Code 21 Conference: Sam Harris Interview

Sam Harris was invited to speak at the 2021 Code Conference and you can watch the full lecture here. I reproduce some of it below. Harris said a lot of what I’ve been saying for a while now: that while the far right and far left are both dangerous, in many ways the left poses the greater threat in terms of cultural influence. Wokeism is becoming mainstreamed in a way that the sins of the far right are not, and the wokes are our future leaders, law makers, and justices.

“There’s derangement on both sides [of the right-left divide], but an asymmetry that’s very real. The far right is still the fringe, even with Trump. In terms of cultural influence, the Nazis don’t have real cultural influence; the white supremacists don’t have real cultural influence. The people on the far left, who are bending our conversation — who if you just did a keyword search for place in what they say, everything they say sounds like a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet. They have immense cultural influence. Every school in the country — certainly every private school, and many public schools — everything is being filtered through this woke outrage machine. It’s not that there’s no truth in it, it’s not that there’s nothing to worry about with respect to racism… But now we have new forms of segregation; we have areas of schools where whites shouldn’t enter… or you’re guilty of multicultural desecration. The proper goal of a society is to get to a point where we care less about the superficial differences between people (like race), not more. People who are living in a post-racial society — people who never cared about the color of anyone’s skin, or for that matter anyone’s sexual preference or gender identity — these people were living ethical lives, having broken out of what was truly a toxic past with respect to those forms of bigotry. But they’re now being told by the woke corner that it’s too soon (and that it will always be too soon) to say that you’re post-racial or truly blind with respect to these differences among people. Chelsea Handler just said it from this chair: ‘You as a white person have no standing, to say anything about race’. That’s madness; absolute madness. And the goal has to be where we arrive at a time where we simply don’t care about these things, anymore than we care about the color of someone’s hair…

We see people getting cancelled for using a term, even just to talk about the term. Not as a slur, but in an intellectual context, for example in English class to talk about Huck Finn. Or using it in a context where the only purpose of using it is to say, ‘This is how this word has to be avoided.’ These words are being treated as being magically destructive. Literally, like the term Voldemort. It’s a word that automatically demands punishment, even though everyone knows that you are not a racist. There are examples of people who have had their careers destroyed where everyone who was calling for their cancellation knew that they were being used as a scapegoat, to show allegiance to this doctrine. It’s a very childish relationship to language, among the many other sins intellectually that we might cite here. It’s a relationship to language that’s just not adult. We have to find the adults in the room, somehow, and get them to guide the conversation. And the problem is that our institutions have been so captured that they’re just not showing a willingness to do that.”

From the Q&A:

[Questioner #1] “I’m one of those women who was born without a uterus. So I’m curious. Help me understand why it is that in order to deal with these massive issues — climate change, the virus, etc. — why do we simultaneously have to dehumanize and de-legitimize transgender and non-binary folks who are speaking their truth about their identity. I don’t understand why those two things are in conflict.”

[Sam] “I would disagree with the premise of the question. I don’t think there’s anything dehumanizing about using terms like ‘woman’ and ‘man’ to make a specific point. They’re not intrinsically dehumanizing. It’s certainly not denying the reality of transgenderism or the ethical commitment to the total political equality of those people. Wokeism is policing the language in a highly unrealistic way and making scapegoats of people who are actually on your side — people who actually want total political equality for people regardless of gender identity. And I’m not saying that language never evolves. We do learn to use new terms –”

[Questioner #1] “But it has real-world consequences. In many states trans-youth are not getting access to health care, they’re not being able to use the restroom, because of the actions and the words. These laws are coming out of the actions and words of the people you’re defending.”

[Sam] “Some of it is coming from a backlash, and we’ve got two extremes amplifying hysteria on both sides. And there’s this violent pendulum swing, even in the course of any given day, between the two. And what we need is a reasonable middle that is committed to political equality and has compassion as its moral ballast. Perversely, as you go farther to the left, you get really stark examples of moral confusion. There are people who would castigate me for what I just said to you, but are actually kind of agnostic about the treatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Like, ‘Who am I to say that putting women in cloth bags is bad? That’s another culture, they’ve just decided that on their own. It would be my own colonialism and bigotry to judge that.’ No, you can’t have it both ways. There’s a lot of moral confusion proximate to your side of this debate, and that has to be sorted out. What I’m really arguing for is that the moral emergency parameter that we’ve put over it has to be relaxed. What we have now is a trigger warning standing in front of our entire civilization, from the point of view of the left. And I’ll grant you that you’re getting a reaction from the right that is of valid concern — it’s hostile, and it’s overreaching, and it’s amplified by real authoritarianism, and in some cases theocracy.”

[Questioner #1] “But that starts with you saying that I’m not a woman.”

[Sam] “No. You’re situation only makes sense by first acknowledging the reality of biology. The only way to discover that you are trans is to discover that you don’t feel compatible with the biology that was on your birth certificate. But now we have people who are literally saying that you shouldn’t put ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ on a birth certificate, because it’s so toxic for society to have made that decision. But again, what I’m arguing for is a conversation in which the temperature is turned down. Unless you’re someone like J.K. Rowling, your career can be destroyed for saying the things that I’ve just said about the term ‘woman’.”

[Questioner #2] “You talked about the left having a lot of cultural power and influence. But how does that connect when you compare it with the right, when they have more power in terms of the way the government operates?”

[Sam] “Well, I don’t think the right has the power in the U.S. at the moment. Look who’s president; look at Congress. It arguably did have the power under Trump, but the truth is that Trumpism is its own phenomenon. When you look at the level of policy commitment, it’s not even far right in most respect. Trump himself is a moral lunatic, don’t get me wrong. He and his personality cult pose an existential threat to our democracy. I think he’s the most dangerous cult leader on earth at the moment. But he’s not synonymous with the far right, and white supremacy, and all of that, even though he’s probably himself a racist of some sort, and he gratified the far right; but it’s not the same phenomenon. If you’re going to talk about the real far right, it simply has not captured our culture and doesn’t have the levers of power. But I’ll grant you it’s potentially scary and capable of violence, and it’s something we should be paying attention to.”

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.

 

Critical Race Theory Debate on Real Time

On Real Time last weekend, Bill Maher invited Ben Shapiro and Malcolm Nance to debate Critical Race Theory. Frankly I think Nance made an ass of himself. Shapiro was engaging the issue, and Nance did little more than evade the points being raised and insult Shapiro.

The discussion began with Maher asking each of the two guests to define Critical Race Theory. This is how Shapiro defined it:

“Critical Race Theory essentially argues that racism is baked into all the systems in American society, and that any sort of neutral system is in fact a guise for racial power. And so the argument is made by Derrick Bell, for example, that Brown v. Board of Education was actually a way for the white community to leverage its own power; it wasn’t an attempt to end segregation in public schools. Even things that are purportedly good in terms of race, so long as they uphold these broader systems — like capitalism, or the meritocracy — these good things are actually just guises for power. What that boils down to in practical terms is that all disparity equals discrimination. If you can see any stat where black people are under-performing white people, that means the system is set up for the benefit of white people, and that white people have a duty to tear down these systems in order to alleviate the racism that’s implicit in those systems. When it comes to schools, what this tends to come down to is that kids who are white experience privilege because the system was built for white people, and we have to change the standards.”

It’s a good summary, and even Nance (who obviously doesn’t like Shapiro) agreed. When asked by Maher to give his own definition of CRT, Nance said: “Oh, I agree with everything that he [Shapiro] just said.” Having then agreed on a definition, Nance endorses Critical Race Theory where Shapiro rejects it. I’m not a fan of Ben Shapiro, but I mostly agree with that he says here.

Basically, according to Critical Race Theory, racism is defined as “prejudice + power”. Prejudice alone isn’t racism; only people in power are racist. So when you watch the All in the Family classics, for example, and see Archie Bunker and George Jefferson being equally nasty and bigoted to each other, only Archie is the actual racist, according to CRT theorists (Bell, Crenshaw, Delgado, etc.). George doesn’t qualify as a racist — his sneers about “honkey houses” and such not withstanding — because he’s a black minority. It all boils down to power and power structures and power discourses, even when you can’t pinpoint who in particular is wielding all of this pernicious power.

A Grand Social Conspiracy

Some critics have claimed that postmodern theories like CRT amount to a grand social conspiracy, or, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have put it, a “conspiracy theory without conspirators”. A theory, that is, in which power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular (power-based) understanding of the world. Communicating with people who espouse Critical Race Theory can thus be extremely difficult, because they’re so obsessed with knowledge, power, language, and cultural relativism, that they see these dynamics at work (quite literally) everywhere – power displays in every interaction, offense in practically every other sentence, even when these aren’t obvious or even real.

