The conundrum of Powell’s Books: affirms free speech but refuses to place anti-Antifa book on its shelves

January 14, 2021 • 9:30 am

The book below is scheduled to be published in about two weeks, which means it’s not even out yet—unless they released it beforehand. It’s by Andy Ngo, a conservative journalist who’s described by Wikipedia as “editor-at-large of The Post Millennial, a Canadian conservative news website”.  We’ve encountered him before in several posts on this site, many of them covering Antifa in a negative light (Ngo is from Portland: Antifa Central); but I haven’t followed his reporting or writing in a long while, and didn’t know that he wrote a book on Antifa. It’s due out February 2.

But although the book hasn’t yet been released, it is in fact #1 among all Amazon books (Obama’s memoir is number 5), so It’s already a bestseller and will haul in a lot of dosh for Ngo. But its Amazon site (click on cover below) is curiously devoid of descriptions, and has no endorsements. That’s highly unusual for a #1-ranked book. I haven’t read it, but I suppose its popularity is due to the public’s increased interest in Antifa, alleged—falsely—to have participated in last week’s storming of the Capitol.

Portland is of course the wokest town in America, and is also home to Powell’s Books, one of America’s best bookstores, which also has a reputation for wokeness. I spent a lot of time in Powell’s on my two visit to Portland, and actually bought some books there despite my own bookshelves being jammed full.  It’s an excellent store. Portland would of course carry Ngo’s bestseller, but it poses a dilemma for them. The town is woke, the bookstore is woke, yet the book is anti-woke and anti-Antifa. What to do?

The good citizens of Portland (and I use that adjective ironically) decided to picket the bookstore—not because it actually had the physical book in its store, but because it was carrying it onlineThere were protests in front of the chain’s flagship store on Sunday and Monday, and eventually they closed the store.  Here are two photos from OregonLive: though it’s not much of a demonstration.

I don’t think Powell’s closed its store to send a message to the protestors so much as to protect its property from Antifa’s well-known propensity to do damage. But they did issue a statement about why they are carrying the book—a statement that asserts Powell’s commitment to free speech but, at the same time, emphasizing that the book is basically against the store’s values and causes “pain” to the community. In other words, Powell’s sent a mixed message, trying to satisfy everyone.

Further, the store has emphasized that it won’t be carrying the physical book in its store: you can get it only by ordering online. That’s part of the mixed message as well. You can see Powell’s high-sounding statement by clicking on the screenshot below.

Now in fact this would be an excellent statement if it didn’t go out of its way to denigrate the book. Here’s a statement from the store’s owner, and there’s more on the site. The emphasis is mine.

Dear Powell’s community,

At Powell’s, a lot of our inventory is hand-selected, and hand-promoted. And a lot of our inventory is not. Unmasked by Andy Ngo came to us via one of our long-term and respected publishers, Hachette Book Group. We list the majority of their catalogue on Powells.com automatically, as do many other independent and larger retailers. We have a similar arrangement with other publishers.

Since Sunday, Powell’s has received hundreds of emails, calls, and social media comments calling for us to remove Unmasked from Powells.com. Demonstrations outside our Burnside store have forced us to close to ensure the safety of employees, protestors, and neighbors. If we need to remain closed, we will not hesitate to do so.

As many of you may be following these events, I want to offer additional context about our decision to allow this book to remain online.

Since the first published texts there have been calls to disown different printed work, and at Powell’s we have a long history of experiencing these calls, and the threats they bring with them, firsthand. Until recently the threats were from those who objected that we carried books written by authors we respected or subjects we supported. The threats were real but we could feel virtuous — we were bringing the written word to the light of day. We could feel proud of our choices, even when the choices created conflict.

Our current fight does not feel virtuous.  It feels ugly and sickening to give any air to writing that could cause such deep pain to members of our community. But we have always sold books that many of us would reject.  We have fought for decades, at Powell’s, for the right of a book to stand on its own. Doing so is one of our core values as booksellers.

In our history we have sold many copies of books we find objectionable. We do that in spite of all the reasons not to, because we believe that making the published word available is an important and crucial step in shedding light on the dark corners of the public discourse. It is actually a leap of faith into the vortex of the power of the written word and our fellow citizens to make sense of it.

That leap of faith is inextricably woven into our existence as Powell’s: faith in our customers is what first propelled us from a small corner store into who we are today.  We recognize that not every reader has good intentions, or will arrive at a writer’s intended destination, but we do believe that faith must extend to our community of readers. That offering the printed word in all its beauty and gore, must ultimately move us forward. As my father says, if your principles are only your principles sometimes, they’re not principles at all.

Read more about our commitment to free speech below.

Warmly,

Emily Powell
President and Owner
Powell’s Books

Get that bit about the book causing “deep pain to members of our community”!  If the book isn’t out yet, and people haven’t read it, then where does the “deep pain” even come from? Presumably from Ngo’s reputation alone. It’s typical of of the censorious Left to demand the banning—for that’s what they want here—of books they haven’t read. In fact, they don’t care what’s in the book; they’re trying to prevent people from reading anything by Ngo. And that is cancel culture.

Now there’s a FAQ section of Powell’s response as well, which has virtuous statements like the following:

Booksellers are not censors. We have the privilege to curate, promote, and act as guides to the books and ideas we value, but it is antithetical to our core mission of free speech to impose limits on what our customers read. At the end of the day, making space for books and readers with whom we disagree is the nonviolent antithesis to the dominant impulse to shout down (or worse) anyone who doesn’t support your worldview, something we see daily on social media and, more terrifyingly, in America’s seats of power. Given the choice between holding our noses over a book and bowing to pressure to begin banning them, we will always choose the former.

and this:

As an independent bookstore, Powell’s believes that it is our responsibility to respect your choice of reading material. We are dedicated to providing a wide array of books, authors, viewpoints, and voices, and our selection is one of the things that sets Powell’s apart from our peers in bookselling. We provide these options out of deference to the First Amendment, but just as importantly, because we believe that exposure to a multiplicity of writing — in fiction and nonfiction alike — facilitates critical thinking and spurs conversation and growth.

