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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Wickedness and Stupidity

Christopher Hitchens has reverted to his Trotskyite roots in his support of Obama and his pillorying of McCain-Palin. I've made no secret that I'm inclined to like Hitchens. He tends to be careful with his facts, for all that his interpretation may be skewed, and his style is flawless. For all his surly contempt for much of what I adhere to, and his curmudgeonly self-complacency that amounts to an apparent lack of introspection, he seems tormented, in an unmeasurable sense, and that attracts me. It must be the torment that lies in his postmortem. Poor atheist. His latest deviation from my favor has do to with his attack on Sarah.

Complaining about the insubstantial nature of this campaign season, and in such dire times, Hitchens focuses on the right: "it didn't seem possible that things could go any lower or get any dumber. But they did last Friday, when, at a speech in Pittsburgh, Gov. Sarah Palin denounced wasteful expenditure on fruit-fly research, adding for good xenophobic and anti-elitist measure that some of this research took place 'in Paris, France' and winding up with a folksy 'I kid you not.'" Context here.

Yes yes, fruit flies are very useful in research. Genetics, and autism, and agriculture, and "Evolutionary" "science", what with all those mutations that are always turning inert matter into slime mold and us and stuff. Only an ignoramus would argue against using fruit flies in research.

"In this case, it could be argued, Palin was not just being a fool in her own right but was following a demagogic lead set by the man who appointed her as his running mate." McCain complains about the waste of doing multi-million dollar DNA studies on grizzly bears -- ignorant because such studies are useful in tracking this endangered species.

Hitchens is not wrong to complain about McCain's fiscal conservatism. Hitchens is, after all, a leftist, in absolute favor of a centralized government doing the job that a federalist system would leave to states or private enterprise. He is wrong, however, to characterize the conservative position as foolish or ignorant or any other insulting term. Is it emotionality? Lack of imagination? Self-righteousness? Doesn't really matter what it is. It's ad hominem. Our disagreement is not proof of stupidity, on either side. Surely Hitchens knows this?

"With Palin, however, the contempt for science may be something a little more sinister than the bluff, empty-headed plain-man's philistinism of McCain. ...she is known to favor the teaching of creationism in schools (smuggling this crazy idea through customs in the innocent disguise of 'teaching the argument,' as if there was an argument), and so it is at least probable that she believes all creatures from humans to fruit flies were created just as they are now."

I'm very tempted to think that a man as generally perspicacious as Hitchens must be dishonest in such a bald statement. She probably "believes all creatures from humans to fruit flies were created just as they are now"? Is he so uninformed about the positions held by his philosophical opponents? The elegance of his prose hides the rank, the stinking bigotry. Halloween is the time for strawmen, but not in our arguments, please.

Allow me to clarify, Mr. Hitchens. I once wrote a book on the evidence of Evolutionism, and I expect that the evidence and arguments have not changed since I stopped paying attention to the matter. Natural selection may be called a theory, but it's as certain as the theory of relativity. They are laws. The "theory" of Evolution is not even a reputable hypothesis. A theory, according to Karl Popper, must meet certain stringent conditions, such as that it must make predictions, the results of which are observable -- again, it must forbid certain outcomes. It boils down to testability, which amounts to falsifiability. No theory can explain everything, anymore than no word can mean everything. Definitions, like laws, are limits.

Application: relativity forbids faster-than-light movement. Natural selection forbids expression of genes not included in a given gene pool. Evolution forbids ... uh, it forbids ... well, nothing. It supposes that mutations invent information, regardless of the fact that in any other intellectual discipline, information cannot be generated randomly -- and by this Evolutionary and random invention of information, the only necessary ingredient, for anything to become anything else, is time. If there were indeed an infinite amount of time, an argument might be made -- it wouldn't stand, since there are other negating factors, but it might be made. The making of such an argument doesn't make Evolutionists idiots. It just makes them anti-scientific -- you know, ignoring facts and well-established principles so that they might continue to believe their dogmas about origins and destiny -- you know, creation and eternity ... their, uh, religion.

So, fruit flies. Is Sarah Palin truly the sub-middle-brow Hitchens paints her as? Is she uninformed not only about science, but her own quasi-religious position? The question is actually irrelevant, because the issue isn't about science or religion, but about the role of government in the lives of citizens. Should the federal government be funding such specific research? And if so, should our national government be financing the research of or in foreign nations? Well, it does fund it. Should it? It does. But should it? Conservatives and federalists would tend to say, no -- the Constitution, and therefore the federal government, is about the general welfare. Contrariwise, the Left says, yes. Which of these positions is so wrong that those who hold it should be libeled? I suggest, neither.

