Monday, November 27, 2006

The self-parody files: Fat studies

If "Deaf culture" strikes you as a manifestation of identity politics gone mad, check out fat studies, the subject of a depressing article in the Style section of yesterday's New York Times. This is the "fat acceptance" movement coming to campus. According to the Times:

Even as science, medicine and government have defined obesity as a threat to the nation’s health and treasury, fat studies is emerging as a new interdisciplinary area of study on campuses across the country and is gaining interest in Australia and Britain. Nestled within the humanities and social sciences fields, fat studies explores the social and political consequences of being fat.

For most scholars of fat, though, it is not an objective pursuit. Proponents of fat studies see it as the sister subject — and it is most often women promoting the study, many of whom are lesbian activists — to women’s studies, queer studies, disability studies and ethnic studies. In many of its permutations, then, it is the study of a people its supporters believe are victims of prejudice, stereotypes and oppression by mainstream society.

“It’s about a dominant culture’s ideals of what a real person should be,” said Stefanie Snider, 29, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whose dissertation will be on the intersection of queer and fat identities in the United States in the 20th century. “And whether that has to do with skin color or heritage or sexual orientation or ability, it ends up being similar in a lot of ways.”

Fat studies is still a fringe area of scholarship, but it is gaining traction. Three years ago, the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, which promotes scholarly research of popular culture, added a fat studies component to regional and national conferences.

The article does discuss the fact that the medical profession views obesity as a serious health hazard. Apparently, the overriding agenda of "fat studies" is to combat this perception:

But proponents of fat studies challenge the science behind those conclusions and firmly believe that obesity research is shaped by society’s bias against fat people and that the consequences of excessive weight are not as bad as scientists portray.

And we can all be sure that this is a purely scientific critique entirely free of things like wishful thinking.

The article also discusses the rather embarrassing case of fat studies proponent Kathleen LeBesco, head of the department of communications at Marymount Manhattan College and author of a 2004 book called Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, who lost 70 lbs after a doctor told her she was at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. (LeBesco's journey is discussed in detail in The Chronicle of Higher Education last June.) LeBesco is apparently appalled by the focus on her weight loss:

“It’s similar to discussions within feminism,” she said. “Can you support the team if you’re a man? Or can you be into queer activism if you’re not queer?” In the end, she said, the attention to her size proved the theory that society can’t keep its sights off women’s bodies.

Nice analogy, but it doesn't fly. A gay person who decided to undergo "reparative therapy" to become straight -- which, if we are to accept the "fat acceptance" mindset, would be analogous to LeBesco's weight loss -- would be unlikely to find acceptance in "queer activism" or "queer studies." In The Chronicle, LeBesco "acknowleges uncomfortably" that most of the people who have signed up for her "Healthy at Any Size" campus group were drawn by her own weight loss. What's more, LeBesco's example undercuts some cherished "fat liberation" myths: for instance, that obesity is not unhealthy, or that it has nothing to do with lifestyle habits or self-discipline. LeBesco lost weight through diet and exercise, and in the Chronicle piece she freely admits that her past obesity was a result of her tendency to "let [her] appetite run away." (Actually, LeBesco, as profiled in The Chronicle, is an odd case study. Convinced since childhood that she was doomed to be fat because her father was, she spent her youth on a variety of diets, some of them quite unhealthy. However, even when she was thin, she always felt like a fat person who was "passing" for slim, and eventually she began to explore the politics of fat identity.)

Ann Althouse has an interesting discussion of the topic. Also, my earlier columns on obesity and "fat liberation" can be found here and here. The first of these articles discusses a study released in 2005 which purported to show that the dangers of being overweight were far less than they were made out to be. The fat-acceptance activists were quick to seize on that, despite the fact that the study's "good news" applied to moderately overweight people, not to the morbid obesity championed as a matter of "pride" by the fat libbers. Yet new research that has come out since then casts serious doubt even on the 2005 report:

In what researchers say is the largest and most definitive study yet on whether merely being overweight but not obese is harmful to health, doctors found significantly higher premature death rates in middle-aged overweight people and dramatically higher death rates in those who were obese.

There have been alarming reports, as well, on the health consequences of increasing childhood obesity. (For a rather chilling example "fat acceptance" lunacy, see the fat libbers' defense of a mother who allowed her 13-year-old daughter to balloon to the size of 680 lbs, and was prosecuted for neglect after the girl died of heart failure.)

I am not denying that obsession with thinness and unrealistic ideals of slenderness are a real problem in contemporary Western culture as well, or that quite a few people do themselves harm with yo-yo dieting and fad diets, not to mention eating disorders. Unfortunately, instead of espousing a sensible approach to weight control (healthy, moderate eating and exercise), the fat acceptance activists and their academic allies are pursuing the severaly misguided goal of "destigmatizing" fat, downplaying its risks, and depicting the obese as victims of political and social oppression.

Of course, according to the Times:

Elena Escalera, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., vehemently disagrees with the idea that fat studies perpetuates a victim’s mentality.

