There’s been so much said about l’affaire Richwine that I am not keen to get deeply involved. I would advise that you read Jason Richwine’s account, as well as Ph.D. thesis itself. There are now various movements to expurgate Richwine’s thesis on explicitly ideological grounds. This is very stupid.
As a non-liberal with some affiliation with academia I’m in a peculiar position. I get to observe people blithely confusing their normative presuppositions with the basic background assumptions of the average person. By analogy, in a conservative evangelical church “Christians” have specific opinions on issues such as abortion and taxes. And yet the reality is that there are many self-identified Christians who would take issue with these assumptions. But these other types of Christians may not be part of the social group of conservative evangelicals, so the implicit assumption is that those who would espouse abortion rights and higher taxes must be secular humanists (actually, most self-identified liberals are religious and believe in God).
What’s happening here is that many liberals hold that Richwine’s thesis is ipso facto racist due to the axioms and inferences he made. Obviously this is a red line for the cultural Left today, and it makes sense why they would be outraged. The issue is that this thesis has already been given the stamp of approval by Harvard via the regular channels. If the thesis was put under special scrutiny or even revoked on ideological grounds then that would be rather exceptional, and also a major crack in the facade of the idea of intellectual integrity within the academy.
The problem with this is that many questions and conclusions which liberals are not so offended by are quite offensive and objectionable to non-liberals, and especially social conservatives. People within the academy are generally not conscious of this because they rarely encounter people who are offended by the concept of Queer Studies, or the type of Ph.D. theses which come out of these departments. Currently exploration of topics objectionable and offensive to “Middle America” are protected by the idea that part of the academy’s role is to provoke and even offend, to explore taboo issues and reach shocking conclusions. But if the academy starts to make exceptions in such a blatant manner for areas which it finds the offense unacceptable, then its defense of heterodoxy becomes much weaker. Outrage for thee, but not for me.
This may not may not be a big issue in the short run. But, it will contribute to the continued alienation of the majority of the nation from elite higher education, especially the sort of research institutions which by their very nature are going to be culturally transgressive of mainstream values. If the cultural Left manages to get an asterisk placed on the Richwine Ph.D., or have it revoked, then the rational move by conservatives is simple. First, conservative think-tanks should go put the spotlight on the Ph.D.’s of prominent liberals and highlight aspects which are “objectionable” so as to smear their reputations (e.g., anything “anti-American” or sympathetic to cultural Marxism, or questioning bourgeois institutions like marriage). Second, an army of activists could comb through departments which are known award Ph.D.’s with “radical” political and social agendas, and use these as evidence to argue that the academy has become just an arm of cultural Leftism and should no longer receive public funds aside from explicitly practical disciplines (e.g., engineering).
I think a reasonable person can make the case that academic research questions and conclusions should not be adjudicated in by a “voice vote” of democratic acclaim or rejection. But once you open this sort of Pandora’s Box it’s hard to put the tool you unleashed back in. You can’t always control the ends once the means are available.
Looking up something about postwar British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, I came across the following gem.
Attlee, in old age, is being interviewed by a biographer, Kenneth Harris.
Harris: Would you say you are an agnostic?
Attlee: I don’t know.
The pope is a new pope, and Twitter is a new(ish) medium, but Francis certainly knows the old tunes. Here’s a papal tweet from this morning:
My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.
Don’t get me wrong: unemployment is a curse and a scourge, but to blame it on an overdose of the profit motive is economic illiteracy worthy of—oh I don’t know—the previous pope perhaps, or, for that matter, some ancient socialist or maybe, just maybe, an old Peronist or two.
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Students at Carnegie Mellon say it’s freedom of expression, but the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh calls it inappropriate and disrespectful. At an annual art school parade, a female student dressed up as the pope, and was naked from the waist down while she passed out condoms. Even more, witnesses say the woman had shaved her pubic hair in the shape of a cross….
“I think we all know that when we’re growing up we do stupid things but to cross over the line in this instance shouldn’t happen with anybody,” Bishop David Zubik said.
Bishop Zubik says the incident must be addressed. “What I do want to have happen is for this person to learn an important lesson,” Zubik said. The University encourages individual thought and artistic expression but the Diocese believes this student not only crossed the line, but trampled all over it.
They are demanding some action…..
I don’t know whether such a childish display is of a nature to warrant First Amendment protection, but it is somewhat tactless of a Bishop who has recently been doing plenty of complaining about what he sees as a threat to his First Amendment rights, to be quite so insistent that this student be punished for exercising what might be hers.
