Another Visit to Prager Universe

SPLC

America is absolutely dumbing itself to death. And the fact that many people take seriously these videos that offer predigested ideological snake oil is both a symptom and a cause of that demise. 

So concluded my initial commentary on PragerU. But in fairness, we should add that its videos aren’t all bad. By the “broken clock” principle, they do occasionally get things right, out of sheer dumb luck if nothing else. One video, for instance, asks the question, “Was the Civil War About Slavery?”. And it’s a pleasant surprise to see that the presenter actually presents the right answer — particularly since it’s an answer that is at loggerheads with the mythology of much of the neo-Confederate movement that forms a large chunk of the right-wing constituency. But then, this presenter is an individual apparently having a bit of actual expertise on the topic, as opposed to the usual round of instant “experts” by virtue of ideological conviction.

But this appears to be an anomaly. I have watched at least two dozen more of these videos, and all of them have problems large and/or small. Most are quite repugnant, and a few are downright odoriferous. All are designed to advance the right-wing worldview that up is down, black is white, ignorance is knowledge, war is peace, freedom is slavery, hate is love, and it’s turtles all the way down.  And above all, of course that “liberalism” is evil, and them librulz are the real enemy. In one video, Prager attempts to draw a distinction between “liberals” and “leftists”, and to insist that it’s really the latter who are the threat. He is unconvincing on all counts.

Intolerance of intolerance of intolerance

He isn’t the only one to resort to such shenanigans. One video asks who is really tolerant, and you don’t have to be a Nostradamus to predict where this train is headed: them librulz love to preach about tolerance but don’t know how to practice it.  The usual narrative you hear, over and over, is that “the left” is hostile toward anyone who “disagrees” with them. What you don’t hear so often is that these “disagreements” frequently concern such things as neo-Nazism, homophobia, police killing African-Americans without cause, and dishonest propaganda demeaning refugees from “shithole countries”.

To make this particular presentation more convincing, its mouthpiece is himself a supposed liberal: Dave Rubin, who though calling himself a liberal, denounces progressives and “the left”.  He seems to be rather murky about labels and indeed about his own convictions. (He even calls Ben Shapiro a “mainstream conservative”.) In fact, he seems rather confused about a lot of things. But one thing he has a very good handle on is how to invoke straw men:

If you believe we should judge people on the content of their character and not the color of their skin, the left calls you “racist.” If you believe that America is a nation of immigrants, but that our country should also protect its borders, the left calls you a “xenophobe.” If you believe that men and women are equal but fundamentally different, the left calls you “sexist.”

See the previous post on Prager Universe for more about racism, sexism and “protecting our borders”. Rubin is also quite adept at false equivalence.

Your dad might have voted for [the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant], your mom might have voted for Clinton, and your brother may not have voted at all.

Including, of course, the biggest false equivalence of all: that calling out bigotry is itself bigotry. In fact, the narrative constantly pursued by Rubin, Prager, Shapiro and their ilk is that intolerance of intolerance/ bigotry is even more intolerant and bigoted than intolerance and bigotry themselves. Right-wing logic is its own unique species.

After citing a few cases of what he considers intolerance by the left, Rubin insists that “these are not isolated examples”.  Well yes, by definition, that’s exactly what they are. Even if you assume that all of the anecdotes are perfectly accurate and valid, they’re still just a few examples, out of gazillions of times “the left” interacts with others toward whom they’re supposedly totally intolerant.  This is a very common tactic among polemicists: citing a few specific incidents and (often after tweaking and distorting them) claiming that they prove a general observation. Extrapolation and generalization.

If you want to make a solid argument that one group is more intolerant than another, you’ll need to do more than pile on anecdotes. You’ll need some kind of comprehensive study or, at the very least, a compendium of actions committed or sanctioned by an entire movement.  A liberal may express disapproval toward someone who wants to outlaw gay marriage; but a conservative often wants to outlaw gay marriage. Even if you believe that the former is more intolerant than the latter, the fact is you’re still just talking about individuals, no matter how many of them you may be able to dredge up. But conservatives, collectively and officially, have actually tried to pass laws that discriminate against gays. If you think that protesting against such efforts is more intolerant than passing those laws, you have a problem I can’t cure.

