Browsing Category


Politics, Religion, Social Justice

Dear Alt-Right and Postmodernists – Actually, Truth Doesn’t Depend On Power

July 13, 2017

In one debate after another on any issue with regards to religion, race, gender, or fairness, there is one maxim of faith you’ll hear repeated over and over again with an evangelist’s zeal – objective truth doesn’t exist.  And what we hear to be the truth is merely based on power – power invested in the state, the media, the church, or the academy, just to name a few of the many nodes from which it emanates.

Downstream proponents of instersectionality repeat this constantly.  One merely has to take a look at websites like Everyday Feminism to see this trope constantly carried out to shut down any criticism of their own movement.

One can be appreciative of this article for spelling out exactly what ideas are at play here.

“We are authorities on our own experiences and nobody else’s. Objectivity is often a sign of privilege and distance, not expertise… , nobody can ever argue from an objective or neutral perspective on things like social justice – because society treats no identity with neutrality. In other words, no matter who you are, your perspective will always be affected by the privilege or oppression you face…At risk of oversimplification, black feminist thought centers the lived experiences of marginalized people. It argues that subjectivity is valuable because people’s lived experiences are valuable – because people’s spoken truths are, in and of themselves, truths…”

Much of this rhetoric has its origins in Critical Race Theory, which explicitly credits its own origins to the Postmodern philosophers of the 1970s.  They too spell out exactly the way by which they can dismiss even the concept of an objective point of view – because power is all that really exists, and knowledge is never, in any way, separate from it.

Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, spells this out explicitly and articulately. 

“Perhaps, too, we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist only where the power relations are suspended and that knowledge can develop only outside its injunctions, its demands and its interests.  Perhaps we should abandon the belief that power makes mad and that, by the same token, the renunciation of power is one of the conditions of knowledge.  We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.  These “power-knowledge relations’ are to be analysed, therefore, not on the basis of a subject of knowledge who is or is not free in relation to the power system, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows, the objects to be known and the modalities of knowledge must be regarded as so many effects of these fundamental implications of power-knowledge and their historical transformations.  In short, it is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.”

Who else seems to subscribe to this way of thinking?  The populist movement that put Donald Trump in the White House, seeing itself as an oppressed minority, is now also tearing down the edifice of truth with zeal.  They too see their right to their own truth, their own alternative facts, and view their own fight against ‘elitist’ versions of truth in the same framework of the oppressed against the powerful.  The powerful are usually some combination of the media, Hollywood, academia, and urban cities (though the media seems to consistently be the favorite target).  And despite an exhaustive and unprecedented catalogue of Trump outright lying, it doesn’t seem to matter.  He’s their guy.  “They believe they’re getting lied to constantly, so if their hero tells lies in order to strike back, they don’t care” said Republican Strategist Rob Stutzman, who worked against Trump in the GOP primaries, a description of the kind of real-politik struggle of narratives that postmodernists see as being the reality of the world.

One New York Post columnist laid it out just after Trump’s victory.  His comments about suffering at the hands of a ‘dominant culture’ could make any Critical Race Theorist or Gender Theorist proud in another context.

The factory workers, the veterans, the cops, the kitchen help, people who plow the fields, make the trains run, pick up the trash and keep the country together and keep it moving — they are all now winners. As one, these cogs of our daily life rose up in a peaceful revolution, their only weapons the ballot box and their faith in the future.

Trump voters had the courage of their conviction to go against all their betters, all the poobahs and petty potentates of politics, industry and, above all, the fraudulent hucksters of the national liberal media.

And who, at this extraordinary juncture, dares say that Trump is not worthy of victory and of the salute of his countrymen? He has done what nobody thought he could, overcoming the doubts and scoffs every incredible step of the way.

No candidate in modern times and perhaps ever has suffered such abuse at the hands of the dominant culture. Virtually every day, nearly all the front pages and broadcasters in the entire country vilified him in an attempt to destroy him.

The late-night comics made fun of him like so much trailer trash, Wall Street saw him as a threat, Hollywood looked down on him and even the pope added his two cents of disdain.

It was dirty pool, against any standard of fairness and decency, but that was not the would-be assassins’ biggest mistake. It was that failing to destroy Trump, the elite smart set unleashed its contempt on his supporters.”

Anna Katherine Mansfield in the Washington Post articulates how similarly Trump supporters prioritize experience over objectivity.  Their demands that people listen to their ‘experience’ and ‘their truth’ are heavily praised when placed in a minority context in the mainstream of the media and academia.

It’s certainly easy for Trump supporters to “know” without proof that the mainstream media isn’t trustworthy: It hasn’t represented their point of view, their truth, in years, and therefore is inherently suspicious… Facts don’t matter if the emotional impact is real.

With this complete eradication of the concept of truth, the effects of the post-truth era are manifest.  From denial of basic truths about discrimination against minorities to truths about climate change, the economy, and vaccines, the ability to dismiss truths as illuminated via the scientific method – still the most powerful tool we have for doubling our lifespans and putting rockets into orbit – seems greater than ever before.  I say this of course being completely cognizant of the lies of the Bush years, and aware that some mythical Golden Era of truth never existed in American politics.  This doesn’t change the fact that the frequency of lies and the manner in which they occur are unprecedented in recent history, and it’s not an accident that Trump won an election in a zeitgeist so carefully prepared for his arrival by embracing alt-truth for decades.

To a certain degree, all of us who embraced relativism are at fault for this current state of affairs.  How can one challenge lies if we’ve spent so long attacking truth as a concept for generations?  One person I’ve connected with on social media, Nicolai Gamulea Schwartz, parodied the predicament perfectly – “There’s no such thing as truth, therefore there’s no such thing as lies. They’re all nodes in a semantic network of power.”

If we want to try and change this – if we want liars in power to be accountable for skirting the truth, if we want children to be vaccinated and climate change dealt with as a real problem, we have to attack this disease at its source.  So the next time you may feel tempted to do so, check your factual impairment – please stop walking around saying everything is about power. Your second-rate unconscious plagiarism of Lyotard and Foucault isn’t, for lack of a better word, “true”.

