Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jan/18

20

Oprah: The Queen of Unreason

The Oprah moment may have faded for now, but I have little doubt that it will return, in which case this Slate piece by Kurt Andersen (and, no, I don’t agree with his jibe about Reagan) will be one that it is well worth retrieving when Oprah 2020 picks up again.

An extract:

Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.

I’m no fan of Trump’s conspiracy-mongering, to put it mildly, but we’ll have to see which, over the longer term, proves more dangerous. There’s also, incidentally, an argument to be made that Winfrey’s own, uh, flexible approach to objectivity reality may have done its bit to contribute to the rise of Trump.

Andersen:

Oprah went on the air nationally in the 1980s, just as non-Christian faith healing and channeling the spirits of the dead and “harmonic convergence” and alternative medicine and all the rest of the New Age movement had scaled up. By the 1990s, there was a big, respectable, glamorous New Age counterestablishment. Marianne Williamson, one of the new superstar New Age preachers, popularized a “channeled” book of spiritual revelation, A Course in Miracles: The author, a Columbia University psychology professor who was anonymous until after her death in the 1980s, had claimed that its 1,333 pages were dictated to her by Jesus. Her basic idea was that physical existence is a collective illusion—”the dream.” Endorsed by Williamson, the book became a gigantic best-seller. Deepak Chopra had been a distinguished endocrinologist before he quit regular medicine in his 30s to become the “physician to the gods” in the Transcendental Meditation organization and in 1989 hung out his own shingle as wise man, author, lecturer, and marketer of dietary supplements.

Out of its various threads, the philosophy now had its basic doctrines in place: Rationalism is mostly wrongheaded, mystical feelings should override scientific understandings, reality is an illusion one can remake to suit oneself. The 1960s countercultural relativism out of which all that flowed originated mainly as a means of fighting the Man, unmasking the oppressive charlatans-in-charge. But now they had become mind-blowing ways to make yourself happy and successful by becoming the charlatan-in-charge of your own little piece of the universe. “It’s not just the interpretation of objective reality that is subjective,” according to Chopra. “Objective reality per se is a concept of reality we have created subjectively.”

Exactly how had Chopra and Williamson become so conspicuous and influential? They were anointed in 1992 and 1993 by Oprah Winfrey….

Most of the best-known prophets and denominational leaders in the New Age realm owe their careers to Winfrey…

It’s one thing to try to experience more peace of mind or feel in sync with a divine order. Mixing magical thinking with medical science and physiology, however, can get problematic. A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream. As with so many of the phenomena I discuss in my book Fantasyland, it’s driven by nostalgia and anti-establishment mistrust of experts, has quasi-religious underpinnings, and comes in both happy and unhappy versions.

And has been brought to you by Oprah Winfrey.

In 2004, a very handsome heart surgeon, prominent but not famous, appeared on Oprah to promote a book about alternative medicine. His very name—Dr. Oz!—would be way too over-the-top for a character in a comic novel. After Harvard, Mehmet Oz earned both an M.D. and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, then became a top practitioner and professor of heart surgery at Columbia University and director of its Cardiovascular Institute. Timing is everything—young Dr. Oz arrived at Columbia right after it set up its Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the 1990s.

Soon he was bringing an “energy healer” into his operating room, who placed her hands on patients as he performed surgery, and inviting a reporter to watch. According to Dr. Oz, who is married to a reiki master, such healers have the power to tune in to their scientifically undetectable “energies” and redirect them as necessary while he’s cutting open their hearts. When the New Yorker’s science reporter Michael Specter told Oz he knew of no evidence that reiki works, the doctor agreed—“if you are talking purely about data.” For people in his magical-thinking sphere, purely about data is a phrase like mainstream and establishment and rational and fact, meaning elitist, narrow, and blind to the disruptive truths. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” Oz told Specter, then added a kicker directly from the relativist 1960s: “I have my religion and you have yours.”

After that first appearance on Oprah, he proceeded to come on her show 61 more times, usually wearing surgical scrubs. In 2009, Winfrey’s company launched the daily Dr. Oz show, on which he pushes miracle elixirs, homeopathy, imaginary energies, and psychics who communicate with the dead. He regularly uses the words miracle and magic. A supplement extracted from tamarind “could be the magic ingredient that lets you lose weight without diet and exercise.” Green coffee beans—even though “you may think that magic is make-believe”—are actually a “magic weight-loss cure,” a “miracle pill [that] can burn fat fast. This is very exciting. And it’s breaking news.” For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.