That is all good stuff. But why did they have to ruin it by saying stuff like this?:

Why wouldn’t you make an exception to your policy for a book as inflammatory as Unmasked?

Unmasked was written by a provocateur who has made a career of inciting violence over inflammatory and inaccurate ideas that divide people into factions. It is natural that his supporters and detractors have passionate, emotional responses to our carrying his book online.

Talk about inciting violence! That’s Antifa’s modus operandi!

The next question they answer is “Why would you carry books you find deplorable?”, implying that Powell’s does indeed find Ngo’s book deplorable. You can read the answer for yourself.

The most arrant hypocrisy is the failure of the store to carry the physical book so that people can go into the store, look at it, and decide whether to buy it. Now you’re saying, “Well, the Antifa folks would just damage or destroy any physical books on the shelves.” That may be true—and of course shows that Ngo has a point, for exercising censorship is eroding democracy—but Powell’s could always keep the book behind the counter.  Here’s Powell’s unconvincing explanation for why it’s selling the book only online.

Why would you sell the book online but not in stores?

Even a store as large as the City of Books can’t carry every book on the market. To expand our offerings for our customers, Powell’s and many other retailers make their distributors’ and publishing partners’ catalogs available for purchase online. This is how a book like Unmasked, which our buyers did not purchase for the stores, finds its way onto Powells.com.

Yeah, right. They can’t carry the #1 book on Amazon in the store? Who on earth believes that explanation? And of course they could order more copies to sell in the stores. No, they aren’t carrying the book either because they’re afraid of Antifa or because they are exercising some kind of restricted access—censorship. Either alternative bespeaks cowardice and undermines the eloquent defense of free speech given elsewhere in Powell’s statement.

h/t: Mark

The worst books ever written

January 2, 2021 • 11:30 am

Imagine my delight when, purely by accident, I came upon a Wikipedia entry called “List of books considered the worst,” with the explanation, “The books listed below have been cited by many notable critics in varying media sources as being among the worst books ever written.” [Their emphasis.]  The list includes only books written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I’ve put below just the former, eliminating all the snark and explanation that makes each entry hilarious. I did leave in the entire entry for A. N. Wilson’s dreadful book on Darwin, because, to my extra delight, I found they quoted me (my original review was in the Washington Post, not Dawn).

This is Wikipedia’s list, not mine, and I find that I’ve read only a few of their choices: Mein Kampf (yes, boring, but i read it dutifully, to know Hitler’s mind), The Da Vinci Code (as my excuse, I was spending a week in a rental cottage in Dorset and that was the only book they had), Naked Came the Stranger (a popular book when I was in college), Fifty Shades of Grey (I didn’t really read it, but flipped through it in a bookstore to see what the fuss was about), and, of course, Wilson’s book on Darwin. Yes, they’re all dreadful, but Hitler’s book is on the list not because it’s bad but because it’s characterzied as “evil”.

I couldn’t really make my own list of the worst books ever written, because if I find that a book doesn’t engage me, or is poorly written, I don’t finish it. But there is one book I’ve read that is a glaring omission from the list below: a book whose prose is truly awful, and yet became a best-seller and a popular movie.  I don’t have it at hand, but here’s Coyne’s choice for the worst fiction book of the 20th century:

The Bridges of Madison County (Robert James Waller, 1992). I can’t remember when I read this rancid crock of tripe, but it was similar to the circumstances in which I read The Da Vinci Code: I was in a house where there was only one book to read. I need to read like a tiger needs meat, so I read that one. (I used to read the cereal boxes at breakfast when I was a kid.) All I can remember is that the prose was absolutely awful: a rank amateur attempting a love story.

I can’t remember quotes, but, by God, I found ten from someone who really LOVED the book. Here’s just one:

The leopard swept over her, again and again and yet again, like a long prairie wind, and rolling beneath him, she rode on that wind like some temple virgin towards the sweet, compliant fires marking the soft curve of oblivion.

Oy!  And a few quotes from Goodreads:

“It’s clear to me now that I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty bumming blithely along beneath our ignorance that ensured we would come together. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.

. . . .  “It already smells good,” he said, pointing toward the stove. “It smells… quiet.” He looked at her.

“Quiet? Could something smell quiet” She was thinking about the phrase, asking herself. He was right. After the pork chops and steaks and roasts she cooked for the family, this was quiet cooking. No violence involved anywhere down the food chain, except maybe for pulling up the vegetables. The stew cooked quietly and smelled quiet.”

. . . “He was an animal. A graceful, hard, male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dominated her completely, in the exact way she wanted that to happen at this moment.”

. . . “The human heart has a way of making itself large again even after it’s been broken into a million pieces.”

The thing is, I read the book after I saw the 1995 movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring him and Meryl Streep as the star-crossed lovers. I thought that the movie was very good, and the performances convincing. It was in fact a tearjerker, and once in my life I even experienced a cars-going-opposite-ways-at-an-intersection parting similar to that below when, in the pouring rain, Robert’s truck goes right and Francesca, in the car with her husband, goes left. (It was a scene that was filmed magnificently.) Imagine, then, my depression when I read the book, and found it was infinitely worse than the movie. (Movies from books are usually worse than the source.) Whoever turned that steaming dung pile of a book into a screenplay—and the acting of course was a major plus—did a magnificent job.

Here’s the parting, which always breaks my heart. This is the last time they see each other:

Anyway, the book sucks big time.

Here’s Wikipedia’s list for the last 120 years. Do add your own, or, if you’ve read any of the books below, feel free to agree or disagree.

20th century

1990s

21st century

2000s

2010s

To end the day, my next post will be my choice of the worst rock songs of all time.

