The Daily Show: comedy news versus fake news

June 24, 2017

I’ve written that while Trump complains about the media, and mainstream media is critical of him, it fails to convey just how insane this is. Instead it maintains a patina of sober reporting, as though it’s all just normal news.

But not The Daily Show. Of course, that’s a comedy show, not (technically) a news program. And it does play for laughs. Yet it’s the one media venue that, unconstrained by an ethos of bland neutrality, is really telling it like it is.

When Trump announced his candidacy — that crassly tacky elevator descent, launching what surely seemed his own comedy show — Daily’s longtime host Jon Stewart blew air kisses at what he envisioned would supply plenty of laugh fodder.

Trevor Noah

Stewart’s been succeeded by Trevor Noah, a young comic fresh from South Africa. After a somewhat shaky start, Noah has found his footing. And while he does mine the rich comedic vein that is Trump, he meantime conveys the seriousness of what’s going on. In the applicable vernacular, The Daily Show has its hair on fire about Trump. As should we all.

His shouting “fake news” is an archetypal Trump inversion of reality, he himself being the biggest purveyor of fake news ever. A recent Daily Show highlighted this. Trump made quite a production of a supposed reform of air traffic control, flourishing his oversized signature applied to . . . something. As Noah said, he loves to perform as president (like on his TV show); actually doing the job is something else. The air traffic control reform is fake news. There is no reform. What Trump signed with such fanfare was not legislation, nor even an executive order, but merely a suggestion sent to Congress. (Good luck with that.)

This indeed is the Trump M.O. — all hat, no cattle. It’s true of most of his “accomplishments.” Fake news galore. His tax reform plan is not a plan at all. He talks about his fantastic, tremendous infrastructure plan. Guess what? There is no infrastructure plan either. The Muslim travel ban is blocked by the courts. The wall is not being built. And of course, as of now, there is no health care law, the House bill he celebrated so vaingloriously in the Rose Garden he himself now calls “mean,” and the Senate bill mashed up in secret, to govern a sixth of our economy, without careful fact-gathering and analysis, is bound to be a train wreck if it somehow passes.

But The Daily Show, alas, preaches mainly to the choir. Surely few Trump supporters watch it. However, the show often puts them on camera, illuminating the problem we face. One, on a recent episode, when asked for the first word coming to his mind to describe Trump, replied “honest.”

He probably believes in God and Heaven too. And the Easter Bunny.

Truth, decency, responsibility, sanity — I am now a Democrat

June 20, 2017

On May 14 I renounced here my 53-year Republican affiliation. I said I couldn’t yet join the Democrats.

But now the other shoe has dropped. As I’m fond of saying, the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good.

This is, again, a matter of culture trumping ideology. It’s not about policy. More importantly today, Democrats represent truth, decency, responsibility, and sanity.

How sad that that’s what it comes down to.

In New York, party enrollment is required to vote in primaries. The GOP is too far gone to the dark side for my primary vote there to be useful; while I am very concerned about the direction Democrats take in shaping the alternative. I want to have a vote on that.

Truth, decency, responsibility, sanity — that should be their theme. But many on the left have classically illiberal instincts. Despite their “diversity” talk, they’re intolerant of deviations from their party line. There’s a danger Democrats will indulge in ideological purity trials. The Economist sees signs of it already.

I hope Democrats can, just possibly, win the House of Representatives in 2018. That’s the only way Trump and his gang might be held to account. It seems Democrats are recruiting a lot of military vets to run, probably smart. And I do hope they will come up with a presidential candidate I can actually support. Someone like Kirsten Gillibrand (who says she won’t run), or Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. But getting to the right candidate will be like threading a needle — between hard left ideologues like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren and the corrupt blowhard bully Andrew Cuomo.

Republicans have vacated a vast territory in the political center, which Democrats should seize. America cries out not for a left-wing ideological alternative, but a centrist one — a party of truth, decency, responsibility, and sanity.

Macron

At least that’s what I think people should crave. But we don’t actually see it. I used to mock French politics, yet the new President Macron created a party of the radical center, which in parliamentary elections Sunday crushed the old right and left parties, gaining a big legislative majority of fresh newcomers to politics. Macron, indeed, seems to understand how the conventional right-left divide has been superseded by today’s true divide between open and closed mentalities.