The conspirators are ultimately white people in general, whether they are either inherently racist, de facto racist, or unwittingly racist (even when having good intentions), because they are part of an all-pervasive racist machine that’s simply inescapable until the system is demolished. “One could easily be forgiven – if critical race theory didn’t consider it racist to forgive this – for thinking that Critical Race Theory sounds rather racist itself, in ascribing profound failures of morals and character to white people.” (Pluckrose/Lindsay, p 121)

And unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, CRT opposes the liberal order. Meaning, it opposes (yes) equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law. All of this is deemed an unacceptable framework for addressing America’s racial problems, since all the elements of this framework were constructed by whites with agendas of power. Science itself is opposed insofar as it serves the interests of the powerful people who established that science (white western men) while setting up barriers against the participation of others.

To be Colorblind or not

Then there’s this. According to Critical Race Theory, to be colorblind is in fact to be racist, because it amounts to an attempt to ignore the all-pervasive racism that fuels white privilege. But that’s nonsense. To be colorblind is to treat everyone with equivalent human dignity regardless of their ethnicity or skin color — to be effectively “blind” to ethnicity and skin color in that sense. It does not mean to be blind to the problems minorities have faced, and continue to face.

Not only are the Critical Race Theorists wrong in claiming that colorblindness is racist, they are endorsing, from a practical point of view, atrocious psychology. Telling people who aren’t racist that they are, or implying that they are — and that even their good intentions are proof of latent racism — is a sure way to alienate everyone and not be taken seriously. As Pluckrose and Lindsay put it:

“Worst of all is to set up double-blinds, by telling people that if they notice race it is because they are racist, but if they don’t notice race it is because their privilege affords them the luxury of not noticing race. By focusing so intently on race and objecting to color-blindness – the refusal to attach social significance to race – critical race theory threatens to undo the social taboo against evaluating people by their race.” (Cynical Theories, p 134)

Yet another reason why CRT theorists are frustrating to communicate with. Heads they win, tails you lose.

Ironies, Hypocrisies

Most ironic is that race is far more of a social construct than sex and gender, and yet the CRT-minded wokes will blast a white guy who identifies as black, while celebrating him if he identifies as a woman. Biological sex has real, obvious, physical consequences – menstruation, pregnancy, birth, genitals, muscle mass, hormonal levels, etc. A man will never get pregnant no matter how strongly he identifies as a woman. A lesbian or gay couple will never have biological children who share both their genes (though it’s possible for one or the other of the pair to produce a biological child thanks to sperm/egg donors and invitro fertilization).

Race, on the other hand, is far less easily delineated. Most biologists these days don’t even talk of races, but rather of populations, which can be identified through genetic markers as having had slightly different evolutionary heritage. The concept of race – from a biological point of view – is almost useless in practice. It also appears to be a relatively recent obsession. In the Bible, the Mediterranean region had whites, blacks, and browns, and yet skin color is almost never mentioned in it; it just doesn’t seem to have been significant. Racism, as we understand the term, seems to have emerged during the 16th century, during which time prejudice on grounds of religious difference gave way to beliefs about the superiority of some races over others.

The fact is that no matter what our “race”, we can all seamlessly interbreed with each other, resulting in offspring who are not so clearly categorized into one particular race. You could very honestly say, in fact, that race is a spectrum (of various physical characteristics), unlike sex. But while the Critical Race Theorist agrees – or pays lip service to – the idea that race is a social construct, you’d best take care how you construct that for yourself, lest you fall under the woke ire.

CRT vs. Classical Liberalism

To be clear, racism remains a serious problem in society and needs to be addressed. But Critical Race Theory doesn’t provide sound tools for addressing them, and critical race theorists shouldn’t be surprised when they are derided and caricatured by those on the populist right, or when they are not taken seriously by classical liberals, who are much better equipped for the task. The swiftest progress made against racism (and sexism for that matter) occurred in the 60s and 70s, before postmodernism became influential, and long before the emergence of the applied postmodernism of the wokes. Racism is best dealt with by being honest about race experiences, while still working towards a common vision: that the principle of not discriminating by race – whether one is a minority or in a position of power – should be universally upheld.

In other words, to cite Pluckrose and Lindsay (pp 266-67), we should:

Affirm that racism remains a problem in society and needs to be addressed.

Deny that Critical Race Theory provides a useful tool to do so. Racial issues are best solved through the most rigorous analyses possible.

Contend that racism is best defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior against individuals or groups on the grounds of race and can be successfully addressed as such.

Deny that racism is hard-baked into society via discourses, that it is unavoidable and present in every interaction to be discovered, and that this is part of a ubiquitous systematic problem that is everywhere, always, and all-pervasive.

Contend that each individual can choose not to hold racist views and should be expected to do so, and acknowledge that racism is declining over time and becoming rarer [thanks mostly to liberal Enlightenment values that wokes and CRT theorists decry].

 

Kudos to Bill Maher for hosting the debate.

 

Social Justice Theories: Original, Applied, and Reified Postmodernism

I read Cynical Theories (2020) on the advice of a friend whose advice seldom fails. It’s a helpful examination of certain theories and their relationship to postmodernism, which was bonkers in the first place but has mutated into the social justice agendas of the hard left.

The authors are Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who are hardly two peas in a pod. They had a considerable difference in opinion over the last election, with Lindsay deciding in the fall of 2020 to support Trump. I deeply admire Pluckrose, and whatever made Lindsay align himself on the other side of the electorate, that doesn’t undo his sound contributions in this book. In fact, his co-authorship tests the reader. Anyone who dismisses the book in advance because “Lindsay became a Trumpian” is subscribing to identity politics – judging a book not on the basis of its arguments, but who wrote it – which is what Cynical Theories is about.

Postmodernism’s Three Stages

Postmodernism has been hard to define, and the authors outline the core principles and corollaries shared in all three phases of the movement (pp 59-61).

The core principles —

A. The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.

B. The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.

And their corollaries —

1. The blurring of boundaries. Most evident in postcolonial and queer theories, which are centered on ideas of fluidity, ambiguity, indefinability, and hybridity – all of which blur or even demolish the boundaries between categories. The common concern is over “disruptive binaries”. This theme is less evident in critical race theory (which actually can be very black-and-white).

2. The power of language. The idea that words are powerful and dangerous – and can be just as harmful as physical violence – has become so widespread now to amount a near criminalization of the English language and making people (especially comedians) fear to speak at all. Concerns about verbal violence, safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and politically-correct terminology all testify to the endurance of postmodernism in its applied and (especially) reified forms.

3. Cultural relativism. Most evident in postcolonial theory, but also more broadly in the context of social-justice scholarship. Put simply, western nations are the pinnacle of oppressive power, and the sins of cultural arrogance and western imperialism are as great as – if not greater than – customs like honor-killings and clitoridectomies.

4. The loss of the individual and the universal. As opposed to classical liberalism, which focuses on achieving universal human rights and access to opportunities (for all races, genders, and identities), so as to allow each individual to fulfill his or her potential, applied and reified postmodern activism is deeply skeptical of these values, if not openly hostile to them. Applied/reified postmodern scholarship regards classical liberalism as complacent, naive, or indifferent about deeply ingrained prejudices, assumptions, and biases that limit and constrain people with marginalized identities.

The original postmodernists (of the late 60s to the mid 80s) were a bit aimless, using irony and playfulness to reverse hierarchies and disrupt what they saw as unjust knowledge and power structures. The players are well known – Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard – and their treatises were mostly descriptive, of what has been and is (as they believed).

The applied postmodernists (of the 90s and the 00s) and the reified postmodernists (of the 10s to the present) have focused on dismantling hierarchies and making moral claims about language and oppression – thereby becoming an activist force, preaching about the evils of power and privilege. They have used postmodernist ideas for reconstructive purposes, in a prescriptive way – putting an “ought” ahead of what “is”. Applied and reified postmodernism have actively undermined public trust in the academy, and become more like a church, asserting what people ought to think and believe, irrespective of science and evidence which are seen as integral to power structures.

Put another way, the original postmodernists observed and lamented. The applied and reified postmodernists have sought to reorder society – and in the last decade, the reified incarnation has become a mighty effective force, and an authoritarian one.

The Social Justice Gospel of Reified Postmodernism

Social justice warriors frequently take umbrage at requests for evidence, because, as the authors explain, the scientific method is part of the discourse system and knowledge production that was built by powerful people who valued these approaches and designed them (it is said) to exclude alternative means of communicating and producing ‘knowledge’. Science, in other words, has been organized in a way to serve the interests of the powerful people who established it – white western men – while setting up barriers against the participation of others. To remedy this, applied/reified postmodernism has demanded “epistemic justice” and “research justice” in place of reason and evidence. Meaning that we should include the lived experiences, emotions, and cultural and/or religious traditions of minority groups, and consider them “knowledges” to be privileged alongside – or even over – reason and evidence-based knowledge.