Yes it’s true, people in power often try to impose their narrative upon those with less power.  This is an observation that Postmodernists aren’t incorrect for pointing out.  It is a totally different observation, however, from whether or not any such a narrative is true.  To this author, this is exactly where the postmodern account goes wrong – equating narrative with truth.

I don’t doubt that this equivalence is reinforced with the best of intentions.  Plenty of real suffering was inflicted upon the powerless by the powerful in the name of some objective truth that was anything but.  One need only go back to the history of pseudo-scientific explanations used in the 19th century to justify racism and slavery to see what damage this can cause, or how conquering civilizations unleashed unimaginable cruelty upon the conquered thinking they did so for the conquered’s benefit, bringing God and civilization to the savages.

But the idea that one can only correct for this only by undermining truth itself is misplaced.   Who here can look at such 19th century pseudo-science and affirm it as science today, any more than a chemist today affirms alchemy?  Subjecting such questions to scientific scrutiny and peer review leads to an overwhelming number of identical conclusions to those desired by the postmodernists, but without the Trumpian chaffe that has accompanied it.  To say otherwise is to claim that aspirations to racial and gender equality are in and of themselves irrational – a position all too welcome by the Richard Spencers of the world, whose rhetoric and justifications often sound all too similar to the postmodernists themselves.

It’s also not crazy to point out that yes, often personal bias does get into scientific analyses.  People do have different perspectives and sometimes objectivity gets clouded by them.  The whole purpose of the scientific method  and peer review is to weed them out, and refine such views.  This leaves conclusions that are still never perfect – just better than all the others.  Calculations made to send rockets into flight always have a margin of error.  The point is not that they will be perfect – only that they, unlike alternative methods, get the rocket into the air.  No amount of ‘personal experience’ or ‘alternative facts’ even comes close to accomplishing this, and it is rather odd that we think that they will do so on other vitally important questions of equality and human rights.

And the other important thing about such calculations is that they actually do keep their truth value regardless of who sits on the throne or in the White House.  If Medieval Europe were sent these tools via a time machine into the Dark Ages, they would be true even if nobody understood them.  This is completely different from the types of nightmare scenarios cited by scholars like Howard Zinn, where narrative defeats narrative and the affirmation of the truth of that narrative only depends on the position of the powerful.

So yes, when the Arab imperialists kicked the Romans out of what is now modern-day Israel in the 600s and built a Mosque on the temple mount, that’s a clear example of imposing a narrative based on power. It was the same almost a thousand years later when the Spaniards forced the Native Americans to forgo their local Gods and accept Jesus and Mary instead.  But at no point, either when nobody in Europe believed in Jesus or when everyone did, when all of Arabia believed in the revelation sent by Muhammed or none of them did, were their narratives ever true. Truth never did, and does not, depend on “power” – truth depends on evidence.

Nobody should really care about critical theory challenging the ‘prevailing’ narrative simply for the sake of it being prevalent. Try challenging untrue narratives instead, both of the powerful and the powerless, for the sake of a real truth that will benefit both groups.

People in the United States now constantly question the truthfulness of whether vaccines cause autism.  The reason?  Being made by for-profit companies, their motives are suspect.  This is one of the exact critiques of science made by Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition – that science and technology, often originally performed by or made for profit-seeking interests, should be suspect as something that serves and reinforces the interest and power of those very profit-makers.  The truth, of course, is that they could have been created by people with the most suspect motives in the world, and it doesn’t matter – vaccines work, and they do not cause autism. Meanwhile American children are once again getting diseases they have not seen in a generation, and all because a legion of delusional parents think they are bravely challenging the status quo.

Certainly I would never pretend that lies have never been pushed by powerful interests in the scientific and medical communities.  It’s vitally important to challenge these interests when their power and the truth do not intersect, such as when tobacco companies tried to buy off doctors to tell consumers that cigarettes were safe.  But this challenge too isn’t to overthrow science and reason, but to affirm them.  To try and destroy the truth simply because at times it does intersect with power is also dangerous.  That measles is now a concern parents must contend with is a testament to this.

So no, your position in the power hierarchy, whether on top, or on the bottom, has absolutely no say on one’s command of the truth.  There’s no such thing as “white physics” or “Native American vaccines”.  Power dynamics are still important, and the extent to which bias exists in the narrative of those in power, it must be mercilessly weeded out. But we must return to that place in the discourse where there is in fact a truth to be found, not a nebulous grey area into which we can insert whatever favored ideology we prefer.  Language is descriptive, and though powerful, it alone is not reality itself.  There is something beyond a language game that allows humanity to transcend its boundaries and manipulate the Universe itself.

When having to choose between power dynamics and the truth, we should demand the truth – truth based on real, peer-reviewed evidence – every single time.

Politics, Religion, Schism Podcast, Secularism, Social Justice, Terrorism

The Postmodern Condition, and How to Fight It – Schism Podcast no. 4, with guest Reza Ziai

June 15, 2017

UdsTdK97_400x400On this episode of the Schism Podcast, I talk with Reza Ziai, Lecturer of Psychology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, about Postmodernism, what it is, how its pervasiveness has affected our discourse, politics, and more, and how the Enlightenment is in need of a vigorous defense more than ever.

Read his articles at Areo Magazine.

Follow him on twitter at @Reza_Ziai

Politics, Religion, Social Justice

Fake Racist Fliers Posted on Campus – Don Quixote’s New Windmills

March 28, 2017

As reported by National Review, the students and faculty of Gustavus Adolphus College were shocked to find openly racist fliers posted on their campus, only to find out later that they were in fact fake, posted on purpose by campus social justice groups.

The Diversity Leadership Council at Gustavus Adolphus College admits that it — with the help of other social-justice groups — planted fake racist flyers on campus “to educate” people about racism.

