Monthly Archives: February 2006

Flanagan’s follies

Caitlin Flanagan, the self-styled “anti-feminist” who first made a name for herself in The Atlantic and later started writing for The New Yorker as well, is a writer who provokes strong feelings. I have found some of her work quite interesting and thought-provoking, whether agreeing or disagreeing with her. Flanagan’s 2004 Atlantic essay on Dr. Laura Schlessinger (subscriber-only, I believe) cheers for some of Schlessinger’s unpopular tough-love advice (unpopular with the Atlantic set, at least) but also takes her to task for her slippage into anti-gay bigotry and advocacy of rigid gender roles, as well as her hypocrisy. Her first New Yorker essay, about her mother’s brief attempt to resume her career (published in July 2004 but not available online), was a subtle and thoughtful piece, refreshingly free of ideological preaching.

Flanagan has had some annoying lapses into what sounded to me like a deliberate effort to bait and to push feminist buttons: take, for instance, her comment in The Atlantic that her husband is “head of household” and her later elaboration to The New York Observer that “if my husband pops a button, I sew it back on” — contradicting a statement only a year earlier that she had never been asked to replace a popped button in fourteen years of marriage. But still, I was hoping to find in Flanagan an intelligent, non-stereotypical, non-cliché commentator on gender issues.

But in her latest Atlantic essay, I think, Flanagan jumps the shark.

Flanagan’s subject is oral sex, specifically an alleged oral sex epidemic among teenagers. To this issue, she devotes a sprawling, overblown (sorry!), nearly 9,000-word-long tract, tied to a review of Paul Ruditis’ book The Rainbow Party — a fictional treatment of the urban legend about parties at which girls wearing different color lipstick take turns fellating a boy.

The essay gets off (pardon the expression) to a promising start, as Flanagan pooh-poohs the notion that nice middle-class American girls have taken to routinely servicing near-strangers and makes light of parental panic on the issue. But then, Flanagan turns around and decides that the blowjob epidemic is real after all:

[T]he axe came down in September. A huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen.

After this, Flanagan embarks on a long Wendy Shalit-style diatribe about how the erosion of traditional protections has left girls vulnerable to predatory sex. Here’s a part of the conclusion (after detours into filthy rap lyrics and a teenage memory of Flanagan’s mother instructing her to never invite a boy up to her room because “he might go to school and tell other boys what your comforter looks like”):

If I were to learn that my children had engaged in oral sex — outside a romantic relationship, and as young adolescents — I would be sad. But I wouldn’t think that they had been damaged by the experience; I wouldn’t think I had failed catastrophically as a mother, or that they would need therapy. Because I don’t have daughters, I have sons.

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls. I think that girls are vulnerable to great damage through the kind of sex in which they are, as individuals, as valueless and unrecognizable as chattel. Society has let its girls down in every possible way. It has refused to assert — or even to acknowledge — that female sexuality is as intricately connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure. It’s in the nature of who we are.

But perhaps the girls themselves understand this essential truth.

As myriad forces were combining to reshape our notions of public decency and propriety, to ridicule the concept that privacy and dignity are valuable and allied qualities of character and that exhibitionism as an end in itself might not be beneficial for a young girl, at the exact moment when girls were encouraged to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy and to act on an imperative of default aggression — at this very time a significant number of young girls were beginning to form an entirely new code of sexual ethics and expectations. It was a code in which their own physical pleasure was of no consequence — was in fact so entirely beside the point that their preferred mode of sexual activity was performing unrequited oral sex. The modern girl’s casual willingness to perform oral sex may — as some cool-headed observers of the phenomenon like to propose — be her way of maintaining a post-feminist power in her sexual dealings, by being fully in control of the sexual act and of the pleasure a boy receives from it. Or it may be her desperate attempt to do something that the culture refuses to encourage: to keep her own sexuality — the emotions and the desires, as well as the anatomical real estate itself — private, secret, unviolated. It may not be her technical virginity that she is trying to preserve; it may be her own sexual awakening — which is all she really has left to protect anymore.

We’ve made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream, in which Planned Parenthood’s response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy — which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America’s girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America’s girls: on their knees.

Before you bring out the violins, here’s a minor point to ponder. The NCHS study that Flanagan cites for its supposedly devastasting results actually found that girls are just as likely to receive oral sex as they are to give it. (The full data can be found here, but be warned: this is a large PDF file.) In other words, all of Flanagan’s philosophizing is based on a demonstrably false factual premise, and one that she should know to be false. In fact, the study’s finding that oral sex among adolescents is quite likely to be reciprocal was widely discussed, precisely because it contradicts a widely held stereotype. As a Washington Post article put it:

“This is a point of major social transition,” James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a reproductive health organization, said yesterday. “The data are now coming out and roiling the idea that boys are the hunters and young girls are the prey. It absolutely defies the stereotype.”


Of course, the image of teenage girls (and even women) as victims of sex and of predatory male lust is so entrenched that some experts were undeterred. The Post went on to say:

Joe McIllhaney Jr., chairman of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, said the new data confirm trends he has seen as a physician, but he has doubts about some of Wagoner’s conclusions. “I question how much girls enjoy” oral sex, he said.”I’d like to know a whole lot more about the pressure boys put on girls.”


And now here’s Flanagan, continuing to peddle the myth and not even acknowledging the evidence that contradicts it — from a study she herself cites. And all in the service (it’s difficult to avoid cringeworthy puns when writing about this, isn’t it?) of the well-worn conservative shibboleth that women, and girls in particular, have been victimized by sexual liberation and the loss of patriarchal protections.

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More on those cartoon wars

Is everyone tired of the Mohammed cartoons story? Too bad, because that’s the topic of my newest Boston Globe column.

AS THE DANISH cartoons satirizing Mohammed continue to cause violent protests throughout the Muslim world, and Western newspapers grapple with the issue of whether to publish the offending cartoons, many people are asking what this incident says about the ability of Islam, at least in its current state, to coexist with modern democratic civilization and its cherished freedoms. That is a legitimate question, and we should not be deterred from asking it by either political correctness or intimidation. But the tension between traditional religion and modernity, between piety and freedom, are not limited to Islam alone — though Islamic radicalism today represents a uniquely deadly form of this tension.

