5 Misconceptions About Witch Trials

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October is a delightful month: with its crisp weather, fall foliage, ripened fruit, the World Series, and of course Christmas decorations everywhere as part of the ubiquitous War On Christmas. But lest we forget, there is another holiday that used to take precedence in October. No, besides Columbus Day.  And while it’s fun to attend “haunted attractions” and see all the black and orange, and the trick-or-treaters in costume, we mustn’t lose sight of the very grim history behind those caricatures of pointy-hatted witches. Accusations of “devil worship” have cost many people their lives in horrible ways in the past; and they have even been leveled against innocent individuals in our own supposedly more enlightened age.

The kind of misinformation that led to those horrors persists today. And there are even widespread misconceptions about the history of the whole bloody mess of accusing and trying “witches”. So while we’re waiting for a more substantial blog post to pop out of the oven, let’s briefly look at some of the most common misconceptions about witch trials:

1. Millions of people were tried as witches in Europe

As you may be aware, hyperbole is often involved when people look back on sensationalist events and trends of the past. The number of gunfights in the American West, for instance, has been greatly exaggerated — after all, they make good cinema and pulp fiction. And though the Crusades were undeniably bloody, the tally of victims has greatly expanded in the retelling. The same is true of witch trials. Historians estimate the actual number of persons executed as witches in Europe to be somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000.  (The actual number of documented executions for witchcraft is about 12,000). Some estimates run as high as 200,000. Those are certainly horrifying numbers, but a far cry from “millions”.

2. Witch trials were very common in the Middle Ages

They were actually quite rare. While the “Dark Ages” (which weren’t quite as dark as many people suppose — but that’s another discussion) were notoriously brutal toward (suspected) offenders of all stripes, alleged witches were generally not among them. The “golden age” of witch trials didn’t really begin until the Fifteenth Century (about the time of Joan of Arc), which was well past the generally agreed upon imaginary demarcation point between Medieval and Renaissance. The last known witch trial in Europe was in Poland in 1783. In America, the last known trial was 1833 in Tennessee.

During the Middle Ages, however, people certainly were tortured and horrifically executed for the offense of “heresy”, which might be thought of as witchcraft in another robe — both involve doing/ believing/ thinking things that conflict with official religious doctrine. Indeed, Pope John XII officially decreed that the two go hand in hand — that witchcraft, in effect, is a form of heresy. That was not until the early Fourteenth Century, which was at the tail end of the Medieval era, but still it is likely because of this identification between heresy and witchcraft that many people today have such a grim and distorted view of persecution for “witchcraft” in the Middle Ages.

3. The church was behind it

Not necessarily. It’s complicated. During the Middle Ages, church authorities tended to look upon witchcraft as superstitious nonsense. In fact, in the year 906 the church actually declared it heresy to believe in witchcraft. It did a total about face in 1484, however, when Pope Innocent VIII decreed it heretical not to believe in witches.

What religion has always done, however, is provide the ideological framework within which such persecution took place. Fundamentalist zealots can point to several biblical passages that condemn witches (e.g. Deuteronomy 18: 11-12) and apparently even call for their murder. (Exodus 22: 18 : “Do not allow a sorceress to live.”)

4. Burning people at the stake meant setting them on fire

Usually nothing so merciful as that, alas. What would happen quite often is that the victim would be tied to a stake within a ring of fire and slowly roasted alive. The lucky ones might die of smoke inhalation. Incidentally, even individuals who were already dead could be “executed” by burning. The body of John Wycliffe was exhumed and burned 30 years after his death.

5. Suspected witches were burned at the stake in America

Never happened. The preferred method of execution on this side of the pond was by hanging. In Salem, 19 people were hanged and one was pressed to death with stones.

The myths and lore surrounding historical events like witch trials are a boon to the imagination, and to galvanizing emotional response to certain ideals. They are a convenient shorthand for the collective memory; we speak of “Salem witch trials”, even though trials also took place in Andover and Ipswich, and in fact the whole witch mania actually got started in Salem Village, which is now called Danvers. Referring to all of them as just “Salem witch trials” is all well and good in pop culture — just as it’s fun to read Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere even though it’s mostly bullshit, and Revere is mostly just famous because his name rhymes with so many words. But when it comes to having a serious discussion about history, there’s no substitute for getting the facts straight.

 

Listen to What You’re Saying

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Every time I visit New Hampshire, as I did just recently, I notice those license plates. And the motto emblazoned thereon : Live Free Or Die. And even though it stems from noble impulses, I still have to regard it as just about the worst motto ever. It’s a sentiment that dates back to ancient times (perhaps most memorably worded by Patrick Henry) to declare that death is preferable to bondage, but who literally believes it to be true? Even if you’re living in bondage, there’s always the possibility that you can attain your freedom later. If you’re living in death, such prospects are rather compromised.

This sentiment probably (let’s hope) arose from a broader and less literal attitude that an individual would be willing to risk his or her life to ensure the liberty of posterity.  But taken literally as quoted, it’s nonsensical to value liberty over life itself, because liberty is a component of life. It’s just another in the endless parade of instances in which people aren’t really listening to what they’re saying.

We often hear that we should watch what we’re saying, lest we utter something offensive or damaging. But it’s also important to listen to what we’re saying. lest we utter something self-contradictory or downright foolish.

Many years ago I was having a discussion with one of my RRR’s (rabidly right-wing relatives) — and when I say “having a discussion”, I mean listening to him rant — about the government’s ban of the pesticide DDT, a ban he was convinced was part of some kind of liberal commie conspiracy to impinge, somehow or other, upon the liberty of ordinary American citizens. He insisted that DDT is necessary to control pests.

“You don’t remember what it was like before we had DDT”, he said. “The flies were so thick you could hardly breathe.”