The flyers, according to a photo obtained by Campus Reform, stated:


On Monday, the Diversity Leadership Council published a Facebook post explaining that it had posted the fake flyers to “promote, preserve, and protect on-campus diversity” and “to help educate our peers and campus community about issues of bias, and the importance of being an active bystander.”

“We want to help put an end to bias-related incidents that happen on our campus, social media, and in our communities by forcing individuals to have dialogues about forms of hate and bias,” the post stated.

It has been speculated much as of late if intersectionality is a religion, and this incident certainly tends towards confirming this thesis.  Religions and the religious are always very careful to find confirmation of their own narrative, and if no such evidence currently exists, it is incumbent upon the true believers to create it, lest the greater good of the enterprise be lost to the masses.

Religious ideologies cannot exist without an ever present enemy to fight at all times, especially when there are other problems that seem currently beyond solution. During the time of the plague in Europe, people conjured up as many causes for the scourge as they could, and the victims of the resulting vicious reaction included Jews, Romani, pilgrims, and even people with simple skin diseases like psoriasis.

Colonial Salem Massachusetts similarly couldn’t seem to help itself in conjuring up yet more witches to kill.

Very recently some politicians in Pakistan, a country facing many complex challenges, saw fit to declare that the real problem facing the country was the scourge of blasphemy on social media, a cause against which they are trying to enlist Facebook in its aid.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised therefore that in a time where young people feel the stability and accomplishments of their parents’ generation slipping away from the expectations of a normal educated middle-class life, they channel such frustrations into a religious panic of their own, with an enemy that, if it does not actually exist before their own eyes, must be created out of thin air.

What is Don Quixote to do if his delusion breaks and he realizes those are windmills after all?

No doubt racism exists and must be steadily fought, but it is rather peculiar that people seem to see it in the very places in this nation and the world where the leftist Utopian dream on this issue is the most actualized as it has ever been in history. And it is notable just how similar this movement is to earlier moral panics and fervent religious revivalism.

A good narrative needs confirmation, and the artificially constructed hate crimes we have seen since Trump’s election bear witness to the zeal of those so insatiably eager to confirm it.

Ironically the greatest casualty of this behavior is the narrative itself, for crying wolf does indeed make people think twice when the real wolves arrive.

Politics, Religion, Social Justice

Charles Murray at Middlebury – Asking forbidden questions while leaving the road to bigotry.

March 18, 2017
FILE - In this Thursday, March 2, 2017, file photo, Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray during his lecture in Middlebury, Vt. The college says it has initiated an independent investigation into the protest in which the author of a book discussing racial differences in intelligence was shouted down during the guest lecture and a professor was injured. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke, File)

In part thanks to the recent dust up at Middlebury, there seems to be a lot of talk once again about Charles Murray, The Bell Curve, and whether or not there is a correlation between race and IQ. And as usual, whenever people venture towards this third rail, tensions and passions run high, as it is one of the most forbidden conversations to even initiate within polite, liberal society.

The reasons for people considering this conversation dangerous aren’t totally unfounded. It’s certainly true that in past generations, a supposed statement of ‘inherent’ inferiority, backed up by bogus pseudo-science, was one of the many tools of justification that members of the powerful majority used to oppress the disempowered minority. It’s certainly understandable why some would want this to be one of those truths best left untouched, as the ramifications for subjecting the question to even the most rigorous, dispassionate scientific scrutiny would, in their view, still become a weapon too dangerous for any faction with an agenda to hold.

This raises an interesting philosophical question – are there some areas of inquiry where we really are better off simply not exploring it?

Is this one area where the best acquired scientific truth won’t set us free, but instead will become the whip of the slavemaster?

There is a similar air of emergency around similarly skeptical treatment of the modern cult of identity. Are there 37 genders? Is someone really a different race by simply identifying as such? Many of the same justifications are given as to why we simply cannot subject such claims to scientific evidence and scrutiny, as if a straight line can be drawn between the idea of proving Rachel Dolezal’s status of white or black and giving a green light to fully oppress marginalized people who depend upon this view of identity, most notably transgendered people. Many academics, with the best of intentions, do all they can to fully insulate such topics with an armor of ideology against such inquiry, attacking the very nature of scientific investigation itself as just yet another tool of powerful interests that does not deserve any special consideration – or any consideration at all – in illuminating these questions.

Does it really do society a service if certain topics are given the mandate of silence like a religious blasphemy law, similarly in the name of serving some greater good?

Lost in all of these conversations, I believe, is the real crux of the matter as to why many believe such inquiry is dangerous, and what in fact has caused it to be dangerous in previous generations – the link between the ‘truthfulness’ of claims as a kind of binary switch as to whether or not people deserve equality before the law and full civil respect as an individual in society.

Phrenologists of the 19th century spread many bogus claims as to the supposed inferiority of African Americans. Of course such claims are embarrassing under the light of modern science – but perform a thought experiment where we lived in a possible universe where such claims were true. Under what scenario therefore does it still become morally justifiable – when it is abundantly clear that African Americans are still shown scientifically to be full human beings – to therefore infringe on their rights? Even if this spurious claim were shown true, their rights are not therefore subject to any change.

Some really believe you can change from male to female based solely upon ‘identifying’ as such, while others believe this to be a mental illness or delusion. But ironically, many of the people taking the latter position also profess a belief in an all powerful God that is supremely interested in our masturbation and sexual habits, one that sends burning bushes to talk to us but cannot be bothered to extinguish genocidal modern dictators. If we run a thought experiment where trangenderism is a delusion, how would it be any more delusional than the fairy tale that so many religious Americans worship on Sundays? Indeed there is far less evidence for their magic sky man, and yet in the case of religious belief our modern moral zeitgeist has perfectly separated out debating the claims of believers from from whether or not the truthfulness of their claims would in any way affect full access to their equal rights within society and under the law.