Yet it’s really conservatives, not liberals, Rubin insists, who are the tolerant ones. Scroll down to the comments section below his video, and you’ll see just how “tolerant” they’re capable of being. For that matter, Prager Universe itself exists for the purpose of smearing, attacking and belittling “the left” by any devious means necessary. Just how tolerant is that?

Hate against hate of hate

In the same vein, another video from one of PragerU’s “credible thinkers”, Karl Zinsmeister, attacks the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps tabs on hate groups, and he declares that by doing so, SPLC is itself a hate group. Right-wing logic lives on its own planet.

One of this presenter’s criticisms is that SPLC just does its job too dang thoroughly. Its website lists — gasp — 917 separate hate groups in the U.S. Most of these, he complains, are tiny little factions nobody has heard of — which evidently is supposed to make them less hateful. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that there could be a great deal of overlap among these tiny groups and larger, more powerful groups; or that the very presence of so many groups, even if tiny, is an indicator of an alarmingly widespread culture of hate.

Zinsmeister mentions two individuals that SPLC has exposed as hatemongers, and tries to paint them as respectable, constructive activists — without mentioning the (well documented) reasons SPLC has for singling them out as dangerous extremists. He also glosses over the Tea Party’s delusional and toxic rhetoric, particularly toward President Obama, and retools the group as a benevolent coalition of folks who are just “wary of centralized government”.  And he gives a drastically flattering makeover to Alliance Defending Freedom, which he characterizes as a benign “charity”, though it in fact exists largely to advance discrimination against gays, both at home and abroad.  All he’d need to do to get a concept of ADF’s dishonest smears would be to check its website, which scurrilously declares that gay activists are “opponents of marriage” who

will not stop at removing the foundation of civilization. They will redesign society at the cost of your religious freedom.

So apparently, intolerance and bigotry don’t qualify as hate. But calling them out does. At least in the Prager Universe.

He also points to an incident at a college in Vermont in which right-wing radical Charles Murray

was violently attacked by protesters inflamed by the SPLC’s labeling of him as a racist. A professor escorting Murray ended up in the hospital.

To say that he was “violently attacked” is just a wee bit of an exaggeration. Though many students gave him a hearty unwelcome, only a handful of “protesters” got out of hand; many of them were masked, and it’s not even clear that they were students or why they were there. The professor who “ended up in the hospital” — i.e., went to get examined after a minor injury — was one of those nefarious “liberal professors” who supposedly are stirring up troublemakers like the protesters. In any case, to pin their actions on SPLC is dumb and inexcusable; Murray’s racist history has been reported by many people for years.

Likewise irresponsible is Zinsmeister’s evocation of a 2012 incident in which a gunman tried to shoot up the headquarters of the hate group called Family Research Council. Yes, the gunman specifically claimed that he was motivated by Southern Poverty Law Center’s exposure of FRC. But then the deranged gunman who shot Ronald Reagan claimed that he was motivated by Jodie Foster. Is she a hate group too?

Any deranged gunman can claim that he draws his inspiration from anywhere. But in determining whether an organization is a hate group we have to apply certain criteria: (a) Does the group actively incite violence or harassment? (b) Does the group lie or twist facts to smear its targets? (c) Does the group target entire demographic groups based on who they are rather than what they do?  Zinsmeister hasn’t presented a shred of evidence that Southern Poverty Law Center does any of these things. But the organizations and individuals called out by SPLC all do at least one, and many do all — as does the puerile putative president whose posterior Prager persists in puckering up to.

Incidentally, Southern Poverty Law Center decries PragerU itself as a hate group. And its argument is much more convincing.