But “It Can’t Happen Here.” America’s political system is far more impervious to such a revolution, its voters more entrenched in their ideological ghettoes. We may be condemned to lurch from one political extreme to the other based on the thinnest of electoral margins.

“Cultural appropriation” (A Trump-free blog post)

June 17, 2017

A white author can’t write about a character who’s black.* A white artist cannot depict a black civil rights victim. And nobody’s allowed to argue otherwise.

It’s called “cultural appropriation” and it’s the newest gambit of politically correct grievance agitprop, sticking its finger in the eye of freedom of expression. As usual, it’s not enough for these totalitarians to argue their position. No, contrary opinions must be silenced and even punished.

Hal Niedzviecki was forced out as editor of the Canadian Writers’ Union magazine after defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds.

Protest against “Scaffold”

New York’s Whitney Museum created a storm for exhibiting Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, murdered by Mississippi racists in 1955, an image that propelled the civil rights movement. British artist Hannah Black** organized a petition for the painting’s destruction. And sculptor Sam Durant was browbeaten into destroying his own piece, “Scaffold,” honoring some Native Americans unjustly executed in 1862.

Is book burning next? At least they can’t burn my blog. (Maybe they’ll attack it with malware.)

The idea is that such “cultural appropriation” is racist. It’s no defense that the white artist was actually memorializing a victim of racism. Nobody can, from the standpoint of white privilege.

And “cultural appropriation” connotes theft. They’re saying Emmett Till belongs to blacks alone; no one else is entitled to him. As if a painting of him deprives blacks of something. As if a black character in a novel somehow robs black culture, pillages it. It’s akin to the belief, encouraged by certain religions, that being photographed steals one’s soul.

At one time, we had minstrel shows, Jemimas, and Sambos. Maybe that was “cultural appropriation,” mocking, demeaning, dehumanizing people. And maybe if that Emmett Till picture was painted by a Klansman, that would be different. But surely we’re not talking about anything of that kind now.

At one time, when segregation reigned, and black culture was walled off from white society, the cry was for integration, to break down those ugly barriers. Now they’re being rebuilt, from the other side. And students whose grandparents marched for the right to join whites in schools now demand to segregate themselves.

Yes, the issue is racism. That’s what the cry of “cultural appropriation” is.

In fact, “cultural appropriation” is a good thing. It breaks down barriers and opens doors. Cross-fertilization among cultures makes all of them richer and better. And it’s harder to have racist feelings against someone if they’re seen as part of your own culture rather than as “the other.” Pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, genocides, all result from people being otherized.

* I use this word as the best among bad choices. “African-American” doesn’t apply to all “people of color.” And the latter, besides being linguistically clumsy, is hardly removed from “colored people,” which those so described once found quite offensive. “Brown” might be more descriptively accurate but no doubt some would profess to find that somehow offensive too.

** Apparently her actual name.

America’s degradation

June 14, 2017

It always made me sick when anti-Americans (like Noam Chomsky) would smear the U.S. on human rights. Perfect we’ve never been. But compared to all other nations throughout history, none more nobly upheld fundamental human values. And our light grew ever brighter.

But now it’s dimming. This, today, is what makes me sick.

Marco Coello was a high schooler who joined a 2014 demonstration protesting Venezuela’s vile regime. Its President Maduro strives to crush democratic opposition while his insane policies make life a cruel misery for most Venezuelans. This is what Marco protested. Regime thugs seized him, jailed him, put a gun to his head, doused him with gasoline, beat him with various implements including a fire extinguisher, and tortured him with electric shocks.

After several months he was released pending trial, and with his father, somehow managed to flee to America. He got a job and started studying English. And he scheduled an appointment with Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) to begin the process of applying for political asylum.

The U.S. is obligated to recognize valid claims for asylum under a 1951 international protocol, as codified and expanded by the 1980 Refugee Act passed by Congress, which established procedures and set up what is now the CIS to administer them.

