The first thing I have to say is that Richard Dawkins has stolen my signature garment: Hawaiian shirts. Why couldn’t he stick with the hand-painted biology ties he used to wear?
That aside, Richard has just been interviewed by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, co-presidents of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). It will be on some television stations today. The details are on their website, telling you which stations will be broadcasting it, and when, but since it’s already been posted on YouTube, you needn’t bother; just watch it here. It’s 28 minutes long.
Here are some of the questions they ask Richard (dressed in a Hawaiian shirt):
Why should we be proud to be atheists? Why is science superior to religion?
Why are terms “A Catholic child” and “Muslim child” (and so on) offensive?
Why is Richard somewhat offended by the ubiquity of the term “meme,” which he coined.
Why is science denialism so strong in the U.S.?
There are two ads for the FFRF at 13:27: a new version of Ron Reagan’s “not afraid of burning in hell” ad as well as a statement from a young woman, Gabrielle Hanahara.
Unlike the last one, this one has “everything to do with books”. Pieces include his forewords to books, book reviews, essays about books, and with people like Pinker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Christopher Hitchens. (The audiobook version has the whole interview with Hitchens, recorded with an iPHone at dinner.
At the end, Richard, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, discusses his newest book that will come out in October, Flights of Fancy, about flying in animals and humans. They wind up with a discussion of The Clergy Project, a refuge and community of support for pastors who have lost their faith, and a project set up by the Richard Dawkins foundation.
John McWhorter’s “subscriber only” columns seem to appear in the online NYT even if you don’t subscribe, but I wouldn’t always count on it, for they also disappear rapidly. His latest column (click on screenshot) is about linguistics—I suspect he’ll alternate between race and politics on one hand and linguistics on the other—and will be of interest mainly to parents with young children, for it’s about the best way to teach kids to read.
Again, compared to what McWhorter is capable of writing when he’s on a roll (and I think he is close to the Orwell/Mencken class of essayist), this one is fairly tedious, though it has useful information you might want if you have kids on the cusp of reading. Like his other columns that don’t hang together well, it’s a pastiche of somewhat related ideas that seem to have been thrown together to meet a deadline.
The first is why English is spelled so un-phonetically, so that words like “comb,” “tomb” and “bomb”, or “tough,” “bough” and “through”, look the same but are pronounced very differently. A kid learning English has to grapple with that. Attempts to spell words phonetically, and he gives a few examples, are ridiculous to our eye.
He then recounts the controversy about “ebonics” (remember that?): the use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a way to teach kids to read. I well remember this controversy, in which white opponents thought that it was going to teach black kids that proper English consisted of the black street vernacular. McWhorter says that’s wrong; it was always intended to engage kids in reading regular English by using their own argot to teach them.
Finally, he makes a big push for what he considers the only proper way to teach kids to read the difficult language of English: phonics. I didn’t learn that way, but you can read about the principle and methodology here and here (there are several teaching methods, and McWhorter favors the “Direct Instruction Method”.
Since I can already read, and don’t have kids, I didn’t find this column of particular interest, but you might, and so I’ll give a few quotes:
Scientific investigators of how children learn to read have proved repeatedly that phonics works better for more children. Project Follow Through, a huge investigation in the late 1960s led by education scholar Siegfried Englemann, taught 75,000 children via the phonics-based Direct Instruction method from kindergarten through third grade at 10 sites nationwide. The results were polio-vaccine-level dramatic. At all 10 sites, 4-year-olds were reading like 8-year-olds, for example.
Crucially, the method works well with poor as well as affluent children. Just a couple decades ago, the method was still kicking serious butt where it was implemented. In Richmond, Va., the mostly Black public school district was mired in only a 40 percent passage rate on the state reading test until the district started teaching the phonics way, upon which in just four years passage rates were up to 74 percent.
However, there is a persistent disconnect between the world of reading science and the world of people teaching children to read. Only 15 percent of programs training elementary-school teachers include actual instruction on how to teach children to read. There remain people who favor the whole word method, or a combination of whole word and phonics, or even no particular “method” at all.
Using phonics, he says, obviates the divisive need for Ebonics, since the “Direct Instruction Method,” whatever that is, works much better than the marginal gains in reading ability of African-American children achieved by teaching them in AAVE. Finally, he recommends a book if your kid isn’t being taught to read via phonics:
In our moment, as our children go back to school, pandemic-related issues are a clear priority for all of us. However, school boards should be pressured as much as possible to teach reading via the Direct Instruction method of phonics. And if they won’t, there’s what I call the magical book: “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons,” by Englemann with Phyllis Haddox and Elaine Bruner. I’ve seen this method work in my own home, having used it with both of my children and watched that light go on.
McWhorter’s a linguist, so he surely knows whereof he speaks. However, I’d prefer that he write just one column a week, and if it’s about linguistics it should be about as engaging as Pinker’s The Language Instinct. So far McWhorter’s not in that territory, though I haven’t read any of his linguistics books.
I’m looking forward far more eagerly to his upcoming tome, due out October 26. Click on screenshot to go to the Amazon page. You can bet your bippy that this book ain’t getting any starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, or Booklist!
UPDATE: Philosopher Maarten Boudry has issued a series of tweets also criticizing Harrison’s take on the relationship of science and religion. Here’s the first one, but there are about two dozen in the thread:
I've been away from the debate about science & religion for a few years. This interview with historian Peter Harrison (@uqpharri) is surely interesting, but I'm baffled by some of his claims (which indeed seem to be consensus in the field). A few points./1https://t.co/BxZOzWfmqt
Matthew sent me a tweet about this Five Books article telling me it would irritate me. Well, it really didn’t, as the books aren’t really about the compatibility of science and religion, but more about whether there’s been a perpetual war between science and religion. These are two different issues. The second is completely empirical: have there been recurrent clashes between religion and science over history? The first is a combination of philosophical and empirical study: do the natures of science and religion give them different ways to find out what is true about the cosmos? And, if so, have those different methodologies led to conflicting and incompatible claims?
