Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Muslim Holocaust denial meme, and other problems

Here's a disturbing story on a "moderate" Muslim cleric -- Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, spiritual leader of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, New York and the official representative of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- whose moderation includes watered-down Holocaust denial. According to columnist Walter Ruby:

... Al-Sahlani, who I myself interviewed just over a year ago for the New York Jewish Week, was quoted in the January 13 edition of the New York Sun as saying that the Nazi massacre of an estimated 6 million Jews during World War II “has been exaggerated”, adding, “The numbers which have been mentioned are too much.” According to the Sun, Al-Sahlani said during a telephone interview that the killing of innocent Jews during the war was “an injustice” but that the extent of Nazi persecution needed further examination. “The numbers, the reasons, we have to study more,” he said, while expressing support for the proposal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to hold a conference on the Holocaust in Tehran.


[H]is responses to me only deepened the hole he dug for himself in the original interview. True, Al-Sahlani affirmed, “No matter whether it was 6 million or one Jewish person killed in Holocaust, that is a great crime, because they were killed for no reason except they were Jewish. That is unacceptable according to Islam.” Al-Sahlani explained further that he had only meant to convey to the Sun that as a person with little knowledge of Holocaust history, he has no idea whether six million was a correct approximation of the number of victims. For all he knows, he said, the correct figure might be five million or some other amount. Yet when I asked Al-Sahlani whether he had indeed told the Sun that the figure of six million was “exaggerated” or “too much,” he responded unpersuasively that he does not recall whether he actually used those terms.

What about his endorsement of Ahmadinejad’s call for a Holocaust conference in Tehran? Al-Sahlani affirmed he indeed believes such a conference would be useful “whether it is held in Tehran, Berlin or New York” because “for [non-Jews] who don’t believe in it, [holding a conference] will be helpful and supportive for them to believe in what happened, especially when it is done by the non-Jewish academic people, it will give more value to (the conference).” Al-Sahlani then said, “There are great scholars—specialists in the Holocaust--who do not believe what the other group of people believe…They say the number of victims is less than six million. Some of them say the reason for the Holocaust was (that it was) done by the Zionists.” Al-Sahlani said he could not remember the names of the scholars he cited as believing the six million figure is inflated, but when I brought up British historian David Irving, who was recently jailed in Austria for claiming just that, Al-Sahlani responded, “Yes, I believe that is the person, and probably there are others.”

Does this mean that there Al-Sahlani is a raging Jew-hater? Or that the elusive "moderate Muslim" is a myth? I don't think that either is necessarily true. But it's pretty clear that Holocaust denial or at least Holocaust minimization meme is quite widespread in the Muslim community, to the point where it is picked up even by many who, arguably, are not active haters or extremists. And that's a worrying problem, to say the least.

I don't know the solution. Ruby writes:

Rather than shunning this pious and upright man, who is a source of spiritual inspiration for the nearly 3000 members of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center, would it not be preferable for Jewish and Christian leaders to reach out to Al-Sahlani in the hope that sustained communication will convince him of the moral squalor of belittling the genocide of six million Jews?

Perhaps. I have no doubt that among those Muslims who are infected with the Holocaust denial/minimization meme (and the anti-Semitism virus in general), there are quite a few who are "reachable" and open to the kind of communication -- and education -- that Ruby writes about. We can only hope, for the sake of humanity. But I think the communication needs to be reinforced with sanctions. At some point, it needs to be firmly understood that those who persist in such attitudes, and in wiful ignorance, will be shunned.

There is, however, another issue here. Our insistence that the truth about the Holocaust be respected is admirable; not so the double standard that applies to the ideologically driven denial and minimization of other crimes against humanity -- such as Stalin's Gulag. As I noted in this column in February:

Compared with [Russian] amnesia about state crimes against humanity, the German experience is certainly a good model -- whatever one thinks of Germany's Holocaust denial laws. Sadly, amnesia about the crimes of communism is common in the West as well; historians who have downplayed and minimized those crimes, such as Miami University of Ohio historian Robert W. Thurston, have not been ostracized the way David Irving has been for a long time.

The resurgence of the Stalin cult in Russia shows the danger of such amnesia. Holocaust denial and Gulag denial should be finally seen as the twin evils they are.

If, let's say, a prominent Third World leftist had expressed the view that Stalin's crimes against humanity had been greatly exaggerated, we would not have seen the same concern and outrage over that as we have over Al-Sahlani's comments.

The answer, of course, is not to give Holocaust belittlers a break. It's to be tougher on the Gulag belittlers.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Torture and demonization in America

Via Andrew Sullivan and Radley Balko, a horrific case of torture right here in the U.S. of A. The victim is one Eugene Siler, a suspected drug dealer, and the offenders are five sheriff's deputies in Teneessee. Writes Balko:

The only reason we know Siler was tortured is because his wife had the good sense to start a recording device about halfway through the ordeal.

The audio is now available online (read the transcript here). Drug war outrages lend themselves to overuse of superlatives. But I gotta say, this may be the most horrifying 40 minutes of audio I've ever heard.

The police are attempting to get the illiterate man to sign an admission of guilt without telling him what it says. They beat him, over and over, hook electrodes up to testicles and shock him, threaten to kill him, and threaten to go after his family. Early news accounts reported that the torture continued well beyond the end of the recording. After the tape ran out, the same deputies apparently repeatedly submerged the guy's head in a fish tank and a bath tub, threatening to drown him unless he confessed.

This guy at worst was a small-time drug dealer. He had no history of violence. Right now, we're having a national debate about torturing terror suspects with designs on killing everyone in this country (longtime readers might remember I'm a bit conflicted on this issue). But an incident like this (and you're delusional if you think it was isolated), in which a U.S. citizen who had inflicted no direct harm on anyone was nearly beaten to death, has been barely mentioned outside of Tennessee.

Andrew Sullivan comments, "Listen if you can bear it." I shut down the audio when Siler's moans turned to whimpers and screams.

Andrew also tries to link this story to the torture scandals in the War on Terror:

The five cops are now mercifully in jail, but only for, at most, seven years. I guess when the president has endorsed torture by the CIA, it's hard to put low-level cop-torturers in jail for life. Radley believes this kind of atrocity is more common than we might believe. I have no way to know. What I do know is that when the government launches an ill-defined "war" on a "thing", rather than an explicit foreign enemy, and when you have an administration as profoundly hostile to American liberty as this one is, all sorts of abuses will necessarily follow. And they have.

I'm on Andrew's side in the debate over torture, but sadly, I seriously doubt that abuses in the War on Drugs started with this administration. (Siler was tortured in July 2004; the first reports of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandals came in April 2004. That would be a pretty short time for a trickle-down effect to take place.) As Balko writes:

We've inculcated in cops the idea that the government preventing people from putting items from a banned list of substances into their bodies is so necessary and urgent, enforcing those laws with tactics like these is in many cases viewed as entirely appropriate.

This was the rare incident where someone in the home was able to record and save evidence of the abuse on the sly. Think there aren't hundreds more cases where circumstances didn't pan out so neatly?

I think this has a lot to do with "moral panics" over certain offenses, and the consequent demonization of suspects: accused drug dealers, for instance, or sex offenders. Think of the child abuse witchhunts of the 1980s and early 1990s, or the present-day hysteria over the public identification of sex offenders. Janet Reno, Bill Clinton's Attorney General, presided over some of the child abuse witchhunts (and later used reports of child abuse as a justification for the attack on the Branch Davidians' compound).