In a New York Times column, David Brooks contrasts the Islamic extremists’ attitudes with ours: The West, with its ”legacy of Socrates and the agora” and its ”progressive and rational” mindset, is open to a multiplicity of arguments, perspectives, and ”unpleasant facts,” while radical Muslims cling to ”pre-Enlightenment” dogmatism and shrink from the ”chaos of our conversation.”

Yet Brooks overlooks the fact that a large segment of the population in the West, and especially in the United States, rejects the progressive, rational mindset and embraces pre-Enlightenment values as well. Fundamentalist Christians, traditionalist Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not, with very few exceptions, call for violence in response to heresy; that is a key distinction. But they too often equate criticism (let alone mockery) of their beliefs with ”religious bigotry” or ”hate speech.” And they, too, often seek not simply to protest but to shut down offensive speech.

In 1998, when a Broadway theater announced the production of Terrence McNally’s play ”Corpus Christi,” depicting a gay Jesus-like character, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a letter-writing campaign against it. There were also threats of violence and arson, which at one point swayed the theater to cancel the play. The Catholic League reacted with jubilation, and while formally deploring the threats it also warned that if another theater picked up ”Corpus Christi,” it would ”wage a war that no one will forget.” (The theater eventually revived the production.)

Interestingly, the head of the Catholic League, William Donohue, recently applauded the decision of most American newspapers not to publish the Mohammed cartoons and lamented only that his group’s protests against offensive material have been less successful. Many of the same newspapers that decided — quite wrongly, in my view — not to reproduce the cartoons even as part of a news story about the reaction to them have run photos of controversial works of art considered sacrilegious by Christians, and defended the display of those works in tax-funded museums.

Donohue makes an important point when he says that this double standard reflects fear of violence by Islamic extremists, and that caving in to such intimidation is a deplorable message to send. But he, too, agrees that freedom of the press should take a back seat to respect for what is sacred to believers. Respect is of course a fine thing, but where does one draw the line between insult and criticism or questioning? A few years ago, the charge of ”Christian bashing” was leveled at the ABC show ”Nothing Sacred,” which questioned Catholic doctrine on birth control and priestly celibacy.

Others from the Christian right, such as Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, have echoed the notion that the media should show the same deference to conservative Christians that they show to Muslims. And a few have openly voiced sympathy even with violent manifestations of Islamic extremism. Pat Buchanan recently wrote:

”When Bush speaks of freedom as God’s gift to humanity, does he mean the First Amendment freedom . . . of Salman Rushdie to publish ‘The Satanic Verses,’ a book considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith? If the Islamic world rejects this notion of freedom . . . why are they wrong?”

The truth is that modernity with its ”chaos of conversation,” its chaos of lifestyles, its attitude that there is nothing more sacred than freedom of expression, is profoundly threatening to many religious traditionalists of different faiths. (Last year, quite a few American conservatives applauded Pope Benedict XVI’s assault on ”the dictatorship of relativism.”) At the present moment, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, radical fundamentalism holds a particular sway in the Muslim world, where it is wedded to political violence in ways that have no parallel in other religions. To ignore this difference and this danger would be foolish. But it is also unwise to ignore the religious backlash against modernity right here in the West, and its own tensions with individual freedom.


I am not, as some have implicitly or explicitly done, equating the Taliban or the Al Qaeda with the Christian Coalition or the American Family Association. They don’t have similar goals or similar means. (The Christian Reconstructionists who do have a Talibanesque theocreatic agenda don’t wield any political influence to speak of.) But I do think that it’s ludicrous to deny that ther are forces in the West, in America in particular — and, sadly, in David Brooks’s own political camp — that do represent a traditionalist backlash against the Enlightenment. (The left, of course, has its own anti-Enlightenment faction, but that’s not the point here.) To equate Jerry Falwell and Osama Bin Laden would be an absurd exercise in moral equivalency; but Brooks goes to the other extreme of exaggerated Western self-congratulation.

I agree, too, that many of the people lamenting the offensiveness of the Mohammed cartoons have had little to say not only about the steady stream of Nazi-style Jew-baiting cartoons in the Arab world, but even about anti-Israel cartoons in the European press that have had a clearly anti-Semitic tint. At the same time, there is no denying that some of the response to the cartoon controversy has had an anti-Muslim (not just anti-extremist) tint. For a good response, see this column by Steve Chapman.

Writes Chapman:

To assume that Muslims in Europe universally aspire to rule by ayatollahs is like assuming that Christians in the United States would all love to see Pat Robertson elected president.

It’s true that vicious extremism does occasionally emerge — as when a Dutch filmmaker who publicly disparaged Islam was murdered by a radical Muslim in 2004. But the killer is hardly typical of his co-religionists on the continent.

In Denmark, local Muslims responded to the cartoons in law-abiding ways — gathering petitions, talking to the newspaper editor, filing a criminal complaint, marching peacefully in Copenhagen. Only when the issue got attention in the Middle East did mayhem erupt. Even then, it occurred in only a few places, not all across the Muslim world.

There is no reason to believe that Muslims in Europe favor the torching of embassies. The head of one of Germany’s biggest Islamic groups denounced what he called “an incensed and thoughtless mob,” and said, “We abhor such actions.”

There is no doubt, though, that Europe has a Muslim problem, stemming from its reluctance to embrace immigrants as full citizens. …

If Europe wants to remain a free and tolerant place, the answer is not to treat Muslims as a dangerous alien presence. It’s to get busy turning them into Europeans.

Oh, and that criminal complaint filed by Danish Muslims against the cartoons? As Chapman notes, the law that enabled them to do that was not passed in deference to Muslim sensibilities:

Well, it turns out that some parts of Europe already ban the sort of blasphemy at issue here — under laws written to protect Christian sensibilities. Denmark, as it happens, provides up to four months in jail for anyone “who publicly offends or insults a religion.” In Germany, reports the broadcast outlet Deutsche Welle, one magazine has been sued eight times under an anti-blasphemy law enacted in 1871.