Oz has encouraged viewers to believe that vaccines cause autism and other illnesses—as did Winfrey on her show before him. In 2007, long after the fraudulent 1998 paper that launched the anti-vaccine movement had been discredited, she gave an Oprah episode over to the actress Jenny McCarthy, a public face of the movement. That was where McCarthy gave the perfect defense of her credentials: “The University of Google is where I got my degree from!”

… Discussing my book a couple of months ago on Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up, I was arguing that the realm of Fantasyland is, when it comes to politics, highly asymmetrical—the American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true, a fact of which President Donald Trump is a stark embodiment.

Say what you will about Trump—go for it—count me unconvinced that the “American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true…”

In fact to believe quite that so firmly is to suggest that Andersen may be just a little guilty of what he so eloquently (and rightly) condemns.

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Jan/18

12

Oprah and McMartin Preschool ‘Retrials’

Cross-posted on the Corner.

In a post yesterday, I mentioned the contribution made by Oprah Winfrey to the ritual satanic abuse witch hunts of the 1980s. One of the most notorious cases of that era was the McMartin preschool trial, and I quoted this from an article last year by Philip Terzian in the Weekly Standard (my emphasis added):

The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

Eventually that case collapsed, but I was unaware of this particular  postscript. Here’s Howard Rosenberg, writing in the LA Times in January 1990 (my emphasis added):

It was a dream.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner did not drop charges against five of seven people accused of molesting children attending the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. There was never a McMartin trial that lasted 2 1/2 years. There was never a McMartin verdict acquitting the remaining two defendants of 52 counts of child molestation.

Yes, it was all a dream. At least that’s the impression you get these days from watching some of television, where former McMartin students and their parents have succeeded at last in doing what they have been unable to do in the courts:

Convict the McMartin defendants…

Even in trying to address child molestation trials as a generic issue, the [Geraldo]  show was overwhelmingly concerned with the ordeal of the children caught up in the McMartin case. No one would reject that as a legitimate concern. But what about the ordeal of the seven original defendants, especially Buckey and his mother, who each spent years in jail?

That question was not addressed on “Geraldo.” Nor was it addressed on two earlier TV retrials of the case, on “Oprah” and “Sally Jessy Raphael.” Compared to them, “Geraldo” was as judicious as the Supreme Court.

A smaller number of former McMartin students and their parents were on stage in Oprah Winfrey’s Chicago studio along with Greg Mooney, the attorney who represents many of the McMartin families, and Colleen Mooney, director of the South Bay Center for Counseling, which treated some of the McMartin children.

Speaking by satellite from Los Angeles–and as electronically disadvantaged as the satellite guests on “Geraldo”–were McMartin Judge William Pounders and Brenda Williams, the most articulate of the McMartin jurors who have gone public after the verdict. The level of fairness here was typified by Winfrey’s admission that she would have made a poor McMartin juror because “I would say, ‘The children said it; all right, you’re right.’ ” The studio audience applauded.

Their truth, presumably.

Rosenberg:

Winfrey’s show is a perfect vehicle for emotions, which she brings out with great sincerity. That’s her strength. Yet her show has difficulty reaching the stories beneath the surface tears, and, like much of TV, it strips away nuances and tailors complexities to its own time constraints.

Winfrey to a former McMartin student: “What did you tell the jury?” That’s right, capsulize 16 days of testimony in a few sentences.

Again to the same student: “How old were you when all of these things allegedly happened?” And now to the student’s mother: “How did you at first find out that something was allegedly going on at the school?”

Using allegedly here was like trying to mend decapitation with a Band-Aid.

Of all of TV’s talk show hosts, Winfrey is perhaps the least inclined to play devil’s advocate. She could have asked Pounders about the propriety of his multiple talk show appearances, but didn’t. She could have demanded evidence when one of her guests accused McMartin defendants of “terrorist tactics,” but didn’t.

