Look Back in Anger

April 27, 2006

I’ve been for the most part avoiding link/quote posts, as they’re not really why I started writing here—I prefer essaying to commentary, generally. In this case, however, I must point to Alonzo Fyfe‘s words on the ‘angry atheist’ phenomenon. I hope to get into atheism soon here, as it’s probably the concept about which I am most passionate and with which I am most engaged right now, but for now, I’ll merely nudge you (forcefully) in the direction of Alonzo’s post. You ought to read the whole thing—it’s not especially long, and Alonzo is always very readable—especially if you’ve ever been at all confused as to why many atheists seem to be angry (short answer: we have reason to be), but here’s a tidbit, emphasis mine:

The article [ed: here] also states:

To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remove human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing.

First, the author says that atheists see a call to “goodness and sacrifice” is a red flag. So, atheists are not good, and we do not engage in sacrifice. In fact, our rejection of religion, I assume, is because we, like spoiled children, simply do not want to do anything for other people. No, the ‘red flag’ is being called evil and selfish. I find my calling to goodness and sacrifice in a different source — from the fact that my fellow humans are capable of feeling pain and suffering and I do not want bad things to happen to them. Instead, I want them to be safe and happy. Period. End of story. No God involved.

Anyone who has trouble recognizing this as a legitimate source of good and moral behavior needs to take a long, hard look at their own morality.



Unholy Alliances and the Monolith

April 11, 2006

Edit: Hello hello, visitors from Pharyngula! Take your shoes off, make yourselves comfortable, take a look around. We just vacuumed, so try not to spill.

A significant chunk of the recent debate among Democrats (or, more accurately, among non-Republicans) has been about how exactly we should be dealing with religion—specifically evangelical Christianity—from a political standpoint, which is to say from a public relations standpoint. With midterm elections rapidly approaching and campaigning for 2008 off to an early start, questions of policy and principle are, as is usually the case, taking a back seat to political maneuvering to satisfy the religious majority. Amy Sullivan’s Washington Monthly article a while ago about the interaction between evangelicals and the Democratic party was the catalyst for the most recent round of debates on this subject. Professor Myers and others came down hard on Sullivan (justifiably so) for what they saw as her willingness to abandon the principles of secular government for strategic purposes that almost completely miss the point. In particular, Sullivan and others have left the impression that atheists and agnostics ought to sit down and shut up for the sake of the team, a suggestion to which a number of us don’t take kindly. With little to no concern for self-preservation, I’d like to dive into this little debate.

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No One Expects the [fill in the blank] Inquisition

March 16, 2006

Dave Neiwert has another gem in a long series of posts about pseudo-fascism and political religion. In the most recent installment, he responds to a question about the connection between pseudo-fascism and “the real article,” i.e. genuine Mussolini-style totalitarian autocracy. His conclusion as I read it is that pseudo-fascism is more appropriately thought of as proto-fascism, and that the sort of pseudo-fascist rhetoric we’re seeing so much of these days isn’t fundamentally distinct from fascism proper, but is rather an “earlier” form of the same impulse. The distinction to be made, then, is between the fascist mindset and fascism itself, the latter being a product of the fascist mindset + certain circumstances and actions:

The correct analogy regarding pseudo-fascism and real fascism, I think, is not to compare them to a king snake and a cobra, but rather to a cobra in different states: before it strikes, as it still slithers into range and raises its cowl; and after it has bitten. In the former, we can keep it at bay and even corral it. In the latter, we’re calling the ambulance.

This is right on the money, I think; the one thing I’d like to add/emphasize is that this sort of thing is a process, one that is relevant long before it reaches its conclusion. We’ve all heard the “first they came for [x], and I didn’t say anything because […]” maxim, but I don’t think most of us have really internalized the reality of how fragile peace and freedom are, and how insidious the forces that seek to undermine them are. The strength of liberal democracy, aside from its respect for principles of individual autonomy, is that it is designed to be self-correcting, i.e. to respond to changes in our understanding of the world. This is the sort of thing that is anathema to neo-fascist groups and to the far right in general (though it’s not difficult to find ideological ties even to less extreme conservative ideologies—this being one reason, perhaps, why rightist hatred has taken such a significant role in modern mainstream “conservatism”), because for these groups, what’s important is a predefined orthodoxy—and there’s no room for challenging that orthodoxy.

