Archive for the ‘Mimetic Theory’ Category

A Philosopher of Science Explains the Importance of Scientific Consensus

August 3, 2013
Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci

by Doughlas Remy

I’ve been blogging on conservative Catholic websites for about as long as those sites have existed. Why I chose Catholic ones and not, say, Evangelical ones, has more to do with my early (i.e., post-graduate) literary interests than my religious background (Southern Baptist). I read Catholic authors because my specialty was French and Italian literature. Then a French literary critic, René Girard, captured my attention in the 70s, and for the next thirty years, I was reading and re-reading his books. From his reading of great European literature—especially the works of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Proust, he had developed and beautifully articulated a theory of mimetic desire, a theory that seemed to have vast implications for all the human sciences. I was enthralled, and I still am. But then something almost inexplicable happened: René Girard had a conversion experience and became folded back into Catholicism. I still do not understand his conversion, even in the light of his own writings, but his re-induction into the faith of his ancestors now had me wondering anew about the power of faith and about the anthropological role of Christianity in the evolution of human morality. Looking for conversation about this issue, I discovered Gil Bailie’s site (The Cornerstone Forum), and then other conservative Catholic sites. Though I was never Catholic myself, I became fascinated by the Church’s millennial struggles with the secularizing forces of Western civilization. I understood that Catholicism—quintessentially emblematic of the sacred in Western history for the last 2000 years—is now in steep decline. The laity is going its own way, ignoring Church teachings about homosexuality, contraception, and a host of other issues. Conservative Catholics know this and resist the trend by discounting every idea that does not either emanate from the Church or receive its stamp of approval. In many cases, as I have discovered, this resistance amounts to nothing less than a repudiation of the scientific understanding of the world that has been accumulating since the Renaissance. 

The topic that drew me into discussions on conservative Catholic sites  was almost invariably homosexuality—because I am gay, because it was a “hot” topic on the blogs, and because I could see that conservative Catholic opinion was flagrantly out of touch with scientific understanding about homosexuality.  And the homosexuality issue took on added significance because it was, and is, one of Catholicism’s current “flash-points” with secularism.

But other “hot” topics on these blogs, such as contraception and climate change, were too compelling to ignore, and so I diversified, but always with a view to offering secular perspectives and encouraging more empirical approaches to issues.

I cannot even count the number of times I’ve cited consensus scientific opinions about these issues, only to be told that these opinions don’t count. Never mind that  98 percent of climate scientists believe that climate change is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because a certain university professor somewhere has published a peer-reviewed study claiming that the whole anthropogenic climate change theory is a conspiracy and a hoax! These denialist bloggers say they are only giving equal time to both sides of the question, but in fact they are ignoring consensus opinion on the matter while looking for confirmation of their biases. (Otherwise, they would give unequal time to the two sides of the question, at a ratio of 98 to 2.)

And never mind that all the major medical and social welfare associations in this country, as well as the World Health Organization, have unequivocally stated that homosexuality is not a disorder. The Church says that it is “intrinsically disordered,” and that’s that. Again, consensus opinion doesn’t matter, and if a veneer of scientific respectability is needed for the Church’s archaic stance on the issue, then any one of several socially conservative think tanks can be depended on to provide one.

With these frustrations roiling in the background, I came across a passage from Massimo Pigliucci’s “Answers for Aristotle” (2012), one of the best and most accessible guides I have found to understanding the roles of science and philosophy in modern life. Pigliucci, a philosopher of science at CUNY-Lehman College, has this to say:

Answers for AristotleScientific knowledge is both objective and subjective, because it results from a particular perspective (the human one) interacting with how the world really is. The result is that our scientific theories will always be tentative and to some extent wrong,… but will also capture to a smaller or greater extent some important aspect of how the world actually is. Science provides us with a perspective on the world, not with a God’s-eye view of things. It gives us an irreducibly human, and therefore to some extent subjective—yet certainly not arbitrary—view of the universe.

Now, why should any of this be of concern to the intelligent person interested in improving her or his well-being through the use of reason? Because a better understanding of how science actually works puts us in the position of the sophisticated skeptic, who is neither a person who rejects science as a matter of anti-intellectual attitude nor a person who accepts the pronouncements of scientists at face value, as if they were modern oracles whose opinions should never be questioned. Too often public debates about the sort of science that affects us all (climate change, vaccines and autism, and so on) are framed in terms of alleged conspiracies on the part of the scientific community on one side and of expert opinion beyond the reach of most people on the other side. Scientists are just like any other technical practitioners and in very fundamental ways are no different from car mechanics or brain surgeons. If your problem is that your car isn’t running properly, you go to a mechanic. If there is something wrong with your brain, you go to the neurosurgeon. If you want to find out about evolution, climate change, or the safety of vaccines, your best bet is to ask the relevant community of scientists.

Just as with car mechanics and brain surgeons, however, you will not necessarily find unanimity of opinion in this community, and sometimes you may want to seek a second or even a third opinion. Some of the practitioners will not be entirely honest (though this is pretty rare across the three categories I am considering), and you may need to inquire into their motives. Scientists are not objective, godlike entities, dispensing certain knowledge. They have a human perspective on things, including the field in which they are experts. But other things being equal, your best bet—particularly when the stakes are high—is to go with the expert consensus, and if a consensus is lacking, you’re better off going with the opinion of the majority of experts. Keeping in mind, of course, that they might, just might, be entirely wrong.

The Cornerstone Forum Once Again Refuses to be Confused by Facts, Alternative Opinions, Data, Evidence, Documentation, Reliable Information, or Scientific Studies.

June 13, 2012
“I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”  — Sir George Sitwell, English Eccentric

Since its inception, Gil Bailie’s Facebook page for The Cornerstone Forum has sought to interpret and respond to contemporary culture “from a Catholic perspective and in fidelity to the social teachings of the Church.” This is because Bailie sees Catholic faith and practice as increasingly caught “in the crossfire,” as he puts it. And he is a faithful son of the church.

Benedict XVI and Gil Bailie

But Bailie’s use of the “crossfire” metaphor is a mite disingenuous. It implicitly casts the Church in the role of an innocent bystander or a disinterested third party—despite all indications that it is not and has never been either of these. Just in recent months, Catholic institutions have sued the U.S. government over the HHS contraceptive coverage mandate, thrown their full weight behind anti-same-sex-marriage initiatives, chastised nuns for focusing on poverty and hunger rather than abortion and homosexuality, bullied the girl scouts over including a 7-year-old transgendered girl, excommunicated doctors and nuns for saving lives, and joined Republican efforts to restrict women’s access to abortions at the state level. Over the years, Church institutions have lied about contraceptives to poor Africans, obstructed patient access to accurate information and services in secular hospitals, and purged scholars who attempted to build bridges to other faiths. (For details on several of these points, see “8 Ugly Sins of the Catholic Church,” by Valerie Tarico on Alternet.)

There can no longer be any doubt either that the Church has a horse in the race or, in the case of Gil Bailie’s unfortunate metaphor, that the king has no clothes: the Church is not “caught in the crossfire.” It is firing mortars at its enemies.

Bailie’s attempt to propagate an essentially hermetic and authoritarian ideology via the Internet was a tricky proposition from the start. The Internet is by design an open, expansive, inclusive, and anti-authoritarian medium—a “real” forum, unlike the “gated” one Bailie would like to cordon off within it. People come and go, expressing all kinds of opinions willy-nilly, in a real marketplace of ideas. It’s like a Turkish souk alive with chatter and dissension. You can buy anything there, but you’ll have to negotiate—sometimes loudly.

