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Why Sam Harris Is Wrong about Islam

October 19th, 2014 - 12:56 pm

No doubt many of my readers know about the encounter about Islam between Ben Affleck, the Hollywood actor, and Sam Harris, the “New Atheist” writer and neuroscientist, on Bill Maher’s show. 

I do not know Ben Affleck’s work as an actor, so I don’t know whether he is commonly cast in comic roles. He was pretty funny, in a slightly deranged sort of way, on Bill Maher’s show, but perhaps that is his usual modus operandi.

I propose to leave the substance — if “substance” is the correct word — of Mr. Affleck’s effusions to one side.  His performance did make me wonder anew about the odd place of “celebrities” in our culture. Why, I have often wondered, does any thinking person care what Barbra Streisand (for example) has to say about . . . well, about anything not intimately concerned with pop singing? And yet clearly they do, since it’s a rare month that passes without the news that the chanteuse has weighed in about some matter of political controversy. I’m not sure exactly which subjects I would be prepared to take Ben Affleck seriously on; Islam is certainly not one of them.

This is not, to say, however, that I am prepared to take Sam Harris seriously about Islam either.  As the Canadian and (more to the point) former Muslim writer Ali Sina points out in a brilliant article for the Jerusalem Post, the fact that Ben Affleck is wrong about Islam  ”does not mean Harris is right.” Indeed.

Harris is widely considered a critic of Islam.  In his debate with Ben Affleck, however, he simply recycled a well-meaning but pernicious myth about the followers of Muhammed. “Hundreds of millions of Muslims are nominal Muslims,” Harris cheerfully reported, where by “nominal” he meant that they “don’t take their faith seriously,” “don’t want to kill apostates,” and “are horrified by ISIS [Islamic State].”  These are the people, he concluded, “we need to defend,” to “prop them up and let them reform their faith.”

How often have you heard this? I hear it all the time, as often from conservatives as from liberals.  The trouble is, as Ali Sina points out, “reforming Islam the way he envisions it is an illusion.”

Why? Harris’s argument — you’ve heard it a hundred times — is basically this: Christianity was once intolerant. There were the Crusades, for instance, but think also of such episodes as the siege of Béziers, a Cathar stronghold, in the early 13th century. Here were Catholics besieging an heretical sect of their own people.  When asked by a soldier how they could distinguish the good guys from the bad, Arnaud Amaury, a Cistercian abbot who was helping to lead the fight, advised “Tuez-les tous! Dieu reconnaîtra les siens”: “Kill them all! God will know his own.”

But look at Christianity today. It’s all bake sales, bingo, and transgender-awareness retreats.  Maybe the same thing will happen to Islam.

Not likely, as Ali Sina points out. “Even though at one time the religion associated with Jesus had become violent and intolerant,” he notes, “there is nothing violent and intolerant in his teachings. The Crusades were the response of Christendom to jihad, and the Inquisition was the copycat of mihnah, a practice started by Caliph Ma’mun, which means ‘inquisition.’ They have no basis in the teaching of Christ.”

Let’s contrast the example and the teaching of Christ with the example and teaching of Mohammed. Christ is often denominated “the Prince of Peace.” He said things like “suffer the little children” to come to him.  And Mohammed? “He raided villages and towns,” Ali Sina points out,  and

massacred unarmed men, beheaded his captives, raped their women and sold them as slaves. His successors, the so-called “rightly guided Caliphs” and their successors did the same. These are the very things the Wahhabis advocate and Islamic State is doing.

As for Mohammed and little children, there is of course the story of Aisha, the youngest of Mohammed’s wives. She was married to Muhammad at the age of “six or seven”  but she stayed in her parents’ home until the age of “nine or ten.”

Yes, there are people who describe themselves as Muslim “reformers.” They do not want to go back to the original teachings of Muhammed — they look slightingly upon massacring unarmed men, shrink back from beheading folks, and want to have nothing to do with raping women or encouraging slavery.

But they also, Ali Sina points out, want to “acknowledge the legitimacy of Muhammad as a prophet of God.”

How do they manage that trick? “How,” Ali Sina asks, “can we tell people Muhammad was a true prophet, but don’t believe him – that his message was from God, but don’t follow it? Furthermore, isn’t it what the majority of Muslims already doing? Most Muslims don’t practice the violent parts of the Koran. As long as Islam is accepted as a true religion there will always be a minority who will want to practice it fully and honestly.”

