I take a little exception to the smarminessof certainmedia’sresponseto the Charlie Hebdo murders. Last week, they inform us, we witnessed two horrific massacres: the murder of 12 satirists in Paris and the murder of roughly 2,000 civilians in Baga (that’s in Borno, Nigeria). But, they continue, judging from CNN, Fox, and your Facebook feed, only one of these terrible crimes got any coverage. To ask the question “which one: the 12 Europeans or the 2,000 Africans?” is to answer it. While the loss of 12 innocent lives and an implied assault on Free Speech (which doesn’t really exist per se in France) rallies millions across the Great White West, virtually no one is speaking for what Teju Cole calls “unmournable bodies” (an eloquent phrase, although the critical theorist’s habit of saying body when you mean person upsets his essay’s thesis). Cole’s essay in the New Yorker (linked above) is intelligent and passionately argued, and he handles his argument’s underlying ethos – the aforementioned smarminess – with more grace than others (the latter article incorrectly states that Nigeria is south of the equator, a reminder that the many truths revealed by postcolonial theory – e.g., global North vs. global South – do not always square with geographical reality). But in general, I felt scolded for paying more attention to France than Nigeria.
And I probably deserve a scolding. Did mainstream news outlets focus on France over Nigeria as the consequence of a bias toward white Europeans? Absolutely! Was the attack on Charlie Hebdo more frightening and noteworthy to Western audiences than the massacre in Baga because the former represents an attack on the imagined “center” of Western civilization rather than its “periphery”? You bet!
So should 2,000 murder victims be more “newsworthy” than 12 murder victims? I think it depends on the circumstances.
Anyone who hasn’t been following Boko Haram over the past many months is an irresponsible consumer of world news. The mass violence last week represents the terrifying apex of an ongoing story. We spent much of 2014 preoccupied with the horrors inflicted upon the Nigerian people by this radical group (even Michelle Obama got involved, which got American conservative media involved, etc., etc.). The Charlie Hedbo massacre, meanwhile, fell out of a clear blue sky. Both discrimination against Muslims and Muslim unrest in France are ongoing, but nothing concrete or obvious precipitated this attack. These murders arrived on our screens demanding a context. Hence, the intense coverage.
And for me, intense coverage of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is essential not merely because it reinforces Western commitments to free speech (commitments that tend to get waylaid when they’re needed most). Coverage is essential because France is an important European nation in the grips of a major rightward political and cultural shift, one that could potentially turn more strident, more xenophobic, and more violent. After a half century on the fringes (and apparent defeat in the face of European unification), Europe’s right-wing parties (as opposed to its right-of-center parties) are, ahem, on the march. In the United States, extreme right-wing rhetoric has benefited from decades in the mainstream: a speaker’s racism or xenophobia can be carefully coded and embedded in speeches about tax policy. In Europe, the far right has been far wilder and wilier. They’ve retained their ugliness and wear it explicitly on the surface. (Whenever one of my liberal friends unfavorably compares America’s conservative politics with Europe’s socialist policies, I remind them, “Yes, you like their left wing, but you don’t want their right wing.”) Meanwhile, since the 2007/08 global banking crisis, nationalism in Europe – both right-wing and left-wing – has resurged to levels not seen in decades. Because of their knotted political and economic ties to Germany (or Russia), the peoples of Europe are seeking social and cultural distinction. Secession movements have gained renewed traction in the geographical and political expanse between Scotland and Crimea. Consequently, Germans and Russians are also asserting their national character in ways that, twenty years ago, would have seemed taboo.
This, for me, is the context of the Charlie Hebdo attack, far removed from the bloodshed in Nigeria (admittedly, all things connect in our post-post-colonial world, as African expats like Cole convincingly demonstrate). Note that the above paragraph doesn’t include the word “Islam.” I don’t think you need to dwell much on radical Islam to understand the socio-cultural dynamic that drives millions of French residents into the streets. From a French perspective, however, immigration from the Muslim world underscores every aspect of the current national identity crisis. Thus, when an event like the attack on Charlie Hebdo occurs, you get 3.7 million people in the streets and attacks on Muslims.
This, to me, is a very big story indeed.
Two thousand people died in Nigeria last week, it’s true, but 3.7 million people marched throughout France yesterday – roughly one million in Paris alone. What do those one million want? What do they represent? Many of them are doubtless sympathetic with France’s Muslim minorities. Few among them are likely to be extreme French nationalists (though more of them are sympathetic with French nationalism than Western liberals would like to imagine). Whatever their motives, this represents a good moment to take France’s cultural temperature. The context demands it. Your first response to Charlie Hebdo should be an unequivocal condemnation of the murders and support for free speech. But your second response, given the atmosphere in Europe, should be concern for liberalism in France. Because, contrary to what the news coverage is telling you, continental Europe is not historically an easy or natural home to liberal values. And because a march can be a mob by another name.
The most topical recent work on this is Anna Getmansky and Thomas Zeitzof’s forthcoming APSR piece, which finds that exposure to rocket attacks in Israel is associated with greater support for right-wing parties among Israelis. The core feature of the rockets fired from Gaza is that they cannot effectively target people or installations. They fall almost randomly. Looking back in history to an earlier insurgent war, Matthew Kocher, Stathis Kalyvas, and I findthat South Vietnamese villages exposed to aerial bombing from the United States and Republic of Vietnam forces were more likely to shift towards NLF (Viet Cong) control. Our argument also relies on the indiscriminate nature of this violence, which was simply incapable of separating true NLF supporters from neutrals or even RVN partisans within Vietnamese villages. …
If the goal is to compel civilians and non-combatants to change their minds about the conflict, to create a new kind of politics, then it will not. Most worryingly, if our findings are true, then this dynamic creates incentives for each side to make it harder for its opponent to discriminate between its own combatants and non-combatants. This is sad, and frightening.
We can actually say more about this. In a significant article in International Organization from 2002, Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter (singular) notes that terrorist and insurgent violence is often a tactic used in order to mobilize support for extremist groups. In this case, in light of the quotes Brooks provides that I recount in my previous post, we could perhaps say that Hamas is hoping to provoke Israel into indiscriminate violence so that it will garner sufficient domestic and international support to force Egypt into ending its blockade.
