Free Speech and “Tolerance” on the Internet

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner had an op-ed in the New York Times on Friday entitled, “The Battle for the Internet.” (hattip Volokh Conspiracy)  Apparently it was conceived as a call for freedom of expression on the Internet, which Kouchner describes as the medium of an unprecedented “revolution in freedom of communication and freedom of expression.”  In fact, Kouchner’s notion of “freedom of expression” is somewhat constrained.  It doesn’t apply to people whose opinions do not bear a sufficient resemblance to his own. 

Kouchner does not keep us guessing about the type of people whose freedom of expression should be the subject of our particular solicitude.  In his own words,

For the oppressed peoples of the world, the Internet provides power beyond their wildest hopes. It is increasingly difficult to hide a public protest, an act of repression or a violation of human rights. In authoritarian and repressive countries, mobile telephones and the Internet have given citizens a critical means of expression, despite all the restrictions.

We should provide support to cyber-dissidents — the same support as other victims of political repression.

For those not familiar with current French political thought regarding the categories of people one can legitimately view as “victims of political repression,” I note in passing that they do not include Jews living in predominantly Moslem countries, Serbs in Kosovo, or Russians in Latvia.  But I digress.  Let us allow Mr. Kouchner to give a more comprehensive definition of those who, we must assume, are not so victimized.  In his words,

Extremist, racist and defamatory Web sites and blogs disseminate odious opinions in real time. They have made the Internet a weapon of war and hate. Web sites are attacked. Violent movements spread propaganda and false information.

I am not talking about absolute freedom, which opens the door to all sorts of abuses. Nobody is promoting that. I’m talking about real freedom, based on the principle of respecting human dignity and rights.

The battle of ideas has started between the advocates of a universal and open Internet — based on freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for privacy — against those who want to transform the Internet into a multitude of closed-off spaces that serve the purposes of repressive regimes, propaganda and fanaticism.

In other words, “freedom of expression” should not be extended to propagandists, fanatics, and promoters of “hate.”  That would be to embrace “absolute freedom of expression,” as opposed to “real freedom of expression,” which should only be extended to those who are sufficiently “tolerant” to agree with Mr. Kouchner.  And how does one go about defending “real freedom of expression?”  Why, by invoking the aid of “international instruments,” presumably after the fashion of the UN.  Again, in Mr. Kouchner’s words,

We should create an international instrument for monitoring such commitments and for calling governments to task when they fail to live up to them.

No fewer than 180 countries meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society have acknowledged that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies fully to the Internet, especially Article 19, which establishes freedom of expression and opinion. And yet, some 50 countries fail to live up to their commitments.

We should create an international instrument for monitoring such commitments and for calling governments to task when they fail to live up to them.

In a word, then, we are to leave defense of “freedom of expression” to more or less the same people who entrusted defense of “women’s rights” to the theocratic rulers of Iran.  Good luck with that.

In response to Mr. Kouchner’s impassioned plea for “real” freedom of expression, I suggest that he take note of the fact that it has already been tried, with rather disheartening results.  Our Canadian neighbors implemented a version of it complete with a national version of his “international instrument for monitoring such commitments,” in the form of what they called the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), throwing in a batch of clones at the provincial level for good measure.  It turned out that defense of “human rights” in Canada required the suppression of opinions that diverged from the prevailing “progressive” orthodoxy. 

Started back in the 1970’s, these organizations long had the good sense to limit their censorship to obscure conservatives, religious groups, unpopular and extreme political groups, and similar “violators of human rights” who lacked the name recognition and the wherewithal to fight back.  The CHRC prided itself on a 100% conviction rate in its vendettas against such malefactors, achieved via such dubious means as debarring truth as a defense, allowing hearsay evidence, and funding accusers but not defendants.  Eventually, however, they became “dizzy with success,” and started launching attacks on people who could actually defend themselves, such as conservative talk show host Mark Steyn, who occasionally sits in for Rush Limbaugh, the editors of Canada’s flagship Maclean’s magazine, and Ezra Levant, editor of the Western Standard.   Defend themselves they did, as can be seen, for example, here, here and here.  The mainstream media in Canada took note, belatedly realizing that their own collective freedom of expression was threatened, and not just that of the nameless small fry whose rights had been a matter of such singular indifference to them for 30 years and more.  They, too, began pushing back, and a host of Internet sites joined the fray, examples of which can be found here, here, here, and here.  Finally, assured that their backs were covered, even Canadian politicians rediscovered the value of freedom of speech.