What we have to acknowledge, then, is that this pseudo-fascist/fascist mindset is attacking government and society on the most fundamental level, which is, counterintuitively, also the most vulnerable level. Conservative ideology in its most basic form is marked by a certain natural skepticism towards unorthodox ideas, towards anything that deviates in policy or principle from the status quo. The fascist mindset, it seems to me, is a combination of two impulses: an extreme version of this death grip on the status quo, and an irrational and reductive division of the world into “us” and “them.” These two impulses justify and enhance each other, to the point of full-fledged eliminationism. This is dangerous not only in that it has the potential to develop into fascism proper (or at least “isolated” incidents of violence and persecution)—it also threatens the responsiveness of democracy and the fundamental respect for freedom, autonomy, and the intrinsic worth of human beings (regardless of political/philosophical/theological belief). Fascist tendencies and eliminationist rhetoric shouldn’t only worry us because they might result in real violence, though the threat of violence is real. We should also be wary of such mindsets because of the damage they do to the foundations of our society, a society that (like it or not) is designed to function according to a rational morality, not irrational and impenetrable orthodoxy.

Neiwert’s post concludes thusly:

But if we fall down on the job, and the American body politic under the influence of the extremist right gives rise to real fascism, and we do start seeing loyalty oaths and official suppression of free speech, mass arrests and street violence … well, by then, I’m afraid, it will be too late.

He is of course right to suggest that we need to worry about fascist mentalities now, rather than waiting until it’s too late. This is all the more reason for us to think about how such mentalities have been absorbed into mainstream politics, and to come up with ways to keep fascism and eliminationism from playing such a central role in public discourse. For a disturbingly large number of people, hatred and violent invective have taken the place of reasoned debate. This is not something we can afford to wait to deal with; for the sake of our society and everyone in it, we must embrace reason and civil discourse over neo-/proto-/pseudo-fascist impulses, or we can kiss the most wonderful and important principles of our world goodbye.



February 26, 2006

In response to Urizen’s response on my own post, I felt the need to explain myself to those of you who came away with similar impressions as Urizen did.
My intent was not to dismiss the problem, and I never claimed to. In fact, my post was meant to stress the importance of combating the problem, not writing it off as offsetting penalties. My point was that one should not come away from the Mahablog post with the mistaken impression that there is something inherently rightist about hateful rhetoric. I acknowledged and even accepted the post’s point that the current political climate is such that the most egregious examples are coming from the right. (“I do, however believe that at this juncture the fundamentalist far right … is much stronger, much more vocal, and much more mainstream than the fundamentalist far left.”)

My point was (and is) that hateful rhetoric and action always exist, and they easily attach themselves to extremism. The fact of the matter is that in modern America, extremism on the right is far easier to attach to than that on the left. This was not true, though, during the Vietnam war, or more illustratively, in any bloody revolution you care to name. Mahablog claims that “the Right works a lot harder at cultivating hate than does the Left.” I disagree – I believe that the hate from the right has simply caught on better than hate from the left. In particular, I think that it’s not case of working harder, but rather of one having an easier time of spreading hate than the other.

The important distinction (and one that I will expand upon in an upcoming post, though not in this context) is that the empiricial evidence presented in the Mahablog posting are symptomatic, but care must be taken to infer the correct diagnosis. While I’m never one to object to “examining the ideological roots of these strains of eliminationism and hatred”, I think it’s dangerous to jump to the conclusion that the ideals of the right are what cultivate hate before reasoned investigation. I am willing to guess that the real reason rightist hate is so much more prevalent is in the willingness of people today to embrace far right hate than far left hate, in large part because the right found a “righteous” cause to attach its (more hawkish) rhetoric to, which gave the unscrupulous on that side the opportunity to start the proverbial snowball rolling.