In other words, he was saying that because there were not nearly as many flies since DDT was banned, that proves that DDT is necessary to eliminate flies. Even if he meant that the flies were numerous before DDT was used at all, his statement makes sense only if those suckers have an extremely long gestation period, and are about to swarm us like Hitchcock’s birds any minute now. He would have done well to pay attention to his own words.

Another relative commented recently that it’s important to keep out “illegal” immigrants because they commit a lot of crime. To which I responded that actually, they commit considerably less crime than U.S. citizens. To which he replied, “that’s your opinion”. To which I replied that in fact it would be pointless to have an opinion about such a matter, because we have a way of knowing for certain. It’s called counting. That’s the reason numbers were invented — so we can keep track of how many crimes immigrants commit. To which he repeated, “that’s your opinion”. He wasn’t really listening either to me or to himself.

Still another relative is adamantly opposed to cremation, citing her fundamentalist convictions. She literally believes that on Judgment Day, God will resurrect the remains of the deceased faithful; and cremating those remains will make it impossible for Him to do so. In other words,  a Supreme Being who supposedly can do absolutely anything, nevertheless cannot revivify cremated individuals, which presumably means things are hopeless for anyone who dies in a fire, no matter how strong their faith. Has she ever tried listening to her own words?

Religious beliefs often come from people who seemingly tune out their own words. Creationists sometimes argue that there must be a Creator just because the universe is too complex to have “just happened”. But aside from the fact that “just happened” is an overly simplistic characterization of the alternative(s) to creationism, the complexity argument is just about the most inept imaginable. Because no matter how complex the universe, its Creator would have to be even more complex. And if complexity itself negates the possibility of “just happened”, then that Creator must have been created by a Creator who was created by a Creator. And so on, ad infinitum.

Politics, of course, also offers a wealth of opportunities for ignoring the import of one’s own words. (And, alas, just about every freaking thing under the sun is connected to politics these days.) Who can forget former Senator Jesse Helms saying that “democracy used to be a good thing, but now it has gotten into the wrong hands”. And not long ago I heard a politician say something to the effect that the death penalty is a way of expressing our commitment to the sanctity of human life. (And many other people defend the death penalty by claiming that killing people teaches people not to kill people.)

You hear a lot of people these days declare that black athletes should be forced to stand for the National Anthem because soldiers have died defending their freedom. And many people just know there is an overwhelming liberal bias to American mainstream media because they keep it hearing it from the American mainstream media. And that the way to stop gun violence is with more guns. And spanking kids teaches them respect.

George W. Bush, who built a long and lucrative political career upon utterly refusing to listen to absolutely anything he was saying, came up with quite a few gems like this:

I think we agree, the past is over.

More and more of our imports come from overseas.

You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.

And many, many others, from suggesting that the reason for starting a war is to stop war to proposing easing dependence on foreign oil by getting it from Mexico. Nor was this staggeringly stupid lack of self-awareness limited to Bush himself; the entire administration was infected with it. As just one example: after the 9-11 attack, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, the Bush Gang decided instead to bomb Iraq. Because, as Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained perfectly deadpan, Iraq had better targets. Sort of like losing your keys in the garage but looking for them in the bathroom because the light is better there.

Speaking of Bush, another relative (and I don’t mean to be picking on my relatives here, God love them every one) insisted that it’s wrong to blame Bush for allowing 9-11 to happen. It was really Clinton’s fault, she insisted, because he dallied with Monica so much that he was distracted from doing his duty. That kind of analysis seems to make sense to a lot of people — I’ve heard it repeated more than once. And granted, it isn’t as obviously nonsensical and self-contradictory as the other statements quoted above. But when you give it a bit of thought, you see that it is indeed absurd.

When you say that the president blew it by getting blown, you are saying one of two things. The first possibility is that Clinton in general spent so much time Monica-ing that he was unable to do his duty. But that’s absurd, because there were surely other activities that he devoted far more time to — eating and sleeping, for example — and nobody has ever suggested that those things were an inordinate distraction from his job.

The second possibility is that on some specific occasion, his preoccupation with philandering caused him to miss an important briefing or decision point. But not even the most devoted of Clinton haters suggest that there was such an occasion; and even if there had been, that still leaves wide open the possibility that he could have received a briefing, or could have done whatever he needed to do, at some other time — if nothing else, by having his sleep or meal interrupted. In contrast, when people talk about Bush allowing 9-11 to happen,  they mean that he and his administration ignored or downplayed several warnings, some rather specific, in the months leading up to the attack — including one on Aug. 6.  We’ll never know for certain whether they would have prevented 9-11 had they been more diligent. But we do know that they were not diligent. They in fact had their pants down in a much more serious way than Clinton did.

I suspect that all of these relatives did what so many people do these days: they heard something in the media that they wanted to believe, so they decided to believe it and repeat it without stopping to think about whether it actually made sense. They didn’t listen to what they were saying.

It’s been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That may be rather hyperbolic (though surely not to the same extent as “live free or die”.) What’s much truer, however, is that the unexamined belief is not worth believing — much less expressing. It’s fine to quote someone else’s words, provided they’ve been properly vetted. But if you simply parrot what you’ve heard without considering its basis in fact or logic, your opinions are not really your own.  It’s a very good idea to listen to what you’re saying, preferably before you even say it. You may still get some things wrong — we all make mistakes. But at least you will be speaking your own convictions rather than serving as a mouthpiece for a ventriloquist. And that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

The Dishonest and Hypocritical Assault on “Moral Relativism”

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A few days ago I was leafing through an old issue of Reader’s Digest when one particular article leaped off the page and smacked me in the head. Now mind you, this issue was published in 1994, before the magazine underwent its transformation into a reasonable, fairly balanced compendium of reading material.  In those days, it still had one foot stuck in the muck of the John Birch fantasyland it had been mired in for decades. This same issue denounced those evil “trial lawyers” for defending citizens against corporate malfeasance, praised regressive Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, and trashed President Clinton — the latter action a more or less recurring feature at the time.