Obama’s new book looks good

December 9, 2020 • 12:15 pm

I’m not generally a fan of political books, but I may have to break down and get Barack Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land.

I don’t know if the New Yorker article below is free (I subscribe), but it was reading that excerpt from Obama’s book that made me think about getting the whole thing (click on first screenshot to go to Amazon page). It’s only volume 1 and is a daunting 768 pages, but the reviews have been uniformly favorable. Further, it’s #1 among all books on Amazon, and a very cheap $23.96 in hardback on the site:

Below: the excerpt. What I liked about it was that it dealt not only with policy (the “toughest fight” was about Obamacare), but also the day-to-day doings and feelings of a President—what it is like to be President. And it’s extraordinarily well written for a man who is not a professional writer but a politician. He’s a natural.

Here’s the ending of the New Woker piece, which gives you an idea of the mix of political and personal, conveyed in a folksy style that isn’t cloying (you can hear Obama’s voice in these words). It’s this mix that made the excerpt—and, according to the reviewers, the book—so appealing:

It wasn’t just that criticism from friends always stung the most. The carping carried immediate political consequences for Democrats. It confused our base (which, generally speaking, had no idea what the hell a public option was) and divided our caucus. It also ignored the fact that all the great social-welfare advances in American history, including Social Security and Medicare, had started off incomplete and had been built upon gradually, over time. By preëmptively spinning what could be a monumental, if imperfect, victory into a bitter defeat, the criticism contributed to a potential long-term demoralization of Democratic voters—otherwise known as the “What’s the point of voting if nothing ever changes?” syndrome—making it even harder for us to win elections and move progressive legislation forward in the future.

There was a reason, I told my adviser Valerie Jarrett, that Republicans tended to do the opposite—that Ronald Reagan could preside over huge increases in the federal budget, the federal deficit, and the federal workforce and still be lionized by the G.O.P. faithful as the guy who successfully shrank the federal government. They understood that, in politics, the stories told were often as important as the substance achieved.

We made none of these arguments publicly, though for the rest of my Presidency the phrase “public option” became a useful shorthand inside the White House anytime Democratic interest groups complained about us failing to defy political gravity and securing less than a hundred per cent of whatever they were asking for. Instead, we did our best to calm folks down, reminding disgruntled supporters that we would have plenty of time to fine-tune the legislation when we merged the House and Senate bills. Harry kept doing Harry stuff, including keeping the Senate in session weeks past the scheduled adjournment for the holidays.

As he’d predicted, Olympia Snowe braved a blizzard to stop by the Oval and tell us in person that she’d be voting no. But it didn’t matter. On Christmas Eve, after twenty-four days of debate, with Washington blanketed in snow and the streets all but empty, the Senate passed its health-care bill, titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—the A.C.A.—with exactly sixty votes. It was the first Christmas Eve vote in the Senate since 1895.

A few hours later, I settled back in my seat on Air Force One, listening to Michelle and the girls discuss how well Bo was adjusting to his first plane ride as we headed to Hawaii for the holiday break. I felt myself starting to relax just a little. We were going to make it, I thought. We weren’t docked yet—not even close, it would turn out—but thanks to my team, thanks to Nancy, Harry, and a whole bunch of congressional Democrats who’d taken tough votes, we finally had land within our sights.

Apparently the end of the first volume, according to the review below, is a taut and gripping account of the hunting of Osama bin Laden, seen from the White House.

In fact, when I saw that the conservative Spectator had a very positive review—though faulting the book for “humblebrag” and “schmalz”—it almost sealed the deal. I think the chances are about 75% that I’ll get the book. But that of course commits me to getting the second volume. Click on the screenshot:

An excerpt from the Spectator review:

But under all that hopey changey stuff, and where the long sections about wrangling policy through Congress really come into their own, is a superbly engaging study in realpolitik. He was famous for his windy rhetoric; but to get anything done in office required a steely political operator. Obama, the centrist dad’s centrist dad, is again and again confronted by the hard arithmetic of the caucus at home, and of tangled interests abroad. He really shows you how the sausage is made — and his cool, conscientious, covering-all-the-angles pragmatism, more than his optimism, is the real fascination in this book. If first-term Obama has an arch-nemesis, it’s not Osama bin Laden or Donald Trump: it’s the Senate filibuster. And there’s a wry sense of the absurd. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he secures the endorsement of the ‘Butter Cow Lady’, ‘who at the state fair each year sculpted a life-sized cow out of salted butter’, and blasts statewide the prerecorded call announcing her support. ‘She later created,’ he says proudly, an Iowan Ozymandias: ‘a 23-pound butter bust of my head.’

He delivers crisp little put-downs, too. As a candidate, when a do-gooding ice-cream company called on him to defund the Pentagon, he recalls wearily: ‘I had to call either Ben or Jerry — I don’t remember which.’ Nicolas Sarkozy is a ‘bantam cock’ (that’s surely at least half right) whose conversation

swooped from flattery to bluster to genuine insight, never straying far from his primary barely disguised interest, which was to be at the center of the action and take credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for.’

Now the older I get, the greater the percentage of nonfiction in what I read, but my tolerance for long books has also decreased. There were days when I could breeze through Robert Caro’s 4-volume biography of LBJ—one of the greatest nonfiction “books” of our time—for several hours a day, every day until I finished each volume. Now I struggle with such a length. I’m not sure whether this is age or simply the anxiety that comes with the pandemic. So 700+ pages seem daunting, and, truth be told, politics usually bore me. But Caro didn’t bore me, and Obama’s book seems to have the appealing Caro-esque mix of the man and his job.

Has anybody read it yet? There are over ten thousand reviews on Amazon, 94% of them giving the work five stars—for a book that came out on November 17!

