Monthly Archives: November 2005

More from the "anti-anti-torture" camp

I fully agree with John Cole: this is an outrage. Some in the “anti-anti-torture” contingent are using the fact that John McCain broke under torture when held captive by the North Vietnamese to rebut McCain’s own anti-torture argument — ostensibly as a demonstration that “torture works,” but also, I suspect, to subtly impugn the Senator’s character. Either way, it’s repulsive, and as Cole rightly points out, it’s also nonsensical: what McCain gave his captors was some totally useless information (e.g. the name of the ship he had served on) and a signed “confession” to war crimes.

As Cole says, more colorfully than I would:

People like the author of this piece, Carl Limbacher, should be put in a small room and beaten with a cane and waterboarded until they confess to being unmitigated assholes. This isn’t a defense of torture for use in extreme cases (the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario)- this is a call for legalized sadism and brutality.

Or, as Andrew Sullivan says:

Just when you think the pro-torture right cannot sink any lower, they do.

Indeed. The torture debate is having a seriously degrading effect on the moral caliber of discourse among War on Terror supporters (of whom I count myself as one). It’s not doing much for the intellectual caliber of discourse, either. Even the eminent Thomas Sowell lapses into cliché, asking:

If a captured terrorist knows where a nuclear bomb has been planted in some American city, and when it is timed to go off, are millions of Americans to be allowed to be incinerated because we have become too squeamish to get that information out of him by whatever means are necessary? What a price to pay for moral exhibitionism or political grandstanding!

Sorry, but I think that trotting out the extremely improbable “ticking time bomb” scenario comes awfully close to “grandstanding,” too.

Charles Krauthammer, meanwhile, has a more thoughtful and nuanced article on the topic in The Weekly Standard. He agrees that “torture is a terrible and monstrous thing, as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity,” but he also argues that some forms of this monstrous activity must remain permissible in extreme circumstances, and that our leaders must take this burden on their conscience in order to save lives. He outlines two exceptions: the “ticking time bomb” scenario, and the high-value, high-level terrorist who possesses a treasure trove of information about the terror network and the plots it’s gestating.

Unlike others in the anti-anti-torture camp, Krauthammer gives a specific example of a case in which torture “worked” and could have saved a life:

In 1994, 19-year-old Israeli corporal Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car used in the kidnapping and tortured him in order to find where Waxman was being held. Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister and peacemaker, admitted that they tortured him in a way that went even beyond the ’87 guidelines for “coercive interrogation” later struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court as too harsh. The driver talked. His information was accurate. The Israelis found Waxman. “If we’d been so careful to follow the [’87] Landau Commission [which allowed coercive interrogation],” explained Rabin, “we would never have found out where Waxman was being held.”

This is the kind of scenario that must be contended with when we argue about the absolute impermissibility of torture. (Though the eventual outcome — Waxman was killed by his Hamas captors during the rescue attempt, as was an Israeli officer — does, I think, raise more questions than Krauthammer allows. Could a subtler, less aggressive approach, such as using informants and surveillance, have resulted in a more effective rescue?) What would we want done in such a situation?

But Krauthammer’s argument, I think, has several weaknesses.

(1) In my opinion, he greatly overestimates the plausibility of the “ticking time bomb” scenario:

Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car- and suicide- bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place. This “hypothetical” is common enough that the Israelis have a term for precisely that situation: the ticking timebomb problem.

But Krauthammer gives no examples in which the Iraelis were able to defuse the “ticking time bomb” by using torture or “phsyical coercion.” It seems to me that if the attack is to take place withint minutes, coercive or painful methods will be particularly useless: the captured terrorist will tell the interrogators a fake story (possibly pre-planned in the event of capture), and by the time they realize they’ve been duped the bomb will have gone off.

(2) Accepting what Krauthammer calls “torture-lite” (presumably exposure to heat and cold, perhaps even waterboarding) in order to garner life-saving information raises a disturbing question: what if the “lite” version isn’t enough to break the detainee, and he still possesses highly valuable information? What then? Do we start pulling fingernails and administering electric shocks to genitals? Where on the slippery slope do we stop?

(3) Krauthammer criticizes McCain for citing Israel as an example of how one can fight terror without resorting to any degree of torture (physical coercion in interrogations was formally banned by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999). In fact, he argues, since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in Israel, coercive tactics toward detaines have been commonly used under the radar, with widespread acceptance from the public. In this, Krauthammer relies on a June 2004 Washington Post article by Glenn Frankel. But the article demonstrates two things:

(a) While interrogations have become harsher since the start of the uprising, there has been no return to pre-1999 techniques that included physical abuse and borderline torture; today, Israeli interrogators rely primarily on psychological pressure and manipulation (including sleep deprivation).

(b) Allegations of physical abuse toward detainees in Israel in recent years — at least the ones mentioned in the article — involve abuse by soldiers, not interrogators (which, elsewhere in the article, Krauthammer himself says should never be permitted). The allegations, if true, are highly troubling, and suggest that acceptance of abuse “for a good cause” is likely to create a climate that fosters abuse with no tactical or information-gathering purposes.

4. Krauthammer opens his article by saying:

During the last few weeks in Washington the pieties about torture have lain so thick in the air that it has been impossible to have a reasoned discussion. The McCain amendment that would ban “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of any prisoner by any agent of the United States sailed through the Senate by a vote of 90-9. The Washington establishment remains stunned that nine such retrograde, morally inert persons–let alone senators–could be found in this noble capital.

