It’s no secret to people who read my essays, posts and comments that I am unabashedly critical of far-right-wing thought in America. That is not to say that there are no rational and humane conservative ideas, and no rational and humane conservatives, but rather that the current dominant brand of conservatism in America is neither rational nor humane (and it is this more extreme, currently popular version that I am referring to when I refer to “right-wing” thought). This is not a unique perspective, nor is it unusual for an intellectual to hold it; indeed, intellectualism is explicitly disdained by the ideological camp in question. Precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze and contemplate information are dismissed as bastions of liberal bias, and the (undoubtedly fallible) conclusions arrived at by those professional disciplines and held by the majority in rational deference to the greater reliability of such information are considered by right-wingers to be inferior to their own arbitrary, dogmatic false certainties.
Though we will not win the battle of narratives through rational argumentation alone, we will win it by driving home the fact that we are promoting the narrative of reason and humanity, because whether people actually engage in rational thought or not, the overwhelming majority recognize in principle the greater credibility of rationally over irrationally derived conclusions. The more that rational and humane people drive home the fact that they ARE rational and humane people, opposing the ideologies of irrationality and inhumanity, the more successful we will be in the battle of narratives that is the political arena. Therefore, be prepared, in every debate with a right-wing ideologue (or even, as is sometimes the case, an irrational left-wing ideologue) to mobilize formal logic and to name formal logical fallacies, or to describe specific fallacies routinely employed by right-wing ideologues. Let’s distinguish ourselves from them by looking like, as well as being, the voice of reason and humanity, because it is by making that distinction constantly and abundantly clear that we will move this country and this world in positive directions.
I’ve examined the very abundant universe of right-wing fallacy from many angles, tackling specific dimensions, specific issues, and specific aspects of it. But I’m not sure if I’ve yet published (on this blog) my growing typology of specific fallacies most particular to right-wing argumentation. Some don’t fit neatly into the list of conventional logical fallacies, or are very particular variations of them, and those are the ones I shall address first, because I find them the most interesting.
For instance, I’m fascinated by what I call “the right-wing two-step,” which involves first insulating poorly informed and poorly argued opinions from critical analysis on the basis of a relativistic argument, and then promoting them to the status of unassailable absolute truth on the basis of the argument that to fail to do so would be to commit the error of relativism. This fallacy, most common among right-wing evangelicals, is so luxurious in its absurdity that one has to admire the poetry of dogged ignorance that it represents.
It operates as follows: In Conversation 1, a right-wing opinion is challenged on the basis of a factual and rational critical argument, to which the right-wing ideologue replies, “I’m sure that there are equally good arguments supporting my position” or “whose reason, yours or mine?” as if there is no such thing as “reason” which exists independently of each person’s arbitrary claim to it. The right-wing ideologue will dismiss the critical argument not with a counterargument of any kind, but with an assertion of the equality of all opinions, and the right of each to have their own. In this way, they insulate their own opinion from any intrusion of fact or reason.
In Conversation 2, the right-wing ideologue is challenged on the more general basis that there are many different people from many different ideological camps who are as certain of their absolute truths as the right-wing ideologue is of his, and that there is no a priori reason for assuming that one is correct and the others false (this would be a good introduction to the critical challenge posed in Conversation 1, if it could get that far). This is in fact similar to the reasoning that the right-wing ideologue used in Conversation 1 to insulate his ideology from fact and reason, but rather than using it to bring the certainty of his own dogma into question, he uses it to reduce any other contention to a condition of a priori equality to his own. Now, however, in Conversation 2, he rejects that same line of reasoning, insisting that to accept it is to commit the error of relativism by failing to recognize that there IS one absolute truth rather than a variety of competing truths!
So, first, his opinion can’t be challenged because all opinions are equal, and then no other opinion can be considered because there is only one absolute truth, and since his can’t be challenged it must be that one absolute truth! It’s hard to overstate the wonder of such perfect irrationality.
It’s worth emphasizing that the actual order of conversations is irrelevant. I’ve ordered them as I have because I believe that that is the order by which they are used to insulate one’s own fortress of ideological dogma from both specific and general critical examination, the specific insulated against by a general argument, and the general insulated against by an appeal to specificity. This is a very particular and elaborate version of the tautological fallacy, described below.
The right-wing two-step is a particular variation of the broad spectrum of prevalent right-wing fallacy that involves selective perception, cherry-picked evidence, and what I call “pettifogging,” or the obfuscation of the big picture and the overwhelming thrust of evidence and reason by means of relentless picking at peripheral and often barely relevant details. This generally involves the narrowing of the frame of reference so as to ignore all contextual information, and focusing on anomalous or isolated information that supports their conclusions (and can generally be easily explained in the context of opposing conclusions) while ignoring the overall weight of the evidence comprehensively considered.
The George Zimmerman trial and the public debates surrounding it provide an excellent recent example of the narrowing of the frame of reference to an isolated instant, conveniently filtering out any consideration of the context leading up to that instant. By focusing exclusively on the moment in which the fatal shot was fired, and by assuming the facts most favorable to the person they most identify with (the guy going out with his gun to find “bad guys”), the far-right manages to disregard the fact that Zimmerman made aggressive choices that led to the shooting death, at his hands, of a kid who at least up until Zimmerman’s choice to follow him with a gun, had been committing no crime. But for Zimmerman’s choices to arm himself, leave his home, identify a black teen walking home from the store as suspicious looking, and stalk him, the violent encounter that led to Zimmerman shooting that teen to death would never have occurred. But by narrowing the frame to the instant of the shooting itself, this fact can be completely disregarded and the challenge it poses to their overall ideology ignored.
Another variation of this fallacy involves responding to statistical evidence with anecdotal evidence, as if finding any case that does not support the statistical correlation is disproof of that correlation’s validity. This is a favorite technique in arguments over gun regulations, when the statistical evidence demonstrating a positive correlation both domestically and internationally among developed nations of gun ownership and homicide rates is dismissed on the basis of the trope that “Chicago (or Washington DC) has the strictest gun regulations in America and the highest homicide rates,” or “crime rates went up right after gun regulations were implemented in X locale.” Sometimes this is true (sometimes invented), but the real point is that it is anecdotal, and not a meaningful response to the statistical data which does not cherry-pick convenient cases but rather considers all cases at once. (It also ignores the obvious causal relationship that jurisdictions with high homicide rates and strict gun laws generally implemented the latter in response to the former.)
My favorite analogy for the fallacy of using anecdotal evidence for rejecting statistical evidence is that of arguing that wearing seat belts in a car increases the likelihood that you will die in a car accident. One can argue against that position, which we all know to be absurd, by citing the statistics which demonstrate it to be absurd. But if a right-winger had some ideological reason to want to arrive at the opposite conclusion, they could simply cite every example they can find of the anomalous event that someone wearing a seatbelt died as a result of wearing their seatbelt, thus in their mind disproving what the statistical evidence demonstrates. Or, ideologues engaging in pseudo-science can data-mine for anomalous correlations, such as (hypothetically) “people driving four-door sedans on city streets in the third largest urban area in Illinois between 10:00 pm and 11:00 pm on weekdays are more likely to die if they are wearing seatbelts than if not.”
I’ve made the “cherry-picking” of the statistical correlation obvious in this case, in order to illustrate how it can be done (anomalous correlations can be found if you search long and hard enough) and the similarity to finding simple anecdotal anomalies to “refute” statistical evidence, but when used by right-wing ideologues, it is often less obvious to an untrained eye. (A favorite tactic, for instance, is to replace “firearms” with “rifles,” and then to cite homicide statistics by rifles as if rifles represented all firearms, often actually switching to “guns” from rifles when presenting the statistic.) John Lott’s study in “More Guns, Less Crime” for instance, has been widely criticized for the selection of parameters to arrive at desired conclusions, and has been rejected as invalid by a panel of experts convened by the National Research Council (as well as by numerous individual scholars), and yet is the study on which the most knowledgeable gun advocates almost exclusively rely.
(As a side note, this focus on anomalous data as a way of rebuffing the weight of all data considered comprehensively not only disregards the weight of the data considered comprehensively, but also disregards the explanations for such anomalies within the context of the larger causal relationships suggested by the comprehensive data. For instance, even accepting, for the sake of argument, the validity of John Lott’s thoroughly rejected study finding a positive correlation between laxer gun regulations and lower violent crime rates, such a correlation would not necessarily imply that such a paradigm is the optimal solution to the comparatively very high rate of deadly violence in America, due to a combination of considerations. Uneven local gun regulations in a nation with no internal barriers to the movement of goods across state and municipal lines mean that local regulations are undermined by laxer regulations elsewhere. The statistical fact that the overwhelming majority of the guns used in the commission of crimes anywhere in America are initially bought in jurisdictions with the laxest regulations reinforces this conclusion. And understanding the difference between local and global optima, in which it may be the case that in a gun-saturated society with no internal barriers to the transportation of goods across state and municipal borders, laws which increase “the war of all against all” could slightly reduce local deadly violence rates but keep them far higher than in other nations that don’t rely on “the war of all against all” to keep the peace, helps to put such anomalous evidence into perspective in the context of a comprehensive examination of the global evidence.)
One elaboration of narrowing the frame of reference, that also segues nicely into the issue of “pettifogging” discussed next, is the right-wing shell-game of isolated attention. This usually takes the form of focusing on one peripheral fact or anomaly or doctored study, which, once debunked, is replaced with another, until, after having exhausted their available supply, they return to the first one as if it had never been debunked. This is the more general tactic of which “the right-wing two-step” discussed above is one variation.
By far the favorite technique in right-wing “debate” is the tactic of “pettifogging,” which is picking away at every marginal and barely relevant detail of an opposing argument in order to avoid having to confront the central argument itself. This involves questioning the credibility of the source, even when the sources used are generally considered among the most credible (Harvard and other university peer-reviewed studies and conventional journalistic reporting by major media outlets are all dismissed as products of a liberal propaganda machine, while the arbitrary products of what is in reality a propaganda machine are embraced without question); insisting that every inconvenient assertion be cited in every casual exchange (though no one else is doing so); and finding peripheral and often irrelevant details to obsess about (definitions of conventionally understood terms, etc.). In this way, they can endlessly monopolize the time and energy of anyone arguing against any position they hold without permitting the argument to be compiled and presented in any coherent form, always derailing it with a barrage of irrelevant and peripheral demands, eventually wearing down the critique and thus claiming victory for having done so.