The decision over what (if anything) should be done about this incident is for the university and—if it came to it—the courts. The bishop was well within his rights to criticize what this lady did—and I don’t blame him for doing just that—but when he calls for disciplinary action he—how shall I put it—not only crossed a line, but trampled all over it.
Cross-posted on the Corner:
Over at AEI Mark Perry celebrates Earth Day with quotes from Steven Landsburg’s book The Armchair Economist, including this:
[E]nvironmentalists — at least the ones I have met — have no real interest in maintaining the tree population. If they did, they would seriously inquire into the long-term effects of recycling. I suspect that they don’t want to do that because their real concern is with the ritual of recycling itself, not with its consequences. The underlying need to sacrifice, and to compel others to sacrifice, is a fundamentally religious impulse.
That took me to the chapter specifically cited by Perry, which is well worth reading in full. Here’s an extract:
As environmentalism becomes increasingly like an intrusive state religion, we dissenters become increasingly prickly about suggestions that we suffer from some kind of aberration. The naive environmentalism of my daughter’s preschool is a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition, and ritual that has much in common with the least reputable varieties of religious Fundamentalism. The antidote to bad religion is good science. The antidote to astrology is the scientific method, the antidote to naive creationism is evolutionary biology, and the antidote to naive environmentalism is economics.
Economics is the science of competing preferences. Environmentalism goes beyond science when it elevates matters of preference to matters of morality…. But in the…years since the first Earth Day, a new and ugly element has emerged in the form of one side’s conviction that its preferences are Right and the other side’s are Wrong. The science of economics shuns such moral posturing; the religion of environmentalism embraces it.
The Bill Maher clip has to be watched to be believed. Not the guest’s attempt to obfuscate.
The fundamental issue is simple: most non-Muslims don’t care about Islam or Muslims so long as Islam and Muslims don’t impinge upon their lives. We don’t care about the heterogeneity of Islam or history when faced to real and present fear about the violence currently associated with the religion. By analogy, non-Buddhists who live in Sri Lanka or Myanmar could care less that Buddhism is really fundamentally a religion of peace. To non-believers the ideals of a religion don’t matter, the realized actions of the religionists do.
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in Science & Faith
Via Andrew Sullivan we have this piece by William B. Hurlbut, Consulting Professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University Medical Center, a man of science, who is, it turns out, also a fan of the benevolently deranged Francis of Assisi.
There’s plenty in the article for those with an interest in Francis himself, but I was more interested in this:
The traditional role of medicine, for example, has been to cure disease and alleviate suffering, to restore and sustain the patient to a natural level of functioning and wellbeing. The medical arts were in the service of a wider reverence and respect for the order of the created world: “the physician is only nature’s assistant,” as the Roman healer Galen explained.
But now, armed with the powers of biotechnology, medicine has found a new paradigm, one of liberation: technological transformation in the quest for happiness and human perfection. Slowly but steadily the role of medicine has been extended, driven by our appetites and ambitions, to encompass dimensions of life not previously considered matters of health, with the effect of altering and revising the very frame of nature. Increasingly, we expect from medicine not just freedom from disease but freedom from all that is unattractive, imperfect, or just inconvenient. More recent proposals, of a still more ambitious scope, include projects for the conquest of aging, neurological fusion of humans and machines, and fundamental genetic revision and guided evolution — for transhumans, posthumans, and technosapiens.
The danger is immediately evident…
It is? Danger? This all sounds splendid, although count me skeptical as to how far we will get any time soon towards, uh, transhumans, posthumans, and technosapiens. I’m still waiting for flying cars and Moonbase Alpha (which was due sometime before 1999).
In the absence of any concept of cosmic order, where the material and the moral flow forth from a single creative source, all of living nature becomes mere matter and information to be reshuffled and reassigned for projects of the human will.
Well, that absence is what it is. Hurlbut may be uncomfortable with the consequences, but they are what they are—and they need to be faced. He may wish to believe in a “cosmic order” (a fantasy that takes many forms, in any event), but he ought not to be surprised that there are those that disagree that such a thing exists and are thus reluctant to comply with its supposed rules. But that is not necessarily cause for despair. Experience shows that humility and caution in matters of this type are a matter of commonsense, and commonsense has a way, quite often, of winning out. As, if less frequently, does kindness:
Genetically engineered featherless chickens for cheaper pot pies and leaner pigs with severe arthritis are a violation of basic kindness and courtesy.
There’s a great deal more from Hurlbut, and, much of it like the writings of Leon Kass, is, in its glorification or, at least, inshallah acceptance of suffering, as morbid, and, in its implications, as revolting as some of the more lurid iconography of Christian martyrdom. It’s sad to see such words flowing from the pen or keyboard of a doctor who will in his own career surely have done a great deal to alleviate the suffering of others. Such are the contradictions of religious faith.