Israel appears more than willing to play its part, and that’s more than a shame. But if this is an accurate assessment then Hamas’ actions are incredibly cynical. It would mean that if Gaza was not under an Israeli assault then Hamas’ international position would be undermined by Egypt’s (effective) economic sanction. Its domestic credibility might be negatively impacted over time as well. In other words, Israel is not the only thing standing in the way of Palestine being truly free.
I’ve been thinking about why the most recent flare-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict is happening now. Most off-the-shelf explanations of the relationship — ethno-religious animosities, long-standing rivalry, Western imperialism, etc. — only describe baseline characteristics even if they were fully acceptable as explanations (which they are not). There is a big gap between the long-running fundamentals and what is happening now.
I’ve had a nagging sense that all of this was somehow related to the revolutions, invasions, and civil conflicts that have been occurring in the Middle East for several years* but was having trouble filling in the picture. So I was happy to see David Brooks, who is not one of my favorite people, providing appropriate context:
Look at how the current fighting in Gaza got stoked. Authoritarians and Islamists have been waging a fight for control of Egypt. After the Arab Spring, the Islamists briefly gained the upper hand. But when the Muslim Brotherhood government fell, the military leaders cracked down. They sentenced hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leadership class to death. They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, had gained power.
As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan G.D.P.
Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point. When Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, dismissed a plea for a cease-fire, he asked a rhetorical question, “What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?”
The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy in The Times of Israel, “Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Cairo.”
Emphases added. This means, among other things, that John Kerry will be completely wasting his time in Cairo unless his trip is an attempt to reconcile the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters with the Egyptian military. (Hamas’ rejection of the ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and Israel makes additional sense in this light.) That is so unlikely as to be hardly worth hoping for, and it isn’t even clear what such hope would mean, but that is the only mission with a chance for success. Of course it’s not even that simple: all of this is occurring within a broader regional conflict environment, as Brooks also notes:
This whole conflict has the feel of a proxy war. Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas in the hopes of getting the upper hand in their regional rivalry with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians and even the Saudis are surreptitiously backing or rooting for the Israelis, in hopes that the Israeli force will weaken Hamas.
It no longer makes sense to look at the Israeli-Palestinian contest as an independent struggle. It, like every conflict in the region, has to be seen as a piece of the larger 30 Years’ War. It would be nice if Israel could withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank and wall itself off from this war, but that’s not possible. No outsider can run or understand this complex historical process, but Israel, like the U.S., will be called upon to at least weaken some of the more radical players, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Hamas.
None of this means that Israel’s response has not been disproportionate. It has been, and frankly it’s hard for me to believe that anyone could sincerely believe the opposite. Regardless of the tactics of Hamas, the Netanyahu government has shown a characteristic lack of maturity by lashing out with far less discrimination than it is capable of. It is, as the late Tony Judt put it, a sign of Israel’s inability to yet achieve its full height. Israel’s own blockade of Palestine only increased Egypt’s importance, it must be remembered. Still, Israel’s immaturity has a different flavor when half of Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East are supportive or indifferent, while much of the other half are engaged in their own domestic conflicts that are (in some cases) as severe as that in Palestine, or even much worse. It has a different feeling when ISIS is brutalizing Iraq while preparing to materially support Hamas.
The United States used to forestall Egyptian meddling in Palestine through military aid. It had a pacifying effect (pdf). Such aid had been frozen several times since the Arab Spring. Now the taps are open again, but it is much less clear if money will be able to soothe tensions if Egypt’s enemy is Hamas rather than Israel.
I am interested in this question in part because I cannot understand why Palestine remains cause célèbre for the left while support for Israel is de rigueur on the (American) right. This appears as a vestige of a Cold War mentality where imperialism was the primary concern of capitalists and socialists alike. Perhaps I’m thinking too much like a political scientist, but aren’t the stakes much lower today? Other than habit, why is Palestine’s struggle with Israel given so much more concern even than Iraq? Or this (h/t Dan Nexon)?
*On that point, briefly: neoconservative “domino” theories look a lot better today than they did in 2006, don’t they? But it’s more of a “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” situation than neoconservatives would’ve expected, and the much-maligned Cold War policy of maintaining relationships with authoritarians for the sake of stability is more understandable all the time.
In her recent Atlantic review of two new books on atheism, Emma Green brilliantly demarcates what is missing from the now decade-long insurgency of anti-ideological atheism. I use the term “anti-ideological atheism” instead of “neo-atheism” or “new atheism” or the obnoxious, self-applied moniker “noes” because opposition to ideology – to ideational constructions – is one of the major recurring threads among these varied atheist identities (a frightening mixture of elitism and populism is another). Green illustrates this point when she notes the incongruity between Peter Watson’s new history of post-Enlightenment atheism,Age of Atheists, and the kind of atheism most vocally espoused in the 21st century. The central figure in Watson’s study, Friedrich Nietzsche, is almost never cited by Richard Dawkins or Samuel Harris or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Nor, for that matter, are Nietzsche’s atheistic precursors or his atheistic descendants…all diverse in thought, all of whom would have been essential reading for any atheist prior to, well, now.
The most famous atheist, the one whose most famous quote – GOD IS DEAD – your scrawled with a sharpie on the inside door of your junior high locker, is almost persona non grata among our most prominent living atheists. His near-contemporary, Charles Darwin (hardly anyone’s idea of a model atheist), is the belle of the bellicose non-believer’s ball.
Green also notes that the other famous 19th century atheist – Karl Marx, whose account of religious belief vis a vis human consciousness is still convincing, at least more than Nietzsche’s – is likewise incited by our popular atheists. The reason may be simple: invocations of Marx don’t score popularity points anymore, and the business of anti-ideological atheism is nothing if not a business.
But there is, I believe, a larger reason for the absence of Nietzsche, Marx, and almost all other important atheists from today’s anti-ideological atheism. As fellow Jilter Graham Peterson recently said to me, these popular atheists need a dose of humanities: liberal inquiry and a sense that truth is hard, not dispensable in easy little bits like Pez candies. I would expand on that: they need a more dynamic discursivity, they need more contentiousness, they need more classical, humanist-style debate. They need the kind of thinking that frequently accompanies or produces ideology.
But of course, most of them don’t want that. They resist Nietzsche’s ideological critiques. They resist Marx who, despite his inherent materialism, is more systematically ideological than, say, Darwin. Sigmund Freud (who dedicated an entire tract to atheism and who is central to its 20th century development) is never mentioned, along with a host of other names.