Now, John McCain has great moral authority on this issue… His position deserves respect. But that does not mean, as seems to be the assumption in Washington today, that a critical analysis of his “no torture, ever” policy is beyond the pale.

Toward the end of the article, however, Krauthammer turns around and discovers a great irony: McCain’s position is not really “no torture, ever.”

According to Newsweek, in the ticking time bomb case McCain says that the president should disobey the very law that McCain seeks to pass–under the justification that “you do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it.” But if torturing the ticking time bomb suspect is “what you have to do,” then why has McCain been going around arguing that such things must never be done?

As for exception number two, the high-level terrorist with slow-fuse information, Stuart Taylor, the superb legal correspondent for National Journal, argues that with appropriate legal interpretation, the “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” standard, “though vague, is said by experts to codify . . . the commonsense principle that the toughness of interrogation techniques should be calibrated to the importance and urgency of the information likely to be obtained.” … Or as Evan Thomas and Michael Hirsh put it in the Newsweek report on McCain and torture, the McCain standard would “presumably allow for a sliding scale” of torture or torture-lite or other coercive techniques, thus permitting “for a very small percentage–those High Value Targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed–some pretty rough treatment.”

But if that is the case, then McCain embraces the same exceptions I do, but prefers to pretend he does not. If that is the case, then his much-touted and endlessly repeated absolutism on inhumane treatment is merely for show. If that is the case, then the moral preening and the phony arguments can stop now, and we can all agree that in this real world of astonishingly murderous enemies, in two very circumscribed circumstances, we must all be prepared to torture.

All right, so maybe McCain makes his position sound more absolutist than it really is. Maybe a “no torture, ever” stance makes for a better sales pitch, and for nobler rhetoric, than “no torture, ever, except for some very rough treatment in some very extreme circumstances.” I can see why a real anti-torture purist would have a problem with that, but why does Charles Krauthammer? His article is titled, “The Truth About Torture: It’s time to be honest about doing terrible things.” But what — again, from Krauthammer’s point of view — do we have to gain from being honest? (And could this insistence on absolute honesty be a form of “moral preening,” too?)

I am more strongly opposed to torture than Krauthammer; but I am also enough of a realist to recognize that a firm “no torture” stand is likely to be qualified with some tacit acknowledgment that, under some strictly defined circumstances, some unpleasant things will happen under the radar. I find that vastly preferable to starting with the admission that “we must all be prepared to torture.” If we start with a “thou shalt not torture” moral absolute, we are likely to be extremely vigilant about lapses from this commandment, limiting them only to absolute necessity. If we start with the idea that torture is sometimes acceptable, that slippery slope is going to take us pretty low.

And finally, two more questions.

1. Does Krauthammer support or oppose the McCain legislation?

2. If, as Krauthammer apparently concludes, the McCain legislation would generally outlaw detainee abuse without completely tying our hands with regard to “coercive interrogation” in extreme circumstances, then what excuse did nine senators have to vote against it? And why shouldn’t we regard the Pro-Torture Nine as “morally inert” — or, to use John Cole’s phrase once again, as “moral cretins”?

More: Ramesh Ponnuru makes another excellent point at The Corner. If we adopt the position that torturing a terrorist in the hope of saving a city from nuclear destruction is okay, what’s to stop us from using the same moral calculus to justify torturing an innocent person? Responding to the argument that the torture of an innocent could never conceivably be required, Ponnuru points out: “But it is not at all hard to imagine guilty parties who would not break under torture but would break under the threat of someone else’s torture. This kind of scenario is not exactly unknown to the history of torture.” Are we prepared to achieve our objectives by using “coercive” techniques on a terrorist’s child?


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Retribution and "just deserts"

In a comment on my post about retribution and morality (in response to his own earlier post), Mark Kleiman draws a distinction between “retribution” and “just deserts”:

“Just deserts” is offender-focused: What ought this person to suffer? The extreme version of this is Kant’s, who says that the offender is owed punishment and that it would be unjust to the offender to forgo it. …

Retribution, by contrast, is victim-focused. Retributive punishment is a public demonstration that what was done to the victim was wrong, and that the victim was worth avenging. …

One function of public justice is to displace private vengeance, which is by its nature capricious, likely to misfire, and capable of producing a Hatfield-and-McCoy spiral. But if public justice is to displace private vengeance, then public justice must be done. If Pinochet’s victims and their families are to be asked to refrain from hiring private thugs to smash his kneecaps, then the public owes it to them to handle Pinochet in court, no matter how old and harmless he now is.

While I am highly sympathetic to the moral claims of victims of violence, I think there are several problems with overly victim-focused justice (and it’s a problem that manifests itself in such popular practices as victim impact statements at sentencing, or prosecutorial speeches describing the victim’s wonderful qualities).

1. Focusing on the “worth” of the victim may lead to grading crimes on the victim’s social standing, popularity, etc. Should the murder of a beloved husband and father, and a valued member of his community, be punished more severely than the murder of a friendless middle-aged bachelor? Unfortunately, a lot of studies show that the “merit” of the victim has an impact on the sentence given to a hypothetical offender, but I think that the criminal’s intent still plays a key part in determining appropriate punishment. Let’s take two hypothetical situations:

(a) A serial child molester is released after serving a ridiculously short sentence. A few days later, he is accosted and shot dead by the distraught parent of one of his victims.

(b) A serial child molester is released after serving a ridiculously short sentence. A few days later, he is accosted and shot dead by a mugger.

Without condoning vigilantism, I think most of us would give the distraught parent a lower sentence than we would the mugger, even though the victim — and the end result — is the same.