The danger, I gather, is that Europe’s Muslims will be just as intolerant of criticism of their faith as Europe’s Christians used to be of theirs. That would certainly be a bad thing. But to assume that more Muslims will inevitably turn France or Germany into a turbaned theocracy brings to mind the bumper sticker that says, “I get all the exercise I need jumping to conclusions.”

A popular exercise, that.

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A jihad against Denmark: predicted in 1931!

A Russian friend has tipped me off to an extraordinary passage in the 1931 Russian novel, The Golden Calf, by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. The book, a sequel to the much-better known The Twelve Chairs (made into a 1970 Mel Brooks movie), deals with the adventures of a charming con man named Ostap Bender; at one point, Bender and a fellow crook have to travel through a Central Asian desert on camels, and then ….

For seven days, the camels trudged through the desert carrying the newly minted sheiks. Early in the journey, Ostap was having the time of his life. …. He called himself Lawrence of Arabia.

“I’m a dynamite emir!” he shouted, swaying on the camel’s high back. “If we don’t get some decent food in two days, I’m going to start a rebellion among some tribes. I swear! I am going to apoint myself a representative of the Prophet and declare a holy war — jihad. Against Denmark, for instance. Why were the Danes so mean to their Prince Hamlet? In the current political environment, even the League of Nations will have to find that a satisfactory pretext for war. As God is my witness, I’ll buy a million’s worth of rifles from the British — they love selling weapons to tribesmen — and then, off to Denmark we go! Germany will have to let us through, by way of reparations. Can you imagine the tribesmen storming into Copenhagen? With me leading the way, riding a white camel?”

A jihad against Denmark. A joke, of course. But it’s uncanny, you must admit. And, as another friend of mine comments, full of other contemporary references: Replace “the British” with “the U.S. and/or the Soviet Union,” the League of Nations with the U.N., and “reparations” with “post-colonial white guilt,” and it all fits.

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The Friedan legacy

My take on Betty Friedan, at Reason Express.

If there was a modern-day feminist matriarch, it was Betty Friedan. She looked the part, in her later years: a grande dame never conventionally beautiful but strikingly majestic, a lioness in winter with a grizzled mane.

Friedan, who died last week at 85, was widely credited with—or blamed for, depending on one’s point of view—launching the modern women’s movement with her 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, in which she challenged the 1950s ideal of female fulfillment through marriage, motherhood and suburban domesticity. A woman of paradox, she often found herself on the losing side in the ideological disputes within the movement she helped create; and the loss was as much the movement’s as hers. As American feminism marks the passing of its founding mother, it also finds itself looking for direction, and still grappling with some of the dilemmas Friedan faced more than 40 years ago.

Since the revelation a few years ago (in the 1999 book, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, by historian Daniel Horowitz), that the pre–Feminine Mystique Friedan was not the apolitical housewife and writer she made herself out to be but a journalist with a background in far-left labor union activism, some of Friedan’s conservative critics have tried to paint her as a radical intent on subverting the American family and society. But actually, the radicalism of The Feminine Mystique was in many ways surprisingly un-radical. Friedan sought to change women’s roles and bring them out of the private domestic sphere, but she wanted to integrate them into the mainstream of the public sphere, not to revolutionize it.

The vision of a good life that emerges from her book is saturated with a very traditional Western and American humanism that, in some ways, harkens back to the 19th century. She celebrated the “unique human capacity…to live one’s life by purposes stretching into the future—to live not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world” (a capacity that, she argued, “occupation: housewife” did not truly fulfill with its endlessly repetitive domestic tasks), and urged women to join men in “the battle with the world.”

The Feminine Mystique has its rhetorical excesses, most notably the outrageous metaphor of the suburban home as a “comfortable concentration camp” (on the grounds that it, too, reduces its inhabitants to purely biological living). But one thing it never did was pit men against women as enemies or victimizers, or fall into a “women good, men bad” trap. If anything, Friedan tended to view men as victims of domineering wives who, frustrated in their own ambitions, had to seek status and identity through their husbands and treated a man as an “object of contempt” if he couldn’t meet those needs. Women’s “wasted energy,” she wrote, was bound to be “destructive to their husbands, to their children, and to themselves.”

Recent scholarship has challenged the notion that that modern liberal feminism sprang fully armed from The Feminine Mystique like Athena from the head of Zeus. Horowitz argues that many of its ideas were being widely discussed by the time of its publication, even in the very same magazines that Friedan blasted for promoting the happy housewife myth. (While Friedan claimed that she had to uphold the ideology of domesticity in her own writings for those magazines, Horowitz showed that most of her articles celebrated independent women with achievements outside the home.) Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Friedan’s best-selling book helped channel and focus the already simmering female discontent, and in that sense she played a vital role.

A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Friedan later found herself sidelined. Part of this had to do with her abrasive personality. As Judith Hennessee records in her warts-and-all 1999 biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life, Friedan saw herself as the alpha female of the feminist movement and had a tendency to be hostile and paranoid toward anyone who could threaten that status—she even accused Gloria Steinem of being a CIA plant—as well as rude and bullying toward subordinates. But there were ideological conflicts as well, with Friedan in opposition to the movement’s growing radicalism.

Friedan was appalled by activists who wanted to pattern feminism on what she called “obsolete ideologies of class warfare,” activists who saw the family as inherently oppressive. She deplored men-are-evil rhetoric and the obsession with male violence against women. (Interestingly, Friedan’s own marriage, which ended in 1969, was marked by recurring violence—though, by all accounts, she was at least as much aggressor as victim.) Friedan’s initial antipathy to the movement’s embrace of lesbian rights has been rightly seen as having a homophobic tint (particularly in view of a cringeworthy passage in The Feminine Mystique in which she decried the rise of male homosexuality in America and blamed it on frustrated housewives smothering their sons). However, it also needs to be seen in the context of the 1970s advocacy of lesbian separatism as a political revolt against men.

In the end, Friedan was marginalized if not ostracized by the feminist movement; by 1991, Susan Faludi was proclaiming her a part of the “backlash” because of her insistence that marriage and motherhood are essential to most women’s happiness. But, partly because of that, feminism itself ended up being marginalized by American culture.

