of perceived superior intellectual and/or moral capacity have rightly replaced clear understanding.

Admitting in advance my own fallibility, I beg to differ. In the first place, we have kept the nuclear genie in the bottle now for going on 65 years. I am far from believing that an all out nuclear exchange would result in the extinction of humanity, or anything close to it. It is, nevertheless, an understatement to say that it would be extremely destructive. That being the case, it would be well if, to the extent possible, we maintained a taboo on the first use of nuclear weapons.

Any first user of nuclear weapons likely would become and, it seems to me, should become, an international pariah. Roger paints a nightmare scenario in which millions of people are dying in a biological attack while our hands are tied. Given the known effects of the releases of biological and chemical agents to date, the chances of something like that happening are vanishingly small. If it did, the NPR would become a moot point, just as all our loud protestations against unrestricted submarine warfare prior to our entry into WWI became a moot point for our own submarine forces in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. A far more likely first use scenario would be an attempt at eliminating enemy stocks of biological or chemical weapons with a nuclear bunker buster, either preemptively or after an ineffective and very ill-considered attack on the United States with such weapons. This kind of first use would be very attractive to many in the nuclear weapons community. It would, however, do anything but promote our national security. Rather, it would end the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons, greatly increasing the chances that we, in turn, would become the victims of a really devastating attack, not with ineffective chemical or biological agents, but with nuclear weapons.

I also agree with the other sections of the NPR that are major departures from past policy, or, at least, have been represented as such. One of these is the provision that the United States will not conduct nuclear testing. Again, there are many in the weapons community who would love to resume testing, basing their arguments on insuring the reliability of the stockpile. It would also help the national weapons laboratories solve the demographic problem they face with the retirement or impending retirement of most of the physicists and other technical experts who have actually taken part in nuclear tests, and the difficulty of attracting talented scientists to careers as custodians of an aging pile of nuclear weapons. It would also play directly into the hands of our enemies.

The United States has a huge advantage over potential nuclear rivals in its possession of above ground experimental facilities (known in the business as AGEX) second to none in the world. From the massive National Ignition Facility, with its ability to focus 192 powerful laser beams on a tiny point, to the Z pulsed power machine capable of producing bursts of X-rays at levels far beyond those of any comparable facility on the planet, to a host of other smaller but still highly impressive and technologically advanced experimental facilities, we can approach the physical conditions that exist within exploding nuclear devices more closely and for longer periods of time than any other nation can even dream of. To resume nuclear testing would be to stupidly throw away this huge advantage. At the same time, it would give our enemies all the moral authority they needed to resume testing or develop nuclear weapons themselves.

The decision to set in concrete in the NPR the decision not to develop new nuclear weapons is also a good one. The idea that the United States would do such a thing is anything but implausible. On the contrary, the National Nuclear Security Administration has been agitating for years to get the go-ahead to build the Reliable Replacement Warhead. When Congress wisely told them, not only no, but hell no, they kept up the pressure regardless. Congress has taken a lot of bad raps lately. They deserve a lot of credit for derailing NNSA’s determination to go ahead with the RRW. In the first place, the weapons in our stockpile are not fragile and unreliable. Any enemy that assumed so would be making a very grave mistake. In the second, if we developed the RRW, the pressure to test it would likely become irresistible. The idea of developing a nuclear weapon without testing it would never have passed the “ho-ho” test at the weapons labs back in the 70’s and 80’s. The claim that we wouldn’t need to test the RRW is likely wishful thinking. Again, all the objections to a resumption of nuclear testing I have cited above would apply. Finally, by building a new type of nuclear weapon we would once again sacrifice the moral high ground, handing our enemies all the justification they needed for building new weapons themselves. Again, we would sacrifice major advantages, simply to acquire a weapon that would be somewhat cheaper to maintain than those in the existing stockpile. For obvious reasons, the weapons designers at the labs would love it. For the rest of us, it would make no sense at all.

I am hardly in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, I am in favor of maintaining a powerful arsenal and assuring that the resources we need to keep it safe and reliable will always be available. However, the latest NPR is a reasoned response to the nuclear myopia that would have us sacrifice real advantages in return for extremely dubious returns. As such, it deserves our support.

nuclear-explosion

The Heroic Martyrs of Health Care Reform

The allergic response of the “progressive” left, those great self-proclaimed vindicators of “the people,” to the only genuine popular movement most of them have ever seen has been a remarkable spectacle. If their blogs are any indication, every tea partier with a homemade sign is a racist, Nazi,and  potential assassin with overactive saliva glands. They’ve been waving the bloody shirt non-stop since the health care bill passed, regaling us with hair raising tales of gratuitous vandalism and murderous threats. Instapundit was all over the story last week, with lots of good links to related stories. Examples of the usual ostentatious pious posing on the left can be found here, here, here and here, and reactions on the right here, here, here and here. The “violent mobs” meme was ubiquitous in the MSM and, of course, on NPR, where I noticed they were flogging it relentlessly every half hour or so as I drove to work. (I often wonder whether these people actually believe their own cant and think they’re just reporting the news. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?) Greg Gutfeld has a post about the selective outrage on the left today that hits the nail on the head. His take:

It goes like this: for the media, anger is only okay if its targets meet their stereotypical, romanticized criteria. Meaning: the corporation, the conservative, the daddy who never loved them.

Here’s a list of people doing angry things the media is okay with:

-People calling Bush a Nazi
-Students and non students rioting on college campuses
-Animal rights freaks dousing rich folks with paint
-Actors wishing average folks would get rectal cancer
-Bureaucrats labeling military vets as potential violent right wing extremists
-Radical environmentalists advocating violence against loggers
-Pranksters throwing pies at conservative commentators (you know, somehow they never pie Michael Moore, which makes him sad; he likes pie)

But this health care bill anger is different from all that – not just because it’s right, but because it involves Obama. And being angry at Obama is like being mad at Santa Claus. How can you be mad at Santa, when he brings us so many gifts?

And so, this anger is scary! It’s a mark of incivility! It’s deadly!

In case you’re an NPR reporter and therefore have no clue what Greg is talking about, I suggest you follow some of Instapundit’s links to accounts of threats and violence directed against people you don’t happen to agree with.  You can find examples here, here, here and here.  Now check your archives and find out how obsessive you were about reporting on those stories.  Any questions?  If you want to see what real political intimidation looks like, take a gander at what your pals in Canada have been up to.