In my book Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, I maintain that there have been sporadic clashes between science and religion (the most notable being the Galileo story and the persistence of creationism), but in general most modern science doesn’t step on religion’s toes. In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland, whose field is the relationship of science and religion, picks out five books that he’d recommend for the layperson to study the intersection of these fields. Click to read it:
Here are photos of the five books chosen by Harrison. I’ve read only one of them: the Hardin et al. essay collection.
Harrison is pretty much an accommodationist, and although he admits that, say, Darwinism conflicts with religion, this is a relatively new phenomenon because, he avers, before the 17th century nobody took the Bible as a handbook of science. What he means—and I think he’s dead wrong here—is that before the 17th century nobody thought that the Bible’s empirical claims were true. If you read the Church fathers, or the Nicene Creed (a fourth century confection) you’ll see that the account of the Bible was seen as purveying the literal truth about our origins, the existence of deities, the existence of Heaven and Hell, and many other empirical matters. Most important is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which we have no extrabiblical evidence, and yet is the fulcrum on which all Christianity rests.
So the idea that Biblical literalism is a new phenomenon seems badly wrong to me. Yes, “science” as a practice and profession didn’t come along until a few centuries ago, so there couldn’t be a conflict between science and religion per se, but even the ancient Greeks engaged in empirical studies that didn’t involve the hand of Zeus.
As with all accommodationist historians, Harrison argues that the Galileo affair has been exaggerated as a clash between empiricism and religion; these people always say it’s about religious power, or is more nuanced than we think. Harrison even emphasizes a “science versus science” element: that Galileo neglected some of his contemporaries’ claims, like Tycho Brahe’s “parallax” arguments against a heliocentric solar system. But you’d have to be deluded to think that the controversy wasn’t mainly about Galileo’s empirical claims contradicting the Earth-centricity divined from Scripture.
On to creationism. Harrison’s discussion of it is weird, and I reproduce it below:
It is slightly different with Darwin. With evolution, there are religious issues at stake. This is part of what motivates young earth creationism: fundamental questions about the nature of human beings, the origins of morality, and the literal truth of the Bible. Darwin’s theory puts question marks against these in a way that the Galileo case doesn’t. It wasn’t evolution that generated difficulties but the method of natural selection, because it made evolution look like a random directionless process. Again, that appears to be inconsistent with Christian notions of a providential direction to history and the special place given to human beings.
But, as we say, history is complicated. Darwin has very powerful highly religious supporters and he has some scientific critics as well. And until we arrived at “the modern synthesis”, with its better understandings of genetics, there wasn’t a plausible mechanism for natural selection.
At least he admits that creationism does exemplify a war between science and faith. But his claim that it was natural selection and not evolution itself that generated creationism seems wrong. Regardless of the mechanism of evolutionary change, the idea of evolution itself flatly contradicts the Bible, and much of the opposition to Darwin’s views rested on his claim that evolution happened (contradicting Genesis), that it was slow (contradicting a young Earth), and that the distribution of plants and animals on the surface of the earth, according to Darwin, could not be explained by a Flood and dispersal scenario.
Second, if you understand natural selection, you know that it is NOT a “random directionless process”. It is the presence of variation (randomly generated by mutation, but Darwin didn’t know that) interacting with a non-random process: the differential proliferation of variation that confers a reproductive advantage. Does Harrison think this? It seems so, because he implies that Darwin’s theory made evolution look like that “random directionless process.” Even if you’re a creationist, you don’t understand what you’re criticizing if you go after natural selection on that basis.
Finally, once we had genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, we knew about mutations and thus had a theory of how natural selection worked on newly arising (or standing) variation. (The “modern synthesis” didn’t begin until the mid-Thirties). But so long as there is heritable variation, which even Darwin knew about, you have a “plausible mechanism for natural selection,” which is simply the differential sorting of variants via their effect on reproductive success. If the variants are heritable, that causes evolution.
One gets the idea from these two paragraphs that Harrison doesn’t really understand Darwin’s theories, is unable to explain them, or doesn’t know their place in history.
A few more items lest I go on forever.
First, Harrison takes the common stance of believers and some philosophers (I don’t know if he’s religious) that you have to philosophically justify the methods of science a priori before you can have any confidence in what you find by doing science. I quote (here he’s talking about Merton’s book):
What’s particularly interesting is that he treats science itself as a kind of ‘black box’ and focuses on external factors and, crucially, values. He argues that Puritan values were important to setting up science and justifying scientific practice. That’s the key thing about this book. He understands that more generally, social values are crucial to the legitimation of science. That means it’s not just to do with the inherent internal logic of science as something that is somehow self-evidently true. That’s not how you make science successful—it’s something external to the sciences that leads us to value them, that makes scientific advance possible, and that makes science an important and central feature of society.
Why this question is so vital to this very day is that science is undergoing challenges to its legitimacy. It’s simply not enough for a scientist to rehearse the chorus ‘well, we’re scientists and this is what the science tells us’; they have to understand the role played by values in giving legitimacy to what they’re doing.
I’m not sure what “challenges to legitimacy” science is undergoing, but I deny that there are any “social values” or a priori philosophical rationales necessary to give us confidence in science or make it “legitimate.” While there’s no one fixed “scientific method”—and here I agree with Feyerabend that “anything goes”—there are general agreed-on principles of what counts as evidence, including empirical observation, doubt, criticism, replication, and so on, that are used by all scientists trying to discern “truth”. If there is a social value at play here, it’s merely “we value what is true.” (That’s not what Harrison means, of course.) There is nothing external to the sciences that leads us to value them, but simply the toolkit that is science that, importantly, IS A TOOLKIT THAT WORKS. Why people value science is simply that it tells us the things we want to know, and tells them truly. You don’t turn to religion if you want to make a vaccine against Covid-19. (Now why we want to make one rests on social principles, but the method itself is what gets us what we want.)