Zinsmeister professes to be a champion of “(r)igorous debate, honest discussion, open exchange of ideas”. But PragerU itself is more candid (albeit unwittingly so) about playing its true hand, at least in its marketing campaign. One ad asks prospective cult members if they are tired of the “fake news” provided by the “leftist mainstream media”. Wow, that’s a double whammy if not a triple or quadruple whammy. Not only is Prager Universe advancing and exploiting the myth of “liberal bias” in the media, it’s tapping into the cult meme that any information you don’t want to hear is “fake news”.

No website governed by sanity and decency would ever think of stooping to resort to parroting the reckless and delusional soundbites of a deranged megalomaniac dictator. But PragerU knows its audience. They are people who live to disparage liberals/leftists/ progressives — anyone who doesn’t concur with their ideology. And they don’t care what kind of horseshit they wallow in while doing so.

The Curse Of Reductionism

Whole

Chances are you’re not particularly interested in reading a book that might tell you your diet is killing you. After all, we tend to pick our foods based on what we like rather than what likes us; moreover, we form a strong emotional bond to what we eat — that’s one reason it’s so hard for some people to lose weight. But while the primary purpose of the book Whole by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. is to advocate for a whole foods plant-based diet (based on half a century of cutting-edge research), you might find it worth reading even if you have no intention of ever altering your grazing habits one crumb. Because more broadly, the book is also a searing indictment of reductionism, which long has plagued civilization in many different ways.

Not that it’s consistently a bad thing. Loosely defined, reductionism means substituting a simpler system for a more complex system. That can sometimes be rather useful. Pidgin English, for instance, can facilitate communication with individuals of limited English comprehension. There are also philosophical concepts of reductionism that may have merit, though they are the subject of debate.

But this book addresses a particular kind of reductionism, one that long has been the bane of progress and of civilization itself: the use of a limited set of facts, perceptions and concepts to dominate a worldview. Or, in other words, the use of a part to replace the whole.

A simple example mentioned in the book from the field of nutrition involves the popularity of vitamin-mineral supplements. Scientists have identified certain elements in certain foods, and certain benefits they provide the body. But those ingredients work in perfectly calibrated conjunction with all the other elements in those foods; if we isolate them, we cannot expect them to provide the full benefit. Taking a vitamin C capsule may be better than nothing, but it’s just not the same as eating an orange.

And it’s not just nutrition; healthcare as a whole is hobbled by reductionism, at least in the United States. As Dr. Campbell comments, American healthcare would be more properly called American disease care, because it’s geared to treating specific symptoms of specific ailments rather than considering all of the body’s systems in conjunction with each other, and focusing on how they should function rather than on how they shouldn’t. In recent years, holistic medicine has made some inroads into the American medical establishment, but it still has a way to go before it moves out of the shadow of stereotypical New Age perceptions.

And it isn’t just nutrition and medicine. Science in general, Dr. Campbell points out, has its neck stuck under the iron boot of reductionism. And the primary reason is that in the U.S., science is driven by the same force that drives everything else: the profit motive. Scientific research in America tends to get funded by corporations that stand to benefit from a particular result. Dr. Campbell’s findings met with a great deal of resistance because myths about nutrition have become deeply ingrained in the American psyche; most people still believe, for instance, that drinking milk is essential to develop strong bones — a notion heavily promoted by the powerful dairy lobby through that pervasive and persuasive propaganda channel known as advertising.

This does not mean that scientists are dishonest or that scientific research is totally unreliable or that the cult of anti-science is correct to discard findings about climate science, evolution or any other topic. (More about this in a future discussion of the ideological assault on science.) Scientists, Dr. Campbell hastens to add, generally do the best they can under the circumstances; it’s just that they have to work within the confines of the American reductionist paradigm.

(Another recent book on nutrition and health, Eat Dirt by Dr. Josh Axe, details how Americans’ reductionist obsession with over-sanitization has weakened our body’s defenses and actually left us more susceptible to disease.)

And it isn’t just in matters of nutrition, medicine or science. Reductionism saturates, and often dominates, virtually every aspect of our lives. Religion, particularly of the fundamentalist flavor, is distinctly reductionist. People often zero in on particular passages from the Bible (or whatever their manual is) without putting them in context. Moreover, they often take such passages very literally, even if they were not intended literally.

