Immigration: Three Reasons Trump’s Fans Should Love the Idea

Trump is obviously an idiot, but his hostility to immigration shows how clueless he and his fan-base really are.

(1) From a national perspective, welcoming immigrants has been a mark of enlightened thinking. The U.S. was founded by immigrants and has prided itself on being open to diversity. For all its troubled history with Native American ethnic cleansing and African American slavery, the nation was built on principles which advocate equal opportunity for all. When a president like Benjamin Harrison called for needless restrictions on Asian immigrants, he was judged for it accordingly. Americans have historically resisted the equation of nationality with ethnicity. Nationality has been about citizenship, and allegiance to the vision of the founding fathers.

(2) From an economic perspective, immigration has always been the life’s blood of the U.S., infusing new ideas and skills into the American market. Immigration has given the country new jobs, new businesses, new inventions. Immigrants create new populations of people who buy things. People tend to fear job competition in times of hardship or depression — and the threat of having jobs “stolen” from them — but the fact is that a bigger workforce means more consumption, more demand, and more jobs. That’s the long-standing wisdom of economists. Thwarting immigration is a likely path to slowing economic growth.

(3) From a Judeo-Christian religious perspective, one could make a strong case to be pro-immigration. According to even a hard-core fundamentalist like Pastor Steven Anderson, God specifically tells his followers to welcome and love the immigrant: “The stranger (immigrant) that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:34). “You shall neither vex a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf.23:9; Leviticus 19:33). After all, says Anderson, everyone in America descends from immigrants (aside from the Native American Indians), and those who have a problem with immigrants “should probably leave the country themselves”. There is also the example of Ruth, who wondered why she should receive grace, given that she was an immigrant from Moab. Yet Boaz took care of her anyway, and told others to treat her well. (Ruth 2:10-16)

In light of the support Trump receives from “patriotic” nationalists, entrepreneurs, and conservative Christians, the irony is amusing.

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Reading Radar Recommendations

Over on the Nashua Public Library website, I have a list of book recommendations. Someone asked that I write blurbs for the books, which is a good idea, though that’s not the format we’re currently using on the library site. I have produced the blurbs below, for both my fiction and non-fiction picks.

Fiction

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. You’ll love this novel if you grew up in the ’80s playing Dungeons & Dragons and primitive computer games, but even aside from this it has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of the real world. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. I know many people who love this book, even if they don’t normally read science fiction.

Ubik, by Philip Dick. The story is set in a future where some people have a natural ability to read minds or choose the future (psychics), and others are able to thwart those telepathic or precognitive powers (anti-psis). Security firms hire the latter to protect people’s privacy, and the plot involves one of these firms coming under attack. Its CEO is killed in a bomb explosion, and his employees store his corpse in a half-life mortuary so that his consciousness can live on. The employees then start to experience bizarre shifts in reality as the world regresses back in time to the year 1939. Maybe they are the ones who actually died in the explosion and got stored into half-life, and are now dreaming terrible events as their boss tries to reach them from the real world. Or maybe both died and are feeding off each others dreams. Adding to the tension is that one of the employees has a unique anti-psi talent that doesn’t just cause psychics to choose a different future; she can actually change the future by resetting the past. Is the time regression somehow on account of her? There doesn’t seem to be a coherent explanation that accounts for any one theory, but enough patterns to make any explanation plausible until you look real closely. Ubik may not be Dick’s most popular novel, I think he outdid himself here.

The Five, by Robert McCammon. If you like suspense and music, then this book is for you. A dirt-poor indie rock band (called The Five, three men and two women), drive around in a van and play gigs across the southwestern U.S., chasing dreams of success. They finally get that, but at a nasty price when a crazy ex-Marine sniper starts picking them off for comments made by the lead singer about soldiers in Iraq. Suddenly the band’s concerts swell in proportion to the media vultures, and with the fame comes devastation. It’s a nail-biter punctuated with slow pauses and soul-searching, both parts just as hard to put down. The narrative is also saturated with the author’s love for rock n roll. It’s no mean feat to make a reader “hear” music off the page, yet that’s what I was doing — crafting my own mental jams and drawing on textures from favorite bands. (You’ll make your own associations, but I imagined The Five as sounding grungy like The Smashing Pumpkins and searing like The Walkmen.) This was especially true for the signature song written by all of the band members instead of the usual two: it takes on a curious life throughout the story, as it’s born of harrowing events and each band member finds his or her muse at the oddest, eeriest moments.

Song of Kali, by Dan Simmons. I consider this the best novel Simmons ever wrote. Critics say that first novels often show authors at their most honest, writing without regard for anyone’s expectations, and Song of Kali fits that profile. It’s about the Kali cult in India, and forget the cartoonish portrayal in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The cult depicted here is foul beyond words. They run Calcutta like the Mafia runs American cities. Businessmen by day, killers by night, they sacrifice people (including their own members) to make their goddess manifest on earth. Their evil seems to have somehow infected the stones and air of Calcutta; pain and hurt are the only language people understand. The story involves a magazine writer who is sent to Calcutta to obtain poetry supposedly written by a man who was thought to be long dead. He takes his wife and infant child (bad move) and becomes entangled with the cult. What happens is vile and depressing, but in an understated way that makes everything seem too real to be fictitious. There are no cheap thrills or victories against the Kali cult; no one is brought to justice; the cult goes on; the city of Calcutta sweats poverty, despair, and anger in endless cycles.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl, by Peter Straub. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it terrified me. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final terrible page.