Of course, when it comes to the health care bill, the ranting on the right has been at least as loud as that on the left.  Sean Hannity has been making Nathan Hale speeches for months about how the “Louisiana Purchase,” the “Cornhusker Kickback,” and all the related traditional wheeling and dealing in Congress make the health care bill the “most corrupt” ever.  I can only suggest that Sean get a grip and Google Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier, or perhaps read a little about the history of the big railroads and their penchant for political manipulation in their heyday. 

Indeed, when it comes to pious posing from the moral high ground, the right seems to have achieved parity with the left.  We’ve become a mutual demonization society.  In some sense that’s a good thing, because it demonstrates that in the US, unlike, for example, in Europe, the right has regained a public voice in the form of talk radio, influential bloggers, and Foxnews.  The days when the left had such a monopoly over the public media that they could simply destroy people who criticized them the way they did Richard Nixon are long gone.  Now the right can answer tit for tat, and they are in no mood to be intimidated with the “violent demonstrators” gambit.  Who knows, perhaps cooler heads on both sides will eventually become bored with mutual villification and we will see a gradual easing of the current polarization between left and right.  I’m not holding my breath, though.

Meanwhile, we must grin and bear the burden of another massive government entitlement program.  Obama assures us that it will “cut the deficit.”  If it does, it will certainly be a historical first.  I’m not holding my breath for that, either.  On the other hand, it’s unlikely to cause the collapse of the economy the right seems so worried about any time soon.  Other countries have dealt with and continue to deal with much heavier public debts than ours, although we certainly appear to be catching up with them.  A more likely outcome than the “train wreck” expected on the right is economic malaise similar to that in Japan accompanied by gradually increasing taxation in one form or another and an increasingly discouraging outlook for anyone contemplating any kind of private economic venture.  I can’t rule out one of Nassim Taleb’s “black swans,” but I suspect that the American people will simply accept the continuing metastasization of big government and adapt to the resultant loss of liberty as best they can, just as they have accepted the gradual and continued morphing of our so-called “system of justice” into an abomination in which the only “winners” of legal battles in the courts can be the lawyers.  The train wreck may be coming, but it’s still a long way off.

Niall Ferguson and the Amity/Enmity Complex

In earlier posts, I have noted the remarkable paradigm shift that has recently occurred in acceptance of the fact that human behavior, including moral behavior, is highly dependent on predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain. It did not come easy.  The concept of innate behavioral traits flew in the face of a good many cherished ideological myths, not the least of which was the myth of Marxism.  We have made great progress, but we have not reached our journey’s end. 

Not all the myths are dead.  Legions of psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, philosophers, and other “experts” of every stripe are still fighting a delaying action.  They will continue to insist until the bitter end, or, to put it more concretely, until the facts finally drag them back to reality, that, while some aspects of human behavior may be innate, we are only wired to be “good” and “moral.”  Once upon a time they told us that, because the “gentle” chimpanzee was our closest relative in the animal kingdom, then, obviously, our nature was to be “gentle” and “unaggressive” as well.  When it turned out that, after all, the chimpanzee is not as “gentle” and “unaggressive” as first imagined, and, in fact, displays some character traits that are distinctly politically incorrect, the hapless beast was tossed overboard in favor of today’s favorite, the lately fashionable bonobo.  The bonobo, we are told, is a paragon of cooperative behavior, with sexual habits that are in perfect harmony with the most advanced views on the topic.  In a word, we have made progress, but only partial progress.  Instead of being fully buried, our heads are now only half buried in the sand.   

All this gushing over bonobos ignores some hard facts.  Among them is the Amity/Enmity Complex.  As I noted in an earlier post, Robert Ardrey once described the Complex as

…the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist. The paradox may be simply stated: If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence? If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?

…What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years. But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.

…Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.

It does not take a mental giant to figure out how the predisposition to acquire such a dual morality would have promoted the survival of ancestral humans.  It served to spread populations out, optimizing their exploitation of available territory.  Ardrey has included several interesting descriptions of related behavior in other primate species in his books.  At a time when we possessed only crude weapons, the survival value of enmity between adjoining groups was enhanced by the fact that it was unlikely to have lethal consequences.  Times have changed.  Our weapons are no longer crude.

The complex is the fundamental human behavioral trait behind such “isms” and other related evils as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious bigotry.  However, rather than admit something as unpleasant as an innate behavioral trait that might predispose us to be other than perfect angels, we have refused to accept the obvious.  The obvious is that the enmity half of the Amity/Enmity Complex is the unifying fact that explains all these behaviors.  Rather than accept it, we have instead experienced the devastating effects of each of these “isms” in turn, only giving them a name that associates them with “evil” after the fact.  Would it not be better to understand the underlying phenomenon than to continue on this eternal treadmill, constantly closing the barn door after the animals have already fled?  There have been many Cassandras among us since the time of Darwin, thinkers who pointed to the abundant evidence for the existence of the Complex, and the dangers of ignoring its existence.  One would think that, if the preceding centuries of violence and warfare were not enough, the scales would surely have dropped from the eyes of even the most stubborn doubters after the genocide and mass slaughter of the 20th century.  Alas, bonobos are still in fashion, and we’re still not quite there yet.

I remain optimistic, however.  I have witnessed the paradigm shift referred to above in my lifetime.  The other shoe will eventually fall.  Facts are stubborn things.  They don’t go away, and we continue to accumulate them.  The Amity/Enmity complex is a fact.  As long as we retain the freedom to inquire and to research the truth, it will become, like innate human behavior, a fact that is increasingly difficult, and finally, impossible to ignore.  It may be that we will have to beat the last, recalcitrant, “progressive” psychologist over the head with the last quantum fluctuation in the last electron in the last molecule in the final neuron that proves, once and for all, that the Complex is real, but one day he, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world. 