If the applied postmodernism of the 90s and 00s remained confined mostly to academic fields and activist circles, the reified postmodernism of the last ten years has been aggressively mainstreamed. Say the authors:

“The reification of the postmodern principles means that the original postmodern radical skepticism that any knowledge can be reliable has been gradually transformed into a complete conviction that knowledge is constructed in the service of power, which is rooted in identity, and that this can be uncovered through close readings of how we use language. Therefore, in Social Justice scholarship, we continually read that patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, ableism, and fatphobia are literally structuring society and infecting everything. They exist in a state of immanence – present always and everywhere, just beneath a nicer-seeming surface that can’t quite contain them.” (p 182)

And so it’s common now to hear that all white people are complicit in racism (if not racist), because of their automatic participation in the system of power and privilege described by critical race theory; that all men are likewise complicit in sexism (if not sexist); that sex is not biological, and it exists on a spectrum; that denial of gender identity is killing people; that the desire to cure disabilities and to remedy obesity is hateful; that criticism of the Islamic religion (describing it as a religion of violence) is hateful; and that language can be literal violence.

If that all sounds insane, or paranoid, or anti-factual, it is, and the authors compare the postmodernist view to a vast social conspiracy theory. A theory in which power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular understanding of the world. Communicating with the applied/reified postmodernists (i.e. the wokes and social justice warriors) can be extremely difficult in this sense, say the authors, because they are so obsessed with knowledge, power, boundaries, language, and cultural relativism, that they see these dynamics at work everywhere – power displays in every interaction, offense in practically every other sentence, even when these aren’t obvious or even real.

The past decade has brought this all home, as social justice scholarship treats these postmodernist principles as dogma, tolerates little dissent, and “cancels” those who disagree with it. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book thus comes as a welcoming corrective, and it’s especially useful for pulling together the core principles and corollaries of postmodernism that are sometimes elusive.

From Start to End

The book proceeds as a chronicle of the three stages. In chapter 1 the authors describe the tree trunk of original postmodernism, and its deconstructive project of despair and nihilism. In chapters 2-7 they outline the tree branches of applied postmodernism – postcolonial theory (which is exposed as often factually wrong, morally vacant, and patronizing, not to mention negligent and dangerous), queer theory (which often tries to modify or unmake the concepts of gender and sex in anti-scientific ways, so as to render itself baffling and irrelevant), critical race theory (in which racism is construed to be not merely prejudice, but “prejudice + power”), feminisms and gender studies (in which the classical liberal roots of feminism are seen to be replaced with the postmodern blurring of categories and an obsessive focus on language), and disability & fat studies (which advocate that disabled and obese people have a responsibility to celebrate their disabilities or fathood to subvert social norms, and even to refuse attempts at treatment or cure). In chapters 8-9 they paint the leaves of reified postmodernism, which is now an effective movement that has come to full fruition, taking the applied theories and cramming them down everyone’s throat.

And in that end game, a curious irony emerges – the “contradiction that lies at the heart of reified postmodernism: how can intelligent people profess both radical skepticism and radical relativism – which is the postmodern knowledge principle (1, above) – and at the same time assert the Truth According to Social Justice Theory with absolute certainty?” The authors offer the following explanation:

“The answer seems to be that the skepticism and relativism of the postmodern knowledge principle are now interpreted in a more restrictive fashion: that it is impossible for humans to obtain reliable knowledge by employing evidence and reason, but, it is now claimed, reliable knowledge can be obtained by listening to the ‘lived experiences’ of members of marginalized groups… The difficulty with this sort of Social Justice way of ‘knowing’ is, however, the same as that with all gnostic ‘epistemologies’ that rely upon feelings, intuition, and subjective experience. What should we do when peoples’ subjective experiences conflict? The overarching (classical) liberal principle of conflict resolution – to put forth one’s best arguments and hash the issue out, deferring to the best available evidence whenever possible – is completely eliminated by this approach. Indeed, it’s billed as a conspiracy used to keep marginalized people down.” (pp 209-210)

It’s thus no exaggeration, as the authors conclude, to say that the reified postmodernists – the social justice theorists – have created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of almost any kind.

And it’s no accident that Donald Trump was elected in the midst of this crazed reified PoMo. In the middle of the 2010s, the time was ripe for someone like him. Granted this happened for many reasons (not least the Democrats’ neglect of the middle-class), a big reason was this regressive-left authoritarianism. When social justice warriors portray themselves as the sole champions of the marginalized, advancing their cause – astonishingly – by rejecting classical liberalism as a form of oppression, and then on top of that by doing so in increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian means, it wasn’t surprising to see a Donald Trump emerge. Wokeism called him forth.

The Endurance of Classical Liberalism

Pluckrose and Lindsay’s alternative to social justice theories comes in the final tenth chapter, where they explain why classical liberalism has stood the test of time as the best political option, and how classical liberalism and reified postmodernism are not just in tension, they are almost 100% at odds with each other:

  • Liberalism sees knowledge as something we can learn about objectively, with enough discipline; postmodernism sees knowledge as created by human beings – stories we tell ourselves to validate privilege and power.
  • Liberalism embraces categorizations and clarity of understanding; postmodernism blurs boundaries and erases categories, reveling in manufactured ambiguity.
  • Liberalism values the individual and universal human values; postmodernism rejects both in favor of group identity and identity politics.
  • Liberals champion the underdog, but they center on human dignity across the board; SJWs and wokes focus on victimhood.
  • Liberals encourage disagreement and debate as a means of getting at the truth; postmodernism rejects these as ways of reinforcing dominant discourses that suppress certain perspectives – claiming that we can’t get to “the” truth but only “our” truths rooted in our values – and furthermore insists that most truth is just a language game.
  • Liberals believe in progress; postmodernists are skeptical of progress.
  • Most importantly, classical liberalism accepts criticism, even of itself, and is thus self-correcting; reified postmodernism cannot be criticized. Which means that classical liberalism is inherently constructive because of the evolutionary process it engenders; SJW/woke postmodernism is inherently corrosive because of its cynicism and attachment to methods that torpedo the evolutionary process.

I have always been a classical liberal and Pluckrose & Lindsay’s book reinforces my stance. Liberalism holds to the values of individual liberty, democracy, limitations on the powers of government, universal human rights, freedom of speech and expression and debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion – and these values have produced the freest societies over the past five centuries, with the least amounts of oppression. This is because liberalism is “intrinsically goal-oriented, problem-solving, self-correcting, and – despite what postmodernists think – genuinely progressive.” (p 243)

To those who insist that progress is a myth, I can only roll my eyes. Progress has always occurred the fastest (despite setbacks) under liberalism, not least in the 60s and 70s, when racial and gender discrimination became illegal, homosexuality was decriminalized, and women gained access to contraception. This all happened during the time postmodernism was revving up and, incredibly, insisting that it was time to stop believing in progress, science, and reason. Maybe the postmodernists just genuinely didn’t know what progress was. Or perhaps PoMo thinkers never stop to reflect that without the “oppressive tools of the white male patriarchy”, they’d likely be dead or living in primitive squalor without the benefits provided by math and science over the past centuries.

Can anything be salvaged from postmodernism?

Very little. The authors acknowledge kernels of truth to the core principles of postmodernism and the four corollaries, but it amounts to damning the PoMo project with faint praise. There is literally nothing postmodernism can do, that liberalism cannot do better. The authors consider each (see pp 252-258):

A. The postmodern knowledge principle. The principle assumes that knowledge is a socially constructed cultural artifact, which is only true in a banal sense. The principle does tell us to do a better job of listening and considering alternative ideas. Fair enough. But it certainly doesn’t obligate us to “listen and believe” or to “shut up and listen”.

B. The postmodern political principle. The principle assumes that the world is a zero-sum power game and a conspiracy theory without individual conspirators. It can’t accept that progress is incremental and fallible, and practically resents scientists’ lack of omniscience. It is correct, however, that harmful discourses can gain tyrannical power and harm people. And guess what? Reified postmodernism is one such discourse. It’s good that liberalism fights back against it and its social justice theories, as this book does.