Sword of the North, by Richard White. It’s hard to believe that Columbus ever got the credit for discovering America. Leif Erickson beat him by five centuries, and Henry Sinclair probably beat him by one. This novel is Sinclair’s story. He was Baron of Rosslyn in southern Scotland and also Jarl of the Orkney Islands, and as White portrays him a fair but firm ruler who went at heads with corrupt bishops and venal noblemen. He got around plenty before embarking on his voyage to North America — to Norway, the Faroe Islands — and there’s even an amusing scene where visiting England he bumps into that father of literature, Geoffrey Chaucer. The dialogue is superb, lyrical and almost poetic without sounding aloof. There’s striking humor on display, and whether or not it represents 14th-century thought, it’s the book’s clear signature which sets it above the mainstream. It’s long out of print and almost unheard of, which is a shame. The author was a teacher at my high-school back in the ’80s, and he went on to write the smashing western Mister Grey; more recently he finally published his scholarly research on Sinclair’s expeditions, These Stones Bear Witness.

The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks. Whether you love or hate this novel will depend on how flexible you are with genre. It’s the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (1572) as Quentin Tarantino might envision it — pulp historical fiction at its most graphic and obscene. The violent content was judged so extreme that it couldn’t even be published in the U.S. The hero’s slaughter-fests make him as bad as the villains. Most of the opposition he faces are poorly trained city militia, everyday thugs, and politically appointed “knights” hardly worthy of the title. He kills out of simple revenge for his wife, hardly caring who. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre began as a royal stab against the Huguenot elite but degenerated into a full-blown extermination of unarmed Protestant civilians by the Paris militia. Tannhauser’s personal degeneration matches the city’s; there’s backstabbing everywhere, and a kingdom of beggars and thieves shunned by everyone. Those dark alleys are Tannhauser’s ultimate destination, and where an unexpected salvation is found. There, and in the souls of raped and dispossessed children he rescues along the way. The cloak-and-dagger intrigue is crisp, and the mystery of who wanted Tannhauser’s wife dead and why unfolds at the right moments. It’s an unusual novel that indulges hyper-elements to explore the consequences of hurt, and the inability to transcend monstrosity.

Non-Fiction

Free Will, by Sam Harris. The idea that we don’t have free will seems to defy common sense, but more scientists are coming to that conclusion. The idea of free will implies two things. (1) That we were free to think and act differently than we did. We did something but could have done otherwise. For example, I raised my right hand but could have raised my left; I went to see a movie, but could have visited a friend; I decided to join the Peace Corps, but could have gotten a job; I thought about cooking dinner, but could have considered ordering pizza. (2) That we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. Our consciousness is the author of our inner lives and subsequent behaviors — the thinker of our thoughts, and the intender of our intentions. For example, I feel that I want to rise from a chair, and so I rise. I experience the desire to marry my girlfriend, so I propose to her. Sam Harris says that both of these assumptions are false. Read this persuasive book to find out why.

Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, by John Meier. The author believes that of the 32 parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, only four are historically reliable: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either show signs of being written after Jesus, or can at best be judged unclear. It’s worth noting that Meier is a conservative Catholic and not predisposed to being so skeptical about accounts in the Bible. His historical methodology pushed him to the conclusion.

Night Comes, by Dale Allison. Here’s a meditation on death and how we cope with the idea of it. There’s a chapter on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far. There’s a chapter on the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the Gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Paul’s idea of a discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. There’s a chapter about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Dale Allison’s books, Night Comes succeeds in unnerving you no matter what you believe.

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, by Dario Fernandez-Morera. This book is a milestone in putting to rest the biggest academic myth of our time, and what’s amazing is that the author is a scholar from Harvard — the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. They were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christians being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks being happy slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. This books shows that had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland. This is unlike any other ranking of the U.S. presidents. Most historians, regardless of their political bias, tend to grade presidents on the basis of their management style and charisma. Eland points out that effective presidents may be successful at accomplishing their goals, but those goals could be bad and often are. Charismatic leaders may inspire us with speeches, but that’s meaningless; some of the worst leaders in history have been charismatics. Eland ranks the presidents based on a threefold criteria — what they did for causes of “peace”, “prosperity”, and “liberty”. After all, these were the prime objectives of the American founders, and most people when asked say they want to live safe lives, be able to provide for themselves, and enjoy freedom. This is the book I’d been awaiting for many years. Even where I disagree with some of Eland’s assessments, I respect the reasoning he uses. His rankings tend to turn the common wisdom upside down. For example, in his judgment, Jimmy Carter (a Democrat) and Warren Harding (a Republican) were the two best presidents of the 20th century, while many historians consider them among the worst. As for the presidents we carved on Mount Rushmore, says Eland, three of the four don’t deserve the honor of being there.