Pedophiles are rightly abhorred, and communities should be warned when a potentially dangerous offender moves in; but the sex offender panic leads to the demonization, and in one recent case the murder, of a person branded a child abuser for having sex, at the age of 19, with a 16-year-old girl. How many police officers feel morally justified in applying the kinds of interrogation tactics used on Siler to despised "scum" like suspected pedophiles?

Dehumanization breeds abuse; and the dehumanization of certain classes of offenders certainly did not begin with Bush.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Feminism, misogyny, and husband management

I'm a big fan of Dr. Helen, and I very much appreciate her efforts as a fellow critic of male-bashing. But one of her threads last week troubled me, for several reasons.

In a post titled "The Well-Managed Husband?", Dr. Helen collects some nasty bits of advice that a couple of men's rights sites say women are getting on manipulating their husbands to obtain the desired results. Then, she refers to a post by a web diarist who calls himself a "Mad Suburban Dad", expressing his dismay when he overhears his wife's phone conversation with her sister about how "well-managed" a friend's husband is. According to "Mad Dad"'s narrative, quoted by Dr. Helen:

"A well-managed husband does not realize he is being managed, nor do his friends," she said. "Usually, the only other person who can tell he is well managed is a woman who also has a well-managed husband or boyfriend." Then I asked the question that I am afraid to ask and even more afraid to hear the answer to: "So, if you know your friend's husband is 'well managed,' does that mean I'm 'well-managed' too?" I asked with trepedation.

Mad Mom gets this silly grin and says: "Excuse me, I have got to go to the bathroom."

Dr. Helen comments:

Say what? If I was MadDad and I heard this, I would have been livid. No trepedation, no humiliating strikes like MadDad talks about (check out post 4-4), no asking women on my site for comments, no, nope, nada. Just a simple statement from me to this prize of a wife, "I hear you talking like that or trying to manipulate me like that again and I am out of here."

And I would mean it.

A number of posters in Dr. Helen's comments thread (which quickly turns to woman-bashing, or at least American-woman-bashing) blame this supposedly pervasive "husband management" on "feminists," "gender feminists," "misandrist attitudes and behavior," and the like. (All of which goes unquestioned by Dr. Helen.) But in fact, it is anti-feminist traditionalists, not feminists, who embrace female manipulation of men as a positive value -- a way women can wield power and achieve what they want without "becoming like men." For instance, in the 2004 book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, Stephen Rhoads writes:

Indeed, it's still quite common to hear of small, feminine women who have their strong, masculine husbands "wrapped around their little fingers." Happy women rule indirectly. They can rule because their husbands love and want to please them. They can also rule because, as psychological studies have demonstrated, women can read men better than men can read women. What matters, then, is only that men be the ostensible heads of households. In such cases, both parties emerge happy.

I have yet to read Harvey Mansfield's new book, Manliness (highly acclaimed in the conservative press), but I suspect he gives the same advice. In a November 3, 1997 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Prof. Mansfield opined that "gentle" feminine authority should "defer to the manly sort", and added:

This does not mean that men have to decide, only that they have to appear to decide.

And it was not a feminist but conservative pop radio doyenne Dr. Laura who had written a book with the repulsive title, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.

There is another issue as well. "Mad Dad's" diary post goes on to say:

"I think of our marriage as a corporation. I may be the CEO, but you are the Chairman."
I realize Mad Mom is also the Chief Financial Officer, the Executive Secretary and the Chief Operating Officer too. But, hey, that was the deal we struck when we decided I would keep my job which required a gazillion hours a week, while she stayed at home.
"I mean, I know you have a lot of the responsibility around the house, but that was the agreement we made when you quit your job." I said. "That was a mutual decision."
"So what are you worried about," said Mad Mom, as she gets down on the floor to help five-year old E with her puzzle. "You are still the head of the family."
"Yeah," E said. "And mommy is the neck."
Thinking Mad Mom had been insulted I said, "That's okay E, because the neck is just below the head."
"I know," E said. "And mommy told auntie that the neck controls the head, telling it which way to turn."

It seems to me that "Mad Mom's" manipulative ways are more than well-matched by "Dad's" unrepentant male chauvinism. Doesn't this fact merit a comment from Dr. Helen, too? Personally, if I was married to a guy who ever told our child that I was "below him," I'd be out of there myself.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ill tidings from Russia

Today in Washington, D.C., I attended a Cato Institute event at the National Press Club with Andrei Illarionov, a former economic advisor to Vladimir Putin and former presidential representative to the G-8, who resigned last December saying that Russia was no longer a democratic country. The topic of his talk was the "death of the G-8" augured by the upcoming meeting of the G-8 in St. Petersburg, Russia in July.

The main points of Illarionov's talk are covered in his op-ed in today's Washington Post.

Does Russia really belong in the Group of Eight -- the assembly of the world's leading industrialized democracies? As things stand today, it meets only one criterion for membership: the size of its economy. So far as political rights are concerned, Russia ranks 168th out of 192 countries, according to Freedom House. In terms of corruption, the organization Transparency International ranks Russia 126th out of 159 countries. The World Economic Forum calculates that when it comes to favoritism in governmental decisions, Russia rates 85th of 108 countries, in protection of property rights 88th of 108 and in independence of the judicial system 84th out of 102.

The principal difference between the original G-7 countries and Russia lies in their disparate approaches to nearly every essential issue on the global agenda. Russia pursues "wars" against its neighbors on matters relating to visas, electricity, natural gas, wine and now even mineral waters.

Russia's official media have whipped up propaganda against the hard-won democratic road chosen by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, as well as against the Baltic countries, Europe and the United States. These countries became the enemies in the new "cold war" being waged by Russia's authorities. At the same time, new friends have emerged in the leaders of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Iran, Algeria, Venezuela, Burma and Hamas -- a very different sort of G-8.

The question now occupying the minds of leaders of the G-7 countries is whether to participate in the upcoming G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. Idealists have proposed a boycott. Pragmatists oppose that approach. In either case, a bad outcome is inevitable.


Who really thinks that Russian authorities are going to undergo radical change after listening to the G-7 leaders? Will they cease their destruction of civil society? Reverse antidemocratic laws adopted in recent years? Allow free and fair campaigns and elections in 2007 and '08? Give up control over the judicial system or the media? Return fired journalists and editors to their posts? Cease interfering in business? Refund confiscated property and fines levied against citizens and companies? Return billions of dollars of state assets? Launch investigations into bureaucrats, judges and prosecutors who have made illegal decisions?

In fact, the G-8 is not the place to clarify codes of conduct. The very suggestion that foreign leaders might feel the need to speak "frankly" about Russia's domestic affairs confirms that Russia is not considered a full-fledged member of the G-8 even by those who intend to come.

... The G-8 summit can only be interpreted as a sign of support by the world's most powerful organization for Russia's leadership -- as a stamp of approval for its violations of individual rights, the rule of law and freedom of speech, its discrimination against nongovernmental organizations, nationalization of private property, use of energy resources as a weapon, and aggression toward democratically oriented neighbors.

By going to St. Petersburg, leaders of the world's foremost industrialized democracies will demonstrate their indifference to the fate of freedom and democracy in Russia.

... The G-8 summit will serve as an inspiring example for today's dictators and tomorrow's tyrants.

In his National Press Club speech, Illarionov -- who described himself as a former "sherpa" on Russia's trek into the G-8 -- made a few other interesting observations: for instance, that while Russia's economy has been kept afloat by high oil prices, per capita GDP in Russia has actually declined relatively to those of the G-7 countries in recent years (from 28% of the G-7 average in 2000 to 18% today). He also said noted that Bush has recently said that for the past five years he has talked to the Russian leadership about the benefits of democracy, and yet those same years have witnessed the dismantling of democracy in Russia: "This shows appeasement is not working."