Meanwhile, the manifestations of the Complex, countless as they are in our history, remain obvious to anyone with a mind open enough to look at them.  Besides much else that recommends it to the interested reader, there are many interesting examples in Niall Ferguson’s book, “The War of the World.”  For example, referring to anti-Semitic pogroms in pre-WWI Russia:

What happened between 1903 and 1906 was quite different in character… The catalyst was a classic “blood libel”, prompted by the discovery of the corpse of a young boy,…In the violence that ensued, hundreds of shops and homes were looted or burned. This time, however, many more people were killed… Between October 31 and November 11 there were pogroms in 660 different plances; more than 800 Jews were killed.

To the persecution of the “bourgeoisie” in the Russian Civil War:

The Bolshevik newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta declared: “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood… let there be bloods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible.”… Between 1918 and 1920 as many as 300,000 such political executions were carried out.

and, finally, to the genocide committed against the Armenians by the Turks:

Like the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, the Armenians were doubly vulnerable: not only a religious minority, but also a relatively wealthy group… In the mid-1890s irregular Kurdish troops had been unleashed against Armenian villages as the Ottoman authorities tried to reassert the Armenians’ subordinate status as infidel dhimmis, or non-Muslim citizens. The American ambassador estimated the number of people killed at more than 37,000… The murderous campaign launched against the Armenians from 1915 to 1918 was qualitatively different, however; so much so that it is now widely acknowledged to have been the first true genocide… the men and boys older than 10 were massacred… The number of Armenian men, women and children who were killed or died prematurely may have been even higher than a million, a huge proportion of a pre-war population that numbered, at the very most, 2.4 million.

Is it really so hard to see the common thread here?  Is the truth really so difficult to recognize and accept?  The damage we have done to ourselves boggles the mind.  One day we will learn to understand ourselves, and grasp the reasons why we do these things.  May that day come sooner rather than later.

Of Human Nature and Political Games

In my last post I noted with some gratification that phenomena as obvious as the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior are finally being accepted, in the popular media and elsewhere, as obvious, whereas 40 or 50 years ago they would have been furiously attacked as evidence of racism, fascism, or some similar social malady. In those days, such attacks came mainly from the left, with emphasis on the Marxist left. Well, hold on to your hats, dear readers, because it appears that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. Now it appears that the political right is turning its baleful glance on evolutionary psychology, and discovering that it is a font of nefarious schemes to subvert free will and human virtue.

We begin this story with an article that appeared on NPR’s website. It discussed the ideas of Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam regarding the interactions of the conscious and unconscious mind as set forth in his new book entitled “The Hidden Brain.” I have no certain knowledge regarding Mr. Vedantam’s political leanings, but, considering the fact that NPR has deigned to discuss his book and he writes for the Washington Post, I suspect that he probably stands rather to the left of Rush Limbaugh. Now, given the unfortunate history of attacks on proponents of innate predispositions by assorted Defenders of the Faith on the left, one would think that Mr. Vedantam’s embrace of evolutionary psychology would be grounds for loud huzzahs all ’round. For example, according to the NPR article, he notes the importance of innate aspects of human behavior in the development of social maladies such as racism, citing research from a day-care center in Montreal that found that children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes. All this seems harmless and commonplace enough. All Vedantam is really saying is that there is such a thing as an Amity/Enmity Complex, that it can manifest itself as racism, and that, if we are to control such socially destructive behavior, it would behoove us to understand what causes it.  Fifty years ago, he would have been loudly denounced as a heretic by the High Priests on the left for stating such obvious truisms.  Today, we hear barely a whimper from that direction, but, alas, the time for rejoicing has not yet come.  It appears that the right has now discovered, in its turn, that evolutionary psychology is really a nefarious plot against mankind.

I cite as exhibit A an article written by Jeff G. at Protein Wisdom.  Instead of rejoicing at the return of the Prodigal Son from the left, it seems he has smelled a rat.  Mr. Vedantam, it appears, is not really a benign science writer for the Wapo, but a myrmidon of the left, a mere tool in a broader plot to seize control of our minds and reprogram us into latter day versions of Homo Sovieticus.  Let’s allow Jeff G. to set the tone.  Referring to the Montreal study, he says,

Of course, were the data reversed (had, for instance, the day-care center under review been located in the basement of Reverend Wright’s church, say) — with whites linked to negative attributes and blacks viewed positively — that data almost certainly wouldn’t be extrapolated out as normative the way it is here. In fact, such data would likely be used to exhort the force of identify politics to “empower” historically disenfranchised groups, the result being that we must now believe that identity politics is simultaneously ameliorative (when it empowers certain identity groups) and “racist” (when it empowers other identity groups), even as the mechanism is precisely the same.

Here Jeff G. invents the first in a series of strawmen, attacking Mr. Vedantam for what he “almost certainly” would have done if the racial shoe had been on the other foot.  Apparently, he is unaware of the absurdity of attacking someone for a misdeed they haven’t actually committed, but which he has concluded they would have committed in some hypothetical alternate reality.  Continuing with the article,

And here you have the last two maneuvers: 1) It is silly to call children as young as 3 bigots, Vedantam will (pretend to) concede; and yet they are showing bigoted behavior — like, for instance, they draw “bigoted associations” or make “racist statements” — which transgressions Vedantam will trace to “culture and upbringing”. Are these children responsible for their own culture? Their own upbringing? Of course not, the argument will suggest. And so their bigotry, which is undeniable (given the “associations” drawn by the kids in one Montreal day-care center) must come from somewhere else, and must be lodged somewhere outside of the conscious reach of these children (where presumably it could be corrected).

Certainly culture plays a role in determining whether we perceive specific racial characteristics in a positive or negative light, but where, exactly, does Mr. Vedantam imply that these associations are “lodged somewhere outside of our conscious reach?”  The logical process by which Jeff G. arrives at the conclusion that this “must be” is beyond me.

Once we are here — once we begin to give power to deeply-seeded attitudes learned through acculturation and rote indoctrination (and buried deep in our “sub-conscious”) while simultaneously divorcing the conscious mind from the unconscious mind in such a way that the unconscious mind is no longer a part of the intentional “we” — it is an easy next step to argue 2) that “we” are not responsible for any kind of unconscious racism or bigotry; thus, we can say racist things, or make racist associations, without those associations or statements being intentionally racist. More, we can’t be expected to recognize in ourselves such unconscious bigotry precisely because it lies in our unconscious mind, which is the “autopilot” to our “we,” and as such stands apart from our conscious control over it. Which means we’ll have to rely on others to spot our bigotry for us. God bless ‘em.