Sale of fancy Faith Versus Fact book ends

December 9, 2020 • 11:00 am

We just cleared $5300 from the sale of the autographed and Kelly-Houle-illustrated copy of Faith Versus Fact (see below for winning bid); with all the proceeds going to the estimable charity Helen Keller International. Given that the Friends of Helen Keller International will match any donation, that means a total of $10,600 will go toward alleviating malnutrition and blindness throughout the world.

Thanks to all who bid, to the winner, to all those whose signatures made the item desirable, and especially Kelly Houle, whose wonderful illustrations made the book collectable and who also ran the auction.

I have no more books on tap, so this will be the last auction for the foreseeable future.  But Kelly is of course still doing paintings, drawings, calligraphy, and The Illuminated Origin project, and you can purchase her works at her eBay shop or her Etsy shop (I especially recommend the golden “Darwin grandeur cards,” which are a great thing to send to any science lover.)

Bids for fancy “Faith versus Fact” copy near $3000

December 8, 2020 • 1:45 pm

The eBay auction for the fancy autographed and Kelly-Houle-illustrated edition of Faith Versus Fact is almost at $3000, which means $6,000 in donations for Helen Keller International as the friends of the charity are doubling all donations. (Every penny of the proceeds goes to that estimable and efficient charity.)

But that’s not nearly enough, I think, since an illustrated copy of Why Evolution is True, with fewer autographs of notables, fetched over $10,300.  Most of us are too poor to bid that much, but if you know a gazillionaire who wants a unique secular item, this would make a swell acquisition.

You can see a fuller description of the book here, and below are two of its pages: one with an illustration and another with some of the signatures.  Kelly and I have signed it, along with 28 secular notables, including three Nobel Laureates and the three living “Horsemen” (horsepersons?)  I didn’t schlep this book around for five years to have it go cheap!

Penguin Random House (Canada) employees rebel against their firm’s publication of Jordan Peterson

November 25, 2020 • 9:30 am

Apparently publishers are supposed to adopt a consistent ideological point of view, publishing books that comport not only with “progressive” ideology, but also avoiding publishing any books that violate it.  If there are such violations, the books should not be published. This is what happened when Hachette decided not to publish Woody Allen’s memoirs after employees objected—on the totally unproven grounds that Allen was a pedophile.

You’ll probably remember Jordan Peterson’s 2018 best-seller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosa self help book that remains at #95 on Amazon nearly three years after publication. I’m not much interested in the phenomenon of Peterson, who seems unhinged at some times and coherent and thoughtful at others, so I haven’t read any of his works. I did, however, look at 12 Rules in a bookstore, and found it mildly amusing and inoffensive—and possibly of help to some people.

Despite Peterson being demonized by the Authoritarian Left for his views on pronouns and masculinity (neither of which I agree with), his self-help book, published by Random House Canada, avoided all the political stuff. Here are the rules as summarized in Wikipedia:

  1. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”
  2. “Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping”
  3. “Make friends with people who want the best for you”
  4. “Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today”
  5. “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them”
  6. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”
  7. “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)”
  8. “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie”
  9. “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”
  10. “Be precise in your speech”
  11. “Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding”
  12. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”

Each of these rules was the subject of a short chapter, and I especially appreciated rule #12, which I think is a good one and one that I obey religiously.

I judge the reviews to have been mixed but on the positive side of neutrality (here’s a fair, and pretty positive one in the New Woker), but the book sold like hotcakes: over five million copies.

Now Peterson—who’s had his share of troubles, suffering from depression and addiction, and nearly dying in Russia where he sought treatment—is about to publish a sequel to 12 Rules called Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.  It looks pretty much like what it purports to be: more self-help, more rules.  It will be published in March of next year.

Despite the fairly anodyne nature of this book compared to the other ruckuses Peterson has raised, many employees of his publisher are now outraged—not because of the book’s contents, but because of what Peterson has said in his talks and in other publications and interviews. The publisher, again Penguin Random House Canada (it changed its name), is going ahead with the book, but, as VICE reports below (click on screenshot), the publication has ignited a lot of controversy among employees.

Yes, it’s the usual stuff; a few quotes from VICE will suffice, and will show that it’s not this book the employees object to, but Peterson’s views in general. He is an Unperson and therefore should not be published:

The kerfuffle:

Several Penguin Random House Canada employees confronted management about the company’s decision to publish a new book by controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson at an emotional town hall Monday, and dozens more have filed anonymous complaints, according to four workers who spoke to VICE World News.

On Monday, Penguin Random House Canada, Canada’s largest book publisher and a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, announced it will be publishing Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life by Peterson, to be released in March 2021. The book will be published by Portfolio in the U.S. and Penguin Press in the U.K., both part of the Penguin Random House empire.

Four Penguin Random House Canada employees, who did not want to be named due to concerns over their employment, said the company held a town hall about the book Monday, during which executives defended the decision to publish Peterson while employees cited their concerns about platforming someone who is popular in far-right circles.

. . . A third employee told VICE World News the company’s diversity and inclusion committee received at least 70 anonymous messages about Peterson’s book, and only a couple are in favour of the decision to publish it.

. . . “I feel it was deliberately hidden and dropped on us once it was too late to change course,” said the junior employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community. The employee said workers would have otherwise considered a walkout, similar to what Hachette employees did when the publisher announced it would be publishing Woody Allen’s memoir; Hachette later dropped the book.

The charges:

Four Penguin Random House Canada employees, who did not want to be named due to concerns over their employment, said the company held a town hall about the book Monday, during which executives defended the decision to publish Peterson while employees cited their concerns about platforming someone who is popular in far-right circles.

“He is an icon of hate speech and transphobia and the fact that he’s an icon of white supremacy, regardless of the content of his book, I’m not proud to work for a company that publishes him,” a junior employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community and who attended the town hall told VICE World News.

Is there hate speech in this book? I doubt it? Is there transphobia? I doubt that, too? White supremacy? If Peterson has been a white supremacist, I don’t know about it, but I seriously doubt there’s any of that in his upcoming book.