So, The Cornerstone Forum has indeed had visitors from all kinds of people from all parts of the world—England, Austria, China, Italy, and Australia, to name a few—and, surprise!—not all of them have expressed views that perfectly match Bailie’s own. Some of their voices have been more strident than his. Some of them have been highly articulate and even argumentative, as if they had no idea of the gravitas of The Cornerstone Forum’s founder or the unassailability of his views.

Flat earth orbited by sun and moon

A large part of the disputation at The Cornerstone Forum has concerned issues of truth. The thread I have reproduced below is typical: Bailie informs his readers that the earth’s population is in precipitous freefall, and then he seems genuinely offended that they don’t buy it. (Well, actually, some do.) At that point, facts and logical arguments are offered—always by readers, virtually never by Bailie—and he ignores or dismisses them with smug little retorts like, “We’ll see.” A few weeks later, he puts up another post informing his readers that the earth’s population is in precipitous freefall.

This has been the pattern during the many years that I have visited The Cornerstone Forum’s pages, where we’ve learned that climate change is a hoax, homosexuality is gravely disordered, same-sex marriage will cause civilizational collapse, religious freedom is under attack, the Obama presidency is precipitating totalitarianism, the Muslims are taking over Europe, and secularism is to blame for everything that is wrong with the world.

About a month ago, Bailie reacted to the growing chorus of dissent by issuing a warning similar to the one you will find in the thread below. When it was not heeded, he issued a second one and expelled one of the most insightful and articulate of his critics, George Dunn. All traces of Dunn immediately disappeared, and dozens of threads no longer made sense without his voice. If you’ve ever seen photos of Stalin’s politburo with purged officials airbrushed out, you’ll get the picture.

Today, Bailie issued a third warning. This time, the one expelled was I. Here is the conversation:

Gil Bailie:

I am currently researching the worldwide demographic decline and its enormous consequences. The evidence for the decline is overwhelming, but so are the studies that trace it and the data confirming the researchers’ conclusions. I cannot claim to have a complete grasp of the problem, but I have arrived at a preliminary hypothesis:

Whereas some animals don’t breed when in captivity, humans apparently don’t breed when in metaphysical despondency, regardless of how unacknowledged and embedded in material prosperity that despondency might be.

Doughlas Remy:

There is no “worldwide demographic decline.” However, there are declining birth rates in certain countries, such as Japan and some countries of Europe. The world’s population, now slightly over 7 billion, is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. That’s really rapid growth, so rest assured there’s no lack of breeding going on.

I’m not sure how you measure “metaphysical despondency” or whether there is in fact such a thing. But surely people in certain high-growth societies (e.g., in parts of Africa and East Asia) have much more reason to experience metaphysical despair than Europeans and Japanese, and it is not slowing them down.

Birth rates in Europe and Japan are falling because women are now better educated and have more options. And yes, low birth rates can pose social challenges, but so can high ones, as we discussed earlier. See my article about this on The Bent Angle.

Darrick Northington:

This seems like an impossible argument to make. I echo Doughlas, given that every human belongs to some demographic and earth’s human population is in fact growing rather than declining, the claim that we’re experiencing some kind of “global demographic decline” is false.

Gil Bailie:

We’ll see.

Doughlas Remy:

@Darrick: I’m surprised The Cornerstone Forum is again making this bizarre claim after the earlier discussion we had, where so many facts were laid out. And these facts are incontrovertible. Population growth, fertility rates, and youth/elder bubbles can all be measured. We’re talking hard data here.

It’s like one of those strange experiences where somebody points up to the blue sky and tells you it is green. You say, “No, it is blue, and my spectrograph will back me up on that.” And they say, “No, to me it’s green. And what’s a spectrograph?”

Patrick Daoust: 

The Economist recently published a book called Megachange, the world in 2050. I’m currently reading the chapter on demography. Mr Remy’s numbers fit with data in the book.

This said, we must ask ourselves why so much of Europe has such a low fertility rate – I think it’s about 1.3 in Spain and Italy. This is quite a problem for policy makers to deal with. My intuition is that in modern western societies the freedoms normally associated with men are seen as more desirable. A lot of feminist movements fight for equal rights with regards to salary, women in high profile jobs, etc. As a whole, our society seems to have stripped away all pride in motherhood.

Darrick Northington:

‎@ Patrick, it sounds like you think mothers have to be second-class citizens. In my opinion, motherhood and fatherhood are both consistent w/ equality, and any definition that necessarily subordinates one to the other is wrong. To suggest that our society doesn’t take pride is wrong, too. I think this kind of talk has more to do with white male dominance than motherhood…the kind of thinking that says a woman’s place is in the home, in the kitchen, and a man’s place is king.

By the way, birthrates in Spain have increased every year for the last 12 years.

Doughlas Remy:

@Patrick. In connection with your final sentence, about society stripping away all pride in motherhood, here is an interesting opinion from Gail Collins of the NYT:

If you look back on what’s happened to women over the last half-century – how the world has opened up for them to have adventures, pursue careers, make choices about the kind of lives they want to live – it all goes back to effective contraception. Before the birth control pill came along, a woman who wanted to pursue a life that involved a lot of education, or a long climb up a career ladder, pretty much had to be willing to devote herself to perpetual celibacy. That’s what contraception means to women.

Iron Woman. Photoshop rendering by Dean Hansen

So, maybe other life paths are simply more attractive to women. Motherhood, after all, is damned hard work, it’s unpaid and under-appreciated, and raising a child is more expensive than ever. Yearly tuition at state universities in Washington State, where I live, is now over $12,000.

In the face of all these obstacles, we have in this country a political party that wants to cut nearly a billion dollars of food and other aid to low-income pregnant women, mothers, babies, and kids. These cuts are part of a larger proposal to cut social services block grants to the tune of $17 billion over ten years. These grants support Meals on Wheels, child welfare, and day care for children. State legislatures are also unable to raise revenues in the face of anti-tax initiatives.

Child-bearing may also about to become riskier to women if hospitals are allowed to let a woman die rather than perform an abortion necessary to save her life.

Because of the work that I do, I’ve had countless more-or-less unstructured conversations with Japanese mid-career professionals over the years, and we always talk about Japan’s birth dearth. They say raising a child is just too expensive. They value quality education and would feel shamed if they couldn’t give their children access to one.

I think there are ways women can be incentivized to have children, but governments like our own seem intent on disincentivizing them. Banning contraception is not, of course, an option, and it shouldn’t be. Women’s need for choice in these matters is paramount. The demographic problems will take care of themselves as we begin to think creatively about them.

Gil Bailie:

Let me try once again to explain why this Facebook page exists. It exists to offer encouragement to those who share its point of view. It does not exist to argue with those who don’t.

This is not a bulletin board or campus kiosk. It is a Cornerstone Forum page, and its purpose is that of the Forum, namely: to encourage and, with God’s grace, occasionally to inspire, those who share our vision and concern. The Forum and this Page exist to give an account of the contemporary cultural and moral crisis from a Catholic perspective and in fidelity to Magisterium and the social teachings of the Church, and to do so, when appropriate, by drawing on the extraordinary anthropological insights of René Girard and the theological riches of Benedict XVI, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar and others. It is also our purpose here to bring these perspectives to bear on the sundry cultural and moral issues we now face, paying special attention to what we regard as the gravest moral and civil rights issue of our age – abortion – and the gravest anthropological blunder – the evisceration of the meaning of marriage and the demise of the traditional family.

“Censer,” by Dean Hansen

We are not surprised to find that many do not share these concerns, and we offer our best wishes to those who don’t, but we will no longer allow this Facebook page to become an outlet for points of view that are wearily familiar to us, the refutation of which would be as tedious an exercise for us as it would be entirely unconvincing to our naysayers.

To those more sympathetic to our efforts, we are grateful for your interest, and we will continue to try to be as useful and encouraging as possible. If we occasionally point to certain unhappy developments in our cultural life, it will only be for the purpose of encouraging resistance to them for the sake of our children’s children.