It was clear that she, her studio audience and the McMartin kids and their parents were on the same side…

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Jan/18

11

Oprah, Subjective Truth and Salem 2.0

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Over on the homepage Philip Devoe rightly laments Oprah Winfrey’s fondness for pseudoscience and New Age ‘thinking’. It would only be fair to also mention the role she played in the 1980s Satanic ritual abuse panic. Writing in the Houston Press in 2015, Chris Lane recalls the contribution made to this disgrace by the book Michelle Remembers (my emphasis added):

 

Michelle Remembers describes the therapy sessions that a Canadian psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder conducted on a patient. The book is the first written on Satanic ritual abuse, which his patient, Michelle, “remembered” through lengthy hypnosis sessions. It’s one of the first books popularizing the idea of repressed memories of victims of Satanic abuses, and largely influenced the ensuing panic. Michelle Remembers was hugely profitable for both Pazder, who co-authored the book, and Michelle Smith, but the stories of abuse seem to have been largely or entirely false, with many contradictions and factual errors cropping up. Michelle’s recovered memories were horrific, involving rituals she was forced to take part in at the age of five. According to Michelle, these included being locked in a cage, being sexually abused and tortured, and being covered in the blood and body parts of victims who were murdered as part of the rituals conducted by a satanic cult.

The book sold well, and was heavily promoted by the media, including talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, and propelled the idea of widespread Satanic ritual abuse into the mainstream. Michelle Remembers also created a template that many other subsequent cases would use, and was instrumental in shaping how law enforcement agencies responded to allegations of occult crimes. The book’s influence was huge, and it seemed to withstand criticism of its accuracy until it was thoroughly debunked many years later, sadly after much damage was already done.

Indeed it was.

Writing in the Weekly Standard last year, Philip Terzian turned his attention to one of the most notorious cases of that era, the McMartin preschool trial (again, my emphasis added):

The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

A quick glance at some old YouTube footage of Winfrey on that topic (some of it, appallingly, seemingly still being used by conspiracy theorists) will show that her interest in ‘your truth’ rather than the truth is nothing new

It’s worth remembering how that worked out for those imprisoned on what would, in saner times, have been literally incredible grounds.

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Dec/17

1

What Does Being Male Have To Do With It?

Haaretz has published an article that takes an odd potshot at male leftists for their alleged denial of war crimes. Yes, just male leftists. Putting the hefty topic of genocide and mass murder aside, what the hell does being male have to do with the arguments made by people like Glenn Greenwald, John Pilger or Noam Chomsky on the issue of conflicts in Serbia and Syria? At no point in the article does (the likewise male) author Oz Katerji explain what being male has to do with anything. It’s just a lazy anti-dude slant thrown in for bad measure.

I can think of at least one female fellow traveler in tow with the likes of Greenwald and Chomsky: Abby Martin.

Listen up, dudes! I’ve got a message for you: you’re dudes!

What’s being male but a quaint old-fashioned notion? 

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Nov/17

12

Bolsheviks, Millenarians and the Reformation

Writing in the Hedgehog, from, it seems (but perhaps that’s just me), a hard left perspective, Eugene McCarraher takes a look at the millenarian aspects of Bolshevism, and, more specifically its connection with the Reformation:

Shortly after the Bolshevik victory, the young German philosopher Ernst Bloch suggested an even longer historical lineage for Lenin. In The Spirit of Utopia (1920), Bloch sketched a genealogy of revolution that included the Jewish prophets, St. John of the Apocalypse, medieval heretics and millenarians such as Joachim of Fiore, and radical Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer and John of Leyden (John Bockelson). Speaking the language of theology, this pre-Marxist vanguard had imagined the kingdom of God as a communist paradise. Bloch linked the Protestant and Soviet moments even more pointedly in Thomas Müntzer as Theologian of the Revolution (1921), whose protagonist envisioned “a pure community of love, without judicial and state institutions”—in marked contrast to the conservative and submissive Luther, who by supporting the German nobles’ suppression of the peasants’ rebellion of 1524–25 had consecrated the “hard and impious materiality of the State.”

Two cheers for the hard and impious materiality of the State, I reckon, but I interrupt.