Second, Harrison claims that it is religious values that gave rise to science. That is, the legitimation of science that he deems necessary comes from faith—Christian faith. In this case, it is the faith that gives us impetus to understand God’s laws. Harrison also claims that religion is “necessary but not sufficient” to give rise to science. In other words, in an atheistic West, we would have no science. Two quotes here:
To overgeneralise somewhat, with the new views of Descartes and Newton, the powers of things are stripped away—they become inert—and God has to do the work of moving things around. He does according to his own laws. The notion of divine omnipotence—that God can make any kind of world he wants and is not constrained by any other considerations—then leads to the necessity of empirically investigating the world. That’s one example: the idea of laws of nature and mathematical laws of nature which are foundational to modern science come out of the idea of divine omnipotence. Descartes is explicit about this, and so too are English thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Clark. They are very explicit that laws of nature are divine edicts.
Now you can argue about the extent to which scientists were motivated by religion to find out stuff, but I don’t think that, say, the ancient Greeks, or many scientists in the early days, were simply trying to work out “God’s laws”. I think you’d have a hard time arguing that William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, for instance, was motivated by his efforts to work out how God designed the body. It was motivated, as far as I know, by sheer cussedness: the desire to find out for himself whether Galen was right (Galen wasn’t). And certainly now, when most working scientists and a big majority of good ones are atheists, there is NO motivation to do science as a way to understand God or God’s plan. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, leaves God at the door of the NIH.
There’s also this:
Interviewer: One of the claims that Funkenstein makes towards the end of the book is that while one “can draw many meaningful connections between medieval theology and early modern science”, the stronger claim that “without the former, the latter would never have emerged” is “neither demonstrable nor plausible.” Do you disagree?
Harrison: I think I would. I’d be inclined to say that the medieval theological background is necessary but not sufficient. That would be my view, which is a bit stronger than Funkenstein’s claim.
Ergo, had we not had medieval theology, we’d never have had science. Well, of course this is an untestable claim, but I’d argue that pure curiosity, and the realization that the empirical, naturalistic toolkit of science produces results, that all that would have emerged without medieval theology. You have to do some fast dancing to lay the entire enterprise of modern science at the doorstep of Thomas Aquinas.
Third, I’ve long argued that while science can make contributions to religion—by determining whether their truth statements are really true—religion has, like Laplace apocryphally asserted, nothing to contribute to science. Harrison disagrees, arguing (without giving examples) that naturalism is not necessarily a sufficient assumption for science: that maybe injecting an element of the divine or numinous could advance science:
Clearly, the advocacy of something like intelligent design or scientific creationism in present circumstances is absolute heresy. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that. But I do think it’s very interesting to consider whether religious conceptions might lead to unconceived possibilities in terms of contexts of discovery. This is precisely Funkenstein’s point—that thinking about divine omnipotence and what God could possibly instantiate led to new ways of thinking about the world. This was also argued even more strongly by the French historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem.
. . . I wonder whether the very strong naturalism which either explicitly or implicitly shapes virtually all modern thought is in some way restrictive. Your point is that specific religious dogmas are potentially restrictive, and I think that’s absolutely right. But there’s a difference between specific religious dogmas and thinking in more elaborate theological terms about something like divine omnipotence (which is the historical case I’m thinking of). To put it this way, I don’t buy the idea that scientific naturalism is some neutral position and that the religious position is the one invested in a set of restrictive assumptions. I think naturalism is potentially just as dogmatic and restrictive.
I’d love for Harrison to give us an example of how naturalism has limited scientific thought, for surely there must be one example in the history of science in which thinking about God would not just motivate scientific exploration, but produce specific hypothesis that naturalism wouldn’t. He doesn’t give us those examples, and that’s because they don’t exist.
Finally, and least important, Harrison claims that the existence of religious scientists constitutes an embarrassment for those of us who claim that science and religion are incompatible. A quote:
As you say, the existence of Christian scientists who are not obviously subject to cognitive dissonance is an embarrassment for some who would claim the incompatibility of science and religion (as, for example, the New Atheists did). The fact is that there are now eminent scientists who have religious commitments, as there have always been throughout history. This is an awkward fact for advocates of the incompatibility of science and religion.
It’s not awkward to me, not if you understand human psychology. People are religious for a variety of reasons (including childhood brainwashing), and to say that people can’t be superstitious in one part of their life and rational in others is to misunderstand human nature. I think religious scientists are philosophically muddled, but don’t necessarily experience cognitive dissonance because they’ve built a mental wall between delusion and rationality.
After polishing off Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—a post-apocalyptic novel permeated with McCarthy’s inimitable prose (and I recommend the book very highly)—I need to keep reading, as there’s still no place interesting outside the U.S. that’s safe or accessible for travel. I thus took three books out of the library to keep me busy for a while.
Occasionally I get a hankering to read every Booker Prize winner since they started awarding the prize in 1969. So far I’ve read only seven (Midnight’s Children was my favorite), so there’s a long way to go. The reason I want to do this is that there are too many fiction books to read, and few reliable guides; but I’ve enjoyed every Booker Prize novel I’ve ever read. So I picked out two more.
The first one, below, is by an author with whom I have a love-hate relationship. Naipaul can write like a dream—A House for Mr. Biswas is an all-time classic—but he can be splenetic and downright patronizing, as when he writes about his visits to India (he was actually from Trinidad of Indian ancestry). I hoped that this one, his only Booker winner, would be as good as Biswas. It’s a good book, but doesn’t come up to that standard. It is in fact a very weird novel, consisting of three disconnected tales, about Indians who move to the U.S., about Trinidadians who move to London, and about Brits who move to Africa. I suppose the connection between the stories is revealed by the title. I’m only 2/3 of the way through, but so far it looks as if the “theme” is that people who move to find freedom only find more enslavement. The third tale is by far the best, a classic, “on the road” story about a gay white Brit and a woman bent on adultery with a different man, who take a long drive in an African country experiencing revolution. I’d recommend the book, but if you haven’t read Naipaul, go to Biswas first. Truly, I’m not yet sure why this one won the Booker, but I’m not yet through.