“This is not about victimhood, but about becoming empowered,” she said. “Did Martin Luther King and Malcolm X espouse victimhood? Did Susan B. Anthony? It’s really easy for people to feel that fat people are trying to find an excuse.”

Actually, I suspect that Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony would be appalled by much of what goes on in race and gender studies on American campuses today. But that aside -- yes, it's really easy for people to feel that a movement which pooh-pooh self-restraint and makes heroes of people who are "strong enough to cast aside diet mentality and live in the present" (a quote from LeBesco in CHE) is really about "fat people ... trying to find an excuse." It's really easy for a really good reason.

Of course, aside from the dubious nature of "fat acceptance" ideology, there is also the question of academic programs that exist to champion a particular point of view and a particular agenda, rather than to strive for knowledge and at least attempt an unbiased intellectual inquiry. (Thank you, women's studies.) There is nothing wrong with the idea of a college course examining the evolution of social and cultural attitudes toward body shape and size, perhaps within sociology or another social science course. But this is obviously not what "fat studies" is about.

Maybe the next frontier in the academic battle against all varieties of oppression should be "drunk studies." Why not an academic program championing the idea that "alcohol abuse" is an artificial construct based on the mainstream culture's oppressive notions of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate consumption of alcohol? "Drunk studies" could tell us that the stigmatization of drunkenness stems from the Western valorization of such dubious values as self-control, rationality, and obedience to social norms, and reflects a pernicious fear of rebellion against inhibitions and authority. Of course, it would also question conventional wisdom -- supposedly based on scientific evidence, but really rooted in anti-drunk bias -- about the deleterious health consequences of alcohol abuse and the dangers of drunk driving. After all, the goal of "drunk studies" would be to empower drunks!

I think I should get a grant.

Update: Welcome, Instapundit and Ann Althouse readers!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Litvinenko: A follow-up

A long article in yesterday's New York Times summarizes the information available so far on the death of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin and of the Russian federal security service, the FSB (heir to the KGB). According to the story:

Scientists were astounded at the use of the rare and hard-to-produce substance, polonium 210, which is dangerous when breathed, injected or ingested. ...

The police searched several locations that Mr. Litvinenko had visited in early November— the Itsu sushi bar on Piccadilly, his home in the white-collar Muswell Hill neighborhood of north London and the Mayfair Millennium Hotel near the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square — and said they had found radioactive traces at each of them. Television showed plainclothes officers carrying away a metal box and several tote bags of evidence from the Itsu restaurant.

A British counterterrorism official said polonium 210 was a byproduct of the nuclear industry and is used in the production of antistatic materials. But in the form believed to have been used in the suspected poisoning, it would have required high-grade technical skills and a sophisticated scientific process to produce, probably within a nuclear lab.

See also the related story on polonium, and more information in this Reuters story. One British cabinet member, Northern Ireland minister Peter Hain, has made an unusually strong public statement:

"The promise that President Putin brought to Russia when he came to power has been clouded by what has happened since, including some extremely murky murders," he told BBC television.
Meanwhile, the Times story quotes offers this gem from a Putin spokesman:

While Mr. Litvinenko’s friends have accused President Putin, the Russian leader’s own supporters have hinted at a conspiracy of a different nature.

In Helsinki, where the poisoning overshadowed efforts to resolve disagreements on European-Russian relations, Mr. Putin’s aide in charge of European affairs, Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, said: “What is alarming is the eye-striking, excessive number of deliberate coincidences of high-profiling deaths of people who positioned themselves as opponents to the existing Russian government with international events in which the Russian president takes part.”

He added that Russia faced “a well-orchestrated campaign or a plan to consistently discredit Russia and its leader,” according to the Interfax news agency.

Deliberate coincidences! Alarming, indeed. Obviously, those devious foes of Russia will stop at nothing. Maybe Litvinenko poisoned himself just so he could discredit poor Putin!

Obviously, I don't think anyone should jump to conclusions and blame Putin personally, or the Russian intelligence services in general. Other scenarios are possible too -- though, if the murder was carried out by rogue elements within the FSB, that does not necessarily absolve the Russian regime. As a friend of Litvinenko's told Reuters:

Those rogue people are ... the direct responsibility of Mr Putin. They are the result of his ideology of force and this nationalism which is now being injected in the Russian people.

However, I don't buy the idea that the Kremlin had no reason to murder Litvinenko, or that it does not stand to benefit by his death. For one, the murder could be a very effective way to send a message to other critics of the Putin regime, particularly those who don't simply criticize but seek to expose the regime's misdeeds: lie low, or else. As for the harm to Putin's and Russia's image abroad, and to international relations: quite possibly, those reponsible for the murder consicously decided that the risk of serious damage was very low. After all, it's highly unlikely that the Kremlin connection (if it exists) can ever be established beyond a reasonable doubt; and, particularly given the West's current energy dependence on Russia at the moment, it's also quite unlikely that the Western powers would risk a real break with Russia, at least in the absence of definitive evidence.