Asylum is to be granted when someone legitimately fears persecution in their home country, for race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group, and its government won’t protect them. In such circumstances the 1951 protocol obliges a nation to not return them to the place where they’d face persecution.

But never mind legal requirements. The U.S. being a haven for oppressed people is, well, who we are.

Correction: were.

Marco’s case, his lawyer thought, would be a slam-dunk. After all, his story was extensively documented in a Human Rights Watch report, and in one by the U.S. State Department itself, on Venezuela’s human rights violations.

Yet when he and his lawyer showed up for the scheduled CIS asylum interview, instead of being told “It’s an honor to meet you,” this torture victim was unceremoniously handed over to the ICE gestapo, who arrested him, handcuffed him, and threw him into a detention facility awaiting deportation.

This is Trump’s unspeakable degradation of our country. Hearing “Make America great again” makes me want to vomit.

(ICE’s pretext in Marco’s case was a misdemeanor on his record for parking on private property — seriously. He’s been released from detention after intercession by Senator Rubio, but still faces deportation. The story is detailed in the New York Times.)

My contribution to our China trade deficit

June 13, 2017

Our yearly trade deficit with China is around $340 billion and rising. That is, we import from China $340 billion worth of goods more than we export to China. Trump fulminates obsessively about this, saying China “rapes” us to the tune of that $340 billion.

Confession: I have personally added to our past China trade deficits, by importing many thousands of dollars worth of goods.

Typical Northern Song coin

They were old Chinese coins, bought mainly from one Shanghai dealer, Luo. I think he actually got rich in the process. But I made money too. For example, I’d get Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD) coins, 10,000 at a time; cost around 13¢ apiece (shipping included). I’d sort through them, cleaning many, picking out better ones to sell for a buck or two, and the rest typically at $20 per hundred. Collectors loved such inexpensive thousand-year-old coins.

A middleman or trader like me has traditionally been seen as a kind of economic parasite. After all, I produce nothing myself. However, what I do is to get coins from people who value them less to ones who value them more. That creates what economists call a “consumer surplus,” making both my suppliers and my buyers better off. That’s economically beneficial.

I sell much to other dealers too. They retail the stuff to other collectors, creating still more customer value. And meantime, Luo got the coins from other Chinese sellers. They too profited and were made better off.

Also it’s not exactly the case that I produced nothing. My work of sorting, cleaning, and identifying coins added value to them.

Did any of this entail any job losses? On the contrary, my profits made me richer and hence able to buy more goods; and enabling my customers to buy coins cheaper than they would otherwise pay left them with more money to spend on other things. All this added buying power triggers creation of more jobs, to produce the additional goods and services now wanted. Similarly, Luo’s enrichment, and that of his Chinese suppliers, enabled them to spend more, contributing to Chinese job growth. And more jobs in China means Chinese can buy more goods made in America.

So is China “raping” us? What nonsense. Trade is win-win. That’s why people do trade. Being able to buy imported goods cheaper than they can be made here puts something like a trillion dollars annually in American consumer pockets; and spending that extra cash creates lots of jobs — surely more than the few trade might displace.*

Trump refuses to understand this. In his ignorant diseased mind, all deals have a winner and a loser. Sad.

My personal trade imbalance with China ultimately reversed. Chinese coins got much more expensive in China; Luo stopped selling those and switched to other stuff, which he’s been buying in recent years from me. Alas, my profit margin on those is much smaller.

* Another perspective on our China trade imbalance is that as Americans buy more Chinese goods than Chinese buy from us, money flows from the U.S. to China, which translates into China saving and investing at a higher rate than Americans do. Net annual saving by U.S. citizens has hovered around zero. And we finance our combination of consumer spending plus government spending by borrowing (much from China, lending us back the money we’ve spent for their goods). But that’s another issue.

Let’s recap

June 10, 2017

The big story, according to Trump and his flacks, is his total vindication by Comey’s testimony that Trump was not under FBI investigation.

This is fake news. A lie. Because that was never even an issue. Instead, the issues were Trump’s improper attempts to stop the investigation of Russian meddling and of Michael Flynn; and his firing Comey.

