The banana nightmare again

The comments on the previous post were to interesting. What sparked my question about the meaning of “faith” and its distinction from belief was the following (again from the Washington Post religion discussion).

>Too Soon For Genuine Believer-Atheist Dialogue?

>When I became an atheist during my first year of college (thanks to my leftover high school obsession with Ayn Rand, and subsequent introduction to Sartre and Camus), I talked about the utter absurdity of believing in a divinity to anyone who cared to listen, and to a number of others (including my Catholic mother) who did not.

>I was as zealous in my atheism as a new convert in her chosen faith.

>Atheism is a belief system like any other—a religion of sorts in its own right. Dialogue between different believers is possible only when each person (or group) is not only ready to leave their unbridled enthusiasm for personal convictions aside, at least for a time and for the purposes of conversation, but also when each party concludes that a dialogue has value.

>Dialogue between atheists and believers is no different than dialogue between members of two different faith traditions. If both parties come to the table, as scholar Sandra Schneiders suggests, “as onto a field of battle,” with one’s “tradition as shield against heresy or paganism or, worse yet, as a sword with which to vanquish the other,” then open, productive conversation is impossible. If each party enters “undefended,” however—not altogether without their belief system, but with the conviction that conversation is not to destroy or even best the other’s thinking and rather to find common ground and exchange what is of consequence—then true, productive dialogue has a solid foundation.

>In the initial fervor of my atheism, I entered all conversation about faith with swords blazing—in much the same (and unfortunate) style of The O’Reilly Factor,where people come to the table not for dialogue, but for war. It was a good while before the fires of my atheism died down enough for me to a) be willing to truly listen to another side of the conversation, and b) desire the dialogue itself because it might be important to engage it.

>The perception that atheism is enjoying a kind of “vogue” at the moment comes only from the fact that Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and most recently Letter to a Christian Nation, coupled with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, each have enjoyed a healthy stay on the bestseller list. But good atheist reads have long been widely available and are wildly popular in the classroom—anything by Sartre or Ayn Rand will do—and many a college student boasts a well-worn copy of some classic atheistic text or other (The Fountainhead is my personal favorite).

>Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation implies a desire for dialogue in its very format. A letter is an address, an attempt to grasp the attention of another party. In this case it appears as a plea for Christians to attend a worldview distinct from their own. Whether or not Mr. Harris has garnered the attention of this intended audience, and in a way that’s productive, not condescending, is another question. Most people I know who are purchasing Harris’s books (and Dawkins’ for that matter) are devout atheists themselves, excited to finally see their belief system get some popular press.

>Whether we, as a country, are not only ready but desirous of this sort of “inter-religious” conversation, as true dialogue and not as a standoff between two irreconcilable parties, remains to be seen.

Let’s assume this was posted as a comment to the previous discussion–comments anyone? Again, Happy New Year.

Let it ride

Those of you who find religion interesting might find the following piece by Cal Thomas worth a look.

>The Atheist Wager

>I wonder about the question. Why is it “in vogue” to disbelieve in a Creator of the universe, who loves us and wants to have a relationship with us and not “in vogue” to believe?

>Anyway, of course I have conversations with atheists everyday, though I do not always know of their unbelief unless they tell me. We can talk about everything, or nothing. I know some atheists who are pro-life (though they have an inadequate base for being so). That’s because if God is not the Author of life, then we are evolutionary accidents who may treat each other as we please.

>In conversing with an atheist, it is important to understand that such a person will never be brought to faith by information alone, because the same information is available to everyone. If information were sufficient to make a believer out of an atheist, then all would believe.

>It takes more faith not to believe in God than to believe in Him. It is also intellectually lazy. You have to believe the vastness of the universe “happened” without a Designer and that unique things like fingerprints and snowflakes occurred by pure chance.

>An atheist wagers his or her present and eternal future that he or she is right. If the atheist is right and there is no God, there are no consequences. But if the atheist is wrong and there is a God and a Heaven for those who come to Him on His terms, and a Hell for those who reject Him, then that has the most important consequences.

>I do not have the power to persuade anyone that God is, but I can demonstrate the difference He has made in my life and relationships – including with atheists – and pray that the One who brought me to belief will do so with them.