The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech, by Robert Spencer. Anyone who cherishes the First Amendment should read this book. Our right to free speech and expression may not last. People are increasingly unable to listen to and engage with views they are offended by, resulting in safe spaces on college campuses, shout-down strategies against invited speakers, and the advocacy for “hate speech” laws that criminalize bigoted opinions (or those that are deemed such). Spencer reminds us that free speech is offensive speech, and that has always been its point. Inoffensive speech doesn’t need the protection of a First Amendment. Liberals are the worst threat to free speech these days, and a conservative like Spencer is a breath of fresh air. In this book he describes how social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as student groups on American college campuses, are doing the bidding of anti-First Amendment activists; how American representatives at the United Nations have already agreed to limit free speech in certain ways; how people have lost their jobs for criticizing the doctrine of Islam; how European “hate speech” laws are used to prosecute and harass people who are not hateful — and how this could become the way of America. As a liberal, I stand with Spencer against my own leftist tribe on this issue.

 

Salon on “New Atheism” and the Alt-Right (Michael Turton’s Reply)

On his Facebook page, Richard Carrier linked to a Salon article, “From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How New Atheism Slid into the Alt-Right”, with approval. Like most Salon articles it’s garbage, and Michael Turton wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the FB comments. I’ve pasted his comments below (Carrier’s FB page is public), and added a few observations of my own in bold.

[Turton] Let’s look at the article as the lifelong atheist and political activist and popular niche blogger that I am. After three paragraphs of Harris’ views on Islam (but note, we get no evidence that this is a problem for “the movement” or “the leaders”, just Harris), we get this:

[Salon] This resulted in an exodus of women from the movement who decided that the “new atheist” label was no longer for them. (I know of many diehard atheist women who wanted nothing to do with “new atheism,” which is a real shame.)

[Turton] No evidence is presented for this “exodus”.

[Salon] Along these lines, the new atheist movement has flirted with misogyny for years. Harris’ “estrogen vibe” statement — which yielded a defense rather than a gracious apology — was only the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned above, there have been numerous allegations of sexual assault, and atheist conferences have pretty consistently been male-dominated — resulting in something like a “gender Matthew effect.”

[Turton] This isn’t a problem with the New Atheist movement. This is a problem with Skepticism in general. I believe the anthropologist David Hess wrote Science in the New Age, which discusses the gendered/gender problem in Skepticism almost 25 years ago. This is not a new issue. Obviously, the author does not understand the issue he is addressing or how the New Atheists are connected to it.

[Salon] Many leading figures have recently allied themselves with small-time television personality Dave Rubin, a guy who has repeatedly given Milo Yiannopoulos — the professional right-wing troll who once said that little boys would stop complaining about being raped by Catholic priests if the priests were as good-looking as he is — a platform on his show. In a tweet from last May, Rubin said “I’d like a signed copy, please” in response to a picture that reads: “Ah. Peace and quiet. #ADayWithoutAWoman.” If, say, Paul Ryan were asked, he’d describe this as “sort of like the textbook definition of a misogynistic comment.” Did any new atheist leaders complain about this tweet? Of course not, much to the frustration of critical thinkers like myself who actually care about how women are treated in society.

[Turton] “Many leading figures have allied…” No evidence is presented for “leading figures” who are “allied”. Connecting Milo to the New Atheists in this way is a smear. “Did atheist leaders complain about this tweet?” Seriously? I doubt Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris spends much time combing the literally millions of tweets of other atheists for things to police them on. They have productive lives. And why would we expect them to complain about a tweet of someone whom the author himself identifies as a marginal figure (!). Excellent clickbait, that rhetorical question — it is so good the author resorts to it twice (“Has any leader….?”.) You could go on asking “Has any leader…?” rhetorical questions all day long. A question like that is designed to emotionally appeal to the article’s target audience, without actually making any survey or showing why anyone would bother to respond to a tweet from a marginal figure. As if silence constituted endorsement.

Turton is right that connecting Milo to the new atheist movement is a ludicrous smear, but I would also point out that Dave Rubin runs a good show, and he is to be commended for having Milo Yiannopoulos on as a guest, just as Bill Maher did on Real Time. Reason being: when leftists try shouting down and silencing people — even idiot trolls like Milo — it becomes virtuous to give a platform to those idiots you would otherwise ignore. Chris Hayes made the same point about the “Draw Muhammad cartoon” contest held in Garland Texas two years ago (and it was refreshing to see a liberal like Hayes school his fellow leftists). When jihadists respond to cartoons of Muhammad by killing people, it’s necessary to be offensive and draw more cartoons, otherwise you’re catering to sharia blasphemy law and letting jihadists rule you through fear. Or, as Hayes made the analogy with his own profession, if he were considering doing a segment that he was on the fence about or didn’t even like, but then someone came to him and said, “You can’t do that segment because of an advertiser”, then he would absolutely do the segment, because “It has to be the case that we can do that segment”.