And they do not invite new critiques – except, apparently, from Young Earth Creationists.
The title of Green’s review is pitch perfect: “The Intellectual Snobbery of Conspicuous Atheism: Beyond the argument that faith in God is irrational—and therefore illegitimate.” Contrary to what Richard Dawkins and others might claim, atheists are not a persecuted minority in the West (any group consisting mostly of white men is always eager to squeeze and contort their way into “persecuted minority” status, even as persecuted minorities struggle to push out). Anti-ideological atheism is declared conspicuously, a badge of honor and a sign of intellect. Green quotes Adam Gopnik, who introduces the nauseating term “noes,”
What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.
In this respect, the “noes” have “an actual explanation of things” in greater abundance than did Nietzsche or Marx or (especially) the atheists of antiquity. In this respect, the atheists of yore and religious believers have more in common with each other than with the “noes” of today.
In my last post, I shared my thoughts about the meteoric rise of Neil deGrasse Tyson (do meteors rise? I’m sure deGrasse Tyson would have something to say about that bit of rhetorical infactitude). It may seem unfair to pick on deGrasse Tyson when, in reality, I’m bemoaning a phenomenon that began back when George W. Bush used vaguely messianio-Methodist language to frame the invasion of Iraq, an event that, whatever you think of its initial rationalizations, was poorly executed, quickly turned to shit, and set the “War on Terror” back at least a decades. In/around 2004, Richard Dawkins (who is still the author of the best popular overview of natural history ever written) realized that conditions existed for a profitable career shift.
Widespread discontent with politico-religious language was in the United States – where right-wing militarists decried the brand of fundamentalist Islam that obliterated lower Manhattan and anti-war leftists decried the (pascificst-by-comparison) brand of fundamentalist Christianity that influenced U.S. policy – coincided with fear of religious extremism in Europe, where the vexed term “Islamophobia” retained some usefulness: legitimate anxieties about theocratic terrorism (e.g., violent anti-Western responses to the deliberately provocative Mohammad cartoons and then the public slaughter of Theo van Gogh) mingled with old-fashioned European xenophobia, which was never a perfect analogue to American xenophobia. And between the U.S. and Europe lies England, where political and public responses to Islamic terrorism less often involved blustery American gun-slinging or shrill continental nativism but rather stern appeals to “common sense.” Since the collapse of British colonialism, intellectuals in England are less apt to use the term civilization than are their cousins across the Channel or their cousins across the Pond (where the term has been historically deployed by cultural warriors, a la Alan Bloom, in order to give anti-colonial leftists the willies).
The term civilized, on the other hand, is still relevant in English public discourse: not with regard to other societies, but to English society. The concept of civilized discourse (or civilised, if you will) doesn’t seem to carry the same ideological freight as civilization. But when Dawkins mocks post-positivist socio-humanist* analyses of, say, indigenous Amazonian cultures who explain natural phenomena (e.g., how the jaguar get its spots) with traditional tales, his arguments carry the epistemological heft of a suburban Thatcherite scanning his daughter’s contemporary philosophy textbook, throwing his hands in the air, and exclaiming “Oh come on!” In other words, Dawkins belongs to the long line of British “common sense” thinkers. Born in Kenya, raised in Africa, and a fan of Kipling, Dawkins has been criticized for possessing a colonial bent to his thought.
And there’s something to be said for common sense, even common sense colonialism; George Orwell, of all people, joined Rudyard Kipling (one of the most misunderstood writers in the English canon) to defend British colonialism in England on the reasonable (if depressing) grounds that, had the English let India be, the Russians would have colonized the subcontinent. This hardly excuses British crimes against India and its people, but even a cursory overview of Russian colonial atrocities forces one to sigh a very troubled and uncomfortable sigh of – what, relief? – that the British Raj was the guilty party.
But common sense is not fact, much less knowledge, and Dawkins has made a career of playing fast and loose with these concepts. In Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), Dawkins defended science not against the pious but against the epistemological excesses of cultural studies. In one chapter, he wrote that an Amazonian tribesman who is convinced that airplanes are fueled by magic (Dawkins’ examples often play off colonial tropes) and the the socio-humanist (usually an American cultural studies professor or graduate student in English whose dress and hygiene or dubious and who write with incomprehensible jargon) who respects the Amazonian’s conviction are both reprehensible, especially the professor, who is an enabler: he could give the ignorant native a cursory lesson in physics, but instead paints a scholarly veneer over so much tribal mumbo-jumbo. Why not explain the real source of wonder and disabuse the native of his false notions: that beautiful physics can explain how people fly!
Despite its best efforts, Unweaving the Rainbow was Dawkins’ first foray into the “Debbie Downer” genre of popular science writing. This genre pits the explanatory power of “scientific knowledge” (more about that term in a moment) against religion, superstition, homeopathy, most of Western philosophy, and pretty much any knowledge acquired or unverified by non-quantitative methods.
The “Debbie Downer” genre can be useful, especially when turned on the practice of science itself: Dawkins and his allies have successfully debunked the dogmatism that led Stephen Jay Gould’s career astray. The atrocities of Nazi and Soviet science were exposed and explained with both rigorous science and common sense. The genre can also be used to wildly miss the point of things. I have friends who are ardent Calvinists or ex-Calvinists, who are incapable of reading Paul’s epistles without a Calvinist interpretation. They read Paul, but all they see is Calvinism. Likewise with fundamentalists and anti-ideological atheists who read Genesis but only see cosmology. Yet Paul was not a Calvinist, and Genesis is not cosmology. In some sense, the same principle applies to deGrasse Tyson and Gravity. Is this a question of knowing too much or thinking too little?
In Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins confronts charge that science takes all the fun and beauty of the world just by, y’know, ‘splainin’ it. Somewhat comically, the book’s title literalizes an instance of poetic language, a practice common among Dawkins’ bête noire: religious fundamentalists. John Keats’ playful exasperation that “charms fly/ at the touch of cold philosophy” and that the natural sciences (still embryonic in Keats’ time) “unweave the rainbow,” reducing it to “the dull catalogue of common things,” is beautifully articulated representation of a well-worn human experience, one that requires appreciation more than rebuttal. But for Dawkins, the poem demands rebuttal, and not a rebuttal that distinguishes between the uses and functions of poetic language. Unweaving the Rainbow is a treatise that, dammit, science makes the world more beautiful, not the other way round.