Comey testified that he made careful notes of his conversations with Trump because he feared Trump would lie about them. And that Trump did lie, “plain and simple,” in saying he was fired because of disarray at the FBI and lack of support within the agency. Trump later said he actually fired Comey to get the Russia investigation off his back. Thus confirming that his other stories about it were, indeed, lies.

Yet White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated: “I can definitively say the president is not a liar.” Seriously? How many of his hundreds of documented lies need one mention? (Like his giant whopper that Obama wiretapped him.)

Then first his lawyer Kasowitz, and then the Liar-in-chief himself, denied that he’d demanded a pledge of loyalty from Comey.* Trump also denied asking Comey to lay off on Flynn. He added that it wouldn’t have been wrong anyway. (Bzzt. It most surely was wrong.) But if it’s Comey’s credibility versus Trump’s — are you kidding me?

Trump also called Comey a “showboater.” As if that doesn’t in fact describe Trump.

And called him a “nutjob.” As if that doesn’t in fact describe Trump. 

The Lie House has also gotten much mileage labeling Comey a “leaker.” This from the guy who actually blabbed highly sensitive classified information to the Russians, in the Oval Office! The very day after a Congressional hearing into Russian meddling! But never mind that. To call Comey a “leaker” is yet another lie. Comey gave the press his personal notes about conversations he’d had that were not privileged or classified. That’s not “leaking.”

Then Paul Ryan covered himself with shame by cheerily waving off the whole ghastly story as merely the missteps of an inexperienced beginner. Begging the issue of having a president so clueless. But it’s naive to think Trump was acting from naivite. Even my cat would know his interactions with Comey were improper.

* Trump accidentally said something true at his press conference when a reporter misspoke by asking whether Comey had asked him for a pledge of loyalty. “No he did not,” Trump robotically answered.

Michael Gerson on Trumpian moral obscenity

June 6, 2017

Michael Gerson was George W. Bush’s chief speech writer and now writes for the Washington Post. A conservative Republican, he has unrelentingly called out Trump’s awfulness. Trump is a black hole of moral obscenity that sucks in and perverts everything and everyone around him. The Republican party has fallen into that black hole. A recent Gerson column (see below) shows this.

Trump says the press is against him. Yes, there’s a liberal media bias. But more fundamentally it’s biased in favor of truth, decency, and sanity. Trump assaults all three. So is the press against him? Not strongly enough, in my view. Mainstream media still employs a basically temperate tone, almost as though he’s just another president, as though “President Trump repeated his lie . . . ” is a more or less normal news story. It is not. It is the crash-and-burn of American civic culture.

Trump telephoned Philippine President Duterte to congratulate him for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” What is unbelievable about it is literally thousands of murders, outside the law; and that Trump would praise such moral obscenity.

We’re not supposed to blame his supporters. But I’ve had enough about how their feelings must be understood. They are ignorant fools conned by a con man. That was obvious long before November to anyone with open eyes. But Trumpites blind theirs with partisan paranoia. Voting for that vile creep was stupid irresponsibility that greatly damaged America. It is not being made “great again” but sunk in a sewer.

Here is Gerson’s column (my shortened version):

To many on the left, the embrace of Seth Rich conspiracy theories by conservative media figures was merely a confirmation of the right’s deformed soul.

Seth Rich and Hannity

But for those of us who remember that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were once relatively mainstream Reaganites, their extended vacation in the fever swamps is even more disturbing.

The cruel exploitation of the memory of Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was shot dead last summer, was horrifying and clarifying. The Hannity right, without evidence, accused Rich rather than the Russians of leaking damaging DNC emails. In doing so, it has proved its willingness to credit anything — no matter how obviously deceptive or toxic — to defend President Trump and harm his opponents — becoming a megaphone for Russian influence.

How could conservative media figures not have felt — in their hearts and bones — the God-awful ickiness of it? How did simple humanity get turned off? Is this insensibility the risk of prolonged exposure to our radioactive political culture?

But this failure of decency is also politically symbolic. Who legitimized conspiracy thinking at the highest level? Who raised the possibility that Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Who hinted that Hillary Clinton might have been involved in the death of Vince Foster, or that unnamed liberals might have killed Justice Antonin Scalia? Who not only questioned President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, but raised the prospect of the murder of a Hawaiian state official in a coverup? [Gerson failed to mention the wiretapping lie.]