The view that a publisher must publish books hewing to a consistent ideological line:

“The company since June has been doing all these anti-racist and allyship things and them publishing Peterson’s book completely goes against this. It just makes all of their previous efforts seem completely performative,” the employee added.

. . . “(But) [Peterson’s] the one who’s responsible for radicalizing and causing this surge of alt-right groups, especially on university campuses.”

And the “harm”:

Another employee said “people were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives.” They said one co-worker discussed how Peterson had radicalized their father and another talked about how publishing the book will negatively affect their non-binary friend.

The employee said the company’s diversity and inclusion committee aired concerns about how this will affect other authors.

“We publish a lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community and what is the company going to do about making sure these authors are still feeling supported by a company that is supporting somebody who denies their existence,” the employee said.

. . . All of the workers who spoke to VICE World News said if the book isn’t cancelled, they would like Penguin Random House Canada to consider donating the profits from the book to LGBTQ organizations.

Crying???  When I read this kind of stuff, and realize that the book isn’t likely to contain anything seen as “transphobic” or “Nazified”, I want to tell these employees to a.) get a grip and b.) realize that publishers are one of the main venues for promulgating controversial speech. Only religious or creationist publishers have catalogues that don’t include dissenting voices, and Penguin Random House, which happens to be my own publisher in the U.S., has a consistent policy that they accept books based on quality and interest (and profitability, see below), not whether they’re ideologically palatable. If that were the case, they wouldn’t have published Faith Versus Fact. They knew my book would encounter criticism from the faithful, as indeed it did.

Think about how many books you disagree with, whatever your political stand. Many of those are solid books that make good arguments, and even if you reject the arguments, can you say that those books shouldn’t have been published? If so, then you’re not in favor of free speech.

Now of course publishing is a business, and part of the decision to accept books is also based on their likely profitability. But publishers realize that most of their books won’t make money, and they count on a few blockbusters to keep them afloat. Peterson’s book is likely to be one of these, since its predecessor sold over 5 million copies worldwide. But I doubt that Penguin Random House Canada simply wouldn’t publish the book if it were loaded to the gunwales with slurs on trans people or claims of white supremacy. No, it’s another cute self-help book, likely to contain nothing offensive save the name of the author.

But that’s enough. Peterson has been officially Canceled, and therefore nobody should publish anything he says.

h/t: cesar

Thread: On the “On the Origin of Species”

November 24, 2020 • 9:30 am

As I noted in my Hili post, today is Evolution Day: the anniversary of the day on which Darwin published The Origin in 1859.  It’s one the book I’ve read more than any other: I used to go through it once a year or so, but it’s been about three years now. My copy of the first edition is old and battered, and the inside cover (below) shows that I bought it shortly after I started my doctoral work at Harvard. (I hadn’t read it before then). Note, too, the title, which we should all know in full (Richard Dawkins, to his embarrassment, was once asked the full title by a creationist but couldn’t recall it, and that was used against Richard by those looking for reasons to demonize him.)

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

That’s the title of the first five editions; in the Sixth (the last), the initial word was dropped.

There will be a quiz.

My Pelican Classics edition is now held together with tape, and I have about four other copies, including the Sixth Edition. But I recommend reading the First Edition to get the full feeling of how Darwin’s ideas hit the world in the solar plexus. Like the fatal punch that did in Houdini, the book put paid to creationism, Biblical or otherwise, in one blow.

As I’m occupied with University business this morning, I’ll throw this one out to the readers. In general, I’ll ask you to give your take on the book and, if you’ve read it, to tell us what impressed (or didn’t impress) you. If you haven’t read it, shame on you, for I’ve always say that any person who wants to be considered “educated” needs to have read The Origin.  

It’s not an easy read: my introductory-evolution students always bridled at the Victorian prose, and even the abridged Dover edition turned them off. Further, some of the chapters, like that on “Hybridism” are particularly dense and even opaque. But as “one long argument,” as Darwin called it, it is an incomparable journey into the mind of a captious naturalist, one who always searched for flaws in his own ideas.  If you haven’t read it, please start now (you can explain your dilatory behavior below). If you have, please enlighten us with your thoughts about it.

My own take is that it’s the greatest science book of all time, but of course I’m biased.

Thoughts on The Origin

by Greg Mayer

Jerry asked me to weigh in here with some thoughts on The Origin, and I’m happy to do so. Before seeing what Jerry wrote, I reached up and took down my first copy of The Origin off the bookshelf, just like Jerry did! And, just like Jerry, I have four other copies, including a facsimile of the sixth edition!

This is the Harvard University Press facsimile of the first edition, with an introduction by Ernst Mayr (third printing, 1975). I also have a later printing of this version, since this copy got pretty beat up from frequent use.

A specimen of my early handwriting.

In October 1976, I was a sophomore at SUNY Stony Brook, and bought this in the bookstore there. It wasn’t for a course that I was taking, but I often bought books for other courses that I thought interesting. In fact, I already knew who Mayr was, because in high school I had purchased a copy of his Populations, Species, and Evolution at the Stony Brook bookstore. My recollection is that I first read The Origin start to finish while doing field work on Grand Cayman while in graduate school. My copy is well-annotated. The annotations were written at various times, but I can’t usually tell when they were made. I’ve always been interested in island life, so here are a couple of pages on oceanic islands with my notes.

Like Jerry, I have often assigned parts (sometimes large parts) of The Origin as reading for my evolution classes. (I think Jerry may have influenced me in this regard.) But unlike Jerry (or at least Jerry’s students), I find The Origin eminently readable– I think the prose is terrific! It is an excellent model and exemplification of scientific argument.