And Dawkins is correct. After reading his marvelous Ancestor’s Tale, I felt a profound kinship with every toad I encountered on the sidewalk and every grasshopper that attached itself to my arm, six cousinly feet twisting my skin uncomfortably. Between Unweaving the Rainbow and Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins wrote A Devil’s Chaplin, a haphazardly organized collection of Debbie Downer essays that is probably best understood as the director ancestor of Dawkins’ most successful book, The God Delusion. The book represented a specific cultural moment, described above, when everyone was eager to read why God sucked. I don’t need to rehearse the narrative or the players (something about four horsemen, cognitive, an obnoxious and inappropriate use of the prefix “neo”). Even The God Delusion‘s harshest critics praised Dawkins for capturing the zeitgeist in a bottle. But the most prominent and widely-cited negative review, by Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton, did not. Eagleton captured Dawkins, his personality and his project, to near perfection in the London Review of Books:
[Dawkins’ views] are not just the views of an enraged atheist. They are the opinions of a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist. Reading Dawkins, who occasionally writes as though ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness’ is a mighty funny way to describe a Grecian urn, one can be reasonably certain that he would not be Europe’s greatest enthusiast for Foucault, psychoanalysis, agitprop, Dadaism, anarchism or separatist feminism. All of these phenomena, one imagines, would be as distasteful to his brisk, bloodless rationality as the virgin birth. Yet one can of course be an atheist and a fervent fan of them all. His God-hating, then, is by no means simply the view of a scientist admirably cleansed of prejudice. It belongs to a specific cultural context. One would not expect to muster many votes for either anarchism or the virgin birth in North Oxford. (I should point out that I use the term North Oxford in an ideological rather than geographical sense. Dawkins may be relieved to know that I don’t actually know where he lives.)
Eagleton’s Marxist ad hominem is amusing: he reduces Dawkins’ own self-proclaimed materialism to his class. Dawkins is a very, very identifiable type. I’m not sure whether Eagleton knew, when he quoted Keats, that Dawkins had written a book whose title misread – or at least misappropriated – the most flowery of Romantic poets.
Eagleton’s more substantial complaint – that there are many kind of atheists, not all of whom derive their views from a fetishized notion of the natural sciences’ explanatory powers – was echoed in many other reviews. It was even the basis for a two-part episode of South Park.
Another common complaint: The God Delusion engaged with religious faith very narrowly, responding to only the most extreme fundamentalist interpretations of scripture and dogma. Dawkins hadn’t boned up on his Tillich. He’s a scientist stumbling clumsily through the humanities, unaware that his most basic criticisms of faith have been taken seriously by religious people since the Middle Ages. Again, Eagleton:
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? … As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.
More troubling than his exclusion of Eriugena and de facto collusion with Oral Roberts is his exclusion of so many other atheists. The God Delusion was published before Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, a very bad book that nevertheless engaged with atheism per se, drawing from an intellectual history that extended from Lucretius to Spinoza and Thomas Paine (a list Hitchens never tired of reciting on cable news show, grinning slyly at the thought of pot-bellied viewers on their sofas, scratching their heads: I think I’ve heard of that Payne guy, but who in the sam hill is Lew Crishus?).
If Dawkins was a scientist posing as a humanist – or, more correctly, a scientist trying to sell ideology as scientific fact – then Hitchens was a humanist posing as someone with a basic understanding of science. In reality, Hitchens knew the Bible, had spent his career admiring religious thinkers and religious poets. Near the end of the Hitchens v. Douglas Wilson documentary Collision, Hitchens recalls a conversation with Dawkins, during which Hitchens declared that, if given the power to wipe religious belief off the face of the earth, he wouldn’t do it. “Why not?!” shrieked Dawkins – Hitchens, repeating the anecdote to Wilson, does a killer imitation of Dawkins’ spine-tingling shriek. Hitchens has no answer for Dawkins. He simply can’t conceive of a world without at least one religious believer.
More on point, however, is the following passage from Eagleton’s review:
Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.
Dawkins would no doubt balk at the notion that he take Eagleton’s advice and “critique” science. Science is self-critiquing, after all! Science is reasonable by its very structure. Science and reason are near synonyms in the anti-ideological atheist lexicon.
This, for me, is the most troubling aspect of Dawkins and deGrasse Tyson’s trendy, anti-ideological atheism.
Let us consider once more the subtitle of Emma Green’s Atlantic review: for the argument that faith in God is irrational—and therefore illegitimate.” Both Green and Eagleton observe what is perhaps the most troubling aspect of popular, anti-ideological atheism: it conflates terms like “reason,” rationality,” “fact,” “science,” and “knowledge.” In fact, I believe Eagleton goes too far when he asserts that “only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific.'” Many positivists can make the distinction. (Eagleton’s reflexive assertion to the contrary is merely a product of decades spent defending post-positivist thought to his fellow Marxists.)
The popularizers of anti-ideological atheism play very fast and loose with a specific set of words: “science,” “reason,” “(ir)rationality,” “knowledge,” “fact,” “truth,” and “information.” It is absolutely necessary to distinguish between these words. In many contexts, it is not “irrational” to object to scientifically produced knowledge, especially if you’re objecting to the implementation of that knowledge.
If I were a public intellectual with a large platform – that is, if I were Neil deGrasse Tyson – I’d go on a speaking tour. The tour’s only goal would be the definition of some basic terms, as they ought to be used by laypersons (obviously specialists will have slightly different definitions, and that’s okay). Information is data we glean from the world through our senses and technologies. Science is a method that uses information to test ideas and produce knowledge. Ideas are organized assumptions about the world. Ideas that are verifiable using scientific methods become knowledge. Reason is a system of organizing knowledge, which allows knowledge to be used for all sorts of great things: to determine a set of ethics, to decide the best shape of government, to demarcate reasonably accurate beliefs about the world, to guide us through daily decisions, etc. Rationality is reason with a French accent.
Facts are stubborn but undeniable things, some of them unveiled by the scientific method and others revealed through our senses/technologies, which help us glean information and confirm knowledge produced by the scientific method. Truth is the ontological status of reality, which makes it a very tricky thing to define and understand, and is therefore probably best passed over in silence…at least in casual conversations or book tours. True is an elastic adjective that allows us to describe the proximity of knowledge, ideas, and impressions to reality, as we understand it via science, knowledge, reason, and facts.