 If Müntzer’s political theology was mired in mythopoeic conceptions of time, Lenin’s scientific appraisal of history ensured the fulfillment of Christian hope. The Soviet state heralded “the time that is to come,” Bloch declared with eschatological flourish. “It is impossible for the time of the Kingdom not to come now,” he concluded; hope “will not be disappointed in any way.” (“Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem,” Bloch would later write in The Principle of Hope.)

Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem.

Elsewhere in The Principle of Hope,  Bloch was to claim that “the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism [is part of] the age-old fight for God, ” even if, as the Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev observed (as I noted in a post yesterday) they did not know it themselves.

Müntzer (1489-1525) was to become something of a hero in that ‘pure community of love’ better known as East Germany.  The regime even made a film about him.

Then again, as McCarraher makes clear, however pretty its label, Müntzer’s ‘community of love’ had its rough edges too:

[Lenin and Müntzer] both insisted on the necessity of an intrepid and steadfast revolutionary elite. Müntzer and his associates set up the Eternal League of God after failing to win election to Mühlhausen’s town council, while Lenin believed that only a vanguard party could identify and direct the proper course of revolution. And both men had no scruples about wielding violence against opponents. Because the bourgeoisie posed a threat to the party’s trusteeship of proletarian dictatorship, Lenin insisted in “The State and Revolution” (1917) that “their resistance must be crushed by force,” an edict that echoed Müntzer’s dictum that “a godless person has no right to life when he hinders the pious.”

Müntzer’s rejection of election results is something else he and Lenin had in common.

McCarraher:

The two currents of communism that appeared in the Reformation align with two forms of eschatological expectation: one, represented by Müntzer, in which the “godly” or the “elect”—theological precursors to the secular “vanguard”—must clear a path for the impending beloved community by enlisting any means at their disposal, however coercive and cruel; and a second, exemplified by Winstanley, in which the love of the people’s republic to come must leaven its apostles and their actions. Müntzer’s belief that the ungodly have no rights augured Bertolt Brecht’s rueful principle that those who seek a world of kindness cannot themselves be kind. Winstanley’s conviction that the sword embodied “an abominable and unrighteous power” betokened a nonviolent revolutionary tradition. The yearning to see heaven on earth is at once an imperative and an impossible desire, and its political articulations stem from how the tensions of eschatological expectation are resolved. If Soviet communism was a secular parody of Müntzer’s millenarian hysteria, Winstanley’s “realized eschatology”—his insistence that the love on the other side of the eschaton can appear in the here and now—offers a more modest but also more generous and humane revolutionary vision.

Needless to say, Winstanley (Gerrard Winstanley, one of the founders of England’s mid-17th Century ‘Diggers’, someone who McCarraher discusses at length, and admiringly) got nowhere. Nor will his successors. Communism is impossible without collective psychosis, coercion, or both, and, as a millenarian creed, it (as, according to the story, did Jesus) insists on a reckoning, which will be anything other than peaceful—something that has undeniably always added to its appeal.

Ubi communismi, ibi infernum.

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Nov/17

11

Bolsheviks and other Millenarians

If I had to choose one book to read about the Bolsheviks this year it would be The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine.

Writing in the New York Review of Books Benjamin Nathans focuses on the most important theme that runs through this monumental study, Slezkine’s view that Bolshevism was not an assertion of the new, but a reformulation of the old:

[Slezkine] places the Bolsheviks among ancient Zoroastrians and Israelites, early Christians and Muslims, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Puritans, Old Believers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians, and other millenarian sects. As sworn enemies of religion, the Bolsheviks would have hated this casting decision and demanded to be put in a different play, preferably with Jacobins, Saint-Simonians, Marxists, and Communards in supporting roles. Slezkine, however, has claimed these groups for his story as well, insisting that underneath their secular costumes they too dreamed of hastening the apocalypse and building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Bolsheviks, it seems, were condemned to repeat history—a history driven not by class struggle, as they thought, but by theology.

Slezkine is, of course, by no means the first to detect the religious impulse lurking within Bolshevism. As early as 1920, Bertrand Russell wrote that Bolshevism “is to be reckoned as a religion, not an ordinary political movement.” Nathan notes comments made by the Christian philosopher (a description that doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his writing) Nikolai Berdyaev in July 1917 months before the Bolshevik putsch (my emphasis added):

 “Bolsheviks, as often happens, do not know the ultimate truth about themselves, do not grasp what spirit governs them.” By laying claim to “the entire person” and seeking to provide answers to “all of a person’s needs, all of humanity’s sufferings,” Bolshevism drew on “religious energies—if by religious energy we understand not just what is directed to God.”

