The Guardian is the British equivalent of HuffPost, and Suzanne Moore, one of its premier op-ed writers, has become the British equivalent of Bari Weiss. For Moore, who had a distinguished career—winning among other awards the Orwell Prize and the British Press’s “Columnist of the Year”—has now been hounded out of her job. Of course it’s because she wrote a piece that offended the Woke, which enraged over three hundred of her colleagues, who wrote a group letter denouncing her. After her editors refused to defend Moore’s right to publish her views, she quit.
She describes this incident, and also her entire career, in a new piece at UnHerd (click on screenshot below). It’s long and rather discursive, and, truth be told, I didn’t find the details of her career all that interesting (the cutesy prose didn’t help), though I felt sorry for her travails in trying—successfully–to break into an all-male domain. The piece gets interesting when she describes how her colleagues hounded her out of the paper after she wrote a column about sex, gender, and transsexuals. (No surprise about the reaction: there is no deviation permitted from Accepted Thought about transsexuals.
The skinny: in March of this year, Moore published the column below, which isn’t all that inflammatory—unless you take the extreme hard line on sex and gender: i.e., that both are social constructs, and that transsexual women are in all relevant respects identical to biological women. I’ve put a few quotes from the column below, but read it for yourself and judge how “harmful” it really is:
Moore’s big sin was to say that in some respects transsexual women are not the same as biological women—not with respect to their presence in prison or other spaces (I’m thinking of halfway houses, sports, or as rape counselors). She also affirmed the indubitable fact that biological sex is binary and not a social construct. (Moore does see gender as a social construct):
The radical insight of feminism is that gender is a social construct – that girls and women are not fated to be feminine, that boys and men don’t have to be masculine. But we have gone through the looking-glass and are being told that sex is a construct. It is said that sex is merely assigned at birth, rather than being a material fact – actually, though, sex is recognisable in the womb (which is what enables foetal sex selection). Sex is not a feeling. Female is a biological classification that applies to all living species. If you produce large immobile gametes, you are female. Even if you are a frog. This is not complicated, nor is there a spectrum, although there are small numbers of intersex people who should absolutely be supported.
. . . Male violence is an issue for women, which is why we want single-sex spaces. Vulnerable women in refuges and prisons must be allowed to live in safe environments – the common enemy here is the patriarchy, remember? How did we arrive at a situation where there are shocking and rising numbers of teenage girls presenting at specialist clinics with gender dysphoria, while some who have transitioned are now regretful and infertile?
Even if you disagree with her take, you can’t doubt that the issue, given the way many women feel, is certainly discussable, and surely material for an op-ed column. But the Authoritarian Left have rendered it non-discussable, and that’s why, after her column was published, Moore was the (unnamed) subject of a letter sent to the paper by 338 of her colleagues, many of whom were her friends—but not one of them bothered to call her. Here’s the letter:
She was of course hurt, and even more so when her editors declined to defend her piece. What the hell is going on at the Guardian when its editors can’t even say, “We allow our op-ed writers the liberty of their own opinions and have no further comment”?
And so a couple of excepts from her UnHerd piece:
I was discussed at “conference”, the newspaper morning meeting open to all: editorial, digital, advertising, everyone. (It looks like equality, but some people sit on the floor and others get seats, let’s put it that way.) I never go in to the office, or attend conference, but it was reported that a trans woman developer, who had already resigned some weeks earlier, resigned again that morning, because my words, my column, had made her feel unsafe. According to the news story: “the column was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back,’ the trans employee said, following a series of pieces that pitted trans people against women and against women’s rights.”
The “unsafe” bit is simply a canard, and I don’t buy it for a minute. In fact, we’d all be better off if we started questioning these ubiquitous claims of feeling “unsafe,” which rarely make sense.
The letter made it clear to me that it wasn’t just social media activists who wanted me out of the paper. My fellow staff were gunning for me: time to hand over my job to the young Corbyn crew who spend their lives slagging off the mainstream media but cannot wait to be part of it. Could they write a good sentence? Say something from the heart? Does that matter? Apparently not, they simply think the right things.
The letter was then leaked to Buzzfeed and then the names were made public. I was devastated to find people who I like and had worked with had done this. In 30 years of journalism I have often disagreed with people and had stand-up rows with them but no one has ever done something so underhand as to try and get someone fired because of one column.
. . . Mistakenly, I thought my editors would stand up for me because that was my experience at other papers; or they might issue a public statement. They didn’t. There was some internal email, and I hear it was discussed at the Scott Trust, which governs the paper. What this means I genuinely have no idea. Nor do I understand what editorial independence means any more. Do they? Not in my book.
This to me was utter cowardice. Shouldn’t you stand by your writers? But on this issue the Guardian has run scared. I suspect this is partly because of GuardianUS sensitivities and, partly because the paper receives sponsorship from the Open Society foundation, which promotes trans rights.
To be sure, there were people who supported Moore, and one even did so publicly, but most did so sotto voce: after all, they didn’t want to be fired or demonized.
So Moore quit the Guardian, just as Bari Weiss quite the New York Times after hounding from her fellow writers. And shame on the Guardian for their refusal to defend their writers. Nor can we hope that Moore’s column will make things easier. As she says:
The censorship continues and I cannot abide it. Every day another woman loses her job and a witch-burning occurs on Twitter. My fear is not about trans people but an ideology that means the erasure of women — not just the word, but of our ability to name and describe our experience. We are now cervix-havers, birthing parents, people who menstruate. On Amnesty’s latest posters to support the women’s strike in Poland, the literal translation from Polish for the thousands of women who were protesting the awful tightening of abortion laws was: “I stand with people in Poland”. Which people? Women forced to give birth on a plastic sheet to a dead baby with foetal defects? Say it.
We must not be afraid of being called “transphobes”, which we are not if we merely point out socially relevant differences between transsexual women and biological women. For most purposes there aren’t relevant differences, but sometimes there are, and we need to talk about them. Pity that the Authoritarian Left has made “transphobe” a slur to be feared, just as they’ve done with “Islamophobe” or “racist”. Those labels are just easy ways to shut people up. We can’t stifle ourselves (as Archie Bunker often importuned Edith) for fear of a label.
Roger Cohen, a columnist for the New York Times, is leaving the op-ed page; he will become bureau chief in Paris. This follows the departure of Bari Weiss, the demotion of David Leonhardt, and the defenestration of James Bennet. (Click on screenshot.)
Weiss was hounded out for her lack of ideological conformity. Bennet, the editorial-page editor, was forced out for publishing a piece that diverged from the opinions of his staff. Ironically, it was Bennet who oversaw the “wokification” of the Times‘ opinion pages—he was consumed by his minions!
Leonhardt was demoted from being a columnist. He was neither one of the in-house conservatives (Bret Stephens, Ross Douthat) nor one of the silverbacks (Friedman) that seem immunized from the quest for ideological conformity. A representative example of Leonhardt’s critique of the woke wing of the Democratic Party is this:
A brief extract from the above:
The biggest lesson is simply this: The American left doesn’t care enough about winning.
It’s an old problem, one that has long undermined left-wing movements in this country. They have often prioritized purity over victory. They wouldn’t necessarily put it these terms, but they have chosen to lose on their terms rather than win with compromise.
You can see this pattern today in the ways that many progressive activists misread public opinion. Their answer to almost every question of political strategy is to insist that Americans are a profoundly progressive people who haven’t yet been inspired to vote the way they think. The way to win, these progressives claim, is to go left, always.
Since Leonhardt still writes for the Times, Jerry asked me how I could be sure he was “demoted”. If you go from being a capital “C” Columnist, identified as such on the Opinion page, with your column appearing weekly in the print edition, to writing an online-only newsletter pointing to interesting articles from the day before and bearing the subtitle “And what else you need to know today“, as though it were a listicle, with only occasional pieces in the Sunday Review, you’ve been demoted.
Cohen is South African-British-American, originally a foreign correspondent who’s lived may years on the Continent. He’s very cosmopolitan, internationalist, and Enlightenment-friendly in outlook. I usually read his weekly column. His farewell column includes this:
This, dear readers, is goodbye, my last column for The New York Times. I have tried to defend the causes I believe in — freedom, decency, pluralism, the importance of dissent in an open society, above all. Uniformity of thought is the death of thought. It paves the road to hell.