But the essay that especially rattled my noggin on this occasion was much more insidious: it was a classic embodiment of the ill-informed and highly disingenuous war that is often waged against what is commonly called moral relativism. Without presuming to analyze the ramifications of relativism itself (a task that would be far beyond the scope of this discussion or this blog), it’s instructive to examine this 24-year-old screed, because it employs tactics of propaganda that still are very much in use today, and are likely to be 24 years from now.

The piece is a condensation of a speech by the late Michael Novak, who was a frequent contributor to National Reviewwhich is already at least a couple of strikes against him. The title, as conferred by RD,  is All Things Are Not Relative, which is somewhat ambiguous. Did the editors mean to say “Not all things are relative”? If so, that makes sense: two plus two is always equal to four, no matter what the commodity. But if taken literally as written, the statement implies that nothing is relative, which is patently false.  The heat of a person with fever is very different from the heat of a cup of coffee, which is very different from the heat of molten metal.

But of course Novak was addressing morality in particular. His point was that some actions are always right and others always wrong. He was professing to be a moral absolutist. But the thing is, those who claim to be moral absolutists really aren’t; or at least, there are possible circumstances under which they wouldn’t be. More to the point, their denunciations of moral relativism are generally misguided, dishonest and/or hypocritical — as Novak’s address so potently attests.

Ominous Warnings

But before we get to the meat of the matter, let’s pay attention to the ominous signals he sends out, as many propagandists and polemicists do. We don’t have to wait long. The alarm bells start resounding right from the get-go:

Many enlightened people love to say that they are cynical, that ours is a cynical age. They flatter themselves: they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Ours is not an age of unbelief. It is an age of arrogant gullibility.

Wow. That’s quite an impressive series of false equivalences. Apparently equating relativism with cynicism, he then equates cynicism with skepticism and skepticism with passionate conviction and passionate conviction with gullibility. You’re half expecting him to equate gullibility with bestiality. And he’s just getting warmed up. The very next sentence gives an example of this “gullibility”:

Think how many believed in fascism and socialism.

This is a technique I call yoking, which means that you casually link something your audience will know is bad (fascism) with something you want them to believe is bad (socialism). It’s a good bet that Novak, like many “conservatives”, didn’t really get what either fascism or socialism was all about. And that he equated socialism with communism with totalitarianism. Note also the use of the past tense — believed — as if under the impression that both fascism and socialism are obsolete.

And what else are people “gullible” about?

Think how many people, today, believe in global warming or a coming ice age — and think how many believe in both!

This is a twofer. First, he’s trying to discredit legitimate science that he doesn’t care for (global warming) by yoking it with pseudoscience (“a coming ice age”). He’s also pushing a myth: contrary to what anti-sciencers often claim, the scientific establishment has never embraced the concept of “global cooling”. And in all likelihood, literally no one has ever believed in both at once. Novak has a valid point about “arrogant gullibility”, but he is quite confused about who is being arrogantly gullible.

It is the next two sentences that provide the most disturbing signals of all:

One thing our “intellectual betters” never lack is passionate belief. “There are as many truths as there are people”, these ardent intellectuals preach.

This sneering contempt for “intellectuals” is no mere fluke. He repeats it at least once more (“The people know this, while the intellectuals do not” — nice touch, contrasting intellectuals with people), in addition to his already expressed smug presumptions about climate science and “enlightened people”. Anti-intellectualism is a chilling trait of right-wing extremism, including the very fascism that he professes to abhor. The frequent claim is that by teaching students facts that do not support right-wing ideology, professors are “indoctrinating” them into “liberalism”. Just recently, Fox “News” declared that colleges are “literally destroying the country”. There is nothing new about such a sentiment. It was all the rage in America during the McCarthy era. It was trendy in Nazi Germany. And in other repressive societies before that. At this writing, such a tide of anti-intellectualism has engulfed America that millions of people believe an extremely shallow, infantile reality TV personality makes a suitable world leader.

The meat of the matter

And what heresy of the “poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism” are these nefarious thinking people guilty of spreading?

“Follow your feelings. Believe what seems right to you. Do as you please.”

This is a glaring straw man, one that is used quite frequently to attack relativism by those who profess to know better.  Nor is it limited to American ideologues. The year preceding the publication of the RD article, England’s National Curriculum Council Chairman David Pascall, discussing what children should be taught in school, stated:

(T)here is a difference between right and wrong. That is an absolute…We’re also saying that there is a series of moral absolutes which sets out a basic framework of how we live in a civilised society. And these are unexceptional things [i.e., there are no exceptions]…Too often there has been the attitude in the 70’s and the 80’s that these things are a matter of opinion, that we shouldn’t hinder the child’s self-expression. I’m saying that’s not good enough.

Here the straw man is expressed in terms of suggesting that moral relativism is tantamount to declaring that morality is a mere matter of “opinion” and “self-expression”. By the way, it’s common, and always has been, for professed absolutists to ascribe blame for the supposed current state of moral corruption to the supposed excesses of a previous generation — its most frequent incarnation at present is the popular game of Blame The Sixties.

It’s certainly true, and always has been, that there are many people (all too many of them in positions of power) who do as they please without regard to consequences. It’s also true that there are many people (all too many of them in the media) who are willing to substitute opinion for fact. But neither of these behaviors is moral relativism. The former is just amorality, the latter is demagoguery. And both are quite often indulged in by people who present themselves as moral absolutists.

Moral relativism, in a nutshell, is the recognition that specific circumstances influence what course of action is right or wrong. It does not automatically negate the concept of moral absolutism, because it theoretically would be possible to compile a list of the most moral choices for every possible type of situation — though it would be a lengthy and detailed list, to be sure. The point, however, is that contrary to what the supposed absolutists claim, virtually all of us exercise relativism in our moral judgments.