Doughlas Remy:

Gil, I think your only option may be to “de-friend” those who do not share your point of view, as you did to George Dunn about a month ago. The Cornerstone Forum will no longer be an open forum, but at least you will have an echo chamber where you can get validation from your supporters and carry out your mission of channeling the church’s (and dare I say, the GOP’s) talking points on issues of the day. I hope you will be fair with your visitors, however: Let them know up front that they will be de-friended if their opinions diverge too much from your own.

As I said in an article on my own blogsite, it’s obvious you don’t value the time and thought that your readers devote to responding to your posts. That is a shame, and it is why I hope to provide a truly open forum on The Bent Angle for some of the issues that you raise. As you will notice, I have already begun to port some of the discussions over there, for fear they will suddenly disappear from TCF. So far, the idea hasn’t caught on with your visitors, and it may not, but I’ll continue the mirroring effort, as I think it is important.

I continue to maintain that truth is important and that none of us has a lock on it, or exclusive rights to it. We reach the truth through dialog.

Reading a Text of Persecution: William Tucker’s Defense of Bullying

May 20, 2012

Gil Bailie

Or: How to Create a Major Dust-up at The Cornerstone Forum

Sometimes a social networking conversation can develop into something truly revelatory. The following conversation occurred last week on Gil Bailie’s Facebook page for The Cornerstone Forum. What set it going was Bailie’s posting—and endorsement—of an article by William Tucker in The Spectator. Titled “The Battle of the Sexes (All Four of Them),” it weaves together several themes and issues that have been in the news lately: same-sex marriage, bullying, and, specifically, testimony from former classmates of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney that he bullied and forcibly cut the hair of a somewhat effeminate younger student while a senior at an elite prep school.

The article evoked a strong reaction from visitors to The Cornerstone Forum. Their remarks so irritated Gil Bailie that he eventually deleted the entire thread, including even the few comments offered by his supporters. I had copied everything before he did this, and I reprint it here now. A lot of thought went into the posted comments and I believe they are worth preserving. More important, they—and Gil Bailie’s reaction to them—speak volumes about the ultra-conservative Catholicism that Gil Bailie represents.

René Girard

Before reading the conversation below, you will want to carefully read William Tucker’s article. Also, please be aware that Gil Bailie claims his own thinking is guided and inspired by that of René Girard, an anthropologist and literary critic who has written extensively about mimetic rivalry and scapegoating and whose ideas are collectively known as “mimetic theory.” The principal contributors to the conversation reproduced here are familiar with Girard’s work and will allude to it at times.

Gil Bailie begins the conversation:

Gil Bailie:

Not that I’m interested in stirring up more trouble on the same-sex marriage question, but this link is to an article by William Tucker which I think hits exactly the right note. I can’t hope to bring all my friends to agreement on this issue, but Tucker comes as close as anybody to putting the matter in its proper perspective. [emphasis mine]

Doughlas Remy:

Gil, offering students of Girard a text like this one and extolling it as you do is bizarre in the extreme. I realize you were distracted while in Berkeley, but really! Did you read the text carefully?

Mitt Romney and classmates

Tucker frames his point about same-sex marriage with the following personal story:

A group of college boys (described by Tucker as a “gang” and a “mob”) converges on a dormitory and “taunts” its only resident, described as a “huge” football player. After an exchange of insults and threats, the group wrestles the football player to the ground and forcibly cuts his hair down to the scalp, using scissors that someone in the group has brought along. Many years later, this event is recounted not by the football player, nor by a bystander, but by one of boys in the group. He denies that his behavior was bullying. He describes it as an “outpouring of exuberance,” “boys being boys,” and “traditional male behavior.”

This is not the story told by Romney’s former classmates. It is William Tucker’s recollection about his own part in a similar incident that occurred during his college years. He is using the incident to express his solidarity with Romney.

The cultural proximity of his story may obscure its underlying structure, so let’s strip out some of the cultural elements:

Trophies

A mob of young adult males decide to raid a neighboring village. When they reach the village, weapons in hand, they find only one man there, whom they encircle and taunt viciously. He threatens them, but to no avail. He is outnumbered, and the mob attacks him, delivering one blow after another until he finally collapses. They cut off his head and his genitals to carry home as trophies, and then they place his body in a tree for birds to devour. When the young men return to their village, they proudly display their trophies and recount their exploits to the others. To make themselves seem more heroic, they describe their victim as a giant. Years later, the perpetrators remember the event as an exhilarating and deeply meaningful rite of passage that created deep and lasting bonds between them.

There are so many ways this story could be told—as a fairy tale, a myth, a historical account, pulp fiction—with a variety of settings and characters. What they must all have in common, however, is the “all-against-one” violence which is later remembered by its perpetrators as foundational. Does any of it sound familiar?

What is even more interesting, from a Girardian perspective, is that the author of this article, William Tucker, uses this “text of persecution” (Girard’s term) as a frame for his remarks about homosexuality and marriage equality. This would be very insightful if his purpose were to denounce the bullying and unjust treatment that GLBTs have to endure. But his purpose is in fact the opposite. If he had read Girard, he would appreciate the profound irony of this.

Now that we have the irony and the frame, let’s look further at what Tucker says.

Having identified himself as one of the mob who held down a fellow student and forcibly cut his hair, Tucker is unapologetic, even proud. He dismisses those who “believe they were socially abused while young.” He describes childhood as “a jungle,” but makes no suggestions for civilizing it, as if to say, “This is the way it has always been and will always be.”

And then he digs himself in deeper with another personal story of victimage, and once again, he is not the victim in the story. He is in the crowd of victimizers. The victim is a schoolgirl who is said to have cooties and pees like a boy. He doesn’t say how she was treated, but I think we can imagine. At the very least, she was taunted and ostracized. Again, Tucker shows no remorse. Nor does he suggest any measures for helping the victims of bullying.

So if Tucker neither adopts the victim’s perspective nor apologies for his part in her mistreatment, why does he include this story? For the answer, we must go to the end of his article, where he writes,

“So yes, let’s forget about the economy for a while and conduct an election campaign over whether tradition sex roles can be defended—whether boys can be boys or whether candidates should be ostracized for exhibiting traditional male behavior in their youth. It’s probably more important anyway. [emphasis mine]”

“Ostracized?” Yes, he actually claims victim status for Romney and—by extension, I suppose—for himself as one whose behavior was almost identical to Romney’s. The victimizers are actually the victims, didn’t you know?

Tucker’s purpose is to claim for himself and his schoolmates the right to bully others. It is within this frame that he opens the issue of same-sex marriage and of homosexuality in general.

Gil, I am simply at a loss for words to express how odious this is.

J. Darrick Northington:

Does Tucker actually make a reference to welfare queens in the fourth paragraph from the end of the essay?! You ought to be ashamed, Gil. I can only assume you share Tucker’s ideas, given that you’ve chosen him to speak for you. Shameful.

When I read this stuff, I can’t help but be reminded of (pseudo-) scientific racism. it strikes me as the same kind of logic. Scientific racism was used to provide an intellectual narrative or rationale for racism. Consider this from Tucker:

“Sexual ambiguity is something that has always frightened children and primitive societies. Tribal cultures usually have elaborate taboos about what men and women can do, which building they can enter, even what they are allowed to touch. Such societies have elaborate initiation ceremonies to make sure young people assume the proper sexual roles as they reach maturity. It was Margaret Mead who in a moment of weakness once said, “The most stable societies are those that make the clearest distinction between men and women.”

Now consider this from Robert Knox (1850):

“All we know is that since the beginning of history, the dark races have been the slaves of those lighter skinned. What is that due to? ‘I feel disposed to think that there must be a physical and consequentially, a psychological inferiority in the dark races generally.’ This is perhaps not due to lack of size in the brain but rather a lack of quality in it.”