  • The blurring of boundaries. Granted it is wise to be skeptical of rigid boundaries. They should be tested always. But categories themselves are not inherently oppressive. If you want to argue that men and women don’t fit neatly into boxes, use science to show that, not your wishes.
  • The power of language. Language can indeed be dangerous, but regulating language, censoring speech, or manufacturing offense in language is even more dangerous. Liberalism advocates a marketplace of ideas; the idea that social justice is served by restricting what is said or banning some ideas or terminologies is unsupported by history or reason.
  • Cultural relativism. There are indeed profound differences across cultures. As a former Peace Corps volunteer I’m aware of that more than many. But it’s just as dangerous and ridiculous to pretend that we cannot make judgments about the practices of a culture other than our own. Despite our variances across culture, we are first and foremost human beings with a universal nature.
  • The loss of the individual and the universal. There is some truth to the idea that individualism and universalism is limited, but there is more truth in the idea that everyone of is is an individual and share a common human nature. Identity politics is simply a lousy way to empowerment. Imagine, say the authors, if Martin Luther King Jr. had asked white Americans to “be a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant” (like Robin DiAngelo asks in White Fragility). The fact that King, liberal feminists, and gay pride activists of the 60s and 70s grounded their social-justice protests in appeals to liberal, individual, and universal dreams is what made them successful. Making common cause with others is the enlightened approach to social justice.

Principled Oppositions

The authors conclude with a set of “principled oppositions” which illustrate their approach to social justice (the classical liberal one) compared to the postmodern approach to Social Justice (with a capital S and J). I’ll cite the third one, for sexual identity:

We affirm that discrimination and bigotry against sexual minorities remains a problem in society and requires addressing.

We deny that this problem can be solved by queer theory, which attempts to render all categories relevant to sex, gender, and sexuality meaningless.

We contend that homophobia and transphobia are defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts against homosexual and transgendered people on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.

We deny that dismantling categories of sex, gender, or sexuality or that forwarding concepts of an oppressive “heteronormativity” and “cisnormativity” is the best way to make society more welcoming to sexual minorities.

We contend that sexual minorities are also normal and represent a natural occurring variation on sexuality and gender identity and can easily be accepted as such in the same way that other variations (like red hair and left-handedness) are currently recognized as traits found in a minority of humans who are regarded as completely normal human individuals and valued members of society. Homophobia and transphobia are intentional acts, undertaken by individuals who should be expected to do otherwise.

They also do sets like this for racism, sexism, and social justice in general. Affirmations, denials, and contentions that I agree with entirely.

Afterthoughts

Alongside Cynical Theories, I recommend another book that I never got around to reviewing: The Coddling of the American Mind (2019), by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The book describes the alarming decrease in people’s ability to cope with debate, challenges to precious ideas, and hurt feelings. Sometimes it’s hardly the students’ fault, and Cynical Theories helps us see why: the culture of reified postmodernism is so suffocating and omnipresent these days, that it’s simply how students are conditioned: they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that they shouldn’t have to be threatened by challenging or difficult or different ideas – especially not those that go against social justice dogmas.

Watch your language

And on another related note, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the second corollary of postmodernism, regarding the power of language, and how people are so willing to let language unnerve and upset them to debilitating degrees. I speak as a minority on the subject. I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and know first-hand the power of derisive speech. It’s human nature to be bothered by hostile language or hate speech – and tempting for many to want to censor or deplatform it altogether. But we have to be better than that, and refuse to allow language to get the better of us. The reified postmodern idea that language is literally violent is only true if the listener allows it to be true. Decrying politically incorrect speech at every turn grants language way too much power over us. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have empathy as speakers; simply that we need more resilience as listeners.

Malebolge: A Revised Circle 8 for the Modern Age

Part 1 of my Inferno tour consists of eleven cantos covering Circles 1-7. Part 2 will also span eleven cantos, but covering Circle 8 alone. Circle 8 will be over 40% of the entire tour, and it’s worth reflecting over why Dante devoted so much breakdown to the sin of fraud.

Circle 8 is called Malebolge, which means “evil ditches”, and there are ten of them. (Click on the right image for full view.) According to Dorothy Sayers:

“Malebolge is the image of the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public. Sexuality, ecclesiastical and civil office, language, ownership, counsel, authority, psychic influence, and material interdependence — all the media of the community’s exchange are perverted and falsified, till nothing remains but the descent into the final abyss where faith and trust are wholly and forever extinguished.” (Inferno, p 185)

That’s about as accurate a description of Circle 8 as any. However, I am revising Ditches 3 and 5. In Dante’s scheme, Ditch 3 punishes the ecclesiastical crime of simony, which is archaic in today’s age. It was part of the feudal structure by which clergy members (like priests and bishops) became the hand-picked pawns of secular lords and emperors. I can’t come up with an example of a modern simoniac. Ditch 5 punishes barratry (the secular equivalent of simony) and also grafters who use their political office to take bribes. Grafters can easily be grouped with the thieves and extortionists on Ditch 7.

In place of simony and grafting/barratry, I’m substituting categories that Dante would have surely added if he had lived in today’s world. He never knew woke-left propaganda, alt-right conspiracy theories, yellow journalism, and fake news like we have it today. My new Ditch 3 punishes snowflakes — woke college professors, public speakers, or commentators who have a large platform. They are fraudulent because they subordinate facts to feelings. My new Ditch 5 punishes cranks — crackpot scholars and conspiracy theorists.

This revision also carries the benefit of freeing up Ditch 10 to be reserved for the falsifiers of something concrete: forgers, counterfeiters, and identity thieves. Dante had constructed Ditch 10 as a “catch-all” punishing ground for any falsifier, including liars in general (“falsifiers of words”), but liars and deceivers are spread out across many Ditches, in some form or another, including, now, on my new Ditches 3 and 5.

So this, tentatively, is what Circle 8 will look like, and the souls I plan to see there.

Circle 8 Souls Punished
Sinners I encounter in this Ditch
Ditch 1
Panderers and Seducers Jeffrey Epstein (P), Gerald Sandusky (S)
Ditch 2
Flatterers Giulio Alberoni, Joseph Goebbels, Mike Pence
Ditch 3
Snowflakes Linda Sarsour, Reza Aslan, Laurie Charles
Ditch 4
False Prophets Charles Taze Russell, Ophira and Tali Edut, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, Brian David Mitchell
Ditch 5
Cranks and Conspiracy Theorists Oliver Stone, Michael Baigent, Alex Jones, Maajid Nawaz, Steven Brandenburg
Ditch 6
Hypocrites Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Michael Landon, James Buchanan
Ditch 7
Thieves (Robbers, Extortionists, Launderers) Carl Gugasian, Darnell Riley, Francisco Correa Sanchez, Abdulla Yameen
Ditch 8
Counselors of Fraud Bernie Madoff, Martin Shkreli, L. Ron Hubbard, Mariam Al-Sohel
Ditch 9
Sowers of Discord, Inciters of Rebellion Daniel Shays, Donald Trump
Ditch 10
Forgers, Counterfeiters, Identity Thieves Matvei Golovinski, Charles Dawson, Konrad Kujau, Walter Fritz, Morton Smith, Wesley Weber, Frank William Abagnale

And here are the punishments I came up with for Ditches 3 and 5:

Circle 8 Souls Punished
Contrapasso: Punishment Fitting the Sin
Ditch 1
Panderers and Seducers They are whipped by devils while marching. The devils apparently gain sexual pleasure by inflicting pain on those who were either pimps or obtained sexual pleasure by abuse of trust.
Ditch 2
Flatterers They live in the shit they spoke in life — plunged into a lake of excrement.
Ditch 3
Snowflakes They have their lips sown shut, forced to march on a narrow line to a specific drumbeat. As they subordinated truth to their personal feelings, and policed the speech (or even tried to ban speech) of those who spoke truth, so now in death they have their lips sown shut, unable to ever speak again. And because they manufactured offenses, castigating people for trivial causes, they are now flailed with a spiked ball for even slightly stepping out of line or missing a single beat.
Ditch 4
False Prophets They walk with heads twisted backwards, destined to look only behind through eyes blinded by tears.
Ditch 5
Cranks and Conspiracy Theorists They sit against the walls of the ditch with their eyes torn out, continually screaming in fear. As they feared every phantom menace they couldn’t see any real evidence for, so now they can’t see anything at all, and suffer extreme paranoia.
Ditch 6
Hypocrites They walk in gilded cloaks lined with lead. As in life, they shine on the outside but are lifeless on the inside.
Ditch 7
Thieves (Robbers, Extortionists, Grafters) They have their hands tied behind their backs by snakes and suffer a horrible metamorphosis, stealing each others identity, unable to distinguish what’s “mine” and what’s “yours” after all the transitions.
Ditch 8
Counselors of Fraud They used their eloquence to mislead people and rip them off, and so are wrapped in tongues of fire which conceal them, just as in life their speech concealed their fraudulent thoughts.
Ditch 9
Sowers of Discord, Inciters of Rebellion They divided people in life, so now in death they are hacked and divided into a dismembered state, forced to drag their mutilated bodies around the ditch. Their wounds heal as they march the circuit, and then the devil cuts them open again.
Ditch 10
Forgers, Counterfeiters, Identity Thieves Forgers are afflicted with leprosy, counterfeiters with dehydration, and identity thieves are driven insane. Their physical rottenness mirrors the rottenness of their souls that caused them to falsify things.