Ditto for Milo. Neither Dave Rubin nor Bill Maher make a habit of inviting trolls, but they will when everyone else resorts to thuggish silencing strategies that are only getting worse on college campuses. Objections about being inflammatory, or unfair to an advertiser, etc., go straight out the window at the moment the aggrieved group tells you to stop or be stopped, to submit or be killed, etc.

[Salon] In fact, the magazine Skeptic just published a glowing review of Yiannopoulos’ recent book, “Dangerous.” The great irony of this intellectual misstep is that Yiannopoulos embodies the opposite of nearly every trend of moral progress that Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, identifies in his book “The Moral Arc.”

[Turton] (1) One author at Skeptic appears to like Milo… clearly this means that the New Atheist movement loves Milo. Can the author show us numerous New Atheist personalities who like Milo? Nope. (2) Do New Atheists control the editorial decision-making of The Skeptic? I think not, which means that — you guessed it — this is a smear, typical of Salon clickbait articles. Even better, the piece has a clickbait image at the top that puts Harris together with Milo the idiot. But it is photoshopped. A smear so obvious no one noticed it.

[Salon] Perhaps the most alarming instance of irrationality in recent memory, though, is Sam Harris’ recent claim that black people are less intelligent than white people.

[Turton] The author then spends four paragraphs explaining to us about IQ and race. Harris’ views are totally nutcase and evil. Are they widely held in the New Atheist movement or among its leaders? It is not difficult to find Dawkins saying that race is real but meaningless. Obviously, if Harris being an idiot proves that the New Atheists are evil racists, why doesn’t Dawkins saying race is meaningless prove the opposite?

Moreover, Hitchens, whom the author mentions, has written abusively about the idiocy of the race-IQ connection:

“There is, and there always has been, an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and that person’s propensity to be impressed by the measurement of I.Q.” [“Minority Report,” Nation, 11/28/94]

“Linguistics, genetics, paleontology, anthropology: All are busily demonstrating that we as a species have no objective problem of ‘race.’ What we still do seem to have are all these racists.” [“Minority Report,” Nation , 11/28/94]

Again, very obviously — if a “leader” of the movement asserting X means the whole movement is X, then why doesn’t Hitchens’ savage denunciation of that mean anything? Shouldn’t both Hitch and Dawkins’ remarks show that the New Atheist movement is solid on race? But no… painting Harris as a worshiper of Murray and a fool on race and IQ makes for much better clickbait. Salon’s clickbait articles work by rhetorical appeal to the “reasonable middle”. This is hardly the first such clickbait article on atheism at Salon, one reason I stopped reading Salon was because of the regular flow of such articles.

I agree with Turton that the sins of one person don’t reflect the views of a movement, but for the record, I seriously doubt that Sam Harris is, as Turton says, “totally nutcase and evil” on the subject of IQ and race. I admit I haven’t followed his views and interactions with Murray, but I have found that every time Harris is smeared on other subjects (like torture, or Islam), his views have either been distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately taken out of context. (Turton himself points this out in the case of Ben Carson below.)

Even Murray, while holding what I take to be incorrect views on the subject of race, has been overly maligned, and I doubt he is a racist. He’s an advocate for gay marriage and has two half-Asian kids for Christ’s sake. His error lies in dismissing the effects of socialization on race data, but his arguments should be rejected or upheld on the basis of scientific methodology, not political ideology. Reasoned refutations, not ad hominems and shut-down strategies, are the proper counters.

[Turton] Then comes this brilliance:

[Salon] On a personal note, a recent experience further cemented my view that the new atheists are guilty of false advertising. A podcaster named Lalo Dagach saw that I had criticized Harris’ understanding of Islamic terrorism, which I believe lacks scholarly rigor.

[Turton] The author spends two paragraphs discussing some marginal podcaster’s behavior towards the author as if that were somehow indicative of an entire movement. How? The podcaster is one marginal person. This personal digression is merely a bit of entitled whining about being attacked online that says nothing about New Atheism as a whole. If whipping up followers to attack people were a proclivity of New Atheists as a whole and the author could provide many examples, then perhaps this might have a place in this essay. Otherwise, no. It’s pure whining designed — once again — to appeal to the emotions of the audience which has already been nodding along. The author still hasn’t learned that if you jump in online, people are going to abuse you.

[Salon] From censoring people online while claiming to support free speech to endorsing scientifically unfounded claims about race and intelligence to asserting, as Harris once did, that the profoundly ignorant Ben Carson would make a better president than the profoundly knowledgeable Noam Chomsky, the movement has repeatedly shown itself to lack precisely the values it once avowed to uphold.