The most likely scenario is that Russia will remain a suspect in the Litvinenko murder without ever being proven guilty. And that scenario, actually, may serve the Putin regime's interests very well: the suspicion will likely be enough to intimidate and silence many opponents of the regime, but not enough to really muck things up for Russia on the international scene.

Does that mean Putin did it? Not necessarily. But he certainly had the motive; and, at least judging by the latest reports, it's not clear how many people with no connection to the Kremlin would have had the opportunity.

Friday, November 24, 2006

L'affaire Litvinenko and perceptions of Russia

So Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy/defector who has fallen mysteriously ill after meeting with a source while investigating the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, died in a London hospital yesterday, apparently poisoned by a powerful radioactive substance (see many links on the page). Litvinenko, in a deathbed statement, has accused Putin of being behind his poisoning; the Kremlin denies it as "nonsense," and Putin has personally denied any role, but of course one wouldn't expect him to issue a statement along the lines of "If I had had Litvinenko murdered, here's how I would have done it."

What to make of this story? The murder of defectors/dissenters is certainly a secret services M.O. from the old communist days. Could the new Russia be up to those old tricks? Sadly, I can't say I would be shocked. After Politkovskaya's murder, Putin issued a comment that was rather extraordinary in its cynicism: "She had minimal influence on political life in Russia. This murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications." As I noted in my column on the subject, Putin thus not only dismissed Politkovskaya's work as insignificant but also branded it as harmful to her country; but there's another remarkable aspect to that comment, as well. In essence, Putin was dismissing suspicions that his agents had murdered Politkovskaya not on the grounds that the Russian government doesn't do such things, but that it had no reason to. Ironically, Soviet foreign intelligence spokesman Sergei Ivanov has made the same charming argument in response to Litvinenko's death, telling the Interfax news agency that "Litvinenko is not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations" and "it is absolutely not in our interests to be engaged in such activity."

Putin, perhaps realizing that Russia is getting some serious bad PR, has responded to Litvinenko's death in a far less callous fashion than he did to Politkovskaya; he has called Litvinenko's death a tragedy and expressed condolences to his family.

Could Russia be implicated? On the one hand, it does seem improbable that Russia would risk a major scandal by assassinating a critic in a Western country. On the other hand, if Litvinenko was enough of a thorn in their side (and/or was on the trail of something important regarding the Politkovskaya case), it's conceivable that the Putin regime could have counted on his murder never being traced. And indeed, it's likely that we'll never know for sure. It's also possible that the FSB (former KGB) could have pulled off this operation without Putin's direct knowledge. Or perhaps Putin chose not to know.

While looking for articles on the topic, I came across a fascinating post on Sean's Russia Blog, the work of UCLA graduate student Sean Guillory. Guillory argues that people are too quick to blame Russia for the Litvinenko poisoning, and perhaps he has a point. He notes, for instance, that even if the poisoning is linked to Russian intelligence, it could have been carried out by rogue elements in the FSB. Fair enough. (It should be noted that Guillory made his post before the new evidence of polonium poisoning as the cause of the ex-spy's illness and death.) But then Guillory goes on to say:

The readiness for Westerns to believe that the Kremlin is behind every nefarious plot is a long standing view. In fact, suspicion, rumor and a willingness to accept conspiracy drove a whole generation of Soviet historiography. For example, many historians explain every bad thing that happened in the 1930s as a result of Stalin’s direct hand. This includes the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934 and Ordzhonikidze’s suicide in 1937 as well as the belief that there was a plan behind collectivization and the Terror.

Evidence doesn’t matter when it comes to Stalin, Russia, and now, even Putin. They are all given magical powers to direct events and history at will. This line of thinking only shows how difficult it is to break the Cold War’s cultural and ideological structures that still inform how we in the West think about Russia. ...

This is not to suggest that Russia doesn’t share some of the blame for its negative image. Putin’s reaction to Anna Politkovskaya’s murder was cold and indifferent. In addition, Russia does have serious problems with nationalism, racism, democracy, political and press freedom, and corruption. The Kremlin’s ambivalence and lack of action feeds into assumptions about its ill intent. As an editorial in the International Herald Tribune rightly states, “instead of going into a snarling, defensive crouch over each political hit, the Russian government has to start reining in the former spies, organized criminals and Chechen quislings, and start solving some cases.”

Still, the jump to conspiracy without evidence, let alone the Tribune’s animalistic ascriptions, perpetuates Russia as some sort of abnormal society. Not only does it make Russia appear hopelessly and eternally backward, it also inevitably posits the West as normative. And this is exactly what Orientalism does: it is a position from which to claim enlightenment at the expense and detriment of the Other. If you don’t think so, take a look at the final line of the Guardian’s editorial, “Poisoning dissidents cannot be part of a modern, democratic agenda.” True enough. But who but the West is the silent measurement for what is “modern’ and ‘democratic’ in this statement?