And what is most likely to draw the public into the cinema to see a particular film? Almost everyone knows the answer to that: it’s the stars. Not the premise. Not the script or story. Not the directing. Not the cinematography. Not the scenery. And most certainly not the film as a comprehensive unit. Just the stars.

Government policy has been reduced to short-sighted measures to satisfy ideological beliefs and emotional responses to issues, without regard to the actual results and consequences of those policies. Excellent examples are abortion, capital punishment and immigration. Politics long ago was reduced to a matter of hyperpartisan one-upmanship, particularly on the right. Liberals generally realize that a healthily functioning society can benefit from both liberalism and conservatism; conservatives have become convinced that the eagle can fly with only one wing, and so the other one should be lopped off.  And conservatism, indeed political discourse in general, has been reduced even further to slogans and soundbites. “Make America Great Again”. “America First”. “Protect Our Borders”.

Imagine a hypothetical scenario (and it really isn’t that hypothetical, being a situation I actually encountered years ago) in which a major city has, say, 40 branches of its public library; but then because of budget cuts, yada yada yada, it decides that 2 or 3 of these must be closed. When you hear the announcement of which branches have drawn the short straw, it becomes clear how the decision probably was made: bureaucrats sitting in a comfortable office somewhere just looked at a map and picked out which branches are closest to other branches, and figured these could be sacrificed at no great loss. No consideration of what unique services and features those branches offered, or what unique populations they serviced. A drastic decision reduced to a matter of pure geography. In this scenario, reductionism determines not only the implementation but the evaluation of policy.

Media reporting on such matters is, I surely don’t have to tell you, drastically reductionist. News events are reduced to headlines, which are almost always woefully inadequate, quite often misleading, and sometimes even deliberately manipulated. Look at these two different versions of the same issue of Wall Street Journal.

WSJ

This appears to be a deliberate attempt at manipulation, and there’s even a claim on social media that these headlines were chosen to appeal to different markets in different parts of the country. In fact, they were printed at different times of the day, and supposedly reflect changing developments. What’s true in any case is that much more is needed than the headline; yet that tends to be the only thing people remember.

And social media? Lordy lordy, what a slavering orgy of reductionism. Of course, the rumors and allegations circulated on social media have many, many problems — quite often, they’re just made up out of whole cloth. But even when they get their facts straight, those facts are quite often very incomplete and present a totally distorted picture. A classic example is one of the rumors about the Clinton Foundation. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating because it’s such a textbook example and it’s STILL being circulated.

The story goes like this: the Clinton Foundation gives out only 5 percent of its proceeds in grants. Therefore, the other 95 percent obviously goes to line the pockets of the crooked Clintons.  The central fact of this rumor is almost accurate: the organization gives out 6 percent of its proceeds in grants, which is close enough to 5 to give a pass to the rumormongers on that point. The problem is this is not the whole story. The Clinton Foundation (which despite its name is not really a foundation at all, but a 501c3 charity) is not in business to give grants to other organizations. It’s in business to perform charitable services directly, which it does quite efficiently — earning the highest ratings from charity watchdogs year after year. The 6 percent for grants is in addition to this. And all of the Clintons volunteer their time to the organization without receiving a cent.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying that “everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Or words to that effect. Buckminster Fuller went even further, suggesting that overspecialization leads to extinction. He apparently was not referring to ordinary specialization; as Dr. Campbell emphasizes in Whole, specialization in its proper place is vital; we need heart surgeons and dermatologists just as surely as we need general practitioners. The problem occurs when specialization is not put in proper perspective. It may not always be true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s certainly true that the whole is greater than any one part.

It’s hyperbolic to declare the imminent collapse of civilization — a warming that’s been issued for millennia — but civilization does take occasional backward steps. And nations do indeed collapse. It’s hard not to imagine that such an eventuality is quite possible when vital parts of the social construct are being removed or ignored.