It’s less obvious he’s been demoted, as heading the Paris bureau is a plum job (although I would have thought of that job as a step towards, not away from, a more influential position). Given Cohen’s peripatetic nature, I wouldn’t rule out he wanted to go to Paris. But his farewell mentions of pluralism, dissent, and the evils of groupthink immediately set off my suspicion that this is another step in the Times‘ opinion pages purge. (This purge seems to be spreading to other outlets: witness Andrew Sullivan’s departure from New York magazine, and now Matt Yglesias’s departure from Vox (which he co-founded, for crissakes). In the current context of the Times, I couldn’t help but read those last two sentences as veiled criticism.
The “proper” stand to take on religion these days, if you’re a science-friendly liberal, is to say that yes, you’re not really a believer, but you’re spiritual, that religion is in general good for The Little People, and that Richard Dawkins has ruined it all with his shrill and misdirected attacks on religion, which he’s mistakenly taken to be identical to fundamentalism.
Every bit of that is bogus, of course, but religion is the one superstition, the one delusion, that you simply can’t criticize in public. While you lose considerable reputation by attacking it, you lose nothing by extolling it. Indeed, if you’re an atheist who lauds faith, you’re seen as an affable and open-minded fellow.
Richard Just, the editor of the Washington Post Magazine, isn’t a nonbeliever, but he’s the closest thing to it: a Jew who belongs to a Reform synagogue—the most liberal branch of Judaism. (The old joke goes, “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?” The answer is, “A Jew.”) But Just does go to schul, and apparently believes in a higher power of some sort. He’s leveraged his faith into a very long article in this week’s WaPo magazine, which, despite Just’s undeniable talents as an editor, is about the lamest defense of religion I’ve ever seen.
His thesis is this: American democracy is falling apart, the country riven with mutual distrust. Also, America is becoming more secular, with the percentage of “nones”—those who are atheists, agnostics, or believers in “nothing in particular”)—rising from 17% to 26% in the last decade.
Just sees a connection here, blaming increasing nonbelief on “the erosion of the traditional norms that have sustained our democracy”. He means religious norms. Now Just is not calling for more fundamentalists or Evangelical Christians, but he thinks that the main characteristics of religion are just the ones we need to buttress American democracy. And so he argues in the article below (click on the screenshot to read).
The piece is so tepid and vapid that I can barely bring myself to offer a critique, for Just adduces no evidence for his thesis. (Well, he cites two psychological studies, but they’re irrelevant to his argument.) Rather, he simply asserts that religious faith is just the ticket for repairing our democracy.
Before I summarize the allegedly salubrious aspects of faith, let’s realize that Just is writing pretty much about the last four years of the Trump era, not about America over the last several decades. Perhaps our democratic system is unraveling, but I don’t see that—nor does Just offer any evidence for it. And, as I’ll mention below, he totally ignores the place where the real data lie: the European democracies that are not sustained by faith: the atheistic countries of Northern Europe, including Scandinavia. That alone refutes his entire article.
Need I continue? Very well. Here are the values religion can use to shore up the levees of democracy:
A lack of idolatry. This beggars belief. Religion, in America, at least, is idolatrous, but Just feels that it’s better to have religion than what has replaced it: a politics that has become a religion. Yes, that’s right:
De Tocqueville was worried, essentially, that if we didn’t worship God, we might exercise our instinct to worship through politics or politicians themselves. If this concern resonates with you — if you fear that some of our politicians have, in the past few years, become can-do-no-wrong cult-like figures in the eyes of their supporters — then you’re not alone. As Quincy Howard — a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa and coordinating director for Faithful Democracy, a multifaith coalition advocating democracy reform — put it to me recently, American politics is arguably “on the brink of being idolatrous at this point, and this goes for the left as well as the right.”
Remember that Just is writing as a Reform Jew, just a hairsbreadth from atheism, and doesn’t seem to realize how damaging religion, in particular Christianity, has been to America politics—perhaps the main force sundering America. But I won’t expatiate about that. The only argument in favor of Just’s argument is that many people seem to worship Trump. But who do the Democrats worship? Saying that politics is idolatrous resembles the argument of faithheads that atheism is a form of religion. It’s an assertion without evidence, and can be dismissed as part of Just’s argument.
Inner peace and emotional comfort. Yes, these are the traditionally mentioned virtues of religion, and I won’t deny them, except to say that it’s false comfort to rest your peace and comfort on nonexistent propositions. For if the tenets of faith be not true, and Jesus did not live and die as the son of/part of God, then what comfort is there to be had?
There is, however, a more complicated element of de Tocqueville’s warning that is also worth taking seriously today. It has to do with inner peace. Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, recently told me that he sees a sense of personal calm as one of the key contributions religion can make to our national life. “Religion offers peace. Serenity, if you will. And people want that too,” he said. “How do you deal with undesired uncertainties and fears and worries and doubt?”
When I put the question of whether and how religion could benefit democracy to the Rev. Michael Bledsoe, the now-retired longtime pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, he spoke about how “authentic communities” can help to “leaven societies.” They provide us with emotional comfort when we are sick, and with life markers from birth to death. “This is a tapestry that’s being woven almost unseen by the rest of the culture,” he said.
And it’s all delusional. Are we supposed to believe in unevidenced palaver because it brings us comfort? And, given the inevitable and increasing secularism in America, does Just feel we need to go back to faith? Granted, his is a nebulous faith without much dogma (read some of his quotes about Judaism), but it still depends on the existence of Yahweh.
Humility and doubt. Again a howler. Maybe Reform Judaism brings humility, for argument and doubt are part of its package, but to characterize “humility” as an essential component of American religion is to misunderstand American religion. You want humility and doubt? Try science and rationality!
One value that is found in all the major religions is, of course, humility. “Believing in a higher power,” Hendi told me, “must make us humble in God’s presence, and make us realize that only God is perfect. We are not.” Faith, he added, instructs us to say, “I am right, and I know I’m right, but I could be wrong. My opponent is absolutely wrong but could be right.”
The thing that has surprised me most as I learned more about my own faith in recent years was how consistently inconsistent — how proudly riddled with uncertainties and outright contradictions — religious Judaism is. Consider this passage from Martin Buber’s 1923 book “I and Thou,” a touchstone of modern Jewish thinking about God: “One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. … Of course, God is ‘the wholly other’; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present. Of course, he is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I.” Every sentence about God here is essentially an argument with itself.
Note that Just avers a belief in God here: he’s not a “ground of being” guy. More important, doesn’t he realize that Reform Judaism is not the main religion of America? 43% of Americans are Protestants, 20% are Roman Catholics, and only 2% are Jews (and only a fraction of those are Reform Jews). A high percentage of the Christian denominations are pretty authoritarian, espousing a particular morality that comes from the Bible (ergo from God). There is no “doubt” in the minds of the Christian pro-lifers, no “humility” in those who oppose gay marriage. And none of these warts on American democracy come from secularism: they’re all a product of religious hubris.
Further, Just is a big fan of the “mystery” of religion, a supposed source of humility:
But because religion is fundamentally a mystery, it can also be a profound source of analytical humility and existential uncertainty. It can teach us to value, even celebrate, contradictions, to think constantly about how we might be wrong — an ethic that is the very opposite of the perpetual certainty now running rampant in American politics.
Yes, Trump’s religious base is certainly thinking constantly about how they might be wrong, aren’t they? How can we get them to be properly religious and embrace some doubt? Just doesn’t tell us. That’s because he’s not offering a prescription to fix American democracy, but simply expelling pious hopes into the ether. If he though hard about the issue, he’d advise his readers to join the nones and turn America into a Denmark West.
Just two more points showing Just’s cluelessness. The first is this (“Hendi” is Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University):
Churches continue to reflect the racial segregation of society as a whole. And how can institutions that drive people apart be a useful source for democratic values? The point goes beyond Christianity: To many secular Americans, religions of all kinds appear to be just one more marker of identity that separates us from one another.
It’s a major challenge, and one that isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. Yet in the long run, religion doesn’t have to be a divisive, rather than a unifying, force. Hendi told me that he thinks this is a crucial contribution that Islamic theology can make to our democratic mores. Islam, he explained, “is very particular about how God created us to be different and God wants us to be different, and that differences do not mean animosity or hatreds or negativity.” He added: “Our closeness to the divine depends on our ability to value those differences.”
What the deuce is Hendi talking about? Muslims value their differences from non-Muslims, despite the fact that Islam is supposed to be the final faith and the Qur’an urges killing nonbelievers and apostates? I suspect Hendi is a weak-beer Muslim just as Just is a weak-beer Jew. But anybody who argues that Islamic theology can buttress American democracy by bringing us together needs to get out more.