And then there’s this:
[O]ne can sense a wisdom in the severity and self-denial that were, for Francis, inseparable from the source of his joy. He had rediscovered an ancient truth in the inversion of desire, not as a negation of being but as a positive passion. In the image of the Lord, he emptied himself and received all things back renewed, purified, and restored in their divine glory.
When I read that, I see only an expression of a millennial asceticism that in our modern era has found expression not in the kindly ramblings of an oddball hippy saint, but in revolution, gulag, and the emptied streets of Phnom Penh.
Compared with that, biotechnological advance is relatively risk-free…
The Wall Street Journal has interviewed “eminent bioethicist” (itself a contradiction in terms) Leon Kass. The trigger was the Gosnell trial, but it was this aspect of Kass’s remarks that drew my attention:
Dr. Kass sometimes finds himself at odds with [anti-abortion] advocates. The movement’s narrow focus on nascent life, he worries, blinds it to the fact that “abortion is connected to lots of other things that are threats to human dignity in its fullness.”
“Pursuing perfect babies, ageless bodies and happy souls with the aid of cloning, genetic engineering and psychopharmacology,” he thinks, are among the most significant of those threats.
Not that, again. Of course, we need never to forget the terrible lessons of early twentieth century eugenics, but re-read those comments and what you see emerging beneath those soothing words about “dignity” is a morbid and sentimental attachment to suffering, and a profound contempt for the human mind:
“Killing the creature made in God’s image is an old story,” he says. “I deplore it. But the new threat is the ability to transform that creature into images of our own choosing, without regard to whether the new creature is going to be an improvement, or whether these so-called improvements are going to sap all of the energies of the soul that make for human aspirations, art, science and care for the less fortunate. All of these things have wellsprings in the human soul, and they are at risk in efforts to redesign us and move us to the posthuman future.”
And the corollary of this paranoid, mystical nonsense about a “new threat” is that the state, aided and abetted doubtless by a self-appointed (and sometimes taxpayer-funded) coterie of wise men, will decide that they know best where scientific inquiry should go.
Galileo, phone your lawyer.
The Daily Caller reports:
On HBO’s “Real Time” on Friday night, host Bill Maher entertained CSU-San Bernardino professor Brian Levin, director of the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism, who maintained that despite the events in recent days, religious extremism isn’t only a product of Islam.
Hmmm, true enough in one sense, but that’s not what Levin really meant. And to his credit, Maher called the professor out:
But Maher took issue with that claim, calling it “liberal bullshit” and said there was no comparison.
“You know what, yeah, yeah,” Maher said. “You know what — that’s liberal bullshit right there … they’re not as dangerous. I mean there’s only one faith, for example, that kills you or wants to kill you if you draw a bad cartoon of the prophet. There’s only one faith that kills you or wants to kill you if you renounce the faith. An ex-Muslim is a very dangerous thing. Talk to Salman Rushdie after the show about Christian versus Islam. So you know, I’m just saying let’s keep it real.”
Levin referenced outspoken Islam critic Pamela Geller as an example to refute Maher’s claim. But, Maher argued there was no comparison and denied he was Islamophobic.
“I am not an Islamophobe,” Maher replied. “I am a truth lover. All religious are not alike. As many people have pointed out — ‘The Book of Mormon,’ did you see the show? … OK, can you imagine if they did ‘The Book of Islam?’ Could they do that? There’s only one religion that threatens violence and carries it out for things like that. Could they do “The Book of Islam” on Broadway?”
Levin said “possibly so,” to which Maher seem dismiss his entire argument going forward.
“You’re wrong about that and you’re wrong about your facts,” Maher said. “Now, obviously, most Muslim people are not terrorists. But ask most Muslim people in the world, if you insult the prophet, do you have what’s coming to you? It’s more than just a fringe element.”
The Wall Street Journal reports:
CARACAS—Nicolás Maduro, the one-time bus driver widely expected to become Venezuela’s next president in Sunday’s elections, has resorted to an unusual campaign gimmick in the past week: At nearly every stop, he has suddenly broken out into birdsong.
The whistling started some 10 days ago, after the candidate says his mentor, the late President Hugo Chávez, visited him in a chapel in the form of a bird to bless the official launch of his presidential bid.
“I felt the spirit of my commander Chavez,” Mr. Maduro explained to a crowd after telling them how the bird circled over his head three times.
The birdsong, typically responded to by ecstatic crowds with whistling of their own, underscores the candidate’s reliance on the memory of Mr. Chavez…