Monthly Archives: February 2006

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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The "9/10 mentality" in action

Sorry about the extremely light blogging the past few days; work has kept me unexpectedly busy.

Among the things I’ve missed: this January 28 New York Times op-ed by historian Joseph J. Ellis. called “Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History.”

Ellis writes that the debates unfolding today about foreign and domestic policy are taking place in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, and therefore he wants to address some historical questions about that day.

My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.

My second question is this: What does history tell us about our earlier responses to traumatic events?

My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the “quasi-war” with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950’s, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing.

Ellis concludes:

[I]t defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency.

I largely agree with the second tier of Ellis’s argument. We should always stay vigilant about the danger of sacrificing our national values to national security panic. But the first tier, unfortunately, undercuts his position.

Three of the letters published in today’s Times in response to Ellis make the point excellently.

To the Editor:

Our elected officials and the political process could benefit from a healthy discussion of the context and misjudgments in the Alien and Sedition Acts, Japanese-American internment and McCarthy scare tactics.

This is less likely to occur if we are asked to stake our nation and our lives on comparisons between the current terrorist threat and largely nonanalogous events that occurred 50 or more years ago — before the Internet, cellphones, plastic explosives, portable nuclear weapons and the rise of Islamic radicalism.

Nor is a balanced debate stimulated by Joseph J. Ellis’s assertion that terrorism places our “lives and lifestyles at risk,” but “does not threaten the survival of the American Republic.”

This presumes on the future impact of terrorism, an area in which none of us should feel much confidence in our own clairvoyance.

Steven A. Grossman
Silver Spring, Md., Jan. 29, 2006

To the Editor:

Joseph J. Ellis contends that 9/11 did not “pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American Republic,” though the burning of the capital in the War of 1812 qualifies.

The attack on 9/11 was a watershed event, one that also included plans to destroy our Capitol and its occupants. What would it take for Mr. Ellis to understand the significance of that attack: the detonation of a nuclear weapon?

I will take our response any day over his apparent preference for “complacency.”

Ronald K. Sable
Tucson, Jan. 28, 2006

The writer was a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for national security affairs.

To the Editor:

Joseph J. Ellis’s ethnocentric view doesn’t take into account that 9/11 is part of a broader string of deadly events in the international arena; unlike the War of Independence and the Civil War, 9/11 is part of a string of bombings around the world ranging from Bali, Northern Africa and Central Asia to London and Madrid.

Sept. 11 does not signify a national threat; it is a globalized one. It was the crowning achievement of Al Qaeda not only against America but also against the free world. Sept. 11’s place in American history will be surpassed only in its place in international history.

Elise M. Stefanik
Washington, Jan. 29, 2006

The writer, a senior at Harvard, is an undergraduate fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.


No, the 9/11 attacks per se did not endanger the Republic (though it is worth remembering that the terrorists may have been only a few brave people on United Flight 93 away from destroying the Capitol). But as a declaration of war on America, and a signal that international terror had come to our shores, it was surely a turning point. (Another Times letter-writer points to Pearl Harbor as an analogy: the Pearl Harbor attack per se did not imperil America, either.)

Have we on various occasions overreacted to security threats, in the process harming not only innocent people but our freedom as well? Yes. Should we stay complacent about the use of national security threat to justify government power grabs? Absolutely not. But calling for “complacency” about the significance of 9/11 can only play into the hands of those who would use 9/11 to justify infringements on freedom and abuses of power.


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