It is perfectly clear to us as to just how respecting one’s beliefs is fundamentally different from respecting the right to hold such beliefs. Every religious believer in America believes in a set of truth-claims that are fundamentally at odds with all of the other truth claims, and they similarly regard the other claims as incorrect, delusion, dangerous, or some linear combination of all of these possibilities. And yet nobody thinks declaring a talking burning bush to be laughable delusion is the very singular thing that opens the door wide to anti-semitism, or the hatred or oppression of Jews as individuals within our society.

Once we understand how immutable the granting of universal rights is and must be within our modern liberal democracy – a position that, in all truth, certainly was not so for much of our history – and provided we fully dedicate every ounce of our political will towards that proposition, the untouchable areas of exploration are no longer demons hiding in the mist. Is homosexuality natural? It doesn’t matter, even in a universe where it was the most unnatural choice possible, it would have absolutely no impact one iota on the access that person has to their universal human rights and full equality before the law. (Homosexuality is of course observed in a plethora of other species, making this debate about its status moot and more or less settled).

Can one change their race or gender simply by virtue of how they identify? This is, again, irrelevant as to whether or not individuals who do so should in any way have their full equality curtailed. Believing in magic Prophets on flying horses – a belief shared to varying degrees by approximately 1.6 billion people – or in a socialist Jew magically rising from the dead after three days – shared by 2.2 billion Christians to varying degrees – are far more ridiculous than changing one’s race or sex could ever be. And yet the cornerstone of our civilization is built upon universally respecting the freedom to live in such beliefs, a foundation that makes it possible for the old warring tribes of of the Middle East to settle in a place like Dearborn Michigan and manage to go about their days without any fear of rocket attacks or theocratic massacres, despite being racially and culturally identical to those who suffer ceaselessly form such scourges in their countries of origin today.

Even if every claim Charles Murray made turned out to be completely true – a position I do not share – this has absolutely no impact on whether or not racial minorities deserve every measure of equality within our society, nor does it in any way diminish the need for continued political action to make such equality more and more the reality of our time. Room for blasphemy does not by definition make room for bigotry. Disagreeing with your Muslim or Jewish friends on the truth claims of their religion in no way gives a green light towards infringing upon their rights as people. Both using the truth-claims of their beliefs to oppress and insulating such beliefs by conflating the two as the same only hinder the progress of our civilization, and the furthering of the project of maximizing human flourishing.

If non-binary genders or changing racial identities are similarly faith claims based upon experience, and not necessarily based on empirical evidence, those that espouse these ideas too deserve the same protection and freedom we grant to all other believers. Fighting to separate out rights from truth claims only aids both the defenders and critics of such beliefs. Areas of exploration are only dangerous if rights depend on them – the elimination of this dependency is the only project that makes the title of ‘universal human rights’ worthy of such description.

Politics, Religion, Schism Podcast, Social Justice

Schism Podcast Episode 2 – First Week in the Wilderness. Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, Corey Booker, DNC Debate, the Path Forward

February 1, 2017


On this episode of the Schism, I reflect upon Week one of Donald Trump, and the first stumbles of the Democratic party and liberalism generally in the wilderness.  Linda Sarsour, Corey Booker, and the DNC debate are hard reminders of just how entrenched in the failed dogmas of the past we still are.



Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ shows he hasn’t got a clue on terrorism.

January 28, 2017

When most Presidents take office, we are disappointed and angry about the things they promise and don’t deliver.  In the case of Donald Trump, after just one week, we are terrified that he’s really trying to implement almost everything he promised.

But he is still falling short.  It has already become evident that Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall, we are.  And as for his “temporary Muslim ban” on immigration, Trump is showing himself to not have a clue when it comes to terrorism or its causes, nor even understanding the promises he made during the campaign.

Firstly, to the disappointment of his alt-right supporters, let’s just understand that this isn’t really a Muslim ban – it’s a ban on people coming from specific Muslim-majority countries, notably Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.  Why does this make absolutely no sense if the goal is to prevent acts of terrorism?  According to the New York Post,

Not a single American was killed on U.S. soil by citizens from any of those countries between 1975 and 2015, according to statistics tallied by the conservative-leaning Cato Institute.

However, the same set of statistics show that nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by citizens from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey in the same time period — with the bulk of those killed being victims of the 9/11 attacks. Yet, people from those four countries are still welcome to apply for U.S. visas and travel permits.

Why is this the case?  One obvious explanation is his business ties to all of these countries, conflicts of interest that Trump has refused to give up while in office.

In a striking parallel, Trump’s sprawling business empire — which he has refused to rescind ownership of — holds multi-million dollar licensing and development deals in all of those countries, raising potential conflict of interest concerns and alarming questions over what actually went into the decision process behind Friday’s executive order.

In the interest of fairness, it’s undeniable that many of the conspicuous countries left off the list have had deep-seated diplomatic ties to the United States that preceded Trump for decades.  Many have helped the United States in numerous ways, providing intelligence and military assistance and other things in the war on terror.  But it’s important to highlight just how nonsensical this Executive Order is in its stated goals – banning specific groups from entering the United States in the interest of national security.

Trump must answer the most glaring contradiction present in this list – why Iran and not Saudi Arabia?  Saudi citizens, as previously noted, made up the majority of the 9/11 hijackers, and the Wahabist ideology they have exported for decades and continue to export is the ideological seed that has given rise to the modern jihadist movement.

Trump, like most Americans, seem to be largely ignorant of a simple fact – when we look at people who commit terrorism in the west against western countries, almost none of them are Shia, and this is because they do not express doctrine of Jihad in the same way that Sunni fundamentalists do.

It’s undeniably true that Shia extremists, “tethered to state and organizational objectives” have created many problems in the region itself, but in terms of our actual security interest at home, I almost never have to worry about a Shia Muslim blowing themselves up in an airport or in a marketplace, or driving a vehicle into a crowd in the name of a political or religious purpose.  Even in the sectarian morass of post-Saddam Iraq, the dearth of Shia suicide bombings has been noted, as ideological directives from the Shia establishment purposely put a lid on the practice in favor direct confrontation and political action.