The question period, as always, proved interesting. One person suggested, somewhat rudely, that it would be a good idea to look past Illarionov's "quarrel with the present government" and asked, "If there's a free and fair election in Russia in 2008, won't that be a signal that it is embracing democratic values?" (That's a pretty big "if," of course.) Curiously, Illarionov sidestepped the question of the election and replied simply that he had no quarrel with the present government and, in fact, had been far harsher in his criticism of the government's policies in private, as an advisor to Putin, than he was now in public. (He also firmly declined to discuss the content of any of his discussions with Putin, except to say that he could assure the audience that his concerns about the dismantling of democracy in Russia were well-known to Putin.) He was also dismissive of another questioner's suggestion that despite its problems with civil liberties and property rights, Russia ought to be treated as a partner on issues like energy security (that issue is addressed in his Washington Post op-ed) and Iran's nuclear capability (those technology sales to Iran aren't very partner-like).

Leonid Stern of Voice of America asked Illarionov if some recent expressions of dissent in Russia, including a rally for freedom of the press (I think he meant this one), could be seen as a positive sign. Illarionov reasonably replied that in a democratic society a protest rally would be an entirely unremarkable event, as it would have been in Moscow in the 1990s; the fact that it attracts notice today

I asked Illarionov a two-part question: about the state of freedom of criticism in Russia today, and (apologizing in advance for a somewhat personal question) about whether he himself was concerned about possible retaliation for being so outspoken. On the first part, he replied that freedom of speech implies the freedom to be heard: "Even in dictatorial societies, people can go out into the wilderness and speak where no one or almost no one will hear them." In Russia today, he pointed out, there is not a single TV station that is not controlled by the government, no independent print media except for a couple of publications with limited circulation, and only one semi-independent radio station. Most people, he said, don't have access to dissenting points of view.

As for the second half of my question, he didn't answer it.

On his previous trip to Washington, Illarionov talked to the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum, who reported:

I should explain that Illarionov is in Washington this week for a conference. I should also add that he says he's been surprised by how many people, both here and in Russia, have asked whether he's really returning to Moscow afterward -- "will you dare go back" being a question that no one even considered asking five years ago. It is tragic but true: Russia has once again become a place where blunt-speaking economists have to watch their backs.

This time, Illarionov's silence in response to the second half of my question was quite eloquent.

Cochlear implants and the politics of "Deafness"

Newsweek's "My Turn" section has a touching column by a woman whose hearing-impaired two-year-old son has made tremendous strides in hearing and communication after receiving a cochlear implant. The article does not mention that there has been strong political opposition to cochlear implants from "Deaf" activists. The capital letter denotes the fact that they see their deafness as a cultural identity, not just a disability -- in fact, they insist that they don't see it as a disability at all, and hence oppose all efforts to cure or "fix" it. Tragically, there are deaf children who have been denied an opportunity to hear by their own fanatical "Deaf" parents.

"Deaf pride" is a grotesque perversion of the disability rights movement (sometimes pushed by hearing people, such as Northeastern University psychologist Harlan Lane); and, insofar as it seeks to keep people -- including children who have no choice in the matter -- disabled, I think that "evil" is not too strong a word. Two columns I wrote in 2002 about this reductio ad absurdum of identity politics can be found here and here.

The Iran nukes debate

I haven't blogged, as yet, about the issue of Iran's nukes (and possibly U.S. use of nukes against Iran). Mainly, this is because I'm not enough of an expert on the issues involved to have an informed opinion; but also because the issue is so fraught with complexities, dangers, and unknowns that I'm frankly glad I don't have to have an opinion.

Jeff Goldstein thinks that it's insane not to see a potentially nuclear missile-wielding Iran and its crazy-talking president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as an imminent threat that requires the strongest possible response. Jim Henley thinks it's insane to see Iran as an a serious threat to our security and to respond with saber-rattling, let alone military action.

What do I think? I believe that in the present circumstances, with the mess on our hands in Iraq, with American politics a house more bitterly divided than at any point in at least my memory, it would be insanity to launch a strike against Iran based simply on the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. (That's leaving aside the moral debate about preemptive strikes.) If there really are, as Seymour Hersch reports, people in the Bush Administration who believe that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government," that's ... shall we say, not very reality-based. (By the way, the mess next door in Iraq is not going to be very inspirational to any disaffected Iranians who might have welcomed U.S. intervention.)

At the same time, I don't think the threat a nuclear-armed Iran could pose to the U.S., to Europe, and to Israel can be casually discounted. Ahmadinejad really isn't helping matters by saying things like these, about Israel being "headed for annihilation" and being "eliminated by one storm." I'm not as convinced as Jeff Goldstein that Ahmadinejad means every word he says -- as opposed to spouting extreme rhetoric for his constituents -- and that he's a crazed fanatic who will gladly give his life in the cause of a nuclear jihad. (I still have fairly fresh memories of the days of the Cold War, when, for all my anti-Communist convictions, I couldn't help being amused by the earnest belief of many American conservatives that the Soviet Union was run by fanatics drirven by Marxist faith in the inevitability of communism's global victory -- rather than by a bunch of sclerotic bureaucrats very attached to their power and their lives of luxury.) Nonetheless, the evidence of his fanaticism does merit serious attention. There are some legitimate questions about how much power Ahmadinejad really has in Iraq and how much damage he would be able to do; and it is also worth noting that so far, the mullahs' Iran has not started wars of aggression. But there is still the question of what, in this situation, constitutes acceptable risk.

It won't do, as Henley does in one of his comments on his thread, to deride those concerned about the threat of a nuclear Iran as "a bunch of scared little girls, starting at shadows" and "Annie Hall demanding that Alvie Singer kill every spider in the world before it can bite her." (It is also telling that Henley takes possible nuclear saber-rattling by the Bush Administration very seriously but downplays and minimizes the significance of Ahmadinejad's belligerent talk.) Insane or not, the regime in Iran is an extremist regime that supports terrorism. Such a regime with its hands on nuclear weapons is no shadow and no spider.

I'm certainly not advocating war, or offering any prescription. I think this is a problem that requires concerted international action. I don't think there is any threat so imminent as to rush to judgment. But I do think there ought to be a middle ground between hysteria and hiding one's head in the sand.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Fear and gutlessness at Comedy Central

A lot of people are rightly upset about the fact that, when South Park aired an episode lampooning the Mohammed cartoons brouhaha, Comedy Central nixed the brief showing of an image of Mohammed. It was replaced by this:

Ironically, a lot of people initially thought this was a typical South Park gag. (Much as, in The Producers, when the hapless author in his Nazi helmet jumps up on the stage and interrupts the performance screaming that the show is a hoax, this is not his play, and the Fuhrer never called anyone "baby" -- before being knocked out and dragged away -- the audience only laughs more, assuming that this is part of the show.) However, it has since been confirmed that the ban did come from Comedy Central, which has stated:"In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision."

The threat of Islamism at work? Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom mocks "Comedhimmi Central" ("dhimmi" refers to Christians and Jews who, historically, were allowed to live in peace in Muslim societies as long as they accepted their second-class status) and writes:

I find reconciliation and surrender two entirely different things.