I haven’t started the book below yet, published in 1973 and a Booker winner that year, but I’m a sucker for novels about India, as I love the country. Ergo, Midnight’s Children as my favorite Booker Winner, and I also love The Raj Quartet and A Passage to India. I also love novels by Indian expats like Jhumpa Lahiri or inpats like Arundhati Roy. The book below attracted me because of the plot summary and blurbs on Wikipedia:
Inspired by events such as the sieges of Cawnapore (Kanpur) and Lucknow, the book details the siege of a fictional Indian town, Krishnapur, during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 from the perspective of the British residents. The main characters find themselves subject to the increasing strictures and deprivation of the siege, which reverses the “normal” structure of life where Europeans govern Asian subjects. The book portrays an India under the control of the East India Company, as was the case in 1857. The absurdity of the class system in a town no one can leave becomes a source of comic invention, though the text is serious in intent and tone.
. . .Walter Clemons in Newsweek on 21 October 1974 said it was “a work of wit, lively historical reconstruction and imaginative intensity.”
John Spurling said in the New Statesman on 21 September 1973 that it was “a masterpiece”
On 2 September 1973 Julian Symons wrote in The Sunday Times that Farrell is “one of the half-dozen British writers under forty whose work should be read by anybody inclined to think that no interesting novels are being written today.”
That sounds like it’s worth a try.
I came to this book by an unusual route. (It’s not a Booker winner.) I was listening to a song on YouTube suggested by a reader: Karen Carpenter’s version of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina“, and then got hooked into the YouTube suggestion of Madonna singing the same song” from the movie version of “Evita“. Since I heard that, and several other versions, I realized that I know very little about Eva Peron despite the huge role she played (and still plays) in the history of Argentina. So I needed to fill that lacuna, and this book appeared to be the biography that was recommended most often. (It also appears to be the one that inspired the musical.)
The Evita legend freaks me out, as it’s played on a foreign stage, and involves a poor woman who hits the big time, using her fame as an actress, a beauty, and Juan Peron’s wife to do good for the poor. But her motivations may be more than altruistic, or so suggest the lyrics of Lloyd-Webber/Rice song—a pastiche of trite emotions and self-aggrandizement set to a beautiful tune. I need to find out how much of Evita was empathy and how much was self promotion. Regardless, her story, her death at 33 from uterine cancer, and the preservation of her body (Juan Peron used to put it on the dinner table as he ate), is just plain weird, and I want to know about it. And I want to know what she did to make her more beloved of her people than was her husband.
A brief but informative biography:
Here’s Eva Peron’s state funeral in 1952—an unusual ceremony for the wife of a President. But she was adored by the “common people’ of Argentina. The video has no sound, but doesn’t need any.
A rare video of Eva Peron being interviewed:
And to see a popular post on my favorite 20 books of the last 200 years (along with those chosen by my friend Tim), go here.
This, of course, is my call for you to recommend books you’re reading or have read recently, as I often find my own material from readers’ suggestions. Please comment below.
Matthew forwarded me this tweet and told me to look at the fourth picture, which I’ve put below. What is wrong with it? Nicholas Booth is an author who writes about diverse subjects, especially space. (Beneath the Night is not, by the way, a book on astrology.)
I had forgotten that Andrew Sullivan has a new book coming out—a collection of selected essays written over the last 32 years. The official date of release is Tuesday, and you can order the book from Amazon by clicking on the screenshot below (the Simon & Schuster website for the book is here).
There’s a review of the book in today’s New York Times (click on screenshot below), and it’s surprisingly positive. I say “suprisingly” because, after four years as a writer for the NYT Magazine, Sullivan was fired in 2002. (He was also let go from New York Magazine last year, presumably because they deep-sixed one of his columns condemning the violence associated with racial-justice demonstrations.) And he’s also seen as a “conservative”, though my reading of his positions shows him all over the map. It’s also surprising because their choice of a reviewer is David French, identified in the column as “a senior editor of The Dispatch, a columnist at Time and the author of Divided We Fall”, but also self-identified in the column as an “evangelical conservative”—not the kind of reviewer you’d think the paper would pick.
French’s review is a good one in both senses, though: it’s thorough and well written, and it’s positive about the book. It makes a good case for why Sullivan is, as French calls him, “one of America’s most important public intellectuals,” and surely one of its most readable and thoughtful journalists as well.
Except for his Catholicism, to which Sullivan clings resolutely in the face of reason, I read Sullivan weekly, and subscribe to his Substack website—for several reasons. First, he’s an excellent writer. Like Orwell, he eschews cant, writes simply but eloquently, and is always engaged with politics. (A journalist who writes with leaden words is hard to read!) I like the fact that he’s fearless, going against the Zeitgeist on issues like Critical Race Theory and wokeness. And I like the fact that, unlike almost every journalist working, he admits when he’s wrong, as he did when he initially supported the Iraq war.
His writing on gay marriage was of immense importance in helping turn America around on this important issue, and, on other issues, Sullivan is constantly re-examining and re-asssessing his previous views. He was a big supporter of Biden and a big hater of Trump, and although he still rightly despises the Orange Man, he’s beginning to find flaws in Biden and his administration. His latest column is called “Biden’s Not-So-Great New Normal“, in which, though he praises Uncle Joe for his pandemic response, he faults him for his administration’s failure to do anything about the immigration crisis—yes, it is a crisis—and for the rising murder rate, which disproportionately affects African Americans.