 

Ellen/Elliot Page and the Declining Numbers of Lesbians

Yesterday the buzz was that Ellen Page is now Elliot Page. Page had come out lesbian in a moving speech on Valentine’s Day in 2014, and yesterday came out as transgender. What’s interesting is that only a few days before there were online discussions about the fading of lesbianism. It does make me wonder if Page’s second coming out has something to do with this trendiness or any social contagion factor.

Katie Herzog and Andrew Sullivan’s article (from four days ago), “Where Have All the Lesbians Gone?”, covers how the term “lesbian” is rapidly disappearing and wonders if “gay” will be next to go. That may sound crazy (because it is crazy), but in the minds of the ultra-woke, the term “homosexual” assumes a binary view of sex and can thus be construed as a bigoted term:

After Portland’s last lesbian bar closed in 2010, as Ellena Rosenthal explored in the Willamette Week, there were attempts to start lesbian-specific nights at various venues, but most avoided the L-word to appear inclusive of trans and nonbinary people. One event, called Temporary Lesbian Bar, apologized after being accused of condoning “trans women exterminationism” for using the labrys — a double-headed ax that symbolizes female strength and has long been a part of lesbian iconography — in their logo. That event still exists, but the organizers make sure to advertise that, despite the name, it’s “open, inclusive, and welcoming to all people.” The flight from “lesbian” has accelerated since. An academic in the Southeast, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that when she mentioned to a colleague that she’s a lesbian, the colleague “reacted like I’d confessed to being a Confederate Lost-Causer. She told me that the term is outdated and problematic, and I shouldn’t use it.” So the lesbian keeps quiet about her identity: “It’s like living in a second closet.” Not long ago, it would have been the Christian right stigmatizing homosexual women. Today, it’s also from people who call themselves queer.

The discussion was then picked up the following day on Jerry Coyne’s ““Why Evolution is True” blog, where Coyne discussed the increased social contagion factor that makes it cooler these days to be trans than lesbian.

Readers know that I was a fan of Page’s acting performances in his early career. These days he’s okay but not quite as on fire (I tried watching The Umbrella Academy but couldn’t get into it). I wish him the best and hope that this second coming out is authentic and not born of any discomfort with identifying as lesbian. Biological sex may not be binary, but it’s certainly bimodal (with very rare exceptions due to genetic/physical disorders), and not on a “spectrum” as many of the woke crowd insist. And it’s pathetically sad — though not in the least bit surprising — when some lesbians have to fear the left as much as the right when identifying as lesbian.

The Past Five Decades Ranked

In ranking the decades I have lived through (not counting the 60s, for which I was an infant at the tail end), it became clear that each era had its strengths. It’s not so easy to say which is best and worst — or at least not as easy as I used to think before working it through. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the 80s; though it ranks last, I’m glad I grew up in that period. Here’s how they line up.

The 70s: Rank #1

This was a gloomy and nihilistic decade, so it’s no surprise it’s my favorite. But I was too young to take it all in as it deserved.

It was the Golden Age of cinema, giving us masterpieces like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Alien. Even when a film wasn’t great, chances are that it was at least good. Blockbusters weren’t a thing yet, and scriptwriters actually had to come up with good stories; and they weren’t afraid to go dark. No decade has celebrated pushing the boundaries of free expression to its uttermost limit, thanks mostly to the consequences of ’60s liberation and outrage over the Vietnam War. Thus horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left.

These were the days when liberals stood for free speech, and when leftists were conversationalists, not snowflakes. Transgressive TV shows like All in the Family and films like The Exorcist could only have been made in the 70s — and will never, ever, be made again, let alone deemed acceptable in the mainstream. All in the Family‘s comedy reached many people and turned them away from their prejudices; it worked precisely because the comedy was so offensive. It remains the best comedy of all time, a withering social satire, but try posting clips of it on Youtube today, and they’ll be removed, by thought police who are catering to the feelings of the very people All in the Family was defending.

For music, the 70s was the best decade by far. It was the time of progressive rock — Genesis, before they sold out in the mid-80s; Led Zeppelin; Pink Floyd; Rush; Fleetwood Mac; and David Bowie. The music of this era was cerebral and not the most accessible, but it sure grew on you when you gave it half a chance, and it has aged better than any rock music in history, going back to the 50s.

Other stuff: Dungeons & Dragons was born in the 70s, ushering in D&D’s Golden Age (74-82) — the age of pulp fantasy involving morally ambiguous heroes like Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd & Grey Mouser. Parenting was hands-off, and kids had their independence. The only thing really bad about the 70s was fashion, and it was admittedly quite bad: the hair and dress styles were ghastly.

On the downside, it certainly wasn’t the decade of peace and prosperity. This was thanks to Vietnam and the economic purgatory left in its wake. Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia, and when he left office, his sins (and those of his predecessor Johnson) caught up and pummeled the American people with stagflation — something never seen before or since — as unemployment, stagnant growth, and inflation came together at once, and contradicted what everyone believed: that inflation correlated with growth, and that unemployment led to less inflation. Economics 101 went out the window, and no one knew what to do.

No wonder the 70s saw so much artistic creativity. It was the era of disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage. Thus the existential tone of so much of the entertainment. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. In sum, the decade was about ruined innocence — and while many people find that despairing, I believe it sourced a boundless creativity.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 70s: The Ice Storm, Ang Lee, 1997.

The 80s: Rank #4

I came of age in this era, so it’s “my” decade, but it ranks last. On the plus side, kids still had their independence; I never had to deal with helicopter parenting. There was no social media or internet, and while I enjoy online activities as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t have them growing up. It made me get outside. I played at the sand dunes, biked in the woods, and roamed the wilderness. I would have turned out a very different person (and not for the better) had I been micromanaged by a parent and stayed at home all day surfing the web. It’s true that as a D&D addict I spent a lot of time playing inside too, but it was old-school tabletop and fostered imagination and creativity. All that was the good part of the ’80s.

The bad was almost everything else. Aside from a few exceptions — and ’70s-styled layovers released during the early years of ’80-’82, like Road Warrior, Blade Runner, and Conan — film was awful. TV shows were even worse, Miami Vice being the singular exception. The music of the 80s was painful to the ear, and it’s aged even worse, aside from timeless bands like U2 and Peter Gabriel, and the more gothic artists like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Mission UK. As for hair and dress, it’s embarrassing to look back on, and everyone makes fun of it today, though to be fair, anything after the ’70s was a fashion improvement. At the time, I admit I loved the light-colored pastels, and even bought a couple of Miami-Vice style suits.

It was a socially conservative decade to say the least — the era of Reaganomics, homophobia, the religious right, the cold war, the drug war (D&D players like me recall the fundamentalist war on D&D with particular disgust) and a “family-friendly” outlook that harked back to the ’50s. We almost lost the right to burn the American flag. All of this was opposite the transgressive ’70s, which the Reagan era “corrected” by resurrecting ’50s mores: the importance of the nuclear family, and a collective spirit to oppose the individualism that encouraged thinking too deeply for oneself. The 80s was also the “be all you can be” decade, promoting a naive optimism that being the lowest underdog was no obstacle to achieving your dreams no matter the odds. (How else could films like Karate Kid be all the rage and taken so seriously?) The despairing cynicism of the previous decade required medicine, and the 80s had an endless artificial supply.

And though I rank it last, I’m actually glad that I grew up in the 80s. I was able to come of age without the helicopter parenting and social media, and then live long enough to appreciate, as an adult, the results of the tech and artistry booms when they arrived in the 21st century.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the ’80s: Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers, 2016-17-19.

The 90s: Rank #2

The era of good feelings and abundance, and also the tech boom. It didn’t start so well, with the Gulf War and the recession of 90-92, but soon after Clinton took office, times were grand.

Film started getting good again: gone was the corny humor that suffused so many ’80s dramas; filmmakers went dark, and turned out instant classics like Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and Bound. Quentin Tarantino became a thing, and indie films became a viable alternative to the mainstream. TV wasn’t great, but it was an improvement over the ’80s. There was the brilliant Twin Peaks, the hilariously anti-PC South Park, and other game changers that showed thinking outside the box. For fashion, the 90s was basically an anti-fashion decade, with comfort trumping style: ripped jeans, bike shorts even for walking, windbreakers, bandannas, etc. Still, the anti-fashion of the 90s was an improvement on what passed for fashion in the 70s and 80s.