Finally, confronted by forces it couldn’t intimidate, the CHRC backed down, in the familiar style of bullies whose bluff has been called.  The victory was a pyrrhic one, however.  It and its sub-bullies live on, and their existence will surely continue to have a dampening effect on the public discourse of anyone who might dare to disagree with them.  As Stefan Braun of the Winnipeg Free Press puts it,

Maclean’s, more mainstream and better-resourced than the niche Western Standard, survived its accusers. But to see any of this as a victory misses the point. If such wrongful accusations can be legally levelled to harass, hound and hurt even established media and renowned authors, can anyone really feel safe from rapacious censors, who may think to challenge popular wisdom or powerful censorship interests defending it?

What message is sent to malicious, or simply misguided, thought-accusers who think to silence them?

Thought persecution, not legal vindication, is the point. Legal vindication is evidence not of the absence of public harm from wrongful hate-speech complaints, but proof of its existence.

Steyn and Levant signify only the visible tip of a much larger chilling iceberg of public self-censorship lurking unspoken and unheard beneath…

The effects of Mr. Kouchner’s “real” freedom of expression are quite visible in Europe as well.  In the Netherlands, a major political party is threatened with blanket censorship in the trial of its leader, Geert Wilders, for daring to criticize Islam.  In the UK, high-handed bureaucrats banned popular US talk show host Michael Savage from entering the country, citing the now-familiar trumped up charges of “provoking criminal acts” and “inciting hatred.”  Once upon a time the country’s Independent Television Commission (ITC) even considered banning Foxnews for being “too opinionated.”  Apparently the commissioners failed to detect the irony of such a charge in the homeland of the BBC.

Europeans commonly refer to the First Amendment right to freedom of expression guaranteed to citizens of the United States as “radical” in comparison to their own “real” freedom.  How long we will remain “radical” in this respect is anybody’s guess.  Our latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, has been quoted as saying, “Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal costs.”  Predictably, one form of freedom of expression she feels bears an unacceptably high “societal cost” is “hate speech.”  Rest assured that “hate speech” will never include the torrent of obscene and violent abuse Sarah Palin has been subjected to since her candidacy for the Vice Presidency was announced.  Nevertheless, it is a highly flexible term, and can easily be construed to include any form of opposition to the prevailing orthodoxies.  Just ask the Canadians.

Of Democrats, Republicans, and the Liquidation of Liberty

The values of the Enlightenment can be summed up in one word; Liberty. The term includes freedom of thought and freedom of action, the latter freedom precluding only acts that physically harm others. The American Revolution represented a remarkable and, it would seem, historically anomalous victory of Liberty. Liberty is no more a good in itself than any other human value. I must admit, however, that I have an emotional attachment to it, and will regret its passing for what one might call sentimental reasons. In fact, we may be witnessing its demise.

Both of the great political parties in the United States embrace Liberty as a slogan. Both promote policies that assume its liquidation. The Democrats promote the cancerous expansion of state power. As the greatest and most consistent proponent of Liberty among our founding fathers, Thomas Paine, put it, “That government is best which governs least,” and “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” Today, the Democrats represent the polar opposite of his point of view regarding government. In an earlier post, I quoted Benjamin Franklin’s response to a scornful attack on the American Revolution in a letter from some of our British enemies:

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

Today, the Democrats are but the latter day incarnation of the evil Franklin and Paine recognized so clearly.