These definitions are not perfect, and I’m sure you and my fellow Jilters have problems with some/all of them. But I think they’re suitable for casual use. At the very least, they admit distinctions between concepts.
Anti-ideological atheists misuse these concepts for rhetorical purposes, and they encourage the public’s tendency to conflate them.
This is wrong.
When Neil deGrasse Tyson insists that “evolution is a fact,” he’s playing with rhetoric to make a political point. For too long, Creationists have conflated the scientific and popular definitions of the word “theory,” transmuting well-established and verifiable knowledge about life into speculation: Darwin’s theory of speciation was as reliable as a hopeful suitor’s theory of “why she isn’t returning my phone calls.”
But in both scientific and common English, theory is not an antonym of fact (sorry Creationists) and a theory cannot be a fact (as deGrasse Tyson well knows). A theory is established by facts. Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris, Daniel Dennett, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye have had countless opportunities to make these simple distinctions to the public; Christopher Hitchens possessed both the knowledge and rhetorical precision to explain the distinctions. But distinctions don’t pack much punch. Politically and ideologically, it’s better to affirm that “evolution is a fact,” just like gravity, and not allow the Creationists to keep slithering through their own linguistic sophistry. And just as explaining a joke drains its humor, debunking a slick sophistry invariably drains your authority. Better to bludgeon than to slice. And as anyone who has seen the ads or watched the first two episodes of his Cosmos knows, deGrasse Tyson is happy to bludgeon.
*By “socio-humanist,” I refer to scholars in the humanities (I use “humanist” as the humanities equivalent of “scientist”) and certain branches of the social sciences; I’m not referring to the broader category of post-Englightenment “secular humanism,” within which Dawkins might count himself.
Normally I put a lot of thought (or at least a lot of words) into my Jilt articles, careful to say things that I’ll still feel passionately about five minutes after posting. But a Neil deGrasse Tyson quote – the latest of dozens – just floated through my Facebook feed, and it broke a levee of feeling. Here are some thoughts I’ll throw haphazardly like mustard seeds onto infertile soil, thoughts I may regret posting within five minutes – but not three:
Neil deGrasse Tyson has spent the last decade slouching toward cultural ubiquity, a seemingly nice guy who twenty years ago would’ve competed with lanky Bill Nye for the title “Science Guy” (and yes, I think that’s a real thing in our culture: scientists who spend more time in public relations meetings than in the lab are all vying for the title of “Science Guy”). But in 2014, he inhabits a cultural ecosystem where Richard Dawkins is someone my mom has heard of. DeGrasse Tyson inhabits a world in which Christopher Hitchens, approaching 60 and noticing the inevitable dulling of his faculties, turned to popular atheism as an easy and reliable source of mulah. This is a world in which a cursory knowledge of the natural sciences and a declaration of disbelief in the desert deity of Abraham is enough to certify oneself “intellectual” or “enlightened,” all with the blessing of a few high-profile public figures.
Dawkins was once a great explainer of Darwinian biology, but he quit that gig years ago. Nye was a children’s TV host who explained basic scientific knowledge in clear language who now debates Young Earth Creationists (i.e., the people who other Creationists make fun of). And deGrasse Tyson was once a fan and acquaintance of Carl Sagan, and now hosts a television show that is (so far) preoccupied with religion and earthbound institutions – as far from the spirit of Sagan as The Big Bang Theory is from Star Trek.
To be fair, deGrasse Tyson seems like a nice enough guy. I heard him interviewed by Terry Gross a few weeks ago, and he explained that his new show Cosmos (produced by Family Guy creator, professional misogynist, and world’s-most-irritating-atheist Seth MacFarlane) was an attempt to recapture the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s sweeping pro-science rhetoric. That rhetoric, said deGrasse Tyson, is what inspired him and millions of his peers to enter scientific fields. Today’s generation won’t be inspired by the prospect of creating an airplane that is more fuel-efficient than their parents’, he continued. They needed something to really inspire them.
Nevermind that JFK was half-hearted in his commitment to the space program or that its impetus had little to do with scientific discovery (everyone knows that). Nevermind that innovative, fuel-efficient technologies make money, and money is pretty damned inspiring. Nevermind that deGrasse Tyson is attempting to ape ’60s pro-science optimism using Cosmos, a vehicle of late ’70s inward-looking trippiness that doesn’t inspire action so much as awe. Sagan was chill. DeGrasse Tyson is visibly uptight. Sagan’s Cosmos was subtitled A Personal Journey; MacFarlane and deGrasse Tyson have revised that to A Spacetime Odyssey, aiming, I guess, for shades of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” Stanley Kubrick, and Nietzsche. But their show’s tone isn’t ’60s or ’70s: it’s pure 2014, the Year of the Dead Horse (DISCLAIMER – I do not believe in astrology I believe in science I was only making a pun I believe in science I do not actually believe in astrology – DISCLAIMER). In this case, the horse is the vacuousness of religious faith. And despite all the blood and pulp, nobody seems to be tired of it yet.
So twenty minutes ago, deGrasse Tyson slides across my Facebook feed, the latest in a long chain of images mocked up by fans (or, in this case, Mother Jones) that marry images of deGrasse Tyson looking cool or authoritative (or, in this case, just standing) with a quote that only barely masks his utter contempt for those who would, say, explore the religious sphere of human existence or deny funding to NASA:
When [scientists] do know something, there are reasons why we know it, and if you don’t understand that, you deny it only at your peril, especially when the result may affect the stability of our future.
This sounds like a threat. I know he’s addressing climate change denial as much as Creationism or regular Mass attendance, so the “stability of our future” is probably intended to register beyond “If the religious crazies take over, we’re all going to die!”
Problem is, that’s the only song these public “Science Guys” have been singing since Richard Dawkins discovered there was money in it. And I am so, so sick of it.
Science denial is a meaningless phenomenon. Outrage about science denial is phony. Period.
Basic scientific knowledge has never been widely understood – not fully. The average anti-Creationist probably couldn’t explain Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection without getting much of it horribly wrong. And scientific inquiry has never been widely valued in itself. Everyone knows scientific inquiry is not funded unless there are economic or (less commonly) geo-political reason for doing so. And everyone knows that practical and economically viable scientific research will be funded no matter what.