There is a hybrid fallacy that merits mention, even weaker than the others that it resembles: Changing the subject entirely. It has some straw man aspects (arguing against a position on an unrelated issue no one has advanced at all rather than a caricature of one advanced relevant to the issue at hand), some pettifogging aspects (picking at something not only barely relevant and marginal, but rather completely irrelevant and not even marginal), and some shell game aspects (not merely switching among distinct issues within the same argument, but switching to another topic altogether). A very recent example is, after providing comprehensive evidence debunking the notion that our gun culture has no relation to our rates of deadly violence, my opponent said, “so you must love ”Fast & Furious, then.” The discussion, of course, had no relation to that bungled Obama administration program, but the idea was to get me on the defensive on something, anything, no matter how irrelevant it might be.
One last technique merits mention: Rejection by typology. This usually involves some label imbued with a strong negative judgment, and the shoving of all things to be critiqued into that label, the assumption being that by doing so the defectiveness of the thing so labeled has been proved. The most common label is “socialist” (though libertarians are increasingly fond of “statist” instead, imbuing the identical folly with a false veneer of intellectualism that the overuse of the word “socialism” lacks), and its use incorporates an element of the cherry-picking fallacy described above. By this technique, all governments with large administrative infrastructures are “socialist” or “statist,” and all socialist or statist countries are known to have been dismal failures. The problem is that using a definition that broad renders the second point simply false, since every single modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has a large administrative infrastructure, and has had such an infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in the production of prosperity.
What really distinguishes the famously failed “socialist” or “statist” countries from the famously successful ones that share that completely non-distinguishing trait are a set of other variables: Freedom of speech and press, relatively legitimate democratic processes, and protection of individual civil rights and due process in criminal proceedings. The existence of a large administrative state not only is not exclusively associated with failed states, but, in fact, the most successful states all, without exception, have such large administrative infrastructures, and have had them for generations. This fallacy combines the “false dichotomy” fallacy described below (i.e., there are just two categories of states, socialist and non-socialist) with the selective perception tactic described above (only noticing those states with large administrative infrastructures that failed, and not those that comprise the entire set of the most successful political economies in human history).
Following is a fairly complete list of major logical fallacies, excerpted verbatim from “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe” website, which also includes a very good introduction on the structure of logical arguments (http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx).Ad hominem:An ad hominem argument is any that attempts to counter another’s claims or conclusions by attacking the person, rather than addressing the argument itself. True believers will often commit this fallacy by countering the arguments of skeptics by stating that skeptics are closed minded. Skeptics, on the other hand, may fall into the trap of dismissing the claims of UFO believers, for example, by stating that people who believe in UFO’s are crazy or stupid.A common form of this fallacy is also frequently present in the arguments of conspiracy theorists (who also rely heavily on ad-hoc reasoning). For example, they may argue that the government must be lying because they are corrupt.It should be noted that simply calling someone a name or otherwise making an ad hominem attack is not in itself a logical fallacy. It is only a fallacy to claim that an argument is wrong because of a negative attribute of someone making the argument. (i.e. “John is a jerk.” is not a fallacy. “John is wrong because he is a jerk.” is a logical fallacy.)The term “poisoning the well” also refers to a form of ad hominem fallacy. This is an attempt to discredit the argument of another by implying that they possess an unsavory trait, or that they are affiliated with other beliefs or people that are wrong or unpopular. A common form of this also has its own name – Godwin’s Law or the reductio ad Hitlerum. This refers to an attempt at poisoning the well by drawing an analogy between another’s position and Hitler or the Nazis. Ad ignorantiam:The argument from ignorance basically states that a specific belief is true because we don’t know that it isn’t true. Defenders of extrasensory perception, for example, will often overemphasize how much we do not know about the human brain. It is therefore possible, they argue, that the brain may be capable of transmitting signals at a distance.UFO proponents are probably the most frequent violators of this fallacy. Almost all UFO eyewitness evidence is ultimately an argument from ignorance – lights or objects sighted in the sky are unknown, and therefore they are alien spacecraft.Intelligent design is almost entirely based upon this fallacy. The core argument for intelligent design is that there are biological structures that have not been fully explained by evolution, therefore a powerful intelligent designer must have created them.In order to make a positive claim, however, positive evidence for the specific claim must be presented. The absence of another explanation only means that we do not know – it doesn’t mean we get to make up a specific explanation. Argument from authority:The basic structure of such arguments is as follows: Professor X believes A, Professor X speaks from authority, therefore A is true. Often this argument is implied by emphasizing the many years of experience, or the formal degrees held by the individual making a specific claim. The converse of this argument is sometimes used, that someone does not possess authority, and therefore their claims must be false. (This may also be considered an ad-hominen logical fallacy – see below.)In practice this can be a complex logical fallacy to deal with. It is legitimate to consider the training and experience of an individual when examining their assessment of a particular claim. Also, a consensus of scientific opinion does carry some legitimate authority. But it is still possible for highly educated individuals, and a broad consensus to be wrong – speaking from authority does not make a claim true.This logical fallacy crops up in more subtle ways also. For example, UFO proponents have argued that UFO sightings by airline pilots should be given special weight because pilots are trained observers, are reliable characters, and are trained not to panic in emergencies. In essence, they are arguing that we should trust the pilot’s authority as an eye witness.There are many subtypes of the argument from authority, essentially referring to the implied source of authority. A common example is the argument ad populum – a belief must be true because it is popular, essentially assuming the authority of the masses. Another example is the argument from antiquity – a belief has been around for a long time and therefore must be true. Argument from final Consequences:Such arguments (also called teleological) are based on a reversal of cause and effect, because they argue that something is caused by the ultimate effect that it has, or purpose that is serves. Christian creationists have argued, for example, that evolution must be wrong because if it were true it would lead to immorality.One type of teleological argument is the argument from design. For example, the universe has all the properties necessary to support live, therefore it was designed specifically to support life (and therefore had a designer. Argument from Personal Incredulity:I cannot explain or understand this, therefore it cannot be true. Creationists are fond of arguing that they cannot imagine the complexity of life resulting from blind evolution, but that does not mean life did not evolve. Begging the Question:The term “begging the question” is often misused to mean “raises the question,” (and common use will likely change, or at least add this new, definition). However, the intended meaning is to assume a conclusion in one’s question. This is similar to circular reasoning, and an argument is trying to slip in a conclusion in a premise or question – but it is not the same as circular reasoning because the question being begged can be a separate point. Whereas with circular reasoning the premise and conclusion are the same.The classic example of begging the question is to ask someone if they have stopped beating their wife yet. Of course, the question assumes that they every beat their wife.In my appearance on the Dr. Oz show I was asked – what are alternative medicine skeptics (termed “holdouts”) afraid of? This is a double feature of begging the question. By using the term “holdout” the question assumes that acceptance is already become the majority position and is inevitable. But also, Oz begged the question that skeptics are “afraid.” This also created a straw man (see below) of our position, which is rather based on a dedication to reasonable standards of science and evidence. Confusing association with causation:This is similar to the post-hoc fallacy in that it assumes cause and effect for two variables simply because they occur together. This fallacy is often used to give a statistical correlation a causal interpretation. For example, during the 1990’s both religious attendance and illegal drug use have been on the rise. It would be a fallacy to conclude that therefore, religious attendance causes illegal drug use. It is also possible that drug use leads to an increase in religious attendance, or that both drug use and religious attendance are increased by a third variable, such as an increase in societal unrest. It is also possible that both variables are independent of one another, and it is mere coincidence that they are both increasing at the same time.This fallacy, however, has a tendency to be abused, or applied inappropriately, to deny all statistical evidence. In fact this constitutes a logical fallacy in itself, the denial of causation. This abuse takes two basic forms. The first is to deny the significance of correlations that are demonstrated with prospective controlled data, such as would be acquired during a clinical experiment. The problem with assuming cause and effect from mere correlation is not that a causal relationship is impossible, it’s just that there are other variables that must be considered and not ruled out a-priori. A controlled trial, however, by its design attempts to control for as many variables as possible in order to maximize the probability that a positive correlation is in fact due to a causation.Further, even with purely epidemiological, or statistical, evidence it is still possible to build a strong scientific case for a specific cause. The way to do this is to look at multiple independent correlations to see if they all point to the same causal relationship. For example, it was observed that cigarette smoking correlates with getting lung cancer. The tobacco industry, invoking the “correlation is not causation” logical fallacy, argued that this did not prove causation. They offered as an alternate explanation “factor x”, a third variable that causes both smoking and lung cancer. But we can make predictions based upon the smoking causes cancer hypothesis. If this is the correct causal relationship, then duration of smoking should correlate with cancer risk, quitting smoking should decrease cancer risk, smoking unfiltered cigarettes should have a higher cancer risk than filtered cigarettes, etc. If all of these correlations turn out to be true, which they are, then we can triangulate to the smoking causes cancer hypothesis as the most likely possible causal relationship and it is not a logical fallacy to conclude from this evidence that smoking probably causes lung cancer. Confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable:Because we do not currently have an adequate explanation for a phenomenon does not mean that it is forever unexplainable, or that it therefore defies the laws of nature or requires a paranormal explanation. An example of this is the “God of the Gapsa” strategy of creationists that whatever we cannot currently explain is unexplainable and was therefore an act of god. False Analogy:Analogies are very useful as they allow us to draw lessons from the familiar and apply them to the unfamiliar. Life is like a box of chocolate – you never know what you’re going to get.A false analogy is an argument based upon an assumed similarity between two things, people, or situations when in fact the two things being compared are not similar in the manner invoked. Saying that the probability of a complex organism evolving by chance is the same as a tornado ripping through a junkyard and created a 747 by chance is a false analogy. Evolution, in fact, does not work by chance but is the non-random accumulation of favorable changes.Creationists also make the analogy between life and your home, invoking the notion of thermodynamics or entropy. Over time your home will become messy, and things will start to break down. The house does not spontaneously become more clean or in better repair.The false analogy here is that a home is an inanimate collection of objects. Whereas life uses energy to grow and reproduce – the addition of energy to the system of life allows for the local reduction in entropy – for evolution to happen.Another way in which false analogies are invoked is to make an analogy between two things that are in fact analogous in many ways – just not the specific way being invoked in the argument. Just because two things are analogous in some ways does not mean they are analogous in every way. False Continuum:The idea that because there is no definitive demarcation line between two extremes, that the distinction between the extremes is not real or meaningful: There is a fuzzy line between cults and religion, therefore they are really the same thing. False Dichotomy:Arbitrarily reducing a set of many possibilities