As for the “evidence” that infusing America with more faith will strengthen our democracy, Just cites two studies:
None of this will necessarily assuage the worries of ardent secularists, many of whom may intuitively fear that religion correlates with an authoritarian mind-set. But academic studies suggest the situation is more complicated. One study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1995, found that “authoritarianism was positively related to several different facets of less mature faith development, and negatively related to several aspects of relatively mature faith development.” Another study from the same publication reached a similar conclusion in 2007: It found a positive association between authoritarianism and religiousness, but a negative association between authoritarianism and “spiritual seeking.” In other words, yes, religion can line up neatly with anti-democratic forces — and it often has — but faith that is undergirded by the right kind of values can serve as democracy’s partner.
I urge you to look at these studies. One is based on surveys of college psychology students (a sample of 156), and neither of them surveyed nonbelievers (one explicitly surveyed only believers). Neither study says anything about what a purely secular democracy would look like.
But we already know some stuff about that, for we have an experiment. Atheism is rife in the democracies of Western Europe, particularly in countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway. How are their democracies doing? Pretty well, I think. Certainly better than America. Yes, the Right has been ascendant in some lands, but, in general, the healthiest democracies in Europe, and those that have the people who are happiest and most well off, happen to be those democracies full of atheists. The lesson: we don’t need no stinking faith to have a good democracy.
How Just comes to this conclusion is simply by revelation: the same way that most believers get their faith (aside from their parents, of course). As I wrote to Andrew Sullivan, hoping he’d publish this in his “Dissents” (he didn’t):
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.
Just ends his 3300-word screed with an emission of gaseous verbiage; as Eliot said, not with a bang but a whimper. If you understand this, you’re better than I. But hey, it’s theology, Jake!
For [Rabbi Abraham] Heschel, we are meant to live in the world of space — the material world — six days a week, but on Shabbat, we are meant to celebrate the holiness of time. “Time,” he wrote, “has independent ultimate significance; it is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars. … It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God, wherein man becomes aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations.”
In the past few years, I have often felt that politics, with its never-ending loop of can’t-look-away ugliness, was stealing my time. Perhaps you have too. If our time is holy, then we simply have to figure out a better politics — one that is saner, more measured, more humble, more humane. Religion can’t solve every problem facing our democracy, but maybe, if we step into the mystery, it can help.
My response is this: no it can’t. Yes, we need to figure out a better politics, but faith isn’t useful for that. And everybody knows we have to figure out a better politics, anyway.
For your amusement, you may want to read some of the 1,600 comments by readers. A very large number of those readers aren’t buying what Just is selling. Reader Timothy, who sent me this link, attributes the pushback largely to the Four Horsemen, and I think he’s right. Those who argue that the New Atheism was a dismal failure have to explain why so many of the religion-dissing comments would not have been conceivable had Just’s article been published in 1960 or so. New Atheism has done its job: it’s nudged the rock down the hill, and the rest is gravity.
There is nothing, it seems, that can’t be blamed on the white patriarchy. The ludicrous extreme of such claims can be seen in Wednesday’s op-ed by Charles Blow in the New York Times. (click on screenshot below). Apparently the movement of the “oppressed” towards Republicans, as well as the high votes of white women for Trump, are not the results of individual reasoned decisions, but of the machinations of The Patriarchy. The column is unbelievable.
Maybe sociologists know why the votes have gone this way, but I don’t. Regardless, Blow says something that nobody disputes: people of color voted for Trump by a higher margin this year than in 2016. That’s also true for gay people—big time. Given Trump’s views and actions, I’m surprised, but I lack both the the expertise or chops to explain the numbers that Blow quotes:
A larger percentage of every racial minority voted for Trump this year than in 2016. Among Blacks and Hispanics, this percentage grew among both men and women, although men were more likely to vote for Trump than women.
. . . The fascinating story and movement are in the Black vote. Black people vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. Black women vote more reliably Democratic than Black men — only 3 or 4 percent of Black women voted for the Republican candidate in 2008,2012 and 2016. However, Donald Trump doubled that number this year, winning 8 percent of Black women’s votes.
Black men on the other hand have been inching away from the Democrats in recent elections, and continued that drift in this election. In 2008, 5 percent of Black men voted for John McCain; in 2012, 11 percent voted for Mitt Romney; in 2016, 13 percent voted for Trump; and, this year 18 percent voted for Trump.
The gay shift is remarkable:
This one pushed me back on my heels: the percentage of L.G.B.T. people voting for Trump doubled from 2016, moving from 14 percent to 28 percent. In Georgia the number was 33 percent.
This for a president who has attacked trans people in every way imaginable. As the Human Rights Campaign president, Alphonso David, pointed out in June, “The Trump-Pence administration is the most virulently anti-LGBTQ administration in decades.”
White women, too, are faulted (see below) for voting for their oppressors:
In any case, white women vote for Trump at higher rates than all other women, despite the fact that Trump has spent his first term, indeed his whole life, denigrating women.
I have no issues with these statistics, and assume they’re correct. My beef is what Blow makes of them. First, he asserts that those who voted for Trump were either racists or racist-enablers:
Let me be specific and explicit here: White people — both men and women — were the only group in which a majority voted for Trump, according to exit polls. To be exact, nearly three out of every five white voters in America are Trump voters.
It is so unsettling to consider that many of our fellow countrymen and women are either racists or accommodate racists or acquiesce to racists.
Well, Blow is a black man, so perhaps the idea that voting for Trump means a vote for racism—the weasel-out Blow proffers is “acquiesce to racists”—comes more naturally to him. But surely there are many people who voted for Trump who don’t see themselves as racists, or even see themselves as anti-racists. Instead, they may have considered other issues more important in their vote: their economic well-being, their fear that they might lose their jobs to overseas companies or to immigrants, and so on. It is like saying that anybody who voted for Biden is a “woke enabler.” Now remember, I think that anybody who voted for Trump was making a serious mistake, voting for an unhinged demagogue who was destroying America. But I’m not willing to tar them all with the monicker of racism.
But that’s not the worst thing in this editorial. That would be Blow’s analysis of why so many “oppressed” people voted for Trump in the first place. Here it is:
All of this to me points to the power of the white patriarchy and the coattail it has of those who depend on it or aspire to it. It reaches across gender and sexual orientation and even race. Trump’s brash, privileged chest trumping and alpha-male dismissiveness and in-your-face rudeness are aspirational to some men and appealing to some women. Some people who have historically been oppressed will stand with the oppressors, and will aspire to power by proximity.
Seriously? A Stockholm Syndrome explanation?
This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, it’s not really an explanation at all: it literally begs the question. He’s made up an explanation that lacks any evidence at all.
Second, it infantilizes people of color, arguing that they mistakenly sought a nonexistent “power by proximity”, and are not going with the program that comports with their ethnicity. They are, as blacks call other blacks who show “white” behavior, “Oreos.” In other words, it is white men who have made black and Hispanic men and women vote for Trump.
Note, too, that Blow uses the term “historically oppressed.” But if you’re not oppressed now, as many blacks, Hispanics, and women aren’t, should you consider the past history of your in-group when voting? Those who voted for Trump because they thought (correctly or not) that his policies made them better off might disagree.
That especially goes for gays, who have done so well, and are so oppression-free, that many of the Woke consider white gays, at least, to have “privilege”, not numbered among the oppressed (see here, for instance). White gays have considerable power, and there’s absolutely no reason they should vote for Trump just to be hauled up the ladder on the coattails of The White Patriarchy.
It’s richly ironic that gays, Hispanics, blacks, and women are told by Blow that their votes were not only wrong, but were conditioned by the White Patriarchy as a misguided grab for power. As I said, it goes to show that there is absolutely nothing one doesn’t like that cannot be blamed on the White Patriarchy. Perhaps Blow should do a little more research on the complex question that he simplifies into intellectual pabulum. But of course, the New York Times now sees everything through the lens of race and oppression.
Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time – – i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly, I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.
I’m not sure where Wood stands now on the tone of the New Atheists, but I think he got Dawkins wrong about cathedrals, for Richard has extolled their beauty as well as the loveliness of evensong. I don’t recall him ever saying that cathedrals should be razed, or anything close to that.
As I recall, I met James for coffee in Harvard Square a while back, as I wanted his take on whether he saw literature as a “way of knowing” about the universe and, as I also recall, he wound up agreeing that it wasn’t, though memory fades. . .