Now the strawmen are really starting to come out of the woodwork.  Whoever said that our racial attitudes are “buried deep in our sub-conscious,” beyond our conscious control?  Whoever came up with the idea that our conscious and unconscious minds are “divorced” from each other?  Whoever suggested that it is impossible for us to become conscious of our own “unconscious racism” because our “unconscious minds” aren’t part of our “We?”  Mr. Vedantam certainly makes no such claims in the NPR article, nor does he imply anything of the sort.  In fact, these are all fantasies invented by Jeff G. himself.  Of course, they are necessary fantasies if we are to give any credence to the central theme of his article, which is that Mr. Vedantam is part of a larger conspiracy to convince us that “we must rely on others to spot our bigotry for us.”  Why the insidious leftist elites Mr. Vedantam supposedly serves would want us to believe this becomes clear later in the article.  As Jeff G. puts it,

The upshot of all this is that we are left with an obvious way to fight “racism”: change society and culture in such a way that our “unconscious” mind — over which we have limited ownership (or rather, something akin to a rental agreement) — learns the “correct” lessons. We need to be taught which kinds of associations are acceptable and which are not. Our speech and thought needs to be cleansed; our autopilot re-educated.

Well,  not exactly.  Nowhere does Mr. Vedantam claim that it is even possible to “re-educate our autopilot,” and this must be dismissed as another of Jeff G.’s fantasy strawmen.  Far from implying that we have no control over our autopilot, he specifically states exactly the opposite.  Quoting from the NPR article:

“Our hidden brains will always recognize people’s races, and they will do so from a very, very young age,” Vedantam says. “The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways.”

There is no suggestion here that the associations be “reprogrammed,” but simply that children be made aware of their existence, and the fact that they can manifest themselves as social evils such as racism.  Returning to the NPR article,

Going back to the autopilot analogy, Vedantam says it’s not a problem that the brain has an autopilot mode — as long as you are aware of when it is on. His book, “The Hidden Brain,” is about how to “take back the controls.

In other words, far from suggesting that we need to be “re-educated,” because we can’t control our “autopilot” by our own volition, Vedantam is again saying exactly the opposite; that our conscious minds are really in overall control, and that we are quite capable of dealing with asocial manifestations of unconscious behavior such as racism on our own, without the need for any “re-education” by cliques of leftist illuminati.  No matter, Jeff G. has already left reality far behind, and can’t be bothered to read what Vedantam is actually saying.  he continues,

On offer here is the following prescription: you can only know your autopilot by learning what culture and society have imprinted upon you. Once there, you can only “take back control” by changing what culture and society imprint. Because otherwise, nothing else Vedantam writes makes sense: if you could consciously control your unconscious, that would be a form of consciousness that robs the unconscious of its (presumed) power; so the answer is that you must control your unconscious mind by consciously decided what is appropriate for it to learn in the first place.

Which is to say, you can only take back control by giving over control to those who will properly teach you.

Here one can only shake one’s head.  Nowhere does Vedantam suggest that “you can only ‘take back control’ by changing what culture and society imprint.”  Far from claiming that you cannot consciously control your unconscious, he actually explicitly states exactly the opposite.  Nowhere does he suggest that its even possible to “correctly” program the unconscious mind by “giving over control to those who will properly teach you.”

Well, I can only offer Mr. Vedantam my sincere sympathy, and express the hope that, in future, those who attack his book will take the trouble to read it first. 

 The political animals on both the right and the left will always have their ideological axes to grind.  Meanwhile, we continue to learn.  That which is true will remain true whether it happens to be politically desirable and expedient or not.  Let us seek the truth.

“The Evolution of Morality” and Innate Human Behavior

There has been an incredible (and gratifying) sea change in attitudes towards and acceptance of the idea that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions that are genetically programmed in our brains since the 60’s and 70’s. In those days, proponents of the idea were relentlessly attacked by so-called “scientists” who were actually ideologues defending Marxism and related secular religions. These attacks generally included vilification and demonization via slanderous accusations of “racism,” “fascism,” or some similar right wing sin. At the time, academics in such related fields as anthropology, psychology, etc., either cheered on the ideologues, or stood discretely aside, collaborating in a secular variant of religious obscurantism. In the meantime, there have been great advances in our knowledge of the inner workings of the brain. The proponents of innate behavior have been vindicated, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the basic truth of their arguments, and maintain any claim to scientific respectability at the same time. It would be difficult for anyone who hasn’t been around long enough to have witnessed these changes to appreciate their magnitude or significance.

A recently published book entitled “The Evolution of Morality,” by the philosopher Richard Joyce, is one more striking example of the change, among many others. In it one finds the remarkable passage,

There is one traditional complaint against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that has, thankfully, receded in recent years: that the program would, if pursued, lead to unpleasant political ends. It shouldn’t be forgotten that much of the tone-setting early invective against these research programs was politically motivated. In their withering and influential attack on sociobiology, “Not in Our Genes,” Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin are, if nothing else refreshingly honest about this, admitting that they share a commitment to socialism, and that they regard their “critical science as an integral part of the struggle to create that society” (1984: ix). Elsewhere, Lewontin and Richard Levins proudly made this declaration: “…we have been attempting with some success to guide our research by a conscious application of Marxist philosophy” (Levins and Lewontin 1985: 165). It is not these disturbing confessions of political motivation that I mean to highlight here – intellectually repugnant thought they are (and should be even to Marxists) – but rather the bizarre presupposition that a Darwinian approach to human psychology and behavior should have any obvious political ramifications.

There is much else of interest in Joyce’ book, not the least of which is a quote of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus regarding innate ideas of good and evil at the start of the introduction. I highly recommend it to the interested reader. The fact that it, and many other writings in both the popular and scientific literature, now treat the idea of innate behavior as commonplace and generally accepted, except by such latter day Trofim Lysenkos as Lewontin, Levins, and Kamin, et.al., would surely seem bizarre to a Rip van Winkle ethologist of the late 60’s who suddenly woke up 50 years later. It is encouraging evidence that the obscurantism of the high priests of secular religions like Marxism is as vulnerable to the advance of human knowledge as the obscurantism of the fanatical devotees of the Book of Genesis.