Take what is perhaps the most basic rule of conduct of them all: the taboo against taking another human life. That’s a universal and timeless tenet. Rumor has it that it was even engraved in stone once upon a time. And yet nearly everyone would make an exception to it under the right conditions — even those who insist they wouldn’t don’t really know for certain until the crisis arrives.  Most of us would be willing to take a life if our own lives were in jeopardy. At the very least, we would be willing to exonerate someone who does — the legal system has long made allowances for justifiable homicide.

More proactively, there is the classic hypothetical scenario of having an opportunity to assassinate Hitler, and thereby preventing millions of deaths. Even if you couldn’t personally bring yourself to pull the trigger, chances are you would excuse someone who did. (See also the classic philosopher’s thought experiment known as the trolley problem.)

Many people also believe taking a life is justified on grounds of mercy. But avowed moral absolutists generally frown on this. At the same time, many of them support capital punishment. Even worse, they support aggressive warfare that kills and maims thousands of innocent people, including children.

The best policy?

Another solid rule of conduct is honesty — David Pascall mentions it as one of the absolutes that should be stressed to children. We all know that honesty is the best policy, right? But while there may never be a justification for being dishonest in your deeds, there often are justifications for minor verbal lies.  (It’s still a good idea to encourage kids to tell the truth, because they have not yet developed the faculties for determining exceptions, and rarely encounter incidents when exceptions are warranted.) There are evil and malicious lies, there are self-serving lies, there are defensive lies, there are little white lies, and there are lies that are not only harmless but merciful and benevolent. As the poet William Blake put it:

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

Sometimes telling the absolute and literal truth is cruel and unnecessary. I recall reading about a soldier during World War II who came upon the body of a friend of his who clearly had been captured by the enemy, then tortured and mutilated before they killed him. Later, he volunteered for the difficult task of informing his buddy’s parents that their son had died in combat. When he did so, he told them that the death was quick and without suffering. To have done otherwise would would have been to compound their already immense anguish. What kind of person would consider it the moral high ground to give those grieving parents the grisly details when they asked how their son died?

Or to return to Nazi Germany, suppose you, living there and then, were asked by the authorities if you’d seen any members of a certain family. You know that this family is Jewish. You know they are hiding. You know exactly where. And you know that they’ll all be killed if discovered. Would you tell the truth? Or save their lives?

In cases such as these, two moral directives come into conflict; thus logic dictates that the more moral choice is the one that does least harm — which in both these instances is, by far, to tell the benevolent lie. If you chose to tell the truth instead you might well be called an absolutist at following rules. And perhaps you would maintain that since lying involves more direct agency, you would be a moral absolutist as well. But that’s evasive and delusional. In both cases, you would have chosen the course of action that clearly resulted in the greater harm by far, and declared it to be morally superior. If that isn’t relativism, there’s no such thing.

It might be difficult or impossible to come up with a set of circumstances under which, say, adultery would be the “right” thing to do. But it’s a lapse of weakness that happens to the best of people, rather than an offense of calculated malice; and unless you truly believe that it should be dealt with as harshly as cold-blooded murder, then I regret to inform you that you too are a relativist. Likewise if you do not believe that an individual who succumbs to the temptation once and regrets it is just as guilty as one who does it repeatedly and willfully with no remorse.

Big truths?

In contrast to what he presents as the toxic fog of relativism, Novak presents his version of three eternal and immutable truths.

First, truth matters.

That’s rather tautological, but certainly accurate if we’re talking about Truth with a capital “T” — as mentioned, there are times when telling verbal lies is not only excusable but preferable in the interests of Truth. Trouble is, avowed moral absolutists, while touting truthfulness, often support political figures who not only lie flagrantly and inexcusably, but are quite dishonest in their actions as well. These have included Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and most egregiously of all, the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant. All big heroes of “absolutists”.

Second, for all its faults, democracy is always better for individuals and minorities than dictatorship.

Absolutely. But again, the irony is that while preaching this, “absolutists” frequently lend their enthusiastic support to those (see above roster) who undermine democracy and try to eliminate checks and balances, through such dictatorial means as nepotism and cronyism, vote suppression, gerrymandering, court stacking, propaganda, and trying to squelch free media.

And third, for all its deficiencies, capitalism is better than socialism for the poor…

This is blatant revisionism. Capitalism has had millennia to state its case; but for all its benefits, it has been very frequently accompanied by a severe and oppressive economic caste structure, with poverty and misery at one end and greed and exploitation at the other.  The concept of socialism is also rooted in antiquity — it’s even strongly hinted at in that Bible that so many “absolutists” claim to live by. But socialism as we know it is a rather modern development. And while it isn’t perfect, it already has had some impressive successes, whether viewed in terms of prosperity, equality, liberty or opportunity. Moreover, it’s a false dichotomy even to contrast socialism and capitalism. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, many societies have adopted elements of both, including the U.S.A., which has applied certain socialistic principles since its inception. None of this is particularly relevant to a discussion of moral relativism, except that Novak’s evocation is yet another illustration of how “absolutists” are willing to distort and even invent facts.

Gems in the dung heap

Although Novak’s little oration is mostly awful and gets so many things wrong, he also manages, somehow, to sneak in a few words of wisdom. This passage in particular is spot on:

Humans are the only creatures who, by instinct, do not blindly obey the laws of their nature. Instead, humans enjoy the ability to master their passions, their bigotries, their ignorance. Where 250 million citizens are guided by an “inner” policeman — a conscience — the number of real policemen can be few. Among people without this inner policeman, there aren’t enough policemen in the world to make society civil.