Item: Yusra Hussein is a 15-year-old British Muslim of Somali origin. One day she just disappeared. The next thing her parents knew, there she was a “jihadi bride” who had gone to fight with Islamic State. “If it can happen to Yusra,” her aunt said, “it can happen to anyone. She was just a normal, young girl. She was a home girl. There was no anger, no frustration. We had no idea.”

Depressed yet?

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Ho-hum, It’s Turner Prize Time Again

September 30th, 2014 - 12:31 am

I had almost forgotten about the Turner Prize, one of the art world’s longest running and most boring bad jokes.  You remember the Turner Prize: it’s Britain’s tired adolescent effort to show that the avant garde is not dead, it just has nothing to do with art. Begun in 1984, the TP is 30 this year. After featuring such exercises in repellent aesthetic nullity as Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” and Damien Hirst’s bisected shark in formaldehyde, what’s left?  We’re still at the short list stage, but this description from The Guardian of James Richard’s film Rosebud provides all the excuse you need to give the preposterous exhibition a miss:

Someone is picking wild flowers. Isn’t that nice? Now the flower is being used as a tickling stick. Very amusing. Wait, isn’t that actually a foreskin? Yes, it’s definitely a foreskin. This is Rosebud, a sensual black-and-white film by Turner prize nominee James Richards that interweaves images of aroused flesh and censorship. Provocative photographs with rude bits scratched out are intercut with footage showing the erotic use of flowers. In one sequence, a flower tickles an anus, which reacts by clenching shut.

A sphincter clenching shut.  That about sums up the Turner Prize, named for the great 19th century British painter but whose every fiber is a betrayal of the visual glory that Turner celebrated.

What makes the Turner Prize pathetic as well as noxious is its banality, its utter predictability.  The Prize pretends to be daring, challenging, transgressive, original. But the only thing it successfully transgresses is our patience.  As for originality, its penchant for scatological eroticism was fully exploited by Dada a century ago.  Indeed, Marcel Duchamp mapped out both large domains of the pseudo-avant garde that supplies the anemic lifeblood of public relations stunts like the Turner Prize.  When Duchamp took objects from everyday life — a bottle rack, a snow shovel — and impishly exhibited them as works of art, he pioneered the entire genre of art-as-banality.  When he exhibited a urinal as a sculpture he twitted the more delicate sensibilities of an earlier age with exactly the same sort of naughty schoolboy outrage that Tracey Emin’s sordid exhibitionism recycled lo these many years later.

The Turner Prize is an example not of the art world’s daring but its rancid exhaustion. There is a vibrant life of visual art in Britain, as there is in America. But it has nothing to do with expensive cynical exploits like the Turner Prize or Tate Modern.

The EU vs. Apple

September 29th, 2014 - 1:05 am

London. A story in The Financial Times today reveals that the EU, in its hyper-regulatory wisdom, has set its sights on Apple, which it accuses of profiting from “illegal” deals with Ireland. 

I put quotation marks around “illegal” because the case is far from proved. But as far as Brussels is concerned, Apple’s real sin revolves around the word “profiting.” “Profits” are what Brussels rakes in from its satraps around Europe. They are not something any individual state, let alone an individual company, is allowed to enjoy, especially if that company is as wildly profitable and innovatory as Apple.

Apple’s tort is compounded, of course, because it is American. (The EU is also going after Starbucks, Amazon, and other companies.) “EU investigators,” the article explains, “rest their case on whether Apple negotiated special tax treatment in Ireland that other companies do not enjoy.” Apple naturally denies all wrongdoing, just as it did when investigated by the U.S. Senate last year. All those billions of dollars — Apple apparently has something like $137 billion parked offshore — and the U.S. tax collectors can’t get their grubby hands on a penny! The really galling thing, for the bureaucrats who need more of your money to spend, is that Apple’s behavior, so far as has been determined, is completely legal.  They got the best deal they could, and did so legally. That really steamed the bureaucrats. Suffering from an inadequate appreciation of the distinction between meum and tuum, they just cannot contemplate a stack of cash without wanting to help themselves to a large bit of it.