Remarkably Berdyaev survived imprisonment by the new communist regime and, with many other leading Russian philosophers, was exiled abroad in 1922.

Nathans is not entirely convinced by Slezkine’s arguments, which he clearly finds overly reductionist, not least for this reason:

Wouldn’t one have to posit an epidemic of false consciousness to account for so much religiosity on the part of the militantly antireligious Bolsheviks? Why do some analogies refer to quintessentially Catholic practices and others to quintessentially Protestant or Russian Orthodox ones? How can any of them account for the motives of the many Jewish party members?

But then, as Nathans concedes, Slezkine doesn’t link millenarianism to any one religious tradition, and he’s right not to.  In many ways, that’s the point.

By rhetorically collapsing the distinction between Bolsheviks and their biblical predecessors, The House of Government signals its ultimate aim: to grasp the meaning of the Russian Revolution sub specie aeternitatis, to suggest an abiding element in human history, something very old of which we have not freed and may never free ourselves, precisely because we are human.

And if Slezkine is right about this (I think he is) the only conclusion to be drawn is that, rather than being some sort of aberration, communism was merely another expression of ancient millenarian beliefs, beliefs that clearly have appealed to enough people over the generations for us to be confident that they are not going away any time soon.

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Nov/17

1

“Natural Rights” and Other Myths

Writing in the American Conservative, Will Collins reviews  Against the Grain,  “James C. Scott’s new history of humanity’s transition (devolution may be the more appropriate term) from hunting and gathering to sedentary farming challenges the very foundations of this narrative. After finishing the book, one can’t help but wonder if our nomadic ancestors would have been better off slinking back to the hills and forests and giving up on the idea of ever settling down.”

In Collins’ view,  Against the Grain “may not include much in the way of original research, but it presents a comprehensive and convincing case that the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to permanent, agriculturally dependent settlements was a complete disaster for humankind.”

I haven’t read the book, which does indeed sound interesting, but it appears that (judging by the review) Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ has cast a long shadow over its contents:

[W]hat if Rousseau was right? Scott persuasively argues that sedentary agriculture is a critical prerequisite for state formation and all its attendant miseries, from slaving to war-making to the spread of pestilence and disease. For hundreds of thousands of years, a period that encompasses the vast majority of our existence on Planet Earth, man was born free, into groups of mobile hunter-gatherers who, if the fossil record is to be believed, lived longer and healthier lives than their civilized successors. It was not until comparatively recently that we were chained by the plow, the ox, and the overseer. The historical record of our earliest ancestors is the most compelling evidence yet that there is something deeply unnatural about being socialized into a rules-based, hierarchical society.

To banish that shadow, read of Lawrence Keeley’s excellent War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage. 

Here’s what the Oxford University Press had to say about it:

For the last fifty years, most popular and scholarly works have agreed that prehistoric warfare was rare, harmless, and unimportant. According to this view, it was little more than a ritualized game, where casualties were limited and the effects of aggression relatively mild. Lawrence Keeley’s groundbreaking War Before Civilization offers a devastating rebuttal to such comfortable myths and debunks the notion that warfare was introduced to primitive societies through contact with civilization.

Building on much fascinating archeological and historical research and offering an astute comparison of warfare in civilized and prehistoric societies, from modern European states to the Plains Indians of North America, Keeley convincingly demonstrates that prehistoric warfare was in fact more deadly, more frequent, and more ruthless than modern war. He cites evidence of ancient massacres in many areas of the world, and surveys the prevalence of looting, destruction, and trophy-taking in all kinds of warfare, again finding little moral distinction between ancient warriors and civilized armies. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, he examines the evidence of cannibalism among some preliterate peoples.

But Keeley goes beyond grisly facts to address the larger moral and philosophical issues raised by his work. What are the causes of war? Are human beings inherently violent? How can we ensure peace in our own time? Challenging some of our most dearly held beliefs, Keeley’s conclusions are bound to stir controversy.

Indeed. They did.

Bottom line: we’re not a nice lot.