At any rate, in a new piece at the New Yorker, Wood seems to have become a little less respectful of faith and a little harder on its delusional nature, evincing a harder atheism than the New Yorker usually allows to appear in its pages.
His topic is a new book by Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist of religion whom we used to meet regularly at this site. My beef with Luhrmann, as it has been with Elaine Ecklund and Krista Tippett, is that, without ever pronouncing on the truthfulness of religious beliefs or tenets, they spend their careers osculating the rump of faith, extolling the virtues of religion while avoiding the delicate topic of whether religious beliefs bear any truth. While that’s ok for sociological or anthropological studies, both Eckland and Luhrmann give little doubt that they really think religion is a good thing, not just an object of study. And, after a while, this kind of soft osculation, without coming to grips with the question of gods, starts to grate on you.
It seems, too, to have started grating on Professor Wood, as his review of Luhmann’s new book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, is pervaded with petulance about her failure to come to grips with the question, “Does God really exist?” And this winds up with Wood making some of the most atheistic remarks I’ve seen in a magazine not known for confronting religion.
As you can tell from Luhrmann’s title, she sees religious worship and prayer, analyzed worldwide, as a way of creating a Creator, or what she calls “real making.” But what is “real”? Wood notes the problem right off the bat:
This comparative framework suits Luhrmann, precisely because she is not interested in the questions that so gripped me when I was young: what or who is God, and how can we know if this God exists? Luhrmann passes over questions of belief in search of questions of practice—the technologies of prayer. She wants to know how worshippers open themselves up to their experiences of God; how they communicate with gods and spirits and in turn hear those gods and spirits reply to them, and she is interested in the kind of therapeutic transformation that such prayerful conversation has on the worshipper. She calls this activity “real-making,” and adds that her new book is not a believer’s or an atheist’s, but an anthropologist’s work. “Rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship,” she writes. Thus “the puzzle of religion,” as she defines it, “is not the problem of false belief but the question of how gods and spirits become and remain real to people and what this real-making does for humans.” Whether these questions—of belief and of practice—can be separated quite as staunchly as she wishes is the “puzzle” that surely haunts her own work.
You don’t have to read Wood’s essay more than once to see that he thinks the questions of belief and practice aren’t easy to separate. If you’re praying for something, as Luhrmann has (she’s engaged in prayer and worship along with her subjects), you expect that someone is listening with the power to give it to you. Prayer, to Luhrmann’s subject, is not just a gussied-up form of meditation. It is “real-making”.
I haven’t read Luhrmann’s book, but Wood’s take appears to be that she’s overly coy about the “reality” of a divine being, even though she denies believing in a God with a white beard who sits above, observing us go about our business. But in other places, especially in her previous writings (see my links here), she tacitly accepts the presence of Something Numinous, and avers that her subjects really do think that there’s somebody to worship and pray to.
It’s clear that Luhrmann, like Tippett and Ecklund, think that worship “works,” but there are various ways you can construe that. It can “work” as a psychological device like meditation: by talking to a god, you can feel better and calmer, and, perhaps, arrive at difficult decisions. (One wonders, though, whether a decision is better if reached by consulting an imaginary god than by rational contemplation.) But it’s clear that this isn’t what Luhrman’s subjects think. They use the other two senses of “work”: worship and prayer put you in touch with something divine, and, third, that something divine has the power to affect the workings of the universe. It’s Luhrmann’s avoidance of these second two claims that appears to rile Wood,—as it would rile me. And so we get to read skepticism of a brand that I haven’t before seen in The New Yorker. Here are a few quotes from Wood. Be aware that, like all New Yorker writers, he’s trying to show the delusions of faith without being “shrill.”
Here he discussed the subject of an earlier book of Luhrmann’s, When God Talks Back (get it?), a sociological study of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship:
Luhrmann tells us that no one at the Vineyard laid out any rules of discernment, but that when she asked people how they knew that God was speaking to them they would revert to four “tests.” First, did a suggestion seem spontaneous, unlikely, not the kind of thing you would normally say or imagine? Second, was what you were hearing the kind of thing God might say, and not in contradiction to Biblical example or teaching? (Luhrmann stresses that the Vineyard’s God is not the severe God of the Hebrew Bible—who, for instance, orders Abraham to kill his son—but the loving God of the New Testament.) Third, could the revelation be verified by asking other people who were praying for the same outcome whether they had heard a similar message? Fourth, did hearing God’s voice impart a sense of peace? “If what you heard (or saw) did not, it did not come from God.”
I have a flyer from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that asks “Can We Really Believe What the Bible Says?” and lists three reasons for doing so, the third of which is “God cannot lie. The Bible plainly states: ‘It is impossible for God to lie.’ (Hebrews 6:18).” Below this, a friend of mine has written, in pen, “Q.E.D.” The four tests of the Vineyard are beset by a similar circularity, and, in fairness, it’s not clear how any so-called theological test could escape it. The evangelical relationship to God is so possessive, and so near-idolatrous, that it’s hard to see how one could get outside it and manage the necessary “verification.”
What he’s saying in a nice way is what Jesus and Mo express in four panels of their cartoons: it’s circular to say that that something is true because it’s in Scripture, and that we know that Scripture must be true because it comes from God.
Wood also zeroes in on the problem of evil. Perhaps you can avoid theodicy, as some of Luhrmann’s subjects do, by taking the world as a given, not set up by a God, and then relying on a divine being to help you deal with evil. But that’s a non-starter:
The “question of evil,” the ancient dilemma that has driven people to madness or despair—why is the world beset by tragedy if a providential and loving Author created it?—becomes a much easier therapeutic question: why is my life the way it is, and how can Jesus help me to make it better? Luhrmann neglects to say that the interventionist evangelical God ought to make the believer feel the problem of evil all the more acutely, since a deity mundane enough to have an interest in the outcome of a job interview might also be presumed to have had some role to play during, say, the Holocaust.
That’s a brilliantly understated but trenchant criticism (I love the “”say, the Holocaust” bit). And Luhrmann’s subjects do pray to get certain job interview, so they assume an efficacious god. But Luhrmann evades a direct answer, again resorting to the idea that worship “works”. Wood’s take (the bold is mine):
We aren’t told who or what Luhrmann was praying to. My surmise is that she isn’t sure (a perfectly respectable position), which explains how often her analysis, at the very brink of deciding, as it were, which way to vote, engages in curious slippages of argument. Her major refuge is a kind of therapeutic pragmatism. She’s fond of the verb “work.” Prayer works, belief works, real-making works, she says, in the sense that, as far as these believers are concerned, God is made real; and these prayer practices therapeutically change the people who practice them. But does prayer “work” in the most important sense, of achieving what it proposes—which is to communicate with an actually existing God? Luhrmann won’t be drawn out, committed as she is to a kind of Feuerbachian religious anthropology, in which God is merely the reality we conjure and create through our activities, imaginings, and yearnings.
No, hers is not a perfectly respectable position—not if you think that there is someone listening at the other end, and can effect change in your life. I’m surprised, actually, that Wood, an atheist, thinks that Luhrmann’s failure to be drawn out on the issue is somehow “respectable.” It’s not respectable: Luhrmann is being evasive in failing to specify what she means, deliberately courting liberal believers by refusing to come to grips with the issue of whether there is Someone to Pray To. What, exactly, is “made real” by worship and prayer?
Wood ends his piece, and I’m going to give a long final quote, singling out Luhrmann’s big evasion, one that, I surmise, makes Wood think that her book is deeply flawed. To be sure, he never says that explicitly; in fact, he says that it’s valuable. My emphasis in the quote below:
Yet surely prayer can’t be studied solely as a technology or a practice. Prayer is also a proposition. It proposes that God exists and that we can communicate with that God. And evangelical prayer, premised on faith in an interventionist God, goes further, because it insists on a certain connection to miracle. Luhrmann may distance herself from the table-like reality of God, but her evangelical subjects almost certainly don’t. God, for them, is even more real than a table and chairs, and, when it suits him, this real God can do miraculous things with tables and chairs.
There’s nothing intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, to be sure, and only a thoroughly unbalanced reader like this one, with rusty old theological axes to grind, would demand that her writing be other than what it so valuably is. Besides, even when one has decided that God doesn’t exist, one might still hesitate to conclude that religious practice, with its glories and degradations, is just one long unending history of illusion and hallucination. When I was growing up, the evangelical church I attended didn’t offer the only example of how to think about religion. Durham is dominated by a beautiful cathedral, one of the great achievements of Romanesque architecture. I spent long hours inside this magnificent building as a cathedral chorister, and grew to love its gray silence, its massive, calm nave, the weight of centuries of devotion. Sometimes I could almost feel the presence of the faithful stonemasons who, in the twelfth century, arduously placed one stone on top of another.