(The Guardian editorial in question is here; Guillory finds fault with its apparently too value-laden language, such as a reference to Russia's "bad habits of bullying and intervening" in neighboring states such as Ukraine and Georgia. Tut, tut.)

Of course, no one should jump to conclusions without evidence. But Guillory pooh-poohs conclusions based on some pretty weighty evidence -- for instance, about Stalin's link to the Kirov murder, which as far as I know is recognized as likely by most mainstream Russian historians today. (This link was first suggested by Nikita Khrushchev in his 1956 speech at a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which he first denounced the Stalin cult.) And Guillory's apparent belief that collectivization and the Great Terror "just happened" unplanned represents an extraordinary willingness to give the Stalin regime the benefit of the doubt. The argument that Stalin never planned to rule by terror but simply reacted to events and let them spin out of control -- made, inter alia, by Miami (Ohio) University historian Robert Thurston in the 1996 book Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia -- is ironically quite similar to David Irving's claims about the Nazi murder of the Jews.

So, in fact, Guillory complaint about excessive readiness to credit claims of Russian wrongdoing points to the exact opposite: a reluctance to recognize atrocities committed by Russia or some other "Other," motivated by fear of making these societies look, God forbid, "abnormal." Or fear of, God forbid even more, admitting that Western and Western-modeled governments, for all their significant flaws, are the closest we've got to a standard of democracy, modernity, and enlightenment.

Guillory's fretting about the Guardian editorial is especially ironic since there is little doubt that The Guardian would not hesitate to use equally harsh language about, say, Bush's America.

To answer Guillory's question: who, in this statement, is the measurement for what is "modern" and "democratic"? I would suggest, for starters, any government that does not either murder or muzzle its critics.

More on the faith wars

For those who may have missed it, a follow-up to my post on religious and anti-religious intolerance: an interesting piece in the New York Times on a forum titled “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.” With anti-religionists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on hand, and some believing scientists apparently invited but unable to attend, the event turned into a spirited religion-bash, with such declarations as this, from physicist Stephen Weinberg:

Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of talk that makes many people think scientists have an ideological agenda of undermining religion. In fact, a few speakers highlighted this problem:

“There are six billion people in the world,” said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. “If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.”

“People need to find meaning and purpose in life,” he said. “I don’t think we want to take that away from them.”

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University known for his staunch opposition to teaching creationism, found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing the moderate. “I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong,” he said.

“The Earth isn’t 6,000 years old,” he said. “The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian.” But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being — Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever — is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,” Dr. Krauss insisted. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

That was just the kind of accommodating attitude that drove Dr. Dawkins up the wall. “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” he said. “Children are systematically taught that there is a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real evidence.”

And the last word, at least for me, goes to anthropologist Melvin Konner:

By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.”

“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”

His response to Mr. Harris and Dr. Dawkins was scathing. “I think that you and Richard are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side,” he said, “and that you generate more fear and hatred of science.”

The conflict may be particularly pointed because some of the science supremacists' notion of outmoded prejudices includes not only religion but the traditional humanistic belief in human agency and moral autonomy. For more, see my August 2005 Reason column on "the new neuromorality." A common line of attack on science from the right is that it destroys the foundations of right and wrong, treating people as no different in moral status than slugs. For science to actually start championing that viewpoint is not a smart thing.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The faith wars

My latest column in The Boston Globe deals with the ever-contentious debates over religion. It was inspired, in large part, less by punditry than by the squabbling I have seen on internet forums and blogsites.

BEHIND THE political divide in America, there is also a religious divide. The split is not just between people who believe and people who do not; it is between those who see religious faith as society's foundation and those who see it as society's bane. So far, the debates on this subject have generated more heat than light, as both sides preach to the converted and talk at, not to, those who disagree. In the most recent volley in the faith wars, British pop star Elton John has said that if it were up to him, he would "ban religion completely" because it promotes anti gay bigotry and hate.

A look at recent best-selling books illustrates the divide. Ann Coulter's "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" excoriates liberals for being, well, godless. Bill O'Reilly's new tome, "Culture Warrior," urges traditionalists to combat the evil influence of the "secular-progressives." For the other side, there's "Letter to a Christian Nation" by philosopher Sam Harris, who calls all religion "obscene" and "utterly repellent," and "The God Delusion" by biologist Richard Dawkins, a tome whose title speaks for itself.

Both sides in the debate traffic in simplistic stereotypes. Anti religionists such as Harris assert that religion is dangerous because it has historically promoted violence and oppression -- and, in the form of Muslim extremism, continues to do so today. Yet the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were committed by totalitarian states armed with ideologies that were either explicitly atheist (communism) or non religious (Nazism). What's more, in the past and at present, religious fanaticism has often served as a vehicle and a cover for other tribal allegiances, such as nationalism.