to only two. For example, evolution is not possible, therefore we must have been created (assumes these are the only two possibilities). This fallacy can also be used to oversimplify a continuum of variation to two black and white choices. For example, science and pseudoscience are not two discrete entities, but rather the methods and claims of all those who attempt to explain reality fall along a continuum from one extreme to the other. Genetic Fallacy:The term “genetic” here does not refer to DNA and genes, but to history (and therefore a connection through the concept of inheritance). This fallacy assumes that something’s current utility is dictated by and constrained by its historical utility. This is easiest to demonstrate with words – a words current use may be entirely unrelated to its etymological origins. For example, if I use the term “sunset” or “sunrise” I am not implying belief in a geocentric cosmology in which the sun revolves about the Earth and literally “rises” and “sets.” Inconsistency:Applying criteria or rules to one belief, claim, argument, or position but not to others. For example, some consumer advocates argue that we need stronger regulation of prescription drugs to ensure their safety and effectiveness, but at the same time argue that medicinal herbs should be sold with no regulation for either safety or effectiveness. No True Scotsman:This fallacy is a form of circular reasoning, in that it attempts to include a conclusion about something in the very definition of the word itself. It is therefore also a semantic argument.The term comes from the example: If Ian claims that all Scotsman are brave, and you provide a counter example of a Scotsman who is clearly a coward, Ian might respond, “Well, then, he’s no true Scotsman.” In essence Ian claims that all Scotsman are brave by including bravery in the definition of what it is to be a Scotsman. This argument does not establish and facts or new information, and is limited to Ian’s definition of the word, “Scotsman.” Non-Sequitur:In Latin this term translates to “doesn’t follow”. This refers to an argument in which the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. In other words, a logical connection is implied where none exists. Post-hoc ergo propter hoc:This fallacy follows the basic format of: A preceded B, therefore A caused B, and therefore assumes cause and effect for two events just because they are temporally related (the latin translates to “after this, therefore because of this”). Reductio ad absurdum:In formal logic, the reductio ad absurdum is a legitimate argument. It follows the form that if the premises are assumed to be true it necessarily leads to an absurd (false) conclusion and therefore one or more premises must be false. The term is now often used to refer to the abuse of this style of argument, by stretching the logic in order to force an absurd conclusion. For example a UFO enthusiast once argued that if I am skeptical about the existence of alien visitors, I must also be skeptical of the existence of the Great Wall of China, since I have not personally seen either. This is a false reductio ad absurdum because he is ignoring evidence other than personal eyewitness evidence, and also logical inference. In short, being skeptical of UFO’s does not require rejecting the existence of the Great Wall. Slippery Slope:This logical fallacy is the argument that a position is not consistent or tenable because accepting the position means that the extreme of the position must also be accepted. But moderate positions do not necessarily lead down the slippery slope to the extreme. Special pleading, or ad-hoc reasoning:This is a subtle fallacy which is often difficult to recognize. In essence, it is the arbitrary introduction of new elements into an argument in order to fix them so that they appear valid. A good example of this is the ad-hoc dismissal of negative test results. For example, one might point out that ESP has never been demonstrated under adequate test conditions, therefore ESP is not a genuine phenomenon. Defenders of ESP have attempted to counter this argument by introducing the arbitrary premise that ESP does not work in the presence of skeptics. This fallacy is often taken to ridiculous extremes, and more and more bizarre ad hoc elements are added to explain experimental failures or logical inconsistencies. Straw Man:A straw man argument attempts to counter a position by attacking a different position – usually one that is easier to counter. The arguer invents a caricature of his opponent’s position – a “straw man” – that is easily refuted, but not the position that his opponent actually holds.For example, defenders of alternative medicine often argue that skeptics refuse to accept their claims because they conflict with their world-view. If “Western” science cannot explain how a treatment works, then it is dismissed out-of-hand. If you read skeptical treatment of so-called “alternative” modalities, however, you will find the skeptical position much more nuanced than that.Claims are not a-prior dismissed because they are not currently explained by science. Rather, in some cases (like homeopathy) there is a vast body of scientific knowledge that says that homeopathy is not possible. Having an unknown mechanism is not the same thing as demonstrably impossible (at least as best as modern science can tell). Further, skeptical treatments of homeopathy often thoroughly review the clinical evidence. Even when the question of mechanism is put aside, the evidence shows that homeopathic remedies are indistinguishable from placebo – which means they do not work. Tautology:Tautology in formal logic refers to a statement that must be true in every interpretation by its very construction. In rhetorical logic, it is an argument that utilizes circular reasoning, which means that the conclusion is also its own premise. Typically the premise is simply restated in the conclusion, without adding additional information or clarification. The structure of such arguments is A=B therefore A=B, although the premise and conclusion might be formulated differently so it is not immediately apparent as such. For example, saying that therapeutic touch works because it manipulates the life force is a tautology because the definition of therapeutic touch is the alleged manipulation (without touching) of the life force. The Fallacy Fallacy:As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, just because someone invokes an unsound argument for a conclusion, that does not necessarily mean the conclusion is false. A conclusion may happen to be true even if an argument used to support is is not sound. I may argue, for example, Obama is a Democrat because the sky is blue – an obvious non-sequitur. But the conclusion, Obama is a Democrat, is still true.Related to this, and common in the comments sections of blogs, is the position that because some random person on the internet is unable to defend a position well, that the position is therefore false. All that has really been demonstrated is that the one person in question cannot adequately defend their position.This is especially relevant when the question is highly scientific, technical, or requires specialized knowledge. A non-expert likely does not have the knowledge at their fingertips to counter an elaborate, but unscientific, argument against an accepted science. “If you (a lay person) cannot explain to me,” the argument frequently goes, “exactly how this science works, then it is false.”Rather, such questions are better handled by actual experts. And, in fact, intellectual honesty requires that at least an attempt should be made to find the best evidence and arguments for a position, articulated by those with recognized expertise, and then account for those arguments before a claim is dismissed. The Moving Goalpost:A method of denial arbitrarily moving the criteria for “proof” or acceptance out of range of whatever evidence currently exists. If new evidence comes to light meeting the prior criteria, the goalpost is pushed back further – keeping it out of range of the new evidence. Sometimes impossible criteria are set up at the start – moving the goalpost impossibly out of range -for the purpose of denying an undesirable conclusion. Tu quoque:Literally, you too. This is an attempt to justify wrong action because someone else also does it. “My evidence may be invalid, but so is yours.”
If you look at the public debates over the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, one thing leaps out, something that is more broadly relevant, something that distinguishes the mental modality of the right from the left in one very precise way. This is an issue of cognitive framing, with the narrower frame permitting a conclusion of justifiable self-defense (assuming the facts most favorable to the defense), and the broader frame precluding it.
For instance, if you ask, “does one have the right to defend himself, with a firearm, against someone about to clobber him over the head with a heavy object,” most people would answer, “of course.” But what if the “defender” were a mugger who had attacked the guy with the heavy object, the heavy object were his cane that he needed due to an infirmity, and the moment being referred to were the mugging victim’s response to being mugged by an armed assailant? Does the mugger then have the right to claim self-defense, for shooting his victim as his victim tried to defend himself? Of course not.
Let’s come up with an analogy that more closely parallels the Zimmerman case, emphasizing and playing on the stereotypes involved (and other stereotypes as well). Consider this scenario: A young, white middle class woman is walking through a residential neighborhood at night to return home from the nearby convenience store. She notices a big, black guy following her. She continues to walk, and confirms that he is definitely following her. Terrified, she slips off the path and finds an object to arm herself with, a plywood board. As her stalker approaches, she comes out behind him, swings the board, screaming. Her stalker, who, as it turns out, was an armed stalker, pulls out his gun and shoots her to death. (I am using the word “stalker” to refer to any stranger following around another person with some kind of unfriendly intent, including thinking that the other person is a “punk” who you don’t want to let “get away with” some imaginary infraction that their race induced you to believe they must be committing.)
Tell me, right-wing apologists, is your big black stalker innocent, because he was just defending himself? Are you as indifferent to this innocent white woman’s violent death at the hands of an armed stalker as you are of an unarmed black teen’s violent death at the hands of an armed stalker?
Here is the complete list of differences between this scenario and the Zimmerman-Martin scenario: 1) the races of the stalker and the person stalked; 2) the gender of the person stalked; 3) right-wing ASSUMPTION of the intentions of the stalker in each scenario and the different degrees to which they (right-wingers) identify with the stalker and the person stalked in each scenario; 4) the woman having armed herself (to make her at least as threatening as unarmed Martin was); and 4) the generous assumption for my alternative scenario that all of the facts best favoring the Zimmerman defense are true.
So, why, exactly, is that white-woman-stalking-victim an innocent victim of the criminal-black-stalker, while the unarmed black victim of our real stalker (Hispanic, white, I don’t care) is just the unlucky person who was killed by an innocent person’s discharged bullet? The answer is very simple: The combination of the right-wing need to defend the absurd belief that we are a safer society if people go out with guns looking for trouble and their (right-wingers’) racism. a combination that is as horrifying and offensive to rational and humane people today as all similar past chapters of our national history have been.
Right-wing arguments (and particularly gun culture arguments) frequently rely on this narrowing of the frame, filtering out the contextual information which completely changes the analysis. Those who see in this case no guilt on Zimmerman’s part have chosen a very narrow frame, which excludes much relevant information; those who see guilt on Zimmerman’s part choose a broader and more inclusive one.
There are many other issues in which this difference in framing is central to the ideological differences found in regard to them. The right relies on a reduced frame, hyper-individualistic rather than social systemic, static and instantaneous rather than dynamical and over time. And that is not just a difference in personal taste, but a reduction in cogency.
The Zimmerman trial is over, the verdict is in, but the public issue over what kind of a people we want to choose to be continues. The right insists that it is good for society for people to have the right to arm themselves and stalk people they are suspicious of, for whatever reason they are suspicious of them, incite a violent encounter by doing so, and shoot to death the person they chose to stalk in the process of that violent encounter. I want to believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t agree.
We’ve had Columbine. We’ve had Virginia Tech. We’ve had the Gabby Giffords shooting. We’ve had the Aurora Theater shooting. We’ve had Sandy Hook Elementary School. We have, on average, ten times the homicide rate of any other developed nation on Earth. We have half the privately owned firearms on Earth. And we have people who are so blithely indifferent to the death and suffering that their idolatry of instruments of deadly violence cause that they won’t let us, as a people, even implement universal background checks or limit the magazine capacity of their military grade weapons. The degree of insanity –vicious, destructive insanity– involved in this right-wing ideology is simply mindboggling.
At the same time, they want voter suppression laws (and have been assisted in being able to pass and implement them in a recent Court decision that disabled the Voting Rights Act), they want to dismantle Affirmative Action, they want to disregard the injustices and inequities of our society, they want to blame the poor for being poor, they want to disregard our responsibilities to one another as members of a society, they want to erase our humanity and promote only selfish disregard for the rights and welfare of anyone who doesn’t look just like them. And they are uncompromising in their commitment to these “ideals.”
