Daily Archives: December 6, 2005

Darwin, religion and politics

Interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times pointing out that despite some political victories, “intelligent design” has made few if any scientific inroads — even at religious colleges.

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

“They never came in,” said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

“From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don’t come out very well in our world of scientific review,” he said.

While intelligent design has hit obstacles among scientists, it has also failed to find a warm embrace at many evangelical Christian colleges. Even at conservative schools, scholars and theologians who were initially excited about intelligent design say they have come to find its arguments unconvincing. They, too, have been greatly swayed by the scientists at their own institutions and elsewhere who have examined intelligent design and found it insufficiently substantiated in comparison to evolution.

“It can function as one of those ambiguous signs in the world that point to an intelligent creator and help support the faith of the faithful, but it just doesn’t have the compelling or explanatory power to have much of an impact on the academy,” said Frank D. Macchia, a professor of Christian theology at Vanguard University, in Costa Mesa, Calif., which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God, the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination.

At Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical university in Illinois, intelligent design surfaces in the curriculum only as part of an interdisciplinary elective on the origins of life, in which students study evolution and competing theories from theological, scientific and historical perspectives, according to a college spokesperson.

The only university where intelligent design has gained a major institutional foothold is a seminary. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., created a Center for Science and Theology for William A. Dembski, a leading proponent of intelligent design, after he left Baylor, a Baptist university in Texas, amid protests by faculty members opposed to teaching it.

Intelligent design and Mr. Dembski, a philosopher and mathematician, should have been a good fit for Baylor, which says its mission is “advancing the frontiers of knowledge while cultivating a Christian world view.” But Baylor, like many evangelical universities, has many scholars who see no contradiction in believing in God and evolution.

Now can we finally dispose of silly arguments that people who oppose the teaching of ID in science classrooms are simply driven by anti-God prejudice, or that “Darwinism” is the fundamentalist religion of the secular left? Alas, I doubt it.

Unfortunately, the pro-ID side is not the only one to play politics with science. Last week’s New York magazine has a generally interesting item about the new Darwin exhibition at the New York Museum of Natural History, done in Q & A form, which ends with this quip:

You think this’ll change anybody’s mind?

Not anybody who really likes Samuel Alito. But, hell, it can’t hurt to try.

So, political conservatives are knuckle-dragging, ignorant anti-Darwin obscurantists. Never mind that some of the most scathing assaults on the “intelligent design” movement have come from conservatives like Charles Krauthammer, George Will and John Derbyshire.

I know it’s supposed to be a joke, but this kind of humor is all too indicative of a certain type of “liberal” mindset which assumes that no educated, intellectually sophisticated person can be right of center politically. It’s smug. It’s obnoxious. It’s wrong. And I’ve run into it a lot.

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On not being a bigot

Honestly, I’m not cyber-stalking Ampersand, but here’s a post/thread that I simply have to respond to. It’s called “How Not To Be Insane When Accused Of Racism (A Guide For White People)“.

1) Breathe. Stay calm. Stay civil. Don’t burn bridges. If someone has just said “I think that sounds a bit racist,” don’t mistake it for them saying “you’re Klu Klux Klan racist scum” (which is a mistake an amazing number of white people make). For the first ten or twenty seconds any response you make will probably come from your defensiveness, not from your brain, so probably you shouldn’t say whatever first comes to your mind.

2) Take the criticism seriously – do not dismiss it without thinking about it. Especially if the criticism comes from a person of color – people of color in our society tend by necessity to be more aware of racism than most Whites are, and pick up on things most Whites overlook. (On the other hand, don’t put the people of color in the room in the position of being your advocate or judge.)

3) Don’t make it about you. Usually the thing to do is apologize for what you said and move on. Especially if you’re in a meeting or something, resist your desire to turn the meeting into a seminar on How Against Racism You Are. The subject of the conversation is probably not “your many close Black friends, and your sincere longstanding and deep abhorrence of racism.”

Think of it as if someone points out that you need to wipe your nose because you’ve got a big glob of snot hanging out. The thing to do is say “oh, excuse me,” wipe your nose, and move on. Insisting that everyone pat you on the back and reassure you that they realize you don’t always have snot hanging from your nose, before the conversation can be allowed to move forward, is not productive.

4) Let Occasional Unfair Accusations Roll Off Your Back. Sometimes, even after you’ve given it serious thought, you’ll come to the conclusion that a criticism was unfair. Great! Now please let it go. Don’t insist that everyone agree with you. Don’t enlist the people of color in the room to certify you as Officially Non-Racist. Don’t bring it up again and again, weeks or months after everyone else has forgotten about the original discussion. In other words, see point #3.

Shorter Ampersand: Don’t make it a whacking huge deal if you say something racist, or something others perceive as racist. Apologize, move on, and consider the criticism seriously so that you can improve your thinking, if need be.

This is one of those moments of truth that make me realize that no matter how much I may dislike today’s right, nothing could induce me to go over to the left. Because to me, this kind of reads like “How to roll over when someone plays the race card.” (Or the gender card, or any other oppression card.)

First, take the premise that only minorities are legitimate judges of racism (and only women are legitimate judges of sexism, and so forth), and that if a “person of color” sees racism where a white person does not, we should presume that the “person of color” is right because people of color are the targets of racism in our society and understandably have a greater awareness of racism. [See update at the bottom of this post.] Can’t we, while recognizing the reality of racism and sexism, also recognize that for some “people of color” and women, this extra awareness may turn into hypersensitivity and, well, paranoia — both because of their own experiences with bias and because they’ve been primed by identity-politics ideologues to see bigotry even where it doesn’t exist? (There are, unfortunately, some very real examples of paranoia in the black community in particular, including AIDS conspiracy theories that undermine HIV prevention efforts.)