We’re not going to comment, as many have already on the original site.

Happy New to our readers.

Blogging is said in many ways

George Will hates blogging. Today he writes:

>Richard Stengel, Time’s managing editor, says, “Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger” and “Ben Franklin was essentially loading his persona into the MySpace of the 18th century, ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack.’ ” Not exactly.

>Franklin’s extraordinary persona informed what he wrote but was not the subject of what he wrote. Paine was perhaps history’s most consequential pamphleteer. There are expected to be 100 million bloggers worldwide by the middle of 2007, which is why none will be like Franklin or Paine. Both were geniuses; genius is scarce. Both had a revolutionary civic purpose, which they accomplished by amazing exertions. Most bloggers have the private purpose of expressing themselves for their own satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is nothing demanding or especially admirable about it, either. They do it successfully because there is nothing singular about it, and each is the judge of his or her own success.

Perhaps Mr.Will does not know that Blogging, like being, is said in many ways. There’s the being of existence, the being of predication, the being of identity and so on. Just because you say something is x, does not mean that that something exists. And only a sophist would claim the meanings of being are fundamentally the same.

Now blogging. In one way, blogging refers to those who blog for themselves, their friends, neighbors, and strangers. It’s certainly a phenomenon worth analysis, but it’s fundamentally different from the other kind of blogging. The other kind of blogging–the one Stengel was talking about to–refers to those who blog with a civic purpose. So, just as you can’t confuse the various senses of “being”; you shouldn’t also confuse the various senses of blogging. You can’t critique “civic bloggers” who post about politics (or in our case, arguments about politics) because other bloggers post pictures of themselves naked, or worse. That would be like criticizing George Will because some other conservative op-ed writers publish uniformed or weakly reasoned opinions in newspapers. And we know that’s wrong.

Old, tired, ineffectual

E.J. Dionne, liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes:

>In 1984 three exit polls pegged Ronald Reagan’s share of the ballots cast by Americans under 30 at between 57 and 60 percent. Reagan-style conservatism seemed fresh, optimistic and innovative. In 2006 voters under 30 gave 60 percent of their votes to Democratic House candidates, according to the shared media exit poll. Conservatism now looks old, tired and ineffectual.

Those two exit polls don’t establish the claim that conservatism is “old, tired and ineffectual.” Sadly, however, these are the only hard facts cited in the piece. The rest is a series of do-you-remember-whens about NASCAR and evangelical Christianity, how once they seemed ascendant, now they seem reactionary–or, old, tired, and ineffectual. Dionne writes:

>Now the chic medium is televised political comedy and the cool commentators are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Even though their political fortunes have certainly changed with the recent elections, lots of people still listen to Rush Limbaugh. And the recent election is a phenomenon far too complex to be handled in such a superficial, E-Network kind of way. Besides, the Reagan election comparison is at best a misleading one–and you can’t place it alongside the most recent midterm election without covering over enormous differences (the current disastrous war, scandals, the Katrina disaster, and so on).

As we constantly say of the conservative political media, at least they argue for their positions. While they may argue badly (as we have documented here), at least the advance reasons for positions, rather than nearly fact-free meta-commentary of the political entertainment complex. That, if anything, is old, tired and ineffectual.

No comment

Here’s one from Jonah Goldberg that speaks for itself:

>Pinochet’s abuses helped create a civil society. Once the initial bloodshed subsided, Chile was no prison. Pinochet built up democratic institutions and infrastructure. And by implementing free-market reforms, he lifted the Chilean people out of poverty. In 1988 he held a referendum and stepped down when the people voted him out. Yes, he feathered his nest from the treasury and took measures to protect himself from his enemies. His list of sins–both venal and moral–is long. But today Chile is a thriving, healthy democracy. Its economy is the envy of Latin America, and its literacy and infant mortality rates are impressive.

