Tag Archives: William Saletan

William Saletan is wrong on MLK (and William Barber)

Sorry Will! When I was researching my previous post on Will’s post on Creationism, I stumbled upon his post about the Tim Scott- William Barber controversy. What drew me initially was his vulgar-MLKism*. Saletan writes,

We can argue all day about the Tea Party, Republican policies, and what Martin Luther King would have stood for today. To me, the core of his message was the right to be treated as an individual. His dream was, in his words, a nation in which his children would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Tim Scott has that right, too. Everyone does. If what you want is the advancement of black people, and all people, take the trouble to get to know each person before you dismiss him. If you’re going to criticize him, at least criticize him as an individual. You owe him that.

I want to address the Scott-Barber dispute later, building off this point. Was MLK’s core mission really the right to be treated as an individual? The first problem with this is that he was a very religious man, and religion is skeptical of liberal claims of individualism. The religious sentiment, at it its core is the idea that we are all part of something far deeper and more meaningful than ourselves. We see MLK expressing that sentiment in his speech at Morehouse College,

First, we are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The individual or nation that feels that it can live in isolation has allowed itself to sleep through a revolution. The geographical togetherness of the modern world makes our very existence dependent on co-existence. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. Because of our involvement in humanity we must be concerned about every human being…

All of this amounts to saying that in the final analysis all life is interrelated. No nation or individual is independent; we are interdependent. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.

As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I posses a billion dollars. As long as millions of people are inflicted with debilitating diseases and cannot expect to live more than thirty-five years, I can never be totally healthy even if I receive a perfect bill of health from Mayo Clinic. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. John Donne placed this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the maine.” Then he goes on to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the very speech Saletan cites, the famous I Have a Dream Speech, Martin Luther King argues,

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

I would never condense MLK to one core principle. He has deep and profound thoughts on religion, economics, race, politics and non-violence. His thought changed during his lifetime. To vulgarize him as someone whose core message “was the right to be treated as an individual,” is belied the numerous references to “brotherhood,” throughout his speech (and life). Saletan is bolstering a weak argument with a *bad* appeal to authority.

Now, to the argument at hand. Saletan is criticizing William Barber for his statement in a speech about MLK,

The extreme right wing down here finds a black guy to be senator and claims he’s the first black senator since Reconstruction, and then he goes to Washington, D.C., and articulates the agenda of the Tea Party.

Saletan begins his response by arguing, “Let’s set aside, for the moment, the policy disputes between Democrats and the Tea Party.” I’m reminded of Galbraith’s advice for debating Milton Friedman: whenever he said, “let’s suppose,” stop him and say, “let’s not.” Whenever someone says, “let’s set aside,” you can be reasonably sure they are about to beg the question. And so it is here. Saletan argues that,

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the policy disputes between Democrats and the Tea Party. You may think, as I do, that most of the Tea Party is wrongheaded, and that much of it is unhinged. But that’s not the point here. The point is that William Barber has never met Tim Scott. And none of Barber’s reported comments address Scott’s legislation or his career.

To put it in terms any NAACP leader should understand, Barber has prejudged Scott. He has prejudged him as a puppet based on the senator’s color and his party.

Well, if you set aside what you know about the Republican party, Saletan is right. But we know a few things about the Republican party that are relevant to judging Barber’s assertion.

1) It has halted the Medicaid expansion whenever possible, leaving millions of minorities without healthcare

2) It has savagely attacked President Obama with racially-charged language

3) It has fought against extending UI, to the detriment of the millions of black long-term unemployed

4) It has fought against expanding educational opportunity

5) It has viciously attacked attempts to raise the minimum wage

6) It has cut important parts of the social safety net

7) It has, whenever possible, attempted to reduce minority turn-out for elections

I’m not even looking at the Nixon/Reagan/Bush years. When assessing Scott, a far more relevant quote from MLK comes from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he talks of, “a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.” Looking at Scott’s record, this appears to be a very legitimate worry. 

Scott is against counter-cyclical deficit spending (this is code for cuts to the social safety net). He wants to cut taxes (read: cut spending on the safety net). He wants to deny food stamps to people who lost their job because they were a member of a union. He wants to make English the official language of the U.S. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He is against common sense regulations on guns. He declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus. He has not condemned the war on drugs.

In a class-based society the interests of class will often trump the interests of one’s racial group. Sometimes they will not. Tim Scott has placed the interests of his class (he owns an insurance company) over the interests of African-Americans broadly.** Given all of this, Barber’s judgement (he need not reference Scott’s record to be aware of it) does not seem premature, but rather apt.

* Freudianism, Darwinism, Nietzscheanism, Platonism, etc which involves making profound and deep thinkers banal and simplistic. 
** The Democratic Party is shit on these issues as well.

William Saletan’s understanding of creationism is deeply deficient

I’ve written a lot about creationism and its genesis, which I see as a desire, deep in this country, to avoid complexity and ambiguity. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because the scientists who espouse it “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He’s dead wrong. Creationism is merely part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism,” an absurd and dangerous idea, Christian doctrine. Saletan believes that a magical distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

I think this is a well-placed dissemblance forwarded to obfuscate the deeply political motives of the creation movement:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

Can one be a good creation scientist? Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

I’ve been told by more than a few science people that this isn’t true, and I think I can prove it. For instance, in order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating, which seems to me very important for other areas of science. I’m sure this isn’t the only instance where creationism bleeds into other parts of science (I doubt you can do biology, paleontology or astronomy properly, to name three).

I’ll end this blog post with this story from Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). I humbly request Saletan consider it when next writing on creationism: 

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but … well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not—at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth—or at least at the same time—and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought—that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

That, Mr. Saletan, is not someone who has compartmentalized their creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which they see the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect) do you really believe this is a small deal for these scientists? I suspect very much the opposite.