We have a president charged with maintaining public health who asserts that vaccination is a dangerous scam of greedy doctors. We have a president who falsely accused thousands of Muslims of celebrating in the streets following the 9/11 attacks.

In this mental environment, alleging a Rich-related conspiracy was predictable. This is the mainstreaming of destructive craziness.

Those conservatives who believe that the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch is sufficient justification for the Trump presidency are ignoring Trump’s psychic and moral destruction of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Trump is doing harm beyond anything Clinton could have done, changing the party’s most basic moral and political orientations. He is shaping conservatism in his image and ensuring an eventual defeat more complete, and an eventual exile more prolonged, than Democrats could have dreamed.

The conservative mind has become diseased. The movement has been seized by a kind of discrediting madness, in which conspiracy delusions figure prominently. With the blessings of a president, they have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion. They have allowed political polarization to reach their hearts, and harden them. They have allowed polarization to dominate their minds, and empty them.

Conspiracy theories often involve a kind of dehumanization. The narrative of conspiracy takes precedence over the meaning of a life and the suffering of a family. A human being is made into an ideological prop on someone else’s stage — fully consistent with other forms of dehumanization — of migrants, refugees and “the other” more generally. This also involves callousness, cruelty and conspiracy thinking.

In Trump’s political world, this project of dehumanization is far along. The future of conservatism now depends on its capacity for revulsion. And it is not at all clear whether this capacity still exists.

Trump’s climate speech — full of covfefe

June 3, 2017

America first? Really? Who’d ever thought a U.S. president could make his Russian and Chinese counterparts appear better global citizens than us? But now even Putin and Xi Jinping are on the climate change high road, while America slithers down the other (accompanied only by the dictators of Syria and Nicaragua).

After Trump’s European trip, Germany’s leader Merkel judged that the era of U.S. leadership is over and Europe is on its own. Trump proved her point with his announcement of withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. A grown-up nation does not renege on its promises. Far from making America great again, he’s deformed it from an upstanding world leader into a child in a temper tantrum. America has never been this ungreat.

Trump says it’s to protect U.S. jobs. He just says things without regard to any reality; it’s just more covfefe.

It is true that even if carbon emissions went to zero, global temperatures would still rise, only a little less than otherwise. So if we were to curb emissions by reducing industrial output, to combat climate change, the economic harm would outweigh any benefit. But that’s not what Paris does.

Instead, it merely recognizes carbon’s effect on climate and the desirability of minimizing it to the extent we can. Simple common sense. Its targets are not binding commitments, with any penalties for noncompliance, but rather just earnestly expressed ambitions. Which virtually every other nation on Earth agreed are wise.

So no job losses. Zip, zero, zilch. Nor any transfer of wealth from America to other nations — more nonsensical Trump covfefe. His whole speech was a farrago of nonsense detached from reality, an embarrassment to the country. Transitioning sensibly from dirtier to cleaner energy sources can only have economic (as well as environmental) benefits. Trump’s coal fetish is simply insane. Coal blights the planet as well as miners’ health, and is a comparatively costly energy source. Even China, the world’s leading coal nation, is assiduously cutting back on it. And clean energy is creating around ten times as many jobs.

So why would Trump go out of his way to trash what he himself referred to as a “non-binding” agreement? To pander to his base of course — the rest of the world can go hang. Sensible heads in both government and business almost unanimously advised him against withdrawing from Paris. Polls show a majority even of Trump supporters opposed doing it. So this is aimed at the hard core of the hard core. Even politically it seems insane.

But it sticks a thumb in the eye of the world order, so Trump can play the disruptor. And it reflects yet again his bottomless ignorance about the world, the willful ignorance of a fool who thinks he knows it all. And perhaps also Trump, even in his literally diseased mind, could see that his record so far is not his lie of triumphant accomplishment but a train wreck. Trashing Paris was at least one thing he’d said he’d do that he could actually do. To him a no-brainer. Too bad it really is brainless.