In 2006, it is increasingly clear that Friedan was right about one thing: the central issue of feminism should have always been the work-family balance. It is an issue that women confront again today, as debates rage about educated professional women “opting out” to raise children. Friedan didn’t necessarily have the right answers—she was, to the end of her life, a fan of institutional, government-subsidized day care—but she raised, at least, the right questions. Dated though it is in many ways, The Feminine Mystique deserves to be read today as an eloquent reminder of the dangers of defining female identity through home and motherhood.

Friedan was highly critical of Freud’s views on women, but she embraced his view that love and work are the two basic elements of a fully human life, and passionately believed that women’s lives should have both of those elements. In that, she was right. And perhaps, after all the battles between gender warmongers and latter-day champions of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan’s vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that will endure.

A few additional reflections. I had two occasions to meet Friedan in person. In 1995, we were together on C-Span’s Washington Journal show, discussing the day’s news; though generally genial and friendly, Friedan made one comment that struck me as quite rude, and a cheap shot to boot. (Ironically, when I popped my tape of the program in the VCR the other day and randomly fast-forwarded, that was the exact spot on which I hit “play.”) When we were discussing welfare reform and I said that it would be good idea to allow more experimentaion by the states, Friedan shot back, “You haven’t been in this country long enough to know that the states won’t do certain things unless the federal government makes them.” By that time I had been in the U.S. for 15 years, hardly a new arrival fresh off the proverbial boat.

Several years later Friedan was a keynote speaker at a conference of the Women’s Freedom Network, a “dissident feminist” group I had helped launch. The WFN was explicitly identified as being in opposition to establishment feminism (as well as traditionalist, Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminism), so in a way it took guts, and true intellectual independence, for Friedan to agree to attend and speak. I have to report that the conference organizers experienced firsthand, when working out Friedan’s travel arrangements, some of the primadonna-ish ways chronicled by her unsparing biographer Judith Hennessee. Yet in her appearance at the event, she was gracious, warm, and charismatic.

Is Friedan’s legacy compromised or even discredited by the revelation that she shaded the truth about herself in The Feminine Mystique, downplaying both her past political radicalism and her professional activities? A reader responding to my Reason.com article yesterday suggested that Friedan was feminism’s James Frey. In fact, as Alan Wolfe argued in this 1999 essay in The Atlantic, Friedan’s self-presentation as a trapped suburban housewife just like the ones in her target audience had a lot to do with her book’s appeal. But at the same time, Friedan did not not exactly make things up. (As Judith Shulevitz noted in her reply to Wolfe, Friedan had, in fact, been a victim of sex discrimination: the union newspaper where she had worked fired her after she got pregnant a second time.) And her case does not really stand or fall on the total accuracy of her depiction of her own experiences. The Feminine Mystique was not a memoir.

Friedan’s depiction of the culture was not wholly accurate, either. The ideology of domesticity was not — as one would sometimes think reading The Feminine Mystique — enforced with a quasi-Stalinist rigor. Some years ago while doing research for my book, Ceasefire, I came across a library book published in 1960, titled College for Coeds. While hardly feminist, it decried the notion that “girls must choose between marriage and a career” and described working women in glowing terms as “acquiring a sense of fulfillment” and realizing “their importance as individuals.”

And yet the larger picture holds. Friedan wrote in a culture in which, when Sandra Day O’Connor graduated third in her class at Stanford Law School, she could get no job offers from law firms except for secretarial jobs; in which, when the future Elizabeth Dole told her mother she was going to law school, her mother was so distressed she became physically ill.

To some extent, Friedan glamorized careers. (Her New York Times obituary featured a quote from The Feminine Mystique in which a college-educated housewife complains that very little of what she does during the day is “really necessary or important”; but surely, quite a few professionals could describe their jobs the same way.) And while she asserted, in a 1963 interview, that her slogan was not “Women of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your men,” but “You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners,” she seemed to give little thought to the question of who, come the revolution, would do the vacuuming. (The Feminine Mystique never mentions any changes in men’s family roles, and sometimes Friedan seems to assume that women would have no problem balancing work and home if they just used their time more efficiently.) While she addressed many of those issues in her subsequent work, her proposed solutions were too one-size-fits all and too government-oriented.

Does this diminish Friedan’s stature as a visionary? Not to me. She forcefully asserted that women’s humanity transcends their biology; and she just as forcefully asserted that women’s bonds with men, and with children, transcend patriarchy. And that’s enough.

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Radio heads-up

I will be discussing Betty Friedan on John Carlson’s show on KVI radio in Seattle, around 4 p.m. Pacific (7 p.m. Eastern). You can listen online here.

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Funereal politics

At the funeral of Coretta Scott King, attended by President Bush and the First Lady (as well as former Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Carter and their wives), the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and former President Jimmy Carter used the occasion to take very thinly veiled jabs at Bush.

According to Reuters:

Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King helped found in 1957, gave a playful reading of a poem in eulogy of King.

“She extended Martin’s message against poverty, racism and war / She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar,” he said.

“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there / But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here / Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor.”

The mourners gave a standing ovation. Bush’s reaction could not be seen on the television coverage, but after Lowery finished speaking, the president shook his hand and laughed.

…..

With Washington debating the legality of Bush’s domestic eavesdropping on Americans suspected of al Qaeda ties, Carter also drew applause with pointed comments on federal efforts to spy on the Kings.

“It was difficult for them personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated, and they became the targets of secret government wiretapping and other surveillance,” he said.

And there’s more, from Carter:

“We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans.”

(For more on that topic, see here.)

Eric Muller sarcastically points out that Mrs. King was an intensely political woman, and that it’s ridiculous to talk about the wrongness of politicizing her memorial ceremony. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another is that today, the ideals represented by Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King are ideals that unite, rather than divide, America. In a society where political polarization is increasingly rancorous, her funeral could have been a rare moment that united. It shoudl not have been a time for division, or for scoring political points. Mrs. King herself, I think, would have understood that.

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Betty Friedan, RIP

Betty Friedan, the matriarch of American feminism, is dead at 85.