[Turton] This sweeping conclusion is hilarious and such stunningly obvious clickbait. “From censoring people online” — the author conflates his own experience with some nobody podcaster with the habits of the entire movement. You can’t “censor people online” unless you are the Communist Party of China and own the entire internet. Anyone can comment anywhere on the internet, at least in most of the West. Harris’s comments on race and Islam somehow stand for an entire movement. The provocative one on Ben Carson is especially hilarious, since Harris dismisses Carson as a nutcase in the very next sentence (which the author ignores, of course). Harris was obviously indulging in rhetoric to make a point about the “Islamic threat.” But obviously, it isn’t good clickbait to note that Harris was just being rhetorical.

Indeed. As I said above, Harris is regularly taken out of context, if not outright misrepresented. That tends to be what happens to those who speak unwelcome truths.

[Turton] If you are going to say “This movement is X and I don’t like it!” then you need to provide many examples/surveys etc that show that the whole movement is X. None are provided here, the article is simply a clickbait attack largely on Harris, designed to appeal to the audience of New Atheists like himself (and myself) who wish Harris would STFU about Islam and that they would address the mysogyny in the skeptic movement.

Turton is correct that the Salon article is a ridiculous hit piece on Harris. However, Harris should not stop speaking about Islam. His task has been a thankless one in explaining that (1) Islam has more dangerous and toxic ideas than other religions, (2) these ideas (jihad, sharia, geographical expansion) saturate the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira, and thus have always been mainstream and mandatory in all Islamic schools of jurisprudence, and (3) they are believed and enacted on by a disproportionate number of Muslims (who may be a minority, but by no means the fringe). He should be applauded for this, along with Maajid Nawaz (Harris’ colleague), Asra Nomani, Aayan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher — people who are far more progressive than leftists who cry “Islamophobia” in the name of cultural tolerance.

(“Islamophobia” is a propagandist term in any case, intended to shut down criticism of the religion Islam in advance. The correct term for racism is “anti-Muslim bigotry”, just as we use “anti-Semitism” and not “Judaiaphobia”).

In sum, I agree with Michael Turton that the Salon article is worthless, but would go further in correcting the smears of certain individuals.

Do kids adventure anymore?

Yesterday a Facebook friend tried buying valve caps for her daughter’s bike in four different stores – including an actual bike shop – and none of the stores had any. The bike-shop owner lamented that kids “just don’t ride bikes anymore”, and that’s been true for many years now. I never see kids biking around the neighborhoods like my generation did growing up in the 70s and 80s. Helicopter parents don’t let their kids out of sight for a moment (fearing pedophiles on every corner) and keep them caged indoors. Watching a show like Stranger Things makes me feel nostalgic for my biking days as a kid, when the outdoors was a world to explore.

Another FB friend pointed out that paranoid parents are only part of the problem. In the internet age, kids themselves often prefer to spend the whole day online or texting or playing video, and need to be dragged away from their screens and gadgets. It makes me glad that I grew up in the age before internet and iPhones, or I might have had to be dragged as well. I’ll say this: I’d be a very different person today had I been hovered over as a kid and/or stayed indoors all the time — and a lot less independent minded.

I cherish my childhood memories. Between ages 8-13 I hiked (with friends, not parents) deep into the woods, played at the sand dunes, and biked around town. The most extreme example I can think of was the Halloween I went trick-or-treating with a friend in a faraway town we’d never been to. His parents drove us there, dropped us off in the dark, and then returned to pick us up much later. We joined a group of kids that my friend barely knew as we went from house to house, and at one point I got separated from my friend, which was scary because I had no idea where the hell I was. But it was fun scary, and luckily I didn’t stay lost in the dark in an unknown town. I caught up with him, and we figured out how to get back to the rendezvous where his parents came to pick us up.

That’s the sort of escapade kids don’t get to experience anymore!

Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

triggersThe recent statement from The University of Chicago is long overdue:

“In a welcome letter to the incoming Class of 2020, Dean of Students John Ellison gives students the truth: there will be no quarter from controversial ideas on campus. U of C has made an ironclad commitment to the First Amendment, and will not abide safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other kinds of limitations on what is considered acceptable discourse:

‘Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.’

Ellison pulls no punches. ‘Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship,’ he writes. ‘At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.’ “

Plain common sense, and this isn’t just a reaction to extreme cases like the Yale and Mizzou protests last year (over “insensitive” Halloween costumes and other ridiculous furies). It’s embarrassing that we live in a time when courageous thinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Bill Maher are petitioned to have their speaking invitations cancelled because they are deemed bigots by students who have a poor understanding of the term. Or when genuinely funny comedians won’t bother performing at college campuses because humor can’t offend as it should. Even in my undergrad days at Lewis & Clark (’89-’91), I was cognizant of the growing narratives on liberal arts campuses which made “everything” offensive. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are very real problems, and those issues are trivialized by the hyper-sensitive who protest infringements on their “safe spaces” and misguided narratives. Grow up.