See how the bigotry is dressed in bullshit science in an attempt to verify and explain itself? [It’s the] same hateful logic just applied to different groups.

I think Gil’s use of history is strange. setting aside the historical inaccuracies, what do the kinds of historical appeals in the Tucker article buy you? how do they support the argument being made? Even if the history Tucker constructs were real, appealing to the way something has “always” been isn’t an argument for why things should stay the same. Many moments in history teach us that, right? the long history of white supremacy (not just groups like the KKK, but also white dominance in terms of systemic power) in America isn’t an argument and justification in favor of white supremacy, is it?

Given how easily your homophobic observations leave your fingers, I’m intentionally using race-based examples not only to draw a parallel that clearly demonstrates right and wrong, but also because I doubt you will be so quick to make similar observations about black and brown people. Why? because it would be clearly racist. Now you might say you’re talking about marriage, not race, but I’m happy to post dozens of examples of how whites defined certain words in ways to exclude non-whites. Absurd and vague appeals to history were prominent, [as well as] often strange moral appeals about how blackness pollutes and is dangerous for society. In my opinion, the only difference between the examples I’m talking about and what you’re saying here is that you can still get away with public homophobia.

Gil Bailie:

(quoting Tucker)

‎”Altogether, the progressiveness of a society can probably be measured by its ability to tolerate sexual ambiguity and grant flexibility in sexual roles. We are probably as tolerant as any society has ever been in this regard. But putting homosexual marriage on a par with traditional marriage is an entirely different thing. Marriage is a ceremony designed to bind the two halves of humanity together. Homosexual marriage leaves them further apart and isolated. Few societies have ever granted it, yet alone celebrated it, as we appear to be on the verge of doing.”

That is the point.

George Dunn:

How exactly does marriage equality leave men and women “farther apart and isolated?” Tucker’s specific claim is that it will somehow encourage more single parent households, while at the same time legitimating polygamy. As I asked before, where is the evidence for this?

It’s obvious that neither William Tucker nor Gil Bailie have ever been victims of bullying or have any comprehension of how terrifying it is to find yourself on the receiving end of the “exuberance” of a violent mob. I have and I do. To laugh off this sort of brutality as no big deal, just boys being boys, is indeed odious. Furious opposition to marriage equality has apparently turned the author of Violence Unveiled into an apologist for mob violence. That should give us pause.

Doughlas Remy:

@George Dunn: In answer to your question, “Where’s the evidence?” I can provide the answer: There is none. If there were, NOM and other anti-equality organizations would be using it. Some of these organizations have abandoned the overt use of the religious objection because they saw that it didn’t fly very well. Notice that Tucker doesn’t use it. Instead, he resorts to a pseudo-scientific claim concocted out of his own very inadequate understanding of history, anthropology, and biology, with a dash of Margaret Mead and Edward Carpenter thrown in to make it sound authoritative. The few points that he does get right are bent to his purpose of drawing the line at same-sex marriage and staking out some space for further ostracism of gays and lesbians.

“Marriage,” he writes, “is designed to bind the two halves of humanity together.” The word “designed” is key, and it gives away the religious underpinnings of his argument. Since Tucker is so keen on history and anthropology, why doesn’t he know that marriage was until very recently about property and legal responsibility, not about anything so lofty as “binding the two halves of humanity together.” Where does he get this stuff? (OK, OK, I know where he gets it.)

And what does he expect homosexuals to do—marry persons of the opposite sex? Tucker seems so concerned that gay marriage will leave the two halves of humanity “further apart and isolated,” but what would he do, then—require everyone to enter into a traditional marriage? How grotesque!

And would he have us (GLBTs) separate from our partners and abandon all claims to equality? He cannot designate social isolation as a problem while attacking gay unions.

Given that there are millions of gay unions throughout the world, where would Tucker have us go from there? Gays and lesbians will no longer accept being treated as an underclass or excluded from the conversation about what marriage is.

William Tucker

Tucker’s article is easy to pick apart because he is so confused and so clueless that he can’t even successfully dissemble. A psychologist would have a field day with his fears of matriarchy, male dependence/infantilization, feminism, and sexual deviance. (all in just paragraphs 10-12)

BTW, that is a FABULOUS scarf he’s wearing in his photo!

Gil Bailie:

A month ago or so I posted a housekeeping message, but it obviously bears repeating.

For whom does this Facebook page exist? To whom are we trying to communicate? The answer is those who share: 1) our fidelity to traditional Christianity as safeguarded by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church; 2) our conviction that René Girard’s anthropological discoveries are as indispensable to the recovery of an intellectually cogent and wholehearted affirmation of Christian truth as they are to an understanding of the overall cultural crisis in the midst of which we are living, and 3) our belief that the healthiest response to this crisis to resist the winds of fashion and to turn again instead to the moral and intellectual resources—and the historical experience—of our tradition.

There are, and will always be, disagreements between and among those who share our basic premises, and we welcome an opportunity to learn from people with different points of view. But there are visitors to our Page who have fundamental differences with us on many of the cultural, theological, and moral issues of our time. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the patience required to respond to those with whom an ongoing give-and-take argument would be as endless as it is fruitless—precisely because of the diametrically opposed principles involved.

There are literally millions of venues for the airing of views antithetical to the ones for which we stand, but this Facebook page isn’t one of them. This Page is not a bulletin board or campus kiosk for the posting of angry disquisitions at odds with the three simple principles mentioned above. With no ill feeling, we encourage those who want to champion causes incompatible with our own to find other and better venues for doing so.

Again, we are here to be useful to those who are trying to respond to the deepening cultural and moral crisis of our civilization by rediscovering, reaffirming, and bearing witness to the truths on which that civilization is founded and without which it cannot survive. As best we can, we want to provide encouragement, theological sustenance, anthropological substantiation, and moral reinforcement to those who are sympathetic with the broad outlines of our mission. We welcome those who do not share our perspective, but we hope they will bear in mind that our first and only obligation is to those who do.

Ian Callaghan:

I’d be in way over my head if I tried to seriously engage the comments that have been made on this thread thus far, so I won’t. But I can say this: it seems clear to me that while Facebook certainly is quite open, it is also designed from the ground up to encourage self-selection and affirmation, not serious debate. That’s why there will never be a dislike button! (Not that that would ever be a marker of serious debate.) Anyway, I think Gil is just asking for the space to allow this page to be what Facebook is, for better or worse, designed to be: a place where you primarily share with the people with whom you are mostly in agreement. Does that make it a bit more shallow? Maybe—but I come to Facebook for bite-size content, not steak.

Doughlas Remy:

@Ian Callahan: As one who has often been accused of using objects in ways for which they were not intended, I am all for the plasticity and adaptability of Facebook. Believe me, it’s there to be anything we want it to be within the bounds of its own design limitations. The fact that the majority of people leave friendly bite-size content on Facebook may signify nothing more than short attention spans or minds incapable of in-depth discussion of issues. I am certain that Mark Zuckerberg would have no objection to our having a serious debate.

George Dunn:

@Gil Bailie: Some of the recent comments to which you object are, in my mind at least, quite in keeping with your mission, since they bring to light the elements of violence and scapegoating in your own posts and do so from a perspective that is fully informed by the insights of Rene Girard. Doughlas Remy, for example, highlighted how similar the anecdotes in your William Tucker article are to the classic texts of persecution that Girard discusses in many places in his writings. Meanwhile, I took issue with your abuse of Saul Alinsky, a good man who has been scapegoated by many on the right but whose program had direct affinities with the moral and intellectual tradition that you want to promote. My point was that your readiness to jump on the anti-Alinsky bandwagon displays those very mimetic tendencies against which Girard has warned us to be on guard, especially in ourselves. You’ll recall that when you posted your earlier “housekeeping message,” I explicitly asked whether you objected to me calling attention to the scapegoating tendencies that you frequently exhibit in your posts. You didn’t express any objection at that time and, until you say otherwise, I’ll just assume that you welcome the sort of criticisms that Doughlas and I offer, even if you may not always enjoy hearing them. Believe it or not, I am not only very sympathetic to much of your mission, but also want nothing but the very best for you personally. But for you to achieve your best, you need to start examining and overcoming your proclivity to scapegoat, sneer at, and invent calumny against those with whom you disagree. I have faith that you can do this.