Friedan was a complex figure; a thinker and social critic who was right about some things — both in her critique of traditional female roles and in her critique of radical feminism — and very wrong or shortsighted about others; a champion of humanitarian ideals who was often less than kind to the people around her. Ultimately, I think she was a far more positive than negative figure in American life. I’m writing about her for Reason Express, for tomorrow, but in the meantime here is an article I wrote for The Washington Post in 1999 reviewing two books about Friedan.

Its last paragraph, pretty much, sums up my thoughts about Friedan.

Friedan may have exaggerated the feminine mystique’s grip on American culture and women (including herself), and may have taken too much credit for shattering it. These correctives could be seen as diminishing her stature. However, they also confirm that her feminism was not foisted on women but came as a response to their aspirations and drew on already existing trends. Most of the social change that followed would have happened with or without Friedan. But she was able to crystallize the spirit of that change in a way that had unique popular appeal. She has had her share of excesses and dubious ideas. Yet one can only hope that after all the battles between gender-war feminists and anti-feminists still pining for the feminine mystique, her vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that endures.

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The "boy crisis"

My column in today’s Boston Globe deals with the so-called “boy crisis.”

IN THE EARLY 1990s, talk about girls as an endangered species was everywhere. There were studies purporting to show that patriarchy-damaged girls suffered a disastrous drop in self-esteem in adolescence. The American Association of University Women published a report titled ”How Schools Shortchange Girls,” which landed on the front pages of many newspapers. Educators and legislators alike rushed to tackle the problem of gender bias that was allegedly keeping girls from reaching their full potential — despite the fact that, by then, girls were already graduating from America’s colleges in higher numbers than boys.

Today, it’s the ”boy crisis” that’s making headlines, from The Weekly Standard to Newsweek. We are presented with alarming numbers: 58 percent of first-year college students are female. Because male students are more likely to drop out, their share will shrink to 40 percent by graduation. ”Man shortage” is the new bane of campuses. While the gender gap in academic achievement has long been a serious problem in the black community — by the mid-1990s, two-thirds of college diplomas earned by African-Americans went to women — it has been growing among Hispanics and whites as well.

What’s going on? Some blame an antimale bias in education. A few years ago, Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, wrote a book, ”The War Against Boys,” arguing that feminist zeal is causing many teachers to treat maleness as ”toxic” and to try to reshape boys in a female image. Gender differences in the ”wiring” of the human brain are an increasingly popular explanation as well. Psychologist and author Michael Gurian is a leading proponent of the view that boys and girls learn differently and that these differences must be taken into account if we want to ensure a quality education for everyone. Some believe that in many instances, single-sex classes are the answer.

Attention to the issue is welcome. For years, the justified celebrations of female achievement have overshadowed the fact that boys and young men were starting to lag behind. Many feminists have dismissed the college attendance gap as insignificant, arguing that men can get well-paying jobs even without college while women need a degree just to catch up. Yet the fact is that in this knowledge-based economy, men without a higher education are increasingly falling behind.

What about the remedies? No possible solution should be off-limits. It would be ridiculous, for instance, to refuse to consider the possibility of biological sex differences in learning styles because of political correctness. Yet it’s also important to remember such differences are often dwarfed by individual variation. Helen Smith, a psychologist and blogger who has championed the cause of boys in school, cautions that, while recognizing differences, we should not lapse into stereotyping: In general, boys may be more physically active and girls may be more verbal, but a lot of children will not fit those patterns. Some of the fashionable talk about boys getting in trouble due to their more rebellious and individualistic ways has an alarming tendency to paint girls as dull, diligent sheep.

And sometimes, the talk of a ”war against boys” can lapse into a victim mentality that rivals the worst excesses of radical feminism. Last month, 17-year-old Doug Anglin, a student at Milton High School, filed a federal civil rights complaint charging that his school discriminates against boys. How so? Anglin claims that rewarding students for following rules, obeying teachers’ orders, and turning in homework is unfair to boys, who ”naturally rebel.” He also wants boys to be exempt from community service, to get credit for playing sports, and to be able to take classes on a pass/fail basis. And, according to his father — a Boston attorney who wrote the lawsuit — boys’ grades should be retroactively adjusted to make up for past discrimination.

Yet the absurdity of this suit should not blind us to evidence of a chilly climate for boys in schools. Boy-bashing by girls, including T-shirts with such slogans as ”Girls rule, boys drool,” is sometimes treated as an expression of ”girl power.” In numerous surveys, both boys and girls agree that teachers generally favor girls over boys. Perhaps sensitivity training is in order to make teachers more aware of biases. Bringing more men into schools as teachers and mentors may also help.

The problem is out in the open, which is a positive step. Now, we should try to address it without pitting girls against boys, or treating either as victims.

One thing that troubles me about the current discussions of boys and their problems is the easy lapse into “boys are like this, girls are like that” rhetoric. Examples can be found, for instance, in this thread at Dr. Helen’s blog. I fully agree with Dr. Helen that it’s ridiculous to dismiss all talk of sex differences in learning as “anti-feminist,” as does feminist sociologist Michael Kimmel (SUNY). But I also cringe at comments like these, from one of the posters:

I have twin 9 year-old step-children: a girl and a boy. These children were raised in the same setting, have sat in the same classrooms, and have had virtually identical life experiences.

Yet they couldn’t be more different. The girl is calm, thoughtful, mature. She can sit still, follow instructions, and concentrate. She thinks things through before acting. She can carry on a real two-way conversation, and can make new friends and relate to them. Most importantly, she seems to have control over her impulses. The boy on the other hand can not control his impulses no matter how hard he tries, has trouble relating to others, and is constantly in trouble at school. He doesn’t think before acting. And it’s a constant source of frustration and sadness to him because he really does try!

This is a common story. It’s ridiculous that some people are still hanging on to the canard that biology doesn’t matter. Have they never met any children?

Well, I can think, without even trying too hard, of two couples I know with (fraternal) twin girls who have completely different personalities, dramatically different levels of aggressiveness, impulse control, and so on. I’m not in favor of doctrinaire unisex feminism, but going to back to putting boys and girls into little boxes labeled pink and blue is hardly preferable.