Is Sullivan a conservative? I don’t really care. On some issues he’s taken conservative stands, on others liberal ones. What I like about him is that he makes me think, which is the job of a good journalist. (Don’t ask me about his enthusiasm for Herrnstein and Murray’s book The Bell Curve. I haven’t read the book nor followed Sullivan’s coverage of it.)
Click to read the piece: I’ll give just a few quotes from the review. Note, though, the somewhat snarky description of Sullivan in the picture caption. “Andrew Sullivan looking concerned.” Did they need to write anything there? It undercuts the seriousness of Sullivan’s views.
Some praise from French:
When he is right, he is right with the same intensity. In 2009, he could see the strategy and incentives of the modern Republican Party: “If you have safe Republican seats in a party dominated intellectually by rigid ideologues, then your path of least resistance is total political warfare.” Substitute “rigid commitment to Trump” for “rigid ideologues,” and you have the same dynamic today.
It’s hard for anyone to read Sullivan’s words and not feel provoked. However, he is no troll. He does not write for the purpose of inflicting pain. And even his most passionate arguments are thoughtfully delivered, deeply rooted in his philosophy and faith.
That seems to be a pretty accurate characterization, although I could do without the reliance on “faith”(see below).
And the final assessment:
When I reached the end of his book, I felt a sense of gratitude. I disagreed with Sullivan on many points (and I do wish he had reproduced one of his essays in support of the Iraq war), but for 32 years a thoughtful man has demonstrated the courage of his convictions and challenged his readers time and again.
This world is almost impossibly complex. Conventional wisdom is frequently wrong. No partisan side has a monopoly on truth. In these circumstances, a nation needs writers and thinkers who will say hard things, whose fearlessness gives you confidence that you’re hearing their true thoughts.
It’s not difficult to be a partisan bomb-thrower. Attacking the hated opposition to the roar of the home crowd can be lucrative and rewarding. Partisans who gird for cultural battle don’t want to have second thoughts. They don’t want to look in the mirror and ponder the sin on their own side. Yet in essay after essay, for decade after decade, Sullivan has been the man with the mirror. He’s held it up to a nation and culture that increasingly yield to authoritarian temptations and shouted: “Look at yourself. Look at what you’re becoming.”
Read “Out on a Limb” for the snapshots of recent history. Read it to better understand the many journeys of one of America’s most important public intellectuals. But most of all read this book to see what it looks like when a thoughtful man tries his best to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.
The last paragraph could be just one of many blurbs from the review that could go on the book cover.
As I said, my one abiding disagreement with Sullivan is his rather pious Catholicism, though he’s notably reluctant to say explicitly what part of Catholic dogma he accepts. Surely he believes that Jesus existed as a divine being, and saved us through his crucifixion and resurrection, but you’ll never hear it from his mouth. (Or at least I never have.) Does he belief in the afterlife, or in the transubstantiation? You got me. For a writer grounded in facts, he’s been eager to inhabit a warehouse full of mythology. Now that could have some good effects (perhaps Sullivan’s humility comes from his faith), but in the main his harping on religion only serves to justify a belief system based not on evidence but on wish-thinking.
One plaint in this area. A while back Sullivan wrote a column, “Religion and the decline of democracy: We may miss it when it’s gone“, asserting that liberal democracy depends on Christianity and, should atheism prevail, America will go to ground. I was incensed enough not only to write a critical post about this thesis, but also forwarded an email to Sullivan’s site as a “dissent” (he regularly publishes readers’ criticism). My dissent, however, was ignored. Perhaps it was too long, but I think it countered Sullivan’s points well. I thought I’d posted it on this site, but couldn’t find it (it may be somewhere), so I reproduce it again (I added the supporting links in my email):
I wanted to challenge you on a statement you made in last Friday’s Dish. In response to a reader’s question about whether you thought that “a resurgence of small ‘L’ liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic west”, and how it could be promoted, you said this:
. . . . the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.
I agree about the objective reality part—after all, modern liberalism and its program are closely wedded to real facts, not fake ones—but I don’t agree that liberalism needs a “transcendent divinity”. In fact, objective reality suggests the opposite: liberalism needs to reject the idea of gods.
I’ll leave aside the contradiction between believing there’s an objective reality and the assertion that there’s a “transcendent divinity”, much less a Christian one— claims about reality that have no empirical support. And I’ll only mention that many nonliberal positions, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay views, are often seen and supported as God’s will.
Instead, I want to emphasize that the objective reality of the world is that the less religious a country or a state is, the more liberal it seems to be. Not only that, but the inhabitants are better off and happier.
There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations. Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.
Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.
This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.
Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.
While the reason for these correlations aren’t clear, it’s not likely that religion itself promotes poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. Rather, it’s probable that, when the people of a country or state are not well off, and don’t feel cared for by their societies, they turn to religion as a palliative: the assurance that Someone Above will take care of things, now or after death. Although I’m not a Marxist, Marx may have gotten it right when he said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Whatever the cause, objective reality doesn’t support your claim that embracing transcendent divinities leads to more liberal societies. Rather, worse societies seem to become more religious, or retain more religion.
Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism, and is the basis for all the happiest, most secure, and best-off societies in the world.
All the best,
I thought that wasn’t bad, but it’s in the circular file. Still, it doesn’t diminish my desire to keep reading Sullivan (I’ve just asked our library to order his new book), nor even the affection I feel for him—an affection, I think, born of his sensitivity, his willingness to reveal a lot about himself as a person, and, above all, his willingness to re-examine his views and admit when he’s wrong—traits that appeal to a scientist.
John McWhorter is getting us revved up for his upcoming book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America, to be published on October 26 (click on screenshot to go to Amazon link).
To prepare us for his views (many of which we know from reading preliminary chapters on his Substack site, McWhorter has a short post this week highlighting some books that align with his ideas and are counter to those of the most famous “anti-racist” authors (McWhorter would call them “racist authors”): Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo.