This is not to let Iran or Syria off the hook one iota for being terrible regimes, nor to discount the threat that Iranian influence has presented towards Israel.  But we must remember that we aren’t talking about admitting regimes, but immigrants from those regimes, and if the Shia extremists haven’t proven to be a domestic terror threat in the west, then the Shia moderates have proven themselves even less so by orders of magnitude.  Iranian and Shia immigrants themselves haven’t proven to be imminent security threats to the United States, and outright banning them is going to do effectively nothing in terms of bolstering our own national security in this regard.

Trump himself shows his own glaring contradictions on this issue with recent comments regarding Christians from these very same parts of the world, who he seems to believe don’t threaten us and need our help.  On the subject of Christianity, Trump seems to understand that specific ideas matter – if Trump understood the greater ideological differences in the region, and how each are tied or are not tied to acts of terrorism committed in western countries, his list would be totally different.

ISIS of course does subscribe to a violent Wahabist/Sunni doctrine of jihad. I am not one of those on the left who mistakenly believes that religious ideas have no link to terrorism, or that specific religious ideas should harbor no concern at all with regards to keeping track of who may be entering the country.  But if Trump is going to make religious concerns part of our immigration policy, he should at least half understand them.  Banning Iranians while making no change to screening processes for immigrants from countries like Saudi Arabia will do absolutely nothing to make us safer.  If we were truly interested in an immigration policy regarding our national security, Saudi Arabia would be at the top of the list for all kinds of actions, and yet they remain one of our closest allies, not subject to anything new.

This approach is also of grave concern to our strongest allies in the Middle East, namely liberal and secular activists.  The Secular Activist Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, an atheist from Iraq who fled under direct threat from Al-Qaeda, who works all over the world promoting liberalism and feminism and human rights, will now be unable to attend any conferences outside of the United States, as he could be stopped and turned away at the border should he try to enter the country again.  Trump’s order does nothing to distinguish between the promoters of good and bad ideas in a way that will aid us in the war on terror, and does nothing to target specific areas where we actually could make meaningful progress in reducing threats.

If there was one thing that seemed at least potentially refreshing about Trump during the campaign, it was his willingness to go after the bad decisions committed by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, in responding to Bin Laden’s attacks from Afghanistan by invading Iraq.  In banning Iranians in the hopes of stopping Sunni fundamentalists, he has proven himself equally worthy of parody and ridicule.


Politics, Religion, Schism Podcast, Secularism, Social Justice

Schism Podcast Episode 1: Why We Are Here, Filmmaker Jay Shapiro, “Islam and the Future of Tolerance”

January 22, 2017

After months of procrastination by perfectionism, here it is – the first episode of the Schism Podcast.

Much thanks to all who encouraged me and all who lovingly poked fun at me for doing it.

Special thanks to Evan Vicic, my audio guru who was able to point me in the right direction in terms of audio equipment and editing, so that I was able to do this without making a total technical fool of myself.

In this episode I discuss what brought me here, and have a great conversation with filmmaker Jay Shapiro, who is filming a movie version of “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” with Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz.

Hope you enjoy this first rudimentary step forward.  Please leave suggestions and comments below for what and how I can do better in the future!

Politics, Religion

MLK would gladly violate your safe space

January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King’s legacy is so all-encompassing and speaks to so many people that, like a great work of art, we all believe it speaks to us personally, and the things that we care about in particular.  Today is a day when anybody with a certain perspective will claim King as their own, especially on the liberal side of the aisle, and perhaps most of all in the so-called “social justice” wing of that side.  But while his roles as a fighter for racial justice, equality, and reconciliation are well known, there are additional roles he filled that have been almost totally forgotten – fearless free-speech advocate, blasphemer, and fact-based intellectual.

Just as Galileo’s scientific discoveries rankled the Church, racial equality and reconciliation were absolutely radical ideas for their time.  In a space of white supremacy King was a blasphemer of the first order, his stance on free speech unequivocal and strong.

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.

Imagine this quote – taken out of the context of King’s cause and legacy – paired with some of the quotes from college students today.

“Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences…[it could be] damaging.”

At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

Especially imagine King’s thoughts on new ideas paired with a Yale student’s reaction to being forced to debate policies on offensive halloween costumes this past fall.

“I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

Is there any doubt how a King rising today would have been portrayed by the Social Justice Left, these “soft-minded” men and women?  If this exchange at Yale is any indication, the reception would have been less than kind. We can see King in many ways being the antithesis of this modern movement with regards to tactics, which seems to favor ideology dictated by social force rather than the use of argument and reason to win the day.  If the story of modern-day allies in the Social Justice movement tell us anything, it’s that King’s stance may not have been very welcomed, regardless of the agreement on desired outcomes and policy.

King re-articulated his commitment to the first amendment in his famous “Mountain top” speech, the last speech he gave before he was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968.  A court injunction had been issued against him to hold a rally and march on April 8, and in response he affirmed once again how un-American such an infringement on free speech really was.

Now about injunctions. We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.

Furthermore it is fascinating to compare what the Civil Rights activists went through in the 60s with the reception of some who breech the status quo today.  When sit-in protestors sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the 1960s

Reactions to the sit-in protesters varied by restaurant. In many places, groups of white men gathered around the protesters to heckle them and there was occasional violence. “In a few cases the Negroes were elbowed, jostled and shoved. Itching powder was sprinkled on them and they were spattered with eggs,” The Times reported. “At Rock Hill, S.C., a Negro youth was knocked from a stool by a white beside whom he sat. A bottle of ammonia was hurled through the door of a drug store there. The fumes brought tears to the eyes of the demonstrators.” Many managers closed their counters rather than deal with the protests.

When one reads about a student earlier this year who published an Op-Ed in a publication at Weslyan University, critical of the tactics (but not the goals) of Black Lives Matter, the echoes of such behavior are inescapable.