This post by Dr. Helen, about the Boston Globe article on the David Anglin lawsuit (which mentions, among other things, girls getting extra points when they “decorate their notebooks with glitter and feathers”), contains an anecdote that illustrates the dangers of fitting such issues as “rewarding creativity vs. rewarding orderliness” into a neat gender-based framework:

This reminds me of an education class I was forced to take as a requirement for my PHD degree in school/clinical psychology. The professor–a male–told us to keep a log of our activities with students or patients in my case on notebook paper and turn them in for a portion of our grade. I was out for the class when the instructions were given so got the assignment second-hand from other students. I was shocked when I received an F on the assignment–the reason? Writing outside the margins of my paper. The professor cared nothing about the content I had so carefully written out as best I could–he only cared about appearances.


And here’s another good Dr. Helen thread, with some cautionary words from Dr. Helen about the need to pay attention to individual differences as well as sex differences, and a comment from a mother of a physically active, non-stereotypical girl.

More from a Reason essay I wrote about this issue back in 2001:

“Boy partisans” can exaggerate too. … In The War Against Boys, [Christina Hoff] Sommers asserts that recent data on high school and college students clearly lead to “the conclusion that girls and young women are thriving, while boys and young men are languishing.” Yet this dramatic statement is contradicted further down the page by her own summary of Valerie Lee’s study of gender and achievement, which she lauds as “responsible and objective.” Lee reports that sex differences in school performance are “small to moderate” and “inconsistent in direction”-boys fare better in some areas, girls in others.

More boys flounder in school (and, as Sommers acknowledges, more of them reach the highest levels of excellence, from the best test scores to top rankings in prestigious law schools). But it’s important to put things in perspective. Boys are twice as likely as girls to be shunted into special education with labels that may involve a high degree of subjectivity or even bias, but we are talking about a fairly small proportion of all children. About 7 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are classified as learning disabled, 1.5 percent of boys and 1.1 percent of girls as mentally retarded; just over 1 percent of boys and fewer than half as many girls are diagnosed with severe emotional disturbances.

Clearly, many boys are doing well; just as clearly, it’s an overstatement to say that girls in general are “thriving,” since all too often the educational system serves no one well. Twelfth-grade girls may do better than boys on reading and writing tests, but their average scores still fall short of the level that indicates real competence-the ability to understand and convey complicated information.

There’s quite a bit of exaggeration, too, in the notion of schools as a hostile environment for boys. Few would dispute that boys tend to be more physically active and less patient than girls; but these differences are far less stark than the clichés deployed in the “boy wars.” In a 1998 Department of Education study, 65 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls in kindergarten were described by teachers as usually persistent at their tasks, and 58 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls as usually attentive-a clear yet far from interplanetary gap.

(One has to wonder, too, to what extent these differences reflect reality and to what extent the teachers’ stereotyped perceptions.)

Still smaller are the differences between boys’ and girls’ views of the school climate. Surprisingly, in a 1995 survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, virtually the same percentages of female and male high school seniors said they liked school. When the question “Whom do teachers like more?” is posed in such a way that they must select one favored sex, kids are likely to answer “girls.” Yet when asked about their own experiences, boys are only slightly less likely than girls to say that teachers listen to them, that they call on them often and encourage them, and that discipline and grading at their school are fair.

….

Judith Kleinfeld, who authored the 1996 paper “The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls,” published by the Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Freedom Network (of which I am vice president), credits Sommers with drawing attention to an often-ignored problem but wishes her argument had been more nuanced. “We used to think that the schools shortchanged girls; now the news is that schools are waging a war against boys, that girls are on top and boys have become the second sex,” says Kleinfeld. “Neither view is right. We should be sending a dual message: one, boys and girls do have characteristic problems, and we need to be aware of what they are; two, boys and girls are also individuals. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of exaggeration going on, and a lot of destructive stereotyping by both sides.”

My essay also addressed the still-debated issue of whether boys are at greater risk from “patriarchal” hypermasculine values or from creeping androgyny.

To be sure, there are educators eager to impose their egalitarian vision on other people’s children by banning toy guns from preschools, prohibiting “segregated” play at recess, or herding boys into quilting groups and prodding them to talk about how they feel. It’s difficult to tell how widespread this is outside the elite Eastern private schools from which Sommers gets several of her examples, where parents not only choose but pay big money to send their offspring. On the other hand, in many communities, boys still face strong pressure to be jocks-and the jock culture probably is more damaging to boys’ learning than the occasional quilting circle.

Not unlike the feminists, many conservatives have a vision of a monolithic, virtually unchanging “culture of manhood” that boys must join. Yet one does not have to believe that gender is only a “social construct” to know that standards of male behavior and beliefs about male nature in different times and places have varied as greatly as male dress. Two hundred years ago, it wasn’t unusual or inappropriate for men to weep at sentimental plays and for male friends to exchange letters with gushy expressions of affection.

The truth is, both efforts to produce “unisex” children and efforts to enforce traditional masculine or feminine norms are likely to warp children’s individuality. Kleinfeld had a chance to observe this when raising her own children: a girl who liked mechanical tools and had an aptitude for science, yet resisted efforts to get her interested in a scientific career and chose humanitarian work instead, and a quiet, gentle boy who was an avid reader. “We tried to get him active in sports, but we were fighting his individual nature,” says Kleinfeld. “The one time he made a touchdown in football, he was running the wrong way.”

In The War Against Boys, Sommers praises feminists who came to honor and cherish their sons’ masculine qualities, among them a pacifist-liberal writer whose son chose a military career. But would conservative champions of boyhood also praise traditionally masculine fathers who came to honor and cherish their sons’ “soft” qualities, even when those sons chose to become elementary school teachers or hairdressers?

(My review of Sommers’ The War Against Boys can be found here.)

A closing thought. How many of the problems of schoolboys today have to do with father absence?

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This quill for hire

The cash-for-op-eds scandal draws a couple of disappointing, excuse-making, wagons-circling, reader’s-intelligence-insulting responses from the conservative side: in Human Events by Lisa Di Pasquale, and in The American Spectator by Iain Murray.