A friend of mine, with whom, when I was older, I used to have long “God battles” (me against, him for), once teased me with a question: If, as I claimed, religion was just an enormous illusion, was Durham Cathedral “just a mistake”? No, not a mistake—of course not, I replied. “O.K., a great temple, then, erected to honor an illusion? A big stone hoax?” Yes, perhaps. ♦
But there’s surely something intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, for it fails to come to grips with fact that the only evidence she or her subjects have for a god is their own feeling that there is a god: in other words, the emotional reassurance you get from your peers, parents, Scripture, and revelation. And that’s not evidence at all, but confirmation bias. Her failure to admit that there’s no evidence beyond that stuff, when there should be evidence if there’s a listening, theistic God, is intellectually improper. Wood’s statement that he himself is “unbalanced”, with “rusty old theological axes to grind” seems to be self-denigrating cant: Wood is an atheist, and he’s an atheist for good reasons—reasons that Luhrmann studiously avoids.
In the end, Wood calling Durham Cathedral “a big stone hoax” puts him adjacent to Dawkins, who calls religion “The God Delusion.” It seems as though the last few years have drawn Wood closer to the message of the New Atheists that he once denigrated. If so, good for him! The New Yorker could use a few more nonbelievers and less osculation of religion. That would be real-making!
When the Charlie Hebdo murders occurred in 2015, there were a lot of people who posted or held up signs saying “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), touting solidarity with the French and their free-speech policy. We don’t see anything like that with the recent murders in Paris and Nice. Instead, as I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of articles implying that the French, with their strict laïcité policy and supposedly brutal oppression of Muslims, have brought this on themselves (see here and here, for instance).
But there’s at least one website that indicted the media and the cowards for refusing to call out Islamist terrorism in France. As you might expect, it’s not an organ of the mainstream liberal media, but Spiked, a libertarian organ edited by Brendan O’Neill. O’Neill himself wrote the op-ed on France, which you can see by clicking on the screenshot below.
I have nothing to add to what he says, but I wish I’d see more of this in the press. Nobody, and no religion, is above criticism in a democracy. And if any religion should be criticized often and strongly for its oppressive policies and tenets that lead to violence, it’s Islam. (I’ve also called out other Abrahamic religions, but we don’t see their advocates committing mass murder these days.)
Quotes from the Spiked piece:
Unique among all forms of violent extremism, Islamist terrorism is always viewed as a response to a provocation. If Charlie Hebdo hadn’t published those cartoons, the massacre wouldn’t have happened. If Samuel Paty hadn’t shown kids a picture of Muhammad’s arse, he wouldn’t have become a target for attack. This is as morally degenerate as it would be to say that the Muslims massacred in Christchurch by the racist terrorist Brenton Tarrant brought it upon themselves by attending mosque – don’t they know that’s offensive to white-nationalist extremists? What will the unprincipled excuse-makers for Islamist violence, these people who genuinely believe that France’s ‘Islamophobia’ is a key reason 250 of its citizens have been slaughtered over the past five years, say after Nice? That an old woman going to a Christian church is a provocation? That such public displays of fealty to Christianity are bound to upset Islamists and therefore people should stop doing it? That would be the logical conclusion to the depraved victim-blaming they have engaged in following the Charlie Hebdo, Paty and other atrocities.
The failure of too many liberals to take a stand against the Islamist threat to life and liberty in France makes it harder for us to confront these violent regressive forces. Worse, their criticism of the victims – whether it was famous novelists criticising American PEN’s decision to give a bravery award to Charlie Hebdo or people responding to the beheading of Samuel Paty by talking about the problem of the caricatures – plays into the censorious extremism and violent cult of victimhood that are key aspects of the radical Islamist worldview. Indeed, one of the most worrying trends of our time is the interplay between the woke elites of the West and the ISIS-inspired extremists carrying out barbarous assaults in France and elsewhere: both believe that criticising Islam is wicked and punishable. One side calls it ‘Islamophobia’ and wants to No Platform it, the other calls it blasphemy and wants to execute its practitioners.
. . . Anyone who has so much as hinted at the possibility that the victims of terrorism in France brought their fate on themselves – by speaking or behaving in a particular way – has abandoned the cause of freedom and thrown his lot in with the extremist view that violence is an inevitable, if not understandable, response to those who would dare, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to upset Islamist sensitivities. That’s the question now: will we stand with the French Republic against its internal foe of radical Islam, or will we not? The silence and apologism of too many in the West suggests they’ve made their choice: they have chosen to abandon France when it needs us most.
I don’t often read comments on my infrequent Twitter posts—and never answer them—but when I tweeted out this article, two comments appeared, both by the same person, that exemplify the problem. The response is so obvious that I needn’t give it.
Muslims throughout the world are reacting with hostility towards France since Macron cracked down on extreme Islamism in the country. After the beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who showed Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirizing Muhammed, and then a Islamic terror attack in Nice that killed three, President Macron is determined to defang extreme Islamism in France. His new plan, aimed at becoming law this year, bars Muslim home-schooling, requires all children to attend state-recognized schools from age three, and calls for more scrutiny of foreign funding of mosques as well as suppressing speech that incites hatred (his plan was formulated before the Nice killings).
In response, much of the Muslim world, but particularly Turkey, has vowed to boycott French products and strike back at France in other ways, including diplomatically. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is particularly incensed, though some of his ire is clearly meant to distract his populace from the tanking Turkish economy and Erdogan’s suppression of free speech and his efforts to return his country to the pre-Atatürk condition of being an officially Muslim country. Erdogan was particularly peeved at the latest Charlie Hebdo cover, below. (Macron also said, at a memorial service for Samuel Paty, that France “will not give up our cartoons”.)
The cartoon depicts Erdogan sitting in a T-shirt and underwear, drinking a beer, and lifting up a woman’s hijab to expose her bare backside. [JAC: it’s not a hijab, which is a headscarf, but a chador.]
Drinking alcohol is considered haram, or forbidden, by most Muslims, and Erdogan has long condemned it.
“Ouuuh! The Prophet!” the speech bubble from Erdogan’s mouth said, suggesting Erdogan was only pretending to be a staunch defender of Islam.
The headline published alongside the cartoon said: “Erdogan: In private, he is very funny!”
Now I don’t spend my time reading all the world’s press, but my impression is that they’re spending a lot of space explaining why Muslims are angry at France for its crackdown on extreme Islam, as well as the cartoons, and not so much space decrying the terrorist attacks in France, much less the religious ardor that causes them. One gets the impression from some journalistic pieces, like the one under consideration, that writers are more concerned with explaining why the terrorists felt compelled to attack French civilians than with explaining why Islam inspires such acts of terrorism. (Here’s a particularly egregious example from Politico.)
UPDATE HERE: Reader Ken alerted me to the fact that the Politico article has disappeared, replaced by this editor’s note:
If it didn’t meet their editorial standards, why did they publish it? Well, I managed to find a copy online and have saved it at the Wayback Machine, so you can see the lunacy by clicking here. I think you should have a look.
The implication of many of these pieces, at least to me, is that “the French sort of had it coming”. That may sound extreme, but given the pro-Muslim stance of the liberal mainstream press, and its failure to strongly decry the attacks—or analyze why Islam, alone among major faiths, inspires such attacks—I can’t help but think that these “explanations” shade into “excuses”. My prediction is that the liberal mainstream media, already strongly Islamophilic (after all, Muslims are seen by the Left as oppressed people of color), will become even more so in the coming years, and it will seep into their straight journalism, as it already has in The New York Times.
The latest report implying that “the French had it coming” is from the Associated Press (AP). As the article below from Tablet notes, the AP has long had a sympathy for Muslims, particularly in Palestine, to the extent of deliberately slanting its journalism in favor of Palestine and against Israel. I’ve mentioned this piece several times before, and since the AP is a major source of news for Americans, with its reports appearing in many newspapers, this is a must-read:
I won’t dwell on the piece above except to say that you need to read it if you have an interest in Western journalism about Palestine and Israel.