James Hernandez:

George, you can’t play the scapegoating card every time Gil posts something that you think is wrong. It is just as easy to say that you, and definitely Doughlas, scapegoat the “right,” and more specifically those [who] align their view with Orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Gil’s point is simply that the differences between your worldview and his are wide. Thus, when you argue from fundamentally different premises than he, the two of you will simply be speaking past each other instead of having an actual dialogue. Hence, this is why Gil usually does not respond. It seems both of you continuously respond to his posts because you get some type of catharsis out of beating up Gil’s point of view. So, in accordance with your Girardian point of view, maybe this isn’t the best thing for you. I think that unless you try to actually understand where Gil is coming from, then your comments will never bear fruit.

George Dunn:

James, let me conclude by reassuring you that, first, I don’t bring these things up for the sake of some “catharsis” or purgative effect, since I usually feel just the opposite of “cleansed” when I come away from this forum, and, second, that I do make an effort to understand Gil’s point of view. On numerous occasions, I’ve sought clarification from him on some point he’s made (most recently concerning his conception of “personhood”), only to have my questions completely ignored, not even acknowledged. Despite his failings, Gil possesses a sharp mind and has much to teach. I only wish he would be charitable enough to enter into the sort of dialogue that would allow people like me to learn from him.

Dean Hansen:

@Gil: You’re entitled to hold any view or position you wish on a wide and endless array of topics. But you’re not entitled to live in a vacuum.  So here’s an important reminder: You’re on the Internet. The Internet is a public place. Facebook is the most expansive, public and social environment of them all. It’s also a rowdy, wide-open place with millions upon millions of viewers and participants. The rules of etiquette and propriety which you imagine work in this environment don’t. Unless you have a password-protected site which automatically bans those who refuse to play by your arbitrary, overweening rules, then you can expect that people of every stripe and persuasion, including fellow Christians who don’t hold the same Vatican approved, Temenos protected views or narrow dogma you do, are going to come here and point out your unacknowledged and insufferable intolerance and narrow, fear-dominated version of reality.  Try waving a red flag in front of a bull and then demand to know why the bull didn’t play by your rules after it’s gored you a number of times.

If you’re going to live in a glass house and dispense endless, purposefully loaded, unrepentant provocations intended to shame an entire class of people, or to treat the environmental crisis of global warming as a liberal scare tactic, or denigrate the President for holding views about contraception and abortion which you reject while ignoring everything else he’s done, then you can expect to be bombarded with more of the posts you find so difficult to endure. You have the nasty habit of dropping bombs then scurrying away in the hopes that you can avoid the mess you’ve made without ever having to deal with it. You’re a coward. You can’t have a free exchange of ideas on your lofty terms, by closing your ears when things become unpleasant. Life doesn’t work that way. Try placing the shoe on the other foot for once: Think of all the heart-felt effort and considerable time devoted to encouraging you to consider legitimate and thoughtful alternatives to your unassailable fortress of magisterial truth, and ask why it generates such heat. Because you never listen and you never change course. This is what is killing Catholicism. An unbending, dogmatic, censorious refusal to adapt to the living body of Christ, whose name it bears and whose spirit it often despises. You can’t offer theological “sustenance” to one class of protected people while denying it to another or excluding them altogether when you find yourself vulnerable to legitimate criticism that undermines much of what you’re saying.

Jesus excluded no one, including a despised woman who wanted nothing more than to wash his feet with her hair. That’s the only measure of inclusion anyone who professes to be a Christian should have to abide by.  Everyone is welcomed. Can there be a civil discussion here? Only when you engage enough with the people who are urging to you have one to actually address the issues that you clamor to own.  If you start with the position that your views are sacrosanct and unmoving, you will get nowhere. The only effect that will have is to increase the heat and dissipate the light. If you make the default assumption that no light is coming in, you will soon find it extinguished at the other end.

You say you welcome those who don’t agree with your perspective?  Then stop complaining and whining when they do precisely that. Make up your mind, Gil. Either find a secluded, hermetically sealed venue in which you can postulate your version of reality, or expect to hear the sound of breaking glass as your temple falls around you. The only such venue I can think of that might apply is a seminary or a monastery, where you can renounce the world altogether and apply for the priesthood. It will be like returning to the factory at closing time when all the traffic is moving in the opposite direction. You’ll have a clear, empty road to follow. You’ll also have the illusion that you’re doing it right. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say that many are called and few are chosen? There! See? You were right all along.  Unless he was talking about cryogenics, of course.

Doughlas Remy:

What happened to all the comments? They’re all gone! There must have been a dozen of them.

Gil Bailie:

I deleted them all just to be fair. Thanks to those who said nice things. No hard feelings for those who didn’t. It’s just that the endless back and forth is useless. There are plenty of other places for expressing contrary points of view.

Dean Hansen:

Well, there you have it. “The endless back and forth,” to use Gil’s words, “is useless.” But the one-way misrepresentation of facts will continue,  thereby generating more criticism and by inference, more deletions and outright censorship of ideas. Sounds like a win-win situation, if entropy is the equivalent of winning. Gil is asking us not to make him think about things that trouble him. In a way, he has hamstrung himself with his own theology. He wants to be thought of as someone who is slow to anger, quick to forgive, and never eager to scandalize anyone by losing his temper or being in conflict with those who contradict his understanding of the way things work. Those promptings are commendable and lovely in and of themselves, because they’re part of the Gospel message, unless they make a habit of continuously aborting reality in the process. I think we may have found a form of abortion which Gil approves of. The question is, how will he defend his beliefs, if he shirks his responsibility to do so by simply suggesting the effort is useless?  There’s only one way:  Ignore any criticism he can’t refute.

When you consider how the Catholic church goes out of its way to shelter its own in the midst of an ongoing pedophile scandal, it’s not hard to see why Gil opts for a slash-and-burn policy with regard to his own perception of his reputation. To face the issues squarely by doing honest soul-searching requires a complete re-assessment of one’s life path and a willingness to make concessions and offer some modicum of contrition.  That re-assessment would tear down many of Gil’s treasured assumptions about the majesty and infallibility of the church triumphant. How he still manages to believe in the otherly-world nature of a church that sexually abuses children in this world, and psychologically brutalizes men and women because of their sexual nature requires a degree of self-delusion that most of us don’t possess, or would disown and redress quickly were it exposed.

I feel genuinely sorry for Gil, because his house of cards is too fragile to withstand the internal scrutiny that is required, either on a personal or an institutional level. We’ve backed him into a wall. Gil’s Masthead is “Faith in the Crossfire.” Yet he continuously fires the first round in the “fire fight,” and then ducks and covers during the return engagement. If that’s faith, it’s apparently the same kind Benedict has when he rides around in his bullet-proof popemobile. At least the masthead at Andrew Sullivan’s blog strives for honesty:  “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

You can’t see beyond your nose when you refuse to see what’s before you.