Apple keeps so much money offshore because, since the U.S. corporate tax rate is so high, it costs them less to do that.  It is not illegal to do this. Nor is it unethical.  It is simply rational. They are responding to incentives. Perhaps the U.S. should try lowering its corporate tax rate to something that is competitive on the world stage.  I offer that startlingly original idea free and for nothing.

The EU is indulging in a snit similar to what motivated the U.S. Senate. Apple is the world’s richest company. Why aren’t their riches lining the pockets of Brussels bureaucrats?  That is the real, though unstated, question here.  Let’s see what the EU inquisitors — er, “investigators” — turn up.  I suspect it will be either be nothing or will be filed under the rubric “trumped up.”

Apple is as aggressive in its business dealings as it is innovative in its technology and marketing.  It is also very careful. It finds out what the law allows and it endeavors to take advantage of all that it can. All those qualities explain why it is so successful.  The last time I checked, being successful was not a crime in the EU. But perhaps I missed something. Maybe, buried in the tens of thousands of pages of productivity-blighting regulations, there is a clause forbidding conspicuous success.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

The EU’s campaign against Apple is just the latest example of its outdated guild mentality on parade.  Europe is slipping into economic irrelevance even as it courts demographic catastrophe. It no longer has enough red corpuscles even to reproduce. So it sits around in drooling geriatric senility endeavoring to penalize anyone and anything that exhibits the lusty vitality of young life. No wonder more and more Brits want out of the EU.

The Fate of Free Speech

September 28th, 2014 - 2:15 am

Yesterday, I came back to London from Winchester, where I was at a conference about “threats to free speech.”  We’ll be publishing edited versions of the papers this winter in The New Criterion. In the meantime, I wanted to underscore the oddity of our topic.  “Threats to free speech”?  Haven’t we waged, and won, that battle?  After all, this is the 21st century. Areopagitica,  “a speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England,” was published in 1644.  The First  Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in the 18th century. And then there have been all those later battles — over Ulysses, for example, as well as over other, less edifying publications – that extended the domain of permissible speech. Not only could you criticize your senator or your president with impunity, but you could print and circulate material that, a few scant decades ago, would have earned you the avid attention of such entities as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

How quaint the name of that organization sounds.  How much more enlightened and sophisticated we are.  We scoff at societies for the “prevention of vice.” As a society, we’re beyond all that — or are we?

In fact, free speech is like other freedoms: its victory is never permanent. Every generation must work anew to win or at least maintain it.  As André Gide once put it, “Toutes choses sont dites déjà, mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer.” The hard truth is that, with the exception of certain modalities of sexually explicit material, speech is much less free today than it was fifty or a hundred years ago.

What are the major threats to free speech today? Perhaps the overarching condition that threatens free speech is the spread of political correctness. This has sharply curtailed candor about all manner of contentious subjects.  It is no longer possible, in polite society, to speak frankly about race, about differences between the sexes, or a hundred other topics — so-called “climate change,” for example, or the relationship between Islam and free speech.

It is extraordinary, is it not, that various Islamic groups, often with the collusion of Western politicians, including Hillary Clinton, are proposing to resurrect blasphemy laws , making it illegal — illegal —  to “insult” Mohammed or criticize Islam? The end of their efforts is a “global censorship regime.”  We’re not there yet, not quite, but we’re well on the road.  One sign of the success of this campaign is the systematic reluctance of Western leaders to describe Islamic terrorism as, well, Islamic terrorism.  The activities of the Islamic State, for example, are roundly, and fearfully, condemned, but in the next breath their homicidal savagery is delicately distinguished from Islam.  They’re “not Muslims but monsters,” said Prime Minister David Cameron after “jihad John” beheaded a Brit, but a more candid man would have noted that the members of ISIS are monsters as well as Muslims.

It’s the same or worse in America, alas. After 9/11, President Bush assured the world that Islam was a religion of “peace,” ignoring the inconvenient fact that Islamic peace can be vouchsafed only when the entire world has been converted to that barbaric faith. At the end of the day, the options for non-Muslims are three: conversion, slavery (“dhimmitude”), or death. Which makes perfect sense in a religion whose very name means “submission.”

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Where Is Hercules When You Need Him?