Click on the screenshot to see his recommendations:
I have in fact read two of the four books McWhorter recommends.
The first is Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, an explanation of why college students and other young folk are acting the way they are (i.e., being woke). It’s a very good book, and sets out three rules that young people have absorbed that, claim the authors, explain much of their behavior with respect to politics. (McWhorter repeats them).
1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
2. Always trust your feelings.
3. Life is a battle between good and bad people.
McWhorter sees these not only as rules absorbed by young people, but in particular as “tenets of wisdom” seen by the Woke, including many black people as well as whites like Di Angelo who write about anti-racism. As McWhorter notes, these homilies don’t provide us with any “new frontiers of psychotherapy” and are clearly maladaptive, divisive, and defy rationality.
Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon link for this book. It’s well worth reading.
McWhorter then recommends three other books (I’ll give the covers and Amazon links), one of which I’ve read. I’ve indented McWhorter’s take:
1.) Touré Reed teaches us that solving black America’s problems will require a focus on class rather than race. Note: he says that this will solve black problems, not just that “It’s all about class.” Reed knows what racism is; he just understands that it isn’t the everything we are taught it is. His book is called Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism.
2.) Wilfred Reilly teaches us an invaluable lesson about that Victimization Mindset I wrote about here that bedevils black Americans unduly. Specifically, we must beware this “impact matters more than intent” thing, because sadly often, black people, gripped by this victimization mindset, exaggerate or lie about racist acts and even attacks. His book is called Hate Crime Hoax. Don’t be misled by the fact that the subtitle and cover feel a touch “headline-y – cablenewsy” – publishers must sell their books. The issue is the content, and this book teaches lessons that are 1) sad, 2) understandable (again, see my post), and 3) urgent.
This one I’ve read, and while it’s a bit repetitive it’s the only book in its genre. Reilly goes through a number of “hate crimes” actually committed by members of the minorities that were supposedly under attack. These hoaxes are committed for a number of reasons: mental illness, to bring attention to the perpetrator as a member of an oppressed minority group, and, very often, to garner sentiment for minorities by fabricating instances in which they were attacked. Reilly estimates that a large proportion of “hate crimes” committed on campus are actually hoaxes. What’s distressing beyond that is the way college administrators usually react when they discover the hoax: “Well, yes, it was a hoax, but it still underlines a very real problem—so it’s not so bad after all.”
3.) Jason Riley has written a biography of the great black conservative thinker Thomas Sowell. Anyone under the impression that to be a card-carrying conservative and a black person at the same time guarantees that one is caught somewhere between naïve and cynical knows little of Sowell’s lucid work and unforgivably underacknowledged volume of achievement. The book is called Maverick.
Many people ask which “other” black thinkers they should listen to besides what I have called the People With Three Names, who I need not list. If it’s books you’re looking for, skip “Black Fragility” (you probably already read it, basically) and start with these. [JAC: “Black Fragility is McWhorter’s snarky alternative title for Di Angelo’s first book.
I haven’t read this one yet though I have read some Sowell. In general, I find him extremely thoughtful though his writing is a bit dry. I see that Maverick has five stars on Amazon from 570 ratings, so it’s certainly found some fans. I may have to read it, especially because the writing is Jason Riley’s, not Sowell’s.
Andrew Sullivan has a new book: a collection of his writings over the last three decades. I thought it might be his first book, but it’s actually his fourth, and you can order it here. It’s thirty bucks in hardback, though it’s 576 pages long. I’ll be getting it through interlibrary loan:
Most of his latest column is devoted to the book (click on screenshot below), but I’m more interested in another topic he discusses: critical race theory.
Click on the screenshot:
First, though, the book. Sullivan goes into sufficient (perhaps excessive) detail about the book—enough to make me want to read it, but not to pay thirty bucks. But face it: unlike many, Sullivan owns up to his mistakes and misjudgments, and often revises his opinions, which makes me respect him.
A summary of his precis:
I’m not that easy to categorize, though many have tried, and I hope these essays reflect that. Among the political figures I have supported: Thatcher, Major, Blair, Cameron, and Johnson in Britain; Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Dole, Bush, Kerry, Obama, Clinton, and Biden in the US. Among the causes I have passionately supported: marriage equality, legalization of recreational drugs, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War, welfare reform, the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama, and an expansive concept of free speech. Among the causes I have furiously opposed: the US adoption of torture in the war on terror, the Iraq War, religious fundamentalism in politics, both the Republican and Democratic parties, mass immigration, deficit spending, tribalism, critical theory, and Trump.
They all reflect, I hope, a singular form of conservatism that emerges from the thought of Michael Oakeshott responding to the contingent facts of unfolding history. (I have one memoir of him in the book, an explicitly Oakeshottian defense of Obama, and one account of Oakeshott’s religious ideas in a profile of Pope Francis.) My models for thought and writing run from Burke to Orwell. And my greatest failure of judgment, my shamefully excessive defense of the Iraq War, was, in retrospect, a moment when I abandoned that conservatism under the torrent of emotion and trauma in the wake of 9/11.
But better than this is is part of his column called “TwoNotes on Kendi and DiAngelo”, which is about as accurate a presentation of “popular” CRT—and a stinging one—that you can find. A couple of excerpts:
Both avatars of the Successor Ideology [Kendi and DiAngelo] gave interviews this week to friendly outlets, The New Yorker and The New York Times. This is an encouraging sign — it suggests that there may be some inklings of pushback within the left-elite.
I just want to note two key points that help, I think, illuminate what critical race theory actually is. The first is from DiAngelo:
The foundation of the United States is structural racism. It is built into all of the institutions. It is built into the culture, and in that sense we’ve all absorbed the ideology.
This is the core argument of CRT. It was the argument of the 1619 Project. It is what a NYT reporter meant when he demanded in a meeting with Dean Baquet that the newspaper internalize CRT and ensure that every single story was a means of communicating it:
I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting … To me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country.