Whether material might offend or trigger trauma isn’t for college instructors to worry about in any case, beyond the common sense used in prefacing their courses. For examples:

  • In both my Hebrew Bible and New Testament classes in ’90-’91, my professor (Richard Rohrbaugh) outlined historical criticism and the kind of thinking we would be expected to engage in, and warned us that as long as he had been teaching intro bible classes, there are always some students who become very upset throughout the coursework (confronted by sudden chasms separating what the bible meant and what it means to believers today). He said, “My answer to that is tough rocks; let the chips fall where they may; I’m not here to offend anyone, but some of you will naturally be offended.” Again, common sense, and this is a perfect heads-up warning to quit the class on day one if you don’t think you can handle it.
  • Over a decade ago a friend of mine took a film class and one of the required films to watch was Irreversible, which depicts an extremely long and upsetting rape scene. Again, on the first day of class, the professor warned about transgressive content like this in some of the films. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, a rape scene like that in Pulp Fiction is universally seen as hilarious, though it could potentially upset a rape victim. But we can’t police the species and worry about every possible trigger. That’s up to the student. As someone on Facebook put it the other day, college professors aren’t counselors and it’s not their responsibility to pander to recovery needs.

So whether we’re dealing with material that may be offensive to some or triggering trauma in others, that is adequately covered in a first-day preface, which has been the professorial norm for ages. Students shouldn’t be mollycoddled beyond this. It’s not serving them at all, and it’s certainly not preparing them for the real world, which is the goal of an institution of higher learning.

“Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

quote-i-speak-spanish-to-god-italian-to-women-french-to-men-and-german-to-my-horse-charles-v-holy-roman-emperor-35181Charles V doubtfully said it like this, though it would have a been a clever hat-tip to his domains — Spanish piety, Germanic martial culture, French the aristocratic common tongue. This blogger chronicles the 400-year evolution of the saying.

Italian seems originally to have been held in oratory esteem rather than a feminine one. “German to my horse” seems less than respectful. The earliest sources don’t mention a horse, and German is singled out for being relatively foul. For example, “If to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, [I speak] in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement.”

I thought of the saying as I was rereading one of my favorite historical novels, Captain from Castile, in which Charles V appears as a character. He doesn’t speak or think the saying anywhere in the novel, but I can see where the “Spanish to God” part comes from. The scenes involving the Spanish Inquisition are powerful, and the general feel of 16th-century Catholic piety is chilling. The Spaniards may not have been as reprehensible as the Aztecs (Captain from Castile is refreshingly politically-incorrect, and true to history), but the worst elements of Spanish Catholicism at this time were certainly as bad as Aztec sacrifice, and it warms my heart when the Inquisitor gets his just deserts — roasted alive on the pyre of Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire), a fitting payback to all those he burned at the stake (if the Aztecs only knew) back home.

Horror Movies and Rape Fantasies

I’ve wondered why horror-movie fans like myself enjoy being disturbed, and in researching the subject I was drawn to the somewhat related study of rape fantasies. Interestingly enough, research on rape fantasies and horror movie consumption, done independently of each other, point to similar conclusions.

Rape fantasies are common, but intuitively make no sense. How does one get pleasure from imagining a degrading assault on oneself? Most fantasies depicting something bad happening to the fantasizer are no more pleasant to imagine than to experience in reality. If I imagine getting in a car accident, it’s an unpleasant fantasy. If I imagine getting cancer, it’s unpleasant. If I imagine getting mugged at gunpoint, it’s certainly not arousing. But if I imagine getting raped (whether by a man or woman, given my flexible orientation), that can be a pleasant fantasy, even in the knowledge that it would be repugnant — or emotionally traumatizing — if it actually happened as imagined. Why is this the case?

Joseph Critelli and Jenny Bivona have outlined different theories which attempt to explain heterosexual female rape fantasies — that is, women who daydream, masturbate, or have sex with a partner while fantasizing being raped by a man. The gender/orientation bias is limiting, though some of these findings would seem to translate into other combinations (men fantasizing being raped by men, women by women, men by women) easily enough. As many as 20 studies conducted over the last 30 years show that between 31-57% of women enjoy rape fantasies (between 9-17% say rape is their favorite fantasy), so again the phenomenon is a common one.

Before considering the theories, it’s worth noting two kinds of rape fantasies distinguished by specialists: erotic and aversive. Erotic fantasies involve an attractive and aggressive male whom the woman resists, but he overpowers and rapes her with minimal violence. Aversive fantasies involve a male who is usually older and unattractive, and who uses coercive and painful violence to terrify the woman — typically throwing her to the ground and ripping off her clothes while she fights desperately and futilely to prevent the rape. There is often overlap between aversive and erotic fantasies (9% of reported rape fantasies are aversive, 45% are erotic, and 46% are on a continuum somewhere between aversive-erotic). One might question making the distinction at all, since rape is rape, and real-life victims of “erotic” rapes are just as easily left traumatized as those of “aversive” rapes. But the distinction can be useful depending on which theory is being advocated to account for fantasies.