 

I Need Your Vigilance

Dear readers: as you may be aware, this site was hacked about two years ago, and many of the links were altered. I have been as thorough as possible in repairing the damage, but it has come to my attention that there is still at least one bogus link — apparently to a nonexistent gambling site. At this point, I have not been able to locate where on this blog it occurs — I’ve checked all the links on all of my past posts. But just yesterday, I saw in my stats that somebody had clicked on it.

Therefore, I ask that if you do spot it in a post somewhere, you report it to me at once. Thank you very much for your help.

 

Welcome to Prager Universe

Prager

There is certainly no shortage of right-wing propaganda machines out there these days. It seems like they keep cropping up like mushrooms on a dung heap. Why not– they’re highly profitable. One that has been in my face quite a bit lately, though it has been around since 2011, is the so-called Prager University (PragerU), which has nothing to do with any university or academic accreditation. It’s the brain fart — oops, brain child — of Dennis Prager, who many years ago seemed to be perhaps just maybe one of the few sane and rational members of the right-wing punditocracy, even bordering on being a genuine conservative. But clearly, those days are long gone, and he’s now gone full-fledged winger. Why not– it’s much more profitable. And hey, he’s a radio talk show host, so he’s here to save ya.

PragerU creates 5-minute videos purported to be educational and informative, an “effective counter to the Leftist indoctrination imposed by schools and universities”, as its website boasts. Have no fear, dittoheads; if you don’t like what they teach at real universities, you can always find alternative facts more to your liking at a fake university. And it only takes 5 minutes. The site also advocates “Americanism” (read: reactionary jingoism) as well as “the Judeo-Christian values on which America is founded” (I’m guessing Prager buys into the myth of a “Christian nation”) and “the rational case for God’s existence“. Lunch not included.

What the videos actually do is recycle the same inane right-wing myths, soundbites and talking points you hear in many, many other media outlets. With a heady mixture of straw men, red herrings, cherry picking, false equivalence, spin, framing, distortion and outright lies, PragerU weaves an alternate universe for its compliant fan base that, coincidentally, is pretty much identical to the alternate universe inhabited by Fox “News” et al.

It’s a Bizarro dimension in which there is a constitutional right to own guns, global warming is a hoax, politicians and pundits know more about science than scientists do, racial bias is an illusion and”liberal biasdominates the media.  And of course, there’s the occasional obligatory jab at socialism and communism, which many reactionaries think are the same as liberalism, being incapable of keeping their isms straight. PragerU, like other right-wing propaganda organs, spouts a lot of things that you’re supposed to believe because you’re just supposed to believe. It’s even regurgitated the silly and tired narrative that because the Democratic Party of yesteryear championed slavery and segregation, that must mean the Democratic Party of today (which bears little resemblance save the name) must be more racist than the GOP — which left Lincoln in the dust many decades ago.

Prager himself delivers some of the lectures; in one video he proclaims that the only real question about abortion is whether or not it’s moral — a red herring the size of Moby Dick that we’ve already examined. (Cliff’s Notes: the real question about abortion is how to prevent it. It ain’t by outlawing it.) In another, he asks whether the death penalty is moral, which is also not the right question, at least based on his limited criteria for morality; and even if it’s moral to kill someone that doesn’t make it automatically less moral not to. But he just defends the death penalty simply because he believes some people deserve to die, and that this should be the overriding consideration regardless of the ramifications and consequences of such a policy.

In yet another clip, he bemoans how leftists are trying to impose “European values” on American society, and suggests that they are (by some arcane process he doesn’t get around to explaining) utterly incompatible with American values. In particular, he insists that the European value of equality is, somehow or other, incompatible with the American value of Liberty.