This is the core point. CRT can be misleadingly described as seeing how racial oppression is interwoven in American history, exploring its resilience. But this is the motte of the argument; the bailey is that “white supremacy” is the foundation of this country. Not a foundation. The foundation. Not of some historical impacts, but of “all of the systems” of the country.
And on Kendi, who isn’t spared the rod:
That brings me to Kendi, whose sole, sophomoric idea is captured by Ezra Klein here:
If a given policy or action reduced racial inequality, it was antiracist; if it increased racial inequality, it was racist. If you support policies that reduce racial inequality, you are being antiracist; if you don’t, you’re being racist. That’s it.
And seriously, that’s it. If you see racial inequality, it is by definition created by white supremacy. And nothing else.
So the fact that Asian-Americans consistently do better in education than African-Americans is because of “white supremacy.” It has nothing to do with the gulf between Asian-American and African-American family structures, nothing to do with cultural differences with respect to learning, and nothing to do with an ethic of hard work and deferred gratification helping you succeed in America that thrives more in one population than another, nothing to do with socio-economics, nothing to do with child-rearing. Bring any of these factors up and they are either dismissed or described as caused by “white supremacy.” It’s a completely circular, anti-empirical, ahistorical assertion that is unfalsifiable. It has great popular appeal because it removes any need to think of the complex ways groups may behave or interact, and because it encourages instant racial judgment of anyone else based on the color of their skin — as a moral act. You know: what racists do.
The one problem here is that although present white supremacy may not account for all these discrepancies, they may well be the legacy of white supremacy. Sullivan continues:
And so the remedy to inequality has to be as crude as the cause of it: race discrimination. Kendi actually believes that an unelected board of CRT experts should be established by constitutional amendment to enforce active race and sex discrimination by the federal government in every sector of society. In any part of society where the racial demographics don’t reflect those of the entire society, the government must ensure that some members of one race are fired and replaced with members of another. Kendi puts it this baldly:
The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.
In other words, antiracism requires the abolition of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Again, the MSM keeps hiding the ball here. What is unique about the Successor Ideology is not that it takes racism into account in understanding society. What’s unique is the crudeness of its analysis and the totalitarianism of its solution.
I didn’t dare be that captious about Kendi’s book when I read it, but Sullivan is braver than I, and I pretty much agree with his characterization. Kendi’s suggestion about the Constitutional Amendment frightens me. As he wrote at Politico:
[The amendment] would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.
Can you imagine that? It suffers from the same problem as having A Department of Speech Monitoring: who, exactly, do you trust to make the judgments? And in this case, the result would be oppressive, authoritarian (it would supercede, for instance, the Supreme Court), divisive, and frightening. It would be the ruination of American society, turning into an Orwellian nightmare.
It baffles me that so many people seem to adhere to Kendi’s views—or at least this one.
First, though, let’s refresh you on Chase Strangio, the ACLU staff attorney in charge of gender issues, who emitted two tweets asking for “stopping the book’s circulation.” That’s a call for censorship. Here are the tweets.
Here is an ACLU lawyer saying their goal is to stop the circulation of books and ideas…
And of course we’ve talked a bit about Shrier’s book, which I’ve just read. It is neither transphobic nor full of hate; it simply raises issues connected with “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), an exponentially increasing condition among adolescent girls in which they decide they want to be boys and, with the help of compliant parents, therapists, and doctors (and often without proper vetting) begin taking puberty blockers and then have hormonal and often surgical treatment. Shrier’s point was that this phenomenon may partly stem from social-media pressure and the valorization of being “trans”, which brings you attention you wouldn’t get if you simply declared yourself a lesbian. It may often be associated with mental illness, and in many cases may go away on its own. Further, ROGD is often not treated according to rigorous standards promoted by some medical associations.
Shrier’s point, and that of Jesse Singal, whom we discussed yesterday, is that we have little data on the form of gender dysphoria which comes on quickly in adolescent girls (it’s much rarer in boys), and before we go injecting hormones and cutting, we need much more extensive medical and psychological data. Shrier’s book is valuable because it calls attention to a phenomenon that needs attention, and should promote not only discussion, but the necessary research. Shrier’s book is thus a valuable contribution to a discussion.
But many trans activists don’t want that discussion. Like Chase Strangio, they want Shrier’s book banned, arguing that simply bringing up the issue is itself a case of “transphobia.” That’s as far from the truth as you can get, for if you read Irreversible Damage, you’ll see that Shrier is sympathetic to the plight of transsexual people and only wants to ensure that those with ROGD are treated properly.
Strangio isn’t the only one who is deeply offended by Shrier’s book. As Sykes reports:
After receiving two Twitter complaints, Target stopped selling the book (a decision they later reversed . . . and then reversed again). Hundreds of Amazon employees signed a petition demanding the company stop selling the book.
And yes, I just checked the Target site; Shrier’s book, once reinstated, has now been eliminated again. But it’s still on Amazon, where it’s selling like hotcakes.
Which brings us to the American Bookseller’s Association (ABA). According to Charlie Sykes’s column, which you can read for free below (click on the screenshot), the ABA is dedicated, as all such associations should be, to free expression. Yet the story of the ABA and Shrier’s book belies that promise (read more details in the story at Publisher’s Weekly).
Here’s the ABA statement noted by Sykes, and it still appears on the ABA’s webpage (click on screenshot):
Well, they didn’t adhere to these principles of free expression after booksellers who received Shrier’s book in their sample box pushed back HARD. Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly reports:
At Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstores, book buyer Casey Morrissey was the first person in the store to open the box. Morrissey shared their reactions on Twitter, and other booksellers quickly joined in, echoing their comments.
@ABAbook I’m seething. I was excited to open our July white box, and then the first book I pulled out is “Irreversible Damage.” Do you know how that feels, as a trans bookseller and book buyer? It isn’t even a new title, so it really caught me in the gut. Do better. pic.twitter.com/VYb1ZKrv9A
Needless to say, Casey Morrissey’s Twitter account is now restricted.
