Tag Archives: Salon

An ultimately unpersuasive response to my new atheism argument

Salon has posted a riposte to my piece. I (unsurprisingly) find it unpersuasive. Here are some thoughts. Luciano argues that,

While creationism is certainly quackery, I take issue with the idea that it is not a religious belief. Creationism is a religious belief by definition. It is the idea that god created the universe and animals in their current form less than 10,000 years ago. This may not be McElwee’s belief, but it is certainly the belief of Ham and millions of other Christians. If McElwee truly believes that young earth creationism is not a religious belief, I challenge him to produce a scientist who rejects the creation account in Genesis, but is nonetheless a young earth creationist.

I think the problem here is that Luciano thinks a statement can either be religious or scientific. I would disagree with him that creationism is religious in the same way I imagine he would disagree (rightly) with me if I said that Lysenkoism was scientific. Religion becomes quackery when it tries to make assertions about the repeatable, observable functioning of the natural world (i.e. a scientific claim).

Luciano notes, “Second, the ‘modern man’ is actually more moral than his predecessors.” I bring this up only because it was only recently that I predicted we would hear this line more often from the new atheist crowd (I address the use of the term NA in a footnote). That’s because NA is not in fact a defense of non-religion, but rather western imperialism. It is the new “Oreintalism” and like the old Oreintalism, it has only the scantest knowledge of the tradition it attacks.

He argues next,

However, the reality is that religion conveys no more wisdom on people than say, Aesop’s fables. But in fairness to Aesop, no one has ever cited his works as justification for irrational hatred and violence. The idea that religion is the only thing keeping people from moral nihilism is easily debunked by the fact that there are millions of people who reject religion yet lead moral lives.

Luciano does not realize that he has given religion the highest of praise! Here is the story of Kassie Neou, a human rights advocate from a Cambodia, during his time in a KR prison cell, as relayed by Samantha Power in A Problem From Hell:  

Captured nonetheless, Neou was tortured five times and spent six months in a KR prison with thirty-six other inmates. Of the thirty-seven who were bound together with iron clasps, only Neou’s hope of survival was rewarded. The young guards executed the others but spared him because they had gown fond of the Aesop’s fables he told them as bedtime stories.

This is the profound impact that a simple story can have on even the most deprived and violent individuals. It is no surprise that Christ, Buddha and Muhammad make ample use of metaphor, parable and analogy. I would argue that the truth’s within Nietzsche, Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Christ are at least as important as the truths found in Darwin and Gould, even if the former cannot be tested in any way other than being lived.

Luciano expounds on the violence point by ending his piece with the Weinberg quote I have regularly lampooned: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This is the sentiment of an educated. white. man. If I persuade my readers of nothing else, I hope to persuade them that the utter humiliation and degradation of deprivation is a far more powerful impetus to evil than belief in the metaphysical. This has been my argument from the beginning, and I stand by it. Religious extremism, and to a large extent, religion itself, is a reaction to the broader political and economic forces within society.

Note: So apparently calling an atheist a “new atheist” is a slur: “First, I have never heard anyone refer to himself as a “New Atheist.” As far as I can tell, it is most commonly intended as a smear by believers and accommodationists – those who believe there is a common ground to be had between religion and science.” It then falls to me to develop a neologism. I think “evangelical atheist” will suffice.*

* I jest of course, “new atheist” is here to stay. It stuck in a way “bright” didn’t and it describes an important zeitgeist. It has been used by neutral sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and atheists themselves.


In which I belatedly respond to an old response to me

Now that I am using this blog to respond to my critics, I figure I’ll respond to a piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger someone reminded me of earlier this week. I think I may have stumbled upon it before but I didn’t take a deep read. It’s called, “Someone at Salon has to look up ‘plagiarism’ in the dictionary” by Paul Mulshine and it’s ostensibly a response to this piece that I wrote.

The piece starts off as a general argument about my examples of possible Rand Paul plagiarism. I think that’s good. We need a discussion of what constitutes plagiarism. I think that in general we’re too quick to pull the trigger and I also think that the consequences for plagiarism are too strict. That’s because of my ideas about how innovation happens. More on this with my Hicks/Leary piece. But this piece with Salon wasn’t a think piece – it wasn’t an investigation of what plagiarism is, it’s reporting on something in Rand Paul’s speeches. So is it plagiarism? Mulshine argues it’s not. Others might argue that it is. We could talk about whether the media should even be concerned about this. We also might argue if just the weird anti-Muslim bullshit in the speech is the real problem (I think it probably is, and it’s a wildly naive reading of Islam).

But the piece doesn’t end there, where it easily could have and maybe we could have debate about why (and if) we should worry about plagiarism and whether we judge plagiarists too harshly. A lot of accusations revolve around the sort of petty stuff that happened in the Rand Paul speeches, and he’d have been safer if he had just cited sources. Whatever, that’s not going to happen, because Mulshine next comes after me:

I’m sure you could find similar examples on the site of Sean McElwee, one of the authors of this attack. But first let’s have some fun with his amateurish use of the English language in this attack on us right-wingers for our alleged social Darwinism: In Sinclair Lewis’s, Babbitt, George Babbitt describes the tenants of social Darwinism, The “tenants” of social Darwinism? Did these guys rent a house from Herbert Spencer?