By the way, I’m a big believer in competence and expertise in matters of war and peace. So here’s a little bet that Goldberg made in February 2005 with Juan Cole:

>Anyway, I do think my judgment is superior to his when it comes to the big picture. So, I have an idea: Since he doesn’t want to debate anything except his own brilliance, let’s make a bet. I predict that Iraq won’t have a civil war, that it will have a viable constitution, and that a majority of Iraqis and Americans will, in two years time, agree that the war was worth it. I’ll bet $1,000 (which I can hardly spare right now). This way neither of us can hide behind clever word play or CV reading. If there’s another reasonable wager Cole wants to offer which would measure our judgment, I’m all ears. Money where your mouth is, doc. One caveat: Because I don’t think it’s right to bet on such serious matters for personal gain, if I win, I’ll donate the money to the USO. He can give it to the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or whatever his favorite charity is.

It’s been almost two years.

So, a Straw Man walks into a bar

We have frequently pointed out how the desire to be funny is often at odds with the desire for logical rigor. This is nicely illustrated in Michael Kinsley’s opinion piece today in the Washington Post. Kinsley claims that there has been a tendency towards wishful thinking in dealing with the conflict created by the double-dealing Balfour Agreement.

>This tradition continues in the Iraq Study Group report, which declared: “There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts” as a small warm-up for tackling the problem of Iraq.

Rather than critique this proposal directly, Kinsely makes little of it with humor:

>What a good idea! And then we’ll cure cancer, to pave the way for health care reform. Why, of course all of humanity should put down its weapons and learn to live together in harmony and siblinghood — most especially in the Holy Land, birthplace of three great religions (so far). In fact it is downright inexplicable that peace and goodwill have not broken out spontaneously in the Middle East, even though this has never happened anywhere else either.

Of course, if we read the ISG’s sentence they merely claim that the U.S. should make a sustained commitment to this peace. But such an idea is absurd to Kinsley, so he foregoes any attempt to deal with it seriously.

The remainder of Kinsley’s piece involves a somewhat bizarre and forced attempt to deny President Carter’s suggestion that there is an analogy between South Africa’s Apartheid and certain Israeli policies on the basis of technical differences.

If we were to turn Kinsley’s tactic upon him, we might cast his argument as claiming that “Israel and South Africa had different tax codes so how could they be similar?”

See, it’s easy when you don’t think you need to treat the other’s argument seriously.


None but the delusional at this point can claim that invading Iraq was anything but a mistake: a colossal error of moral judgment, an arrogant and uncritical analysis of our own motives, and a shallow examination of facts. Those who correctly argued it was a mistake before it happened–the “Cassandras”–haven’t yet been sufficiently praised. On the other hand, those who made the shallow case for war, and impugned the intelligence, sanity, courage, and patriotism of those who didn’t, continue to appear as experts on the TV and in the newspaper. They got it wrong the first time–really really wrong–but despite this they still weigh in now on how to fix it or the lessons to be drawn. Who says Americans do not forgive?

One of these experts is Robert Kagan. Today he considers the lessons not to be drawn from this war:

>The problem for those who have tried to steer the United States away from its long history of expansiveness, then and now, is that Americans’ belief in the possibility of global transformation — the “messianic” impulse — is and always has been the more dominant strain in the nation’s character. It is rooted in the nation’s founding principles and is the hearty offspring of the marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness.

>Critics have occasionally succeeded in checking these tendencies, temporarily. Failures of world-transforming efforts overseas have also had their effect, but only briefly. Five years after the end of the Vietnam War, which seemed to many to presage the rejection of Achesonian principles of power and ideological triumphalism, Americans elected Ronald Reagan, who took up those principles again with a vengeance.

>Today many hope and believe that the difficulties in Iraq will turn Americans once and for all against ambition and messianism in the world. History is not on their side.

Whatever is going on in Iraq, “difficulties” doesn’t quite do it justice. In its original iteration, Iraq had nothing to do with messianism, and everything to do with 9/11 and the hysteria over terrorism. But for those who argued for the parallel claim that Iraq could be remade on the American model, just because democratic messianism has long been a dominant strain in American foreign policy rhetoric, not necessarily its reality, does not, as the death, destruction and resentment caused by Iraq amply demonstrate, mean that it should be.