(The examples mentioned here, of course, only scratch the surface. See Why The Far-Right Is On The Wrong Side Of Reason, Morality, Humanity and History for a more in-depth treatment.)
This is not a country divided by two opposing reasonable views, that we need to find some reasonable ground between. This is a country divided by, on the one hand, reason in service to humanity and, on the other, irrationality in service to inhumanity. It is time, America, to reduce the latter to a sad footnote of our history, and promote the former to the status of the shared foundation on which we all build. It’s time to allow our disagreements to be defined by the limits of our wisdom and decency rather than by the extent of our bigotries.
(See also Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture for a cogent discussion of the competing narratives informing the right and the left, and how they fit into this struggle between reason in service to humanity and irrationality in service to inhumanity, a perennial struggle of human history, and one from which we are not, as it turns out, at all exempt.)
One of the subtexts running through the current meta-debate between the Left and the Right is a constant volleying back and forth of accusations and refutations of racism. The Left accuses the Right of racism for a variety of reasons that I partially capture below. The Right indignantly denies it, retaliating with accusations back, insisting that “playing the race card” is the real expression of racism.
Personally, I think this discussion is generally overdone and often distracting, but the thread of validity in the criticism by the Left of the Right, and the reinforcement of irrationality and counterfactuality in the Right’s response, motivates me to give it a comprehensive treatment.
First, it is important to explore the concept of “racism” itself. If, by “racism,” we mean only explicit, overt, self-conscious antipathy toward members of another race, then I’d say that only a small minority of politically active people of either major partisan camp are “racist.” The vast majority denounce such crude racism, and the extant but dwindling population of such unreconstituted racists in the population at large are not a significant political force anymore.
Before I turn to the more implicit forms of racism that I think do continue to play a significant, if not central, role in political affairs, I’d like to emphasize that I think that the ideological thread most prominent in right-wing thought isn’t racism proper at all, but rather what I’ll call “quasi-racism,” an intense in-group/out-group bias, informing a set of beliefs and positions that are very tribalistic, and very dismissive of “the other.” The antagonistic attitude toward numerous non-racial outgroups (though sometimes with strong racial associations), such as gays, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, foreigners in general, the poor, atheists, and, basically, anyone who isn’t perceived to be an in-group member, is one of the most prominent defining characteristics of modern right-wing thought.
Explicit racism, however, is not absent from the right-wing echo-chamber. On a Facebook thread following one posting of the statistic that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be the instrument of the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense, for instance, one commenter responded to another by referring to “a group of n*****s raping your boyfriend” (the point being that you’d want to have a gun handy in that apparently representative scenario). On another thread at another time, a southern Tea Partier included among the problems besetting us “ungrateful blacks.” These are not isolated examples: While such explicit expressions of racism are not the norm, they recur at a constant rate on such threads, always, of course, by right-wing commenters slipping over a line many others approach without crossing.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, there was a Facebook wall post of a news story about a trio of ”scary” black violent offenders, apparently being used to make the argument that it is understandable that armed vigilantes should go out in their neighborhoods and pursue unarmed black teens walking home from the store –even if the price of such “liberty” is the occasional shooting death of one such unarmed black teen– because, in their unself-aware but deep-rooted world view, it’s rational to be afraid, it’s rational to presume that a hoodie-wearing black teen walking through your neighborhood is up to no good, and so it is, implicitly, rational to provoke a deadly encounter with said black teen under those circumstances.
In other words, the right-wing insistence that it’s a non-issue that their ideology can lead to instances of overzealous vigilantes pursuing and killing unarmed black teens walking home from the store is an astounding illustration of an underlying –and effectively racist– defect in their ideology. (The contention that it’s a non-issue because it was allegedly self-defense on the shooter’s part neglects the fact that the alleged need for self-defense was indisputably created by the decision to go out with a gun and pursue the arbitrarily “suspicious looking” unarmed black teen in the first place.)
These same people champion Jim-Crow-like voter suppression laws (on a discredited pretext and repeatedly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional), use code words like “Chicago politics” and “ACORN” and other allusions to blacks-as-inherently-corrupt, advocate discrimination against Muslims (and denial of their first amendment freedom of religion rights), frequently vilify and denegrate Hispanics, want to deny civil rights to gays, and, in general, are committed to a tribalistic orientation to the world, in which the small in-group of overwhelmingly white, mostly male, almost exclusively Judeo-Christian bigots opposes the rights and aspirations of the myriad out-groups surrounding them, denying the reality of a legacy of historical injustices and of current inequities, fighting for a regressive, aggressive, compassionless, irrational, barbaric society, in which those who feel well-served by the status quo (or, more precisely, by the status quo of a previous era) fight to recover an archaic -if all too recent– social order more preferential to their in-group statuses.
And they do so by disregarding fact and reason; by dismissing as bastions of liberalism precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information (which, as a liberal, I take as a complement and as an affirmation of how much more rational our ideology is than theirs); by selecting, revising, and ignoring historical data to serve their fabricated ideological narrative; by ignoring the weight of professional economic theory and analysis (prompting the free-market-advocacy Economist magazine to label them “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical”); by cherry-picking, reinterpreting, and selectively disregarding constitutional provisions and phrases in service to that same ideological narrative; and, in general, by defying fact and reason in service to ignorance and bigotry.
Whether we emphasize the racist overtones, the more explicit in-group/out-group tribalism in general, or just the prevailing ignorance and brutality of their ideology, the final evaluation is the same: It’s a perfect storm of organized irrationality in service to implicit and explicit inhumanity. And it’s not who and what we should choose to be as a people and a nation.
So, how much racism is there on the far right? It’s a moot point; the racism is enveloped by so much more that is the very cloth from which racism is cut that the accusation of racism is too narrow a focus and too much of a distraction. Emphasizing the broader irrational inhumanity that defines this ideological camp both captures and goes beyond the identification of the racist overtones within it.
(For more on these themes, see The New Face Of American Racism, The Tea Party’s Neo-”Jim Crow”, The History of American Libertarianism, The Presence of the Past, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, and “Sharianity”)
This post is inspired by a recent interaction on Facebook, far too similar to far too many other interactions, in which someone appalled by the fact that human beings are capable of thinking and acting like human beings (or what human beings should be) responds with a spittle-laden string of childish pejoratives, including such timeless gems as “retard.”It is a stock post, to be linked to each time, thus saving me both the time and tedium of actually responding to these creatures.
I prefer to be neither the person who initiates such mindless belligerence, nor the person who responds to it in kind, because both are unappealing and assertively unimpressive. If I respond by, for instance, noting that my detractor appears to be a bit of troglodyte, my detractor is likely to note that while he merely “referenced” the empirically demonstrable fact that I’m a “retard,” I engaged in “typical liberal name calling” in response, which is “pathetic.” (True story.)
Far be it from me to knowingly engage in such “typical liberal name calling” (as opposed to the more respectable conservative preference for calling those they disagree with “retards,” of something similar, over and over again, in this case always in all caps…). Instead, I offer this one word response: Really?
It’s telling what you focus on most about my posts: their length. Not their content, but their length. Those long posts, that discuss economics, history, law, demography, and numerous other lenses that are relevant to the political and social issues discussed on these threads, err by having any substance, by failing to be shallow expressions of blind and reactionary bigotry.
To you, economics is irrelevant to economic arguments, history irrelevant to historical ones, an understanding of how law works irrelevant to an argument about legality, reality irrelevant in general. The realization that good public policy isn’t defined by legality but that we must continue to refine legality in service to good public policy is completely beyond your grasp. The notion that one must use their minds to understand their world is completely foreign to you. The possibility that your arbitrary and unconsidered beliefs could possibly be anything but the absolute truth is as beyond your reach as it has been to Inquisitors and Jihadists, who share with you the same destructive modality of blind ideological certainty, expressed more in terms of hatred than of hope, more antagonistic toward humanity than constructively in its service. That’s what defines you.
You often assure me that I wasted my time, that there’s no way I could ever change your minds. Of course I know that: Changing the minds of the mindless is beyond the reach of the best formed arguments; appealing to human decency a joke to those steeped in the toxin of belligerence and bigotry. But juxtaposing what reason in service to humanity looks like with what you represent is a lesson for any others who are not as far gone as yourselves. These threads are read by an unknown number of silent lurkers, who have the chance to choose to be reasonable and decent human beings.
So, my spittle-spattering spokespeople for the far-right rejection of reason and civility, of concern for humanity, may you enjoy the elongated reach of your pre-human limbs to all the more effectively pat yourselves on the back for such wit and wisdom. Such simian sophistication deserves only praise, and certainly a treat from one another as mutual trainers, for it far surpasses the prowess of, say, single celled invertebrates. And, truly, how much higher do any of us expect you to aim at this point?
There is a “liberals are hypocrites” post that is going viral among right-wing zealots on facebook, with thousands of shares and hundreds of comments on some of them, in which a news story about two African Americans who committed a violent crime against a white is, once again, proffered as proof that 1) George Zimmerman was right to pursue and shoot Trayvon Martin, 2) “Stand Your Ground” laws are good and necessary, 3) those who oppose them are trying to turn good, law-abiding (i.e., “white”) folks into unarmed innocent victims of bad, law-breaking (i.e., “black”) folks, and 4) Liberals are hypocrites because we aren’t concerned enough about black-on-white violence.
My following response, which is an expression of sheer disgust at continuing to see this ugly bigotry repeated over and over again, apparently resonating with far too many people, only addresses the first three of these issues. (The fourth can be summed up as follows: There is virtually no one defending black-on-white violence, and no laws bringing into question whether some incidents of it –or, more precisely, acts of violence by those you DON’T identify with against those you DO identify with– can be prosecuted or not. The reason the white-on-black violence of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a larger issue is because there are people defending it as a non-issue and advocating laws that make it more likely to occur more often.)
The news story (about an incident of black-on-white violence), used in this way, highlights the fundamental difference between almost all variations of right-wing ideology and almost all variations of left-wing ideology: The former is firmly rooted in fear and hatred, while the latter aspires to hope and humanity. Those on the right scoff that those on the left would be so naive, though, in reality, hope and humanity is not only a more positive orientation, but, when leavened with reason and information, is also more pragmatic, better serves one’s own self-interest, than the fear and hatred that informs those on the right. (See, for instance, Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, for one reason why this is so.)
Those on the far-right are blithely indifferent to the death of an unarmed black teen at the hands of an armed white vigilante, because the armed white vigilante, in their mind, had every right to defend himself against any and all potential or perceived dangers, while the unarmed black teen lacked even the right to life, as long as it is one of them rather than the government that deprives him of it. One rationalization that is used is the presumption of guilt laid on the teen due to the possibility that he reacted violently to being pursued, something that these ideologues should respect rather than condemn, if we each have a right to protect ourselves against perceived threats! Ironically, however, they only defend the armed pursuer’s right to “defend” himself, and not the unarmed pursued’s right to do so!