2. Victim-focused justice, strictly applied, would make no allowances for intent. If someone forgets about a lit stove and starts a kitchen fire that kills six people, the victims are just as dead as they would be if the fire had been started by an arsonist (and the victims’ relatives may be just as angry). But surely no one would advocate the same punishment for the negligent cook and the arsonist. Furthermore, in some cases we decide that the offender should be given a very mild punishment or none at all because his/her mental capacity makes him/her unable to fully understand the nature of the act.

3. Victim-focused justice would make the degree of punishment contingent on how forgiving the victim is (or how forgiving his or her relatives are). If a victim chooses to forgive her rapist — because of, say, religious beliefs, or the ideoogical conviction that criminals are really oppressed victims of society — it should have no impact on the rapist’s punishment.

The shift from private vengeance to public retribution means more than simply delegating vengeance to the state because it’s more practical. It also means a shift to the concept that the crime is an offense not just against the victim, but against society, or against the moral order. Walter Berns and other advocates of retributive justice argue that a crime disrupts the moral balance of the universe, which is then restored by punishment. This may seem like an overly abstract and metaphysical concept, but I think that such a notion of crime and punishment as moral calculus underlies a lot of our thinking on the subject.

Finally, Kant’s notion that it would be unfair to the offender not to punish him may seem quaint, but I will point out that in some cases, criminals who were not apprehended have turned themselves in because they were tormented by remorse and felt that being punished would salve their conscience.


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God(dess) forbid, we should consider ourselves more enlightened when it comes to women’s rights…

Sunday’s New York Times ran a wrenching front-page story on child brides in Africa — girls as young as ten given, or rather sold, in marriage to men who are decades older (often as second wives). The main focus of the article is a story with a sort-of happy ending: 12-year-old Mwaka Simbeye, whom her father married off to a neighbor in his 70s to settle a debt of $16, eventually escaped and was taken back into her parents’ home (partly because her father had heard that he might get arrested under a new policy cracking down on forced marriages of young girls). Others are not so lucky:

Uness Nyambi, of the village of Wiliro, said she was betrothed as a child so her parents could finance her brother’s choice of a bride. Now about 17, she has two children, the oldest nearly 5, and a husband who guesses he is 70. “Just because of these two children, I can not leave him,” she said.

Beatrice Kitamula, 19, was forced to marry her wealthy neighbor, now 63, five years ago because her father owed another man a cow. “I was the sacrifice,” Ms. Kitamula said, holding back tears. She likened her husband’s comfortable compound of red brick houses in Ngana village to a penitentiary. “When you are in prison,” she said, “you have no rights.”

The article notes that in Ethiopia, about a third of the girls are married by age 15. It concludes with another look at Mwaka and her family:

Mwaka’s mother, Tighezge Simkonda, looks like an older version of her daughter and is no less shy. “I did object,” she said softly, glancing nervously at her husband chatting nearby. “I said, ‘My daughter is very young.’ “

“But the control is with the man,” she said. “The daughters belong to the man.”

But, of course, it would be most deplorable if any American women were to read that and conclude that they’re liberated while the women in those Third World countries are oppressed. After all, it would be “culturally insensitive” to suggest that the West is more enlightened when it comes to women’s rights, and besides, it’s important to understand that American women are really silenced in similar ways. Or so as a lot of women’s studies professors would tell us.

There’s also Dr. Edwin Nichols, a psychologist who has conducted “diversity” and “cultural awareness” workshops for numerous colleges, government agencies, and corporations, and who teaches in those workshops (among other things) that women in Africa are treated as equal to men.

Personally, I think the case for cultural imperialism has never been so clear.


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Hurricane Katrina and the media (old and new)

At Reason, Matt Welch spanks the media for spreading hysterical rumors about the chaos in New Orleans after the city was struck by Hurricane Katrina. Armed thugs shooting at rescue helicopters, rampant gang violence, murder and rape inside the Superdome and the Convention Center where people took refuge from the flood — respected news organization took these stories and ran with them. (All these stories turned out to be untrue; it should be added that Matt questioned them from the start.) As a result, the rescue effort was hampered, and the residents of New Orleans were unfairly maligned; one might add, too, that the reckless news coverage became fodder for America-bashing around the world. This was a Media Hall of Shame moment, no doubt about it.

However, those who like to pit “citizen journalists” against the “MSM” shouldn’t get too smug. The blogs did their share of reckless rumor-mongering. The worst instance, perhaps, was this account by Lisa C. Moore of her aunt Denise Moore’s alleged experiences at the Convention Center, posted at Daily Kos on September 6 under the headline “What Really Happened in New Orleans” (and widely picked up by other blogs). ch2, who posted it at Daily Kos, gravely noted, “The accounts rang true to me, and I’m a professional skeptic (a scientist).” Well, I don’t know what kind of science “ch2” does, but my B.S. detector went off the moment I read the Lisa’s claim that “the first day (Wednesday) 4 people died next to her [“her” being the aunt]. the second day (Thursday) 6 people died next to her.” If every person inside the Convention Center saw ten people die next to them in two days, the place would have emptied out pretty soon. (Of course, we now know that there were a total of 10 deaths inside both buildings.) The claim that “yes, a few men shot at the police, because at a certain point all the people thought the cops were coming to hurt them, to kill them all” reeked of B.S. as well, though probably not to the Daily Kos crowd.

(Interestingly, the only place where I saw the “Denise Moore” story questioned skeptically was in this thread at Reason’s Hit & Run blog, where it was posted by a reader.)