Bingo. Yet “absolutists” often seem unable to grasp that this “inner policeman” truly is of inner origin. Every healthily functioning human has this conscience, fueled by empathy, and guided by another human faculty, the power of reason, that enables us to apply the so-called Golden Rule, which is the only moral principle you’ll ever really need.  (The Golden Rule itself must be interpreted in relative terms; you have a right to be a masochist, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to be an undiscriminating sadist.) That is, assuming you have empathy, a conscience, and the power of reason. Unfortunately, some people don’t. Which is why societies need behavioral codes. I would suggest to Mr. Pascall that the school teachers in England and elsewhere should be less concerned with hammering rules into the skulls of children, and more concerned with instilling in them those character traits that will render such rules superfluous, and cause those children when grown to be less likely to violate said rules.

“Absolutists” often operate on the apparent presumption that our “inner policeman” is installed in us by an outside source — e.g., legal and/or religious authority. But the law sometimes goes astray. Religion does so rather frequently. Both have been used to defend bigotry and discrimination of every conceivable variety, and even slavery and genocide.

It is evident both from Novak’s background and his remarks in this address that he regards Christian dogma as the ultimate source of moral guidance. Which is especially preposterous considering that Christians can’t even agree among themselves about such mundane matters as whether it’s morally defensible to work on Sunday. Or is it Saturday? They preach honesty and integrity and yet they revere a Sacred Text that makes a hero of a character who swindles his own father and cheats his brother out of a “blessing”. They frequently lend their enthusiastic support to political figures (see above roster) who lie frequently and maliciously, and commit many acts of low character — even while excoriating Bill Clinton for fibbing about his sex life. They even lie rather often themselves; among other things, they spread many untruths about abortion, which they just know to be evil, and which they just know everyone else should be forced to believe is evil too, even though their Sacred Text reports that on at least one occasion God instructed somebody on how to induce one. Novak specifically was a member of the Catholic church, which has denounced women as immoral for using birth control, while being systematically complicit in the sexual abuse of children.

In short, when “absolutists” rail against moral relativism, they aren’t really railing against moral relativism. They are relativists themselves. And they are choosing to attack people for being relativists of a different flavor. Or more accurately, they are choosing to attack people for other reasons, and are just using relativism as a pretext. And in doing so, they are not above distorting and lying. And flaming hypocrisy.

The Myth of”Liberal Intolerance” on Campus

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It’s another one of those things that people just know because they just know. Liberals are intolerant. Liberals control college campuses. Therefore, colleges suppress conservative expression and persecute conservatives.  You’re constantly hearing this message fired in your direction like a nail gun, from right-wing talk shows, blogs, books, social media and other bullhorns. As a result, according to Gallup, 92 percent of Americans believe that “liberals” can express themselves freely on campus, while only 69 percent believe “conservatives” can. And in at least 30 states, legislatures controlled by the GOP (you know, the party of “less government”) have proposed measures ostensibly aimed at protecting free speech that could actually compromise First Amendment rights.

Our good old friends at fairandbalanced Fox “News” have even gone so far as to declare that colleges are “literally destroying the country” and fomenting a “real civil war”. It’s not surprising that a reactionary propaganda outlet like Fox should be so virulently anti-intellectual.  But it’s especially chilling because the bubble-brained prattle of Fox exerts such a profound influence on the current bubble-brained regime in Washington.  Anti-intellectualism, lest we forget, is a hallmark of fascism and totalitarianism in general. Anyone ever hear of burning books? Or shipping teachers and scientists off to prison?

Fox and company can relax, if they’re capable of doing so. As with many, many other things that people “just know” the canard about “liberal intolerance” on campus turns out to be not quite so true. In fact, it appears to be blatantly untrue, according to the evidence.

It’s a given among just about everyone that college campuses mostly tilt to the left. And among right-wingers, it’s an article of faith that those tilting left are more intolerant. But a 2016 study found that they were apparently the most tolerant at least among college freshmen: 86 percent of left-leaning students entering colleges and universities indicated they could tolerate people of opposing beliefs, compared to 82 percent of middle-of-the-roaders and only 68 percent of conservatives.

Ah, but maybe that will change after they’ve been in school for awhile. Well, yes, it does. They become more tolerant. According to recent research, after a year of college, only 31.3 percent of students develop a more negative attitude toward conservatives (and 30 percent develop a more negative attitude toward liberals) while 49.6 percent develop a more positive attitude toward conservatives (and 47.8 percent a more positive attitude toward liberals). Which is to say, no matter which side of the fence they’re on, they become more accepting of the other side after they’ve been on campus for a year. In other words, it appears that the college experience makes everyone more tolerant. If it also makes everyone more liberal, then it just doesn’t add up to conclude that liberalism correlates with intolerance — unless, of course, there is a marked discrepancy between words and actions.

So what about those actions? What exactly does the punditocracy mean by intolerance on campus? Well, the specific illustrations don’t exactly unfold the way the reactionaries consistently claim, according to a survey conducted by Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project.

First of all, the project found that in the past two years there have been about 60 incidents on college campuses of free speech (apparently) being threatened or compromised in some fashion — a rate of about 2.5 incidents per month. If that sounds like a lot to you, bear in mind that there are 4583 colleges and universities in the nation. That means that the chances of any particular institution being the scene of such an incident in any given year were roughly .65 percent — or less than one in 150.  Clearly, campus “intolerance” is nowhere near the raging epidemic that the reactionary punditocracy would have you believe.

The second important point is that most of the incidents defining supposed “liberal intolerance” entailed trying to bar polarizing right-wing figures from making speeches on campus. Moreover, most of these involved the same handful of polarizing right-wing figures, a gaggle of demagogues who have made a lucrative and ego-boosting career of spouting bigotry and stupidity in an effort to draw attention to themselves and portray “liberals” as intolerant — which in turn will draw more attention to themselves and swell their purses even more. If the leftists are to be faulted for anything, perhaps it’s being gullible enough to play into their hands.