That’s from an older post I originally wrote for the Demos Policyshop blog (which doesn’t have an intense editing process) and then got picked up by Huffpost and it ended up (as all my pieces do) on my blog. I wrote it in probably two hours and it was posted shortly after that. When I look over my old pieces, I often find an embarrassing grammatical error or a weirdly written sentence and I think, “glad nobody caught that.” Generally when people do, it’s a nice person who informs me over Twitter and I update. Now it’s Mulshine. The reason I don’t worry about grammar when I’m blogging is because I think this is about arguments. I’m trying to persuade my readers. So the piece Mulshine is citing I argue that because the country has become more predatory, social Darwinism  has re-emerged on the right. It had subsided and now, Rand/Spencer/Sumner are back. So I wanted to correct that.

Okay, so does my admittedly improper use of “tenets” weaken that argument? Of course not. If I had an editor, or double-checked my shit, that wouldn’t have happened. But this is happening more and more in the blog world. We write thousands of words each day. It there will be a shitload of people reading the piece, I’ll edit it and read it over a few times, but really, I don’t fret too much. If I write a book, sure, but I like this quote from Lin Yutang, “An American editor worries his hair gray to see that no typographical mistakes appear on his pages. The Chinese editor is wiser than that – he leaves his reader the supreme satisfaction of discovering a few typographical mistakes for themselves.”

I’ll be honest, I used to be a grammar stickler and had I written essays back then, I probably would have called people out. If I catch a grammatical error in a piece I’m responding to and I’m low on arguments, maybe I’ll throw it out. But let’s be honest, it’s a juvenile tactic. It”s not aimed at responding to your opponent’s argument, but rather undermining their credibility. I don’t know what the point of noting the “tenet”/”tenant” distinction, since Mulshine doesn’t respond to that piece or anything, so it just kinda seems like he’s trying to discredit me. Cool.

Next up we have this:

And we also see in this Salon article McElwee writing about Bill Clinton “shredding the social safety net.” Do a Google search on that phrase and you’ll find it has been used many times before. Does that make McElwee a plagiarist? Nope. It just makes him a writer who uses cliches – which is just as bad in its own way. (Though I will grant he has a good point about Hillary’s weakness as a Democratic presidential candidate.)

Whoa! Am I a plagiarist for adding a specific gerund to the term “social safety net”? So here’s why I think plagiarism is so tough to call – you can’t prove their wasn’t simultaneous discovery, that two other people just happened to write the same words. That’s why accusations generally rely on a few cases of a writer using the same language. Thankfully, Mulshine absolves me of the charge. Instead, my failure was cliche. Ah, Mulshine has been reading his Orwell! Okay, but again, were’ talking about a gerund and a noun. I could use another gerund: eroding, cutting, eliminating, destroying, weakening. I imagine writers have probably used all of those.

It’s worth noting that the right is famous for playing “politics with the English language.” They have militarized cliche (Mulshine, I promise I just came up with that on my lonesome. No Google or nothing! Are you proud?). See: estate tax/death tax, IPAB/Death Panel, rich assholes/job creators. Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant said, ““There’s a simple rule. You say it again, and you say it again and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”)”

So then, after the short, “Fuck Sean” aside, we get back to the issue at hand, plagiarism. Remember, I reported this story, I wasn’t interested in passing judgement on an academic definition of plagiarism. But I’ll try. Here’s Mulshine’s definition of what constitute plagiarism:

“The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” Unless you think Rand Paul was implying that he himself had been to Iran and Kenya and witnessed those atrocities up close, then you have to conclude there was no intention to mislead the reader about factual material that was, quite obviously, first reported by someone else. And that someone was not at the Gatestone Institute. Paul has not stolen their work because they didn’t do any. Some unknown reporter did the work that both paraphrased.

But wait. Rand Paul didn’t pass off the reporting as his own. Rather, he used the aggregation of the instances as his own. He’s using the work of the Gatestone guy (Raymond Ibrahim) who collected these examples together and made Paul’s speechwriter’s lives easier. That’s tough work, I know, I’ve done it. And if the anecdotes I collected had been used by a politician, I would think it was a dick move if he didn’t cite me. There’s a power dynamic here, which one Mulshine’s sources notes. One percenters jack other peoples stuff all time, so we’re used to it. Maybe this is a time to talk about the one percent being totally overrated. See here.

So yeah, he took this guy’s work and could (and should  have cited him). But this is clearly a minor instance and might be better characterized as a general “slothfulness” or “laziness” with the Paul team. Citing stuff in speeches is weird too. Don’t really want to go into it. I think Paul would be safest if he added footnotes to his transcripts, which he does now.

But, as it happens, when you get passed the unnecessary nastiness, Mulshine and I, surprisingly, agree. Here’s how he ends:

At the moment, Paul is in a very public struggle with our governor for what most would assume is the role of front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. If you want to judge him, judge him on his ideas. Compare those to Chris Christie’s.

Agreed. That’s what I was saying above (in this post). I don’t want to go deep into this, but holy shit that speech is offensive. I mean seriously. Here’s a quote:

But the truth is, there is a worldwide war on Christians by a fanatical element of Islam.

Ever since 9/11, commentators have tried to avoid pointing fingers at Islam. While it is fair to point out that most Muslims are not committed to violence against Christians, this is not the whole truth and we should not let political correctness stand in the way of the truth.

Yes, it is a minority of Muslims who condone killing of Christians. But unfortunately that minority numbers in the tens of millions.

And again, here’s me on this. Basically, we in America like to look at the Islamic world detached from historical forces. That’s bad. Most Americans have no idea who Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani is. That’s bad. We don’t understand how colonialism impacted their societies, so we see them one-dimensionally. That’s the failure of the New Atheists. See here and here.

Note: I noticed when writing this article that when I write “tenett” [my sic] Google Docs corrects to “tenant.” So the big “error” was a dumb typo correction that I missed. *Gasp*