So, what’s the verdict? None of the media, old or new, covered themselves in glory during the Katrina disaster. Except my colleagues at Reason, of course.

Update: My own Reason column on the Katrina response can now be found here.


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Same-sex marriage in the Netherlands: parsing the stats

On Friday, Andrew Sullivan posted this brief item on his blog:

There’s a big jump in the number of same-sex married couples in Holland, as the reform begins to change gay culture and social expectations.

Here’s what the linked article, at the Dutch English-language website Expatica, actually says:

The number of gay couples in the Netherlands has risen sharply in recent years.

There were 53,000 gay and lesbian couples living together in the Netherlands at the beginning of 2005, according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS). Ten years ago there were less than 39,000 gay or lesbian cohabiting couples.

Almost a quarter of the gay or lesbian couples are married or in a registered partnership. Of these, 12 percent are married and 10 percent are in a registered partnership.

The CBS said there are 29,000 all-male couples and 24,000 lesbian couples. Despite the significant increase in the number of gay and lesbian couples, the group is equal to just over 1 percent of the total number of cohabiting couples in the Netherlands.

Clearly the article talks about all same-sex couples living toether, not just married ones.

It’s hard to tell what the rise in same-sex couples in the Dutch census really represents. It could be, in part, due to the fact that more same-sex couples are identifying themselves as such to the census-takers. A change in gay culture — a shift toward “settling down” — has undoubtedly taken place as well, just as it has in the United States. But it’s hard to make the case that legalized same-sex marriage has a lot to do with this, considering that only 12% of same-sex couples living together in the Netherlands are married.

As this CBS statistical table shows, same-sex marriages peaked in 2001 when they were first legalized; that year, there were 1,339 male-male marriage and 1,035 female-female ones. (Male-female marriages that year numbered 79,677.) The figures have dropped in every subsequent year, to 579 male-male marriages and 631 female-female marriages in 2004. In the same year, there were 261 civil partnerships registered between two men, and 322 between two women; these figures have held relatively steady over the past four years. (Registered partnerhips first became available in 1998.)

In 1996, Jonathan Rauch wrote that if same-sex marriage is to succeed, it must become the general norm in the gay community, not just another lifestyle option. At least so far, that does not seem to be happening in Holland.

Also in the past 10 years, the overall marriage rate has dropped, from 5.4 per 1,000 inhabitants in 1994 to 4.5 per 1,000 in 2004. More heterosexual men and women are entering into civil partnerships — which are much more easily dissolved — instead of marriage; in 2004, about 7% of new male-female legal unions were civil partnerships. This does not prove, as Stanley Kurtz has argued, that same-sex marriage undermines heterosexual marriage; the drop in marriage rates is undoubtedly due to many complex factors. However, one can plausibly argue that the changing attitudes toward marriage that make same-sex marriage possible may also be related to overall lower marriage rates. (Whether that’s a bad thing is another matter.) And the Dutch experience does seem to refute Rauch’s argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will improve the status of marriage in the larger society.

Why am I pointing this out? Because, while I fully support legal rights for same-sex partners, I think both sides in the marriage debate have been prone to unwarranted and exaggerated claims about the social impact of same-sex marriage. The legalization of same-sex marriage has not, as some have claimed, led to polygamy in the Netherlands. But at least so far, it has not created a “marriage culture” among gays and has not boosted marriage among heterosexuals. As we continue our own discussion of same-sex marriage, we need to have all the facts on the table.

(By the way, my best wishes to Andrew in his recovery from the flu.)


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Retribution, morality, and the soul

One of my favorite left-of-center bloggers, Mark Kleiman, has an excellent post on one of my favorite topics: the value of retribution as an aspect of punishment, and the fact that “retribution not be dismissed as somehow “primitive” and unworthy of serious consideration.” The occasion is the arrest of 90-year-old former dictator Augusto Pinochet on tax fraud charges. Writes Kleiman:

Note, however, that if putting Pinochet away is justified, it must be on some basis other than deterrence or incapacitation. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the place of retribution as a legitimate goal of criminal justice policy. Making what remains of Pinochet’s life as miserable as possible is something owed to his victims. It proclaims that what he did was wrong, that the victims did not deserve their victimization, and that they were important enough to be worth revenging.

Why should it be so hard to see that, and to apply it to more ordinary cases?

(Kleiman then corrects himself to note that he mant “miserable to the appropriate extent.”)

Kleiman’s co-blogger Steven Teles agrees.

One common argument against the death penalty is that it represents “state-sanctioned retribution.” I think there are other good arguments against the death penalty — most important, the danger of executing an innocent man. But retribution is present in other forms of punishment as well. As I wrote in a column earlier this year:

Former Nazi concentration camp guards and other war criminals leading ordinary lives in our midst arguably pose no threat; yet we still want them brought to justice. Conservative defenders of the death penalty, such as political scholar Walter Berns, have a point when they argue that one goal of punishment is to restore the moral balance violated by the crime.

One liberal dissenter from the standard antiretribution rhetoric is writer Susan Jacoby, whose thought-provoking 1983 book, “Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge,” remains relevant today. Jacoby argues that while the death penalty is beneath a civilized society, retribution the desire to make offenders “pay” for their crimes, to express our moral outrage at their acts is an important purpose of the justice system. The death penalty is not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way, to achieve this goal.

Jacoby treats revenge and retribution as synonymous, but there is a subtle difference. Vengeance is primarily concerned with the avenger’s grievance: It may target a wrongdoer’s loved ones, or a person who has caused an accidental death but is faultless or at worst negligent.