Finally, and perhaps most interesting, this study and others have shown that “liberals” aren’t the only perpetrators, and “conservatives” aren’t the only targets. There have also been many instances of individuals being targeted because they had made statements that were considered too left-wing; quite often, it was daring to criticize the 45th White House Occupant, an offense for which they had received death threats from tolerant “conservatives”.  Just try to wrap your head around that: expressing displeasure with the most dishonest, corrupt, bigoted and hateful White House Occupant in history will get you branded as intolerant yourself.

And there is also what is probably a much better measure of First Amendment assault on college campuses than who is or is not allowed to be a guest speaker. What about those individuals who speak there every day? Shouldn’t we pay some attention to the fallout teachers receive for taking (what is perceived as) an ideological stance as some kind of barometer of “intolerance”?

Well, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a Canadian political scientist (not to be confused with the American economist of the same name), has put together a database of cases in which college instructors in the U.S. were fired on such grounds. And the results are quite interesting:

Campus

As you can see at a glance, the number of “liberal” instructors who are being fired is, at present, roughly double the number of “conservatives”. And the number has spiked dramatically in recent months. How often has Fox “News” reported this?

Furthermore, whether you’re discussing dismissed instructors or disinvited guests, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. What about the reasons for the “intolerant” reactions? On the one side, who have “intolerance” toward ideologues who make racist, homophobic,  and other hateful utterances, and deliberately try to stir up controversy. On the other side you have people being fired, harassed or threatened for criticizing one extremely corrupt and dishonest politician. When conservatives are intolerant toward liberals, they’re rejecting taxation of the rich, welfare, egalitarianism and regulation of the almighty firearm. When liberals are “intolerant” toward conservatives, they’re rejecting white nationalism, discrimination, religious tyranny, and warmongering. Right-wingers disinvite Michael Moore for digging up unpleasant facts about their favorite corrupt politicians. Left-wingers disinvite Ben Shapiro for saying things like “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage” and Native Americans contributed only “dreamcatchers, tomahawks and cannibalism” and taxes support a “militant homosexual agenda”. And on and on and on.

These two types of “intolerance” are not even remotely comparable. And yet the demagogues have convinced millions of people not only that they are comparable, but that rejection of intolerance is even more intolerant than intolerance. This is, in short, yet another example of right-wing fanatics drastically shifting the goalposts and redefining incivility to suit their purposes.

Are there actual instances of leftists being genuinely intolerant on campus? Probably. But a great many of such claimed incidents don’t hold up to scrutiny. And while the studies and figures are by no means exhaustive, they are sufficient to show at the least that liberals are far from being consistently or frequently intolerant on campus; and that they are far from being the only ones. Yet these perceptions are the overriding media narrative. The fact that so many people buy into it is yet another testimony to the power of right-wing cult media to dominate and manipulate public opinion. It’s almost like it was planned that way or something.

 

View story at Medium.com

It Was a False Start

Some of you may have seen a couple of days ago that I had published a post called The Dishonest and Hypocritical Assault on “Moral Relativism”.  That post, however, has not been completed yet, and the fragment was published by accident. Apologies for the confusion.

Internet Memes: the Good, the Bad and the Awful

 

Meme doctored

Even though they are often distasteful and disgusting and downright stupid — or perhaps precisely because they are often distasteful and disgusting and downright stupid —  I have a certain fascination with Internet memes. They often encapsulate for better and (mostly) for worse the current moment in history, the present zeitgeist, the current propaganda-ruled culture of the nation I live in. The meme reproduced above (minus the grading) is one that I found especially noteworthy because it epitomizes, as few others I’ve ever seen, what is so egregious about a great many memes, and what is so awry and foul with the current state of public discourse in America. Let’s break it down bit by bit.

1. “Dear Democrats”

Though cloaked in the traditional salutation dear, giving the impression that this is a communication on the order of a friendly letter, this opening is a signal of the blatant polarization to follow. It suggests that nobody besides Democrats (and “liberals”) are alarmed about the current state of affairs in Washington. But so are independents, Libertarians, people with other party affiliations, and (despite their usual tendency to stick together no matter what) a growing number of Republicans. Even perennially tried and true member of the elephant herd George Will renounced his membership in the GOP when That Guy received the presidential nomination, saying “This is not my party.”

2. “For eight years we put up with”

Perhaps the best response to this is that a few pictures are worth a million words.

3. “your crappy choice of president”

Just about anyone of any ideological bent (present company included) can find something to disapprove of in Obama’s busy two terms in office. But there is no denying (though many people try very hard to deny it anyway) that he was a dynamic, effective and admirable leader. In fact, not long ago a group of some 170 political scientists ranked the nation’s presidents from first to worst. Obama was ranked 8th (up from 18th in the previous survey, when he was still in office), which is especially impressive considering how recently he left office — it often takes a few generations of perspective to fully appreciate a president’s impact. And number 45, by the way, was ranked number 45. But hey, what would political scientists know? They got no slogans.

To call Obama “crappy” is simply to substitute personal sentiment for fact. Which is, alas, something that happens with great frequency these days. “I believe in standing for the National Anthem, so everyone should.” “I don’t think gays should get married, so there should be a law against it.” “I’m a Christian, so everyone should live by Christian beliefs.” “I think abortion is murder so it should be outlawed.” “I love guns, so there’s a right to own one, and they prevent crime.” “I hate Obama, so he was a crappy president.”

4. “We complained about it, but we accepted it.”

“Accepted it” is an outright lie. “Complained” is the understatement of the millennium. See photos above. And see birtherism. And death panels. And he’s a Muslim. And he hates Christians. And he’s a socialist/ Marxist/ communist/ Nazi. And, and, and…

5. “You are showing us that you are weak, spoiled and inferior because you do not have the integrity”

You know irony is officially dead when someone uses a phrase like this while vigorously trying to defend the 45th White House Occupant.  But aside from that, it also is a vibrant example of not only polarization but tribalism and confrontationism.  It’s hard to imagine anything more “weak, spoiled and inferior” or more deficient in integrity than hurling childish insults. Especially ad hominem attacks against a wide swath of people you know nothing about. But this is exactly the kind of thing you’ll see in the cybersphere all the time. And it’s a telling illustration of why public discourse is at such a low state in America.