Within 24 hours of publication, students were stealing and reportedly destroying newspapers around campus. In a school cafe, a student screamed at Stascavage through tears, declaring that he had “stripped all agency away from her, made her feel like not a human anymore,” Stascavage told me in a phone interview. Over the following days, he said, others muttered “racist” under their breath as he passed by.

Finally, on Sunday, the student government voted unanimously to halve funding for the newspaper and redistribute the savings among four campus publications (including, possibly, the Argus, subject to a student vote). This measure is allegedly intended to reduce paper waste and promote editorial diversity.

The irony is plain for all to see – how many of King’s self-proclaimed successors in this fight seem to abandon the very thing that made his fight possible?  Among millenials and in the academy, where his ideas can be said to more or less be the majority consensus, there is an entirely different view on free speech.  There are, it seems, certain taboos too sacred to be challenged.

This again, was not the case with King, even concerning questions of his faith.  In a 1949 paper he wrote while at the Crozer Theological Seminary, King wrote about the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism, a Persian cult religion that was in competition with early Christianity.  It is amazing to see the intellectual honesty with which he addresses the early history of Christianity, a kind of honesty that could cost a religious person socially even in today’s society.

“It is at this point that we are able to see why knowledge of these cults is important for any serious New Testament study. It is well-nigh impossible to grasp Christianity through and through without knowledge of these cults. That there were striking similarities between the developing church and these religions cannot be denied. Even Christian apologist had to admit that fact….One of the most interesting of these ancient cults was Mithraism, which bore so many points of resemblance to Christianity that it is a challenge to the modern student to investigate these likenesses and learn more about them….Ernest Renan, the French philosopher and Orientalist expressed the opinion that Mithraism would have been the religion of the modern world if anything had occured to halt or destroy the growth of Christianity in the early centuries of its existence. All this goes to show how important Mithraism was in ancient times.”

I can’t imagine any prominent Social Justice figures of today willing to be so honest about their own narratives.  Too often we hear modern day Social Justice Warriors defending their ideology with every bit as much irrational war-like screeching with which the status quo of old defended their own.  Martin Luther King was different – on the battlefield of ideas, he didn’t retreat into his safe space.  Perhaps nobody pointed this out better than CNN’s Don Lemmon, speaking of the tendency of some to want to restrict speech during the widely covered Mizzou protests last year.

Freedom fighters like Dr. King and Malcolm X quite often and on purpose would run right into the lion’s den to engage with peopel with whom they didn’t necessarily agree or care for.  Why?  Because they weren’t afraid of confrontation.  of being challenged.  They weren’t afraid of being offended.  They weren’t afraid of offending.

Students should be safe from physical harm, anywhere.  But they should not be coddled by retreating into so called safe spaces for fear of having their feelings hurt.

The story of King’s quest to transform America’s moral compass follows an eerily similar arc to many other great reformers, particularly in the United States.  There is no doubt that the reason the United States has endured, grown, and evolved for the better is due to its commitment in law to the Freedom of Speech.  History has shown us that all progress is nothing more than peer-reviewed blasphemy, and for that reason we should honor MLK the blasphemer as much as in his other roles.  Martin Luther King day should be a day to reflect on all that free speech has given us over time, including women’s suffrage, civil rights for minorities, and most recently, greater equality for LGBT citizens. The freer and more open the debate, the greater the progress.  Perhaps nothing shows this correlation greater than the speed with which gay rights have progressed, thanks to the even freer flow of information made possible by the Internet and new technology.

Let us not dishonor King’s legacy by sacrificing the very principle that made his legacy possible.  King was only successful because of his willingness to violate the ‘safe space’ of white America, a fact that should inspire us to rekindle our commitment to unsafe, intellectually fearless spaces.  For it is at the frontiers of un-safe spaces that progress is found – it is only a matter of history finding the men and women brave enough to chart them for us.

Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

The 95 Theses of Charlie Hebdo and the Liberal Reformation

January 8, 2016
Packed copies of the latest edition of French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the title "One year on, The assassin still on the run" are seen at a printing house near Paris, France, January 4, 2016. France this week commemorates the victims of last year's Islamist militant attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket with eulogies, memorial plaques and another cartoon lampooning religion. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier - RTX2100T

Approximately one year ago, armed gunmen marched into the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, murdering 11 people in their offices.  Later, a self proclaimed co-conspirator murdered several people in a Jewish grocer, with the intent of helping the Charlie gunmen escaped.  On the face of it,  the attack was nothing new.  It was not the first time, nor the last, that satirists of Muhammed would be attacked.  From the so-called Rushdie Affair, where a Fatwa was issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran against the author Salman Rushdie for his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses”, to the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh for making a film critical of the treatment of women in Islam,  to the attacks on EU offices, Danish and Norwegian embassies associated with Danish Cartoonists  in 2006, it was already known that to caricature Mohammed or Islam was to take one’s life in their own hands.  Charlie Hebdo’s offices had already been subject to arson attacks in 2011, and had been sued numerous times by various organizations, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for inciting racial hatred.  Indeed just this week the Vatican declared its new cover, depicting God as an assassin, to be “blasphemy”.

But one year later, I can’t escape a nagging feeling, a feeling that I’ve only begun to see reflected in people around me.  This time, something really was different.  One year later, Charlie has irrevocably changed everything.

At the time, the reactions on the right were painfully predictable.  Members of the extreme right repeated their claims that every Muslim could be a secret walking ISIS cell in disguise.  On the far left the apologists came out in full force.  Glenn Greenwald hardly even mentioned the fact that so many people had died, because, you know, the cartoons were racist after all.  All across social media, so-called far left liberals gave themselves a pat on the back for saying “Je ne suis pas Charlie” and blamed the usual tired clichéd Commedia del Arte characters of western racism, western imperialism, and Islamophobia.  PC Culture, which, when history is written on this subject may have been seen at its zenith around the period of this controversy, was having none of it.

And as usual, there was no better whipping boy for this faction than the so-called New Atheists.  This renewed attack against them had been heating up prior to the Charlie Hebdo incident with the rise of ISIS the summer before and Islamist Terrorism now back in the headlines on a daily basis, culminating in the now infamous collision between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher.  If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen this incident many times, but just in case, here it is yet again.