Retribution, on the other hand, addresses moral culpability (one reason the execution of people with diminished mental capacity is generally seen as especially barbaric).

See also this 2001 Reason column on issues of revenge, retribution, and morality.

Of course, one issue that often comes up in discussions of retribution is to what extent the person is responsible for his or her actions, particularly in light of discoveries in neuroscience. In June, the American Enterprise Institute had a fascinating conference on this topic, which I wrote up in another Reason column. One of the speakers, Princeton philosopher and neuroscientist Joshua Greene, proposed focusing on deterrence only and giving up on the idea that punishment is not only effective but morally just:

“What we’re saying,” he said, “is no one’s really guilty in their souls because, secret: No one has a soul.”

Greene also wryly noted that Americans aren’t ready for this idea yet. No kidding. In fact, both Greene and keynote speaker Stephen Pinker acknowledged that the idea of punishment as “just deserts” and a restoration of moral balance may be inherent in human nature — which means that a legal system that does not satisfy this need may never command enough respect to be effective. Greene noted that in a host of studies, people evaluating hypothetical crimes assess punishment based on their notions of just deserts, not deterrence.

Greene was strongly challenged by Stephen Morse, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Even while declaring himself a thoroughgoing materialist, Morse insisted that “responsibility is about persons, not brains” (precisely the kind of distinction Greene had earlier mocked as dualistic) and defended the old-fashioned approach to justice. “We give people what they deserve,” he said, “not because it produces good consequences, but because it’s right.” … That there is no immaterial soul, he argued, doesn’t mean that “we are not the kind of creatures we think we are—conscious, rational, intentional beings”; science or no science, the physicalist model must be resisted for the sake of human dignity and “the good life we can live together.”

I’m with Morse (and with Kleiman). Far from being primitive, barbaric, or degrading, the belief in retribution is, in fact, inextricably linked to our belief in human dignity and agency.


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Darwin and religion

Ever since I wrote in my Boston Globe column, “Fact and Fiction on Evolution,” that (contrary to assertions that Darwinism is a vehicle for atheism and materialism) Charles Darwin himself was a Christian, a number of people have written to me to point out that while Darwin started out as a Christian and even trained to be a clergyman, his faith eventually waned and he was an agnostic by the end of his life. One correspondent wrote to me:

On Darwin being a Christian, see the PBS site where James Moore (Darwin’s biographer) talks about the slow death of Darwin’s faith. Darwin clearly had “issues” with the Christian God and worked them out via his theory.

What the page says is that in his later years, Darwin struggled with issues of religious faith. To some extent, this had to with the fact that his theory of natural selection refuted the view, popular among the Christian naturalists of his time, that the complex and sophisticated structure of creation showed that “divine design” had to be at work. But in fact, when Darwin set out on his famous voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, he was himself a believer in “divine design”; he had even studied with one of that theory’s leading proponents, the Rev. Adam Sedgwick (a geologist), in preparation for his trip. His observations on the trip caused him to question and ultimately reject “divine design,” but he remained a strong proponent of Orthodox Christian morality. The real crisis of faith that turned Darwin away from Christianity was caused by the death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie in 1851. (This article in Newsweek also offers some interesting information on Darwin’s scientific and religious beliefs.)

My statement that “Darwin was a Christian” oversimplified the complex reality of Darwin’s views, and should have been more nuanced. However, the notion that Darwin developed his ‘theory of natural selection as a way to “work out his issues with God” is preposterous, if only because he developed his theory more than a decade before he developed his “issues.” It also says a great deal about the mindset of ID proponents, who treats scientific inquiry as essentially driven by ideology.

Incidentally, that is what makes ID a fundamentally non-scientific enterprise: not that it is driven by religion, but that it is driven by ideology. That is, its proponents question evolutionary theory not because they are dissatisfied with the scientific/factual evidence for it, but because they don’t like its conclusions. To be sure, they look for and claim to find scientific and factual holes in the theory, but the main (or only) reason they start looking is that they don’t want it to be true. It makes no difference whether a critique of Darwinian theory is motivated by defense of religion or, say, by concern that biological Darwinism easily lends itself to apologetics for social inequality. In both cases, the motivation is ideological, not scientific.

Are there people who champion Darwinian evolution because they dislike Christianity and religion in general? Yes, I’m sure there are. But there is simply no evidence that most scientists or most supproters of science are so motivated, and there are plenty who consider themselves religious.

More: See also this post for a funny, yet insightful, 1872 poem (originally in Russian, translated into English by yours truly) on the conflict — or lack thereof — between Darwinian theory and religion.


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Academic freedom, extremism, and whose ox is being gored

There’s a to-do at Warren Community College in New Jersey over an email sent to a student by adjunct instructor (now ex-adjunct instructor) John Daly to a student earlier this month.

Rebecca Beach, a Warren student and the head of the campus chapter of Young America’s Foundation, sent out an email to the faculty about an event she was helping organize at which a veteran of the war in Iraq was to speak, favorably, about the war. In response, Daly fired off a long rant that referred to YAF literature as “fascist propaganda,” denounced the assertion on one of their posters that “Communism killed 100,000,000” (which, Daly asserted, “is not only untrue, but ignores the fact that CAPITALISM has killed many more”) and concluded thusly:

I will continue to expose your right-wing, anti-people politics until groups like your won’t dare show their face on a college campus. Real freedom will come when soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors and fight for just causes and for people’s needs–such freedom fighters can be counted throughout American history and they certainly will be counted again.