And if what it takes to keep Muslims from engaging in jihad—or at the very least, holding public wildings over cartoons—is accepting their demands that we don’t talk about their faith in a way that upsets them, that is a sacrifice I’m not willing to make. And no one who is promoting classical liberalism in its cultural battle with the theocratic determinism of the Islamists should be willing to concede this point—even if they do so hoping that it means Comedy Central might not make fun of Jesus anymore.

I agree with Jeff on the basic issue of free speech, but I think that, for fairness' sake, something else needs to be pointed out. As far as I know, there has not been a single instance of a violent reaction by American Muslims to the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in any newspaper or magazine. There have been protests, cancellations of subsciptions, and other responses that (agree with them or not) fall well within the sphere of peaceful, civilized expression. (Actually, that was true in most European countries -- including Denmark -- as well; the violent incidents were confined mainly to the Middle East.)

So the real culprit here, I would say, is not Muslim intimidation but the cravenness of Viacom executives who preemptively caved in to a non-existent threat and banned the Mohammed image. These are, remember, the same people who ran from Tom Cruise and the scientologists only last month.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Censorship-by-vandalism as free speech: That's doubleplusgood, comrade!

Via the Foundation for Indvididual Rights in Education (FIRE), comes this outrageous story:

A professor at Northern Kentucky University said she invited students in one of her classes to destroy an anti-abortion display on campus Wednesday evening.

NKU police are investigating the incident, in which 400 crosses were removed from the ground near University Center and thrown in trash cans. The crosses, meant to represent a cemetery for aborted fetuses, had been temporarily erected last weekend by a student Right to Life group with permission from NKU officials.

Public universities cannot ban such displays because they are a type of symbolic speech that has been protected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Witnesses reported "a group of females of various ages" committing the vandalism bout 5:30 p.m., said Dave Tobertge, administrative sergeant with the campus police.

Sally Jacobsen, a longtime professor in NKU's literature and language department, said the display was dismantled by about nine students in one of her graduate-level classes.

"I did, outside of class during the break, invite students to express their freedom-of-speech rights to destroy the display if they wished to," Jacobsen said.

Asked whether she participated in pulling up the crosses, the professor said, "I have no comment."

She said she was infuriated by the display, which she saw as intimidating and a "slap in the face" to women who might be making "the agonizing and very private decision to have an abortion."

Jacobsen said it originally wasn't clear who had placed the crosses on campus.

She said that could make it appear that NKU endorsed the message.

Pulling up the crosses was similar to citizens taking down Nazi displays on Fountain Square, she said.

"Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it. Some of my students felt the same way, just outraged," Jacobsen said.

A photo of Jacobsen pulling up one of the crosses can be seen here, in the student publication The Northerner Online, which also reports that the right-to-life group which planted the crosses plans to press charges.

Commendably, NKU president James Vortuba has condemned the actions of Jacobsen and her little vigilante band:

"I am very disappointed that this happened," Votruba said. "At a university, the opposing views should be able to bump up against each other. Responding with pamphlets or speeches would have allowed the power of ideas to compete."

No kidding.

At a time when many worry, with some justification, about a chilly climate for speech critical of the government and the war, or otherwise seen as unpatriotic, this incident is a reminder that old-fashioned (the 1980s and '90s being the "old times" in this case) left-wing PC speech suppression on college campuses persists as well. Note, too, Jacobsen's excuse for her actions, which simultaneously conjures up images of weak-minded females too fragile to cope with the "violence" of an unpleasant opinion about abortion and of Orwellian speech police presenting speech suppression as an exercise in free speech. As a pro-choice friend of mine put it: That's doubleslusgood, comrade.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

More on immigration, terrorism, and Michelle Malkin

Michelle Malkin is tirelessly beating the anti-immigrant drums, digging up photos of socialists, anti-Americans, Mexican reconquista zealots, Che Guevara cultists and the like on the fringes of the pro-immigration rally in Washington; making fun of a protest organizer who leads a Pledge of Allegiance rehearsal and says "One nation, undivisible (sic)"; and pointing to the fact that supporters of more open borders include Muslim activists. In this post, she uses the arrest of Department of Homeland Security spokesman Brian J. Doyle on charges of sexually soliciting what he thought was a 14-year-old girl on the Internet to score an anti-immigration point and inveigh against amnesty for illegal aliens. How exactly is that leap of logic accomplished? Well, the Doyle debacle is another example of incompetence and disarray at DHS, and "I don't let new guests into my house until it's in order."

All this prompted me to dig up my 2003 Reason column on anti-immigrant rhetoric on the right, and specifically on attempts to cash in on legitimate concerns about terrorism to stoke anti-immigrant hysteria; it deals in part with Michelle Malkin's 2002 book, Invasion: How America Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores. A few excerpts from that, I believe, are relevant to this discussion.

It’s understandable, of course, that a terrorist act committed by foreign nationals should raise concerns about national security and border control. But that doesn’t mean the problem of terrorism should be conflated with that of illegal immigration.

The 19 hijackers who struck on September 11 all entered the U.S. legally as tourists or business travelers, although three of them had overstayed their visas. At the same time, not one of the millions of illegals who cross the border from Mexico or get smuggled in on cargo vessels from China has been implicated in terrorism. The most Malkin can muster for a terrorist connection is that two illegal immigrants, along with one legal permanent resident from El Salvador, helped four of the hijackers get the phony driver’s licenses they used to get on the airplanes.

"It’s true that the system is broken," says Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "But the people who are exploiting these legitimate fears to cut back on immigration are going in the wrong direction. It sounds logical at first, but it’s not realistic, it’s not going to be enforceable, and ultimately it’s not going to give us better security."

Indeed, a wholesale crackdown on illegal immigration could, by consuming scarce resources, hinder rather than help the effort to keep potential terrorists out of this country. "By some estimates," says [the Cato Institute's Dan] Griswold, "we spend $3 billion a year trying to keep Mexican workers out of the United States. I’d much rather spend that money trying to keep out Middle Eastern terrorists."

Given the realities of the global economy and the U.S. labor market, the flow of migrants into this country will be a fact for the foreseeable future. Making legal entry easier for people who want to better their lot in life is a much more feasible solution than making entry "a fiercely guarded privilege," as Malkin suggests in Invasion. It is also, of course, far more feasible than the fantasy of deporting the 9 million to 11 million illegal immigrants who are already here.

Besides freeing up resources to target terrorists, such legalization would severely diminish the document fraud and smuggling that can in fact assist terrorists. An amnesty for illegal immigrants would bring people out of the shadows in which terror cells can lurk and make it safe for people with useful information about possible terrorists to cooperate with law enforcement. (Oddly, for all her concern about threats to national security, Malkin deplores Attorney General John Ashcroft’s offer to grant U.S. citizenship to any alien, legal or illegal, who comes forward with tips that aid the investigation into the 9/11 attacks.)

Four years later, more of the same.

As I note in the column, Jacoby, Griswold, and other immigration supporters do not oppose security measures to intercept potential terrorists trying to enter the U.S. (including some degree of ethnic/national profiling). But there's a far cry from that prudent stance to turning our backs on America's cherished ideals and embracing the darker aspects of our heritage.

More: Along the same lines: pardon me, but does Mickey Kaus have any idea what he's talking about?

I can see where the immigration issue is killing Bush. (Which genius decided, when Bush was down to his most loyal 40%, to promote a policy that pisses them off? Why not go for a clean zero and get a good draft pick?) But Bush isn't running again. And I still don't see why House Republicans won't benefit in 2006 from pushing a tough enforcement policy that pleases their base, and that in general is popular. Are they incapable of communicating their views to their constituents? ... Plus, it's highly unpopular for the Democrats to oppose the House approach, no? Robo-pollerr Scott Rasmussen notes that as the immigration debate has proceeded the GOPs have opened up a 6 point lead on this issue, up from one point--entirely because support for the Democrats has declined.