And perhaps even more nauseating is the equally infamous response to this exchange by fellow apologist and regressive mega-star Reza Aslan (not to be missed as well is an excellent piece debunking his claims by Mohammed Syed and Sarah Haider ).

Already within myself, I was feeling my moral understanding of Islamic terrorism shifting. I had already acquainted myself with the most prominent New Atheist writers, including Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, but my basic understanding of conflict in the Middle East until ISIS was still very much in line with that of Greenwald and Aslan. Truthfully, in the pre-ISIS period, it was a very convincing theory. The overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran begat the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Sykes-Picot agreement begat the problems of Iraq and Syria. Intervention in Afghanistan against the Soviets begat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The overthrow of Saddamm Hussein begat Al-Qaeda in Iraq. I had been one of those fervent anti-Iraq-War voters in 2008 that helped propel Barack Obama into office, absolutely fuming with anger about America’s blundering adventures in the middle east. It was a theory that up until recently seemed consistent and sensible.

But the rise of ISIS and a renewed conflict in that Gaza really did start to undermine all that for me.  After all, although ISIS was an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it came to prominence as a result of a Syrian Civil War that the United States very forcefully decided to stay out of.  What did the massacre and sex enslavement of Yadzidi women by ISIS have to do with US foreign policy decisions?  How could such actions have “nothing to do with Islam” when ISIS was so clearly and plainly justifying it using plain text in the Quran that so clearly justifies it?

Still however, I largely kept my feelings to myself.  After all, to openly declare that ISIS has a connection to Islam, or to admit that ancient dogma could actually lead to violence in the modern world was to invite a hailstorm of vicious criticism from the left.  This period was seeing the rise of the so-called Social Justice Warriors, and stories of people being shamed, harassed and fired for views that seemed anathema to the liberal orthodoxy were just beginning to become widely known.  It would still be some time before I finally had a nasty encounter with a friend infected by this Social Justice virus, but I was already becoming fearful of speaking my mind and worried about the social media firestorm that could consume me as it had so many others.

Charlie changed all that for me irrevocably.  For two reasons.

The first reason – we now saw a violent response no longer cast against the simplistic boogeyman of George Bush’s America. We had elected the “right” President for this job, a president who knew the difference between Sunni and Shia, between Afghanistan and Iraq, and had made reconciliation with the Muslim World a core commitment from the earliest days of his presidency (his speech in Egypt in 2009 seems as though from another planet when compared to today’s landscape). This was the President who withdrew from Iraq and killed Osama Bin Laden, and was totally unafraid to stretch out a hand of cooperation to Iran. If US foreign policy was singularly responsible for the rise of terrorism, then why did this new and more virulent strain of it arise after our troops had been withdrawn, our involvement in the Arab Spring minimal or on the right side of history as far as our own ideals are concerned, and our commitment to not be involved in the Syrian Civil War maintained?  This was the equation ceaselessly promoted by the Chomskys and Greenwalds for years in terms of how to prevent and end terrorism – why did it seem to only be increasing in this context?  People may point out that Obama stepped up the use of drones and failed to close Guantanamo Bay during his presidency, but this does not change the fact that now America was doing many things that these critics insisted we should have done all along.  Bush’s blundering cowboy-style ways were no longer our policy, and if such actions were the cause of such terrorism, surely shouldn’t reversing course at least reduce it?

The second reason it changed everything was my inability to stomach the obviously callow and absurdly illogical response to the attack by the far left any longer.  After such a clear violation of our most deeply held principles, to see so many members of my fellow liberal tribe indulge in the narcissism of our own supposed culpability in these actions was the final nail in my regressive coffin.  How could intelligent, well-educated, rational people make the false equivalence between the supposed offense caused by the cartoons and the murder of the cartoonists themselves?  How could people who supposedly believe in the equality of all people reduce non-white non-Christian people to mindless automatons, unable to think and only able to react to stimuli like a caged animal?  How could we indulge in so many ridiculous and irrational beliefs on the grounds of tolerance – like that Islam is a race, or that lampooning a religious icon is the same as bigotry against people, or that we actually do need to adhere to anti-blasphemy laws with respect to one religion, as opposed to the many others to which we would never supplicate ourselves?

For me, and I believe others, Charlie Hebdo was this last back-breaking straw.  We lost our fear of speaking out, and the moral clarity of this new liberal cause came into focus – there is no degree of religious offense that can justify murder, and there is absolutely no room in liberalism for those that would sacrifice its dearest principles upon the alter of a narcissistic, self-serving, disingenuous multiculturalism.  Since then, and through the most recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I continually see a new evolution of thought on this from my friends and family.  In tandem with a rejection of the post-modernist PC left for other reasons, the cries of “racist” for anyone who dare criticize religion are beginning to ring hollow and to lose their sting.  Previously more controversial commentators like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz are beginning to be featured on major news networks almost as often as their Regressive counterparts.  I can feel when I talk to people that many simply do not believe the largely disproven Chomskyesque theories anymore, and though we have not found it yet, we are in the process of finding a better way forward to end this threat of Islamist extremism without sacrificing our deeply held belief in tolerance and openness.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks most explicitly about the need for a Muslim Reformation.  But in tandem with this is another, perhaps even more important one – the Liberal Reformation, a Reformation that I believe is already taking place in our midst.  There is a movement out there, still in its infancy that is slowly coalescing around a set of core principles to save liberalism from itself.  A renewed advocacy for free speech, rational debate, and fearless defense of human rights over advocacy of any particular culture or group is beginning to find thought leaders and media figures, from older New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris to liberal Muslim reformers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Ali A. Rizvi, Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, Asra Normani, and more.  There isn’t a widely disseminated term for it yet – Rizvi advocates for a “New Center” as one possible choice, while Milo Yiannopolous describes “cultural libertarianism“.  Along with a strong movement against Authoritarian Political Correctness seen in the public sphere today, this movement is pulling in figures from the right and the left with a renewed commitment to evidence and open debate as the way forward to solve the problems of terrorism and dogmatism moving forward.