Mark Gordon:

Gil, I wholeheartedly endorse the three principles enunciated above. However, at least in practice there seems to be a fourth principle at work on this Facebook page, and it is this: that the Republican Party and the contemporary “conservative” movement are the bearers of the flame of authentic Christian civilization. This despite their devotion to neoliberalism, nationalist idolatry, militarism and cultural Calvinism, all of which are fundamentally at odds with the teaching of the Church. I spent much of my adult life wedded to that crowd, and it was only my exposure to someone named Gil Bailie that began to dislodge me from them. So you can imagine how disappointed I am to see you embrace those former companions of mine so fervently. The American Spectator? Daniel Pipes? The torture enthusiasts at The National Review? Lord, help us! So, after you read and delete this, know that I will no longer be following the Cornerstone page. It is yours to do with as you please. Sadly, you’ll be doing it without me. Still friends, I hope.

Is Abortion a Form of Human Sacrifice?

March 30, 2012

Gil Bailie responds to the final paragraph of my previous post:

The efficacy of a sacrificial regime – understood in terms of the anthropological analysis of René Girard – does not require that the sacrificial community hate or revile the sacrificial victim. All that is required is the conviction that the elimination of the victim is necessary to the preservation of the community as presently constituted, and that the present constitution of the community is worth the sacrificial costs required to preserve it.

Understood in this way, the existence of abortion on demand qualifies as the greatest single sacrificial system of all time. The killing of the unborn is – explicitly or implicitly – considered to be indispensable to the continuance of the regime of the sexual revolution, and the sheer number of those sacrificed to its continuance exceeds that of any regime in history. Moreover, the unborn undeniably constitute the most powerless and voiceless category of victims imaginable.

In the late 19th century, my great grandmother, living in Texas, was virtually a baby factory. She bore thirteen infants (no twins). She was poor, and her husband offered very little help in raising these children. She did all the care-taking herself—the washing, cleaning, cooking, and shopping—all during an era when there were no electric appliances or motorized transport to make the work easier. She even made and patched the children’s clothes, grew vegetables, and looked after chickens.

She died not many years after giving birth to her thirteenth child. She was, as my mother says, “worn out.” Her husband lived to a ripe old age.

The sacrificial system Gil Bailie has described was fully in place and operational, but instead of sacrificing the fetus, the community (as constituted at that time) sacrificed the mother. Let’s not forget that women of that era were about as “powerless and voiceless” as the fetuses that Bailie would like to protect. (The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was not passed until 1920). The siblings also suffered because their quality of life was so diminished by having to share scant resources. They were poor, overworked, and undereducated, and they never forgot the hardships they endured during those years.

My great grandparents probably did not use any form of birth control and would not have considered an early-term abortion. I personally think it would have been better if they had, even though I might never have born as a result.

More life is not necessarily better than less life. The world’s population has more than doubled in the last fifty years, to 6.8 billion, and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 at latest. Approximately one-seventh of the world’s population suffers from chronic hunger, which causes not just craving but exhaustion and disease. I am much more disturbed by the sight of an emaciated child than by the thought of a fetus that was aborted before it could even experience pain.

I am more concerned about eliminating human misery and improving the quality of life than about bringing new life into this world at any cost. This is why I support the efforts of organizations like Planned Parenthood. Family planning promotes maternal well-being while reducing unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortions.

My own parents, who were poor at the time of my birth, had decided to limit their family size, and I must say it worked out extremely well. I have only one sibling, but we had the benefits of good nutrition, the attention of  two healthy parents, and a college education. Best of all, my mother did not wear herself out as her grandmother had done. She is now 93 and in excellent health, living in her home of the last forty years and about to buy a new car. She obviously plans to be around for awhile. By not bringing those extra lives into the world, she and my dad improved the quality of all our lives. I do not mourn the children that weren’t born, and I certainly don’t regard my mother or father as “murderers” for having used birth control. Nor would I reproach them if I were to learn they had decided to abort an early term fetus. I hope I would recognize that it was a difficult and painful decision for them.

In short, I don’t think the “sacrifice” that my parents made (or might have made in more extreme circumstances) rises to the level of victimage as described by René Girard. My parents simply “tended their garden” in a mature and responsible manner. On the other hand, Bailie’s calumnies of gays and lesbians and his endorsement of organizations like the National Organization for Marriage and the Ruth Institute clearly do cross the line. The suggestion that same-sex marriage will bring about an unravelling of natural law, a birth dearth, and, ultimately, civilizational collapse is not only unwarranted by empirical reality but also obviously intended to stoke deep-seated fears and animosities. No good can come of it.

Will Same-Sex Marriage Bring About an Unraveling of Natural Law and Unleash the Forces of Social Disorder?

March 29, 2012

Gil Bailie quotes historian Glenn Olsen on The Cornerstone Forum’s Facebook page:

For a Catholic, part of the strangeness of living in America is living in a land only superficially touched by natural law teaching. … When someone favorable to religion today wants to defend some bizarre practice, such as killing chickens in one’s rites, the defense very well may take the line that religious belief per se must be respected. Of course in a national experience properly rooted in the natural law this would not be so. In a Catholic position, reason and revelation must be in harmony, and one has no obligation to respect a religious belief which is in opposition to reason.

And Bailie adds,

This is important because there exist today religions that solemnly sanction the killing, not of chickens, but of infidels and apostates and others. In trying, for example, to redefine marriage to include homosexual relationships, we undermine the natural law argument for deeming polygamy illicit or for refusing to interfere with a religion whose highest authorities sanction both polygamy and the murder of homosexuals.

Natural law certainly has an illustrious history, and the laws enshrined in our own Constitution have their roots in it. But it cannot be used as a platform for contemporary American jurisprudence because it has no stable meaning. You can ask a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Muslim to define it, and you will get very different answers. So for historian Glenn Olsen, whom Bailie quotes, natural law must be understood as the Catholic variety. I am not a Catholic, but I am an American citizen, and so I would not like to see our country’s legal tradition uprooted to make way for natural law redux.

Sacrificing chickens is of course bizarre, but so is baptism, whether for the dead or the living. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation seems very bizarre to most non-Catholics, but neither it nor baptism hurts anyone, so a state that respects religious liberty has no compelling interest in prohibiting these practices. Sacrificing chickens is no more bizarre than transubstantiation or baptism, but it is borderline form of cruelty, depending on how the chickens are slaughtered and whether they’re eaten afterwards. Denying contraceptive insurance coverage to one’s employees may be motivated by religious belief, but it deserves no respect from government because it results in harm to the employees.

So I would disagree with Olsen when he writes, “…one has no obligation to respect a religious belief which is in opposition to reason.” Reason is simply the wrong criterion. We respect unreasonable beliefs all the time, and there is no real harm to anyone. Most religious beliefs are in fact irrational, but it’s only when they become harmful that the state has a compelling interest in prohibiting them.

But there are two meanings of “respect.” One is “allow,” as in “the state respects religion.” The other is “have regard for.” I may not have much respect for a belief, but I will respect your right to hold it. However, I may disrespect a religious practice while also supporting efforts to have it outlawed. Denial of contraceptive coverage on religious grounds falls into this latter category.

Killing infidels and apostates, which the Catholic Church used to approve not so long ago, is a religious practice that deserves no respect in either sense of the word.

The Church’s campaign against same-sex marriage (SSM) is based on an irrational belief that I do not respect but that its adherents have a right to hold. However, I do not believe Catholic institutions (other than churches) should have the right to discriminate against homosexuals in hiring or in provision of services.

As for polygamy and the murder of homosexuals, both are of course odious, but no less odious than the effort to link them to same-sex marriage. There is a vast difference between murder and marriage and between polygamy and monogamy. In each case, the former is harmful and the latter is generally beneficial. Recognizing this difference gives us the proper basis for legislation regarding murder and polygamy.

The grim scenario in Bailie’s final paragraph assumes that natural law is preventing both polygamy and the murder of homosexuals. It is not, of course. Constitutional law is serving this function, so there is no need to worry that same-sex marriage will unleash the forces of social disorder and lawlessness. It has not done so in countries or states where SSM has been legalized.