After the YAF publicized the email, a controversy eruped. Warren Community College president William Austin said that he found Daly’s statements “personally repugnant” but would defend his First Amendment rights to express his views. Daly noted that Beach was not his student, and that he had sent the email from his personal account to her personal account (rather than a college one). Nonetheless, the Board of Trustees scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss Daly’s fate, and he ended up resigning before he could be fired.

I agree with Eugene Volokh that the retaliation is troubling:

Daly sounds like a jerk, but it seems to me that his speech is protected by principles of academic freedom, and quite possibly by the First Amendment. … He’s entitled to express his views (however reprehensible) about the propriety of soldiers killing their superiors, and to condemn (even if intemperately) people who put on programs that he thinks express immoral views. Trying to intimidate students with threats of low grades would of course be improper, but simply threatening to urge others to stay away from the talk is permissible — again, in my view quite wrong for a talk such as this one, but permissible.

At the same time, it’s interesting to note that Daly’s email to Beach does not simply criticize or intemperately condemn her views; he promises to do everything he can to silence groups such as hers and make sure that their views are not heard on the campus. So there’s a bit of hypocrisy in his claiming the protection of free speech for his own views.

Meanwhile, there is a lively discussion of the Daly contretemps in the comments at Inside Higher Ed. Daly’s opponents argue that his comment about U.S. soldiers turning their guns on their superiors amounts to “treason” (hardly, since he was not directing any propaganda at actual soldiers) while his supporters lament that he was driven from his job for “private speech” and for exposing students to views “outside the mainstream.”

As I said, I do think this case has disturbing implications for academic freedom, and it raises troubling questions about the rights (or lack thereof) of adjunct faculty.


As a commenter at Inside Higher Ed noted, suppose Daly — or some far-right intellectual twin of his — had written, “Abortion will end when someone turns their guns on the abortionists.” Suppose, too, that he had written this to a student who had emailed him about a pro-choice event. Suppose he had also written, “I will continue to expose your pro-death, godless views until groups like yours won’t dare show their face on a college campus.” And suppose he had objected to an overly negative portrayal of Nazism (or even South African apartheid) rather than Communism.

Other than Eugene Volokh, how many of the people who are now upset at the violation of Daly’s First Amendment rights would still be defending fredom of speech for his right-wing counterpart?

To quote the title of Nat Hentoff’s always-relevant 1992 book: “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee.”

Update: A friend alerts me to an interesting case with definite similarities to this one three years ago at Saint Xavier University.

Update: Eugene Volokh emails me to make a point somewhat similar to one made by one of the commenters:

Is “silence” quite the right term? Silencing by public denunciation strikes me as not inconsistent with defending free speech against government retaliation. If, for instance, I publicly berate people who are racists — or for that matter, those who wrongly call people “racist” — in order to deter such expression, I think I’m acting quite properly.

This having been said, I agree that professors should generally encourage students to put on more events, rather than fewer, even when they disagree with the events’ theme. But if the event seems really repugnant, is it really wrong for the professor to urge a boycott, or to say that he’ll try to make the organizers ashamed to do such

As to the “turns their guns” point, I agree that some such statements might be seen as unprotected threats — but here it seems important that the statement contemplated behavior by non-students against non-students, far away from campus and likely in another country. The better analogy would be “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end when the Israelis turn their guns on Palestinians.” That statement might be condemned, but I don’t think it could be punished as an unprotected threat; no listener would reasonably perceive that the speaker is threatening the listener’s life, nor could it be inferred that the speaker is intending to threaten the listener’s life.

Interesting point. To some extent, most of us probably do engage in “viewpoint discrimination” — at least, between “beyond the pale” viewpoints and socially acceptable viewpoints. As the commenter in this thread has noted, no one would find Daly’s language objectionable if it were directed at the Ku Klux Klan. But then again, how many people would be seriously upset if a university denied funding and office space to a campus chapter of the KKK? Of course, in this case, Daly was expressing an intent to make the expression of an “acceptable” viewpoint unacceptable on the campus.

An exhortation to kill “abortionists” seems to me to fall into the same category as Eugene’s Israeli-Palestinian example, since in neither case is there a potential call to violence directed at students.


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If it looks like anti-religious bias…

At times I’ve been harshly critical of overwrought claims of anti-religious bias over things like the “war on Christmas,” or critcism directed at a student body president who used his speech at convocation for blatant proselytizing. But does a real bias against religion, particularly religions of the traditional type, exist in the academy? I think it does, as evidenced by this story from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire where the administration is trying to rein in religious activities by resident assistants in dormitories. (Hat tip: Erin O’Connor; I’m afraid I’m coming to this a bit late, but better late than never.)

Here’s the gist of the story, as recounted by the invaluable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

The controversy began on July 26, when UWEC Associate Director for Housing and Residence Life Deborah Newman sent a letter saying RAs could not lead Bible studies in their dorms at any time. Her reason for this was that students might not think Bible study-leading RAs were sufficiently “approachable.” The letter was sent to RAs who were members of the Student Impact religious group and who had been leading Bible studies—not as official residence hall activities, but in their own dorm rooms and on their own time.
Newman’s letter added that Koran and Torah studies would be similarly prohibited and that RAs who did conduct a Bible study in their dorms would face “disciplinary action.” Shocked by the ban, undergraduate RA Lance Steiger inquired further via e-mail. In a September 22 reply, Newman reiterated the ban and told him, “[a]s an RA you need to be available to your residents both in reality and from their perspective.”
Another page on the FIRE site elaborates:

Newman explained that non-Christian students and Christian students whose doctrine differs from that of the RAs might not “feel that they can turn to [the Bible study-leading RAs] in a crisis, for information, or for support and hopefully they would not feel judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them.” According to Newman, the office’s decision was supposedly intended “to make sure RAs are accessible to all residents.” Newman also states that since Bible study leaders would naturally “contact and solicit people for [Bible study],” RAs must not lead such studies because they should “not be involved in such behaviors in their role” as RAs. She does give permission for RAs to attend (but not lead) Bible studies in their own residence halls in places other than their own rooms, or to lead Bible studies outside of their halls.