September 25th, 2014 - 12:24 am

I landed yesterday in the mother country, i.e., Britain, which thank God we can still call “Great” following last week;s silly referendum of Scottish so-called independence. The bookies here called it precisely: the Scots, in an access of what one friend called a a wave of temporary sanity, rejected the offer of permanent immiseration by some 10 points, thus demonstrating that the country of David Hume and Adam Smith has not gone entirely soft in the head.  Some clever chaps were quietly hoping that the Scots would finally go through with their threat to divorce England.  Since Scotland is these days a socialist wasteland — I haven’t looked it up, but I believe there is only one conservative minister from Scotland in the House of Commons — their departure from the 400-year-old union would have transformed English politics overnight. Absent the dozens of politically immature leftist ministers, England could finally have gotten on with the business of restoring prosperity to the country.  And since Whitehall sends something like £5 in welfare payments to Scotland for every pound they collect in taxes, the English taxpayer would also have been better off.

I see these advantages of devolution, or divorce.  But on balance I have to say that it would have been a disaster for all concerned.  For Scots, it would have spelt an instant lowering of the standard of living. “What about the North Sea oil,” you say?  I happened to sit through a financial briefing about Scotland a couple days before the referendum.  The bankers in charge of the presentation had some admonitory information about Scotland’s economic situation, including an alarming chart depicting oil production from the North Sea.  It started fairly high up on the left side of the chart and worked its way steadily downwards as traveled right. There is also the international situation.  Scotland’s recurrent fit of adolescent posturing is part of a dangerous trend in the world.  Remember Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History?  I once gave the palm to that book for articulating the silliest argument in recent memory by a serious academic.  Fukuyama predicted that liberal democracy, which he denominated the final, and best, form of government, was set to break out the world over. That was at the end of the 1980s.  The ink wasn’t dry on Fukuyama’s book before we saw that, pretty much wherever we looked,  something closer to the opposite was happening.  What we were seeing was not the triumph of liberal democracy but the retribalization of the world. The restless Scots are part of that distressing, anti-civilizational imperative, and the world must be grateful that they managed to save themselves from their self-generated folly.

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What Is a ‘Grand Strategy’?

September 22nd, 2014 - 8:56 am

The other day, I had the pleasure of joining an earnest group of serious thinkers in a freewheeling discussion with Henry Kissinger at a disclosed, but still secure, location at Yale.  The occasion for the discussion was Kissinger’s new book, World Order, a brilliant historical conspectus of the major political dispensations that have imposed, or — in some lucky places — merely coaxed order out of the recalcitrant matter that is humanity. 

There is a lot that might be said about World Order, about Henry Kissinger (who is well into his 92nd year), and about the huge topic that is the subject of his latest book: world order, a quality that seems in short supply in these increasingly fraught days.

For now, however, I’d like to focus on discrete subset of that capacious topic.  At one point in the afternoon’s discussion, Kissinger was asked about ISIS, AKA, Islamic State, the newly declared caliphate whose favorite book seems to be Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading.

As my readers surely know, President Obama recently took to the airwaves to scold ISIS.  The problem, as Kissinger and others have pointed out, is that the president’s speech was long on detailing what he was not going to do and rather short on positive statements of policy. As one wag put it, the president’s performance amounted to a reverse Teddy Roosevelt: Talk harshly and carry a soft stick.  That, more or less, was the president’s message.  His tone was plenty bellicose, but his strategy (and remember, just a week before, he admitted that he didn’t yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS) was flaccid.

I doubt that the world can boast a more circumspect diplomat than Henry Kissinger. And yet the former secretary of State was blistering about Obama’s response to public beheadings carried out by Islamic State. No nation, Kissinger observed, can stand by while two of its citizens are brutally and publicly murdered, outrages compounded by the worldwide publicity assured by the circulation of internet videos of the incidents. Such actions must be met by swift and decisive force, obliterating the actors.  But what has Obama actually done? To date, he has authorized a series of pin pricks, a few dozen, low-yield sorties. (Update: “U.S. Launches First Allied Airstrikes to Hit ISIS Targets in Syria.”)