Whipping up white nationalism

PragerU’s “credible, and often well known thinkers” (as the site touts) include the unhinged Michelle Malkin, who seems obsessed with keeping foreigners (like her own parents) out of her precious country. Her PragerU video on immigration is so dishonest and inaccurate (not to mention tasteless) that it was panned even by the conservative “think tank” The Cato Institute. See Cato’s review for an accounting of her misinformation, in presenting which she says:

It’s not hateful to protect our borders. It’s not hateful to protect our citizens. It’s not hateful to protect our values.-

Well yeah, actually it sort of is hateful to suggest that immigrants are a threat to our citizens or our values. What exactly are we supposed to be protecting our citizens and values from, Michelle? Contamination by inferior races and cultures? And “protect our borders” is a meaningless bullshit soundbite that is being wielded constantly to whip up xenophobia and white nationalist sentiment.

Have you ever heard of anyone actually attacking a border? And if someone actually did, would the border shatter like delicate crystal? A border is merely an imaginary and arbitrary line in the dirt. On one side you have Us and on the other you have Them. Sometimes, some of Them try to cross over and become Us — that’s how most of Us got here in the first place. And contrary to what the Protect Our Borders Brigade would have you believe, there is (and long has been) a rather strong and complex (if not Kafkaesque) web of regulation in place to determine who makes that red rover maneuver and how.

Of course, some people do slip through that web and become “illegals” — either by crossing the imaginary and arbitrary line without authorization from Us or by coming across by invite and then failing to return. But contrary to persistent spin, this is not a major problem; “illegal” immigration is not a crisis, and “illegal” immigrants are not a threat. In fact, they make a net positive contribution to the U.S.A., improving the quality of life for all of us by just about any metric.  They are generally hardworking, responsible family people who commit considerably less crime than U.S. citizens. (More on this topic in a future discussion of immigration myths.)

But suppose we choose not to believe such facts. Hey, we do have a universe of alternative facts at our fingertips after all. Suppose we choose to believe instead that “illegal” immigration is a major problem that must be dealt with as a top priority. Guess what? It’s entirely possible to handle it with honesty, integrity and responsibility — and without sinking millions into a goddamn wall.  There is no excuse for cruelly ripping apart families. There is no excuse for singling out those few immigrants who commit crimes and touting them as typical of the lot. There is absolutely no excuse for the kind of malicious and evil lies about the brown menace from south of the border being spread by the 45th White House occupant and his enablers. And note, by the way, that it is indeed Mexican immigrants that are supposedly causing the supposed crisis, even though their numbers have actually diminished during the past few years. You rarely if ever hear about the (mostly white) “illegals” from Europe.

Further extolling the right-wing mantra of “I got mine, so up yours”, the stunningly vacuous Fox “News” mouthpiece Candace Owens, who seems determined to advance the cause of racial equality by demonstrating that African-Americans can be as clueless and naive as anyone, presents herself as a “credible thinker” on matters of race, because after all, she has one. She’s previously declared that she believes blacks have been brainwashed to vote Democratic — isn’t it racist to suggest that an entire ethnic group is gullible? Further attesting to her bigotry, she has admitted that she “became a conservative overnight” because of online harassment that she blamed, without evidence, on a few progressives.

In a masturbatory video on the subject of race, she flaunts her achievements despite coming from a background of struggle (growing up in the jerkwater burg of Stamford, Connecticut) and insists that she never once played the “black card”, which she acknowledges is imaginary. (Really? Can she be certain that she wouldn’t be on Fox if it didn’t need a female black token? She certainly wasn’t hired for her intellect or expertise.) But this imaginary black card, she proclaims, is played by her fellow African-Americans all over the country, and nets them all kinds of special privileges. Damn, I wish I had a black card myself, so I too could be reported as suspicious by neighbors, shot at by vigilantes and beaten by police.

(In the same vein, another black presenter recommends treating blacks just like anyone else, which certainly sounds like a reasonable suggestion. But she also equates, like Owens, efforts to understand and eliminate the factors that lead to rioting with excusing violent and destructive behavior itself. And she insists we shouldn’t be too concerned about white supremacists because there aren’t that many of them, and they aren’t in positions of power. Yes, she actually said this.)