Yet if you follow Kaus's link to the Rasmussen Report, you will see that things are not that simple at all. Americans are evently divided on immigration, with 41% favoring measures to allow illegal immigrants to move toward legalization and 40% in favor of deporting them. In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, three out of five support legalization. And only one in five support the House bill, which makes it a felony to reside in the U.S. illegally and features no guest worker provisions.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The immigration brouhaha

So immigration reform is stalled in Congress and pro-immigration demonstrators fill the streets again (this time wisely wielding American rather than Mexican flags). Everywhere you look, conservatives are decrying a lack of will to really do something about illegal immigration. Many are outraged over proposals to offer amnesty and legalization to illegal aliens who have lived in this country for some time, claiming that such a measure rewards people for breaking the law.

But most Americans, it seems, do not share that outrage and are deeply conflicted on the issue. The Washington Post reports:

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that three-quarters of Americans think the government is not doing enough to prevent illegal immigration. But three in five said they favor providing illegal immigrants who have lived here for years a way to gain legal status and eventual citizenship. The idea received majority support from Democrats, independents and Republicans. One in five Americans embraced the House bill, which includes no guest-worker program and would make felons out of those in this country illegally.

(See also this post by Nick Gillespie at Hit & Run.)

So what's going on here? Why don't more people nod in agreement when the Sean Hannitys and Bill O'Reillys sputter, "But they broke the law!"?

Maybe because they instinctively understand the peculiar nature of the law in this case.

The other day on the morning show Fox & Friends, one of the show's regular guests, the DJ with the fittingly repulsive nickname "Mancow," jeered at the rallies in support of illegal immigrants by announcing that he and some friends were organizingly a rally in support of "illegal murders." Ha, ha. Actually, this dumb joke highlights something important. There is, of course, no such thing as legal murder. Murder is illegal by definition. Immigration is not. The same act -- entering the United States -- is legal for some people and illegal for others, sometimes depending on something as arbitrary as a lottery.

Let's say that the government decided that we have too many lawyers and imposed a quota on how many law licenses can be issued each year. Let's say there were thousands of people who had graduated from law school and passed the bar exam but had to wait for years to get a license to practice law because of the artificial quota (or had to enter a lottery for a license). Would the public be terribly upset if some of them practiced law illegally? Probably not.

Or, for a more realistic example: how many of the same conservatives who are enraged by the idea of amnesty for hardworking, decent, otherwise law-abiding aliens who came here illegally would be in favor of the government jailing -- or even putting out of business -- a woman who had run an unlicensed day care center out of her home, assuming that the children in her care were safe and well-tended?

How do we get around the fact that many illegal immigrants have made positive contributions to our society? (Check out, for instance, this account posted by Andrew Sullivan.)

Americans feel particularly conflicted on this issue because so many are descended from immigrants in a more or less recent past. Here, the Sean Hannitys will interject: "But they came to this country legally!" And here, I turn over the floor to John Tierney, trapped behind the Times Select wall:

Ángel Espinoza doesn't understand why Republicans on Capitol Hill are determined to deport Mexicans like him. I don't get it, either. He makes me think of my Irish grandfather.

They both left farms and went to the South Side of Chicago, arriving with relatively little education. My grandfather took a job in the stockyards and lived in an Irish boardinghouse nearby. Espinoza started as a dishwasher and lived with his brother in a Mexican neighborhood.

Like my grandfather, who became a streetcar motorman and then a police officer, Espinoza moved on to better-paying jobs and a better home of his own. Like my grandfather, Espinoza married an American-born descendant of immigrants from his native country.

But whereas my grandfather became a citizen, Espinoza couldn't even become a legal resident. Once he married an American, he applied, but was rejected because he'd once been caught at the border and sent home with an order to stay out. Violating that order made him ineligible for a green card and eligible for deportation.

"I had to tell my 4-year-old daughter that one day I might not come home," he said. "I work hard and pay taxes and don't want any welfare. Why deport me?"

The official answer, of course, is that he violated the law. My grandfather didn't. But my grandfather didn't have to. There weren't quotas on Europeans or most other immigrants in 1911, even though, relative to the population, there were more immigrants arriving and living here than there are today. If America could absorb my grandfather, why keep out Espinoza?

Italics added.

In my case, of course, I relate to the issue even more personally than John Tierney. I am a legal immigrant myself. As many of you know, I came here with my family in 1980 from the Soviet Union; at the time, we automatically received refugee status on the grounds that we feared persecution in our native country. (Which, actually, was not even technically accurate: the Soviet Jews coming here at the time had to fear persecution only if they wanted to openly practice Judaism -- which, for my non-religious family, was not an issue -- or if they were political dissidents.) And that is something I tremendously appreciate, but I am also aware of the fact that I got a special break due to Cold War politics, and that a lot of people around the world who had as good a claim to fleeing oppression or persecution did not get the same break. So my reaction is not "but I came here legally!" but more like, "There but for the grace of God..."

I understand that we need more effective border control, particularly in the age when terrorism is a real concern. I know there are other concerns about the economic and social impact of uncontrolled immigration (though I haven't studied the issue enough to have a strong opinion on how justified those concern are). But I also know that anti-immigrant panic has been, again and agian, responsible for ungenerous and sometimes downright inhumane policies unworthy of America. Like when, after the "immigration reform" of 1996, people who were brought to this country as children and never went through the process of getting citizenship were suddenly subject to deportation to native countries they barely remembered because of a minor brush with the law that suddenly made them "deportable" (even though it wasn't at the time of the misdemeanor). Or when people adjudged by immigration agents to be attempting to enter the country illegally, often because of a glitch in the paperwork, have been barred from reapplying to enter this country for the next five years -- even if they were married to an American. Or when people suspected of minor and technical immigration violations have handcuffed for hours and sometimes kept from going to the bathroom.

Frankly, I find that far more outrageous, and far more damaging to America, than someone living here illegally and earning an honest living.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Pianka: Smear victim, eco-fanatic, or neither?

My post on the Eric Pianka controversy has generated considerable debate in the comments, with some posters saying that I have fallen for a right-wing creationist smear against an innocent scientist accused of advocating the deaths of billions for the sake of the planet. The "smeared by the right" meme also prevails in the liberal blogosphere, and one conservative blogger, Atlanta Rofters, has retracted his anti-Pianka position and apologized.

So, do I stand by my first blogpost? Mostly, yes.

I'm quite certain that Pianka, a University of Texas biologist, did not advocate active steps to kill 5 billion people with a deadly virus; but I made it clear in my initial post that I endorsed no such claim. I believe that for "Intelligent Design" maven William Dembski to report Pianka to Homeland Security as a potential terrorist was ludicrous and reprehensible.

Did Pianka, as reported by Forrest M. Mims III, wax enthusastic to the Texas Academy of Sciences about the prospect of over 5 billion people dying in an Ebola plague, or expressed hope that such an epidemic would come to pass (rather than merely warn that it will if we don't change our profligate ways)? I'm not absolutely certain of that; but I think that the rush to exonerate Pianka in some quarters is a little too quick and easy. For instance, at The Panda's Thumb, we're told that "KXAN News36 in Austin, TX, has just debunked the whole thing." But the "debunking" does not include any independent evidence, such as a transcript of an audio recording of Pianka's speech, or an eyewitness account contradicting Mims. It consists, instead, of Pianka's assertion that he is not pro-genocide, doesn't want vast numbers of people to die and wants his granddaughters to have a future. Well, that's very nice. But, as one commenter at The Panda's Thumb correctly noted, "A denial is by no means a 'debunking.'"