It is the rejection of the Politically Correct, and the passionate embrace of the Factually Correct.  It has not been soon enough in coming, and it cannot be too soon when it succeeds in becoming the primary mode of our discourse.  Solving the problem of theocratic violence in our time – without falling into the hands of truly racist and xenophobic leaders like Donald Trump or Marie Le Pen – depends on our willingness to acknowledge the failure of the old framework and to embrace a rational process by which we find a better one.  The time to search our souls is now, and to emerge with new beliefs and a new vocabulary worthy of the struggle we seek to win.

In this crisis, dogmatic superstition isn’t the solution to our problems – dogmatic superstition is the problem.

Religion, Secularism

Defeating the Dark Side: How “Star Wars” and a New Science of Narrative Hold the Key to Defeating Terrorism In Our Time

December 18, 2015

Today, millions of people all over the world will take part in a collective ritual. They will be contemplating the same story, an epic myth about the fight between good and evil, father and son, love and fear, about the nature of the universe and how we relate to it. Millions of people who have never met and never will meet will share in an experience of collective catharsis and release around a common set of “symbols and metaphors”, as Reza Aslan calls them. Millions of people will come together around this narrative, united in an experience of wonder that this narrative instills in them, informing their lives and shaping their view of morality.

No, I’m not talking about a religious service. I’m talking about Star Wars.

Star Wars is an almost perfect example of epic narrative by design. George Lucas was very open about taking the work of Joseph Campbell, perhaps the most famous scholar of mythological archetypes, slapping on stormtrooper uniforms and sending it into space. It very blatantly takes many of the features of ancient religious myths Campbell talks about, including conflict between father and son, oracles, prophecies, temptation away from the path, apotheosis, and more. And it worked. Star Wars has ascended into our culture as a meme among memes, using perhaps the oldest concepts of form and structure devised by artists over centuries of human civilization.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is – Star Wars, no more factually truthful than religion, has all of its power. Whole communities spring up around it, in both the real and virtual worlds. Families have been joined and babies have been born over a shared love of this narrative, thanks to the numerous conventions and gatherings that are centered around it. I have no doubt that many of us, on a first date, found great satisfaction and relief to learn that our date too loved Star Wars, opening up all kinds of areas of commonality and understanding. The symbols and metaphors it provides have entered into all other areas of popular culture. If you compare someone to Darth Vader an we automatically know what they mean. “Turning to the Dark Side” need not be explained by almost anyone to understand how one may be poking fun at you or being deathly serious, depending on the context of your conversation.

But I would go one step further. Star Wars isn’t just as powerful as religion – it’s superior.

Why is Star Wars better than religion? Because we get all of the benefits, with none of the encumbrances. Yes, we can take away much meaning and catharsis, but we never have to believe any of it is true. And nobody is even pretending that it’s true. No holy wars will be waged over the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor will preaching the virtue of the Dark Side be declared apostasy and be punished as such. Star Wars is truly a religion of peace, because we do not have to believe it’s actually true. Not even the craziest fans preach it as such, nor has even the fringe of the fringe even tried to argue that belief in Star Wars be forced upon others by the point of the sword.

Many have said that we’ll never fully replace religion, and the history of the 20th century shows that very often other narratives *do* take religion’s place and function in much the same way. To move forward, perhaps giving our narratives the “Star Wars Treatment” is the real solution. Not only would “The Muhammed Trilogy” make for great cinema, it would expose the story for what it really is – just a story – without removing the meaning and hope it gives to so many billions of people. It could still offer all of the catharsis and release and collective experience that religion does, but without being encumbered by any illusions that a literalist interpretation is still a reasonable one.

Why do certain narratives take hold over a culture while others don’t? Why do old ones fade and pass away while others grow stronger? I am not exaggerating when I say that understanding this is critical to solving the problems we are grappling with today. The encumbrances of religions narrative aren’t just silly, or inconvenient, they are in many cases outright deadly. The terrorists in the San Bernardino shooting were not part of any formal terror cell, nor did they have any formal contact with the Islamic State – coming into contact with ISIS propaganda was enough to override all of their brain’s default functionality geared towards self preservation and unleash deadly violence upon a center for disabled children. To defeat terrorism, it is this narrative we must defeat. And to defeat it, we need to consider aspiring to understand the entire process of narrative to an extent that has never before been considered.

As of now it is almost impossible to really understand viral information in an even remotely scientific way. Our understanding of the brain and how it interacts with information is too infantile. But when considering how one could approach this, I can’t help but be reminded of the summers I spent at Harvard University doing X-ray crystallography, the process by which we learn the biological structure of proteins, viruses and more so as to understand how and why they function. Very often it is structure that determines how and why a virus manipulates our bodies for its own purposes – can you imagine a world where we could understand the ‘structure’ of information or narrative in as clearly a scientific, quantifiable way? Imagine being able to quantify exactly how information interacts in our neural networks, understanding more completely what it is about certain powerful structures that make them spread through a human culture like wildfire. What would this understanding look like? How could we go beyond humanistic, pseudo-scientific speculation regarding why certain types of information like literature, oratory, music, film and more are able to affect the brains of so many human beings? Could we begin to really understand how powerful orators could inspire stadiums full of people either to embrace their fellow man or throw them into gas chambers?

I have absolutely no answers to this, but I firmly believe that it is only when we learn to understand and harness this power that we will begin to turn the tide against religious terrorism and oppression. Until that day comes, the process will be, for lack of a better expression, “more art than science.” We will have to keep engaging in the very unscientific process of simply imitating past models that happened to work, and throwing things at the wall until something sticks.

Perhaps one day, a vision of a truly diverse, peaceful world really will be as powerful as Christianity or Islam, and sell far more tickets than Star Wars. Until that day comes, may the force be with you.