It was the absolute worst decade for D&D. Modules were railroady and uninspired. The best efforts came in recapitulations of products from the 70s and 80s — desperate attempts to relive the old glory. TSR died at the end of the decade, and by then I had lost interest in D&D to the extent I almost trashed all my rule books and modules. (Thankfully I didn’t.) As for music, the popular stuff was an improvement over the 80s, the good stuff about equal. The highlights were Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Thanks to Clinton, the mid- and late 90s were some of the best years of American existence, full of peace, prosperity, and good will. It was the start of the tech boom, before technology enslaved people in the 21st century. The handwriting was on the wall for helicopter parenting — as parents become more territorial and paranoid about letting their kids explore and play on their own — but there remained a semblance of childhood independence.

The 90s saw many people shed prejudices without regressing into social justice warriors. When people were called bigots, it’s often because they really were bigots. The idea was that everyone should be treated the same regardless of sex and ethnicity, but you didn’t have to be hyper-aware of these issues at every moment, nor have everything traced back to male white privilege. Gay marriage was still in the future, and homophobia still a big problem, but the conversation was open; it was becoming increasingly uncool to be a homophobe. There was an LGB community, at least.

I can understand why those who grew up in the 90s defend the era so passionately. It was a time you could think life was great even when it threw its worst at you.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 90s: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, 2012.

The 00s-10s: Rank #3

I’m sure there’s a school of thought that insists on major differences between the aughts and the tens, but whoever says that is spitballing. The aughts never ended; we’re still living them. (Though I suspect the impact of Covid will bring about a genuinely new era.) The present era has been going on for 20 years, shaped by a gaudy media landscape that has radically altered how we get and process information. 9/11 was the catalyst, and technology made it all possible, but these were just the ingredients that gave release to intense tribal feelings that had been building on both sides of the left-right divide. It’s been the age of echo chambers, alternate facts, walls of intolerance… and the blurring and utter failure of the two-party political system.

Make no mistake: There was no substantial difference between the Bush (2001-08) and Obama (2009-16) eras, despite that one wore the Republican label and the other Democrat. This was a first in American history, when a changing of the party guard amounted to no real change at all. Obama was a slight improvement granted (he did some good for the environment), but certainly not much. Under both presidents, peace was elusive; both waged war and got people killed for no good reason; they toppled dictators and made things worse, leaving the Mid-East in shambles; both used the failed Keynesian methods of bailouts and stimulus packages to “jumpstart” the economy, and analysts (well before Covid) had been predicting the bursting of another housing bubble with another recession; both Bush and Obama infringed on civil liberties, especially the 4th Amendment. Then came Donald Trump (2017-2020), a demagogue whose success owed largely to Obama’s failure in helping the middle class, but also as a fed-up reaction to the woke left that has become as puritanical as the religious right was in the 80s. Trump stopped us from waging war but otherwise served us disaster. To put it mildly, we haven’t had a halfway decent president since Clinton in the 90s, nor a good president since Carter in the 70s. The 21st century has been an uninterrupted steamroll of shitty politics, with still no relief in sight.

Artists, on the other hand, have pushed themselves to new heights in the past 20 years, almost as if to prove that artistry can atone for political sins. Right out the gate came Lord of the Rings, which single-handedly redeemed the fantasy genre that had made a laughing stock of itself in the 80s. More gritty and dark fantasies would follow, including Pan’s Labyrinth. Westerns were also revived in the 20th century, with results just as marvelous. In fact, every single genre has shined in the theaters, whether drama, romance, mysteries, or thrillers. Acting standards have come a long way; special effects are staggering; narrative plotting and storytelling techniques are now very sophisticated. There are way too many good films to name from the last 20 years; both mainstream and independent films have had plenty to offer.

As for television, who could have predicted that TV drama would ever be as good (and often better) than film itself? It’s been nothing less than a 20-year golden age of TV, which began with The Sopranos in 1999, and since then has cranked a stream of top-notch series, like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks: The Return, Tales from the Loop, Channel Zero, Dexter, Regenesis, The Fall, The Man in the High Castle, The Wire, and many others. TV now holds its own with cinema, and in some ways even outshines it.

Music has been a mixed bag. The popular stuff is bad as pop music has ever been, but alongside this, indie artists have exploded everywhere. Thanks to social media their music is easily accessible, and this makes music about an even wash for the 00s-10s. The highlights of this era are The Killers, The Walkmen, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Taylor Swift (her post-country stuff anyway), and Arcade Fire. But there are many, many great indie bands, some that are almost never heard of: Old Abram Brown, Tan Vampires, Mines Falls, to name a few. This has been the major boon of social media: musical talent that would otherwise go unnoticed.

On the D&D front: At first the game saw an impressive revival, the Gilded Age of 00-02, as Wizards of the Coast launched the 3rd edition that harked back to the Golden Age of 74-82. It rekindled interests in those who had given up on D&D in disgust in the 90s, including myself. However, this was followed by a downward spiral: first with the release of 3.5 in 2003, which injected more rule complexities than necessary; then with 4.0 in 2008, which was so combat focused it drowned the role-playing experience; and most recently with 5.0 in 2014, which millennials and the Gen-Z’ers love but I despise for (a) making things ridiculously easy on PCs (giving them almost limitless hit points), (b) leaning on a high-fantasy approach and none of the pulp influences that made 1e so good, (c) pandering to the generations which have grown up on video games and cheesy superhero films, and (d) allowing woke revisionists to kill the spirit of the game.

I’m glad I didn’t come of age in the 21st century; I would have killed myself under suffocating parents who never let me out of sight. I’m also grateful that I was schooled to learn from those I disagree with. The 00s-10s has been the era of conversational retreat from anyone having rival opinions. Tribalism is found everywhere, but especially on the left I’m sad to say. For the last 20 years I’ve felt increasingly alien among my own liberal-leaning associates. The cultural scene is simply a travesty: between the woke left and a Trump-loving right, I wonder if America can ever be great again. One can hardly differentiate between satire and real news (see here for example). Which pretty much mirrors the political canvass of the 00s-10s: there wasn’t much to distinguish a Bush from an Obama, any more than real facts from the “facts” we prefer.

The Score Chart

70s (30 pts)
80s (22 pts)
90s (26 pts)
00s-10s (23 pts)
Hair/Dress
        0         2         3             4
Film
        5         2         4             5
TV
        3         1         3             5
Tabletop D&D
        5         4         1             2
Music
        5         3         3             4
Parenting/Childhood
        5         5         3             1
Cultural Mores         5         2         4             1
Peace/Prosperity         2         3         5             1

#1: 70s
#2: 90s
#3: 00s-10s
#4: 80s

The Best Books I Read in the 2010s

Here are my favorite books from the last decade. They are mostly academic scholarly works. I didn’t read as much fiction as I would have liked.

1. The History of Jihad, Robert Spencer, 2018. This book is the first of its kind and easily wins the top slot. Plenty of such comprehensive treatments have been written for the Christian crusades, but none that cover the Islamic jihad. Spencer starts with Muhammad, the warlord exemplar, and proceeds through every century since the seventh, in every theater of the globe, showing that holy war has always been an essential element of Islam. He relies on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience Islamic holy war throughout history. He even covers the jihads against in India against the Hindus, which is hard information to come by. Jihadists have always been candid about their religious motives — it is now, and has always been, a Muslim’s holy duty to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islamic law, regardless of how many Muslims actually take up that imperative — but people in the 21st century have denied this and grasped at every wrong explanation. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty, and the history presented in the book speaks for itself. Jihad isn’t “just” terrorism in any case. It is legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. It’s to Islam as the Passover is to Judaism, and as the Eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. The History of Jihad is a first-rate guide to a massively misunderstood phenomenon that would be quite easy to understand if the implications weren’t so unpleasant.

2. Constructing Jesus, Dale Allison, 2010. The culmination of Allison’s trilogy (begun in Millenarian Prophet, 1998, and continued in Resurrecting Jesus, 2005) keeps Jesus grounded in delusions of grandeur, millennial dreams, and heavenly alter-egos. Same as before, we see that Jesus’ apocalyptic language, about which he was wrong, was intended literally, and that he was naturally inconsistent about the things he preached. Even the best theologians and most charismatic leaders contradict themselves, and Jesus would have been no different. As egocentric as it seems to us, Jesus had exalted thoughts about himself and he embraced martyrdom. But by far the most intriguing contribution of Constructing Jesus comes in the author’s solution to the Son of Man enigma. Allison argues that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure: his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos, this would resolve long standing puzzles. For example, if Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones; and if Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur; he was already up there; and much more. This book was a good start to the new decade, pounding the final nail in the coffin of Jesus-Seminar minimalism, so that Jesus studies could move forward.

3. Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland, 2014. This book inspired me to write my own presidential series. Most rankings of the U.S. presidents are superficial, praising executives who have effective management styles and strong charisma, regardless of how good or bad their actual policies were. Eland ignores those elements and slaughters sacred cows: FDR was one of the worst presidents, not the best; Warren Harding was one of the best, not the worst. Eland’s criteria are simple. He bases his rankings on the way a president’s policies promoted three things: peace, prosperity and liberty. When you get down to it, those are what most Americans want. Eland is a hard-core libertarian, however, and so I don’t always agree with what he sees as best serving those three causes. He correctly ranks Woodrow Wilson as the worst president of all time, but then astonishingly places Harry Truman as the second worst, as if Truman were a fulfillment of the Wilsonian dream. He rightly elevates John Tyler and Rutherford Hayes to Mount Rushmore, but also includes Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland in that honor, where I think those latter two were very poor executives. He skewers George W. Bush and Barack Obama for being basically the same president, and I certainly agree with that. Eland is no respecter of persons or parties. If you want a book that values presidents who were actually good for the American people, then get Recarving Rushmore. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized, or who had mesmerizing charisma and effective management styles, then get any of the mainstream rankings that waste space on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

marginal4. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier, 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four, only four, with confidence: 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 irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — 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 shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. As for the most popular and cherished Good Samaritan, Meier shows it to be almost certainly a creation of Luke. The dominant scholarly view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. That’s an ironical conclusion in a work that relies on the classic criteria to get at what Jesus really said and did: this fifth volume of A Marginal Jew is all about uncertainty. Full review here.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final5. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera, 2016. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, 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. As dhimmis 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 Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. 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.

6. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler, 2011. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force hard questions about our common humanity, and Esler’s analysis cuts like a laser as always.

7. Thomas and the Gospels, Mark Goodacre, 2012. A sort-of sequel to the author’s Case Against Q, putting to bed scholarly mirages, in this case showing that the gospel of Thomas is not independent but reinterprets synoptic sayings. Thomas’s rearrangement of those sayings is no more surprising than Luke’s rearrangment of Matthew which befuddles Q-advocates. Against scholars who demand unreasonable amounts of verbatim agreement to prove dependency, Goodacre invokes the “plagiarist’s charter”, pointing out that this burden of proof would excuse a lot of unethical behavior. In my view, Goodacre establishes Thomas’ dependence beyond a reasonable doubt. That Thomas knew both Matthew and Luke is fairly easy to see, when you see it outlined for you. Goodacre has cheekily called himself the spoilsport of New Testament studies, and of course we need more spoilsports and killjoys to keep us honest. It would be admittedly nice if Q existed and Thomas carried more “original authority” than the canonical gospels, but history is often more boring than that. I think there’s a tendency to expect too much out of historical criticism, that our biblical experts can somehow unlock arsenals that will arm us against the orthodox and open progressive paradigms. Goodacre’s book is a model analysis of the relationship between Thomas and the snyoptics, indeed the best there is on the subject.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari, 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed. It’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using. I have no illusions this book will result in headway against the American drug war, but I can keep hoping.

9. Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, 2017. There is a certain adage this book seems built around: “Prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” It sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — an embarrassing repudiation of what academia has always stood for. Students are supposed to be stung, disturbed, upset, and thus provoked to reassess their current beliefs — and change the ones they cannot defend. And as the authors of this book make clear, those offensive ideas must include even hate speech. It’s illegal for public universities to ban hate speech, and private colleges should follow suit on this. The problem with “hate speech” is that it’s a catch-all label for shutting down unpopular views that aren’t hateful at all, like the toxic nature of Islam, theories of psychobiology, etc. Academic inquiry doesn’t care about student feelings, nor should it. Free Speech on Campus is the book to help make great thinkers again, indeed to help prepare students for the road, rather than the road for them. I wish it were required reading of every college freshman.

disciples prayer10. The Disciples’ Prayer, Jeffrey Gibson, 2015. Those who like the “Lord’s Prayer” should make this book required reading. The “Disciples’ Prayer”, properly called, had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. As Gibson argues, Jesus’ disciples operated out of an austere remnant theology, and the prayer was taught to them to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy. It doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now, but rather wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. Gibson refutes apocalyptic readings of the prayer, but if you believe Jesus was an apocalyptic (as I do), his thesis still holds. For if Jesus believed the world was about to end, then he would have insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation, just as Gibson argues that the prayer does. For modern Christians, the book perhaps functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of (or as much as) what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Jesus demanded a rigorous pacifism, for example, and not all religious martyrs are pacifist; the path of non-violence is a hard one. For Jesus, “to profess God as Father entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world”. Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.

11. Babatha’s Orchard, Philip Esler, 2017. If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be immensely proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from New Testament scholars. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha documents dated between 94 and 132 AD, which consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land. It’s feels like a true archaeological adventure to read this book, but without any of the sensationalism of Indiana Jones movies or Herschel Shanks’ yellow journalism in Biblical Archaeology Review.

12. Recovering Communion in a Violent World, Christopher Grundy, 2019. This book is an attempt to reform the eucharist of its violent theology. Christians would be better off, says Grundy, to accept that Jesus’ death was unnecessary, and to focus on the meal practices of the New Testament that don’t rely on his body and blood (however real or symbolic) or reenact his execution. Alternative examples include the manna-and-water traditions (I Cor 10), drawing from the Exodus and Number stories, tied to a theme of abundance and the messianic age; the bread-and-fish miracles (in all four gospels), in which there is food for everyone; the Johannine beach breakfast, focused on sharing and abundance; and the bread-only Emmaus story in Luke, urging hospitality even to strangers. Grundy suggests that Holy Communion can be just as sacramental (and more positively so) in the meeting of strangers across boundaries, sharing one’s food, and feeding hungry bodies. In this sense, the eucharist can become primarily about what Jesus did instead of what was done to him. Grundy sees a disturbing connection between the “objectification” of Jesus’ body in the traditional eucharist, and the way people objectify others, whether sexually, violently, or both. That sounds a bit far-fetched, but Grundy is careful in how he explains this: “It’s not that the eucharist carries an explicit message that objectifying people is okay,” he writes, “but rather that without really noticing, Christian believers create opportunities for our instincts to be structured by objectifying practices that we don’t understand all that clearly.” Likewise, he doesn’t say that the eucharist promotes violence per se, but rather that Christians engage themselves in ritualized acts of collective violence without asking if what was done to Jesus was really necessary. Ritualized violence can shape the believer, whether consciously or not. It’s a fascinating book, and makes for an excellent supplement to Stephen Finlan’s Problems with Atonement (though there is no mention of Finlan in the bibliography). See also my review of Finlan’s analysis of the different and conflicting death metaphors in Paul’s letters.

moh_and_cha_revisited13. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott, 2012. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it wouldn’t have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. The lights went out with the arrival of Islam, and from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. Full review here.

14. The Wife of Jesus, Anthony Le Donne, 2013. No, this isn’t crankville. Anthony Le Donne isn’t Simcha Jacobovici or Michael Baigent. The Wife of Jesus doesn’t even really argue that Jesus had a wife, though it allows for the strong possibility that he had one in his 20s, prior to his prophetic ministry. The only thing the book shares in common with sensationalist cousins is its accessibility: it’s written for everyone, not just academics, and well about time on this subject from a reliable scholar. Le Donne’s argument is essentially that many Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. While the gospels don’t say that Jesus had a wife, neither do they say he didn’t, and silence means nothing. Wives were a given in Jesus’s day, and weren’t mentioned unless context warranted it. (Peter’s wife, for instance, is never mentioned, but his mother-in-law is healed.) Jesus could have been married prior to becoming a prophet, and it’s more plausible that he was married, say, in his 20s and that his wife died in childbirth (as was extremely common), than that he would have shamefully dishonored his family by rejecting the Abrahamic blessing of progeny. Only by the time of his itinerant career was Jesus single and celibate and engaged in the flagrant dishonor of severing blood ties and advocating prophetic celibacy. But while The Wife of Jesus is devoid of sensationalism, never fear: sensationalist claims are addressed by Le Donne, which makes the book fun (and amusing at times) to read. He covers the recent hoax of the Jesus’ Wife fragment, noting that whoever forged it had internet access to a source with a typographical error which the forger copied. He even discusses the Secret Mark hoax, which of course depicted a gay Jesus. It’s a concise and enjoyable book that deserves a wide audience.