The story at hand is the new AP piece below, which has all the earmarks of an excuse. If you asked me why there are so many terror attacks in France, my answer would be that France has both absolutely and relatively more Muslims than any country in Western Europe (8.8%; 5 million), that this is a result of the French having colonized Muslim lands, that Islam encourages separatism and a sense of offense against those seen as “blasphemers,” and that the long-standing French policy of laïcité (secularism or church-state separation), which began with the French Revolution, is seen as a slap at religion, especially by Muslims.
Granted, French colonialism was abhorrent, but it no longer exists, and can’t be a valid reason for killing French citizens. Also, Macron’s measures, which I haven’t studied in detail, may be a bit extreme, but again, that doesn’t justify killing, nor does it justify the press’s concentration on French bad behavior instead of Islam-inspired murder. And I’m not sure how much of the Muslim failure to integrate into French society is due to their own culture rather than to French measures that prevent such integration. As far as I know, the French are eager to integrate all immigrants, but there is surely some bigotry against Muslim immigrants.
But the AP’s article (click n screenshot) sounds like a chastisement of the French for their secularism. To me, it’s more than an explanation: it’s also an excuse.
Here are some excerpts from the story:
So why is France singled out for protests and calls for boycotts across the Muslim world, and so often the target of deadly violence from the extremist margins?
Its brutal colonial past, staunch secular policies and tough-talking president who is seen as insensitive toward the Muslim faith all play a role.
As France steps up security and mourns three people killed in a knife attack at a church on Thursday – the latest of many attributed to Islamic extremists in recent years — here’s a look at some of the reasons the country is under fire.
Failure of integration:
But the country’s efforts to integrate Muslim immigrants have faltered. The official French doctrine of colorblindness is intended to ignore ethnic and religious backgrounds and to have all French citizens seen as equally French. In reality, the ideal often fuels discrimination against those who look, dress or pray differently from the historically Catholic majority, instead of preventing it.
Muslims are disproportionately represented in France’s poorest, most alienated neighborhoods, as well as its prisons. That has bred angry outcasts who see their homeland as sinful and disrespectful toward Islamic traditions, or simply racist against Arab and other immigrants from lands that once enriched the French empire.
Is all of this the fault of the French government, as the article implies?
France maintains a more hands-on role than Britain does in their former colonies, notably via economic and cultural ties — and that’s also visible in how France deploys troops abroad.
French forces intervened in recent years against Islamic extremists in Mali and Syria, both former French holdings. Thousands of French soldiers are now stationed in former colonies in the Sahel region of Africa with the same mission.
A French military presence fuels routine online appeals from IS, Al-Qaida and other extremists for retaliation on French soil, in hopes of forcing France to withdraw its forces.
“Strict secularism” (my emphasis)
Much of the current anger stems from the recent republication by French satirical newspaper weekly Charlie Hebdo of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoon images of Islam’s founder deeply offended many Muslims, who see them as sacrilegious. But the cartoons were originally published in Denmark in 2005, and similar images have been published in other countries that hold freedom of expression dear.
While French officials often say their country is targeted because of its reputation as the cradle of human rights and a rampart of global democracy, what distinguishes France most is its unusual attachment to secularism.
The often-misunderstood concept of French secularism is inscribed in the country’s constitution. It was born in a 1905 law separating church and state that was meant to allow the peaceful coexistence of all religions under a neutral state, instead of a government answering to powerful Roman Catholic clerics. Crucifixes were at one point torn from classroom walls in France amid painful public debate.
A century later, polls suggest France is among the least-religious countries in the world, with a minority attending services regularly. Secularism is broadly supported by those on both left and right.
As the number of Muslim in France grew, the state imposed secular rules on their practices. A 2004 banning Muslim headscarves and other ostentatious religious symbols in schools remains divisive, if not shocking to many outside France. A 2011 law banning face veils made Muslims feel stigmatized anew.
Note the phrase “what distinguishes France most is its unusual attachment to secularism.” Yes, that may be an explanation, but, as in the Politico piece, it sounds like an excuse. France is too secular! As Politico said, France has a “dangerous religion of secularism.” Since when is secularism a religion? And how is it “dangerous”? Only to those who are so attached to their faith that they’ll kill for it.
Yes, secularism entails an acceptance of blasphemy, for religion, like politics, should not be protected from criticism. It’s that blasphemy that inspired the original Charlie Hebdo murders, and has now returned to prompt four more murders.
Finally, the AP mentions an “outspoken President”.
France has been hit with extremist attacks over recent decades under leaders across the political spectrum, but centrist President Emmanuel Macron is a particularly popular target. Protesters burned his portrait or stomped on it at protests in multiple countries this week.
That’s in part because of a law Macron plans to introduce to crack down on Islamist fundamentalists he contends are turning some communities against the state and threatening pillars of French society, including schools. In the wake of recent extremist attacks, his government expelled Muslims accused of preaching intolerance and shut down groups seen as undermining French laws or norms.
The words the president uses have provoked outrage as well. He said the planned law was aimed at Islamist “separatism,” which raised fears of the further alienation of French Muslims.
At a memorial for a teacher beheaded for showing the prophet caricatures to his class, Macron gave a speech extolling tolerance, knowledge and religious freedom. But he drew ire, including from Turkey’s president, for saying, “We won’t renounce the caricatures” and that France should “diminish Islamists.”
Earlier, Macron described Islam as a “a religion that is in crisis all over the world,” with positions “hardening” in many Muslim countries.
Now I’m sure that France bears at least some guilt for policies that anger its Muslim population. But those policies cannot by any means justify the murder of civilians. And I maintain that the main cause is still religion—a religion that mandates proselytizing, encourages feelings of outrage, and is as much a way of life as a faith, encouraging separatism.
You may say that I’m misinterpreting these articles: that they’re just meant to explain to the public why French Muslims are outraged to the extent that they slaughter non-Muslim citizens. But I’d be more likely to believe such a claim if I saw an equal number of articles explaining why the religion of Islam, as opposed to other faiths, is so often involved in these attacks. Doesn’t the public need to know that, too? Well, not according to the press, who, if they gave such explanations, would be subject to terrorist attacks themselves.
This law sounds good in principle, but seems impossible to use as a way of detecting racism in potential hires. The law and its problems are described in a long and poorly-written article in the Washington Post; I’ll have more to say about the writing later.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Here’s the skinny, and I’ve condensed an article whose published version is at least three times longer than it need be:
An ambitious new law in California taking aim at potential biases of prospective officers has raised questions and concerns among police officers and experts who fear that if implemented inadequately, the law could undermine its own mission to change policing and the culture of law enforcement.
The law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Sept. 30, will expand the present screening requirements by mandating all law enforcement agencies conduct mental evaluations of peace officer candidates to identify both implicit and explicit biases against race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation to exclude unfit recruits.
Experts, police unions and lawmakers agree on the value of identifying whether those who aspire to become officers carry considerable degrees of biases, yet it is the lack of clarity on what tools and measures will be used to look for implicit biases that is raising concerns and prompting questions.
“If police departments start to reject applicants because they have implicit biases there will be no one left to hire,” said Lorie Fridell, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and founder of the Fair and Impartial Policing program, one of the most popular implicit-bias awareness trainings in the country.
That’s one problem with the implicit bias test: it shows that nearly everyone has implicit bias (the article mentions that 88% of whites and 48% of blacks have an implicit bias for white people (when I took the test, it showed I was “race neutral”: the optimal outcome). Not only that, but the IAT (Implicit Association Test) has been widely criticized on many grounds, not the least that it doesn’t seem to translate into measurable behavior, which is the reason you measure it. You can see The Replicability Index‘s useful summary of all the analyses by clicking on the screenshot below:
From the article’s conclusions:
An unbiased assessment of the evidence shows no compelling evidence that the race IAT is a valid measure of implicit racial bias; and without a valid measure of implicit racial bias it is impossible to make scientific statements about implicit racial bias. I think the general public deserves to know this. Unfortunately, there is no need for scientific evidence that prejudice and discrimination still exists. Ideally, psychologists will spend more effort in developing valid measures of racism that can provide trustworthy information about variation across individuals, geographic regions, groups, and time. Many people believe that psychologists are already doing it, but this review of the literature shows that this is not the case. It is high time to actually do what the general public expects from us.
(See also this article from the British Psychological Society’s “Research Digest.”) Based on the widespread criticism of these tests, it’s simply not valid to claim that everyone has implicit bias.