Others have pointed to this statement on Pianka's website, denying any ill will toward humanity and asserting that Pianka's apocalyptic scenario was simply a warning, as exculpatory evidence. But this statement, as far as I can tell, was posted after Pianka became the target of unwelcome publicity. It does not, as Atlanta Rofters seems to think, represent the content of his speech.

So, what about this content? A partial transcript of the Texas Academy of Sciences speech has been posted on the website of Nancy Pearcey, another ID champion. In those portions, Pianka hails draconian measures to restrict childbearing, but the part dealing with the human "die-off" is not there.

There is, however, a transcript of another, apparently quite similar speech Pianka made before the controversy broke, at St. Edward's University in Texas. It was given on March 31 -- actually, the very day Mims published his account of the earlier speech. The trasncript from an audio (with a few small gaps) was published on April 7 in The Sequin Gazette-Enterprise, which has covered the Pianka story. Weirdly enough, a couple of days later the paper removed all Pianka-related material from its website (even though stories generally stay up for a month). What is behind this removal, I don't know. However, thanks to Google cache, I was able to locate a copy of the transcript. Here it is.

This transcript, as the pro-Pianka blog The Questionable Authority points out, differs in some substantial ways from the paper's own report about the speech. It's also interesting to note that in this speech, Pianka actually says that it's likely going to be some virus other than Ebola that is going to get us. But TQA's textual analysis omits the portions of the transcript that tend to bear out Mims's claims:

So this is really, really an exciting time in the history of mankind. Remember the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”? I think that right now has got to be just about the most interesting time ever and you get to see it, and, hopefully, a few are gonna live through it. ... Things are gonna get better after the collapse because we won't be able to decimate the earth so much. And, I actually think the world will be much better when there's only 10 or 20 percent of us left.

It would give wildlife a chance to recover — we won't need conservation biologists anymore. Things are gonna get better.

So yes, there is documented evidence of Pianka expressing enthusiasm for a mass die-off. There is also, as I previously mentioned, Brenda McConnnell's blogpost about his speech -- one that supports his views, and also largely supports Mims's account. McConnell has now deleted her blog, but the relevant portions are reproduced in my blogpost.

Check out, too, this interesting post in the Daily Kos comments thread from Neil Sinhababu, a UT graduate student in philosophy who closely knows people who work with Pianka:

I just asked them if this sounded like something Pianka would actually say. The grad student laughed and told me that Pianka is in fact crazy, and has repeatedly said in classes that it'd be good if devastating diseases would wipe out 90% of the human population. There were freakish references to "our friend, AIDS."

He has a history of other bizarre behavior too. The professor says that whenever new prospective faculty are brought into the biology department and meet Pianka, Pianka likes to puts his feet up on his desk and loudly say, "We're all fucked!" (This is apparently how the professor himself was greeted.) The biology department has started making sure that new hires meet the other ecologists before they meet Pianka, so as to make clear that not all Texas ecologists are insane.

The poster's bona fides seem to be in order (check out his own blog). Admittedly this is second-hand information, but in conjunction with the speech transcript, Brenna McConnell's blogpost, and some of the student evaluations he has posted on his own website, the picture that emerges is not a pleasant one.

Many people find it unbelievable that someone who spouts the human-hating views attributed to Pianka would be treated as mainstream in the biology/ecology field. Well, in my last post, I cited the example of Dr. David Graber, a biologist with the National Park Service, who wrote in 1989 in the Los Angeles Times:

We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. ... Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.

If Graber has been professionally shunned for this repugnant statement, I'm certainly not aware of it. (He is currently a science advisor to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.)

It should be noted as well that the kind of views Pianka has been accused of holding have been expressed by some of his supporters on various blogs. Take, for instance, this post by "Praedor Atrebates" at Pharyngula:

Umm...feeling some personal satisfaction at the thought of an inevitable population decline (due to disease, famine, whatever) because of the harm we as a species are doing to our home is NOT the same as advocating same.

I welcome a culling for the same reasons but have no desire to see any particular people die. It is a general, theoretical feeling of satisfaction. We as a species getting our comeuppance due to your thoughtless activities against the natural world. Such an onslaught can ONLY come to ill, not only for humans, but for far too many innocent other species as well (the collatoral damage).


I also fully realize that a human species fall could well include ME. So be it. That doesn't mean I don't, in general, get a feeling of satisfaction from the idea of schadenfreude: humans getting their broad just deserts for thoughtlessness, greed, profligacy, and selfishness. Totally different from advocating actively bringing about such a result, which Pianka is accused (falsely) of.

It is objective fact that the environment would do EXTREMELY well should humans fall out of it. There's a silver lining to all storm clouds.

This post, I believe, speaks for itself. (It should be noted as well that none of the other Pianka supporters in the thread reacted to "Praedor's" post with outrage.)

I don't want to get into the issue of how much of Pianka's alarmism -- for instance, about deadly virus mutations due to overpopulation -- is rooted in good science. This is primarily an issue not of science, but of ideology.

The conflict between Pianka and his persecutors, most of whom are ID supporters, has been (mis)cast as a war between science and reason on one side, and religious zealotry and superstition on the other. But as I have said before, I think it is in fact a conflict between two different brands of religious zealotry. Commenters at Kos and other left-of-center blogs have gleefully pointed out that the same religious conservatives who voice outrage at Pianka's vision of an agonizing death for 80 to 90% of humanity often embrace the idea of a God who will visit horrific destruction upon the world and punish the disobedient with eternal agony. They are correct, but they miss the point that the irony goes in the other direction, too: the radical environmentalists are as enamored of Armageddon as the more conventional religious extremists. The eco-doomsayers are driven at least as much by their fervent belief that humanity needs to be punished for its sins of greed and luxury as they are by scientifically based concerns. (Note the moralistic, not scientific, language in "Praedor Atrebates'" post above.) Joseph Herzlinger, who has a blog of his own, puts it best in the comments thread at Bad Astronomy Blog:

This looks like crackpot vs. crackpot. It’s a debate between someone ignoring the evidence in favor of Darwin’s theories and someone ignoring the evidence against Malthus’s theories.

The enviro-zealots and the religious zealots are united in their hatred of the human mind, of human freedom and pride; and both long to see humanity crushed under the weight of a superior power, be it God or Nature. I should add here, by the way, that I have nothing against God or Nature, against religion or environmentalism -- as long as they are not anti-human.

But of course, humanism -- the bugaboo of the religious right -- is also in disfavor with the Piankas of this world, who lament the evil of "anthropocentrism." Even PZ Myers of Pharyngula, who regards Pianka as "eccentric," writes that he is "more sympathetic to the egalitarian view that denies humanity a privileged position, except in our own personal esteem." Being a humanist, it seems, is a lonely job these days.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Speaking of fanatics...

As a number of people including yours truly have noted before, radical environmentalism is a secular religion, complete with its own zealots -- and not all of them live in cabins in the woods. Some teach at universities.