Just how exactly does one play this “black card”, anyway? Well, Owens, um… doesn’t exactly say. (Maybe you need the PragerU graduate level 10-minute video to get such niggling details.) But if the “black card” cancels out the “black tax”,  that sounds an awful lot like creating a level playing field rather than conferring black privilege. And who exactly is playing this card? Well, dang it, she’s not awfully clear about that, either. Except that she does single out Cornel West and Al Sharpton. Which doesn’t do a hell of a lot to buttress her implication that the “black card” is a device employed by slackers and moochers.

Whatever one may think of the work done by Dr. West or Rev. Sharpton, it’s hard for even a Candace Owens to deny that they have indeed worked, long and hard, to get where they are. So just how are they trying to “game the system”? (And is anyone, especially a person with dark skin, so sheltered as to be unaware that the system is gamed already?) By addressing racial bias and injustice? Does Owens believe that all black folks who address racial bias and injustice are just looking for a handout? What about us white folks who do it? What about the civil rights workers, white and black, who risked and even lost their lives so her smug ass could vote? Yes, things have changed since then. But if you believe racial inequity is a thing of the past, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Otherwise known as Prager Universe.

Pumping up the Patriarchy

Not only does PragerU champion white nationalism (sometimes with the aid of non-white shills), it also champions patriarchalism  (sometimes with the aid of non-male shills). Accordingly, one video by  one Andrew Klavan “explains how feminism is a mean-spirited, small-minded and oppressive philosophy”. Hey feminists, were you aware that you’re philosophers? And that your philosophy is oppressing… well, someone. To make this point, the video has a cutesy cartoon of a presumed feminist wearing a pussy hat (Don’t all of us feminists do that?) and playing a game of “whack-a-man” (seriously) and then whack-a-mother-holding-a-baby. Isn’t that what feminism is all about? Smacking down men, and smacking down women who are content with staying barefoot and pregnant? And sporting pudenda on your head, of course.

Dissecting this utter waste of pixels exhaustively would require devoting far more space to it than it deserves. Virtually everything in it is either wrong, irrelevant, or just plain WTF. (Did you know that Rosie the Riveter would lose an arm-wrestling match to a man of comparable physique? Don’t tell me you don’t learn anything from these videos.) But one thing we might mention (and then forget about) is that he cherry picks a single verse in the Bible to make the claim that Christianity has been responsible for the progress that women in the Western World have made toward equality. All together now, scratch heads and roll eyes.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Klavan doesn’t really define his conception of feminism at all; he just tells you that he hates it and that it’s bad. He just tells you that it

can poison relations between the sexes—relations which, for most of us, provide some of life’s deepest pleasures and consolations.

Which I suppose must mean, guys, that if you let your woman fill her pretty little head with all that equality and liberation garbage, she might not put out on demand. The closest he comes to a (Prager Universe) definition, which he calls “feminist mythology”, is this:

…that men have oppressed women, and now must be suppressed in their turn, to even things out.

The first component of this “mythology” is intractably true. The second part is a straw man big enough for a bonfire. And the mere fact that some people regard the elimination of male dominance as emasculation is in itself very telling.  Sorry, Andrew, but real men do not feel threatened by strong women. In fact, encountering rock-hard women often makes men rock-hard themselves, if you know what I mean.

It’s also telling that Klavan regards feminism as a call to “abandon femininity” — as if the (male-created) archetype of femininity (dainty, helpless and dependent on men) should be the gold standard to which all females aspire. There’s no problem with women wearing pearls and high heels to the opera if they wish. There’d be a problem with men expecting them to wear them while doing housework. In fact, it’s a problem automatically expecting them to do housework at all. And here we have the two biggest actual myths about feminism: that it entails “attacking men” and that it entails women trying to become like men. It’s an interesting double contradiction: girl power is supposedly hating men, yet wanting to be like them and less like girls.

Klavan seems blissfully unaware that many feminists are in fact…ahem… men. And that without feminism, women wouldn’t be able to vote. (Even worse, he probably realizes the latter fully well, yet still condemns it.) He also seems not to realize that there are many different varieties of feminism. So many, in fact, that it’s just possible an occasional feminist or two might actually lean slightly toward the kind of behavior he excoriates. But to paint all feminism and all feminists with such a mile-wide brush is dishonest, irresponsible and inexcusable.