With its feet held to the FIRE (sorry about the bad pun), UWEC adopted a new stance:

Finally, in a November 8 letter, the University of Wisconsin’s general counsel attempted to justify the Bible study ban by claiming that UWEC has “consistently followed” a “viewpoint neutral” policy prohibiting RAs from organizing or leading “all organization [sic] or activities.” This claim contradicts UWEC’s own job description for RAs, which gives RAs the responsibility “[t]o help organize and promote educational, recreational, social, and cultural activities that the students want and need,” and asks them to “actively assist” in the “political” programs of the dorm. It also conflicts with the fact that the university praised an RA for leading an official dorm production of The Vagina Monologues in 2004.
“UWEC’s claim that RAs are banned from organizing any activities is not only disingenuous; it is clearly a post hoc justification of its earlier viewpoint-discriminatory restrictions on RAs’ religious expression,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Further, for a university to decide that an acceptable alternative to banning the expression of only some viewpoints is to ban all viewpoints is disgraceful and shows a real ignorance of what it means to be a university in a free society.”
Now, I should say that I disagree somewhat with FIRE’s stance. I can see the merit of the argument that allowing RAs to lead Bible study groups in their dorms could create a situation in which they use their official position to proselytize; and the UWEC policy would still allow them to lead Bible study groups in other venues. (For an interesting discussion of the issue, see this thread at the Volokh Conspiracy.) One can legitimately argue that wihin the dorm, it is difficult for to seprate what RAs do in their capacity as students and private individuals from what they do in their capacity as university employees. But if there are restrictions, they ought to be — and ought to have always been — viewpoint-neutral. In other words, if an RA cannot host a Bible study group in his or her dorm room, s/he also shouldn’t be able to host a meeting of a student group that opposes (or supports) the War in Iraq, a feminist group, a gay rights group, etc. That seems to be the UWEC position right now; but it clearly seems to be an afterthought. Indeed, as FIRE points out, the university’s job description for RAs encourages involvement in political activities in the dorm.

The praise heaped on the RA who had organized a dorm production of The Vagina Monologues clinches it. Were I in college today, I daresay I would feel much less uncomfortable seeking personal advice or support from a resident assistant who led a Bible study group — even as a non-Christian and a sexually active single woman — than from one who had organized a production of The Vagina Monologues. (Not that I can see myself seeking personal advice or support from a dorm RA, but we’re talking hypotheticals.)

So yes, it’s pretty clear that UWEC regards Bible-based Christian viewpoints as particularly likely to cause offense or make students feel excluded or “judged” from an alien perspective. Now, the university is trying to cover its bias by retroactively proscribing all political, religious or ideological activities by RAs in their dorm rooms. This ban is certainly debatable of free speech grounds; but if it stays in place, it should at least be fairly enforced. Something tells me, though, that things like The Vagina Monologues will somehow elude the ban.


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Paul Berman on French anti-Americanism and more

The latest New Republic has a fascinating article by Paul Berman on French anti-Americanism (free registration required). The essay, which includes reviews of several books dealing with the topics, is an in-depth overview of the complex history of French attitudes toward America, and includes such truly fascinating tidbits. For instance, one of the authors he reviews, Philippe Roger, recounts a rather peculiar kind of anti-Americanism in the 18th Century, set forth by the great naturalist the Comte de Buffon:

Buffon postulated that, in the New World, the Biblical flood had taken place much later than in the Old (which, by the way, is a notion that lingers on in Tocqueville, though he gives the deluvianism a positive spin). And, because the flood had taken place not so long ago, the New World was still a bit soggy. Animals and plants were feebler and less fully developed than in Europe. Trees were stunted. Dogs did not bark. Humans were hermaphroditically less sexual. Men’s breasts lactated. Birds sang less melodiously in the New World. … All of nature degenerated in the disgusting sogginess, and people who came from Europe were bound to degenerate, as well. One of Buffon’s influential disciples was the Dutch savant Cornelius De Pauw at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin (where, in Frederick’s time, the court language was French–just to uphold the Frenchness of this analysis), and De Pauw calmly concluded, “A stupid imbecility is the fundamental disposition of all Americans.”

… Buffon’s disciples stood in high repute among the champions of the Enlightenment all over Europe. The absurdities, in short, did not seem absurd. Roger reminds us that Jefferson and Franklin, in their debates with the French, devoted themselves principally to refuting the naturalist arguments about American inferiority–this, instead of trying to affirm the virtues of democracy or the possibility of human progress. … Franklin, at a dinner in Paris, asked all the American men to stand up, and likewise all the French men, in order to demonstrate that Americans were taller, not shorter, than the French–which was a devastating refutation of the naturalist theory of biological degeneration, and a genial display of American wit, to boot.