Equally misguided, however, is the claim made by many champions of religion that secularists lack the will to combat evil because they are moral relativists who don't believe in good and evil anyway. Pat Tillman, the football player tragically killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, was an atheist who joined the armed forces after Sept. 11 because he wanted to fight for his country against the barbarians who attacked it. Andrei Sakharov, a physicist and a secular humanist, stood up to the Soviet regime in the 1970s, at great risk to himself, in the name of human rights.

A religion, like any other set of beliefs, can be used for good or bad. In America, some people used the Bible to justify slavery, but Christians were also in the forefront of the battle to abolish it. Any passionately held belief, whether or not it includes God, can make some people intolerant, closed-minded, unwilling to look at facts that
contradict their dogma, and hateful toward those who disagree.

It doesn't help that religion has become intertwined with politics. A recent column by film critic and pundit Michael Medved conflates attacks on religion with criticism of the political power of religious conservatives: Such books as "The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right" by Rabbi Michael Lerner, written from a religious point of view, are lumped together with Harris's anti religion screed. Meanwhile, conservative author Heather MacDonald, writing in USA Today, complains that "skeptical conservatives" feel marginalized in today's discourse. The new vogue for wearing one's faith on one's political sleeve is a prescription for religious strife.

Given the right's efforts to legislate explicitly religious values and to smuggle the pseudo-scientific religious doctrine of "intelligent design" into science classrooms, an anti religion backlash was probably inevitable. But attempts on the left to expunge all religion from the public square have contributed to the problem.

Each side in the faith wars is angry and afraid. Secularists see a creeping theocracy in attempts to outlaw same-sex unions, abortion, and stem cell research and to promote government funding for faith-based charities. Believers see assaults on their values everywhere from education to television and movies. Non religious Americans feel they are a beleaguered minority; in fact, more than half of Americans hold a negative view of people who don't believe in God. Religious Americans feel, also with some justification, that they are held in contempt by intellectual and cultural elites (remember Ted Turner's reference to Catholics as "Jesus freaks"?)

Unfortunately, the current polemics only reinforce these fears. Religious people see atheists who are hateful and intolerant toward faith, to the point of wanting to ban it; secularists see champions of religion who promote hostility toward non believers and wield religion as a political club. Under these circumstances, there is little prospect for dialogue or true understanding -- only for more shouting.

I'm sure I'll get my share of ribbing for trying to be too even-handed and find fault with both sides. No, I don't think both sides are always equally to blame in any debate, and even in specific debates involving religion -- such as "intelligent design" -- I see no point in trying to split things down the middle. But in the larger debate about religion versus secularism, I have found the intolerance to be largely equivalent on both sides. In the past six years, the religious bullies have had more power in American society at large than the secularist ones, sometimes with genuinely coercive consequences (see the Terri Schiavo case, attempts to gut stem cell resesarch and smuggle ID into science classrooms, even faith-based initiatives funding which in some cases means preferential social services for Christians or potential Christian converts). However, no one should have any illusions about secularist bullying in those sectors where the secularists have more power. Let's not forget genuine cases of intolerance toward voluntary religious speech by students in public schools, and toward other non-coercive religious expression in the public square.

There is no question that many among the literati view religion with irrational hostility and contempt; and there is no question that all too often, in responding to these attacks, religious conservatives are quick to show irrational hostility and contempt toward all who are not religious. See, for instance, this December 2005 blogpost by Gerald Vanderleun, who assails historian Peter Watson's preposterous assertion that "ethical monotheism" is the worst and most harmful idea in human history -- and ends up essentially asserting that nothing good in history or in human life is possible without monotheistic religion.

Similar extremes prevail whenever people start arguing about religion; and, typically, neither side realizes how intolerant and condescending it is. I have seen Christians react with anger to the suggestion that believers are gullible and simple-minded, and then in their next breath suggest that non-believers are less moral and/or lead spiritually empty lives. I have seen atheists denounce religion for promoting intolerance and displaying intolerance toward anything smacking of religion.

A final note: I think the encroachments of science and religion on each other's turf contribute greatly to the hostilities. The "intelligent design" movement boosts the worst stereotypes educated secularists have of religion. Conversely, scientists who speak of the very idea of the human soul with a condescending irony fan believers' worst fears about science as a cold, inhuman, anti-spiritual enterprise. Sam Harris, apparently, plans to write a book on neuroscience -- which he began to study late, as an outgrowth of his philosophical interests -- debunking the concept of free will. That's not going to win many friends.

By the way, the Michael Medved article mentioned in my column can be read here. And here is Heather MacDonald's article on "skeptical conservatives."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The politics of "Deaf culture"

I have written about the politics of "Deaf pride/Deaf culture" on some previous occasions; the subject interests me mainly because it is such a perfect reductio ad absurdum of "political correctness" and identity politics. The phenomenon first drew my attention in 1988 when I heard about the protests at Gallaudet University, the world's only university designed entirely for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, against the appointment of a hearing president, Elisabeth Zinser (at that point, Gallaudet had never had a deaf president since its inception in its more than 100-year history). What struck me was not so much the protest itself as the atittudes of militants who railed against the idea of deafness as something that needed to be "fixed"; one of them said that he would puncture his own eardrums if he suddenly woke up with the ability to hear.