As for the Republicans, never has a party brayed the word “Liberty” so loudly while so actively subverting it in practice. They demand torture, imprisonment without trial, and punishment without due process of law for anyone they choose to call a terrorist, all in the name of “security.” When it comes to freedom of conscience, they have become the mirror images of the British Tories who were the great enemies of our Revolution. As I write this, their demands for the liquidation of that freedom are becoming ever more explicit. Consider, for example, these words in the latest platform of the Republican Party in the state of Maine:

Reassert the principle that “Freedom of Religion” does not mean “freedom from religion.”

As if to punctuate the absurdity of this remarkable version of “Freedom of Religion,” the authors of the Maine platform actually quote Jefferson in the same document.  If ever a man was thoroughly and diametrically opposed to everything today’s Republicans stand for in matters of religion, it was Jefferson. 

It may be that Liberty can only exist in a state of unstable equilibrium in human societies. If so, it had a good run in America.  To the extent that I experienced it, I count myself fortunate.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Morality and “Hardwired Behavior”

“Hardwired Behavior” is one of the many books dealing with innate human behavioral traits that have been popping up like mushrooms lately. Like many of the others, it focuses on morality and moral behavior. Perhaps the most interesting thing about all these books is not that so many of them are being published, but that they are being published at all. Three or four decades ago, the authors of books like this would have been vilified as “fascists,” scorned as “pop ethologists,” and dismissed as delusional right wingers. Marxists and other ideologues would have shouted “Not in our Genes,” determined that no truth that contradicted their narratives would ever see the light of day. In the intervening years those shouts have been drowned by a deluge of facts, thanks in large part to the rapid advance of brain imaging technology. The ideologues who sought to rearrange reality to conform to their preconceived notions have gone the way of the Intelligent Design crowd, who would alter the speed of light, shorten the age of the earth to 6000 years, and redefine the word “firmament” to make the “truth” fit the Book of Genesis. The basic fact of innate human behavior has been obvious to anyone with an open mind since at least the days of Darwin. Now it is a fact that can no longer be denied, or at least not by anyone interested in maintaining some semblance of intellectual credibility.

“Hardwired Behavior” stands out somewhat from the rest of the pack in that the author, Laurence Tancredi, is both a lawyer and a psychiatrist, with expertise in neuroscience thrown in for good measure, and so approaches the subject as one who has seen some of the extremes of human behavior, and has devoted a great deal of thought to the interesting ramifications of our new insights into the workings of the human mind as they relate to our system of justice. Take, for example, the question of moral culpability. Tancredi describes cases in which heinous crimes were committed by people who do not fit the legal definition of criminal insanity, and yet whose actions, at least in his opinion, were motivated by emotional impulses that “trumped rational control.”   He describes the notion that moral choices may be biologically driven as a “revolutionary concept,” which it decidedly is not, at least in terms of the length of time the idea has been around.  Be that as it may, what Tancredi calls the “mad versus bad” distinction inherent in current legal theory is becoming increasingly blurred in the light of our expanding understanding of the mind.  In fact, the very distinction between good and evil has always been a subjective one.  That, however, doesn’t alter the fact that we perceive the distinction as absolute, and, given our nature, have no alternative but to act within the context of moral rules.  Under the circumstances, the notion of moral culpability, whether fiction or not, may be one we cannot dispense with from a legal point of view.

Tancredi is apparently aware of the earlier suppression of the very ideas he presents as such commonplaces.  See, for example, the discussion on pages 21 to 24 of his book under the subheading, “From Mind to Brain:  Completing the Circuit.”  He begins by defining the term “physicalism” in the broad sense of characteristics that are “innate to humankind,” and describes its long intellectual history.  He then suggests that the scientific revolution of the 19th century, with its insistence on intellectual rigor and the scientific method, “…brought about major changes in our perception of morality.  Natural law, or anything resembling a naturally endowed moral sense was discarded as fundamentally wrong.”  This is an absurd yarn, but an interesting one nonetheless.  It amounts to a rationalization of the ideologically motivated suppression of theories of innate behavior, including moral behavior, as something that was done in the name of “science.”  The reality, apparent enough to anyone who cares to go back and look at the source material, amply documented in the books of Robert Ardrey, is that these theories were immediately plausible to a host of scientists, including Darwin himself, that they have actually been not only plausible but obvious, at least since his time, and that they were suppressed, not for any “scientific” reason, but because they flew in the face of preferred ideological narratives that required humans to be other than they actually are.  Look at the nature of the opposition to such ideas 40 or 50 years ago.  That opposition, in the case of Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and many others did not take the form of dispassionate scientific debate.  Almost invariably, it was accompanied by demonization, vilification and ridicule.