This is funny, but Berman’s essay delves into some other things that aren’t quite so much a laughing matter. Along with Roger, he finds that French anti-Americanism has taken many forms over the years, with often contradictory sins laid at America’s doorstep:

In this fashion, a cultural tradition arose in which America was condemned for every possible reason and its opposite–condemned for being less advanced than Europe, which is to say, geographically and sociologically younger; and also for being ahead of Europe in its social development, which is to say, older. America was a country without values; and appallingly moralistic. Repulsive for being racist; and for mixing its races. America’s democracy was a failure and a sham; and America was repeatedly said to have lately fallen away from its admirable democratic past. America was governed by a dictatorship of millionaires; or by a rabble of corner grocers. Worse than Hitler; or Hitler’s heir; and either way a threat to humanism.

America was frightening because it was excessively powerful; and was repeatedly declared to be on the brink of collapse. America was bellicose; and its soldiers, cowardly. America was hopelessly Christian; and, beginning in the 1920s, America was, even so, dominated by Jews. Coldly calculating; and, at the same time, religiously insane. Talleyrand made the complaint about religious insanity at the very start of the American republic (he had fled to America in 1794 to escape the mass guillotinings that were mandated by France’s new religion of the Goddess of Reason) in his witty remark that America featured thirty-two religions and only one dish, which was inedible. The remark about food was significant in itself, and suggested, as well, a larger complaint about the unattractive thinness of America’s culture–a main theme of the anti-American accusation. And yet America’s greatest danger to the world was also said to be its culture, which, despite its lack of appeal, was dangerously appealing, and was going to crush all other cultures.

Berman’s essay also casts some doubt on the notion that it was our fault (or rather, Bush’s fault) that we “squandered” Europe’s sympathy after September 11; at least in the case of France, that sympathy was rather tenuous to begin with, and ready to dissipate at first touch of disagreement.

[I]n the days after September 11, as Roger reminds us, Jean Baudrillard composed his famous statement on the massacres, reporting what Baudrillard described as “jubilation” at the scene: “the prodigious jubilation in seeing this global superpower destroyed.” “Ultimately, they were the ones who did it, but we were the ones who wanted it.” These thoughts ran in Le Monde, no less.

Yet what is striking is not the spectacle of Baudrillard himself–a man evidently in the tradition of the fascist dandies of the between-the-wars period, oohing with aesthetic pleasure at the joys of random slaughter–but something else, which Roger points out. This most striking quality is Baudrillard’s easy and confident use of the word “we,” as in the astonishing remark: “we were the ones who wanted it.” Roger comments, “His jubilation? He knows better! Our jubilation.” This, finally, is the scary part–the blasé conviction of a famous cultural figure that, in cheering on the September 11 massacre, he is speaking on behalf of a gigantic collectivity. On behalf of everyone worth mentioning. On behalf of civilization.

And indeed, Berman concludes (drawing on Roger and the other authors he reviews, including André Glucksmann), Baudrillard’s confidence that he was “speaking on behalf of a gigantic collectivity” had the weight of a longstanding cultural tradition behind it. Another fascinating, if grim and disturbing, tidbit from Berman’s essay is that several French writers fantasized about something like the September 11 long before it happened:

[B]y 1925–to continue with this theme of French disapproval of American city life–the poet [Louis] Aragon, as Roger informs us, was already writing, “May America afar crumble with its white buildings.” A generation later, in 1948, a writer whom Roger cites had already conjectured in print about the desirability of seeing Manhattan’s Wall Street physically destroyed.

Roger might have added that, still later on, as Glucksmann points out, Jean Genet dreamed with pleasure (as shown in one of his essays, published in 1986) of Arabs blowing up New York.

That last bit is not only sickening (though not surprising coming from Genet, a writer who consistently glorified violence and murder as a form of rebellion against bourgeois society) but quite uncanny; when Genet wrote this essay, the Cold War was still in full force, and it would have been far more logical, if envisioning New York’s destruction, to imagine the Soviet Union as the destroyer.

Anyway, read the whole thing; it’s worth it.

By the way, in passing, Berman makes one of the best observations I’ve seen in a while summing up the schizophrenia of America’s political scene today:

Modern political life is a landscape befogged with mists and clouds of halfway held fugitive opinions–the kind of landscape that allows an intelligent and well-educated person to say with perfect sincerity, “George W. Bush is a fascist and the United States is on the brink of becoming Nazi Germany,” and yet allow that same earnest person cheerfully to acknowledge, in the next breath, that, come January 2009, Bush and his entire fascist crew of Zionist conspirators are absolutely guaranteed to vacate the White House in favor of a new and popularly elected team, who might well be Bush’s fiercest opponents.

As Glenn Reynolds likes to say: Heh.

Note: Unfortunately, also in passing, Berman recycles a noxious and persistent piece of pseudo-history (not really related to the main topic). Discussing the various varieties of hatred — anti-Semitism, misogyny, and anti-Americanism — he writes that hatred is often rooted in fantasies of perfection thwarted by real-life human flaws: thus, in the case of misogyny, men idealize the perfection of Woman but are disappointed by the imperfections of flesh-and-blood women:

Men rail at women, and even set out to murder women, sometimes in gigantic numbers, as in the classic witch-hunts of Europe. This is always done in the name of a perfection that would surely exist, if only women weren’t so damnably imperfect.

Far be it from me to argue that misogyny did not exist, in abundance, in medieval and Renaissance Europe. But the “classic witch-hunts” were not, modern historians overwhelmingly agree, about misogynistic mass murder of women by men. With apologies for mixing my genres, it’s time to drive a stake through the heart of this myth.

Update: The links to the Google cache pages I posted before no longer seem to work, but it turns out that the article is available for free to registered users of; registration is a simple process that takes about 30 seconds. I had mistakenly said it was subscriber-only; my apologies.


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