This year, the controversy at Gallaudet was not about about a hearing president but about a president who, apparently, wasn't "deaf enough." My column on the topic ran in The Boston Globe last week, and since that was before I resumed blogging, I thought I'd share it now.

SINCE LAST MAY, Gallaudet University, the world's only university designed entirely for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, has been rocked by protests over
the selection of a new president.

Jane K. Fernandes was scheduled to take over from I. King Jordan in January. On Oct. 29, after protesters shut down the Washington campus for more than two weeks, the board of trustees revoked Fernandes's appointment. This fiasco is a striking example of identity politics gone mad.

In 1988, protesters rebelled against the appointment of a hearing president, Elisabeth Singer, and demanded a deaf president (something Gallaudet had never had since its founding in 1864). Singer resigned , and Jordan was appointed in her place.

Fernandes, the Gallaudet provost whom Jordan wanted to see as his replacement, is also deaf; but to some, "not deaf enough." She grew up lip-reading and speaking and learned sign language only as a graduate student.

In recent weeks, anti-Fernandes students and professors have denied that their objections had anything to do with her not being deaf enough, and have accused her of raising the issue to pose as a victim of political correctness.

However, the Washington Post reports that the protesters backed off the "not deaf enough" complaint only when they realized that it wasn't likely to garner sympathy from the outside world. They focused instead on Fernandes's supposedly autocratic and intimidating leadership style and her alleged lack of interpersonal skills (one critic quoted by the Inside Higher Ed website even noted that she didn't smile enough).

There were also vague charges that she is insufficiently committed to fighting racism. Yet none of these gripes seem sufficient to justify the passion hat led to her ouster: the protests included hunger strikes and threats of violence.

Some of the criticisms publicly leveled at Fernandes are overtly rooted in identity politics. In a letter to the Post , Gallaudet English professor Kathleen M. Wood excoriated both Fernandes and Jordan for taking the position that Gallaudet is for all deaf students. This misguided inclusiveness, Wood asserted , had attracted deaf students who were "not integrating into Deaf culture" and resisting the use of sign language. She ended her letter by stating, "The new Gallaudet will not be for everyone."

"Deaf culture" -- that's Deaf with a capital D -- has flourished at Gallaudet. It is a radical movement that views deafness not as a disability but as an oppressed minority status akin to race, and also as a unique linguistic culture. The movement holds that there is nothing wrong with being deaf, only with how society has treated deaf people.

Few would deny that, historically, deaf people and others with disabilities have endured stereotyping, bias, and unfairness. Much progress has been made toward seeing people with disabilities as whole individuals, toward focusing on what they can do, not on what they can't . But it's a leap from this understanding to the bizarre idea that the lack of hearing is no more a disability than being female or black. (Verbal communication aside, surely being unable to hear environmental sounds often places a person at a serious disadvantage.)

The majority of deaf people do not belong to Deaf culture. It is estimated that at most a quarter of profoundly deaf people in the United States use sign language. Yet at many schools for the deaf, signing has been dogmatically treated as the only acceptable communication; children with some hearing have received little training in auditory and speaking skills. Deaf schools that promote "oralism" have been targeted for protests.

More harmful still, Deaf activists have railed against cochlear implants, which enable many deaf children to gain functional hearing; some deaf parents have denied implants to their children on ideological grounds. The activists also oppose research into cures for deafness through gene therapy and other means.

To them, attempts to "fix" deafness amounts to nothing short of genocide.

Fernandes herself embraces Deaf culture, but she does not want it to be isolated from the hearing world or exclude those who don't meet purist standards of "Deafness." She also believes that the deaf community must deal honestly with
the challenges posed by advances in medicine. When this sensible view is rejected under pressure from a handful of radicals, it is a testament to the madness that can prevail when oppressed-minority status becomes a weapon to silence critics.

And here's a response on a blog called Berke Outspoken, which claims that my column "gets it all wrong." As far as I can tell, this post finds exactly one actual error: though some bizarre brain-to-hand miscommunication, I misspelled "Elisabeth Zinser," the name of the temporary hearing president of Gallaudet in 1988, as "Elisabeth Singer." (Actually, I almost did it again while typing this paragraph.) The blogger, one Jamie, concludes that I "obviously didn't do [my] homework"; in fact, I had read two articles on the 1988 controversy immediately prior to writing the column.

I'm amused by this point in the "rebuttal":

She claims most deaf people do not belong to Deaf culture. That may be true, but
oral deaf people do belong to the deaf community even if they are not "culturally" deaf.

First of all, many of those people may not think of themselves as belonging to the "deaf community." Secondly, there are quite a few who not only don't belong to "Deaf culture" but actively oppose it.