Just before the paragraph that I quoted above, Collins wrote this, words that should be carved in stone in some suitably disconcerting venue, opposite a  church perhaps, or across from the Jefferson Memorial:

Take natural rights, a venerable political tradition that has largely been banished from our public discourse. Rights are socially constructed, a product of contingent historical circumstances, a tarnished artifact of Western culture. Only the truly gauche—hardcore libertarians, say, or Christian conservatives—believe that we are endowed with certain inalienable and unalterable rights. Rousseau’s famous dictum, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” sounds like something you might hear from a particularly obnoxious teenage Objectivist.

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Oct/17

28

Halloween, Elsa and the Index Simulacrorum Prohibitorum

Cross-posted on the Corner.

Kyle has already discussed the controversy over Halloween Moana here, concluding as follows:

The Left used to insist on seeing people as individuals, not as members of groups. The goal used to be that kids of different races would play together oblivious to one another’s superficial differences. This was commendable, and many a race barrier has fallen. Now the Left is determined to put those barriers back up, to teach kids to obsess over race. It is adamant that pigmentation has to be of overriding concern to you, and if it isn’t to your children, your children must be indoctrinated to divide people based on skin color, to calculate varying levels of “sensitivity” and “privilege” based on melanin. It’s not only ludicrous, it’s alarming. Don’t let this diseased mindset take hold. Go ahead and dress your kid as Moana this Halloween.

Quite.

I’m not sure that Sachi Feris (who “identifies as White”) blogging over at Raising Race Conscious Children would agree. Her views on Moana are predictable enough, but (as Charlie has noted) it turns out that there’s another character to be careful about, Elsa from Frozen:

Since [Feris’ daughter’s] 2017 Halloween choice was, in fact, Elsa, I returned to this costume choice and shared…

Shared

There is something ghastly about the soft, pious condescension of that verb, which well…

But back to the sharing:

“There is one thing I don’t like about the character of Elsa. I feel like because Elsa is a White princess, and we see so many White princesses, her character sends the message that you have to be a certain way to be “beautiful” or to be a “princess”…that you have to have White skin, long, blonde hair, and blue eyes. And I don’t like that message. You are White, like Elsa—if you dressed up as a character like Moana, who has brown skin, you would never change your skin color. But I’m not sure I like the idea of you changing your hair color to dress up as Elsa—because I think Elsa’s character could also be a short, brown-haired character like you.”

“No,” my daughter refuted. “I want you to make be a long, blonde braid like Elsa’s.”

“We can do that,” I agreed. “When we are dressing up as a made-up character who is White, it is OK to change how your hair looks, but I just want you to know that if you wanted to, you could dress up as Elsa and not change your hair.”

My guess is that a five-year-old might well have worked that out for herself. Nevertheless Feris’ daughter has clearly understood that the best way to dress up to try to look like someone else is, well, to dress up to look like that someone else.

Later on, we read that Ms. Feris, like a devout person scrabbling through holy books to find out what is or is not ‘permitted’, is still bothered by Moana and has thus turned to her smartphone to see what might be, as the enforcers now say, ‘okay’.

She tells shares with her daughter that:

“I’m trying to find more information about if a (White) person can dress up as another person’s culture in a way that honors the culture, without making fun of the culture or using the culture in a way that uses stereotypes or makes people who identify with that culture feel uncomfortable…” Through some additional back and forth, I elaborated on the idea of stereotypes (click here for a conversation about stereotypes from when my daughter was much younger) and the concept of cultural appropriation, though without using this phrase.

The word killjoy doesn’t begin to do justice to this miserable little anecdote.

But, wait, there’s more.

In a follow-up post Ms. Feris and Lori Riddick (who “identifies as Black/Bi-racial/Multi-racial”), entitled “Halloween as an Opportunity to Dismantle White Supremacy: Three Things We Believe This Halloween”, advise their congregation concerned parents what can be done:

  1. White parents who want to dismantle White supremacy have a special burden to check their entitlement on Halloween—and make sure that their children’s costume choices are not reinforcing a culture of racism.

Again, the distinctly ‘religious’ aspects of this are unmistakable, ranging from the assumption of guilt (“entitlement” ), to the distaste for the existing state of the culture (“a culture of racism”) and the reminder that neither they nor their children must fall, even accidentally, into the sin that is always out there (“make sure…not reinforcing”).