That evening, some twenty of us present at Kissinger’s afternoon discussion assembled for dinner and further repartee. Kissinger continued to field and pose questions, and the subject of what to do about Islamic State recurred. Two former diplomats, both of whom worked for President Obama, and whom charity prevents me from identifying, argued that it was extremely difficult to formulate a strategy for dealing with such groups because they were so disparate. What we were dealing with, said one, were “no-state actors” whose behavior proceeded not from any “grand strategy” but from hard-to-discern motives. Boko Haram in Africa was one thing, al Qaeda another, the Taliban something else again, and now we have a group calling itself first al Qaeda in Iraq, then ISIS, then ISIL, and then simply Islamic State. This transnational criminality, they both suggested, was an amorphous if still deadly threat, difficult of definition.

These are the people — the “folks,” to use one of President Obama’s favorite words — who are conducting our foreign policy? Let me give these experts a little lesson in world affairs. Possessing a grand strategy does not depend upon being a nation state.  How do I know? I ponder phenomena such as those on the next page.

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Evolution of the Obama Doctrine

August 31st, 2014 - 7:50 am

The “Obama Doctrine”: what do you suppose that might be? The goal of fundamentally transforming the United States of  America stands in the background, you can be sure of that. But  now, six years into the program, we can see an arc of development, an evolution (or devolution). There are many metrics that can be employed to describe what Obama has done to this country.  One might focus on the economy, on employment, on race relations, on the fate of individual liberty, on more nebulous matters like national mood, international prestige, and that potent if difficult-to-measure armory described in the phrase “soft power.” “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan famously asked in 1980.  Let’s generalize the question for the last six years: are we as a country better off than we were when Obama took office?

Let’s leave domestic matters — the controversies over Obamacare, the still-unfolding IRS scandals, illegal immigration, energy policy, and the like — to one side.  Let’s  focus instead on national security and the place of the United States on the world stage. How are we doing?

Over at Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds reproduced a mournful litany sent to him by a friend. Cast your mind back a single year, he suggested, all the way back to Labor Day weekend 2013. Then think about all that had not happened:

The Chinese ADIZ [that is, China’s unilateral extension of it defense perimeter in the South China Sea], the Russian annexation of Crimea, the rise of ISIS, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fall of Mosul, the end of Hungarian liberal democracy, the Central American refugee crisis, the Egyptian-UAE attacks on Libya, the extermination of Iraqi Christians, the Yazidi genocide, the scramble to revise NATO’s eastern-frontier defenses, the Kristallnacht-style pogroms in European cities, the reemergence of mainstream anti-Semitism, the third (or fourth, perhaps) American war in Iraq, . . .

Et very much cetera. And all that, Reynolds’ anonymous correspondent observes, “was in the future just one year ago.”

“Nature,” Galileo observed four hundred years ago, “abhors a vacuum”  That sucking sound you hear when reading the alarming list of what Secretary of State John Kerry might have dismissed as “19th-century” behavior, unbecoming of a modern, blow-dried state, that rushing wind is the sound of a profound leadership deficit. It’s what happens when a great power abdicates, when it stops acting like an adult and gives free rein to its inner community organizer, its inner selfie. It’s Lord of the Flies writ large.

Let’s step back and focus on just one element of this mosaic, the element conjured up by “the rise of ISIS, the fall of Mosul, the extermination of Iraqi Christians, and the Yazidi genocide.” How did all that happen?

First, a few signposts. In 2009, shortly after taking office, Obama went to Cairo to deliver his now (in)famous speech about America’s relations with Islam. “I have come here,” he said,

to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

I’ve italicized a few words and phrases that bear thinking about. Consider: “mutual interest” and “mutual respect.” The mutuality would seem to imply a certain reciprocity, don’t you think? But ask yourself this: how many Christian churches or Jewish synagogues are there in, say, Mecca or Riyadh or Medina? How many mosques are there in, say, New York, London, or Paris?  Take your time.

While you are doing the math, ponder the words “justice,” “progress,” “tolerance,” and the idea of “the dignity of all human beings.”  Is it true that Islam and the West (or, to use an antique formulation, Islam and Christendom)  have anything like a shared understanding of the ideas these terms name? How much tolerance for religious diversity, for example, is there in any Muslim country, let alone in the territories controlled by the Islamic State (formerly ISIS)?  What  sort of dignity is accorded to Jews, Christians, women, homosexuals?

Are the answers to any of those questions encouraging?