In the Rose Garden he said the world was laughing at us for agreeing to Paris, and that will stop. Trump has an uncanny thing for turning reality exactly inside out. They weren’t laughing at us then, but now they are, while shaking their heads sadly.

Is liberal democracy really no better than communism?

June 1, 2017

Naturally I endeavored to impart my worldview to my daughter. Most of my lifetime was dominated by the struggle between communism, which I considered a great evil, and the West, whose fundamental values I have sacralized. This she knows well. And so it was as a kind of intellectual provocation that she gifted me with a 2016 book arguing that the system of liberal democracy is really, after all, not so different from communism.

It’s by Ryszard Legutko, titled The Demon in Democracy – Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. That sounded intriguingly timely when, as I have recently written, democracy seems to be going off the rails, with voters making all kinds of bad choices. Though “totalitarian” may be too strong a word; “authoritarian” is more apt. Such a temptation has indeed seduced Turkey; the author’s own Poland; Russia (albeit never a free society) seems drunk with authoritarianism (as well as vodka); and of course America’s electorate has pulled a monumental boner.

But the book does not try to explain these trends; its author has other fish to fry. Legutko is a Polish philosophy professor and former Minister of Education. He was a longtime opponent of the communist regime. But its fall leaves him sourly disillusioned. He hates the new “liberal-democratic” (his usage) dispensation as much as the communist one.*

Both he sees as more or less similarly ideologically oppressive. To his eye, liberal-democratic culture apes communism in ruthless enforcement of ideological orthodoxy — “political correctness.” I myself have written critically in this vein. But as a philosopher Legutko maddeningly writes in abstract generalities, virtually eschewing concrete illustrative facts. For example, one of his pet targets is feminism in all its manifestations. Yet for all his inveighing against feminist political correctness, he never mentions how Lawrence Summers fell victim to it. Nor any other such actual evidence to corroborate his jeremiad.

Legutko

Homosexuality is another of his pet peeves. The remarkably rapid evolution in societal mores vis-a-vis homosexuality has thrown a lot of traditionalists for a loop, and Legutko is one of them. He deems it shameful that what he considers good arguments against gay marriage (though he doesn’t actually recite them) no longer get a fair hearing. (I don’t think they’re good arguments, but thinly veiled prejudice.) But here too Legutko inexplicably fails to mention a perfect example supporting his case, that of Brendan Eich, ousted from a corporate leadership post for backing a California referendum against gay marriage.

Eventually, the author’s principal animus becomes clear. It’s what he sees as the “war on Christianity.” He actually uses those words, likening it, in “liberal-democracy,” to what he says were communism’s horrifying atrocities trying to exterminate religion. Legutko writes that “Christians are — and it must be repeated over and over — the most persecuted religious group in the world.” Seriously?

He calls separation of church and state an American peculiarity that shouldn’t apply to Europe. In a rare instance of concreteness, he cites the Lautsi case, where a European court ruled that Italy’s public schools can’t display crucifixes. Legutko decries the refusal of many governments, including his own, to join in an appeal (but fails to note that the ruling was in fact reversed on appeal).

Nevertheless, he says the case reflected “coldness to the plight of Christians and Christianity,” which he believes merit a privileged public position: “the religion that has been of paramount importance is being equalized with the religions that had no importance at all.” Legutko says Christianity is “not just a religion, but a vital spiritual element of Western identity.” It’s “the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology.” By rejecting Christianity, “Europe, and indeed, the entire West not only slides into cultural aridity . . . but also falls under the smothering monopoly of one ideology.”

Perhaps Legutko, in his fixation on Christian religion, has failed to notice that Europe and the West today, far from being ideologically monolithic, are in fact politically riven, polarized between radically different ideologies. As witness the French runoff between Le Pen and Macron, who agreed on almost nothing. This highlights too a crucial difference, that Legutko studiously avoids talking about, between communism and “liberal-democracy” — that is, the democracy part. Communist regimes, of course, conducted no such elections. That was true ideological monopolization. Legutko’s effort to equate the two systems is ultimately just ridiculous.

As for religion, he likewise fails to see a crucial difference. Whereas communism sought to defeat religion by force, Europe’s collapse of faith is traceable to a very different cause: the falsity of doctrines which people simply no longer believe. That waning of superstition is a good thing.