Such scenarios are one more example of the fear tactics and scapegoating that Gil Bailie routinely resorts to. The underlying formula is always the same: X (an individual or group) causes social disorder; order can be restored only by stigmatizing and expelling X. This is the classic scapegoating paradigm as articulated by Gil Bailie’s own mentor, René Girard, and it is unmistakably present in everything Bailie has written about homosexuality during the six or so years that I have been following his blogs. It is one thing to say that homosexuality is wrong according to God’s law, but it is another to suggest that homosexuality is a root cause of social disorder and civilizational collapse. Such irrational accusations are calculated to stoke fear and generate unanimity about the guilt of the intended victim.

Girard’s theory of scapegoating is very powerful and perceptive. I believe he must feel deeply saddened to see it used as an instruction manual for scapegoating.

Melanie Phillips: The World Turned Upside Down

June 27, 2011

Melanie Phillips

I imagine that Melanie Phillips, author of “A World Turned Upside Down” (2010), has witnessed and personally experienced some startling “inversions” in her time. So have we all. Things we once thought true have been proved false, shame has been transformed into pride, the honorable has become dishonorable… It must seem that the world has been turned upside down or that we’ve walked through the looking-glass and into a moral maze.

But it’s worse than upside down: we can’t even find our feet. Not only is the ground shifting, but everywhere we step seems to have a different vector of gravity.

As a journalist and editor, Ms. Phillips would have been expected to help her readers decipher the world, and she was by nature and upbringing a person in need of a strong moral compass. A 2003 New Statesman profile talks about her compulsion to control, order, and label everything—people and objects—that come within her sphere.

On November 15, 2010, Ms. Phillips spoke at the Wednesday Morning Club in Los Angeles, CA. (Video here.) What can a speaker cover in 32 minutes? Not much. But Ms. Phillips was not to be deterred. Her topic was the sad state of Western civilization and the pre-eminent causes of its decline—its repudiation of logic, reason, and evidence, and its abandonment of Judeo-Christian values (these are, in her view, synonymous). The culprits in this cosmic drama are the educated elites, proponents of global warming science, environmentalists, militant atheists, extreme gender feminists, anti-imperialists, anti-colonialists, anti-Americans, anti-capitalists, anti-Zionists, multiculturalists, moral and cultural relativists, and materialists.

I am not “for” everything she is “against.” I have my own qualms about multiculturalism and moral relativism, and I have no opinion whatsoever about some of the issues in her inventory. What caught my attention was her methodical segmentation of the world and the desperate, unshakable certainty with which she expresses her personal views about such a vast array of topics. In an artful framing maneuver at the beginning of her talk, she very pointedly champions rationality, as if to pre-empt any charges that she has gone off the rails. That frame also includes fulminations against those who have “demonized” her in the past—a clear signal to her audience about their own reception of what she is about to say.

Spending the first several minutes of a 32-minute speech declaring one’s victim status and defending one’s sanity sets a tone of highly charged subjectivity for what is to follow.

Ms. Phillips strikes me as belonging to a class of people who feel they must express an opinion about everything that happens in the world, whether or not they are insufficiently informed. We’ve all met them at cocktail parties or watched them bloviate on talk shows. The path from journalist to public intellectual to windbag is strewn with half-baked notions; with any luck, a sufficient number of these offerings will rise to the occasion and impress an audience.

Such is her journalistic side and her media persona; she is constantly engaged in public discussion, often on topics about which she has little expertise, and yet she is expected to forcefully express her opinions convincingly and on the fly. And so she often finds herself on the defensive, challenged by experts and intellectuals. Nevertheless, she must exude confidence. Received pronunciation is, of course, as important as knowing the right people—Ms. Phillips is said to be in Prince Charles’ circle.

Early on, the pressure may have been especially intense because she was the first woman editor at The Guardian newspaper, as well as a Jew. Her reaction to all this pressure was first to faint (on her first day as news editor of The Guardian) and then to become imperious and uncompromising—a management style that proved disastrous for her at the paper but seemed to work pretty well for her as a writer and speaker.

Then there’s her Jewishness, which has imbued her with a sense of history and of her purpose in the world. It seems rather grandiose and megalomaniacal at times: she has divided everything up very neatly, just as she arranged and labeled the decanters on her liquor tray. There are the “ideologies,” or “-isms” on one side (all of which are “militantly secular,” she says), and on the other, there are logic, reason, and truth, epitomized by Judeo-Christianity. The borders between these two are impermeable: there are no Christian environmentalists or anti-Zionist observant Jews. Anti-imperialism, like anti-Americanism, anti-colonialism, and multiculturalism, is also militantly secular. (She does actually say this. Check it out at around 15:15 in the video: “They [the ‘isms] are all militantly secular; they’re all against organized religion and particularly against Judeo-Christian tradition.”)

And, of course, she is not herself an ideologue (16:30: “…the rest of us, who are not ideologues, start with facts and evidence and then arrive at a conclusion…”). In her view, these anti-rational ideologies did not appear historically until Judeo-Christianity began to wane in the West. Ms. Phillips does not identify the pinnacle of rationality in Western Civilization, but presumably it would have occurred sometime in early Christian history around the time of Augustine—or perhaps as late as the thirteenth century. The Renaissance, the European Enlightenment, and the development of modern science brought us to our current sorry state of affairs.

Ms. Phillips covers a lot of ground, but there’s no depth to any of it. She dismisses anthropogenic global warming without even attempting to address the overwhelming scientific consensus supporting it. And here she sounds exactly like a small child who believes that she can make something disappear by closing her eyes: (around 5:40) “The seas are not rising, the ice is not shrinking, the polar bears are not vanishing, there’s been no significant warming since 1995, and temperatures have not increased at all since 1998. …The assumption that climate itself can be predicted or its course changed by anything that we do is absolutely ridiculous.”

Really? She should take that idea to Munich Re, the world’s largest insurer, or to NASA, or to the U.S. Military. She could instruct their legions of scientists and statisticians that they have started with a conclusion, not with the facts. Better yet, she could try getting invited to a Geophysics conference to explain why 70 million tons of carbon dioxide, pumped into our atmosphere every day by humans, has no effect on climate. Or she could inform these scientists that NASA’s thousands of satellite photos showing disappearing Arctic ice are fraudulent.

Ms. Phillips’ own disregard of the facts is absolutely breathtaking, notwithstanding her protestations that she “starts with facts, not conclusions.”

Where does she get her “facts” about global warming? Answer: From Ian Plimer’s 2009 book on the subject (“Heaven and Earth—Global Warming: The Missing Science.”). And who is Ian Plimer? He’s a professor of mining geology and the director of four mining companies. Yes, mining companies. They extract fossil fuels from the earth.

Ms. Phillips may find that she can fudge her history and her socio-politics, and make grand sweeping statements about the Zeitgeist. But peddling deliberate distortions about the sciences is much riskier. Her verdict on Darwinism—that it’s “just” a theory, not a fact—reveals an abysmal ignorance of biological science and of the scientific method in general. The little word “just” is the clue to her cluelessness. I don’t think I want to know her thoughts on germ theory or heliocentric theory.

How, indeed, did she manage to become so “expert” in biology and climatology—both of which require decades of study—that she feels empowered to argue with the likes of Richard Dawkins or James Hansen? If there is any merit to her own theories about these subjects, then she should write them up for the journals where they can be peer-reviewed instead of trying to impress the neophytes.

But Ms. Phillips has anticipated this very objection (at 32:38):

“I now find that to find people who are sane and decent and rational, one has to go to people with no education. The most highly educated are now the most irrational, the most bigoted, and the most intolerant. It is in the intelligentsia where this problem is rooted. The core is the repudiation of the very concept of truth and objectivity by this intelligentsia, who have embraced instead everything that is subjective and relative.”