All this begs the question, however, of how it is that such supposedly “scientific” fields as psychology and anthropology are so often hijacked by the purveyors of ideological snake oil and pseudo-scientific fads, to the point that they develop an immune response to new ideas that happen to be in conflict with the prevailing sacred cows. It seems to me that shame would be an appropriate response, but I’m not holding my breath. However, perhaps a little self-criticism wouldn’t be too much to ask before we charge ahead to the next fad. I would suggest that, for starters, those active in fields relating to something as complex as the human brain refrain from promoting their theories as established scientific truths until we understand the brain well enough to support such claims.

Take, for example, the theories of Sigmund Freud. Without a thorough knowledge of the detailed functioning of the brain, the idea that such theories should have the status of established facts is absurd. No such knowledge, or anything close to it was available at the time they were proposed, yet those theories were, for many decades, treated by many as established truths that only the ignorant would question.

If there is insufficient evidence to support a given hypothesis, would it not be reasonable to continue to identify it as such, until such evidence is forthcoming? Would it not be wise to refrain from claiming that we perfectly understand this or that phenomenon, and admit that there are some things that we just don’t know, until the facts are forthcoming to support such claims? When new ideas are proposed that are both plausible and supported by the available evidence, would it not be wise to allow discussion and investigation of those ideas without vilifying those who propose them?

Realistically, I suppose human beings will always be subject to such shortcomings. We prefer the comfortable illusion that we know to the humbling admission that we don’t yet understand. It is in our nature, so to speak. Happily, as is now so apparent in the field of evolutionary psychology, the problem will tend to be self-correcting as long as human knowledge continues to expand. The only thing we need to fear is that the paths to greater knowledge and understanding will be obstructed. Let us see to it that they remain open.

European Anti-Americanism, Then and Now

Brussels Journal quotes a charming new anti-American tune by Belgian musician Raymond van het Groenewoud with the original title, “Down with America.” According to BJ, the tune is

written in Dutch… and will be available in record shops as of next week, and was played on Belgian state radio last Thursday and Friday. Here is a quote from the lyrics of the song:

Hamburgers and coke, yes you already knew
But do you also know the cause of the general decay?
Short-sighted thinking, loud talking
Sticking to one-liners forever
Down with America! Down with the jerks from America
Down with America! […]

Down with American colonialism
Down with that ugly, biting English
All the Anglo-Saxon pretence, arrogance
Yes, a hot pick up their ass
And that is that […]

I am from the Belgian, the European panel
And I ask you: “Clear my channel! Clear my channel!”
Megalomaniac unicellular idiots
Kiss my ass, yes, kiss my balls

Thus one of the most recent expressions of European “Kultur.” I doubt that Der Spiegel, whose editors have been known to throw tantrums and become blue in the face over the excessively patriotic lyrics of Toby Keith, will even bother to take notice.

Like racism, anti-Semitism, and religious bigotry, anti-Americanism is a common expression of the Amity-Enmity Complex I’ve written about earlier. However, unlike racism, which justified slavery, or anti-Semitism, which resulted in the Holocaust, or religious bigotry, which has caused millions of deaths in Europe since the days of Constantine, anti-Americanism hasn’t yet resulted in a catastrophe sufficiently horrific to give it a bad name and render it socially unacceptable. As a result, it still thrives luxuriantly, although its intensity has fallen off somewhat of late from the obsessive, mindless frothing at the mouth one found in even the “respectable” European newspapers and magazines in the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the Bush Administrations.

In an ideal world, the psychologists would have recognized the Amity-Enmity Complex for what it is long ago; the fundamental aspect of human nature responsible for anti-Americanism and all of the other varieties of destructive behavior mentioned above, not to mention most of the countless wars that have marred our history from the dawn of recorded time. However, this is not an ideal world, psychology has been more akin to an ideology than a science lo now these many years, and so, instead of recognizing and controlling the Complex itself, we stagger on from disaster to disaster, assigning a bad name to each of its manifestations in turn so that we may recognize them as evil. So it is, and so it will continue until some inspired team of neuroscientists tracks down the bio-chemical processes responsible for the expression of the Complex molecule by molecule, documenting it so thoroughly than all but the most recalcitrant of the assorted species of psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists are dragged kicking and screaming into the real world, and can no longer deny a truth that should have been obvious to them long ago.

Well, we have been making wonderful and encouraging progress along those lines of late, and one finds glimmerings of common sense in even the darkest journalistic haunts of the social science professoriat. However, before they master a notion of such cognitive complexity as the close kinship of, for example, anti-Americanism and racism as common manifestations of the Amity-Enmity Complex, I suspect we will yet have a long path to follow.

To amuse you during the long wait, I’ve uncovered an interesting example of anti-Americanism from days gone by. Of course, such artifacts will come as no surprise to the cognoscenti among you, who, no doubt, can cite many interesting specimens of their own. Be that as it may, I turned up this example in a back issue of H. L. Mencken’s “American Mercury,” dated October 1924. It is entitled “A Yankee in Paris,” and documents a savage attack on Americans who dared to cheer on their Olympic football team. There are many nuances to the story that will be abundantly familiar to the modern reader, such as the remarkable delicacy of the mainstream media then as now in avoiding any mention of such outbursts. I have included a pic of the opening blurb below, and the story in full may be found here.

Blogscans179

Civility and Political Discourse

A lot of what passes for political discussion these days amounts to pointing out the moral flaws in one’s opponent, often referred to as demonization. This is typically done by people who would be dumbfounded if asked to explain the rational basis for their claims to superior virtue. Apparently, Jonah Goldberg, has no problem with this, pointing to our long history of political incivility. He reminds me of Cunegunde in Voltaire’s “Candide,” who was ashamed that she resisted being raped and mutilated by the soldiers of an invading army after it was explained to her that it was, after all, a mere matter of tradition.

All Goldberg is really saying is that we have a long habit of striking Pharisaical poses and expounding on the inferior virtue and moral turpitude of our enemies. That does not make it right or useful. There are good habits and bad habits. This is a bad habit. Perhaps it’s best to look at it from a practical point of view. It’s emotionally satisfying to feel holier than the other guy, but it doesn’t really inform him, or anyone else, for that matter. When I read or hear someone declaiming on someone elses immoralities, I reflect that there are probably very few people in the world who deliberately and consciously go around doing things they know are evil, and, taking one moralistic poseur with another, the chances are vanishingly small that the person doing the ranting has a clue about why what he thinks is good is really good and what he thinks is bad is really bad. I then shrug my shoulders and move on.