Here are the eight theories considered by Critelli and Bivona, plus another (#6) which they omit. I list them roughly in ascending order of explanatory power (worst first, best last), not necessarily shared by the authors of the article, and the numerical ratings on a scale of 0-5 are my own.

(1) Masochism. Rape fantasies are an expression of a woman’s innate desire for suffering and pain. The weakest theory on this list, (unless one is honestly prepared to claim that 31-57% of women are masochists), relying on dated psychoanalysis which assumes that rape fantasies are pathological. At best the theory accounts for fantasies of true masochists, who are few and far between. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(2) Male Rape Culture. Rape fantasies are a manifestation of male-dominated culture. Another weak theory. The idea is that women are conditioned by society to believe (or find attractive the idea) that they are unable to resist the advances of an aggressive male and should display vulnerability. Promoted in the ’70s by feminist Susan Brownmiller (see halfway down this post), who believes that rape fantasies are pathological. The glaring problem with it is that it ignores many strong-willed feminists who have rape fantasies (not to mention men who have fantasies of being raped by either men or women). Gender roles have changed dramatically since the ’70s, but rape fantasies remain consistent. Rape culture is real (especially in honor-shame societies), but it doesn’t explain fantasies like it does real-world rape. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(3) Blame Avoidance. Rape fantasies allow women to avoid blame or responsibility for expressing their sexuality. The most frequently cited theory. It states that women who are raised in sexually repressive environments and feel guilty about sex are prone to fantasize being taken against their will, thus absolving them of blame. Not only does the empirical data show no correlation between repression and rape fantasies, the theory has an Achilles’ heel: most women who have rape fantasies have just as many consensual fantasies, reducing the likelihood that they’re trying to “avoid blame” for expressing sexuality. This theory may have wide intuitive appeal, and is a politically correct way of explaining a controversial phenomenon, but like the above two needs to be removed from the literature as an explanation for rape fantasies. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(4) Openness. Rape fantasies are part of a woman’s generally open and accepting attitude toward sex. The opposite of blame avoidance: instead of being driven by repressed sexuality, other women are driven by libertinism. This one is as correct as blame avoidance is wrong: it’s true that women who engage in multiple sex partners, and/or seek out a variety of sex acts, and/or are bisexual, are more likely to have rape fantasies than other women. But this is descriptive and predictive rather than explanatory. It leaves unanswered the important question: however libertine a woman is, why choose a particular fantasy (rape) that would be repugnant if it happened in real life? Explanatory power: 0/5; descriptive power: 4/5.

(5) Desirability. Rape fantasies are a testament to a woman’s sexual power. The woman envisions herself as so desirable that a man will lose control and break the bounds of moral decency to have her, thus enhancing the woman’s self-esteem. While studies show that the need for desire accounts for some rape fantasies, they show no correlation between self-esteem (or body satisfaction) and rape fantasies. Also, as a general rule desirability seems artificial. Women can just as easily imagine themselves desirable in consensual fantasies. Why not fancy a man relentlessly pursuing her until she finally consents? Why is the fantasy of rape so essential to experiencing desire? Explanatory power: 2/5

(6) Reaction to Trauma. Rape fantasies are a way of gaining control over a real-life traumatic experience. This one isn’t on Critelli & Bivona’s list of eight, but Matthew Huston adds it. Since many masturbatory fantasies are attempts to transform early difficult experiences into pleasure, women who have been raped may attempt to master their trauma by taming the experience. This theory is based on the largest survey of sexual fantasies ever conducted, but also on more general observations about “early difficult experiences”, rape being one possibility. Explanatory power: 2/5.

(7) Biological Predisposition. Rape fantasies reflect a biological need to surrender to male dominance. Male dominance & female surrender is a basic pattern in the animal world, originating from primitive brain regions that have evolved to insure successful mating. This isn’t a predisposition to indiscriminate rape — which would have surely reduced the reproductive success of ancestral human females by making them vulnerable to impregnation by men with inferior genes — but rather to rape by a selected dominant male. This theory has something going for it, particularly for erotic rape fantasies (which involve an attractive male) but as with the male rape culture theory, it doesn’t account for those who have fantasies of being raped by women. Explanatory power: 3/5.

(8) Sympathetic Activation. Rape fantasies are a manifestation of enhanced sexual response owing to fear and anger. Increased blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension prepare the way for genital arousal and vaginal lubrication. As with biological predisposition, this is understandable: ancestral women who didn’t have an automatic vaginal response to rape would have been prone to penetrative injury resulting in illness and infertility, and would have less likely passed on the trait to offspring. For protective reasons, the emotions of fear and anger triggered by a rape can provide a “jump start” for sexual arousal. This is a promising avenue, especially for aversive rape fantasies (which involve high levels of fear), and has been confirmed by real-life rape victims who recount these physical responses, as well as the results of laboratory research showing surges of vaginal blood flow as women listen to descriptions of rape scenes. Explanatory power: 4/5.