Jamie, the blogger, also claims that several claims in my column (e.g. about Deaf activists opposing cochlear implants and research into cures for deafness) are made up out of whole cloth. My 2002 Reason column on the topic has much more on the sources.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The "Al Qaeda cheers the Democrats' victory" meme

Among conservative responses to the Democrats' victory, this undoubtedly qualifies as the most pathetic: gloating over an audio tape by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, leader of the Al Qaeda in Iraq, welcoming the Democrats' victory in the midterm elections. John Hinderaker at Powerline inquires:

Do the Democrats feel at all sheepish at having their victory hailed by al Qaeda? Do they feel any pressure to demonstrate to the American people that they are not a de facto ally of the terrorists? Not as far as we've noticed so far. But when the Democrats stop celebrating, they may want to pause long enough to consider a simple question: Why are the terrorists so happy that they won?

H/T: John Cole.

Hinderaker goes on to invite his readers to "contribute your thoughts on why the Democrats are the terrorists' favorite party, and why they--so far, anyway--don't seem to mind."


(For more of the sort, see Protein Wisdom.)

Captain's Quarters has a great response, titled, "Not going to bite."

Actually, Zarqawi's successor had a lot more to say about America and Americans. He also called George Bush the "most stupid President" in history, and he requested that Bush stick around in Iraq because AQ terrorists hadn't killed their fill of Americans. It's the kind of stupid rant that makes radical Islamists and their sympathizers swoon with delight, but is filled with hyperbole and crude attempts at psychological warfare and propaganda.


Radical Islamists want to divide Americans in order to defeat us. They will play on our differences, stoking the fires of resentment and generating more hatred between us than we have against our enemies. AQ understands that the only way they can possibly beat the US is to get us to grind to a halt with partisan warfare at home, paralyzing our ability to fight them on the battlefield and sapping our will to put them out of business. This video is transparently calculated to give enough ammunition to both sides of the political divide to do that job. Besides, if we take Abu Hamza at his word about the Democrats, then we have to take him at his word about Bush as well, and about our troops.

... We've already had the election, and the Democrats are in charge -- and they will be for two years no matter what. Obviously, we will watch closely to ensure that they do not surrender to terrorism, but I'm not going to take Abu Hamza's word that they will before their majority session even starts. They are Americans, and Americans put them in charge, and they have earned the right to show us how they will face the enemy now that they control the agenda. If they fail, I'll be the first to castigate them for losing ground to the terrorists. ...

The reality is that we cannot win the war on terror without the Democrats after these midterm elections. Rather than continue with antagonizing rhetoric, we'd better find ways to engage them rationally in this effort if we want to survive. I'm hoping we can find common ground with them now that they have the responsibility to govern. If we can't, then let's criticize them for their actual failures, and not get so intent on grasping at any way to attack them that we start becoming repeater stations for the ravings of genocidal lunatics.

See also Captain Ed's follow-up, "Still Not Biting."

At least for me, this is as good a litmus test as any to separate conservatives I respect from ideologues who traffic in knee-jerk partisan rhetoric.

Shortly before the elections, on CNN, Lynne Cheney ripped into Wolf Blitzer for airing a video made by the Iraqi insurgents that showed the shooting of American soldiers, asking such questions as, "why are you running terrorist propaganda?" and "Why do you give the terrorists the floor?" Perhaps the right-wing bloggers who are using al-Masri's statement to paint the Democrats as de facto allies of the terrorists should be asked the same question: Why are you amplifying terrorist propaganda? Why, in the apt words of Captain Ed, are you serving as repeater stations for the ravings of genocidal lunatics?

More: In the comments, Joan points out that I recently criticized Lynn Cheney for accusing CNN of "running terrorist propaganda," and asks if I'm saying that it's proper to level the same accusation at those who use the al-Masri video to imply that the Democrats are terrorist-friendly. Actually, I was making a "sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander" point. But I think there is a major difference between airing a terrorist propaganda tape, clearly labeled as such, for its news value, and using a terrorist's propaganda statement to accuse fellow Americans of being allies to the terrorists. Nor do I think that any American has any obligation to refute such a statement.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Max Boot and Kevin Drum on Iraq

Max Boot has an interesting, if depressing, column on the Iraq situation in the Los Angeles Times. It opens with the statement:

FIRST, LET'S GET one thing straight. Contrary to the suggestions sometimes heard on conservative talk radio, the terrible headlines out of Iraq aren't an invention of liberal news media. They all too accurately reflect the grim reality.

I don't listen to talk radio, but I can think of a few pundits in print, on TV and on the Internet who should be required to write this on the blackboard (maybe a virtual blackboard) 500 times as penance. Only two months ago, I attended a Manhattan Institute lecture by James Q. Wilson (a print version is available here) on the war and the media, in which Wilson examined at length the causes of negative media coverage of the war in Iraq without ever pausing to ask whether the negativity was justified by the facts.

But I digress.

Boot then goes on to examine a variety of possible solutions and finds them all wanting. Kevin Drum takes him to task:

It sounds grim, but I hardly need to tell you how this ends, do I? Maybe we can't win, but that doesn't mean we should withdraw. That would be disastrous. So we should just stay forever with no prospect of success in sight. This is, apparently, called "being honest with ourselves."