Therefore, for shame, Mr. Hitchens.

Hitchens pretends to suppose her position is that "Projects such as sequencing the DNA of the flu virus, the better to inoculate against it, would not need to be funded. We could all expire happily in the name of God." I won't touch on the logical fallacies of his rhetoric -- he must be aware of them, if not consciously. It's hard though, isn't it, to argue against someone else's religion, without revealing your own.

"Gov. Palin also says that she doesn't think humans are responsible for global warming; again, one would like to ask her whether, like some of her co-religionists, she is a 'premillenial dispensationalist'—in other words, someone who believes that there is no point in protecting and preserving the natural world, since the end of days will soon be upon us." To misunderstand a position is one thing. To misstate it, while pretending to authority in the matter, is something else. I barely remember whether or not I am a "premillenial dispensationalist." I think I am. But in any case, it must be a rare and cult-like theology, that declares invalid one of God's very first commandments, to be stewards of the earth. I know of no mainstream church that subscribes to such a position.

Is it deliberate, this twisting of the other side's position? I'm really thinking that it must be. If not, it's still scurrilously irresponsible. I froze out the reprehensible Jon Stewart because of his filthy rudeness to a guest on his show. Hitchens is at least as rude, but it's not face to face, and that does make a difference. Don't pretend it doesn't. Courage is one thing, rudeness is another, and the frankness (such as it is) with which we speak is another yet again.

Ah well. Hitchens supposes there is a "widely held" belief "that some parts of the world will end at different times from others..." I had thought I was up on my eschatology. Can't even imagine how one part of the world could end before another. What a strange idea. Crackpot, even. There must be some ambiguity at play here, in the word "world". Surely if Hitchens and I put our collective intellects to work on the problem, we might puzzle out what could be meant. Should I email him?

In the meantime, Hitchens will no doubt continue to characterize beliefs that differ from his own as gruesome and extreme. He may continue to be dismayed regarding the practice of anointing, as by an "African bishop who claims to cast out witches." He might continue to characterize the doctrine of "spiritual warfare" as "hysterical superstitious nonsense".

"This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus." Fanatic. Proud. Boastful. Ignoramus. Words, Mr. Hitchens, have meaning. Nothing in your essay has demonstrated the truth of such charges. Your emotion has made you spiteful.

"Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured." Most probably, this is a true statement. Its application here is corrupt. Those "who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just 'people of faith' but theocratic bullies." I imagine that those who "prate" might indeed be "bullies". Again, the present application is corrupt.

"On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity." Wickedness is an inherently moralistic term, and morality always makes recourse to a standard outside of oneself. Hitchens must appeal to his cronies, for agreement in his judgment. We would like to suppose that the rightness of our positions depends on something somewhat broader than those who read from the exact same catechism as ourselves.

As for stupidity, the term must refer, first and foremost, to those who refuse to make any allowance for the integrity of those who disagree with them.

One final point. The Slate website where Hitchens' essay appears has a policy regarding comments. "Don't abuse anyone, including the writers..." Hitchens: "lower ... dumber ... xenophobic ... anti-elitist ... fool ... demagogic ... appointed her ... contempt for science ... sinister ... empty-headed ... philistinism ... crazy idea ... crackpot ... gruesome ... extreme ... hysterical superstitious nonsense ... fanatic ... proud, boastful ignoramus ... morally and intellectually slothful ... secretly envious ... prate ... bullies ... wickedness and stupidity..." The point? Draw your own conclusions.


J

4 comments:

Peter said...

Check out this "Palin appearance" last week in Ohio, and listen to the intelligent remarks make by her audience:

http://tinyurl.com/57r33g

Jack H said...

Yes, excellent point, regarding some other theme. And thanks for that video produced by al-Jezeera. But your reasoning is interesting. Because some people have opinions you don't like, or wrong ideas, therefore Palin is bad. Sort of a guilt by association thing. Oh. Wait. You wouldn't want to go there, would you. That whole Ayers thing. And Rezco. And Wright. And Flanigan.

But she's so dumb anyway, right? Good point. Well made. You Slate folks is the bomb. Thanks for the "hits".

[Y'see, I left a link at Slate, seeing as how it was about Hitchens' piece. Hope I don't get on some hate list now.]


J

cbz said...

This was great ~ thanks for writing something that digs a little deeper toward truth. You are a gifted writer.
~ C.

Jack H said...

Thank you kindly. I linked it at State, as I said, and have gotten only some pretty superficial responses. How odd.

That thread is here:

http://fray.slate.com/discuss/forums/thread/2023261.aspx?ArticleID=2203120