Great Principles

I think The Howler has done an admirable job of disassembling the straight-talk meme that surrounds John McCain, so I’ll just direct you there (look at the archives). But now the straight talk express has a new passenger–George Will. At issue is what to do about the horrible mess that is Iraq. About this, Will says:

>At long last, rigor. McCain applies two principles of moral reasoning. There can be no moral duty to attempt what cannot be done. And: If you will an end, you must will the means to that end.

While the first doesn’t strike me as problematic, it doesn’t strike me as obvious. I’m bothered by the “cannot be done,” especially with reference to Iraq. What we initially attempted probably could not have been done, at least with the means we were willing to employ, but you go to war with the army you have, as someone once said. So baring a sense of “cannot” as logical impossibility, or extreme unlikelihood, I can’t say the first is obvious.

The second principle, however, seems vacuous. You cannot will things that you do not will to take place. In order for things to take place, actions–the means–must be employed to bring them about. So while you must will some means, you do not necessarily will any specific means (such as, in the case under discussion, increasing the number of troops in Iraq). This means that if you seek the end of violence in Iraq, you do not will the solutions offered by John McCain–i.e., more troops.

So while you must will some means to bring about your end, it doesn’t follow from that principle that you will the only means being offered. And so the two principles of moral reasoning leave us where we began.


Last week, George Will demonstrated yet again his contempt for honest discussion. He selectively quoted Jim Webb’s discussion with President Bush in order to make the Senator-elect from Virginia look like a boor. But luckily one can easily double-check the facts and the context. While this quote-picking is primarily a factual question, insofar as it’s an attempt to edit the words of another to weaken their position, it’s a straw man tactic. Consider, then, the following:

>Until June, the school district’s Web site declared that “cultural racism” includes “emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology,” “having a future time orientation” (planning ahead) and “defining one form of English as standard.” The site also asserted that only whites can be racists, and disparaged assimilation as the “giving up” of one’s culture. After this propaganda provoked outrage, the district, saying it needed to “provide more context to readers” about “institutional racism,” put up a page saying that the district’s intention is to avoid “unsuccessful concepts such as a melting pot or colorblind mentality.”

In the first place it’s hard to check this because that content is no longer available. In light of his recent behavior, we cannot presume that Will has been fair or honest in his representation of the content of that page. Since Will’s intention in writing an op-ed ought to be to convince one who disagrees with him rather than inflame the passions of those who share his view, he should engage the substance of the opposition’s view. So he should present a longer unredacted section of text. If space does not permit it, then perhaps he should reconsider the way he makes his case.

Civil distortion

Eliding can be economical, but it can also be distortion. When it is, it’s wrong. Take this from the master of civility himself, George Will:

>Wednesday’s Post reported that at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb “tried to avoid President Bush,” refusing to pass through the reception line or have his picture taken with the president. When Bush asked Webb, whose son is a Marine in Iraq, “How’s your boy?” Webb replied, “I’d like to get them [sic] out of Iraq.” When the president again asked “How’s your boy?” Webb replied, “That’s between me and my boy.”

He says this in order to demonstrate Webb’s incivility.

>Webb certainly has conveyed what he is: a boor. Never mind the patent disrespect for the presidency. Webb’s more gross offense was calculated rudeness toward another human being — one who, disregarding many hard things Webb had said about him during the campaign, asked a civil and caring question, as one parent to another.

But the incivility here is Will’s, since he distorts the Post article he refers to as evidence of Webb’s rudeness:

>At a recent White House reception for freshman members of Congress, Virginia’s newest senator tried to avoid President Bush. Democrat James Webb declined to stand in a presidential receiving line or to have his picture taken with the man he had often criticized on the stump this fall. But it wasn’t long before Bush found him.

>”How’s your boy?” Bush asked, referring to Webb’s son, a Marine serving in Iraq.

>”I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.

>“That’s not what I asked you,” Bush said. “How’s your boy?”

>”That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President,” Webb said coldly, ending the conversation on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House.

The emphasized portion is missing from Will’s account (even though his op-ed links to it). The boor, in this account, is Bush, not Webb. Webb’s response makes it obvious how his boy–and many other boys and girls–is doing: not very well, wanting to leave, wanting to come home.

A more tactful President could have said simply, “so do I.”