Jerry made note in this morning’s Hili Dialogue about John van Wyhe’s posting of some newly uncovered Darwin manuscripts, and you can read them all here at John’s wonderful website, Darwin Online. If you’re interested in The Origin as a document, his website is also the place to go, with authoritative discussion of the publication history, many scanned versions available to read online, and a complete listing of editions. John and his collaborators have continued the work of R.B. Freeman, who compiled an authoritative (as of 1977) catalog of all of Darwin’s works; Freeman’s catalog is available at Darwin Online. The Harvard University Press edition is “Freeman 602“, which is a facsimile of “Freeman 373“. As we’ve had occasion to note many times before here at WEIT, John van Wyhe and his collaborators have done an inestimable service to students, scientists, and historians in gathering together and making available these materials.

 

JAC Response: I didn’t claim that the book was unreadable, but that it was “not an easy read” and that parts were opaque or tough. It isn’t an easy read, for it requires you to stop and think frequently, which is a good thing. “Easy reads” are those books you can just breeze through. I find the book eminently readable—except for the “Hybridism” chapter!

Dueling petitions about banning “Irreversible Damage” by Abigail Shrier

November 19, 2020 • 9:15 am

As you may remember, Abigail Shrier’s new book, Irreversible Damage, about the dangers of uncritical support for young girls who want to transition to boys, has met with a lot of criticism as “transphobic”. For a while its sale was banned at Target stores (it’s now reinstated.)  Nevertheless, there’s a change.org petition afoot to ban the book everywhere. Click on the screenshot to read it:

An excerpt:

Shrier makes a number of egregious leaps of logic in order to invalidate transgender boys to suit her conservative values. A frequent false-association she creates is in regards to the attempted suicide rate of trans people coinciding with regretting transitioning or even expressing the urge to detransition. She blatantly ignores the fact these statistics much more coincide with transgender individuals feeling ostracized and attacked in a modern society that insists something is wrong with them.

. . . I am calling for the book’s immediate removal from everywhere it is sold. The blatant misinformation and hate speech that endangers the lives of thousands of growing transgender boys. The removal of the text will protect those men from abusive parents who may use the text to justify emotional abuse.

The main point of contention here is that the petitioner says that the suicide of transgender males is not connected with the urge to de-transition, or with regrets, but is due to their ostracism by society. One could argue that the regret/de-transitioning claim is not Shrier’s main point: that she’s dealing with those who have gender dysphoria, not necessarily those who have already transitioned (I don’t know as I haven’t yet received the book.) Also, gender dysphoria could be a symptom or part of a complex of other mental problems, like a general failure to fit into society, and suicide could result from that—not from either regret or ostracism.

At any rate, you can’t ban a book from “everywhere it is sold” because you take issue with one of the book’s contentions. Nevertheless, 1760 people have signed the petition out of a goal of 2500.  In my years of writing on this site, I don’t remember seeing a request for a book to be banned from “everywhere it is sold,” though there are plenty of instances of books being banned from schools or school districts. This is an attempt to erase the book completely.

In a dueling petition, also at change.org,  there’s a call to not ban the book, which I’ve signed. Reassuringly, it’s gathered more signatures: 4340 out of a goal of 5000. I have signed it, because though I haven’t yet read the book, I’m opposed to any banning of books. Click on the screenshot if you want to read the petition and/or sign it.

An excerpt:

I am calling for you to refuse to give in to pressure from ill-informed random people on the internet to remove the book from your listings when the best they can do to bolster their cause is attempt to tie Shrier and her book to the harassment and abuse of transgender people and to their emotional issues, when it is unlikely that anyone who carries out such abuses has even heard of the book. Vanillian has not provided any proof of the alleged misinformation or hate speech and no amount of signatures on a petition based on lies and appeals to emotion is going to change that.

Please don’t pay attention to people who use emotionally manipulative language and horrible scenarios to try to stop people from learning about the harm being done in the name of a worthy cause. Don’t ban books, discuss them. And don’t give in to pressure from astroturfed mobs. Abigail Shrier’s book deserves scrutiny, not a blanket ban in case some people get upset. If you give in to this, sooner or later every book will have to be banned.

Although the counter-petition doesn’t answer the claim that the suicide of transgender males has nothing to do with the urge to reverse course and destransition, the way to resolve these conflicting claims is not to ban the other side, but read both sides of the argument, look at the data (if they exist), and judge for yourself.  It’s an unfortunate characteristic of woke activists, many of whom uncritically valorize the urge to change gender, even in children, that they demonize the other side as “transphobes” rather than dealing with their arguments. And the only way to judge arguments is to hear both sides and look at the evidence.

Shrier’s book is likely seen as “hate speech” by many, since it’s viewed, erroneously, as “transphobic” (Shrier is not at all opposed to transsexual changes in older people.) And this is one of the reasons why we must fight against the possible resurgence of “hate speech” laws should they be suggested during a Biden presidency or crop up in universities.

In the meantime, all the kerfuffle about Shrier’s book (click on screenshot for Amazon link) has created a Streisand effect, propelling it to #45 among all among books, with an expected bimodality of ratings but an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars. Amazon is surely not going to ban it, so the opponents of the book have simply increased its sales.

The book-banning petition will have no effect (has a change.org petition ever accomplished anything?), save help sell more books. But it is a sign of the Zeitgeist that so many Americans favor this kind of censorship.

 

Bertrand Russell on faith versus fact

October 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

I was shocked when a reader mentioned, in a recent comment, that the famous philosopher, logician, mathematician and vociferous atheist Bertrand Russell had written a book about the conflict between religion and science. How could I have missed it when I wrote a book about the same issue in 2015, and spent two years reading before I wrote it? I was chagrined, and of course nothing would do but for me to get the book, which was published in 1935.

Fortunately, our library had it, and I got it and devoured it within a few days. I was happy to once again read Russell’s clear prose and dry wit, but also to see that while his topic was nominally the same as mine, there isn’t much overlap between our books. I’ll just highlight a few points of similarity and difference, and mention a few of Russell’s ideas that we still talk about on this site.

