Saturday, January 29, 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

Open Salon features some strange stuff, often several months past its sell-by date, but some garbage is timeless, y'know? Like this piece denouncing the burning of books, reacting to the threatened Koran-burning last fall, by a "former advertising and marketing executive and winner of over 50 advertising awards for excellence, ... an unpaid Senior Advisor on John Kerry's 2004 Presidential Campaign... [and a] blogger, activist, Democratic Strategist on MSNBC and FOX News and founder of Common Sense NMS." As you'd expect from such a person, his post was bogus from the title on, which he repeated in the main text. "Americans Don't Burn Books"? I suppose this is an example of the "No True Scotsman" tactic, because of course, Americans often have burned books, though nowadays it's simpler just to pulp them. The blogger's extended tantrum is, by the way, an example of the very magical thinking that underlies burning books or flags or effigies: that the burned object is a poppet, and by burning it you burn the person it stands for. (This is often associated with "voodoo dolls", but poppets are European magic, as American as apple pie.)

Then there was this one, "Political Propaganda Has Defined Patriotism." Patriotism often goes along with the poppet-magic mentality, and it has always been associated with propaganda. (Remember Samuel Johnson's quip that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels -- the unsavory aspects of patriotism are not exactly a new discovery.) The post begins by invoking the "Nazi's" (a plural was presumably meant but the possessive was written) and the popular legend about the Big Lie, blithely ignoring, oh, say, Parson Weems, "The Star-Spangled Banner," and "Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'" According to the blogger, Paul Joseph Goebbels wrote that "The most brilliant propagandist technique… must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over and over." (Except that Goebbels didn't write that, it was Hitler. Details, details.) Then she writes, "Over the past two years, many of the very techniques Goebbels employed have been used to mobilize a discontent and fearful America." You'd have to call that liberal propaganda defining patriotism, because it's the kind of big lie that was a staple of liberal discourse under Bush, like Molly Ivins's 2007 lament, "What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny?" The US was never such a nation, any more than it was the kind of nation depicted in Reaganite propaganda (white people living behind picket fences in small towns, self-reliant and beholden to no one, especially government bureaucrats). So this post is a textbook example of what it pretends to denounce.

Most recently I stumbled on this post. The title was promising: "I'm an Atheist, Ask Me How." Except that the blogger doesn't know how. She begins:
I can hardly believe that Christianity is still so prevalent in this, the year of our Lord, 2010. It’s fucking bizarre that an organization advocating homophobia and misogyny is so globally cherished.
Starting from the atheist premise that there is no god, the answer should be obvious: an organization advocating homophobia and misogyny is globally cherished because homophobia and misogyny are globally cherished. To oversimplify somewhat, since there is no god, religious doctrines and dicta must be invented by people. Religions are collective constructions, so they don't need to be consistent or reasonable. Someone who for political reasons has a voice gets to insist that this or that bit goes into the stew. If enough people agree with him, his bit will be embraced and cherished and trumpeted by most believers. If not, his bit will be tactfully reinterpreted, or paid respectful lip service and ignored. Consider Mark 10:25, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." It's as securely scriptural as Leviticus 18:22, in fact it's a teaching of Jesus, but you won't find most Christians putting a lot of store by it.

Or consider Jesus' prohibition of divorce, Mark 10:11. Even in the New Testament this teaching is diluted by Matthew, who shows Jesus giving a loophole for someone with an adulterous spouse. Conservative Christians hung on to it in the US until fairly recently, but by the time the divorced and remarried Ronald Reagan became a presidential contender, they were ready to shove this Christian teaching down the slippery slope. And now, homosexuals are demanding the "right to marry," and it's Reagan's fault.

I don't know why misogyny and homophobia are so popular, but they are, and if they weren't, it wouldn't be possible for religion to exploit them. And the blogger knows this, because she also says, "There is no God, Heaven, or Hell, all religion is man-made, and you are not morally superior because of your faith." See that? "All religion is man-made."

Further, where traditional religion fades, other, newer authorities take up these attitudes and run with them. Secular science's first take on homosexuality and women was straightforwardly reactionary: Homosexuals were not sinners, but they were sick, and could be cured. Women needed to stop trying to usurp the place of men, such as universities (hard study would render women sterile and eventually drive them mad), and should stay at home tending the children, as Evolution intended. Women who continued to rebel in this manner were clearly mannish and might even try to love each other (see homosexuality), would wear suits and smoke cigars, and civilization would perish as the contagion spread.

But this was all in the past, I hear you say, and we are more enlightened now! Perhaps, or perhaps not. Not until 1973 did the American Psychiatric Association remove homosexuality from its official list of disorders, and not for another couple of decades did it reject therapeutic attempts to "cure" us, though there had always been good evidence that such attempts were ineffective and mainly succeeded at making the patients miserable. As for gender, there are still plenty of scientists pushing a biological determinist line, that boys like guns and girls like dolls, and despite the critical flaws in their evidence and their claims, they still have no trouble getting funding for their research or publicity for their claims. The corporate media give them all the exposure they could wish, and the line is that only backward, biased feminists and leftists quibble with these secure, unbiased scientific findings. The case of race is similar.

The problem isn't science, or even religion; it's what the philosopher Walter Kaufmann named "decidophobia," the fear of fateful decisions. Neither science or religion can make our decisions for us. And that is frightening, as Kaufmann acknowledged. Most people evidently want to believe that there is a solid, certain place where they can stand, and absolute principles by which to make their moral choices. Atheists tend to choose different ones than theists, but they seem to be no less likely to pretend to know more than they know.