And there was this (from PW):
Among booksellers, however, there was little disagreement about the content of the book. “As longtime @ABAbook members with beloved staff across the gender spectrum, we’re extremely disappointed and angered to see the ABA promoting dangerous, widely discredited anti-trans propaganda, and we’re calling for accountability,” the Harvard Book Store wrote on Twitter.
No, Shrier’s book is neither dangerous nor “widely discredited.” So much for the Harvard Bookstore.
After a few reactions like this, the ABA issued a groveling apology. Get a load of this:
The “anti-trans” book was Shrier’s. Note how the ABA (which itself has now restricted its tweets), notes that merely sending out the book was a “serious, violent incident”. No it wasn’t: there was no violence involved, and sending it out did not violate the ABA policies. It’s absolutely pathetic that the ABA has to grovel and mewl like this. The debasing of the word “violence”, making a peaceful act sound warlike, continues.
But of course apologies are never good enough for the Woke, which suggests that you should never apologize for something you did if you were expressing your honest views. Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly adds:
But booksellers said the statement fell short, calling out the organization’s use of the passive voice in the opening sentence. They also demanded greater transparency about how the decision to include the book was initially made, and called for demonstrable steps to restore trust with trans book workers and authors. Some called on the ABA to offer promotions for trans authors’ books at no cost.
ABA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee member Luis Correa, who works as a bookseller at Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., was first made aware of the issue when fellow booksellers emailed him Morrissey’s tweet. Correa identifies as a queer, Latino, and fat-bodied person, and said he thought the apology was flawed.
“I’m disappointed with the use of the passive language at the beginning of the statement and the shift in blame. They really should say that ‘we included this book,’” Correa said. The DEI Committee is comprised of ABA member booksellers and does not consult on the selections for the white boxes.
They don’t like the passive voice in the first sentence, apparently wanting the ABA to say “WE included an anti-trans book in our July mailing to members”! Now the wording of apologies has to be perfect as well!
“These incidents harmed booksellers, ABA board members, and ABA staff who identify as LGBTQIA+ and/or BIPOC, as well as the wider community. They also added to a toxic culture overall,” they wrote. “We are not the ABA of two years ago. These actions are antithetical to the values we are working to promote in our organization under the strong leadership of our CEO, Allison Hill, and COO, Joy Dallanegra-Sanger. This is not acceptable behavior and goes against the bylaws changes instituted last year.”
********** UPDATE: The ABA, as reader Coel notes below, has issued a second and even more cringeworthy apology. It’s unbelievable; have a look:
“Horrific harm”? “Traumatized and endangered members of the trans community.” How, exactly, did people get endangered?
No, nobody was “harmed.” People might have been offended, but damaged? I doubt it. And, as Stephen Fry points out repeatedly, being offended is not an argument; it’s an emotion.
Apparently the “new” ABA is in favor of restricting free expression.
But there are some who still stood up for free expression on Twitter. One of them was, of course, Shrier herself, though the tweet she references is now hidden. I do take some satisfaction in feeling that all this brouhaha about Irreversible Damage can only be good for Shrier by getting people to read her book. It’s a literary Streisand Effect, and shows why campaigns like the ABA’s are ineffectual. The book is now #75 on Amazon, and it’s been out for over a year.
And a few more gems reproduced by Sykes:
Books are violence, so says the American Violencesellers Association
It took me 60 years to realize this, although I could have seen it all along. I presume other readers have the same experience, but I’m posting this to see if that’s true.
When I read any kind of book with a plot, be it a novel (my latest was All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski; highly recommended) or a non-scholarly book that has locations (the one I’m reading now is Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis), I immediately begin forming images of the scenes. In the case of Davis’s book, he describes scenery in great detail, and I’ve also seen some of the places he mentions, like the Everest region and Darjeeling, so it’s not hard to fill in the details in my head.
But in the case of novels, I realize that from the moment I begin reading one, I form mental images of the landscape, houses, or other places described in the book. When I read Gatsby, for instance, I can see the curtained living room of Tom and Daisy’s home, even though it’s not described in detail. And when I say “see”, I envision where all the chairs, tables, and sofas are located. When Bloom feeds his cat (mrgnkao!) and makes breakfast for Molly at the beginning of Ulysses, I have an image in my head of what his kitchen looks like, even though it’s not described.
And this persists all the way through a novel. Undoubtedly my imaginings have no relationship to what the author imagined, but I find I cannot read a book without doing this.
The curious thing is that my imaginings of what people look like are far less vivid, even if they’re described by the author. As my father used to tell me as a brain teaser, “Jerry, imagine a face you haven’t seen before.” I couldn’t do it! And I can’t imagine a face very well when it’s described in a novel. I can imagine Tom and Daisy’s house and living room, but I can’t clearly imagine what Tom or Daisy look like. I know that Anna Karenina is beautiful and Vronsky is handsome, but all I can imagine is a dress and a uniform.
This also goes for voices. And yet, when I see a movie made from a book, if there’s a big incongruity between what I hear on the screen and what I imagine the voices should sound like, it can be so jarring that I don’t want to watch the movie. (For years I followed Peanuts in the papers and kept a scrapbook with every Sunday comic strip. When they turned it into a cartoon show, the characters’ voices sounded so different from the ones I had imagined, though not consciously, that I could never watch the cartoon.)
Of course this doesn’t cause a problem when I watch a movie before I read the book (The Last Picture Show is one example), because I automatically translate the movie voices into the voices of the characters in the novel.
This is all very strange to me. Yet sometimes I think it’s impossible to read a novel without at the same time running a kind of movie through your head. Is this the case for other people?
p.s. This is NOT what Charlie Brown would sound like. (And what’s weirder is that I have no idea what he should sound like.)