* Never mentioned in the book is Legutko’s affiliation with Poland’s reigning “Law and Justice” party — assiduously undermining Poland’s democracy and rule of law. It seems Legutko himself suffers from the temptation of his book’s title.

Does religion cause violence?

May 28, 2017

A congressional candidate physically assaults a reporter — and gets elected. What the f— is happening to this country? And meantime atrocities are committed with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!”

Once again my wife gifted me with a book to challenge me: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

The rap is that religion, by instilling a notion of absolute truth and a limitless sense of righteousness, inspires violence. As witness all the persecutions, religious wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, all the way to 9/11 and ISIS. Some say this outweighs any good religion does, and we’d be better without it.

Armstrong, a leading historian of religion, has a different take. She aims to get religion off the hook, with (the back cover says) “a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.”

Well, for a book about “the peaceful nature of faith,” it sure is soaked in blood, amply living up to the title. It is a depressing, horrifying read. Yet, in chronicling one atrocity after another, Armstrong’s basic point is that religious belief per se is not their root cause. Instead, religion has often been cover for what is really more about politics, power, and lucre.

In pursuing those, some actors are more cynical than others. And while, for men at the top (and it’s mostly been men) cynicism may have reigned supreme, for the foot soldiers in the killing fields religious zealotry often provided the indispensable motivator.

Armstrong does repeatedly stress what she considers to be the peaceful teachings of most religions. Yet there can be a cognitive disconnect. She puzzles over how the Crusaders, for example, could reconcile what she calls their psychotic violence with the teachings of the faith they were supposedly fighting for. But she also explains how battle and slaughter themselves can inspire a kind of extremist ecstasy. I would add: especially when coupled with a sense of supreme religious righteousness. So religion is, indeed, very much part of the problem.

It is also important to understand that through most of history, political power was not the thing we know today. The idea of the state serving the needs and interests of the citizenry is quite a modern concept. Previously, the state was essentially a vehicle of predation, with whatever good it did being calculated to keep the populace sufficiently submissive that their pockets could be efficiently picked for the benefit of the rulers.

Luther

God was part of the formula by which the powerful ruled, for their self-aggrandizement. Armstrong makes the point that only in modern times has “religion” come to be seen as a thing unto itself. Previously it was integrally bound up with the whole culture, including its political and power structures; “separation of church and state” would have made no sense to those populations. But Martin Luther argued for it, saying that religion should be something private, interior, and that marrying it with state power was an unending source of trouble.

Locke

And the philosopher John Locke made a similar case from the standpoint of human liberty – that it was just wrong to try to compel religious belief. But it took some further horrors (like the Thirty Years War, killing 35% of Europe’s population) to convince sensible heads that Luther and Locke were right.

Note too that before modern times there was really no such thing as economic growth. That meant one state (its rulers, really) could get richer only at the expense of another. A further impetus to warfare in which, again, religious pretexts were very useful.

The emergence of the modern state curbed a lot of the violence that was so endemic. Today most governments do at least try to serve their citizenries, and prosper better through trade than war. This is a key reason why violence has in fact so markedly declined (as well explained in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) A noteworthy exception today is Syria – very much an old time predatory state (if at this point you could even call it a state). And then there’s ISIS, whose demented violence is not really attached to any state, in the modern sense, either.

But that religion per se, religion itself, still causes violence is all too evident. Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan, experience intensifying lynchings of accused “blasphemers.” And it’s not the work of just a few extremists, but a widespread cultural pathology. A Pakistani student was recently dragged from his dorm room, by classmates, and brutally killed, on some vague accusation of blasphemy.

Speaking of violence, I was unable to finish the book – it fell victim to the January Fort Lauderdale airport shooter. I went to Fort Laud for a coin show and planned to fly home that Friday evening. Because of the shooting I could not fly till Sunday. I scheduled a cab for 6:00 AM and a 5:45 wake-up call. The call didn’t come, but I awakened at 5:54, and rushed out. In the rush, the book got left behind.

Niebuhr

I will end by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr: religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.