If these right-wing ideologues had any integrity, any consistency, were anything other than implicitly racist hypocrits, they would not point to the possibility that Martin was beating Zimmerman before he (Martin) was shot as justification for the shooting, but rather with approval that Martin was defending himself against the armed individual pursuing him! Why aren’t they chanting that it’s a shame Martin didn’t kill Zimmerman before Zimmerman killed Martin, since it was Zimmerman who was the armed pursuer, and Martin who was the unarmed pursued?
But, of course, that’s not the way their little minds work, because it’s all about who they identify with, and who they identify as their implicit enemy. The armed vigilante is LIKE THEM, and that’s all that counts. The unarmed victim is THE OTHER that they fear and hate, and so his innocence, the fact that he had his life taken away unjustly, is just no big deal. They excuse the armed pursuer, because they identify with him (racially, and ideologically as an armed pursuer of someone he thought was a criminal); they implicitly condemn the unarmed teen to a death sentence without a trial because they don’t identify with him (racially, and as someone who someone like them was inclined to suspect of being up to no good). It’s the very nature of their way of thinking, and the reason why it should be odious to all rational people of goodwill.
What an amazingly convoluted ideology it is that does such contortions to be indignant that anyone would raise any objections to an armed pursuer shooting to death an unarmed teen apparently doing absolutely nothing illegal at the time the pursuit began, but spares no indignation whatsoever on behalf of the unarmed teen who was shot to death! The imagined threat to Zimmerman, who was both the pursuer and the wielder of deadly force in this instance, is more salient to them than the real danger to Martin, who was the pursued and unarmed victim of a shooting death!
What gets me most about this is what it indicates about how far we’ve sunk as a nation. This isn’t just a fringe ideology that a few grease-painted jack-asses adhere to. This has become a mainstream ideology, a cult of implicit violence and hatred justified by fear and generalized enmity.
It goes beyond the rationalization of offensive deadly violence by an armed pursuer against an unarmed victim, justified only by the pursuers “reasonable” fear of crime in general (!), essentially legalizing paranoid racist violence. It goes beyond conveniently targeting those “scary blacks” (as the news story used to stoke the right-wing indignation so poignantly illustrates) whose crimes justify Zimmerman acting as police, judge, jury, and executioner at the sight of a black kid in his neighborhood. It even goes beyond their assertion that there is no racism in America, that their now oft-invoked fear and hatred of those blacks who have not proven that they are not a threat isn’t racism at all, but rather merely the rational response to the “racism” of those who think that laws that facilitate killing unarmed black teens due to a generalized fear of crime are a bad idea.
It includes and goes beyond all of this. It extends to and is fed by the delusion that there is no social injustice in America, that people fare well or poorly primarily by virtue of their own merit, a notion that is not only absurd on the face of it, but is also thoroughly disproved by statistical evidence (see The Presence of the Past). It combines a blithe indifference to the legacies of history that relegate people to sharply unequal opportunity structures at birth, with the equally blithe willingness to subtly loathe the entire categories of people who, born into such opportunity structures, are overrepresented among the poor. But irrational bigots are not swayed by such things as fact and reason and human decency.
The fact that such a belligerent, inhumane, and just generally dysfunctional ideology can survive as a major ideological strain in American culture is scary beyond belief. This cultural virus has always been with us, but never before in my memory so virulent and widespread as it is today. Anyone who has any desire for us to remain or become a rational and humane people needs to take stock of this, to repudiate it, and to oppose it, passionately and constantly, because it is truly ugly and destructive insanity.
Our nation is embroiled in the fall-out from a tragedy brewed from familiar ingredients. Once again, an innocent child is dead, a victim of some undetermined blend of cowboy conservativism, racism, and laws which weaken the state’s crucial monopoly on the legitimate use of deadly force.
There is no shortage of lessons to be learned from the murder of Trayvon Martin, an innocent and unarmed black teen walking home from the store, the culprit protected by a Florida law that effectively legalizes murder, as long as the perpetrator thought the person he was murdering might be a criminal (letting each be the police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, all on their own. So much for “due process…”). To those who insist that they are not racists because racism is dead, it isn’t, and some of you are. To those who insist that liberty and justice require decentralizing the legal right to –and discretionary judgment as to when to– use deadly violence, you are liberating only human folly, and doing so at the cost of innocent others’ most fundamental of rights, the right to life.
The far right insists that if we, as a polity, try to take care of one another through our agent, the state, it is the most antagonistic thing imaginable to individual liberty, but that being able to kill an innocent teen, because he has dark skin and wears a hoodie, in response to some racist impulse, is the most necessary thing imaginable to that same liberty. If that were what the word “liberty” really meant, then it would be an odious thing. But it isn’t, neither what it means nor what it is.
“Liberty” is the freedom to speak your mind, believe and express those beliefs, organize, assemble, aspire, innovate, prosper, and thrive. It is not the freedom to harm others, to hurl our nation into a Hobbesian paradise of a “war of all against all,” in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” It is not the freedom to kill an unarmed teen because he’s black and wears a hoodie. It’s not even the freedom to be left to make that choice, each using his or her own judgment whether this or that individual deserves to be killed, in any circumstance other than truly imminent necessity of the defense of self or others.
That we have an ideology reverberating through large swathes of our collective consciousness that ever was foolish enough to blurr that bright line is proof enough that something is horribly amiss, and we are in urgent need of correcting it.
It’s not possible to fully understand American politics without understanding the language that is employed in political discourse, and how the terms are defined by those who use them. Interestingly, one American political faction has come to define all terms as precisely the opposite of what the rest of us have long understood them to mean.
Whereas some people, for instance, think that the word “liberty” refers to a lack of infringement on freedom of thought and action, and lack of intrusion on privacy, careful observation of how those on the Right use it reveals that we have all been mistaken all these years. Apparently, it really means:
1) allowing members of the dominant race, ethnicity, religion, and sex to impose their will on all others and to protect the privileges inherited from a history of oppressing and exploiting others;
2) facilitating the displacement of political power from the people, through their elected representatives, to private corporations unhindered by democratic processes or public accountability;
3) ensuring that individuals are as unprotected as possible from the greatest threats to their well-being, posed by organized others in service to an obscenely inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity, while simultaneously ensuring that we react as vindictively and counterproductively as possible toward the impoverished and destitute;
4) fetishizing both privately owned instruments of violence and nationally organized acts of violence (as long as the perpetrator of the latter is one’s own nation); and
5) insisting on policies that have led to the incarceration of the highest percentage of any national population, and the highest absolute number of people, of any nation on Earth, bar none (making the United States, in the most literal sense, the least free nation on Earth).
More specifically, “liberty,” apparently, is a value which dictates that
1) Adherents of Islam who have engaged in no crimes nor done anything to draw suspicion should be placed under covert surveillance and have dossiers dedicated to them in order to ensure that any crimes they might commit in the future are pre-empted (otherwise known as ”Ethnically and Religiously Exclusive Liberty,” or, more simply, “Police State Liberty”);
2) Impoverished people who migrate toward greater opportunity without governmental permission, or the children of such people who migrated with them as infants, should be rounded up and placed in detention centers, often subjected to poorly maintained facilities and poor treatment, until such time as they can be forcibly removed from the “land of opportunity” to which they migrated (Otherwise known as “Geographically Exclusive Liberty,” or “Fortress America Liberty,” or “‘If You’re Lucky’ Liberty”);
3) Women should be reduced to the legal status of human incubators, with no rights over their own bodies once they become impregnated, whether by their own choice or by force (otherwise known as “‘You’re a Toaster’ Liberty”); and
4) People who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex should be denied the kinds of legally and socially defined rights that those who are attracted to people of the opposite sex enjoy, because it as an affront to the ideal of “liberty” not to discriminate against those who are different from you in any significant way (otherwise known as “‘Liberty as long as we white Christian heterosexuals are okay with how you use it, but otherwise, not so much’ Liberty”).
5) Each of us has a God-given right to leave our home packing heat and looking for people to defend ourselves against, decide that an unarmed black teen in a hoodie innocently walking home from the store is just such a person, pursue them and initiate an altercation that leads to the armed person out looking for trouble shooting to death the unarmed black teen walking home from the store, and then complain bitterly whenever anyone points out that maybe, just maybe, that teen’s right to his life was greater than the shooter’s right to go out looking for people to “defend” himself against.
This imaginative definition of “liberty” is reminiscent of how this political faction’s historical predecessors used the word. For instance, John C. Calhoun, the famous Antebellum Southern politician, used the word “liberty” to refer to the freedom to own slaves, and “minority” to refer to those who believed that they had an inalienable right to own slaves, and was very strongly committed to protecting the rights and liberties of that embattled minority. In other words, to these neo-nullifcation-doctrine adherents, liberty means “my freedom to screw everyone else.”
Similarly, the venerable phrase “United States Constitution,” which to most of us means that document drafted by a group of very intelligent but historically contextualized propertied white men in 1787 in order to strengthen the federal government and overcome the disintegrative dysfunctionality of The Articles of Confederation which had preceded it, and which is the foundation of our rule of law, in reality refers to the complete disregard for the actual provisions of that document or to the rule of law established in accordance with those provisions. Rather, it refers to a strange, incoherent combination of Fundamentalist Christian theocracy, corporate oligarchy, and indifference to gross social injustices produced by current and historical distributions of privilege disproportionately favoring the racial, religious, ethnic and sexual orientation categories to which those who adhere to this imaginative interpretation of the phrase “United States Constitution” coincidentally belong.
For instance, Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, which grants Congress the power to tax and spend in service to the general welfare, in reality prohibits Congress from taxing and spending in service to the general welfare, the rest of us failing to understand that the Founding Fathers meant that Clause tongue-in-cheek, and that a literal, non-judicial-activist reading of the Constitution requires us to realize that it means the exact opposite of what it says.
Or, the First Amendment, which protects the right of each to adhere to and practice the religion of their choice, and ensures that the government does not favor any religion over any other, really means that the government must assiduously favor Christianity over all other religions, and decline to extend the same permission and accommodation to, for instance, adherents of Islam practicing their religion, because to do so would be to force good, all-American white Christians to endure people of other religions practicing non-Judeo-Christian religions in “our” country (not “their” country, because, of course, if they’re Muslim, then they’re not American…, right?).
“Liberty,” in Right-Wing New-Speak, means indifference, injustice, predation, violence and mass incarceration. “Freedom of religion” means Christian Theocracy and intolerance of any disfavored religions. The provision granting Congress the authority to tax and spend for the general welfare means that Congress is prohibited from taxing and spending for the general welfare. You almost have to admire such an impressive commitment to the complete inversion of reality.