Now perhaps explicit bias is easier to assess, but it is of course subject to manipulation. If you want to be a police officer, and know you’re being tested for explicit bias as the law stipulates, then you can pretty easily make yourself look non-racist even if you are. Of course police should (and hopefully do) perform background checks, looking at your record in previous jobs, doing mental health screening and so on, but if your record is clean, and you’re an out-and-out bigot, you might not be detected. I also think that the IAT, which pronounced me “not a racist”, can probably be gamed as well (I did answer honestly, or so I think!), but that test is pretty much worthless. California is in for a long and frustrating period of hiring.
Now onto the writing quality of the article. It’s long, tedious, and the prose is convoluted and abysmal. There are also some errors. I’ll give a few examples:
The law comes amid a moment of social upheaval where police departments across the country are facing scrutiny. . . .
WRONG. A moment is a period of time, and so it should be “when police departments” rather than “where police departments”. This is a common mistake, but an editor should have caught it.
None of the experts interviewed by The Washington Post claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases — those that people are unwilling or unable to identify — as a hiring standard.
This is awkward. Although the antecedent to “those that people are unwilling or unable to identify” should be “unconscious biases”, it could also be “law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases.” The awkward sentence could easily be fixed to “None of the experts interviewed claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that hire using screenings for unconscious biases—those biases that people are unwilling or unable to identify.”
. . . . he is skeptical of taking implicit bias evaluations like IATs, as benchmarks of deep-seeded beliefs that would lead to discrimination.
These screenings vary agency to agency and often include review of social media postings for sexist or racist comments, interviews with acquaintances, past employers, family members and thorough mental evaluations.
That’s another awkward sentence implying that the review of social media posts includes “thorough mental evaluations”. This could have been solved by putting “thorough mental evaluations” before “review of social media postings.”
A shared concern among scholars is on the use of tools such as implicit association tests (IATs) — sometimes used in bias training — as a hiring tool or screening device due to the unreliability of its findings.
The bit after the second hyphen is confusing and hard to read. It would be easy to fix: “Because implicit association tests (IATs) have been found to be unreliable, scholars are concerned about their use to screen or hire applicants, or in bias training.” Further, the construction “a shared concern . . .on” is awkward and should be “Many scholars are concerned about. . . ” or some other construction.
Yes, these errors may seem minor, but don’t newspapers like the Washington Post employ line editors any more? What’s just as bad, or worse, is the painfully awkward prose, with long sentences, that pervades the entire article. Like this:
Kang said implicit bias tests provide useful, yet inexact information, which he compared to weather forecasts, about a person’s beliefs and stereotypes at a certain moment, but they ought to be used as road maps to help law enforcement agencies develop better methods and procedures, rather than as individual hiring tools.
UG-LEE! But examples are easy to find. One more and I’ll leave you:
Catafi said POST will be working with psychologists and law enforcement experts to incorporate these new required items to the current psychological screening manual, and they have until January 2022 to complete the process.
That one has a bad error as well: it’s incorporate INTO, not “incorporate to”.
But where are the editors? There ought to be editors. Well, maybe next year.
The op-ed below, a pretty good defense of freedom of speech, is also weird because it’s written by Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times. I’m usually not in the business of seconding conservatives, but they seem to be mounting more defenses of free speech than do liberals these days. At any rate, the topic of his column is how writers who criticize religion (read: Islam) are cowed by violent reactions from Muslims, and wind up taking a weak-tea position.
Now readers may find many reasons to go after Stephens here: he’s a right-winger, “only right-wingers defend free speech because they feel like they’re being censored,” and “why Islam, among all religions?”.
But what Stephens says is especially apposite because of last week’s beheading of a French high-school teacher who showed his students (after giving them the opportunity to leave the class) two cartoons from Charlie Hebdo satirizing Muhammad. The teacher, Samuel Paty, paid with his life, decapitated by a Muslim terrorist. Will people start tut-tutting about the cartoons as they did after the Charlie Hebdo murders? I think they’ve already begun—in Stephens’s own paper.
Stephens draws from the Atlantic piece below by George Packer, a reprise of Packer’s Hitchens Prize lecture, and a piece is well worth reading. But I’ll skip it to get to Stephens and the NYT. The indented passages below are from Stephens:
Remember that the showing of the cartoons by the French teacher was part of a free speech class, and was considered discussable material because many people find it offensive. Remember too that Charlie Hebdo was mocking not Muslims, but Islam and its tenets. It wasn’t something I’d do if I valued my life, but the teacher did apologize afterwards. That didn’t matter, though. When Muslims call for the murder of a teacher in Sudan who named a teddy bear Muhammad (on her students’ suggestion) in her class, and she’s subsequently arrested, tried, and jailed, you know that somebody’s values are amiss.
At any rate, Stephens recounts some shameful experiences in journalism, centered on the cowardice of writers after the Charlie Hebdo murders:
In short order, the world got to see who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.
There weren’t many: the critics of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons included Jimmy Carter and, shamefully, PEN America, many of whose members boycotted the group’s award of its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo. And remember when Yale University Press published a whole book about the cartoons and their effect—without showing them? That was pure cowardice on the part of a publisher.
What these examples show, and what Packer brilliantly captures in his speech, is what might be called the encroachment of the unsayable. It’s an encroachment that, in its modern form, began with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” which was deemed blasphemous. In short order, the world got to see who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.
As in all the other instances, the immediate reaction has been heartbreak, defiance, solidarity — followed, typically, by a quiet moral concession. Often, this takes the form of a “yes-but” response in which the crime is condemned while also viewed as an answer to a provocation that is itself indefensible.
. . . The upshot of these controversies has been a kind of default to a middle position that goes roughly as follows: Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics. It’s a compromise that is fatal to liberalism. It reintroduces a concept of blasphemy into the liberal social order. It gives the prospectively insulted a de facto veto over what other people might say. It accustoms the public to an ever-narrower range of permissible speech and acceptable thought.
And, as Packer notes, it slowly but surely turns writers, editors and publishers into cowards. Notice, for instance, that I have just described the suspect in Paty’s murder as a “Chechen.” Why? Because it’s accurate enough, and it’s not worth dealing with the choice and precision of a single adjective.
Yes, of course he means “Chechen Muslim,” but won’t say that, which you might say is cowardice on Stephens’s part. In the end, Stephens seems to include himself as a “gatekeeper of liberal culture”, which surprised me, but also decries the cowardice of publishers in taking the “middle position”:
We are killing democracy one weak verb, blurred analogy and deleted sentence at a time.
I should be more precise. When I say “we,” I don’t mean normal people who haven’t been trained in the art of never saying what they really think. I mean those of us who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of what was once a robust and confident liberal culture that believed in the value of clear expression and bold argument. This is a culture that has been losing its nerve for 30 years. As we go, so does the rest of democracy.
I haven’t seen any editorial criticism in the mainstream liberal media of the mindset that led to the French decapitation, though I don’t read every liberal site. Where are the op-eds saying that one should be able to mock religion without fear of losing one’s head? Where are the criticisms of blasphemy laws, of blasphemy mindsets? Certainly not in Stephens’s paper, the New York Times. Yes, the paper did publish a few articles on the attack by and killing of the Muslim who sawed off the teacher’s head, but with no editorial condemnation of notion of blasphemy that lead to the murder. And you know why. The NYT, being woke, dares not defend the right to criticize Islam or its oppressive doctrines. The paper’s staffers would quit in droves.
The latest piece on the French incident, below, is mainly on how the country, especially its Right, is cracking down on Muslims, and I can’t help but read into it the kind of “middle position” that Stephens mentions. Reader Philip, who sent me the link to the piece below, was quite exercised by it, and wrote me this (quoted with permission):
Surely at least a few other readers have forwarded this to you: the NYT refulgent with concern about Islamophobia and right-wingism. Where is the righteous concern for Islamofascism-motivated decapitation?
When I wrote him saying, “well, they did report on the murder,” Philip responded:
I congenially acknowledge the Times’s previous coverage, the tone of which seems reasonably neutral compared to that of the below article. What got me was that the latter prominently quotes those criticizing the teacher for showing the caricatures (re: the Danish cartoons), but who apparently are not similarly inclined to criticize the murder(er) and Islamofascism (a word the Times seemingly won’t print, unlike Islamophobia). To be charitable, maybe they did criticize the murder and the Times did not report that.
Read for yourself.
I think Philip is right in criticizing the one-sided slant of the article above, though I am not as exercised about it as readers may be, as that slant is pretty subtle. But I think it’s still there. Yes, the French Right is way too “Islamophobic” in the genuine sense, and perhaps the French government did overreact in rounding up people who were not suspects in a kind of “radical Muslim housecleaning”. But two bits struck me as editorializing.