He is aided and abetted by a non-male shill named Allie Stuckey, who addresses, however fleetingly, the problem of “toxic masculinity”. That’s a concept that’s been batted around quite a bit lately because of all the mass shootings. Virtually all mass shooters (only one exception comes to mind) have been men. Nearly all terrorists are men.  At least 75 percent of violent crimes are committed by males — even though they don’t get PMS. Coincidentally, many of these killers and attackers have a history of domestic abuse or other manifestations of misogyny. Thus the coining of the term “toxic masculinity” to describe a form of obsessive male dominance that is linked to violence. Good thing Stuckey is discussing it, eh?

Except that she really isn’t. Very near the beginning, she pulls a big switcheroo, declaring that those who complain about toxic masculinity are suggesting that the solution is to

make men less toxic. Make men less masculine. Make men more like women.

She doesn’t seem to realize that toxic and masculinity are two separate words expressing two different concepts. Indeed, perhaps the real problem is that so many people just assume the two must be irrevocably linked. As Stuckey herself says

Aggression, violence, and unbridled ambition can’t be eliminated from the male psyche

Or, as some people say whenever a sexual predator is exposed, boys will be boys. They don’t seem to be aware that it’s perfectly possible for boys to be boys without being Kavanaugh-holes about it.

Stuckey conflates many things here that shouldn’t be conflated: toxic with masculine, masculine with aggressive and violent, masculinity with responsible behavior among men,  masculinity with leadership, non-aggressiveness with weakness, and an effort (however misguided at times) to reduce schoolyard aggression with emasculation. And on and on. She even laments that this supposed sissification of America is a major crisis. Almost as big as immigration, no doubt.

The growing problem in today’s society isn’t that men are too masculine; it’s that they’re not masculine enough.

So pop open another brewski, guys, and settle back to watch the Super Bowl. While your woman cleans house in her pearls and high heels. Like the other speakers mentioned here –and indeed like all too many right-wingers — Stuckey is “thinking” in silly and useless stereotypes. She even attributes the number of broken homes in America to men not being manly enough, and even quotes, I kid you not, Barack Obama stating how important it is for kids to have a father figure.

Even when she gets something right (women want “strong, responsible men”), it’s not particularly relevant to her supposed thesis – nobody’s trying to deprive either women or men of that attraction. And sometimes she says things that constitute (unwittingly) an affirmation of the narrative about toxic masculinity that she is trying to discredit (we need better men rather than less masculine men).

Listen up, Ally: masculine is not the same as toxic. Strong and decisive are not the same as aggressive. Masculinity is not the same as male dominance. The architects of civilization have been strong, decisive, and often very masculine men. But they’ve also tended to be the kind of men that many would regard as wusses because they weren’t absolute dicks. They have included artists, scientists, philosophers, scholars and even sometimes clergymen. Meanwhile, the aggressive, male dominant Kavanaugh-holes have worked hard to destroy the civilization the others have built, by raping, pillaging, burning, bombing and genocide.

Some of the architects of civilization, by the way, have been (secretly) gay. What does that do for your premise? Additionally, women have made their contributions too, even though they were held down by male-dominated culture. (And all too often, men have taken credit for their achievements.) What might civilization have accomplished by now, had it not been under the influence of one long testosterone orgy?

We’ve come a long way, baby — and it has not involved “feminizing” men or “devaluing” masculinity. But the fact that whenever a woman speaks up about sexual abuse, she is invariably treated like the criminal, is a good indication that toxic masculinity is very much a problem. And the fact that the most powerful office in the world is currently occupied by a misogynistic pussy grabber who is enthusiastically cheered on by millions of people, is a good indication that feminism still has a long way to go. It does not help matters any to brush aside problems like these with glib straw men.

America is absolutely dumbing  itself to death. And the fact that many people take seriously these videos that offer predigested ideological snake oil is both a symptom and a cause of that demise.

 

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.