Eliminationism, Vitriol, and Partisanship

February 26, 2006

In case you missed it, on Friday Demosthenes posted a bit of commentary on Mahablog’s Patriotism v. Hate Speech post, the latter of which I found via the incomparable Dave Neiwert. Aside from strongly encouraging you to head over to Mahablog and check out the post in question (and whatever else you stumble upon—there’s a lot of good stuff over there), I’d like to say two things.

First off, I must confess to being a bit mystified by a couple parts of Demosthenes’ response. The allegation that the post in question is “heavily slanted towards “rightie” examples” seems to me to miss the point entirely, given that the thesis of the post is that a) hateful political rhetoric isn’t something we can dismiss by saying both sides do it in equal measure, and b) the difference between the hateful rhetoric on the two sides is qualitative, not merely quantitative. The original post notes, parenthetically:

One occasionally runs into some fairly ghastly examples of eliminationism coming from the extreme Marxist fringe — marginalized even by most of the Left — and from juvenile anti-Bush protesters with poor judgment and worse impulse control. […] I’m saying I don’t see eliminationist rhetoric from people who are prominent enough to have some following among liberals, progressives, or Democrats or who hold prominent elected office or positions in the Democratic party.

This is a more or less empirically-oriented point that cannot be reasonably dismissed as a product of slant or bias. It is both qualitative and quantitative, I suppose—there are demonstrably fewer instances of eliminationist rhetoric on the left, and what examples can be found of such rhetoric on the left aren’t typically from prominent voices (pundits, politicians, significant bloggers). Far from “[dismissing] certain classes of “marginal” “leftists” who contradict the argument at hand,” Mahablog rightly notes that there is in fact rhetoric on the extreme left that is probably as bad as that on the extreme right, but that the groups espousing such views cannot reasonably be considered part of the mainstream left in the same way that extreme right-wing views have taken hold of “mainstream” Republican politics (and even when such views are supposedly not part of the mainstream, the rhetoric is adopted by that same mainstream, such that the end result is pretty much the same).

Mahablog and Demosthenes are both right when they distinguish between the right wing and conservatism. Mahablog says:

I don’t want to put all conservatives in the same boat here. Traditional conservatives whose ideas are based in conservative political philosophy certainly can, and do, find much to criticize in liberal political philosophy and in many progressive policies enacted in the past (not many progressive policies around at the moment to take potshots at). What must always be understood is that the hard heart of our current political Right is not conservative.

The crucial point here, I think, is that the right has been effectively divorced from political conservatism. Rather than being at heart a political philosophy, the right has become a monolithic cultural machine, based on manipulative and hateful rhetoric for the sake of political expediency (and, y’know, advancing the causes of big business and evangelical Christianity—the other big business). This disconnect is relevant in all sorts of ways, from the abandonment of fiscal conservatism and small, efficient government to the embrace of jingoistic foreign policy and the erosion of individual rights. These are all things worth pondering, but the point I want to make here is simply this: right-wing political orthodoxy of the 21st century has only a remote connection to conservatism as a political philosophy. It is, more than anything, about the sort of overly reductive, “you’re with us or you’re against us” dogma that has been so prevalent since 9/11. It is about nationalism over patriotism, to the point where any position of criticism can be dismissed as unpatriotic and treasonous. In this way, there is an ideological connection between the right and eliminationist rhetoric. As long as political conservatism has been so completely abandoned in favor of neoconservative/theocratic “culture wars” nonsense, it’s just not enough to say that there’s no connection between rhetoric and “underlying attitudes.” Yes, the hateful rhetoric is primarily a product of “the current political climate,” but when genuine political philosophy has been replaced by dishonest and combative fear-mongering, we must examine the ideological roots of these strains of eliminationism and hatred. We can agree, I think, that any sort of fundamentalism is objectively bad by definition (being an abandonment of reason in favor of orthodoxy), whether it comes from the left or the right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the right culpable for being the source of the overwhelming majority of hate-masked-as-politics.