I never tire of reminding people that “science” is, in itself, not an actual thing. Science is a method, a process. And I love science, for many of the same reasons deGrasse Tyson wants me to: I was too young for Cosmos, but I grew up with Nova, Nature, and yes, Bill Nye the Science Guy (remember when he had Soundgarden on?). I loved science before I love the humanities. And although I’m a humanist, I still believe that the scientific method produces the most valuable knowledge we have about our world and, increasingly, each other.
But the scientific community, left on its own, is just a bunch of guys with no money and no voice producing knowledge that nobody pays attention to. To hear Dawkins and deGrasse Tyson and Nye tell it, science is simultaneously totally in charge and under constant attack (their rhetoric in this regard resembles the rhetoric of Evangelical Christians and Stalinists). But science is not in charge. In the 19th century, scientists were guys who either sought patronage or relied on independent means to fund beetle collections and jungle expeditions. And without their practical socio-economic applications, most scientific work wouldn’t get done.
But deGrasse Tyson isn’t interested in the practical applications. He said as much on Fresh Air. Practical applications are boring. And when the skeptical consumer of pro-science PR asks, “Why should I care?”, deGrasse Tyson responds in one of two ways. Either he relies on rhetoric and poetry, not the nuts and grit of real scientific work, because the big stuff – theoretical astrophysics, for instance – is much sexier, especially when you dumb it down…or he goes shrill, warning that if we don’t take science seriously – if we don’t trust them and believe what they say – bad things will happen. This shrill tone occasionally cracks into insouciance: “Doesn’t matter what you believe,” says the Science Guy. “We’re correct whether you believe us or not.”
I hate both approaches, especially the latter. Both approaches discourage critical inquiry, upon which the scientific method relies. While their colleagues do actual, original, difficult research in universities on the dimes of taxpayers and various boards of trustees, Science Guys globe-trot on book tours, stroking the egos of the faithful and epistemologically bullying everyone else. And I wouldn’t mind as much if the enlightened faithful actually understood or cared about the boring work of science any more than the drooling masses. But one only need survey Western civilization for five minutes to know that the overwhelming majority of everybody – including Dawkins/deGrasse/Nye’s audience – doesn’t care about real, hard, boring science.
And so this is my message to the Science Guys:
The Catholic Church ignored science for centuries without destabilizing shit. There were wars, then there were periods of peace, then there were wars. There was ignorance, but there was also some knowledge. But there was no “peril” in ignoring Copernicus. And it wasn’t Galileo who created post-Enlightenment stability in Europe. That was Protestants. More specifically, that was German princes who embraced Protestantism and capitalism. These societies created the conditions in which the natural sciences flourished – not the other way around. Don’t pretend that we need you more than you need us (in most cases, literally U.S. – the U.S. government and its economic allies). It’s our teat you’re sucking on – so keep on sucking, and smile while you’re doing it.
I realize that 99.99% of professional natural scientists understand that science is a process and that scientific knowledge is a target for continual inquiry. And to be fair, deGrasse Tyson offers an acceptable, if unnecessarily vague, definition of “the scientific method” early in Cosmos. But the definition takes 30 seconds to recite, while he spends half of the episode lambasting 16th century Christianity for persecuting a man who, he later admits, wasn’t actually using the scientific method and was just lucky to have guessed that planets existed. This only further encourages regular people to continue invoking the word “science” the way deGrasse Tyson does: it’s a mantra, a mystical trump card that ends all debate. “This is SCIENCE,” end of debate. Such a mindset is decidedly anti-scientific, but these celebrity scientists who moonlight as armchair sociologists are enablers, virtually none of whom have earned their public authority through scientific inquiry.
(Hey, here’s an equation written by an English Ph.D. candidate: Neil deGrasse Tyson – [Jon Stewart + Seth McFarlane] = NOBODY. 100% tested and verifiable. What does that tell you about the power of “science”?)
Do I trust scientists more than I trust religious fanatics? Yes, obviously. But I still trust the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book more than I trust either scientists or spiritualists. Even in an educated city like Boston, people won’t nitpick over the astrophysical details of George Clooney movies, and they’ll still probably wind up setting aside a few dollars for the Large Hadron Collider.
(The following is a guest post by Alissandra Stoyan, a PhD candidate in Political Science at UNC – Chapel Hill. Her research examines how presidents pursue ambitious reform efforts in a democratic context. She has conducted field work in Latin America, and her dissertation examines recent Venezuelan politics as one of her primary cases.)
I am happy and I see a great future for Venezuela… Enough words have been said, enough fighting has occurred, enough disasters have taken place. The failures are over and done with, I feel sure of this and happy about it. I feel optimistic because, as my grandmother used to say, you can smell the wind of change, it is in the air.” – Hugo Chávez, February 10, 2004. Quoted in Guevarra, Aleida. 2005. Chávez, Venezuela & the New Latin America: An interview with Hugo Chávez. New York: Ocean Press. Pp 110.
It started on February 2. In San Cristobal, a city in the mountains near the Colombian border, students from three local universities were outraged over the violent assault and attempted rape of a fellow student. These twenty-somethings have only known the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Socialism of the 21st Century, and the leadership of Hugo Chávez. They were about 4 years old when Chávez won the presidency with an overwhelming 56% of the vote in a single round. The following year, a new Constitution was written to re-found the state and drastically change the political process in Venezuela. They grew up with access to free health care and free education, including their current university education. Political polarization has been a constant; they and everyone they know are either Chávistas or anti-Chávistas because there has never been much in-between. Insecurity and impunity has risen dramatically throughout their lives. The number of homicides tripled in Venezuela between 1996 and 2006, according to the NGO Venezuelan Violence Watch. In 2012, the Venezuelan homicide rate was 73 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In the same year, neighboring Colombia had a rate of approximately 31 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and the US had a rate of 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Likewise, the economy is in a dire condition. As they think about graduation, these students face rising inflation (currently 56%), widespread shortages of goods, and uncertainty over future employment. Eva Golinger, author of The Chávez Code, has referred to the student movement as “Occupy Wall Street in reverse,” implying that Venezuelan students are siding with the 1%. Likewise, Chávez’s ‘old guard’ laments that the younger generation is ungrateful for what they have, without respect for the epic triumph against neoliberalism and entrenched elite interests.