Yes, I'm talking about Eric Pianka, University of Texas ecologist and Texas Distinguished Scientist of 2006, whose speech at the meeting of the Texas Academy of Science last month is making waves in the blogosphere. According to a report in the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, Pinka spoke enthusiastically of the (alleged) prospect of 90% of humanity being wiped out by a global epidemic, most probably of a mutated Ebola virus:

"Every one of you who gets to survive has to bury nine," Eric Pianka cautioned students and guests at St. Edward's University on Friday. Pianka's words are part of what he calls his "doomsday talk" - a 45-minute presentation outlining humanity's ecological misdeeds and Pianka's predictions about how nature, or perhaps humans themselves, will exterminate all but a fraction of civilization.

Though his statements are admittedly bold, he's not without abundant advocates. But what may set this revered biologist apart from other doomsday soothsayers is this: Humanity's collapse is a notion he embraces.

Indeed, his words deal, very literally, on a life-and-death scale, yet he smiles and jokes candidly throughout the lecture. Disseminating a message many would call morbid, Pianka's warnings are centered upon awareness rather than fear.

"This is really an exciting time," he said Friday amid warnings of apocalypse, destruction and disease. Only minutes earlier he declared, "Death. This is what awaits us all. Death." Reflecting on the so-called Ancient Chinese Curse, "May you live in interesting times," he wore, surprisingly, a smile.

So what's at the heart of Pianka's claim?

6.5 billion humans is too many.

In his estimation, "We've grown fat, apathetic and miserable," all the while leaving the planet parched.

The solution?

A 90 percent reduction.

That's 5.8 billion lives - lives he says are turning the planet into "fat, human biomass." He points to an 85 percent swell in the population during the last 25 years and insists civilization is on the brink of its downfall - likely at the hand of widespread disease.

Pianka is now under fire from Forrest M. Mims III, Chairman of the Environmental Science Section of the Texas Academy of Science, who claims that Pianka used the Texas Academy meeting as a forum to advocate the painful death of over 5 billion people.

Pharyngula, the noted science blog, responds by shooting the messenger, pointing out that Mims is a well-known advocate of intelligent design and a disgruntled critic of the science establishment ever since Scientific American refused to hire him as its "Amateur Scientist" columnist because of his pro-ID views. Pointing to another account of the meeting and the speech, by Texas Lutheran University senior and biology major Brenna McConnell, Pharyngula's PZ Myers says:

It mentions nothing of a plan to intentionally infect people with airborne ebola and kill a majority of the people on Earth.

But I don't think Mims claims that Pianka advocated such a plan, either. He did express concern that "a Pianka-worshipping former student might someday become a professional biologist or physician with access to the most deadly strains of viruses and bacteria." Well, when you think of the Unabomber, maybe the idea of an enviro-zealot turned bioterrorist isn't all that farfetched.

In fact, McConnell's account broadly confirms Mims', and also shows what kind of mindset his ideas generate:

Dr. Pianka's talk at the TAS meeting was mostly of the problems humans are causing as we rapidly proliferate around the globe. While what he had to say is way too vast to remember it all, moreover to relay it here in this blog, the bulk of his talk was that he's waiting for the virus that will eventually arise and kill off 90% of human population. In fact, his hope, if you can call it that, is that the ebola virus which attacks humans currently (but only through blood transmission) will mutate with the ebola virus that attacks monkeys airborne to create an airborne ebola virus that attacks humans. He's a radical thinker, that one! I mean, he's basically advocating for the death of all but 10% of the current population! And at the risk of sounding just as radical, I think he's right.

Humans are far too populous. We've used up our resources, and we're destroying the Earth at an accelerated pace. The more technology we create, the more damage we're capable of doing. ... It's the harsh reality that many people alive right now should be dead. And even harsher to think that the world would be better off with them dead too. My grandparents, who I love dearly and am so incredibly thankful to know, are honestly being kept alive only through the technology that we have created via medicine. The same goes for the millions of other old folk alive and kicking and will continue to do so for another 5-10 years, using up more resources. Or think of all the babies being born every hour with abnormalities that 50 years ago would have kept them from living. ...

Dr. Pianka made a very profound comment during his presentation; he said that China has the right idea by limiting reproduction at 1. We're past the point of replacement reproduction as a species. We're too many for the number we're at now! We need to decline in population. A virus is probably the fairest method of extermination (though still not completely fair, I admit) because it's nondiscriminatory as to whom it targets. Rich, poor, black, white, brown, nice, mean, religious, agnostic - we'd all be targeted equally. The only difference is who can afford medicine and even then, if it's a mutated virus that strikes fast, humans would have only the tiniest of a chance to find a cure in time so money wouldn't matter.

Of course, in reality, a virus would be quite discriminatory: Ebola is an African virus. In a correspondence with Mims, Pianka has apparently asserted that it could migrate to Europe or the Americas by means of a single infected airplane passenger. (Methinks he's seen the movie Outbreak a few too many times -- rooting for the virus, no doubt.) But it's virtually certain that quarantines and other preventive measures would be quickly imposed, and the damage in the West might well be contained while Africa turned into a mass grave. Furthermore, do Pianka and his followers really think the chances of infection and survival in an epidemic would have nothing to do with levels of sanitation, medical care, and other things related to wealth? (By the way, Pianka overstates the mortality rates from the virus -- according to Emergency Medicine, fatality rates in Ebola epidemics have ranged from 53% to 88% -- and does not seem to know that the infection rate for most airborne diseases is far below 100%.)

Pharyngula suggests that because Pianka received enthusiastic applause at the TAS meeting, his comments couldn't have been as vile as Mims and other critics suggests. But the fact is that anti-humanism has long enjoyed a disturbing level of acceptance in the environmental church, including acceptance from scientists. In an article in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on October 22, 1989, reviewing Bill McKibben's book, The End of Nature, David Graber, a research biologist with the National Park Service, wrote:

Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn't true. Somewhere along the line -- at about a billion years ago, maybe half that -- we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.

It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.

(Note that Graber's idea of rejoining nature entails going to a 500 million years BCE level of human culture. Charming.)

For other pearls of such wisdom, see this page.

This is evil stuff, and not very different from "classic" religious fanaticism in its hatred of human freedom and achievement, and its demand for absolute human submission to a greater power.

Pharyngula reports that the Texas Academy of Sciences has been receiving "death threats" over the Pianka speech, though the only email PZ Myers cites is a heated but non-violent condemnation which says (rightly) that the Academy is "diminished" by its association with Pianka's views. Of course death threats, or threats of any kind, are wrong. But I think that environmentalists, and scientists, need to recognize that they are diminished and compromised by doomsaying and misanthropy.

Mistrust of "godless" science is already all too common in American society. People like Pianka and Graber only give further ammunition to the enemies of science.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"Islamophobia," continued

I just finished an upcoming Reason column on critiques of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. It's a subject I've been interested in for some time; most recently, my interest was sparked by a post at the Infidels Blogger Alliance treating Slobodan Milosevic as a hero of anti-jihadi resistance (see my earlier post on the subject).

The issue is an extremely complicated one, because I don't think any reasonable person can in good faith deny "the trouble with Islam today," to use the phrase of Muslim reformist/critic Irshad Manji. There is a worldwide terrorist movement that espouses Islam (misinterpreted or not) as its ideology; and even beyond that movement, much of Muslim culture today is rife with religious intolerance, misogyny, and deep mistrust of freedom. I agree with Manji that reform in Islam is necessary, and that critics should not be intimidated by charges of "racism." I also agree that "Islamism" as a totalitarian political ideology, recently denounced in this manifesto co-signed by Manji, Salman Rushdie, and ten other writers and journalists, is a real and present danger.

That said, there are several troubling tendencies in the critique of "Islamism" or "jihadism."