I am far from believing that I will solve such a pervasive and persistent problem with an appeal to our better natures. However, I point out to the happy few who are more interested in approaching the truth than reinforcing the walls of the ideological boxes they live in that it is impossible to do so without listening to and considering opposing points of view. Moreover, ones own point of view is considerably more coherent and persuasive when presented in temperate language. It happens that I am far from perfect in this respect. However, I will make an effort to take my own good advice, and at least respond with civility if I am approached with civility. I hope others will do so as well.

The Silence of the Legacy Media

Today I visited the home pages of CNN, USAToday, ABC, AP, CBS, and MSNBC and, as I have done for the last several days, searched for the word “Fox.” The result hasn’t changed. No such word was found. Apparently the editors have decided that the American people should be kept in ignorance of the fact that the White House has launched an effort to delegitimize one of the nation’s major news organizations. Not long ago they also decided that it was in the interests of the American people to remain unaware of the controversial remarks of the likes of prominent White House appointees Van Jones, Cass Sunstein, and Anita Dunn. One can spin these stories any number of different ways. One cannot, however, claim that they are insignificant, or at least not while claiming to be sane at the same time.

How are we to understand this studied indifference to stories of such significance? To all appearances, the legacy media have gone beyond the organizational bias we have long been familiar with and are now starting to show symptoms of becoming, in effect, organs of the current Administration. Perhaps it is best understood as a transient phenomenon, likely to disappear as soon as the legacy media gets over its infatuation with Obama. It is worrisome nonetheless. I, for one, would prefer to live in a world in which such gatekeepers do not control my access to information. For that reason, I will do what I can to defend the independence and freedom from state coercion of alternative voices such as Fox, not to mention talk radio and those on both the left and the right in the blogosphere who have not yet been “Gleichgeschaltet” to conform to the official narrative.

Cass Sunstein, Glenn Beck, and Diversity of Opinion

Cass Sunstein has been confirmed as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Budget and Management. The right refers to him as another of Obama’s “czars,” although the position has been in existence since 1980. As Katie Connolly of Newsweek informs us, Glenn Beck was among those who were less than thrilled about Sunstein’s appointment. According to Connolly, after taking down Van Jones, “Beck has him in his sights. Recently he urged fans, via his Twitter feed, to collect and save all the information they could find about Sunstein.” Predictably, the stalwarts of the left are frothing at the mouth about all this, striking pious poses as noble defenders of freedom of speech even as they work tirelessly to eliminate it via the “fairness doctrine.”

Glenn’s allergic reaction to Sunstein is justified, to the extent that he is sitting at the opposite end of the political spectrum. On the other hand, Cass Sunstein is no Van Jones. He is a progressive leftist, but he is not a self-blinkered ideologue who is incapable of appreciating points of view that differ from his own.

Some of the right’s objections to Sunstein relate to his attitude concerning freedom of speech. He wrote an interesting essay on the subject back in 2001, excerpts of which appeared in the Boston Review. It’s worth a closer look. The picture of the man that emerges from his own work is a great deal more nuanced than the filtered versions we’ve being seeing from both his detractors on the right and his hagiographers on the left (who, BTW, do not include Kos). In fact, it turns out that some of the reactions to his nomination are good illustrations of a problem he associates with the rise of the Internet:

We can sharpen our understanding of this problem if we attend to the phenomenon of group polarization. The idea is that after deliberating with one another, people are likely to move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which they were previously inclined, as indicated by the median of their predeliberation judgments. With respect to the Internet, the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing that they thought before—but in more extreme form.

The problem of group polarization is certainly real. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the Amity-Enmity Complex I have referred to earlier. Indeed, Sunstein describes the Complex very nicely:

For present purposes, the most important point is that group polarization will significantly increase if people think of themselves, antecedently or otherwise, as part of a group having a shared identity and a degree of solidarity.

According to Sunstein, the problem is exacerbated by the increased ability of individuals to self-filter the news in modern society:

Of course, these developments make life much more convenient and in some ways much better: we all seek to reduce our exposure to uninvited noise. But from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.

Sounds harmless enough. However, Sunstein’s version of how these “shared experiences” were acquired in the past will have his detractors on the right rolling with laughter:

To be sure, the Internet greatly increases people’s ability to expand their horizons, as millions of people are now doing; but many people are using it to produce narrowness, not breadth… What is different is a dramatic increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries, including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. For all their problems, and their unmistakable limitations and biases, these intermediaries have performed some important democratic functions.

Here, of course, Sunstein is referring to what is often referred to as the “legacy media.” Supposedly these “intermediaries” performed the invaluable service of bringing individuals into contact with stories and ideas that they would, given the choice, have ignored, familiarizing them with other points of view and providing balance to their own.

Here, I must join the right rolling in the aisles. The idea that the legacy media, which, by the time the Internet appeared on the scene, had long been feeding us an utterly one-sided and slanted narrative, grossly abusing their great power in the process, were somehow performing a “valuable service” by exposing us to “diverse points of view” doesn’t pass the “ho-ho” test. Their stony silence during the Van Jones affair was a stark reminder of just how effective these “intermediaries” used to be in making sure that inconvenient truths never saw the light of day. Returning to the essay:

People who rely on such intermediaries have a range of chance encounters, involving shared experience with diverse others and exposure to material that they did not specifically choose.

They have a range of encounters “to material that they did not specifically choose,” all right. However, it is hardly “chance” material, and, instead of choosing it themselves, others do them the honor of choosing it for them.

A system in which you lack control over the particular content that you see has a great deal in common with a public street, where you might encounter not only friends, but a heterogeneous variety of people engaged in a wide array of activities (including, perhaps, political protests and begging).