So, if you find yourself driving a car with a right-wing ideologue riding shot-gun, and he or she shouts in a panic “Floor it!” …don’t. Hit the brakes instead. The wayward gay Muslim Hispanic pedestrian who wandered into your path will thank you for it.
(The following post was a comment I made on a Facebook thread that began with the poster seriously suggesting that Obama was moving toward arbitrarily imprisoning people on the Right who disagree with him, as evidenced by his referring to some Republican candidates as “extremists,” combined with the unfortunate provision for indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” in the NDAA. My comment below was a direct response to someone asserting that if I thought Obama might be right in his characterization of those Republican candidates, then I don’t know Obama well enough, implying that Obama is by definition always wrong.)
It’s not enough just to say that those you disagree with are wrong. You have to make the case. And if you’re not making the case, you’re just making noise.
There’s harmless noise, and there’s harmful noise. If you believe, for instance, that Amon-Ra requires you to hop on one foot at sunrise and sing Egyptian incantations to an arthropod, knock yourself out. No harm done. But if you were to believe, conversely, that all human beings who do not belong to your cult are possessed by demons which must be exorcised by those possessed being doused with gasoline and set on fire, and were part of a significant group of people believing this and reinforcing the belief among one another, well, that would be a lot more worrisome, because someone might start to act on that belief, and that would be a serious breach of the rights of those having their demons exorcised.
All human discursive noise falls on a continuum defined by these examples, from the most benign and harmless to the most violent and destructive. The noise your not-so-little cult makes is a lot closer to the end of that continuum defined by the latter example than the one defined by the former. In fact, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in American history was committed by a member of your cult, striking a blow against the federal government and its perceived incursions on liberty by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds of innocent people, including dozens of children in the day care center housed in that building.
Granted, such an atrocity could have been committed by any fanatic of any stripe, and, as we say in statistics, an N of one is meaningless. But, in this case, we don’t just have the N of one to inform us, but also a considerable quantity of confirming evidence: A huge rise in armed citizen militias running around with grease painted faces and semi-automatic rifles, training to save this country from the dictatorship in your imaginations. Rhetoric that informs a potentially violent and consistently destructive zealotry, such as the motto “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The problem, of course, is that extremism has a life of its own, regardless of what it claims to be in defense of, and that motto is precisely the motto that would have been echoing in Timothy McVeigh’s mind, rationalizing for him the irrational and horribly destructive.
That’s not to say that there aren’t kernels of truth in some of your positions. The history of the United States has been characterized by a consistent, punctuated growth in executive power. The concentration and exercise of both governmental and corporate power in America involves several troubling tendencies, such as the indefinite detention of people labelled as enemy combatants, and the influence of corporate money in determining electoral and legislative outcomes. There are real issues to be understood and addressed as wisely and effectively and functionally as possible. But the rule of law is first and foremost a commitment to a process, to a set of procedures that are consistent with our fundamental law, and have developed in service to it. People who don’t get that are the biggest real threat to the Constitution that this country faces, because they want to replace our actual rule of law with their particular ideological presumptions of what the law should be, claiming that there is no ambiguity or possibility of disputing their positions, when very clearly there is, as all people who actually study and implement the Constitution realize.
And that brings us to the freedom of speech. Members of my fictional cult who believed in burning the demons out of those who disagree with them are on the boundary between protected speech and criminal incitement of violence. Were they to merely assert that all who disagree with them are possessed by demons and must be opposed, then they would have clearly fallen on the side of protected speech. Were they to encourage and advise followers to actually douse people with gasoline and set them on fire, inciting them to commit imminent acts of violence, then they would clearly fall on the side of criminal incitement of violence.
Your little cult clearly falls on the side of protected speech. It’s not even a close call, and no one I know of has ever suggested that it is a close call. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t destructive and potentially dangerous, it just means that part of our legal framework, a very fundamental and important part, is that we recognize that we have to allow and protect all speech that isn’t imminently inciting violence or in other limited ways crossing a line that had to be drawn (e.g., libel, maliciously igniting a panic “in a crowded theater,” etc.), because that is a real and necessary bulwark of liberty. We all get that, even us demons who, metaphorically speaking, need to be doused with gasoline and set on fire.
I agree that the speech of the KKK and of American Nazis, as well as of American Communists and Socialists (groups to which exceedingly few on the Left in America belong, despite the crazed rhetoric to the contrary) and Evangelicals, all has to be protected, regardless of whether I or anyone else finds it odious, destructive, and disgusting, as long as it doesn’t cross the line to the incitement of imminent violence. I certainly agree that your speech, which, for the most part (though not always, nor by all adherents), is less odious than that of the KKK and American Nazis, is protected speech. I have no interest or desire to see force used to silence you. I prefer to see reason and goodwill used to debunk you.
We live in a country facing many real challenges, as has been the case throughout our history, and will be the case throughout all time in all places. We have established an excellent though imperfect system for addressing those challenges, which we can continue to refine, which is still firmly based on our Constitution, which has evolved around that Constitution by necessity and by design, and which real patriotism demands a complete commitment to. It is more procedural than substantive, more focused on how we arrive at our conclusions than on what those conclusions must be. That is what the rule of law really is. That is what our Constitution really stands for. And you folks, for all of your claims to be the defenders of the Constitution, are in reality it’s most fervent opponents in America today, because you claim that your particular ideological substantive conclusions should take precedence over our evolved rule of law and the procedures by which we maintain and implement it. Such people are the kind of people most likely to blow up buildings and kill innocent people, because, as you say, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” But extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill most certainly is a vice, because extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill is too open to interpretation, too susceptible to the errors of blind ideological passions.
The value of liberty is that it serves humanity well. Those who become warriors of liberty divorced from a commitment to humanity are not serving either liberty or that which liberty itself serves, but are rather serving their own blind fanaticisms, at everyone else’s expense.
In the right wing blogosphere, everyone that isn’t a radical libertarian, evangelical, nationalistic, jingoistic yahoo is a “Socialist” or “Communist” or “godless baby killer” or “anti-American traitor of all that is good and holy.” There is, on the one hand, the One Truth, and there is the Error that is all else.
The One Truth, blindly adhered to and ultimately irrational, is defined by a particular interpretation of the Bible; a particular interpretation of the Constitution; a particular blend of historical, economic, legal, and cultural illiteracies; and particular “worst of both worlds” inconsistencies conveniently combining individualism (“we can’t use government to take care of one another”) and collectivism (“but we can use it to impose the religious dogma of the majority, to discriminate against various minorities, to deny those we disapprove of basic civil rights protections, and to take a belligerent stance toward the rest of the world”), moral absolutism (“our moral certainties are unassailable absolute truths”) and intellectual relativism (“since all opinions, regardless of how well or poorly informed and reasoned, are equal, no one can criticize any opinion we express, which is, when we are not insulating it from criticism through this claim of relativism, the absolute truth by virtue of our rejection of relativism”); all amalgamated into a polymorphous idolatry (see, e.g., “Sharianity” for a discussion of some of these hypocrisies). If you don’t belong to the extreme engaged in that particular Bacchanalia of ignorance and belligerence, you belong to any and all opposite extremes, by whatever labels exist to rhetorically relegate you to their confines.
Of course, between the right-wing extremes of Small Government Idolatry (or what is in reality government mandated only to oppose by all means necessary all those who belong to any out-groups in relation to these paragons of bigotry), religious fanaticism, and jingoistic belligerence, and the left-wing extremes (that barely exist in the United States) of absolute reliance on centralized political power and anti-market economic illiteracy, lies the sanity of recognizing the value of markets and the necessity of regulating them, the value of personal liberty but the inescapable fact of interdependence, and the subtlety and complexity of the world we live in and the challenges it poses.
In other words, in the United States, Small Government Idolatry isn’t predominantly opposed by “Socialism,” but rather by “No Presumption Pragmatism” (NPP), a term I coined in The Great American Debate to represent the belief that we must face a complex and subtle world with as much reason, as much humility, as much discipline, as much realism, and as much goodwill and compassion as possible.
Of course, one could as easily use the phrase “no presumption pragmatism” to justify a more insular and belligerent stance, claiming that “pragmatism” requires a “Fortress America” ideology vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and disregard for the plight of the less fortunate in our own country. Laced throughout my writings are arguments about why this is the opposite of the truth, a small-minded tribalistic and classist reflex that does not really capture the realities of the challenges and opportunities that face us.
It is not pragmatic to lock ourselves into a web of perpetual lose-lose scenarios, nor is it pragmatic to engage in a short-sighted denial of the long-term consequences of present actions. Therefore, “No Presumption Pragmatism” refers to the realistic, vigilant, disciplined, and balanced commitment to forging as much cooperation as possible, and exercising as much compassion as possible, within the constraints imposed by some others’ unwillingness to do the same.
But even aside from the fact that what I am calling “No Presumption Pragmatism” is recommended by enlightened self-interest, it is also an inevitable expression of our core values as a people and a nation. We are not a people who define ourselves as oppressors, who believe that it is right and good to prosper with indifference toward those who are not so fortunate, who are willing to explicitly say that the plight of the poor and unfortunate is no concern of anyone other than those few who care to make it their concern. I believe that few in America today are willing to explicitly advocate for social injustice for the sake of social injustice, that the vast majority of Americans today believe that indifference to the welfare of others is bad. That means that one of the things we need to be pragmatic about is how to most effectively and efficiently implement our commitment to human decency.
One need not be a Socialist, or a Tea Party Libertarian, or a Godless Atheist, or a Bible-Thumping Inquisitor, or a Traitor to One’s Country, or a Militant Nationalist; one can be a pragmatist, without presumption, in service to the welfare of oneself, one’s family, and one’s other in-groups, which, in the long run, coincides completely and inextricably with the welfare of humanity (and of the living planet itself).
Such pragmatism isn’t merely a matter of eschewing the mindless extremes, but rather of embracing the mindfulness that they do not. It is not a default position, the mere absence of manias, but rather an affirmative position, the presence of disciplines of the mind and heart and body and soul. It favors methodology over ideology, commitment to procedure (e.g., the rule of law) over such zeal of false certainty carried by such hubris that no deference to procedures such as scientific methodology or rule of law is necessary (see, e.g., The Elusive Truth, The Hydra’s Heads, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, Ideology v. Methodology, The Voice Beyond Extremes, Discourse, Diderot & Deity, The Real Political & Cultural Dichotomy, Sacred Truths, The “New” Reductionism, Irrational (but rationalized) Belligerence, The Tyranny of Blind Ideology, An Argument for Reason and Humility).