That deep lacunae exist in Tancredi’s perception of the nature of this debate is apparent from the statement, “The idea that biology was basic to human behavior and the workings of social groups didn’t reappear in a major way until E. O. Wilson published his book “Sociobiology” in the mid-1970s.”  Thus, with a wave of the hand, the works of the likes of Ardrey and Lorenz are brushed aside as if they never existed.  In fact, as a work of popular science, “Sociobiology” was a mere afterthought to such works as “African Genesis,” “The Territorial Imperative,” and “On Aggression.”  The idea that it was somehow more significant than these earlier works in opening people’s minds could only be taken seriously by navel gazers in the ivory towers of academia.  Wilson is a brilliant thinker whose work has enlightened many.  Ardrey, however, playwright, statistician, and “pop ethologist” that he was, was a greater still.  He took little trouble to jump through all the hoops that would have made him socially acceptable in the hallowed halls of academia, but the man was a genius, with a rare gift for seeing the big picture and revealing it to others.  “African Genesis,” published in 1961, already contained most of his fundamental worldview, and his works are full of accounts of the work of other brilliant scientists, including a host of animal behaviorists whose elegant work can only inspire wonder that so many of the modern workers in the field can somehow never trouble themselves to mention them.  To the extent that Ardrey is mentioned at all today, his work is usually distorted and bowdlerized as the “Killer Ape Theory.”  Here, in a nutshell, is what Ardrey said:  “Innate predispositions have a profound influence on human behavior.”  Here, in a nutshell, is what his many academic opponents said:  “Human behavior is almost entirely determined by culture, and is “Not in our Genes.”  Ardrey was right, and they were wrong.  Obviously, academia is still having a very hard time swallowing that unpleasant fact.  As a result, instead of having the simple decency and intellectual honesty to admit that he was right, they ignore him.

Well, those of us who lived through those times know the truth, and, in any case, a man like Ardrey would surely have welcomed the victory of his ideas more than his personal vindication.  It’s unfortunate he couldn’t live to see that victory.  We are left to contemplate the implications of this whole affair for the advance of human knowledge.  Once again, we have seen the limitations of our intelligence.  Once again, we have witnessed our uncanny ability to deny the world as it is when it doesn’t conform to the world the way we want it to be.  We have learned little from the experience.  Now we see the ideological battle lines being drawn once again over the issue of global warming.  Ideological in-groups that would surely have been familiar to Ardrey dominate the debate on both sides of the issue.  They have already convinced themselves that they are bearers of ultimate truth, and that their opponents are criminals or fools.  They will filter the facts accordingly until a bludgeon in the form of another ice age or sea levels up to our necks comes along to knock them back to their senses.  Meanwhile, let us cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Ben Franklin on Nationalized Health Care

In 1778, while serving as Minister of the Continental Congress to the French government, Benjamin Franklin received an insulting anonymous letter from some British “gentlemen,” expressing contempt for the American Revolution and the scorn felt by ruling elites in all ages for the common people. His answer was interesting in the context of the current debate over nationalized health care. An excerpt:

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

We’ve wandered far from the vision of our Founding Fathers, haven’t we? They valued Liberty. Today the sine qua non is Security, not Liberty, whether for “liberals” or “conservatives.” The left would secure Security with state power. The right would secure it with torture, indefinite detention without trial, and the assumption that “terrorists” are guilty until proven innocent.

benjamin-franklin

The Civil War, Slavery, and Historical Revisionism

Historical revisionists abound in our day. From 911 Truthers to Holocaust deniers, they are out there busily plying their trade, re-crafting historical events to make them fit whatever narrative happens to tickle their fancy. Many of them end up actually believing their modified versions of reality. Instead of seeking the truth, they imagine they already “know” the truth before they start the search. As a result, they become victims of what philosopher Nassim Taleb calls “confirmation bias.” In his words, “By a mental mechanism I call naive empiricism, we have a natural tendency to look for instances that confirm our story and our vision of the world – these instances are always easy to find. Alas, with tools, and fools, anything can be easy to find. You take past instances that corroborate your theories and you treat them as evidence.