Below is the title page; you can still buy the book here, with the reissue having an introduction by Michael Ruse. As for whether you should buy it, well, if you’re familiar with Russell’s popular writings you’ve probably read most of it before, and a lot of it isn’t really about religion vs. science. I’ll be self-aggrandizing and say that if you can only read one book on the conflict—and you think there is a conflict—it should be Faith Versus Fact rather than Russell’s. (If you don’t see a conflict, there are other books by accommodationists you can read). I don’t make that recommendation lightly, as Russell was far brainier and more eloquent than I. It’s just that things have moved on in the last 85 years (NOMA, advances in physics and evolutionary biology, conflicts about global warming and faith-based healing, and so on), and I don’t spend a lot of time—as Russell does—dealing with stuff like the mind/body problem, demonology, the idea of a soul, and the notion of “cosmic purpose.”

There is some overlap between what Russell and I consider to be the “conflict” between religion and science. First, our differences.  I see it as a conflict in how to adjudicate what is true given the disparate “truth-seeking” methods of science and religion, while Russell sees the conflict largely as a historical phenomenon: the fact that religion and science have been at odds with each other since science became a discipline.  That is, Russell adheres to what’s known by accommodationists as “the conflict hypothesis”. Thus, he has whole chapters on evolution vs. creationism, the Copernican revolution and how heliocentrists like Galileo fought with the Church, and the scientific vacuity of the idea of “souls” and of some external “purpose of life.”

That said, Russell does recognize that the conflict arose from the different ways that science and religion determine truth, with the former relying on empirical investigation and the latter on revelation, scripture, and authority. Surprisingly, though, for a man who wrote the famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” (1927; read it at the link), Russell is surprisingly soft on religion, extolling its virtues as an arbiter of morality and saying that its appeal is emotional, having little to do with truth.

He further argues that, when he wrote the book above, the warfare between science and Christian theology was “nearly ended,” as theology was yielding territory repeatedly to scientific facts. But he didn’t know that creationism would still be with us decades later, and doesn’t discuss the fact that, even in his time many religious people, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Hindus, and, in fact, most faiths, still held beliefs that are contradicted by science (reincarnation, souls, karma, spiritual healing, and so on). This conflict will always be with us so long as religion asserts truths that aren’t based on empirical observation and assent—i.e., “science construed broadly.”

I’ll mention just two of Russell’s arguments with which I agree, and also deal with in Faith Versus Fact. I’ll give his quotes in indents.

Is there an objective morality? Russell discusses this in detail, and although a few modern philosophers and thinkers assert that matters of right and wrong can be discerned objectively, through science, he disagrees, as do I. At bottom, “right and wrong” are matters of subjective preference, and you cannot decide which morality is objectively “better” unless you have some personal preference for what you want morality to do. (Sam Harris, for example, thinks morality should maximize well being, and what is “right” can be determined by a calculus of well being.) But well being, like all criteria for morality are at bottom simply tastes. As Russell says,

We may desire A because it is a means to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must come to something, which we desire for no reason, but not on that account “irrationally”. All systems of ethics embody the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed in a mist of words. (p. 254)

I particularly like the concise truth of the last sentence.

Russell concludes that science cannot decide questions of values, which puts both of us at odds with people like Sam Harris and Derek Parfit. So be it. But I would argue that neither can religion decide questions of values. That’s because those questions can be decided only by referring to scripture, authority, or revelation, and those are at odds with each other among religions. I would further argue that since secular ethics (which has a long tradition) is not beholden to ancient scripture or the parochialism of faiths and of their gods, it produces a morality better than that of religion. And indeed, you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise, for then you’d have to defend all sorts of ridiculous “morality” around sex, food, and so on. Is it really immoral to masturbate? Catholicism says so, as do many branches of Judaism.

Science is the only way of knowing what’s true. We’ve repeatedly discussed whether there are other ways of “knowing” beyond science, and that, of course, depends on what you mean by “knowing”.  If you construe it, as I do, as “the apprehension and recognition of facts about the universe—facts that are widely agreed on”, then yes, I conclude in Chapter 4 of Faith versus Fact that science is the only game in town, and religion, insofar as it makes factual statements about the Universe, including about the existence and nature of God, fails miserably. (See pp. 185-196 of FvF.) Science means “the empirical method that science uses to ascertain truth”, and need not be practiced by scientists alone.

Russell clearly agrees. Here’s one quote (my emphasis):

“The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value – the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation.

Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.

Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true.

I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.” (p. 197)

In the end, morality and “ways of knowing” converge in the last paragraph of the book proper (before the “conclusions” section):

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.  (p. 255)

Here’s Russell, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950:

Once again: the supposed need for the self-justification of science

September 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Reading the latest edition of The Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper, I saw an op-ed about self care by Ada Palmer, an associate professor of History. I’m not going to write about that; her piece is pretty straightforward and empathic towards our students, who will be having a rather stressful semester. Rather, when I looked Palmer up, I saw that she’d written a review two years ago in Harvard Magazine of Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Always interested in how my colleagues regard Pinker, in arguments for empiricism and rationality, and intrigued by the title of her piece, I read her piece. You can, too, by clicking on the screenshot below.

It turns out that Dr. Palmer likes Steve’s book, but has two reservations. The first is that Steve argues that humanism, which is a handmaiden of atheism, is the way forward, and that religion has only been an impediment to moral and material progress. I think he’s pretty much right on that one. But Palmer doesn’t like the atheism bit:

Pinker reviews what he sees as humanism’s intellectual adversaries, such as those who caricature it as cold utilitarianism, those who suggest that humans have an innate need for spiritual beliefs, and the classic accusation, ubiquitous in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, that there cannot be good or virtue without God. For some readers, it will be frustrating that 350 pages of useful and cheering data, the majority of which one could call faith-neutral, culminate in the declaration that only triumphant atheism can ensure that scientific progress will help instead of harm. But Pinker’s secular humanism is less militant than that of many contemporary atheist voices; he focuses on the benefits of caring about the earthly world, rather than on condemning religion. His conclusion, that progress simply requires us to value life over death, health over sickness, abundance over want, freedom over coercion, happiness over suffering, and knowledge over superstition, is one numerous theisms can and have embraced.