(9) Adversary Transformation. Rape fantasies are an effective means of creating dramatic tension in a story that will ultimately have a positive ending. As in trashy romance novels (which account for 40% of paperback sales in the U.S., 54% of them involving the rape of the heroine) the woman/heroine envisions herself winning over her rapist in the end: having him voluntarily make a lifetime commitment to her, and transforming his cruelty into love. The rape is a dangerous piece of excitement and momentary evil that she will prove capable of transcending, analogous perhaps to a man’s fantasy of being temporarily crushed by an evil foe. The theory is plausible, because people love to reinvent themselves in unrealistic fantasies. In this light, consensual fantasies can become mundane and boring, like novels and movies which lack dramatic conflict. Explanatory power: 4/5.

Again, the explanatory power ratings are my own, based on my understanding of the evidence. Most agree that the first three theories should be discarded for lacking evidence, and for assuming rape fantasies are pathological based on false correlations — that women are psychologically masochistic, socially conditioned to be abused, or sexually repressed. The fourth theory is largely correct, but doesn’t explain rape fantasies. The fifth and sixth theories account for some fantasies but not enough to serve as a general rule. The seventh makes sense but as an evolutionary theory is hard to test. The last two seem to have the best explanatory power, and are compatible with each other. Like the seventh, the eighth addresses biological desire, explaining how women can be inclined to surrender and become angrily aroused. But as William Saletan notes, in real-life that’s the body saying one thing while the brain is saying quite another. What happens in a fantasy that makes the brain agree with the body?

The ninth theory addresses that psychological desire: the need to reinvent ourselves in escapist narratives. Saletan prefers the fifth theory, but desirability doesn’t seem to require a rape scenario as much as adversary transformation.

The last two theories could be subsumed under a more general one: Rape fantasies owe to the paradox of being able to experience negative and positive feelings simultaneously. And this returns us to the subject of horror movies.

Horror movie consumption is almost as puzzling as rape fantasy. Why will people pay for (let alone fantasize about) emotional experiences that involve heavy levels of terror and depravity? Why do people (like myself) enjoy being scared and disturbed by such films? In a recent study, Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen provide an answer to this question. They start by addressing two traditional theories:

(1) Intensity. Horror-movie fans are actually not afraid or revolted by the movies they watch, only excited. One person’s terror is another’s excitement, in other words. But while it’s true that people are frightened at different levels and by different things — and can become increasingly desensitized to fear and disgust — experiments don’t confirm that horror fans aren’t generally scared by the films that excite them. (It’s certainly not true of me: I’m genuinely frightened by a good horror film, and the more fright, the more thrill.)

(2) Aftermath. Horror-movie fans are willing to endure terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end when the horror is alleviated. This sounds plausible, but as experiments demonstrate, the aftermath relief of horror-movie watchers isn’t as great as the relief experienced by people who avoid exposure. “Those who avoid the experience are able to attain the greatest award from it.” (p 36)

Andrade and Cohen suggest, instead, a theory of

(3) Coactivation. Positive and negative feelings can co-occur when people are exposed to aversive stimuli. Intensity and aftermath theories assume this is impossible, but experiments show that people can experience distress and pleasure simultaneously, especially when they feel secure in a safe environment. Horror fans are thus “happy to be unhappy”: the most fearful or repulsive moments of the film are also the most emotionally pleasant.

This squares with my experience. When I saw The Exorcist as a kid I was so frightened I was near traumatized, and yet I wouldn’t have stopped watching it. Recently I had a similar experience with Eden Lake. During parts of it, I got so uncomfortable I wanted to stop the DVD, but I also really wanted to keep going, and one feeling seemed directly related to the other. I can only describe these experiences as simultaneous assaults of terror and exhilaration, but never gave much thought to the science behind it.

As Andrade and Cohen explain, their findings don’t address exactly how the interaction between positive and negative affect comes about, thus leaving unanswered the question of why people are willing to consume negative along with positive feelings. Why not restrict oneself to purely positive feelings? Wouldn’t that be even more satisfying than a mixture of the two? They speculate as follows:

“One possibility is that negative affect represents a reliable source of arousal which can be continuously converted into positive affect, as long as people place themselves within a given protective frame… A second possibility is that coactivation and a certain level of uncertainty within a protective frame provides individuals with an overall more pleasurable experience than, for instance, a pure and predictable positive experience…in other words, experiencing mixed feelings within a protective frame may be more fun.” (pp 38-39)

These possibilities are confirmed by two of the most plausible rape fantasy theories we looked at: sympathetic activation (biological arousal resulting from bad feelings), and adversary transformation (dramatic excitement provided by bad feelings). So independently of each other, studies of rape fantasies and horror-movie consumption suggest similar things, though there is plenty more testing to be done in these areas.

Sympathetic activation and coactivation show the biological dynamics of bad feelings which produce — or convert into, or co-occur with — good ones. Adversary transformation points to the way we crave dramatic excitement in novels and films, and even reinvent ourselves in unrealistic (rape) fictions. And on this last note, let’s not forget David Livingstone Smith’s important lesson that human beings require strong doses of self-deception to stay mentally healthy.