Well, here's what Boot actually says:

Bad as the situation is today, it could get a lot worse if we simply pull out. The probable result might be labeled "civil war," but it would bear scant resemblance to our own Civil War. It wouldn't be two sides fighting one another; it would be a war of all against all. Iraq would probably degenerate into the kind of anarchy seen in Somalia and Afghanistan in the 1990s. As in those countries, the resulting backlash could produce an Islamist dictatorship that would threaten American interests. We would also be hurt by the perception that we are a "weak horse" (to quote Osama bin Laden) that can be driven out of a country by a few suicide bombers — a perception sure to embolden terrorists.

Not a pleasant scenario. But we need to be honest with ourselves about what is involved in an unseemly dash for the exits. By all means, try to apply a political Band-Aid to Iraq's gaping wounds. Just don't be under any illusion that it will hold.

Only the presence of American troops keeps the patient alive — just barely.

Clearly, what Boot is saying, and what I think everyone understands, is that there are no good choices in Iraq today, only lesser degrees of bad choices. I don't think we can "win the war" in the sense of U.S. forces dealing a crushing and final military defeat to the insurgency (something that, at this stage, would require mass reprisals against the population and other things that are off the table). But we can try to minimize the damage -- to the Iraqi population, to our military, to our national security -- and there still remains the question of how best to do that. Boot cites some good counterarguments against a rushed withdrawal, and I think those points are worth considering.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Back, with some thoughts on the election

First things first: my apologies to all for the lack of blogging. The extended break had nothing to do, as some of you have surmised, with policies at The Boston Globe with regard to blogging by columnists. What happened was a very labor-intensive work project combined with travel and some stressful personal matters. I should have posted to say I was going on hiatus, but I kept hoping I'd get back into the groove. Hopefully I have now; it has just taken much longer than I thought.

Now I'm back, with some thoughts on the election that was.

Over the course of my life, I've voted Republican more often than Democratic. On most issues, I consider myself a conservative-leaning libertarian. I'm also glad the Democrats have taken Congress, if for no other reason than that undivided government (as we have seen over the past several years) breeds arrogance.

In October, The Washington Monthly ran an interesting feature: essays by several prominent conservatives/Republicans on why the Republicans deserve to lose in November. These essays are worth reading today, particularly the ones by Jeffrey Hart, William Niskanen (president of the Cato Institute with which I am affiliated in an unpaid position), Bruce Fein, and Christopher Buckley. I don't agree with them on everything, but I do think they make, collectively, a pretty strong case that Republicans under Bush have not been the party of common sense or the party of liberty.

Personally, I think the GOP deserved to lose Congress just for the "vote Democratic and get killed by the terrorists" scare ads. Sure, there are scare tactics on the left as well (see, for instance, this rant by Keith Olbermann about how any one of us could be declared an unlawful enemy combatant and indefinitely detained), but at least such rhetoric was not, as far I know, routinely deployed in Democratic campaigning.

I think the terrorist threat is very real, just like the Communist threat was real in the 1950s. But the Communist threat did not (pace Ann Coulter) justify McCarthyism; and the terrorist threat does not justify a mindset that equates disagreement with treason or disloyalty. Sadly, such implied equations now emanate from the upper echelons of the GOP. See, for instance, Lynne Cheney's October 27 CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, in which the Second Lady transparently accused CNN of wanting the terrorists to win, or this exchange from Bush's post-election press-conference:

QUESTION: A little earlier, you said that you truly believe that the Democratic
leaders care about the security of this country as much as you do. Yet just about at every campaign stop, you expressed pretty much the opposite. You talked about them having a different mindset...
BUSH: I did.
QUESTION: ... about having a different philosophy, about waiting, about being happy that America gets attacked before responding.
BUSH: No, what did you just say? Happy?
QUESTION: You said they will be satisfied to see America...
BUSH: No, I didn't say "happy." Let's make sure...
QUESTION: You left that impression. Forgive me.
BUSH: With you. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, I'm wondering: Looking back at the campaign and previous campaigns, do you think that it's been harder to pull the country together after the election by making such partisan attacks about national security?
BUSH: I do believe they care about the security. I disagree -- I don't -- I thought they were wrong not making sure our professionals had the tools. And I still believe that. I don't see how you can protect the country unless you give these professionals tools. They just have a different point of view. That doesn't mean, you know, they don't want America to get attacked. That's why I said what I said.

In addition to the hair-splitting between "happy" and "satisfied," there is also the underlying charge itself: the other side is not patriotic enough.

And that's partly why I'm glad this message has been rejected. I don't believe the new Democratic Congress will put America in danger, particularly when its Democratic ranks include conservatives such as Joe Lieberman and James Webb. What actual policy changes will take place, particularly with regard to Iraq, no one knows yet. But the party in power has been humbled; and that's a good thing.