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Obama Tries for Kyoto 2.0

August 27th, 2014 - 4:31 am

Do you remember this bit from the Constitution of the United States?

[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; . . . 

That’s the so-called “Treaty Clause” from Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution.  It is one of several checks on executive power thoughtfully provided by the Founders but flouted by the Golfer-in-Chief currently occupying the White House.

Can’t get two-thirds of the Senate to approve a bit of Green Legislation you favor?  No problem!  Just pretend that the United States of America is subject not to its Constitution but to the transnational organization of gangsters, kleptocracies, and Third-World dictatorships known as the Untied Nations.

Sound extreme? We can talk about the composition of the Untied Nations another time.  But when it comes to Barack Obama’s cavalier treatment of the Constitution, you need look no further than this morning’s New York Times. Under the headline “Obama Pursuing Climate Accord in Lieu of Treaty,” the paper explains how the president, frustrated by Congress’s unwillingness to barter away U.S. sovereignty by signing on to the so-called “Kyoto Protocol,” the economy blighting climate standards devised by Greenies and other folks eager to hamstring the world’s most productive economies, especially the Untied States, is planning to “sidestep” Congress.

It’s written in soporific journalese, but it is an explosive story:

The Obama administration is working to forge a sweeping international climate change agreement to compel nations to cut their planet-warming fossil fuel emissions, but without ratification from Congress.

In preparation for this agreement, to be signed at a United Nations summit meeting in 2015 in Paris, the negotiators are meeting with diplomats from other countries to broker a deal to commit some of the world’s largest economies to enact laws to reduce their carbon pollution. But under the Constitution, a president may enter into a legally binding treaty only if it is approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

To sidestep that requirement, President Obama’s climate negotiators are devising what they call a “politically binding” deal that would “name and shame” countries into cutting their emissions.

I’ve highlighted a few passages for special consideration. I invite you to ponder in particular the conjunction of these two nuggets: 1.) “under the Constitution, a president may enter into a legally binding treaty only if it is approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate”; and 2. “To sidestep that requirement, . . . .” In other words, even the New York Times is onto the extra-Constitutional, i.e., the illegal, activities of the Obama administration.  Do they care? Do you?

The proposed “deal,” as the Times goes on to say, “is likely to face strong objections from Republicans on Capitol Hill and from poor countries around the world, but negotiators say it may be the only realistic path.”

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Moral Idiocy on Parade

August 23rd, 2014 - 8:00 am

Connoisseurs of obtuse moral idiocy have long cherished The New York Times. Is there any other  contemporary organ of opinion that so reliably combines the odor of sanctimoniousness with a seamless adherence to “progressive,” left-leaning orthodoxy? It’s not just the positions espoused by our former paper of record: it’s the combination of those echt correct opinions with the aura of smug self-satisfaction that makes the paper such a remarkable source of nausea-inducing pontification.

Today’s paper provides a particularly egregious example on its op-ed page (I mean the one at the back of the first section, not the one the Times has taken to running on its front page). The column in question is called “The Problem With ‘Evil’.”  It’s by Michael J. Boyle, an Associate Professor at La Salle University. Really, it is something special — though I should perhaps add that by “special” I do not mean “commendatory” but rather depressingly singular, as when educationists denominate the academically or intellectually deficient portion of the class as one of “special needs.”

Associate Professor Boyle’s column is about the world’s response to the beheading of the Sunni-loving jihadist James Foley by ISIS barbarians. That’s not how Associate Professor Boyle puts.  On the contrary, the burden of his column — as those knowing scare quotes around the word “evil” suggest — is to chastise us imperfectly enlightened folks from the use of “moralistic language” when we describe the knife-wielding pastimes of ISIS.

Not that Associate Professor Boyle is a fan of ISIS. He is on board with the “global condemnation of the insurgent group and its horrific tactics.” But he is alarmed that some of those who condemn separating Mr. Foley’s head from the rest of him should resort to the “moralistic language once used to describe Al Qaeda in the panicked days after the 9/11 attacks.” Got that? Those bad “panicked days” of yore, back when our reason was occluded, made us “moralistic” in our use of language.  You remember: before 9/11 no one, near enough, had ever heard of al Qaeda. On September 12, 2001, most people — not people like Associate Professor Boyle, of course — would have described al Qaeda as an evil organization whose members were savage, theocratic barbarians that the civilized world should exterminate eftsoons and right speedily. Is that “moralistic”? Or merely, considering the existential threat posed by al Qaeda, commendably moral, as well as, let’s face it, justifiably pragmatic?