This “intelligentsia” dominates the universities, the research centers, and the scientific journals. It ostracizes anyone who dares to challenge it:

“Scientists teaching evidence problems with evolutionary theory are fired, scientists expressing skepticism [about] the science of man-made global warming theory find they can’t get grant funding, the scientific journals are closed to them, and they’re subjected to vicious personal and professional attacks.”

Could it just be that the scientific establishment is simply doing its job of weeding out the crackpots—and, yes, the ideologues—through rigorous application of the scientific method? The world of science is not one in which “everyone gets the prize.” The prize goes to those whose ideas can withstand the withering scrutiny of their colleagues; it goes to those who can, by applying very rigorous rules of evidence, disprove the theories of other scientists. Sooner or later the winnowing process brings everyone in the scientific community to a consensus about particular theories, accrediting some while consigning others to the dustbin of history.

Evolutionary theory is the foundation of modern biological science. I can easily imagine the impatience of a journal editor who receives one more sorry and ill-conceived repudiation of it from a scientist working for the Discovery Institute or the Cato Institute.

Ms. Phillips has certainly built a hard shell around herself. If you disagree with any of her premises, you are likely to be too highly educated, and you are almost certainly irrational, bigoted, and intolerant. You have repudiated the truth as it has been revealed to her.

Ironically, Ms. Phillips began her talk by excoriating those who had “demonized” her since she became more conservative in her views: “You couldn’t penetrate [their] point of view. It was impervious to reason itself. Everything was being turned inside out…justice and injustice, victim and victimizer. [There were] insults and character assassinations…”

In preparation for reading Ms. Phillip’s latest book, “The World Turned Upside Down,” it might be helpful to first read Dostoyevsky’s The Double, and then practice standing on your head while reading.

A Mimetic Reading of Stanley Kubrick’s Film, “2001, A Space Odyssey”

September 19, 2009

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The following reading of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is re-published by permission from its author, “Dean,” who submitted it recently for the enjoyment of bloggers on the Reflections on Faith and Culture site. Dean views the film’s story through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory.

In the famous Dawn of Man sequence an ape overcomes his fear and touches the monolith, which has suddenly appeared during the night, a sentinel planted by some unseen and vast intelligence. There is a sense of numinous awe in the film, as the mysterious black basaltic slab appears over and over again throughout the movie. This is the divine agency of the film–the burning bush. The ape in the initial scene then turns bones into tools. He learns how to use his new “tool” as a murder weapon against a rival tribe of apes, and although that was not the intention of the caretakers who imparted the knowledge, the rival apes at the business end of a jagged thigh bone may have thought differently.

A klaxon is sounded, as the sentinel telegraphs its message to the stars signaling the changed status of the apes.  From that point on, the monolith patiently stands as a silent beacon, through aeons of time, in different locations, awaiting the next visitation in the distant future when it will impart a new chapter of knowledge further along the evolutionary path as the unseen caretakers surveil our progress from behind the scenes. The tree in Genesis as well as the cross at Calvary and the Monolith in Space Odyssey are essentially the same: preparations for participation in a grand mystery. But the agency behind that mystery remains unseen, or seen only through a glass darkly, which is the central tension both of the film and of our lives. Each discovery emboldens us to go another step further on our personal and collective odyssey.

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Abortion is not Genocide

September 16, 2009

by Cheryl Maslow

During the course of an extended blog discussion about a wide range of issues, including abortion (see comments following several posts on Gil Bailie’s blog log, Reflections on Faith and Culture, from July through September 2009), I noticed that several writers in the group were describing abortion as murder or as genocide. This is standard pro-life rhetoric, and it is hyperbolic. Both of these words have straightforward dictionary and legal definitions that make them unsuitable for describing abortion. Then, an exchange between two of the participants, Paul and Athos (following the post of 9/6/09), stirred up my thoughts about a book I read over a year ago: Carolyn Marvin’s “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.” Marvin argues that collective victimage constructs American national identity, and she develops her ideas out of a reading of René Girard and Emil Durkheim. But I sensed that many of her insights have implications for the abortion issue and its weighting against other issues that we discussed on the blog, particularly climate change, income disparity, and health care. Because both Paul and Athos had read René Girard and understood the sacrificial mechanism he illuminates, I decided to spin out my thoughts about abortion as sacrifice and to challenge the notion that abortion is genocide. My motive was less to defend abortion than to develop my intuition that not all sacrifice involves scapegoating. The following paragraphs are a revised and expanded version of a three-part comment that I submitted. A basic familiarity with Girard’s mimetic theory is helpful in reading them.

Athos writes: “When a conventional culture begins to break down, it tries to surcharge its victimary mechanism by either increasing the prestige of its victims or number of victims: regicide or genocide. … We’re in the latter stage, and we’re sacrificing our unborn children.”

The word “genocide” seems misapplied when used to describe abortion. (Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group, according to Merriam-Webster.) This is not just a quibble over definitions. We have a much better chance of understanding both abortion and genocide as sacrificial phenomena if we make careful distinctions.

Athos was of course correct in describing the pre-born as “defenseless, innocent, and voiceless.” I say “of course” because both the pre-born and infants are universally regarded in this way—squalling infants on buses excepted. This doesn’t prevent their being killed in abortions and wartime bombings or neglected to the point of starvation or disease-related death. I am not the first to point out that caring for the pre-born and the newly-born requires caring for the mothers that are carrying or nursing them, for the fathers that support these mothers financially and emotionally, and even for the broader society and ecology that sustains them all. This means that the abortion issue is also the health care issue and the income disparity issue and the environmental quality issue. And it is a part of a vast web of many other issues as well.

How many millions of the unborn or newly born have suffered and died in the Sahel because of water shortages resulting from mismanagement and over-exploitation of resources? These deaths could have been prevented, but tribes and sovereign nations decided that other matters were more important. This is sacrifice, but it’s not necessarily “victimage” in the Girardian sense. These deaths did not restore harmony to a community in crisis as the victimage mechanism does. Rather, the powerful (the state, multinational corporations, tribal leaders, warlords, etc.) decided that these individuals were expendable, and the cause-effect relationship went missing in time, space, and human memory.

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New Orientation, But Still Bent

September 11, 2009

I originally intended this blog to serve as a forum for discussion of gay and lesbian (or more broadly, GLBT) issues. Hence the name, “The Bent Angle.” I started a companion site as a container for discussion of secular humanist issues and called it “The Bright Angle.” The bright angle remained dim from lack of input from me, while this site lit up to a dull glow for a while.

And then it struck me that I have too many “angles” to create a separate blog container for each of them. They have a way of “triangulating” (or rectangulating, pentagulating, etc.) around events and issues that capture my interest. Since the mid-seventies, I’ve read widely in the mimetic theory of René Girard and, more recently, I’ve become interested in Richard Dawkins’s meme theory. And then there’s Ernest Becker, whose writings I came to know through friends at the Ernest Becker Foundation, which holds its annual conferences in my city. But these are just the “angles.” Then there are the events and issues themselves. Recent blog discussions with people whose views are radically different from my own have inspired me to read and think more deeply about climate change and the environment, reproductive rights, health care, human rights abuses, and the clash of cultures. These various strands of angles and issues have a way of becoming interwoven through everything that I write, and I’ve given up trying to keep them separate. Tapestries are more interesting than cloth of a single color.  

So, to abruptly switch metaphors, this site will henceforth be a salad. The ingredients will be fresh, I hope, and they will consist of whatever is in season. I intend to occasionally bring in other writers to vary the menu. Our first guest will be Cheryl Maslow, whose insightful comments I discovered on a blog site dedicated in part to discussions of mimetic theory.