6. “to do the same thing”

False equivalence, false equivalence, false equivalence. One side is flying blimps of the baby dictator because (among many other things) he apparently conspired with Russia to throw an election, he lost the popular vote, he’s a bigoted misogynist who schmoozes with Nazis, he’s looting the nation for his own profit, and he can’t take a breath without lying. The other side burned effigies of Obama and spread loony rumors about him because he wanted to tax the rich, stop gun massacres, and make sure everyone had healthcare.

7. The Source

And notice who produced this meme: a group calling itself Alaska Patriots for a Free America.  As we’ve discussed before, “patriot” is a popular word used in  the propaganda technique of flag waving by those whose concept of “free” means free to impose their will on others.

This is certainly among the worst of Internet memes, but there are plenty of others to choose from. We previously noted several select examples promulgated by Liberal Logic 101, a fertile breeding ground for straw men.

The Other Side of the Coin

As you probably are aware, there are also plenty of good Internet memes out there. They may be vastly outnumbered, but they do exist. Here’s an example of one way a meme should be constructed. (Disclaimer: I created this one myself. But that isn’t what makes it a good one. It’s the other way around: I carefully put it together based on principles I’ve gleaned from many years of studying this sort of thing.)

liberals

First of all, I tried to be as non-confrontational as possible. The meme is not explicitly addressed to Republicans, “conservatives” or anyone else. They certainly are primarily the intended audience. But I’ve given them the chance to realize the shoe fits rather than try to force it on them with heated rhetoric. The impression I wanted to give them was that I was offering food for thought, for their own benefit — which in fact was exactly what I was doing.

I debated with myself for a long time about whether to add a final line: “And why should you be willing to give it to them?” This is certainly the question that I ultimately wanted them to consider — why should they play into the hands of propagandists, demagogues and hucksters? But I finally decided that it would be much more effective if they asked themselves that question rather than having someone else pose it.

What I did do, however, was point out as gently as possible something that they may not have realized: that the “liberals” they are being conditioned to demonize are not strangers and anonymous masses in remote locations; they are individuals with whom one comes in contact every day, and with whom one has had very positive experiences. And it doesn’t quite make sense mathematically that such librulz should be fine people individually, and yet add up to an evil threat as a whole.

This meme may not be perfect; it may not even be among the best you’ll encounter. But it was written thoughtfully rather than reactively, with good, constructive intentions. It’s the kind of meme we need to see a great deal more of — while seeing a great deal less of the first example.

More on “Redefining Incivility”

Red Hen

Some time ago, we documented how reactionaries have a habit of redefining incivility (and civility) to suit their purposes, making huge shifts of the goalposts as it suits their needs.  In recent days, there have been two well-publicized incidents that have made this tendency painfully apparent: the Red Hen affair, and the Maryland newsroom shooting.

In case you came in at intermission, here’s the backstory. For the past couple of years the nation has been totally dominated by the character who is now in the White House. On a daily basis, he has threatened and insulted people, characterized his media critics as “fake news” and egged his fan club to commit violence. He has cozied up to Nazis and white nationalists — like the one who drove into a woman and killed her —  whom he characterizes as “very fine people”.  He is, with little doubt, the most uncivil politician in the nation’s history. But since he spends about a third of his time on vacation, he can’t be nasty full-time;  thus he has a bevy of professional liars to constantly spread his misinformation and divisive rhetoric on his behalf.

So then, as you almost certainly are aware, one of his hired liars and her companions dropped in at a Virginia restaurant called Red Hen. And she was NOT refused service. Instead, after she was served, the owner of the restaurant, having been alerted by her staff,  drove to the restaurant, talked to her workers, and after getting a consensus from them (majority vote still means something in some sectors) very politely asked the hired liar and her group to leave. With her meal on the house.

So then the hired liar immediately wrote a whiny tweet, naming the restaurant and its location (not that she’d really expect the MAGA cult to use that information, heaven forbid), and insisting that she’s going to be nice and sweet to everyone no matter how much they abuse her. This is the same hired liar who repeatedly insults journalists just for having the temerity to do their jobs in her presence. Her equally vile father also weighed in on Twitter, again naming the restaurant and location (not that he was inviting the MAGA cult to harass it or anything):

Bigotry. On the menu at Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington VA. Or you can ask for the “Hate Plate”. And appetizers are “small plates for small minds”

This vile father, after all, is well known for his own huge mind and tolerance and his contempt for anyone who dares to refuse service to some individuals.

Huckabee

And he’s also a real enormous-cerebrum stickler for class, maturity and civility.

Huckabee

Right-wingers in general have made it clear that they think everyone has a right to be served anywhere. Except for gays, of course. And oh yeah, Democrats. These same wingers just recently were whooping it up over the Supreme Court’s edict that a baker had the right to actually refuse service to clients — not because they’re liars or accomplices to evil government policies, but simply because they’re gay.

And when a baker actually refused to serve Joe Biden — not because of anything Biden had said or done, but simply because he didn’t like Biden’s policies — he became a hero to the GOP and the reactionary media, which declared that he was standing on his “principles”, and being one of the “mini-revolutions”. He was even invited onstage at a rally by Paul Ryan.

Biden

So how did these wingers respond to the hired liar being politely asked to leave a restaurant? They went absolutely apeshit.  (And bear in mind that these are folks who like to call other people “snowflakes”.) The so-called President of the United States weighed in himself, in exactly the manner that you would expect such a mature and civil world leader to do:

The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!