This comparison of the legacy media with the “public street” is one of Sunstein’s favorite hobbies. In fact, their street led in only one direction, and it was certainly not public. Now, however, we run across some of the nuance that doesn’t appear in the diatribes of the right:

None of these claims depends on a judgment that general interest intermediaries are unbiased, or always do an excellent job, or deserve a monopoly over the world of communications. The Internet is a boon partly because it breaks that monopoly. So too for the proliferation of television and radio shows, and even channels, that have some specialized identity. (Consider the rise of Fox News, which appeals to a more conservative audience.) All that I am claiming is that general interest intermediaries expose people to a wide range of topics and views and at the same time provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public. Indeed, intermediaries of this sort have large advantages over streets and parks precisely because they tend to be national, even international. Typically they expose people to questions and problems in other areas, even other countries.

However, after these hopeful remarks, Sunstein quickly returns to his obsession with polarization:

Consider discussions among hate groups on the Internet and elsewhere. If the underlying views are unreasonable, it makes sense to fear that these discussions may fuel increasing hatred and a socially corrosive form of extremism.

One wonders who will get to decide what is “reasonable,” “hateful,” and “socially corrosive.” Is Sunstein unaware that there is a difference of opinion on the subject?

How does this bear on the Internet? An increasingly fragmented communications universe will reduce the level of shared experiences having salience to a diverse group of Americans. This is a simple matter of numbers. When there were three television networks, much of what appeared would have the quality of a genuinely common experience. The lead story on the evening news, for example, would provide a common reference point for many millions of people. To the extent that choices proliferate, it is inevitable that diverse individuals, and diverse groups, will have fewer shared experiences and fewer common reference points. It is possible, for example, that some events that are highly salient to some people will barely register on others’ viewscreens. And it is possible that some views and perspectives that seem obvious for many people will, for others, seem barely intelligible.

In fact, these stories were chosen and reported in a way that conformed to a political narrative. It’s odd that the very modes of communication that freed Americans from the heavy handed slant of the legacy media are now the reason Sunstein is worried about “balance.” Obviously, he never felt threatened by the gross bias of the legacy media because he agreed with it. The perceptions of other people who aren’t quite as in tune with that media as Sunstein regarding the nature of this “common, shared experience” are entirely different. In reality, an elite had the power to choose what our “common shared experience” would be, and then interpreted it for us. The Internet and talk radio demolished that power. The very real danger that government could hand it right back to them on a silver platter with the “fairness doctrine,” restoring the “diversity” their propaganda machine used to dish out, is a far greater cause for concern than Sunstein’s worries about polarization.

However, Sunstein’s suggestions for curing the problems he alludes to are hardly as heavy-handed as his detractors would have us believe. Returning to the essay:

I do not intend to offer a comprehensive set of policy reforms or any kind of blueprint for the future. In fact, this may be one domain in which a problem exists for which there is no useful cure: the genie might simply be out of the bottle. But it will be useful to offer a few ideas, if only by way of introduction to questions that are likely to engage public attention in coming years.

Drawing on recent developments in regulation generally, we can see the potential appeal of five simple alternatives. Of course, different proposals would work better for some communications outlets than others. I will speak here of both private and public responses, but the former should be favored: they are less intrusive, and in general they are likely to be more effective as well.

Nevertheless, I suspect the cures Sunstein suggest are worse than the disease. They include:

Disclosure: Producers of communications might disclose important information on their own, about the extent to which they are promoting democratic goals… Television broadcasters might, for example, be asked to disclose their public interest activities. On a quarterly basis, they might say whether and to what extent they have provided educational programming for children, free air time for candidates, and closed captioning for the hearing impaired. They might also be asked whether they have covered issues of concern to the local community and allowed opposing views a chance to speak. The Federal Communications Commission has already taken steps in this direction; it could do a lot more. Of course, disclosure is unlikely to be a full solution to the problems that I have discussed here. But modest steps in this direction are likely to do little harm and at least some good.

Here one might ask what happens when TV stations insist they are perfectly objective, and entirely fair? The real effect of the type of “disclosure” favored by Sunstein will be exactly what conservatives are worried about when they criticize the fairness doctrine; the exclusion of all but a single narrative. There is, in fact, no such thing as objective reporting. I can think of one type of disclosure that would really be helpful. Anyone who reports the news on public media, whether they claim to be unbiased or not, should disclose their opinions on 15 or 20 of the “hot button” issues of the day, regularly updated. Ones that might serve at the moment include abortion, the public option in health care, the war in Afghanistan, talk radio, etc. If we know what their opinions on such issues are, we will also know how they will filter the news.

Self-Regulation: Producers of communications might engage in voluntary self-regulation… Any such code could, for example, call for an opportunity for opposing views to speak, or for avoiding unnecessary sensationalism, or for offering arguments rather than quick soundbites whenever feasible.

NPR and the BBC are perfect examples of why this idea would never work. Their editors are likely convinced that they are paragons of this type of “self-regulation,” yet they are invariably and persistently slanted. Here, I must agree with Rush Limbaugh. He is an opposing point of view, and one that, for all practical purposes, never existed before he came on the scene. I disagree with him on much. However, he may well be the single greatest promoter of freedom of speech and diversity of opinion this country has ever produced. Talk radio and the Internet provide Americans with far greater access to diverse and alternative opinions on just about any subject one could name than exists anywhere else in the world. Neutering them because they are “polarizing” would be a fatal mistake.

Subsidy: The government might subsidize speech, as, for example, through publicly subsidized programming or publicly subsidized websites.

The effect of subsidy will be what it has always been; the cultivation of points of view preferred by those in power.

Links: Websites might use links and hyperlinks to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views.

Again, notice that, contrary to what some conservative websites have been suggesting, Sunstein is not proposing these links be mandatory. However, his idea raises other issues. Would he include the views of Nazis, Communists, cults, creationists, etc., among those to be linked? Who would decide which of these to exclude?

Public Sidewalk: If the problem consists in the failure to attend to public issues, the most popular websites in any given period might offer links and hyperlinks, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions… But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers.

In fact, weakening the power of “general interest intermediaries,” i.e., the legacy media, has been one of the greatest boons of the Internet. It was precisely those “general interest intermediaries” that walled people off from opinions the editors of those former gatekeepers preferred they not hear. As for the authors of the “popular websites” Sunstein is concerned about, they are very well aware of their opponents’ points of view, and must address them or immediately be exposed among their peers. This is a significant break on extremism. So are the comment sections that appear after many blogs on both the left and the right, and typically include both “pro” and “con” points of view. In fact, the legacy media were far more effective at barring our access to opposing points of view than the Internet could ever be.