And besides: let’s say that in a college class that includes ten black students, the professor makes a remark that one black student finds racist while the other nine do not. Is there any reason to privilege the perception of the one person who sees the remark as racist? Doesn’t that demean the other nine by implying that they are blind to their own oppression?

Furthermore, what happens when anti-racism and anti-sexism (or anti-homophobia) collide? Some black activists claimed that it was racist to deplore the acquittal of O.J. Simpson or to applaud the rape conviction of Mike Tyson. When I was a student at Rutgers University in the mid-1980s, a so-called civil rights attorney, C. Vernon Mason (one of Tawana Brawley’s rape hoax enablers, subsequently disbarred), spoke on our campus and urged battered black women not to collaborate with the oppressor by reporting their abusers to the police. When campus feminists (and others) expressed outrage at this, they were accused of racism.

Another question: what other groups, besides blacks, are to be given near-automatic credence for their complaints of bias? Other racial minorities, obviously, as well as women and gays. But what about Jews? One of Ampersand’s own commenters is alarmed by the implication that, by this logic, liberals must apologize to conservative Jews who see a streak of anti-Semitism in Israel-bashing and attacks on “neocons.” Evangelical Christians who complain of anti-Christian bigotry presumably need not apply since they’re not “disadvantaged” (despite being, in many ways, culturally marginalized). And what about charges of racism made by minorities who insist on being politically incorrect — for instance, pro-life blacks who call the pro-choice movement racist for disregarding the fact that abortion rates are disproportionately high in the black community?

I’m certainly not denying that racism exists. I’m not even going to argue that I myself am completely free from racial prejudice; I have, at times, caught myself making race-based assumptions that I’ve felt embarrassed about (once, when meeting with an editor to whom I had spoken on the phone several times, I registered a moment of surprise when I realized she was black). But I also know of too many instances of frivolous, and sometimes very damaging, charges of racism to find Ampersand’s advice helpful or benign.

For instance: A friend of mine who teaches English (and who, incidentally, was once arrested when he intervened to stop some white policemen from beating a black teenager) experienced no small amount of trouble when a student brought a complaint of racism against him. His offense? She told him that she couldn’t write a term paper on The Sun Also Rises because it had no black characters and she couldn’t relate to it; he refused to let her write about a different book and, in her opinion, was insufficiently sympathetic to her plight.

Of course, the “racism” charge is also commonly used as a weapon to shut down ideas and opinions — be it opposition to affirmative action or criticism of pseudo-scholarship like the notion that the ancient Greeks stole their culture from the black Egyptians.

The approach endorsed by Ampersand and his supportive commenters — some of whom explicitly say that even if you have concluded your comment was in no way racist, you would still do well to apologize for creating the perception of racism — has several problems. It enshrines the culture of victimhood and resentment that a number of African-American writers such as John McWhorter have eloquently criticized. It can silence debate and stifle “incorrect” ideas. It also enshrines a blatant double standard, proclaiming that one person’s perception of a situtation is more valid and more worthy of respect than another’s solely on the basis of race. And it seems to me that humoring people’s hypersensitivity and even groundless perceptions of offense has a strong element of condescension, however unintentional. I think that to treat another person as an adult human being is to show them enough respect to challenge them when you think they’re wrong — whether you think they’re being racist, or you think they’re playing the race card. Mutual respect demands no less.

Update: Ampersand replies in the comments, charging that I am misrepresenting his post. Jack Roy also points out that Ampersand never took the position that minorities are the only legitimate judges of racism, and that in No. 4 he explicitly acknowledges that an accusation of racism can occasionally be unfair.

Having re-read Ampersand’s post and mine, I have to conclude that I did in fact overstate Ampersand’s position, and for that I apologize. (I did include Ampersand’s post in the body of my own, so that readers certainly didn’t have to rely on my summary/interpretation.) While his argument clearly implies that minorities should be heavily favored as judges of racism, he does not say that they should be its only judges.

Ampersand’s suggestion is that every charge of racism should be, at the very least, given serious weight especially if it comes from a “person of color.” (Even if it’s self-evidently absurd — for instance, that the word “niggardly” is a racist slur?) He also states that “usually, the thing to do is apologize and move on.” In other words, while he does not say that a charge of racism should be seen as automatically justified, he does seem to regard it as presumptively justified.

I summed up Ampersand’s position as, “if a ‘person of color’ sees racism where a white person does not, we should presume that the ‘person of color’ is right.” I should have said, ” … we should presume that the ‘person of color’ is probably right.” It’s difficult to read Ampersand’s position in any other way, particularly in view of his advice about what to do if an accusation is unfair.

The advice seems to be that even if you, the white person accused of saying or doing something racist, have concluded upon serious reflection that you said/did nothing wrong, you shouldn’t proclaim it too loudly or insist on it too strenuously, let alone demand that the accuser apologize for the unfair accusation (or “improve his or her thinking”). What’s more, the shorter version of Ampersand’s advice rather strongly suggests that you should apologize if you’ve said “something others perceive as racist” whether the perception is accurate or not.

This, in my opinion, is very bad advice. Not only because it forces you to swallow a serious slur (and contrary to what Ampersand says, I think racism is a big deal), but also for all the reasons I listed above: such an approach encourages the victim mentality, panders to chip-on-the-shoulder hypersensitivity, and ultimately — howevere unintentionally — condescends to minorities, instead of holding them fully accountable for their words and actions. No, it’s not just about you; it’s also about poisoning race relations.

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