Secondly (and more succinctly), I want to embrace something Demosthenes said in his closing paragraph:

Our phenomenal access to information is simultaneously unprecedented access to disinformation, and indeed the positive deluge of information makes it all the more easy to shut down and pay attention to only the most reductionist viewpoints.

A lot has been said about the information age and the paradigm shift it ushered in (and may still be in the process of ushering in). The ubiquity of the internet and the other mass media has made it amazingly easy for almost anyone to access an overwhelming number of facts and opinions, more than one person could ever hope to sift through on his or her own. Often the facts are misrepresented or the opinions masquerade as facts, and with the breaking down of traditional media hierarchies, there is an increasing amount of uncertainty about who to trust. The sad reality is that most people don’t have the critical thinking skills to weed out the bad information and the misleading rhetoric—and many of them don’t really care to try, so they trust the first or the loudest voice they come across. As it turns out, the loudest voices are usually the least credible.

This is all the more reason for us to embrace rationality and the teaching of critical thinking skills. It is also a reason for us to stand up to the politicization of science, the gutting and manipulation of education, and the dishonesty of media pundits. People need to have some basic ability to evaluate the credibility of information and opinion, especially these days, else democracy goes down the shitter. And we should, as a society, be doing everything in our power to weed out bad information and dishonest commentary.

Informed participation, not just participation, is the name of the game.


Hate speech

February 24, 2006

So, I have yet to post anything since my introduction, and for that I apologize. Rest assured, Party faithful (all, um… two of you), I have a few things in the works. Once other things settle down a little in my life, they will be attended to quickly. However, in the interest of getting the juices flowing, so to speak, here’s a quick link for your perusal.

Urizen forwarded me a link to an interesting indictment of “righties” hate speech, as opposed to “leftie” rhetoric. Now, I’m not quite ready to declare that the fundamentalist right is inherently more hateful, even in rhetoric than the fundie left. The post itself, annoyingly, dismisses certain classes of “marginal” “leftists” who contradict the argument at hand. I do, however believe that at this juncture the fundamentalist far right (which the post rightly distinguishes from “conservatism”, in any real sense of the word) is much stronger, much more vocal, and much more mainstream than the fundamentalist far left. Personally, I don’t feel this inherent in the underlying attitudes, as much as with the current political climate.

The main reason I’m mentioning the post, though, is that it does give some excellent examples of the mentality that the Intelligent Party was created to combat (albeit heavily slanted towards “rightie” examples). It cites some very intelligent talk about “eliminationism” and the dangers inherent in eliminationist rhetoric.

I believe that we live in a time where, more than ever, the free flow of information is possible. However, let us all take care to remember that as the great philosopher Stan Lee said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Our phenomenal access to information is simultaneously unprecedented access to disinformation, and indeed the positive deluge of information makes it all the more easy to shut down and pay attention to only the most reductionist viewpoints. Whether these viewpoints come from the right or the left, and no matter what pretense they enter under, be it “patriotism”, “revolution”, “security”, or “equality”, we all share a responsibility to take things at more than face value.


The Process of Artistic Evaluation

February 19, 2006

Apologies for the long gap between posts—it’s been a hectic couple of weeks. This post is something of a departure from the steady stream of political/philosophical type posts of late, but it’s probably the sort of departure you should get used to (in degree, if not necessarily in kind, though I am very much into aesthetics). I’ll undoubtedly be back to ‘normal’ in the next post, though.

It has been an enormous source of frustration for me over the years that a majority of people seem to conflate the quality of an artistic work (using ‘artistic’ in a classificatory sense—meaning film/fiction/poetry/whatever—not in an evaluative sense) with the direct enjoyment they get out of it, down to the very silly notion* that a film without a happy ending is inferior to a film with a happy ending. This is mostly harmless, in that the personal enjoyment of a work is probably the most meaningful and readily available gauge for most people, but it shouldn’t be confused with the quality of a work in any universal evaluative sense. I should probably also specify up front that I’m talking about works/genres/mediums with a significant literary or representational element—mostly film and literature, though some visual art and music too. I’m less confident about evaluating non-representational art, though I think a lot of the same principles likely apply.

(Continued below the fold.)

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