In “Is Venezuela Burning?,” published in Jacobin, Mike Gonzalez rightfully demonstrates that the issues in Venezuela are actually much deeper and more complex than they appear on the surface. The protests in San Cristobal might have remained an isolated incident, never to be reported in international media, if not for the involvement of prominent opposition members and the harsh and disproportionate response of the state. The opposition has seized this moment as an opportunity to channel discontent toward Nicholas Maduro’s removal after only 10 months in office. Leopoldo López, an economist educated in the US, and Maria Corina Machado, an opposition congresswoman, have called for ‘La Salida,’ a strategy to force Maduro to step down. With their involvement, protests have spread to nearly every major city in Venezuela. As one twitter user quipped: “Carlos Andrés Pérez had a Caracazo. Maduro has a Caracazo, Valenciazo, Barquisimetazo, Bolivarazo, Maracaibazo…”
More widespread confrontations have led to new grievances related to the states’ response to protest, particularly surrounding issues of self-censorship of the press and the strong-handed and repressive tactics of the police and other government agencies. Greater focus has also been directed at the violence perpetrated by armed colectivos, motorcycle-riding paramilitary groups in defense of the revolution. One of the largest groups, the Tupumaros, lost one of its own leaders and is also allegedly responsible for another death in these protests. As conflict peaked on February 12, the Venezuelan intelligence service (SEBIN) disobeyed direct orders by taking to the streets with their weapons. Maduro has vowed to hold them accountable, removing the head of the agency and arresting several officials in connection to deaths. On February 19, López was arrested, effectively becoming a martyr for the radical opposition’s cause. President Obama, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all condemned his arrest. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America has an interesting take on the potential political incentives for Maduro to foster confrontation and keep López in the spotlight as the leader of the opposition, and so does Francisco Toro at Caracas Chronicles. Lastly, the military has moved into Táchira to quell protest, and there were reports of an internet and media blackout there. Reading of these developments, I can’t get Simón Bolivar’s words out of my head: “Maldito el soldado que apunta su arma contra su pueblo“: Cursed is the soldier who aims his gun at his own people.
The dead are young, members of both sides of this conflict. El Universal has generated an interactive map (Spanish) of those who’ve died. On February 12 in Caracas, some of the first to die were: Bassil Da Acosta (24), a student protestor, and Juan “Juancho” Montoya (51), a well known colectivo leader and pro-government community activist. Both were shot in the head. A little later on the same day, another protestor, Roberto Redman (31) was shot in the face with rubber pellets. On Feburary 17 in Sucre, José Ernesto Ménedez (17) was run over at a protest by a vehicle driven by a PDVSA worker. On February 19 in Valencia, student and beauty queen, Génesis Carmona (22), was shot in the head. Julio Eduardo González (25), an attorney, crashed his car trying to drive around a barricade. And that evening, Geraldine Moreno (23), a student, was shot in the face with rubber pellets in front of her family’s home. On February 20 in Mérida, Delia Elena Lobo (37) died from injuries sustained when she drove her motorbike into a barb wire barricade. In Lara, Arturo Alexis Martínez (58) was shot in the chest while cleaning up debris in the street. He was the brother of Francisco Martínez, Congressman for the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). On the evening of February 21 in Caracas, Elvis Rafael Durán (29) drove his motorbike into a wire that had been stretched across the road by protesters, slitting his throat. In response, the government has issued an arrest warrant for retired General Angel Vivas, who sent this tweet (Spanish) the day before the incident, suggesting the tactic to the opposition for combating the colectivos. Since then, Vivas has been resisting arrest at his home, dressed in a flak jacket and armed with an assault rifle and a handgun. His supporters built barricades in the street and cheer him on as he vows not to surrender. On February 23 in Caracas, José Alejandro Márquez (43) was beaten by the Bolivian National Guard and was declared braindead. On February 24 in Táchira, Jimmy Vargas (34) was hit in the head with a canister of tear gas launched by the Bolivarian National Guard, lost his balance, and fell from the second story of a building. That same day in Cagua, Johnny Carballo (43) was shot in the head by tupamaros (armed motorists). At least one additional unidentified young man was shot on February 25 during the looting of a grocery store in Maracay. In total, there have been nearly 150 wounded and over 500 detained, though the vast majority have been released.
(Meridith Kohut/New York Times)
Maduro is not Chávez. He is politically weaker and lacks the charisma of his predecessor. Still, he has gone to great lengths to invoke the iconic leader. On February 17, in the midst of this conflict, he resurrected Chávez’s tweets from a year ago: “Sigo aferrado a Cristo y confiado en mis médicos y enfermeras. Hasta la victoria siempre!! Viviremos y venceremos!!!“: I am still clinging to Christ and trusting in my doctors and nurses. Toward victory always!! We’ll live and we’ll overcome!!! Though cancer would take Chávez’s life in less than a month, his words promise immortality – the immortality of his revolution. These days, it seems, Maduro sigue aferrado a Chávez. The picture below recently appeared in Slate with the caption: “Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hold a protest…” It’s telling that, a year later, the imagery of the revolution still belongs to Chávez. The crucial question is whether Chávistas are abandoning Maduro. Is the ‘son of Chávez,’ losing support among his base? The answer will determine where these protests are headed and whether they might slip out of Maduro’s control. So far, the Chávista governor of Táchira has distanced himself from the government (Spanish). He reacted against the government’s repression, particularly the decision to send fighter jets over his state. He said: “When Chavez was in government I had autonomy in my language and my thoughts, and I will maintain it now more than ever.” But the blog post by Francisco Toro, linked above, indicates that it’s unlikely that this will spread beyond the middle class.
(Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)
Another key issue is the inability of the opposition to develop a coherent plan. As Jorge Ramos Ávalos, a Mexican journalist and news anchor for Univision, put it (Spanish): “The old and rotten is dying, but the new has not yet been born.” His sentiment is clearly biased toward the opposition but it also illuminates a central problem with all this protest. The radical opposition has failed to develop a useful dialog beyond ousting Maduro. On this point, Maduro is an upstanding democrat. He has stated that the opposition should instead be preparing signatures for a 2016 recall referenda, a legal mechanism in the 1999 Constitution, to remove him from office with a majority of the popular vote. Ultimately, what are protestors trying to achieve and can Maduro respond adequately to their grievances? Capriles has begun to develop an agenda and at least a preliminary list of demands (Video in Spanish, list begins at 15:51), which includes: freeing all detained students and López; ending persecution, repression, and permitting exiled Venezuelans to return; disarming the paramilitaries; among other things. Some are reasonable, some are vague, and some are very unlikely.