Never mind that the Red Hen has not had any health code violations in 4 years, while Mar-A-Lago has been cited 78 times in the past 3 years. Just dig the maturity and civility.

The media were all over the story, as if they’d suddenly emerged from the cocoon they’d been in for the past few years, wringing their hands and beating their chests, and crying “Whatever happened to civility?” (One answer: these same punditocrats labeled it “political correctness” and declared it to be evil.) And it wasn’t just the alternate universe cult media of Fox et al. Even the mainstream media (you know, the lamestream media, the librulmedia, the fake news media) chimed in with the chorus. Including the stalwart Washington Post, which normally is at least conscientious enough to elicit the harshest condemnation from the MAGA cult. In an editorial titled Let the [T—p] Team Eat In Peace, the Post opines that it’s a tongue-clucking shame so many people won’t allow these verminous government officials to just clock out at 5, forget all the loathsome things they’ve done during the day, and just kick back and have their private moments. Even though the Post acknowledges they are anything but deserving of such consideration:

Mr. Trump has ordered terrible violations of human rights at the border, he is demonizing immigrants by his actions and his rhetoric, and people need to speak up however they can.

They will get no argument from us regarding Mr. Trump’s border policy, and when it comes to coarsening the debate, he is the prime offender.

So we’re all clear that resisters are quite justified in resisting. Even the WaPo is clear on that point. And yet, it has insisted that these egregious offenders should be left alone to pass among us and behave as if they were perfectly normal and benign. Furthermore, the WaPo insults its readers with this (and hang onto your seat if you’re reading this for the first time):

How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?

How hard is it to imagine?? Seriously? HOW HARD IS IT TO IMAGINE???? Not very hard at all for anyone who isn’t comatose. Not only are people who protect abortion rights not allowed to “live peaceably with their families”; in some cases, they aren’t allowed to live at all. There have also been many instances of women’s clinics being bombed, defaced or otherwise attacked. And just about any woman who patronizes Planned Parenthood, even for a routine exam, faces a threat of harassment and abuse.

The MAGA cult heard the dog whistles and picked up on those subtle hints about the name of the restaurant. So they went online and began leaving nasty reviews, and death threats (in a very civil manner, no doubt) even though most of them had never even set foot in the place. In fact they targeted any restaurant named Red Hen, even those totally unrelated establishments hundreds or even thousands of miles away (one in the Philippines!) as well as the Red Hen chicken farm in frigging Montana. And a Red Hen restaurant in Georgia that closed in 2010.

Many such places were deluged with nasty online messages, nasty reviews, nasty telephone calls, and even vandalism. All very civilly, of course. Even when these establishments informed the cultists that they were different and unrelated businesses, the cultists often refused to believe it. They also jammed the (real) restaurant’s reservation system with phony reservations, so actual customers were unable to make them.

Those cultists who did manage to scrape up enough rudimentary geography to locate the actual target of their (civil) ire showed up in person with civil anti-gay picket signs, civil threats of violence and even a bucketful of chicken shit, presumably produced by very civil poultry, that was dumped in front of the restaurant. The restaurant owner who (politely — did we mention that?) asked the hired liar to leave was compelled to resign from her position and the Red Hen itself had to stay closed for several days.

And how did the indignant punditocracy respond to all of this? Well… um… we’ll surely be able to let you know any day now.  We can tell you, though, that what they did do was lash out at Congresswoman Maxine Waters for urging other citizens to take a stand and give a cold shoulder to the administration’s evil henchmen. What else should we do? Welcome them with open arms, and thereby imply our consent to their foul deeds? But to hear the punditocracy tell it, she’d said something like… well, “if ballots don’t work, maybe bullets will”.

In fact the talking headlesses pointed the finger of blame at Waters a couple of days later when a gunman killed 5 people in the offices of the Capital Gazette in Maryland. Just try to wrap your head around that. A man slaughtered people with a gun (which “liberals” are always trying to restrict, and supposedly trying to “take away”); the victims were journalists (which the current putative president has been demonizing for months and months); but somehow a congresswoman who urged citizens to voice their displeasure with the current administration is supposed to be responsible for the bloodbath. Never mind that a certain right-wing rabble rouser*, only days before the shooting, had called for journalists to be massacred. Of course when someone did just that he offered the standard defense that he obviously was only joking hahaha and how could you be such an idiot as to take him literally even if deranged gunmen almost certainly would. All while being perfectly civil, no doubt.

Meanwhile, the wingnut blogosphere had a lip-smacking orgy of civil delight and celebration over the tragedy, saying among other things:

Good, hopefully they kill every fucking journalist.

AWESOME! MORE! MORE! MORE! I hope the police stand down for a while.

This story will be updated when more anti-gun faggots crawl out from under their rocks. as [sic] an aside, only 4 dead???? wtf if you are going to target reporters at least kill 400

dead journalists can’t spread leftist propaganda

Journos will pretend they did not deserve this despite being insufferable cunts

I seem to remember leftists talking about consequences

WOO! WOO! WOOOOOOOO! I can’t wait to see who our shooter is.

I hope many niggers have been killed.

And other such warm outpourings of right-wing civility. Along with, of course, all the usual loony tunes stuff about “false flags”, “crisis actors”, etc. And what kind of censure does the Foxiverse have for this kind of civil behavior? Well, um… we’ll get back to you on that. Eventually. Surely.

It isn’t just moving the goalposts. It’s moving them all the way into the bleachers, and then demanding more space.  It’s working the refs, it’s invoking false equivalence and bothsidesism, it’s gaslighting. These people are playing a schoolyard game in which they get to walk up behind you and club you in the head, but when you turn to complain about it, they call time out, demand a safe space, and whine to the teachers about you bullying them.  And the absurd media narrative about “civility” plays right into their hands.

(*As you may have noticed,  I have adopted a policy of not naming odious individuals if I can avoid it. The last thing they deserve is more free publicity and ego-fluffing.)