The first one is this paragraph:
Thousands of people took to the streets in cities around France over the weekend to demonstrate their horror at the killing on Friday. And politicians, especially on the right, jostled to sound the alarm against “the enemy within,” as the hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, put it in a radio interview, referring to so-called radicalized Muslims.
“So-called” radicalized Muslims? I think that, in fact, there are genuine radicalized Muslims in France, one of them being the killer of Samuel Paty. I’m not quite sure why the “so-called” is there. Surely it wasn’t a characterization by Darmanin.
And despite the French support for Paty and demonstrations against his murder, the paper spends the entire last part of the article quoting those who criticized Paty’s showing of the cartoons:
Mr. Macron will deliver a solemn eulogy to Mr. Paty on Wednesday at the Sorbonne. He has already been hailed as a martyr of the French Republic. The emotion of thousands who turned out for him across France was real. A huge gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris recalled the ones held after the attacks of 2015.
But a few wondered about what had transpired in Mr. Paty’s class.
“I feel like it’s very hard to use these cartoons for strictly educational purposes,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, EHESS, in Paris.
“Secularists think that it is their right, because of the law that allows blasphemy and any form of mockery of religion. But on the other hand, there is the feeling that in doing so, it is the Muslims who are despised, not the prophet,” he said.
“By using cartoons to teach freedom of expression, we do not understand that we offend people,” Mr. Khosrokhavar said. “There are a thousand ways to express freedom of expression, so why choose this one?”
Françoise Lorcerie, an education expert at the National Center for Scientific Research, said she had never heard of using the caricatures of the prophet in a classroom setting for students of that age. And she was critical of Mr. Paty’s invitation to Muslim students that they leave the class to avoid being offended.
“Obviously these caricatures are wounding for Muslims,” said Ms. Lorcerie. “I’m not so sure about presenting these caricatures, without some sort of justification,” she said.
From the standpoint of the absolute value of secularism, “it doesn’t conform to his obligation to be neutral,” Ms. Lorcerie said. “There should be a reflection on all of this.”
And that’s the end of the piece. Only critics of the cartoons are quoted, not those who defend the right of Paty to show them—even if it was unwise. So yes, I think the NYT is occupying what Stephens called “the middle ground”, striking the Faustian bargain: “Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics.”
The NYT apparently includes teachers along with writers and artists. But how do you teach a free-speech class without referring to “offensive material”, or, better yet, showing it?
The other day Bret Stephens wrote an op-ed at the New York Times in which he bucked one of the paper’s proudest achievements: the 1619 Project, designed to be at once journalism, history, and a curriculum for secondary schools. Stephens was unsparing in his criticism, saying that the Project has “failed” and has given critics of the newspaper a “gift”. I applauded him for his bravery, and predicted his demise at the paper.
Thinking about it, though, I realize that the paper would be extremely foolish to let Stephens go, for that would cause a huge public outcry. He’s an established conservative columnist, and if he got released for doing what he should have done—criticizing a project that, although run by his employer, had become a public issue—the paper would be accused even more than it is already for being biased and one-sided. I expect Stephen will stay.
Now I don’t agree with most things that Stephens writes, but I did agree with this. I also don’t agree with most things that Glenn Greenwald writes, either, but his criticisms of the paper, just published in The Intercept (click on first screenshot below), are on the mark. But they’re largely outmoded now, as they’re based on a tweet issued by the New York Times’s own union of employees, the New York Times Guild. And that tweet has now been retracted. Yet I’ll maintain that his criticisms still have force, even if they were directed against a moving target.
The union issued this tweet on Saturday that was critical of the paper for publishing Stephens’s op-ed, seen as “going after one of it’s [sic] own.” (Note the two misuses of “it’s”, bizarre for a newspaper guild!). Greenwald wrote his piece after he saw this tweet, and oy, was he steamed!
While Greenwald isn’t a fan of the paper or of Stephens (he also has mixed feelings about the 1619 Project), he eloquently defended journalism itself, saying that it’s the duty of newspapers to publish dissenting opinion, and when the story is the paper itself, well, that’s just too bad. A couple of quotes:
To start with, this is a case of journalists using their union not to demand greater editorial freedom or journalistic independence — something one would reasonably expect from a journalists’ union — but demanding its opposite: that writers at the New York Times be prohibited by management from expressing their views and perspectives about the controversies surrounding the 1619 Project. In other words: they are demanding that their own journalistic colleagues be silenced and censored. What kind of journalists plead with management for greater restrictions on journalistic expression rather than fewer?
Apparently, the answer is New York Times journalists. Indeed, this is not the first time they have publicly implored corporate management to restrict the freedom of expression and editorial freedom of their journalistic colleagues. At the end of July, the Guild issued a series of demands, one of which was that “sensitivity reads should happen at the beginning of the publication process, with compensation for those who do them.”
Here’s the demand for sensitivity readers, now a staple in children’s literature but hardly appropriate for a major newspaper, which, argues Greenwald, should publish stuff that’s occasionally objectionable to everyone, “including culturally hegemonic liberals.” (There are more demands at the link below.)
Get it right from the beginning: sensitivity reads should happen at the beginning of the publication process, with compensation for those who do them. (6/8)
Here’s one more eloquent statement by Greenwald about why the ungrammatical tweet above was ridiculous:
I’ve long been a harsh critic of Stephens’ (and Weiss’) journalism and opinion writing. But it would never occur to me to take steps to try to silence them. If they were my colleagues and published an article I disliked or expressed views I found pernicious, I certainly would not whine to management that they broke the “rules” and insist that they should not have been allowed to have expressed what they believe.
That’s because I’m a journalist, and I know that journalism can have value only if it fosters divergent views and seeks to expand rather than reduce the freedom of discourse and expression permitted by society and by employers. And whatever one wants to say about Stephens’ career and record of writing — and I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about it — harshly critiquing your own employer’s Pulitzer-winning series, one beloved by powerful media, political and cultural figures, is the type of “challenge to power” that many journalists who do nothing but spout pleasing, popular pieties love to preen as embodying.
There has never been a media outlet where I have worked or where I have been published that did not frequently also publish opinions with which I disagree and articles I dislike, including the one in which I am currently writing. . . .
Well, late yesterday evening, someone thought better of the first tweet, saying it was an “error”. This came out, and Greenwald highlights it an an update to his piece:
Apparently the “mistake” was that someone in the Guild, who also runs its Twitter account, issued the tweet without “internal discussion.” This caused a fracas in the Guild, which issued the apology.
I’d say that this deletion and apology was a good move if I didn’t think it was done only for the “optics,” with the Guild realizing how bad that tweet looked. Although I don’t know for sure, based on the demands the Guild has made previously, and the fact that the NYT and the internal communications of the paper led to a climate so toxic that it forced Bari Weiss to resign, I suspect that many members of the Guild—save for “old school” journalists like Greenwald—agree with the first tweet. And I suspect Stephens has few friends at the paper now.
I really would like to be charitable here, as we shouldn’t assume the worst of those we dislike, but I’m having trouble with that, at least with respect to the Guild. We know from internal communications that those who don’t adhere to the paper’s woke ideology get slammed.
I also have trouble thinking that Jake Silverstein, the editor of the NYT Magazine (which first published the 1619 Project), is completely sincere when he says in the two tweets below that “he welcomes debate” and “stands entirely behind the 1619 Project.” He in fact has rejected criticism and ignored fact checking, and the paper has quietly shelved important claims about the Project without admitting that they did so. It was up to others to note this form of journalistic duplicity. No, the 1619 Project reminds me of a scientist who holds so tenaciously to his theory that he’ll never admit it has flaws, and when some are found he secretly modifies his theory and asserts that it never changed. (In fact, Steve Gould behaved that way with respect to his and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium.)
I’m more charitable about the following letter from the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, shared by Silverstein. I’ve reprinted Sulzberger’s statement at the bottom. The only thing I’ll beef about here is Sulzberger’s claim that their openness to hear criticism is the clearest sign of confidence in their work. In fact, they are open to publishing criticism by one of their highest-profile columnists, but they’re not open to really listening to criticism, as they’ve swatted away the critics as they’ve weighed in (see here) or even secretly altered the Project in light of criticism—without admitting it. And believe me, it’s not a trivial thing to assert, as the 1619 Project did, that the Revolutionary War was really fought by the colonists as a way to preserve slavery. Arguing about the “founding date” of America is one thing, but distorting the history of the American Revolution is another.