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15. Waking Up, Sam Harris, 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing. I’m still lousy at it, but I can say that I’ve benefited at least some from trying.

16. Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, David Watson, 2010. The secret is out now: there never was a messianic secret, whether from Jesus’ life or pre-Markan traditions. “Secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into the Markan text,” once wrote a scholar, and Watson finally puts the idea to rest. David Watson shows that the “secrecy” passages in Mark wouldn’t have been understood as such by the ancients. In silencing those he healed, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep his identity or healing ability secret (as if that would be possible in a world of rampant gossip networks), but rather to resist achieved honor. In patron-client cultures, recipients of benefaction are expected to repay their benefactor through public praise, and it’s this kind of honor which Jesus resists. In silencing demons, likewise, Jesus is resisting ascribed honor, since a demon calling him “the Holy One of God” would be issuing a positive challenge and staking a claim on him; Jesus refuses to become indebted to demons and drawn into the laws of reciprocation. While the Markan Jesus doesn’t do away with the honor-shame system altogether (no one in antiquity could do that an survive), he does offer a new vision in its place, by claiming that the persecuted and suffering will be honored, and the great and powerful will be shamed. Basically, Mark portrays Jesus as authoritative and deserving of honor even as he reshapes the way that honor was conventionally assigned. This is a terrific book filled with insights that seem too obvious once pointed out.

17. The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Spencer, 2019. Many will find this book dispiriting, but reality is often just that, especially in the Middle-East. Spencer chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years, showing quite clearly that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim. He starts with Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords, and the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was never interested in genuine peace. He then proceeds to the time of Bill Clinton, explaining how Yasser Arafat went from denouncing terrorism and promising to recognize the State of Israel (in ’93), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (in ’96). Arafat simply followed the example of Muhammad, for whom deception was honorable. And so on. Spencer shows that the solution to the Middle-East lies not in peace processes which are guaranteed to fail, but containment or management of the problem, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel no matter what. This book is a serious wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.

night-comes18. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison, 2016. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation 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.) The second chapter deals with 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 Pauline 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. The next chapter is 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, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

19. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers, Philip Esler, 2017. Esler is always a great read, and his most recent effort feels downright epic, especially if you love the Enoch myths as I do. The focus is on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, and for which Esler finds no basis at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36 — even if everyone sees them anyway. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that by first examining the angels (their duties, access rights, and mediation techniques), then the Watchers (their “defilement”, “great sin”, and their justice), and then finally the architecture of God’s abode. What becomes clear is that the temple metaphor is non-existent, and the court metaphor so obvious that how did it take this long for us to see? Full review here.

Short_Stories_Jesus_Levine20. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, 2014. This book will be welcomed by liberal religious thinkers who think the sun shines on everyone with minimal judgment. Amy-Jill Levine claims that Jesus’ parables show people torn apart and then reconciled, benefiting from each other for all their differences; a divided world made whole through responsible human effort. If you embrace that kind of wisdom as I do, then this book just might be the next-best thing to the bible itself. The question is whether or not this wisdom can really be derived from the historical Jesus. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. She claims that “the last coming first and the first last” is always an editorial intrusion. And despite what scholars tell us about the fierce boundaries drawn by fictive kinship networks like the Jesus movement, she won’t abide any “Us-vs.Them” mentality that reinforces judgments and divisions. The problem is that she has an axe to grind against those see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context. If Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. It’s true that Judaism has become a punching bag — for pastors and scholars alike — and Levine wants to rectify this problem by showing that Jesus’ hostilities are all mirages. Unfortunately, this means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize at all, because Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock. I think she makes Jesus out to be too ideal; indeed she aligns him with modern Unitarian Universalism. But then (from my UU perspective) that’s precisely why these parable readings are such good theology, even if they’re bad history. Maybe that’s a backhanded compliment, but if used the right way, Short Stories by Jesus is an important contribution.

* Stranger Things: The College Years and Beyond, Loren Rosson, 2018. As a bonus, I’m shamelessly promoting my own work, and fiction to boot, which I had said wasn’t included. But I’m happy with what I did here, and gratified by the positive reception to it. This is a trilogy of generational stories that follow the kids we love from the TV series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, and Will — into their adult lives. There’s pain and heartache, perhaps more than some readers will find bearable, but hopefully inspiring in the ways tragedy should be. The first novella is The College Years, set in 1990, with an estranged Mike Wheeler able only to harm those he loves. The second is The New Generation, set in 2009, involving an Upside-Down creature nesting in the internet, and attacking a kid through his computer screensaver. Finally it all comes together in World’s End, in the future of 2037, after Donald Trump has gotten America nuked, and salvation (if that’s what it can be called) lies in a particular twelve-year old who can time travel. That’s the best spoiler-free synopsis I can offer, and if you really like the trilogy, I wrote three prequel novellas as well.

Free Speech on Campus (6): What’s at Stake?

The authors wrote this book out of a concern that “much of the current debate over the learning environment on college campuses gives insufficient attention to the values of free speech and academic freedom — the philosophical, moral, and practical arguments in support of these principles, the lessons of the historical record, and the current state of the law. Surveys reveal that students’ support for basic free speech principles is dramatically eroding.”

Many factors have contributed to this trend especially since the ’90s, but a big one is the collapse of traditional network news and rise of “curated” information gathering on cable and online. It’s been much easier in recent decades for people to listen to those with whom they already agree, and to respond to opposing viewpoints with mockery and charges of bad will. Colleges and universities should be a corrective to this trend instead of following it.

The stakes are high, conclude the authors, as we help today’s generation of students understand why free expression matters, on college campuses and in the world. They can hardly be expected to fight for free speech values if they don’t understand their history, practicality, and ethical premises. I found this book to be a helpful presentation of the issue and highly recommend it.

 

Chapter Links

Chapter 1: The New Censorship.
Chapter 2: Why Free Speech is Important.
Chapter 3: Free Speech at Colleges and Universities.
Chapter 4: Hate Speech.
Chapter 5: What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do.
Chapter 6: What’s at Stake?

Free Speech on Campus (5): What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do

Hate speech codes are a bad idea, but it’s a mistake to ignore the harmful effects of hateful and bullying speech. According to the authors, “free speech advocates must acknowledge the admirable values that tempt people toward censorship, and then provide a road map for addressing these issues in a way that does not undermine higher education’s necessary commitment to free speech, academic freedom, unfettered inquiry, and robust debate”.

They offer a series of cans and can’ts, or shoulds and shouldn’ts for private universities. Here are the highlights.

  • Faculty members may choose to provide students warnings before presenting material that might be offensive or upsetting to them. Colleges and universities should not, however, impose requirements that faculty provide such “trigger warnings”.

Professors need to decide how to best educate their students without being micromanaged by the administration. In some cases a professor’s judgment might be that being exposed to disturbing material without warning will make for more effective instruction. Besides, understanding cuts both ways. Just as professors should not be tone deaf to the feelings of their students, students need to prepare themselves for the real world where they won’t be coddled.

  • Campuses should create “safe spaces” in educational settings that ensure that people feel free to express the widest array of viewpoints. They should not uses the concept of “safe spaces” to censor the expression of ideas considered too offensive for students to hear.

Put simply: you go to college not to learn things which comfort you, but to learn things that shatter you out of your comfort zones. That’s what education is about.

  • Campuses can sensitize faculty and students to the impact certain words will have, as part of an effort to create a respectful work and learning environment. But they should not prohibit or punish faculty or students from using words that some consider to be examples of “microaggressions”.

We should all listen when others tell us they feel insulted and hurt.

  • Campuses should expect university administrators to speak out against especially egregious speech acts and intolerance as a way of demonstrating the power of “more speech” rather than enforced silence. They should not expect the administrators to comment on or condemn every campus speech act that some person considers offensive.

It’s cliche by this point, but a lesson that’s being lost, that the best remedy for speech we don’t like is more speech — robust counter-speech that rigorously challenges what we object to.

The authors list other campus agenda items:

  • Protect the rights of all students to engage in meaningful protest and to distribute materials that get their message out, while at the same time preventing disruptions of university activities.
  • Ensure that campus dormitories are safe spaces of repose, short of imposing content-based restrictions on speech.
  • Establish clear reporting requirements so that incidents of discriminatory practices can be quickly investigated and addressed.
  • Encourage faculty and students to research and learn about the harms associated with intolerance and structural discrimination, and sponsoring academic symposia.
  • Organize co-curricular activities that celebrate cultural diversity and provide victims of hateful and bullying acts the opportunity to be heard.

In the final chapter we’ll see what’s ultimately at stake in all of this.

 

Up last: Chapter 6: What’s at Stake?