The US Civil War must certainly rank near the top when it comes to “most revised” historical events. It has been sliced and diced to fit the narratives of everyone from southern schoolmarms in the 1920’s, whose continued employment depended on their ability to demonstrate to their students that their heroic granddads were fighting for a cause more noble than chattel slavery, to Marxist “historians,” eager to “corroborate their theories” regarding the nuances of class structure in the antebellum North and South. Like all recent historical revisionists, they have a problem; there are mounds of source material out there for anyone who cares to take the time to fact check their pet theories. I just ran across some telling examples thereof in an old copy of the “Edinburgh Review,” published in 1860. One appears in an article on the subject of serf emancipation in Russia, and reads as follows:

The subject of serf-emancipation in Russia is a very interesting one to the civilized world generally, and particularly those nations in Europe and America who have been or are vexed by the calamity of Negro slavery. Those who have abolished that slavery speak confidently of the practicability of emancipating the serfs of Russia; while, in the United States, where the very existence of the Republic now immediately depends on the approaching settlement of the slavery question, the two sections of the nation are respectively triumphing in the avowed intention of the Russian Emperor to emancipate the serfs, and in the obvious difficulty which attends the operation.

In a later article about the presidency of Mr. Buchanan, one finds much more in a similar vein.  For example:

Buchanan was elected in the interest of the (slaveholding) minority; and he lost no time in intimating that his policy would be regulated in favour of that interest. If this appears astonishing, we can only remind our readers that the Republican Party of the present day was then in its infancy; and that of the 20,000,000 of non-slaveholders, the larger portion were politically paralyzed by fear; – fear of an explosion of the Union; fear for their commerce; fear of the disgrace of civil war.

On Mr. Buchanan’s accession to office, therefore, the struggles of many parties had just been converted into a distinct and circumscribed conflict between two, – the Northern and Southern or the Anti-slavery and Pro slavery parties.

Several Southern States had, throughout the Presidential election, propounded schemes of marching on Washington, in case of Colonel Fremont’s (Republican Presidential candidate in 1856) success, seizing the archives, and assuming the government and bringing the political quarrel to the issue of civil war.

By the testimony of all parties, the election orators of the South were answerable for the disorders of the autumn and winter of 1857. They had made speeches to multitudes throughout the Slave States, in which they had dwelt on the certainty of the abolition of slavery if Fremont were elected. They insisted on the menacing appearance of the Republican party, and the necessity of every Southern man exerting himself, if the planters would not see the property and their domestic authority wrenched from their grasp.

We see in Southern newspapers white and black lists of Northern mercantile firms, the members of which are set down by guess as pro or anti-slavery;… The mails are searched for matter of an incendiary (anti-slavery) character.

The North protests against the pro-slavery legislation of late years, and supplies an organisation to agitate for the dissolution and reconstitution of the Union; and at the same time several Southern States are openly proposing to secede from the Union.

Thus far, recent Presidents have lent their whole force to the attempt to spread the fatal institution of slavery over the whole Union; and the question now is whether this policy shall be pushed forward or reversed. This alternative has swallowed up all political subdivisions, and has left the stage clear for the conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties on a definite question.

It is universally known that the Democratic party, deeply divided before, gave way altogether at the Charleston Convention; and that the slaveholders who do not look beyond preserving slavery or perishing in the attempt to secede from the Union have nominated a candidate in the person of Mr. Breckinridge.

and finally, there are these prophetic words;

The “irrepressible conflict” indicated by Mr. Seward must be encountered and dealt with in one way or another. The Slave Statesmen persist in supposing this to mean civil war thrust upon the South by a tyrannical majority in the North; while the North always understood the expression to refer to the eternal opposition of the principles of free and despotic institutions. The man who might so preside over the struggle as to bring it to a favorable issue would be the true comrade of Washington. Such a man is nowhere recognised at present.