Thank God he’s not as militant as Dawkins! God forbid that anyone should condemn religion.

Yes, but of course many theisms have impeded science, reason, and morality, and continue to do so (I’m looking at you, Vatican), while atheism hasn’t impeded those things one bit. After all, atheism is simply lack of belief in gods. The lucubrations above look like either religion osculation or accommodationism. I doubt that anyone could argue cogently that science would be more advanced if everyone became religious. Palmer also mentions “secular evidence” below, as if there was a kind of “nonsecular evidence” for science.

But the main problem with her piece is a recurrent trope that we see among those who wish to minimize the importance of science. It’s the claim that reason itself, or logic, or science itself, cannot prove that science can actually help us understand the universe in a useful way. For philosophers and some in the humanities, the lack of a priori justification that reliance on empirical methods will work is somehow an indictment of science. Here’s how Palmer goes at it:

Pinker briefly reviews efforts to value other factors—love, passions, feeling—above reason, but declares such efforts self-defeating: as soon as they attempt to justify themselves, the very act of providing reasoned arguments for their beliefs admits that reasoned arguments are the strongest grounds for belief. Yet, as I reflect on this argument, I am reminded how science, during a critical moment in its history, was self-defeating in much the same way.

Why was it self-defeating? Because there was no a priori justification for going ahead with empirical observation, hypothesis-making and -testing, and so on as a way to understand nature:

Progress in the modern sense, as an intentional and human-driven process, was first fully articulated by Francis Bacon early in the seventeenth century, when he suggested that a collaborative community of empirical inquiry would uncover useful truths that would radically transform human civilization and make each generation’s experience incrementally better than that of the generation before. This was not the easy sell it seems, since Bacon had no evidence that this unprecedented project could wield such power—and even if he had found evidence, one can’t use reasoned evidence to prove that reasoned evidence can prove things. New discoveries were frequent—the moons of Jupiter, the magnification of insects, the circulation of the blood—but practical benefits were slow in coming.

Well, that’s not exactly true, because people had been using what I call “science broadly construed” to understand nature for millennia. I was impressed, on reading Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, how local trackers used scientific observation to find game: the depth of the tracks, how dry they were, where waterholes were, and so on. There was in fact every reason to think that empirical inquiry would lead to understanding, while prayers and revelation, which any chowderhead would know didn’t help much, weren’t a good way to find animals or decide which plants were edible vs. poisonous.

As for the “practical benefits being slow in coming”, well, I take issue with that. Is improved understanding of the world “practical”. Maybe it won’t make you richer or healthier, but it makes you wiser and more appreciative of the marvels of nature.

In the end, though, I don’t care if you can’t use reason to prove that reason and empiricism “can prove things”. (Actually, they can’t: science doesn’t speak of “proof” but of more or less confirmed hypotheses.) What’s important is that, as Richard Dawkins said pungently, “Science works, bitches!”  The justification of empiricism, reason, and science is in its results: we find out what makes people sick, how to get to the Moon, how to cure disease, and so on. Only somebody hogtied with the strictures of philosophy could see a lack of a priori justification as an argument against the methods and validity of science. Yet we hear this all the time—often from theologians.

Palmer goes on:

 Yet Bacon did succeed in awakening a groundswell of enthusiasm (and funding) for reason and science, through an argument that often surprises my students: he appealed to the personality of God, arguing that a good Maker would not send humans out into the wilderness without the means to achieve the desires implanted in us. Thus, because reason is God’s unique gift to humankind, it must be capable of all we desire.

From time to time, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, champions of secularized science have been embarrassed by this comment from Bacon—worrying what would happen if their atheist followers realized that science, at its inception, had no secular evidence to support its own faith in the power of evidence.

Well, the important thing is that nobody’s embarrassed by this argument any more, for the majority of scientists, and nearly all “elite ones” neither believe in gods nor worry about “the lack of secular evidence” to support the power of evidence. As I noted above, long before Bacon we knew that we could understand things without needing “divine evidence.”

Palmer makes one more dig at atheism:

But with Pinker’s entire book in hand, Bacon would also have felt the tension between two arguments running through it: the inclusive argument that reason, science, humanism, and progress have made our present better than our past, and can make our future better still; and the less inclusive argument, however eloquently and intelligently presented, that the humane and empathetic humanism capable of turning our powers to good and away from evil must be secular.

Frankly, I don’t care what Bacon would think about the lack of need for “divine” as opposed to secular evidence for science, or about the power of humanism. There’s not an iota of evidence that religion makes people behave better, and often it makes them behave palpably worse. (Remember Steve Weinberg’s dictum: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) And of course the more atheistic a country, the better off it is—by nearly any measure: gender equality, happiness, prosperity, well being, and so on.

But it doesn’t matter, for her main argument, which she reprises in her last paragraph, is both philosophical and a non-starter. Note what I see as a snarky bit in the following (I’ve bolded it):

Pinker is no more successful than Bacon at justifying science and reason without a recursive appeal to science and reason. Yet for those already confident in the persuasive force of evidence, it would be hard to imagine a more encouraging defense than Pinker’s of the reality and possibilities of progress.

What? Is there a large segment of humanity that isn’t confident in the persuasive force of evidence? If so, they shouldn’t be trusting any court decisions, or even their own observations, much less taking planes or swallowing antibiotics.  In my view, nearly everyone is confident in the persuasive force of evidence about most things, though some fraction of humans are confident in things that lack evidence. They include religious people, conspiracy theorists, and cranks. (Oh, and Donald Trump.)

Why does this argument against science keep coming up? It’s worthless!