2. Dressing up as a White person (from the dominant culture of power and privilege) is not cultural appropriation—but consider the development of children’s healthy racial identities on Halloween.

We learn that Ms. Feris’ conversation sharing “with her daughter also aimed to push back against an image of beauty that values Whiteness in addition to a specific body type and hair color/style. Many children, both White children and people of color, do not fit into this image of beauty.” No opportunity for a sermon should ever be wasted. And on that topic:

3. Halloween is an opportunity to have a conversation with your child about race, power, and privilege

More trick than treat, I reckon.

Note to any surviving citizens of the Roman Empire: No disrespect is intended by the clumsy and doubtless inaccurate appropriation of your language contained in the title of this post.

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Oct/17

17

1789 and All That

It’s not hard to draw a line between messianic Judaism and (obviously) Christianity and from that on to later millenarian variants such as Marxism, but this review in the New Statesman by the British philosopher John Gray of Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia by Francis O’Gorman adds this twist:

The end result of a systematic devaluation of the past, however, is a condition of confusion not unlike that experienced by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. As O’Gorman puts it, “We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.” Rather than enabling human beings to fashion new identities, a willed collective amnesia leaves them with no identity at all.

Many forces have combined to create this condition. Acutely, O’Gorman identifies one of the sources of the modern narrative in early Christianity. Announcing itself as the bearer of “good news”, Christianity “splintered the conception of human life based on sustaining a localisable past… The new faith, which must have seemed first of all a new Middle Eastern cult of the son of Joseph the Carpenter, not only discouraged acts of devotion to what had happened long ago… but also explicitly reorientated its followers’ minds to the future.”

Here, O’Gorman elides the original teaching of Jesus, which continued the traditions of charismatic Judaism, with the universal religion invented by Paul and Augustine. Yet the point remains valid. Christianity has always included “instructive rites for rejecting history”, acts of confession and penitence that are supposed to erase yesterday’s sins.

A Christian narrative of redemption in which past evils and crimes could be nullified by a dramatic act of moral renovation has inspired many modern revolutionary movements. “Christianity began the process of moving us toward the future,” writes O’Gorman. “The French Revolution from 1789 to 1815 (which was, ironically enough, violently antagonistic to Christianity as belonging to the past) clinched secular expectations about the relative values of tomorrow and yesterday.” When they sacked churches and defaced graveyards, the Jacobins were re-enacting a Christian rite in which history could be stopped and purified of sin, then begun anew.

And the Bolsheviks?

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Oct/17

13

Ubi Terror, Ibi Salus

A week or two back, I discussed a review of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey, a book out in the UK, but not due for release in the US until next year.  Back in the old country over the weekend, I took the opportunity to buy a copy, and it’s as good as the review suggested it might be. I read it in two sittings.

Much of the focus of my last post was on the fixation of the early Christians with suffering, a fixation that lingers on in the shape of a morbid belief in the virtue of suffering, a belief that manifests itself in, among other horrors, the opposition of many clerics, as cruel as it is saccharine, to assisted suicide.

But Nixey’s book is, above all, fascinating as an examination of proto-totalitarianism. Nixey, no Dawkins, is not so much concerned with the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus as she is with the behavior of the latter’s followers in late antiquity, whether it’s the iconoclastic fervor that led them to destroy so many of the great works of classical art and architecture, or the creation of a system that dictated so thoroughly what men read (book burnings were a regular feature of these years), how they worshiped and what they thought. The Judeo-Christian God was a jealous god and, unlike the expansive and eclectic collection of deities of the Roman Empire, had no room for any rivals or, for that matter, their followers. There was a sting in monotheism’s tale. To the modern reader, Nixey’s accounts of persecution in the name of the Christian God foreshadow both the furies unleashed on behalf of His Islamic alter-ego and, for that matter, Communism’s supposedly secular millenarians.

The Church, wrote Augustine, “persecutes in the spirit of love”, and, over a millennium and a half before Communism’s slaughtered one hundred million, he claimed that “where there is terror, there is salvation.”

Whatever or whoever had been born in Bethlehem, a rough beast was on the march—and, while its shape may shift,  it marches on today.

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