Now we recognize that man. 

The Edinburgh Review was the premier “liberal” British journal of the first half of the 19th century, but one can find similar allusions to the possibility that the American Union may break apart over the issue of slavery in its “conservative” twin, the Quarterly Review.  The Americans themselves were no more confused about the matter before the war than the Europeans.  Read the texts of the state and county proclamations calling for secession in the South, and the decisive significance of slavery is obvious.  Here’s an example from one Virginia county’s Call for Secession:

Owing to a spirit of pharasaical fanaticism prevailing in the North in reference to the institution of slavery, incited by foreign emissaries and fostered by corrupt political demagogues in search of power and place, a feeling has been aroused between the people of the two sections, of what was once a common country, which of itself would almost preclude the administration of a united government in harmony.

John C. Calhoun, perhaps the greatest southern politician of them all, began his final speech before the Senate in 1850 with the line, “I have, senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion.”  When it came to the significance of slavery, politicians in the North were in cordial agreement with Calhoun.  Read the northern newspapers of the time, and you’ll find they’re no more “confused” about the role of slavery in the breakup of the Union than their colleagues in the South.  In short, then, European liberals believed the decisive issue was slavery, European conservatives believed the decisive issue was slavery, citizens in the North believed the decisive issue was slavery, citizens in the South believed the decisive issue was slavery, and virtually anyone else alive at the time who happened to take a passing interest in the subject believed the decisive issue was slavery, albeit southern planters occasionally embellished their pronunciamentos with references to such noble causes as “states’ rights” and “liberty,” perhaps with some perfunctory grumbling about the tariff thrown in for good measure.

One can but lament the fact that the southern schoolmarms and Marxist scholars of the 20th century were born too late to explain the “real” reasons for the Civil War to this benighted generation.  The process goes on in our own day.  Consider, for example, the periodic European outbursts of anti-Americanism, the most recent, and probably the most violent of which began metastasizing following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reached a peak of almost incredible obsessiveness and fury at some point in the Bush Administration.  To any nascent Ph.D. in sociology who cares to study the phenomena, I suggest finding all the references to US historical events in the top two or three news magazines or newspapers in a broad sample of western European states during the decade from, say, 1998 to 2008.  Categorize them into the categories “negative” and “positive,” and see what you find.  I rather suspect that all but a vanishingly small remnant will “confirm their story and their vision of the world” that the United States is an evil empire.

Would you study history?  Don’t fail to look at the source material.  If your history was written by a journalist, heaven help you.

No Military Solution?

It’s a persistent meme, isn’t it? You can see recent examples of it here, here, here and here. If you care to see a few thousand more examples, Google is ready and waiting. The interesting thing about it is that it’s completely ridiculous on the face of it. If nigh unto 5000 years of recorded history are any guide, there have been military solutions to virtually any human conflict of interest you can imagine, including countless situations entirely analogous to that faced by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan today.  This particular meme hasn’t acquired legs because its true, but because people who live in any number of different ideological boxes want it to be true.  Of course, it lacks what mathematicians would call symmetry.  Military solutions may not be available to us, but, oddly enough, they are invariably available to our enemies.  Just ask them.  For that matter, just ask the people reciting the meme.