NPP is the ideology of reason applied to evidence, leavened with imagination, in service to humanity. It is something we can and should develop, elaborate, explore, define, refine, and implement. This blog, in many ways, is committed to just that purpose. (See, for instance, my essays that explore the descriptive paradigm on which we should rely, hyperlinked in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts; my essays that explore the normative and strategic paradigm on which we should rely, hyperlinked in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts; and the remainder of my essays, exploring the bridges between the two, the specific issue details, and the complexities and nuances surrounding both.)
So, here’s to No Presumption Pragmatism! May ever more of my neighbors and fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) flock to its banner, and sing its hymns! It may be the case that we can never really be anything more than elaborately grunting apes, but we can and do grunt in ever-more elaborate ways, with a consciousness that continuously blossoms as a result. Let’s, therefore, be conscious human beings striving to do good in the world, and leave all of the absurd and self-destructive noise on the dust-heap of history, where it belongs.
I’ve decided to coin a new term, “sharianity,” which is defined as the state of mind implicated in the citing of examples of sharia law being enforced somewhere in the world (or imagined instances of it being enforced somewhere in the United States) to stoke up anti-Muslim hysteria here at home (by arguing, arbitrarily, that sharia law is taking over America, and that, therefore, we must discriminate against all Muslims living in the United States). In two threads (so far) on Facebook, I have taken on this particular hysteria, part of the larger anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping across some factions of this country.
It’s important to emphasize that opposing the exploitation of horrendous acts of violence abroad under the guise of sharia law as a pretext for advocating prejudice and discrimination here at home is in no way a defense of or tolerance of or acceptance of those acts of violence. Just as the opposition to rationalizing any other form of racism by pointing to some crime committed by some members of a given race as a pretext for that racism is not an expression of approval for the crimes committed, so too opposing rationalizing this form of racism by pointing to some crime committed by some members of the given race (or, in this case, religious community) does not in any way imply approval of the crimes committed.
While it may be true that a significant portion of world Muslims support aspects of Sharia law repugnant to Americans, it’s also true that those who exploit that fact most vigorously to condemn all Muslims en masse are precisely those Americans who are most similar to those who endorse and enforce sharia (close-minded, bigoted religious fanatics). Jihad, meet Crusades, brought into the Modern era by remarkably similar throw-backs of two different stripes….
One commenter captured the cornerstone of that fanaticism with the assertion that, since both Islam and Christianity can’t both be right at the same time, to be tolerant of Islam is not enlightened but rather confused. I’ve addressed this error of false absolutism many times (see the essays linked to in the fifth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, plus A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and An Argument for Reason and Humility). To summarize:
1) The world is comprised of groups of people, each defined to a large extent by some set of shared beliefs. Many or most of these hold beliefs that are considered “exclusive absolute truths.” In other words, they hold some ideological conviction (often, though not always, in the form of a religion) that they consider the absolute and indisputable truth, such that they know that their dogmatic certainty is the one correct one, and all others are wrong.
2) Of those that share this characteristic, at most one can be correct (though not necessarily any are).
3) By adhering to these exclusive ideological certainties, all such ideologues guarantee a perpetuation of a world divided by such mutually exclusive ideological absolutisms, often violently so, and, as we see in this case, even when not violently so, at least hatefully so.
4) Exercising the wisdom of humility, knowing that none of us are in possession of the one, final, absolute truth, but rather are mere human beings striving to understand a complex and subtle world and universe, is not the error of “relativism,” as such adherents insist, but rather the recognition that, while there is a single, coherent objective reality, our ability to ascertain it in its entirety is so limited that our various attempts yield these mutually exclusive absolutists ideologies instead.
5) This habit of thought is also the basis of the most robust system of gaining deeper and broader understandings of nature ever yet invented: Scientific methodology, which is based on skepticism rather than faith.
6) Faith may be a virtue, when it is pure enough not to conflict with humility, and takes the form not of words and beliefs, but rather of a sensation of being part of a wondrous and awe-inspiring reality. In this form, our religions become wonderful windows onto something that transcends them, and become languages that cease to divide us in violent and hateful ways.
Several commenters on both threads insisted that “they” (i.e., Muslims) have brought this on “themselves” by committing acts of terrorism and violence. This is, not surprisingly, a very popular meme. It’s also a very irrational one. I don’t recall a sudden outcry that white Americans had brought such prejudice on themselves when Timothy McVeigh, acting in the context of a large organized anti-government movement (that is even larger and more vocal today, and has even more paramilitary groups running around in grease paint firing semi-automatic weapons), bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (killing hundreds, many of which were children in the daycare center in the building). We use that concept of “they” very selectively, to vilify those out-groups we are predisposed to vilify, but to individualize acts of violence committed by members of groups (generally in-groups) we are not predisposed to vilify.
One commenter asked ”Where is your compassion for the young lady (who, according to the story, was executed under sharia law for participating in a beauty pageant) ??????” Again, condemning the hateful bigotry rationalized by means of exploiting that tragic event does not equate to indifference to the tragedy of the event itself. Americans commit crimes all the time, and their victims deserve nothing but compassion, but I doubt that many Americans would find that a convincing argument why generalized hatred toward Americans overseas, rationalized as a reaction to the crimes some Americans commit here (or there), can’t be criticized.
Or perhaps a better analogy is that America is one of the last developed countries to retain the death penalty, considered utterly barbaric by the citizens of most developed countries, and yet these same folks who are indignant over the lack of compassion shown by my criticism of their bigotry would be the quickest to take offense at any similar bigotry directed toward Americans in general by virtue of our continued execution of occasionally innocent convicts.
The trick of finding an atrocity committed by the group toward which you are eager to direct your bigotry is an old one. It was used frequently by people very much like the “sharianists” (those who invoke sharia as a pretext for anti-Muslim bigotry) to rationalize their own racism in the past, just as it is being used now to rationalize the popular prejudice of the present. If there had been an internet fifty or sixty years ago, Southern racists would have posted news stories of African Americans committing crimes, using those stories to condemn African Americans in general, just as some are now doing to Muslims.
The problem, of course, is that bigots are always perfectly insulated against any information that might expose to themselves the ignorance and hatefulness of their own bigotry. That’s the beauty of ignorance: Those who suffer it are able by virtue of it to ignore all information and reason that might inconveniently challenge their bigotry. And so the disease of racism, of bigotry, of hatred, “wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross” (as the very prescient and insightful author Sinclair Lewis said of how Fascism would come to America), marches on, unstoppable. And these new bigots are its foot soldiers.
The concept of “tolerance” popped up, of course, both rejecting and co-opting it at the same time (“those animals don’t deserve to be tolerated, but, if you’re so committed to tolerance, what about tolerating us bigots?”) But tolerance does not mean tolerating specific crimes by specific people; it means tolerating diversity that is not violent or predatory in nature. Being Muslim is not violent or predatory in nature; hating Muslims is.
But there is a degree of tolerance required, even of those who express such bigotries. I believe in the degree of tolerance that recognizes their speech to be protected, and to be opposed not with physical force, or any suggestion of any call to physical force, or any suggestion of any call to the passage of laws prohibiting such positions, but rather just with reason and knowledge and the power of competing speech. But it should not be tolerated in the sense of being disregarded and left unopposed by better reasoned, better informed, and more life affirming ideas and arguments.
Several commenters typically, tried to “rubber-and-glue” me in various ways, suggesting, for instance, that by criticizing them I was committing the same error they were supposedly committing by criticizing Muslims (unsurprisingly unable to distinguish between criticizing specific people for their own specific behaviors and criticizing whole categories of people for behaviors committed by some members of those categories). Two on two different threads bizarrely invoked the “glass house” proverb, suggesting that it was wrong of me to “throw stones” at them for the sin of throwing stones at Muslims in general.
One commenter implied that I must be an anti-Christian “bigot” since I was criticizing these good Christians for hating Muslims, to which I replied that no, I didn’t hold Christians in general responsibility for the viciousness of some. I also referred them to my arguments in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, in which I argued vehemently against such anti-Christian or anti-religion presumptions.
I pointed out to another the questionability of insisting that “Christianity” stands in opposition to “liberalism.” Many great liberals have been Christians. Many liberal civil rights leaders have been men of the cloth, and a whole movement called “liberation theology” was prominent for decades, particularly in Latin America. I pointed out that one of the great ironies cited by many on the left is that the words attributed to Jesus sound much more like words that could be spoken by American liberals today than by American conservatives, with a focus on social justice and compassion and “tolerance” and a commitment to humanity. I pointed out that the commenter did not represent Christianity in its entirety, any more than those murderers in the article represent Islam in its entirety.
Several commenters tried to justify their reporting of the incident as unassailable in and of itself, though it was clear that the purpose was to advocate for discrimination against Muslims here in America. I pointed out that of all the destructive ideologies that exist in the world, when a group of people repeatedly seek out and publish examples of one in particular, plucked from the far side of the planet, to make a specific point about a specific culture that, coincidentally, they have been striving to vilify in general, here at home, for the past decade, that is no longer simply the condemnation of a particular set of violent acts motivated by a particular belligerent ideology. It becomes clearly identifiable as a pretext for an antagonism focused on a particular race or ethnicity.
Present in all of this was another example of one of the great ironies of modern American right-wing ideology: While its adherents claim, on the one hand, to believe in individual responsibility, they also think in very collectivist terms. The incident they cite is not about individuals committing an act of violence, but rather a cause to indict an entire culture, not all of the members of which subscribe to sharia law (and of those that do, not necessarily this more repugnant variety of sharia law).
There are some other great ironies embedded in this ideology. The habitual dismissive disregard for the Constitution espoused by the ideological camp that claims most loudly to be the great champion of the Constitution, for instance, is discussed below.
But a less well-known right-wing hypocricy is the convenient blend of relativism and absolutism. A subjective relativism is invoked to insulate arbitrary opinions, such that no opinion can ever be deemed better informed or reasoned than any other. This is combined with a conveniently invoked absolutism that declares that the set of arbitrary opinions, each of which can’t be challenged because all opinions are equal, comprise together the One Exclusive Truth by virtue of the fact that anything else would imply the error of relativistic thinking!
So, it is possible to condemn Muslims for being Muslims and insist that they must be excluded from American society as violators of absolute truth, and condemn those who say that this is bigoted for failing to accept just one more equally valid opinion! Reminiscent of John Calhoun insisting that the liberty of slave owners was threatened by emancipation of slaves (and that the rights of minorities had to be protected by ensuring that the rights of African Americans weren’t), these specimens insist that their right to be different by advocating for the discrimination of others is the one difference that should be respected!