If you think that, you are, according to Associate Professor Boyle, insufficiently sensitive and imperfectly enlightened.  What’s the worst thing a contemporary academic can say about someone?  Yes, you got it. That “moralistic language” — you know, the impulse to describe ISIS as “evil” — is “an eerie echo” of  . . . of who? Yes! It’s an “eerie echo” of “President George W. Bush’s description of the global war on terrorism as a campaign against ‘evildoers,’ . . .” Have you ever heard anything so outrageous!  Imagine, calling the chaps who steered airliners into buildings tall and squat for fun and profit as “evildoers.”  Have you ever heard anything so un-nuanced, so politically incorrect, so unbefitting an Associate Professor, or even a Distinguished Full Professor with a named chair?

In fact, while Associate Professor Boyle invoked President Bush the way a priest might invoke Satan, the “eerie echo” extended beyond President Bush to President Obama and, John Kerry, and even David Cameron. Yes, really:

In an eerie echo of President George W. Bush’s description of the global war on terrorism as a campaign against “evildoers,” President Obama described ISIS as a “cancer” spreading across the Middle East that had “no place in the 21st century.” Secretary of State John Kerry condemned ISIS as the face of a “savage” and “valueless evil,” while Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, called the group “barbaric.”

What would you call it? My own feeling is that the rhetoric employed by all of the above was measured and correct.  But Associate Professor Boyle inhabits a more rarefied moral universe. Hark: “Indeed, condemning the black-clad, masked militants as purely ‘evil’ is seductive [“seductive,” eh?], for it conveys a moral clarity and separates ourselves and our tactics from the enemy and theirs.”

Now let’s pause over this sentence. Note, for example, the adverb “purely”: where did that come from? I suspect most people would cavil over “purely evil” because those masked men, unlike the Lone Ranger, are also political fanatics, grandstanding narcissists, crazed theocratic throwbacks, and a dozen other things. Note, too, Associate Professor Boyle’s use of the word “seductive.” If we are seduced into calling something “purely evil” (or even just evil) that suggests something illegitimate. Lydia Bennet was seduced by Wickham: she was not really (well, not wholly) to blame. Finally, note the implication of moral equivalence by litotes. That “moral clarity” that separates us from the knife wielding followers of a barbaric religion: no Associate Professor worth his salt believes in such “moral clarity,” for that would be to affirm that we really are different from, and better than, the sorts of people who enjoy sawing people’s heads off.

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A Sixties Time Warp

August 21st, 2014 - 5:44 am

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As Scott Johnson over at Powerline has noted, the Sixties seems to be making a comeback on the world stage. Consider Barack Obama’s pathetic response to the violence and racial posturing in Ferguson. “It was,” Johnson writes, “a statement full of the reigning leftist clichés, even retrieving the “anger” of “looting” and “carrying guns” from the dustbin of the sixties. Frantz Fanon must be making a comeback among the White House speechwriters. What next? Perhaps R.D. Laing and The Politics of Experience. You know, reality is crazy, man, and mental illness is a path to transcendence.

People looking for additional examples do not have far to seek. A friend just sent me a link to the program for the 2014 People’s Social Forum in Ottawa (that’s “Forum social des peuples” up where the language police reign): “Build together, win together! The future is Ours!” (“Ensemble pour gagner, l’avenir est à nous!”)

I confess that I am still of two minds about whether this is an elaborate hoax, à la the Sokal Affair, perhaps. What do you think? There’s the “indigenous friendship centre at the forum,” the “legal assistance” hot line prominently displayed in case ( I assume) you have immigration problems, and there’s the “people of colour Welcoming space.” Then there’s the “Dismantling Oppression” sidebar:

All participants in the Peoples Social ForumC are dedicated to sharing an op- pression– free space for dialogue and debate. Participants commit to open dialogue and communication in a respectful environment, free of all forms of harassment. Any acts of oppression weaken and divide us and cannot be tolerated.

Hoax? Or normal life on campus?

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