Before my response, a recusal. A big part of this controversy has to do with the journalist Michael Fumento, who lost his Scripps-Howard column after the revelation that his 2003 book, BioEvolution, was subsidized with an undisclosed 1999 grant of $60,000 to his employer, the Hudson Institute, from the agribusiness giant Monsanto — which Fumento repeatedly praised, in the book and in several columns. Unlike Doug Bandow, Fumento has not been been actually paid off for op-ed columns, as one writer has wrongly stated; and, also unlike Bandow, he has vociferously defended himself against charges of being on the take. I will not discuss this aspect of the story, for the simple reason that I have known Mike Fumento for many years. I am very sorry about his current predicament, which comes on the heels of some major health problems, and I wish him well. I recuse myself from any further comment. (If you want to find out more, check out the above links for the case against Fumento and for his defense, with plenty more links inside.)

The problem with Murray’s and DiPasquale’s articles is that they don’t so much defend any conservative writers against charges of shilling as offer unabashed defenses of shilling. Murray, whose article is titled, “What Are Op-Eds For?“, writes:

An opinion piece—whether an individual op-ed or a column—exists to promote a point of view by argument. It does not seek to establish a fact, but to win people over to a particular viewpoint or opinion. Therefore, the strength of the argument is the key factor in determining the effectiveness of the piece. A sloppily constructed, poorly thought-out argument will convince no one — while a tightly constructed, coherent, and well-written argument can sway minds. That is why opinion pieces are considered intellectual ammunition in the war of ideas.

The only valid response to a persuasive argument is an equally persuasive argument towards a different conclusion. Yet the witch hunters’ central argument has nothing to do with the virtues of the arguments presented by Bandow and others. Their argument is, essentially, that because the writer has not disclosed information about his income, he is essentially untrustworthy and his opinions should not be given the time of day. This argument is flawed enough to make it invalid. In logic, that’s called a fallacy.

The argument is fallacious for three reasons.

First, it has nothing to do with the views expressed in the articles. Instead, it dwells on characteristics of the author. In logic, this is called the ad hominem (or ad hom.) fallacy. It should have no effect on the evaluation of the views expressed in the article. So, if someone writes in favor of drug legalization but it is then revealed that he has been paid to write the article by George Soros or another proponent of drug legalization, his argument cannot be validly dismissed on that ground alone.

The argument that full disclosure of any financial interests would solve the problem should be seen in this light. The ad hominem argument cares nothing for transparency. If a writer does not disclose his income source, he is untrustworthy for not being transparent. If he does disclose his income source, he is a paid shill. Yet neither formulation speaks to the actual arguments.

Second, to unpack the fallacy further, another fallacious argument arises: that those who are untainted by private sector money are inherently more trustworthy. This is a form of the fallacy of appeal to authority—”Look at me, you can trust me!” A writer’s argument does not gain any more validity through the author’s lack of financial ties.

Finally, because of the general applicability of the charge, a third fallacy arises. By broadly asserting that anyone connected financially with private industry is inherently untrustworthy, the Left has engaged in the fallacy of poisoning the well: No writer who has ties to industry deserves to be listened to—their arguments need not even be heard, never mind addressed. The Left’s case for transparency relies on poisoning the well for its effectiveness: Once a writer has declared his or her ties, they believe, the reader will not give their arguments credence.

….

The self-important witch finders blazing with moral righteousness have only one goal in mind: to deny the public access to the ideas advanced by the writers they target. This is not about trust, or ethics, or any other moral consideration. It is about suppression of free speech and public debate. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” It is neither illegal nor immoral to write about something while having financial ties to private industry. By inventing new social rules to forbid such an act, the leftist witch finders are showing once again just how hostile they are to the ideals on which the American republic stands. Opinion is opinion and should be treated as such. Any other approach to it is fallacious sophistry.



Let’s ponder this for a moment. It’s an “ad hominem” argument to say that a journalist is tainted by taking money from those about whom he writes favorably? Now that’s chutzpah.

As for the argument that an opinion column should be judged not on who has paid for it but on how convincingly it makes its case, its fallacy should be immediately obvious. An argument should be not only convincing but intellectually honest. We should be able, for instance, to count on a writer not to distort the facts (however convincingly she maybe do it) and not to withhold facts unfavorable to her case. Undisclosed financial interest in the slant of an article certainly compromises a writer’s intellectual honesty, and hence his credibility. To pretend otherwise is absurd.

The complaint about prejudice against private industry is another red herring, clearly intended to make the conservative knee jerk. In fact, Armstrong Williams, the first of the current batch of columnists implicated in payola scandals, had taken money from the Bush Administration. And does anyone really think that, say, Anna Quindlen would keep her job if it was revealed that she was taking money from abortion-rights groups to write pro-choice columns?

Meanwhile, DiPasquale weighs in with this:

For years liberal writers have had their books subsidized by corporations such as HarperCollins, Putnam and the like. Feminist Naomi Wolf, for instance, lived on the publishing house dole despite mediocre sales. Conservative writers, on the other hand, had to go to think tanks and Regnery (a HUMAN EVENTS sister company) to have their books published.

In Slander, HUMAN EVENTS Legal Correspondent Ann Coulter writes, “Imitating an Alzheimer’s joke, every successive conservative best-seller genuinely is a ‘surprise best-seller’ to publishers. By contrast, it’s hard to think of a single liberal book whose commercial appeal eluded publishing houses — even those that went on to spectacular failure. Gigantic book advances go to all sorts of authors — liberal historians, liberal feminists, liberal celebrities, liberal Clinton aides, liberal fighter pilots, liberal comedians. But you can be sure that enormous advances that turn out to be enormous mistakes will never be lavished on any of those ‘surprise best-sellers.’ Book advances are pure wealth transfers to liberal gabbers.”

Is being subsidized by Monsanto more corrupt than being subsidized by HarperCollins?


The only thing this pathetic self-pitying argument can do is compromise conservative writers by pegging them as likely shills. It should be noted that Murray, likewise, frames his argument in unabashedly right-vs-left terms:

FOR MANY YEARS NOW, opinion pieces have been the main vehicle by which conservatives have taken their philosophy to the American people. It was the Austrian economist and enemy of socialism F. A. Hayek who first spelled out to conservatives that they were engaged in a war of ideas. Since the rise of Reaganism, conservatives have been winning this war and the opinion pages of newspapers are one of the chief battlegrounds.