This deftly convenient blend of relativism and absolutism came up repeatedly in the assertion that the commenter’s personal experience and personal perceptions were inviolate, and that therefore any suggestion that any of it might be empirically false or irrational or offensive was just someone else’s opinion, and therefore inadmissible as a response to the commenter’s condemnation of others for their (the others’) beliefs or identity.
There is clearly a convenient inconsistency, as well, in the way in which the selection of what to be indignant about and what not to be indignant about occurs, serving a blind ideology rather than a rational and humane philosophy. There’s no indignation over one of the richest nations on Earth being obstructed (by them) in its efforts to address poverty, homelessness, hunger, and other forms of needless and curable destitution within its own borders, a travesty that is actually within their political power to confront, but there is boundless indignation over the sins of a distant culture operating in a distant land, because that travesty is committed by a foreign enemy that they are eager to vilify.
We are talking about a political and cultural movement in America which blends the worst of all ideological worlds, mixing a form of individualism only invoked as a justification for belligerence and indifference to the neediest in our own society with a form of collectivism only invoked as a justification for belligerence toward all those outside our own society. It is a particular blend of individualism and collectivism selected not to serve humanity, but rather to attack humanity, to hate rather than to help. (See The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a more in-depth discussion of this issue.)
Here is one telling comment, that was applauded by others on the thread:
Americans were traumatized by 9/11. And, because of that they will be develop a certain dislike or mistrust of the culture that perpetrated it. That’s understandable. The fact that moderate muslims do not denounce the radical muslims looks like tacit approval of 9/11. The fact that when muslims emigrate to the US and other countries, they remain insular also doesn’t help. Western culture is so different to theirs makes it difficult for them to do so. Having American citizens of muslim descent become terrorists doesn’t help. So I suspect those are probably reasons why we are seeing the intolerance.
While my experience is anecdotal, female friends of mine have had problems with muslim men at work. The men feel strongly that they should not have to work with women and that women should not work at all. Well, this is America and women work outside the home. Furthermore, A muslim man just about knocked me to the curb when I was in London in May. I was in his way. I guess as an infidel and a woman, he felt he could do that. I made it clear that it would be assault if he even touched me. There were muslim-only cafes in London and women were not permitted in some. Wonder if this is what we will see in America if we’re not vigilant? Will we tolerate that sort of discrimination? I never thought I’d see it in London. Should we tolerate that here?
I’m also concerned at the apparent acceptance of sharia law and the apparent small inroads it’s making in the US. IMHO, islam needs a reformation–it’s like it’s operating in a bygone era. Educating the people would help. Once they’re educated, they’re not as dependant on one person’s interpretation of the koran as we see now in some muslim countries.
I’m glad I’m of a certain age. Our children and grandchildren will have quite the challenge on their hands.
Another commenter responded to this by asserting that she is not a bigot for agreeing with it, but rather ”a realist” who “see(s) Islam for what it is.” Ironically, both emphasized that Islam is stuck is Middle Ages, apparently not having a mirror handy to notice the Inquisition and Crusades standing at each of their shoulders.
I responded to the latter’s assertion that these were ”very good examples” by pointing out that they are very good examples of how to rationalize xenophobia, by combining false (and empirically refutable) assumptions with an assumption of being completely justified in an anti-Muslim agenda. I pointed out that a huge number of moderate Muslims have denounced the 9/11 attacks; that their denouncements have been all over the media for the past decade (and I provided some links to inventories of such denouncements by Muslims), and that her twice repeated insistence that no such denouncements occurred was an example of “confirmation bias,” by which one perceives what is most ideologically convenient for them to perceive.
This all, of course, boils down to defining the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, and then conveniently looking for all of the reasons to condemn all of those who belong to the out-groups, while blithely disregarding all of the often very similar (and sometimes more egregious) transgressions being committed by those who belong to the in-group. (See Inclusivity & Exclusivity.)
The main argument is that, since there are threats confronting America, any degree of xenophobia is justified. There are real threats and challenges in the world that impact the United States, both within and without its borders. But, while we have laws governing people’s actions within our borders, their freedom of belief, speech, association, and religion are all constitutionally protected. (There are fairly well-defined exceptions to freedom of speech of course: You can’t incite violence, commit slander, etc. Also, freedom of religion stops when a practice claimed to be a religious one violates a law whose purpose is other than to infringe on the religious belief itself.) If someone violates our laws, we prosecute them for doing so. If they don’t violate our laws, then there is no issue.
What we don’t do, what we have learned is the wrong thing to do, is to identify people according to their religion, ethnicity, race, or political ideology, and in some way or another, target them for those things in and of themselves. Being Muslim in America isn’t a crime, must not be perceived to be a crime, and those who treat it as a crime are the ones in error. Gross, horrible, shameful error.
The commenters were adamant that we are not doing enough to nip this threat in the bud, to confront and obstruct the intrusion of Muslim culture into our society. But we have a little thing called the US Constitution, which guarantees all Americans, and all legal residents, freedom of belief, of religion, of assembly, as long as they do not break any Constitutionally permissible laws in the process.
Ironically, once again, the same ideological camp that crows about being the true defenders of the Constitution turns out to be the principal threat to the Constitution, trying to whip up a predisposition to target a particular religious community living within the United States that, to the extent that it is translated into the kinds of policies consistent with that predisposition, would be a frontal assault on both our Constitution and our decency as human beings.
Among the comments were comments about how all of this bigotry is justified by the clash of cultures, somehow exhibiting a complete historical amnesia concerning how discredited that justification is. One of those commenters then insisted that all of these fine people posting on that thread would undoubtedly treat Muslims they encounter with love and respect, to which I pointed out that some of the posts included: “Those Jackasses Muslims (sic)…,” “AND THE GOVERNMENT LEADERS IN AMERICA STILL SAY WE CAN CO-EXIST WITH THESE ANIMALS ?? WAKE UP, PEOPLE !!” I mentioned that maybe that was a form of “love and respect” I just wasn’t familiar with.
There was then an endless going round in circles over the insistence that calling people “jackasses” isn’t bigotry, conveniently disregarding that feeling the need to impugn their entire religious community while doing so is. And no amount of pointing this out had any effect whatsoever.
There was the suggestion that I should be criticizing those Muslims who enforce sharia law overseas rather rather than those criticizing them here, to which I responded that 1) they are not mutually exclusive, and when I enter into conversations with Muslims in which they take positions that I find offensive, I have no hesitation to take them to task for it; and 2) having said that, there is a difference between criticizing remote others with whom I am not engaged in any process of shared self-governance and over whom I have little or no influence, and criticizing fellow citizens advocating an attitude and a policy for our nation that I find offensive and reprehensible.
There were comments about “birds of a feather,” and invoking the name of Danny Pearl as justification for the bigotry. I responded to these with:
2) The existence of categorical identities is certainly a staple of human history. Whether we will always have them or not is not something my crystal ball can tell me, but they have always existed and do exist today. But what we do with them has certainly been variable, ranging from genocide to amicable co-existence. The question isn’t whether those identities exist, but rather when the focus upon them serves no purpose other than as a vehicle for inter-racial or inter-sectarian hatreds. The former may be inevitable; the latter is not.
4) To use individual acts of violence as an excuse for sectarian hatred may seem rational and defensible to you, but it is the same thing you are condemning; it is what killed Danny Pearl, not what will save the Danny Pearls of the future; it is the problem, not the solution. It is bigotry.
To assertions that the anti-Muslim hysteria is justified by terrorism, I responded:
5) Since a significant portion of Muslims do not support sharia law, and do not condone the 9/11 attacks, Muslims in general cannot be held responsible for either; only those Muslims who support sharia law or condone the 9/11 attacks can be held responsible, among Muslims, for supporting sharia law or condoning the 9/11 attacks.
6) This is especially true since there is no centralized decision-making authority embracing all of Islam, and certainly no pan-Islamic democratic mechanisms by which Muslims in general can be held responsible for particular factional “policies” of Islam.
7) The criticism isn’t directed at any one who object to sharia, or object to terrorism, or discuss either in the context of Islam, but rather precisely and specifically at those who exploit the existence of sharia, and of the terrorist attacks, to foment hostility toward members of a particular religious community IN GENERAL.
8) Cultivating antagonism toward such an ethnic community, en masse, rationalized by factually less-than-accurate assertions that Muslims have a monopoly or near-monopoly on terrorism, by means of the absurd assertion that America is under threat of being overtaken by sharia law as evidenced by its patchwork existence in distant lands, is, indeed, an expression of xenophobia, not of a well reasoned and defensible reaction to real circumstances.
9) Terrorism comes in many forms. We normally use it to refer to the weapons of the weak, fighting against stronger powers by the only means they have, which is to attack the most vulnerable. And I am 100% in agreement that such attacks are reprehensible, but I am not in agreement that they are significantly less reprehensible than killing or being responsible for the killing of tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of “collateral damage” inflicted by larger military powers just as eager to exert their influence forcefully in the world, but able to do so without targeting civilians specifically. The point is that many things escalate reactionary cycles of violence, and it is very common for those culpable in one way to only perceive the culpability of those who have inflicted violence on them, rather than include awareness of the violence they’ve inflicted on others.
10) Even terrorism more narrowly defined is hardly limited to Islam. It has been exhibited in the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union, in sub-Saharan Africa, and even by right-wing anti-government fanatics in the United States (remember Oklahoma City?).
11) There are always ready rationalizations for stoking the fires of tribalistic and religious hatred, such as those you’ve cited. Those you condemn for their violence committed their acts of violence in the heat of a very similar mania, and the repetition of it here and now is likely to feed, directly and indirectly, into acts of violence committed in its name. The anti-government extremists who stoked up that rhetoric in the years leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing I’m sure feel no responsibility for that act of violence either, but without them, it would never have occurred.
12) The fact that violence exists, that some of it is perpetrated by Muslim extremists, and that people have suffered horribly at its hands, does not justify or legitimate stoking a frenzy of anti-Muslim sentiment directed toward peaceful and law-abiding Muslim citizens and residents of our own country.
14) If the concern is over terrorist attacks, then stoking those fires of reactionary tribalistic hatreds is not a very wise strategy for reducing the frequency or risk. In fact, the bigotry I am addressing increases rather than decreases our vulnerability in a multitude of ways, by cultivating more hatred directed toward us in reaction to it, by reducing cooperation of those best positioned to provide information that would help avert such attacks, by, in general, pushing people deeper into antagonistic camps, including people who never would have been antagonistic to us otherwise. You don’t address the threat of terrorism by starting with rationalizations for racial or religious hatred, but rather by asking yourself first and foremost “what set of policies would best and most effectively reduce this risk?” The answer to that latter question is complex and multifaceted, but included within its matrix is “the reduction of anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States today.”