* A tendency to treat all Muslim societies and cultures as the same. The attempt to depict Bosnian Muslims as bearers of the "Islamist" virus is the most egregious case in point. For some facts, see the recent article "Death of a Dictator" by Bill Kristol and Stephen Schwartz in The Weekly Standard. Kristol and Schwartz write that Bosnian Islam "represents a real asset for a Europe coming to grips with the Islamic challenge":

In the middle of the uproar and shouts--and some brutal slayings--accompanying the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, the chief Muslim cleric of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, issued a Declaration to European Muslims. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty accompanying the declaration, Ceric described the text as "a personal act . . . sending a message to the Western audience that we, Bosnian Muslims, did not agree with the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, on March 11, 2004, in Madrid, on July 7, 2005, in London."

... In an introduction to the declaration, Ceric argues, "Muslims must realize that the general feeling about their faith in Europe today is unfavorable. European Muslims must take the issue of violence in the name of Islam very seriously, not because some people hate Islam and Muslims, but because the act of violence, the act of terror, the act of hatred in the name of Islam is wrong. . . .European Muslims must develop a program for anti-violence." ...

Bosnians like Ceric survived the time of Milosevic without sharing in the evil he represented. Such Bosnians can serve as intellectual and moral examples for moderate Muslims around the world.

* Along the same lines, sweeping generalizations that reduce any social or political problem anywhere a "Muslim problem" as long as there are Muslims involved. Take this description by Mark Steyn:

There are many trouble spots around the world, but as a general rule, it's easy to make an educated guess at one of the participants: Muslims vs. Jews in "Palestine," Muslims vs. Hindus in Kashmir, Muslims vs. Christians in Africa, Muslims vs. Buddhists in Thailand, Muslims vs. Russians in the Caucasus, Muslims vs. backpacking tourists in Bali.

This account not only omits many non-Islamic trouble spots, from Korea to Colombia, but also implicitly presumes that Muslims are the guilty parties and Islam is the problem in every conflict listed. Yet the war in Chechnya, for instance, is primarily a Russian war of imperial aggression, and religion has never been a strong factor in that region (though Al Qaeda has gained a foothold there thanks to the war). And in Hindu-Muslim conflicts, Muslims have been victims as well as aggressors.

* The very error that the anti-Islamist manifesto signed by Manji, Rushdie, et al. warns against: going from critique of the religion to stigmatization of believers. See, for instance, these posts at, aserting that every self-identified Muslim, however law-abiding, integrated into mainstream society, or seemingly peaceful, is dangerous -- because he is a potential jihadist or because his children may revert to the extremist version of Islam. Anti-Muslim prejudice lapses into overt racism in Oriana Fallaci's 2002 screed, The Rage and the Pride, in which concerns with terrorism and the oppression of women morph all too easily into fear and loathing of smelly aliens who spread filth and disease. (While some of Fallaci's fans have compared her to Christopher Hitchens as a staunch opponent of "Islamofascism," Hitchens himself has slammed Fallaci's book as "a sort of primer on how not to write about Islam.")

* Arguments that Islam is so inherently intolerant, violent, oppressive, etc. that it is effectively beyond reform. A March 27 editorial in Investor's Business Daily raises this issue by asking Islamic leaders who claim that Islam is a misunderstood "religion of peace" a series of questions:

Is it true that 26 chapters of the Quran deal with jihad, a fight able-bodied believers are obligated to join (Surah 2:216), and that the text orders Muslims to "instill terror into the hearts of the unbeliever" and to "smite above their necks" (8:12)?

Is the "test" of loyalty to Allah not good acts or faith in general, but martyrdom that results from fighting unbelievers (47:4) — the only assurance of salvation in Islam (4:74; 9:111)?

Are the sins of any Muslim who becomes a martyr forgiven by the very act of being slain while slaying the unbelievers (4:96)?


Does Islam advocate expansion by force? And is the final command of jihad, as revealed to Muhammad in the Quran, to conquer the world in the name of Islam (9:29)?

Is Islam the only religion that does not teach the Golden Rule (48:29)? Does the Quran instead teach violence and hatred against non-Muslims, specifically Jews and Christians (5:50)?

Partly inspired by the IBD editorial, I decided to delve into the Koran over the weekend (the full text, in three different translations, can be found here). I'm not, I hasten to say, an expert on the Koran or Islam; but neither are those who are procliming Islam to be a "death cult." It is quite true that, partly due to the history of early Islam and the conflicts between Muhammad and his followers and neighboring tribes, the Koran contains many references to the righteousness of armed struggle -- ostensibly only to resist the oppression and persecution of Muslims, but of course "oppression" and "persecution" are fairly subjective terms. There are also some passages which can be read as saying that only full domination of Islam is acceptable. A lot depends on the translation. For instance, here is Chapter 2, verse 190, in three versions:

YUSUFALI: Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.
PICKTHAL: Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.
SHAKIR: And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.

And 2:193:

YUSUFALI: And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.
PICKTHAL: And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.
SHAKIR: And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors.

Here's verse 9:29, referenced by IBD:

YUSUFALI: Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
PICKTHAL: Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.
SHAKIR: Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.

(The "People of the Book" are Christians and Jews.)

This certainly can be read as a commandment to global domination (though many scholars of Islam would undoubtedly argue that it is a specific response to specific historical circumstances); but there are other passages (2:128 and 8:72, among others) which assert that those who flee or emigrate to preserve their faith, as well as those who "strive" in the cause of Allah will find favor with God. None of the verses referenced by IBD say that joining the jihad is the only way to find salvation is Islam. The text of 8:12 has God saying that he will "strike terror into the hearts of unbelievers." 47:4 says:

So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates. That (shall be so); and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have exacted what is due from them, but that He may try some of you by means of others; and (as for) those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will by no means allow their deeds to perish.

Along with these violent passages, however, there are others stating that there must be no compulsion in religion (2:256) and that Jews and Christians as well as Muslims may be rewarded in the hereafter (2:262):

Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the f Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.

Clearly the Koran can be (and is) interpreted and cherry-picked for conflicting and contradictory messages. Let's not forget that the Bible is full of violent passages that encourage conquest. While Christianity does not preach armed struggle, John 8:44 has Jesus telling the Jews who reject his message , "You belong to your father the devil"; and in Corinthians II, 6:14-16, St. Paul writes:

14 Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?

Christianity and Judaism have dealt with and largely transcended their legacy of intolerance. For the sake of both Muslims and the rest of the world, Islam needs to do the same; and there is no scriptural reason that it can't. (Jews, even ultra-Orthodox Jews, have no problem ignoring large portions of their scripture which mandate death as the penalty for everything from adultery to apostasy.)

As I've said, I'm no expert on Islam. But Princeton historian Bernard Lewis is; and I will take the word of Lewis, who warned about the danger of "Muslim rage" all the way back in 1990 (and is smeared as an anti-Muslim bigot by many Islamists) but who has continued to insist that Islam has many positive aspects and real potential for reform and democratization, over those of's Hugh Fitzgerald, who sees fit to deride Lewis as a "dhimmi" (a nonbeliever who accepts his second-class status under Islam).

The "trouble with Islam today" must be honestly confronted; that means examining those elements of the Koran that exhort "struggle" against nonbelievers, and sending a clear message that a pro-terrorist interpretation of these passages is unacceptable in mainstream Islam. It is quite true that "political correctness" often stands in the way of such honest examination. But so does the militant condemnation of Islam itself. Such an atittude is, ultimately, a dead end that can lead only to holy war -- and to apologias for Milosevic-style genocide.