Richard Holloway and Godless Morality

While we’re on the subject of morality, I will touch on a related artifact from a slightly earlier time.  It is a book entitled “Godless Morality” by Richard Holloway, who was formally Bishop of Edinburgh for the Scottish Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as an “after-religionist.”  Holloway was still formally a Christian in 1999, when the book was first published, but had already wandered far from the straight and narrow path.  His book notes that divinely mandated moral systems “bear a striking resemblance to, and offer confirmation of, the social systems in which they emerged.”  Morality was not something mandated by the Bible.  Rather, according to Holloway, “the creation of morality is our business, it is something we have to do for our own sake if we are to live sanely and with care for one another and the good of society.”  Christianity “has allowed itself to be imprisoned by its own lack of historical imagination and versatility in interpreting ancient texts,” and “There really is no single, discernable point of view to be found (in the Bible), and what we do discover is often impossible to interpret, because we are so far from its original context.”  In a word, when Holloway wrote the book, he was palpably no longer a Christian.  Apparently, he hadn’t quite realized it yet himself, but, to his credit, he did eventually have the intellectual honesty to put two and two together.  He now appears to be a more or less garden variety progressive leftist.  Reading his rather rambling book is like listening to NPR for a couple of hours, complete with the chapter on gay and lesbian issues. 

The theme of the book is that we must all get together and cobble forth a new morality, suitable to the cultural context of our time.  Good luck with that.  Its interest as far as this post is concerned is in what distinguishes it from the books on the subject that have begun to appear in the last few years.  As a mentioned above, it was published ten years ago, and it shows.  Holloway is vaguely aware of a connection between morality and our evolutionary past, but the related discussion is remarkably naive compared to what one finds in more recent works.  For some reason, he seems allergic to Darwin, perhaps because he was aware at some level of the left’s aversion, still very pronounced at the time, to any genetic interpretation of human behavior.  Instead, he drags in such worthies as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. 

According to Holloway, “(Schopenhauer) tells us that the species wages war with individuals and their moralities.  It knows no morality except its own will-to-live, so that it has no scruple about over-riding our happiness and well-being, because the species has a closer and prior right to us than the individual has.”  This, we are to understand, “fits well with Nietzsche’s understanding of the human predicament as a consequence of humanity’s sundering from its animal past… And this is the origin of morality, this need to find some kind of balance between instinctive and intentional life, between the drive of the species and the consciousness of the individual.”  Of course, Darwin would have blushed to hear such stuff, not to mention his followers, who had already articulated sophisticated hypotheses concerning morality more than 150 years ago.  The point is that, as recently as ten years ago, one could simply ignore them and hold forth with quaint phrases from such poetic philosophers as Nietzsche on the origins of morality and still maintain at least some semblance of credibility.  That is no longer possible today.  We have been making progress.

It is interesting that, like a number of explicitly atheist writers,  Holloway is aware of the subjective nature of morality.  For example, he says, “I have claimed that morality is a human construct; it is something that we ourselves have created.”  However, he is as incapable as them of transcending his own nature and  following this claim to its logical consequences.  For example, he is clearly capable of unabashed virtuous indignation directed at the rich exploiters of the poor, or those who would discriminate against gays and lesbians.  I daresay he would be incapable of imagining a time or a cultural context in which slavery, predatory exploitation of the poor, and the treatment of homosexuals as pariahs would necessarily be “good,” although, if morality is really a human construct, cultures and contexts that would allow such revisions of morality should be at least hypothetically possible.  In other words, he still experiences morality as an object, as a “thing-in-itself,” all his protestations to the contrary.  We all do.  That’s the way we’re wired.  That’s the way I’m wired. 

None of us can live as other than moral beings.  However, I differ with Mr. Holloway, not to mention some of the more illustrious of my fellow atheists, in my assessment of the role morality should play in our lives.  Morality is a tool crafted in the course of our evolution because it has promoted our survival.  It has no “higher purpose” beyond that, and, to the extent that it doesn’t promote our genetic survival, it is utterly meaningless.  To the extent that one can posit a “good-in-itself” at all, it is survival.  There is and can be no “higher good” than that, from the point of view of our essential selves, our genes.  Morality evolved at a time and in circumstances vastly different from those we live in today.  It is, unfortunately, not infinitely malleable to suit the times, as the Communists recently demonstrated in a rather large-scale experiment that cost 100 million human lives.  It is not in our nature to be amoral.  Let us, then, live our lives according to simple moral rules that promote our survival and, if possible, our happiness.  However, at the same time let us realize that behavioral traits that evolved when we lived as small groups of hunter-gatherers armed with spears may no longer be appropriate now that we live in nation-states armed with nuclear weapons.  We can’t adjust our behavior at will to create perfect denizens of the kinder, gentler, more just world Mr. Holloway appears to favor.  Our morality has its dark sides, such as the Amity/Enmity Complex I’ve often discussed on this blog.  This aspect of our nature made it “morally good” for the Nazis to murder the Jews, for the Communists to slaughter the “bourgeoisie,” and for the zealots of assorted religions the world over to liquidate infidels.   That, too, was “moral” behavior, as far as the killers were concerned.  That aspect of human morality will not change merely because the Holloways of the world wish it so.  Inevitably, situations will arise that do not neatly lend themselves to resolution in the context of moral rules.  To survive, it may be necessary to act rationally rather than morally.