It is therefore in the Left’s interest to deny this ground to their enemy. A campaign waged against private financial ties serves not only this purpose but has proved beneficial in other ways. The acquiescence of editors and news services has enabled a sustained witch hunt. The war of ideas, unwinnable for the Left, has been replaced by a war on writers based on prejudice.

Of course, if Murray’s argument were to be taken at face value, it would logically follow that it is in the Right’s interest to undermine the most basic principles of journalistic ethics.

Part of the reason such arguments are even possible, of course, is that journalistic ethics are already in a pretty sorry state. Intellectual honesty and fairness are not highly prized virtues in opinion writing these days, and there are quite a few pundits whose commentary, whether in writing or over the airwaves, could not be more egregiously biased if it was bought and paid for. Ideological zealotry is no less detrimental to intellectual honesty than financial interest. One is reminded of the famous verse by Humbert Wolfe, written in the 1920s:


You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
Un-bribed, there’s no occasion to.


But still, one must draw the line somewhere. By Murray’s and DiPasquale’s “logic,” there is no essential difference between opinion articles and the paid “advertorials” that lobbying groups, businesses, and political organizations sometimes place in newspapers and magazines. The day I believe that, I’ll be looking for another line of work.

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Blasphemy in Denmark — and here

Last September, some cartoons about Islam published in a Danish newspaper caused serious offense to Muslims. (To see the cartoons, go here and scroll about halfway down.) A few days ago the paper apologized, but apparently not enough — the apology was for offending the feelings of Muslims but not for actually publishing the cartoons — leading to more protests and boycotts, as well as threats of violence.

The media in Muslim countries have weighed in. According to the Christian Science Monitor:

The Arab News of Saudi Arabia calls upon Denmark to legally ban religious hate speech.


Meanwhile, some European newspapers have reprinted the cartoons as a way of striking a blow for freedom of expression.

Under the headline “Yes, we have the right to caricature God”, France Soir ran a front page cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud.

It shows the Christian deity saying: “Don’t complain, Muhammad, we’ve all been caricatured here.”

The full set of Danish drawings, some of which depict the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, were printed on the inside pages.

The paper said it had decided to republish them “because no religious dogma can impose itself on a democratic and secular society.”

Or can it? Unfortunately, France Soir’s demonstration of the value of free speech ended in a fiasco: the paper published an apology and sacked its managing editor.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian Christian paper Magazinet, which also published the cartoons, then took them off its website because of threats. According to The Brussels Journal:

Magazinet also interviewed two leading Norwegian cartoonists: Finn Graff and Morten M. Kristiansen. Graff, who was known in the 1960s and ’70s for his satirical drawings of Jesus Christ, said that he does not draw pictures mocking Muhammad. He does so out of fear for Muslims, and also “out of respect.” Muslims, he said, are very sensitive about their religion and their prophet, which is something one has to take into account and one has to respect. Kristiansen said he had received many protest letters in the past whenever he mocked Christ. The same applies to cartoons about Muhammad, but lately the protest letters from Muslims had increasingly become threats, including death threats in e-mails from places such as Iran. Unlike Graff, Kristiansen said he will not change his behaviour because of these threats because it is important to defend the right to freedom of expression.

All this prompts Pieter Dorsmann to compare this to the “Piss Christ” controversy and Glenn Reynolds to comment:

The lesson is that if you want your religion not to be mocked, it helps to have a reputation for senseless violence. Is this the incentive structure we want?

That observation is, of course, quite correct. Christians who protest blasphemy generally do not threaten a violent response (though there were some bomb threats in response to a planned production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi a few years ago). But I would note that the “blasphemy as hate speech” meme is shared by quite a few conservative Christians as well; and, in some cases, this translates into sympathy for even violent Muslim backlash against perceived anti-Muslim blasphemy. Here, for instance, a Christian blogger condemns the cartoons about Islam on the grounds of disrespect:

The cartoons are clearly offensive attacks on the faith of all Muslims and it is not surprising that people are upset (if similar cartoons were drawn about Christians there would be considerable protest and outrage). Thus, it was sad to learn that one of the newspapers that published the cartoons was an evangelical Christian paper in Norway. The editor said he had received death threats and hate letters.

What did he expect? He published hate cartoons and thus should not be surprised to receive hate mail. How does this guy think he can reach out to the Muslims in Norway with the Gospel if he so grossly mocks their faith? Why must Christian newspapers publish tabloid trash? It is time for Norway’s Christians to demand the editor leave or to cancel their subscriptions.

And Pat Buchanan recently had this to offer:

When Bush speaks of freedom as God’s gift to humanity, does he mean the First Amendment freedom of Larry Flynt to produce pornography and of Salman Rushdie to publish The Satanic Verses, a book considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith? If the Islamic world rejects this notion of freedom, why is it our duty to change their thinking? Why are they wrong?

The “hate speech,” “bigotry,” and “Christian-bashing” label was slapped on the NBC show “The Book of Daniel” (canceled due to protests and boycotts), which featured an Episcopal priest with a dysfunctional family and a Jesus who urged him to be tolerant of human frailties.

I agree that cheap religion-baiting, and particularly Christian-baiting, has long been in vogue among the liberal intelligentsia, and that it can be very juvenile and tiresome. But there is something dangerous, in my view, about the idea that certain beliefs are beyond criticism, even disrespectful criticism (or irreverent reinterpretation).

Once, in illiberal and authoritarian times, blasphemy was outlawed as an offense to God and the authority of churches. Now, we are hearing calls to outlaw blasphemy as an offense to human sensibilities based on group identity.

In attacking “The Book of Daniel,” Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition urged the entertainment industry to treat Christians with the same respect it treats Muslims and Jews. I don’t know about Jews; but if the Danish cartoons saga is an example, the way Western societies today treat speech deemed offensive to Muslims is precisely the wrong way to approach speech about religion.

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