Well, be that as it may, Cass Sunstein is a highly intelligent man who is willing to listen to opposing points of view. His opponents on the right who are crying for his removal would be well advised to consider those facts and be careful what they wish for.

Islamophobia and Criticism of Religious Belief

In an article on freedom of expression, Phyllis Chesler writes, “The greatest danger is a closed mind and a finger-on-the-trigger. The minds are closing all over Europe; rather late in the day, a small resistance emerges. American minds have also been shutting down for many years.” She refers to the problem of self-censorship in discussions of issues of race and religion. Focusing on the fear of being accused of Islamophobia, she cites the following test for the same devised by former Green Party presidential candidate Lorna Saltzman:

Lorna Saltzman’s Test

Do you favor equal rights and treatment of women and men?
Do you oppose stoning of women accused of adultery?
Do you favor mandatory education of girls everywhere?
Do you oppose slavery and child prostitution?
Do you support complete freedom of expression and the press?
Do you support the right of an individual to worship in her chosen religion?
Do you oppose government- and mosque-supported anti-Semitic publications, radio, TV and textbooks?
Do you oppose the wearing of burqas in public places, schools and courts?
Do you oppose segregation of the sexes in public places and houses of worship?
Do you oppose the death penalty for non-Muslims and Muslims who convert to another religion?
Do you oppose “honor” killings?
Do you oppose female genital mutilation?
Do you oppose forced sexual relations?
Do you oppose discrimination against homosexuals?
Do you support the right to criticize religion?
Do you oppose polygamy?
Do you oppose child marriage, forced or otherwise?
Do you oppose the quranic mandate to kill non-Muslims and apostates?
Do you oppose the addition of sharia courts to your country’s legal system?
Do you disagree with the quran which asserts the superiority of Islam to all other religions?

Saltzman’s test certainly avoids the problem of self-censorship, but I suspect it contributes more to the problem than to the solution. Although, as Chesler points out, it was written “tongue in cheek,” the implication is that all the questions accurately characterize Islam. While I am no Islamic scholar, I have little doubt it does not. For example, to the question, “Do you support the right of an individual to worship in her chosen religion?” one could cite the words of the Quran, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” I find no mention of female genital mutilation in the Quran. There is no Quranic mandate to kill non-Moslems and apostates, although there is a strong tradition in favor of the latter. According to the Quran, “These! Their recompense that the curse of God, and of angels, and of all men is on them!” A curse is not the same as a death sentence. As for the former, there are certainly belligerent passages in the Quran against infidels. However, it also says, “And fight for the cause of God against those who fight against you: but commit not the injustice of attacking them first: God loveth not such injustice.” As for the last question, it is hardly uncommon for religions to assert their superiority over others.

In a word, Saltzman manner of taking issue with Islam corresponds to the fashion currently prevailing in political “discussions.” This consists of replacing rational argument with villification of one’s opponent by associating them with some commonly recognized evil, such as, in this case, female genital mutilation, child prostitution, “honor” killing, etc. Instead of taking issue with an idea, the goal is to demonstrate that the “other” belongs in an out-group. As usual, this familiar manifestation of the Amity-Enmity Complex sheds more heat than light. It is particularly inappropriate in the case of religious differences, where it approaches the bigotry that it claims to oppose. Moslems and Moslem organizations are sometimes reckless in their accusations of Islamophobia, leveling it at anyone who criticizes their religion. Harry’s Place, hardly a haven for right wing bigots, has documented numerous examples of this tendency. They are certainly crying “wolf,” but the problem won’t be solved by confronting them with a real wolf.

Religious bigotry is real. It is a manifestation of an aspect of human nature that has been singularly destructive throughout our history. Unless we control it, it is likely to become even more destructive in our future. Moslems can point to as many instances of real bigotry and discrimination as adherents of other religions. However, when they dismiss anyone who takes issue with their doctrines as an “Islamophobe,” they sacrifice the credibility necessary to fight real discrimination.

The discussion of religious differences cannot be put out of bounds. This should be as obvious to religious believers as to those who, like myself, are not. It is hard to imagine a subject concerning which it is more important for us to “get it right.” After all, the nature of our religious beliefs will have a profound effect on our goals, behavior, and the manner in which we deal with others in this life. If religious believers are right, they may also determine whether we will be surrounded by pleasures or suffer unimaginable tortures for billions of years into the future. In a word, Chesler has a point. These are matters of overriding importance. If we are to arrive at the truth, we must be free to think about and discuss them freely. Considering what’s at stake, we simply cannot afford self-censorship. If religious believers are really convinced of the truth of their doctrines, they should be the last ones to fear criticism of their beliefs.

As I pointed out earlier, I personally take issue with all forms of religious belief. Most of my own reasons for rejecting religion in general were brilliantly set forth more than 250 years ago by Jean Meslier in his Testament. He focused his criticism on Christianity, but the logic of his arguments is, if anything, even more powerful in the case of Islam. For example, Moslems believe that God created human beings knowing in advance that he would eventually subject most of them to incredible tortures lasting not just for billions and trillions of years, but for an inconceivably long time into the future. Such a being does not correspond to the elementary notions of justice that He, presumably, was responsible for creating in our minds. He is supposed to feel emotions such as anger and love that are certainly understandable as human traits that have evolved because they have promoted our survival, but would seem to have no rational explanation as mental traits of a supernatural being. In particular, he is supposed to be capable of furious personal anger at human beings, infinitely inferior creatures he created himself. It is hard to imagine what reason he could possibly have for feeling such emotions, seemingly as irrational for him as feeling personal rage at some obscure harmless bacteria would be for us. Presumably, if God gave us a brain, his intent was that we should think with it. If we do, these and many other logical objections to Moslem doctrines must occur to us. It would seem that anyone who honestly believes these doctrines would not fear criticism, but would be glad to answer it in the interest of saving their fellow creatures from a terrible fate. If, instead, they meet all such objections with cries of “Islamophobia,” and threaten their fellow Moslems with death if they change their minds, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are not interested in promoting the truth, but rather the illegitimate power of those who profit from falsehoods.