“Guns, Germs and Steel” and Ideological Orthodoxy

As I mentioned in earlier posts, we have just witnessed a remarkable transformation in the “accepted wisdom” regarding the innate in human nature. The politically correct orthodoxies of the “progressive left,” according to which human nature is, essentially, a cultural trait, and “not in our genes,” have been smashed by the progress of science. In the last few decades we have gained the ability to peer deep inside the brain. Karl Marx would have been deeply disappointed by what we have found. The “new Soviet man” has been relegated to the realm of fantasy once and for all, and common sense has prevailed. We have established beyond reasonable doubt that fundamental aspects of our nature are hard-wired in our brains. This is no time to rest on our laurels, though. We are hardly out of the woods yet. The ideological orthodoxies of the left are still the “ground state” in academia and the social sciences. They will continue to prevail whenever they can’t be decisively refuted by repeatable experiments.

Consider, for example, the book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by Jared Diamond. Wikipedia sums it up for us:

The book attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations, as a whole, have survived and conquered others, while attempting to refute the belief that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral, or inherent genetic superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops. When cultural or genetic differences have favored Eurasians (for example Chinese centralized government, or improved disease resistance among Eurasians), these advantages were only created due to the influence of geography and were not inherent in the Eurasian genomes.

In a word, we are dealing here with the orthodoxy that there are no substantial genetic differences between human populations, or at least none that would, in the view of the ideologically pure, give one population an “unfair advantage” over another.  Common sense would seem to dictate that evolution hasn’t come to a dead halt in human populations that have been widely separated and, to some degree, isolated for upwards of 50,000 years.  Indeed, common sense prevails when it comes to “fair” advantages, such as skin color, or lactose tolerance.  When it comes to “unfair” advantages, such as that nebulous thing we call “intelligence,” however, evolution and common sense must give way.  When it comes to intelligence, all human populations are perfectly, undeviatingly equal, and have been since the emergence of the species, although Diamond does make a tongue in cheek reference to the intellectual inferiority of white people in his book.  As connoiseurs of political correctness are, no doubt, aware, such drolleries are permitted.  Other than that, however, absolute equality prevails.  If an Einstein dies in one population, it does not become “unequal.”  No, my friends, at the very instant of his death, a new genius is born, and perfect equality triumphantly prevails once again.

Far be it for me to dare to contradict one jot or tittle of Professor Diamond’s book. I merely point out that what it contains is not science. Rather, it is, in essence an ideological tract. How do we know this? Because every one of Professor Diamonds “discoveries” is perfectly predictable in advance. Once one has read a few chapters of his book, one can tell what he will “discover” in the rest of it without taking the trouble to read it.  You will smell no Lollard here.  Professor Diamond has lived, and will surely die, in the odor of sanctity.  No ideological heresies will befoul his memory.  Everything he has written, and everything he will write, will conform, in all purity, to his ideological worldview.

Well, in theory, some ideological verities might actually be true in fact.  However, we have just seen some very significant ones demolished by a mountain of evidence before our eyes.   Let us refrain from recklessly poking sticks into the hornet’s nests of academia.  Let us merely insist that no impediments be tolerated in the path to increasing human knowledge.  As long as we are free to question and learn, the truth will prevail in the end.