The Maduro government and its supporters are maintaining that these protests are a plot by the radical opposition to draw international intervention (Spanish). Early on, there were reports of the opposition destroying its own neighborhoods to make it look like the work of the colectivos and to incite more protest. Steve Ellner, social scientist and author of Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon, has underscored the idea that the opposition is primarily responsible for violence. Moreover, Eva Golinger spoke of an international conspiracy to commit economic sabotage, with elites hoarding products to provoke shortages and promote panic among the population. In this view, the United States is trying to “make the economy scream” in Venezuela, a la Nixon and Allende. More recently, the Maduro administration has contended that the former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, is playing a role in the violence. They claim that the opposition is working with Colombian mercenaries to fuel violence and caste blame on the government.
It’s hard to determine what’s going on from a desk in Chapel Hill, NC. The degree of misinformation as these events have unfolded demonstrates that Venezuela is perhaps more polarized than it has ever been. No one tells both sides of the story; everyone has an angle. In the chaos of early protests, even Venezuelan scholars and experts tweeted more questions than answers: “Can we confirm this? Is there proof?” On February 13, I scanned my twitter feed for news and a repeating image caught my attention. There were two men, one with a camera and the other with a gun trained on each other. It turned out that it was taken in Singapore and had nothing to do with Venezuela (see this and other examples of false tweets debunked here and here). Today, Maduro and his supporters are using the hash tag: #MaduroHombreDePaz. Meanwhile, outside on UNC’s campus, someone has diligently scrawled in chalk: #SOSVenezuela #PrayForVenezuela. Searching twitter for those hash tags unleashes a string of images and YouTube videos (like this one) that make me feel sick and helpless. Even if I was among the barricades in the streets of Caracas, I’m not sure if I’d know what to believe. The truth in Venezuela, as in many places, always seems to lie somewhere in between.
(Meridith Kohut/New York Times)
The situation is all the more dangerous given that there appears to be no tractable middle ground in Venezuela. Both sides are calling for peace but it’s unclear what they mean. Capriles appeared to be willing to negotiate with Maduro, but on Monday he rejected a meeting with the president. Demanding López’s release, Capriles said: “I’m not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic. I’m not the musician. The boat is sinking, and I’m the one who’s playing the music? No sir, Nicholas, you’re not going to use me.” Is that really the wind of change in the air? I’m not sure, but one thing is certain. Where there is no room for compromise, where there are only Chávistas and anti-Chávistas, fascistas and anti-imperialistas, as it has been for fifteen years now, it’s difficult to envision a peaceful and democratic way forward.
Mother Jones reported today the answer to a headline it published two years ago – “Who’s Paying for the GOP’s Plan to Hijack the 2012 Election?” The answer? The Koch Brothers! Once again, the plot leads back to the Koch Brothers – the Moriarty to the activist left’s, uh, Sherlock? (Better analogy: the Mr. Burns to the activist left’s Lisa). But the plot takes a rather circuitous route through various nonprofits and a few election-year pop-up organizations. The link to the Kochs is not as clear-cut as MJ’s headlines suggest. And even when it is, the indictment isn’t exactly stirring: “Charles and David Koch,” MJ reporter Mariah Blake writes, “footed at least some of the bill.”
The backstory: in mid-2011, conservative groups invested roughly $300,000 and applied conservative group pressure to the Republican-controlled Wisconsin and Pennsylvania legislatures, pressuring them to join what I’ll call the Divide-by-District Club.
Here are some facts about the Divide-by-District (DBD) Club:
Membership requirements: be a U.S. state.
Current members: Maine and Nebraska.
Club Rules: you must award your electoral votes by congressional district, not as a winner-take-all state. Luckily, each state has one vote per district (plus two extra votes for those wise old senators in Washington – in electoral math, one wise old senator = more than 700,000 normal people). After the state has parceled out a vote to each district, the districts award their single vote to the presidential candidate who won their district. Every ten years, your state gets the chance to acquire or lose districts.
Club Benefits: your state basically owns your districts, and so the majority party in your state’s congress controls nearly all decisions regarding districts, including their area and constitution. In 2011, Republicans were the majority party in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Associates: other states are essentially members of the DBD Club, not because they chose to be but because their respective populations would barely constitute a medium-sized city. For them, “state” and “congressional district” are one and the same: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Rhode Island will almost certainly join the Club after the next census; Hawaii might, too. (The District of Columbia’s membership status is…difficult to determine.)
So Maine and Nebraska divide their electoral votes by district. Barack Obama made history in 2008 as the first modern candidate to electorally divide a state. He won Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district (which is essentially coterminous with Omaha and its suburbs), despite getting walloped by John McCain in the rest of the Cornhusker State (41% to 56%). But beyond an election nerd’s delight watching Omaha – a tiny area on the state’s eastern edge – “split away” from the rest of Nebraska, the 2nd district meant squat. That extra point didn’t push health care reform through Congress or kill Osama bin Laden (or, if you like, heartlessly murder four people in Benghazi). It only meant that Omaha is, like all cities, more liberal than the state it inhabits.
Nebraska currently has five electoral votes, three of which can be split between candidates. Maine has four, two to split. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has 10. Pennsylvania, 20. If the Koch’s Plot had succeeded, these Republican legislators would have given Mitt Romney three of Wisconsin’s 10 votes and 14 of Pennsylvania’s 20 votes. That’s 17 extra electoral votes for Romney.
BTW: how did Romney win 14 of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts but lose the state’s popular vote? Three of Obama’s four (only four!) district victories were massive landslides (he captured nearly 90% in one district and still underperformed his 2008 tallies). Romney’s wins were narrow by comparison (usually below 55%). So despite winning a meager 22% of the districts, Obama got more votes. Under the DBD system, however, Obama would have been creamed – Romney’s victory in Pennsylvania would have been a landslide.
So what does it all add up to? If the Koch Brothers’ alleged surrogates had been successful in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Obama would have won 315 (instead of 332) electoral votes on November 6. Romney would have won a respectable 223 (instead of 206), losing the presidency and returning to life in his father’s shadow.
In other words, the Koch Brothers would have changed history forever.
No seriously – they might have. And they might have swung the election to Romney. But eventually, invariably, they’d regret their decision.
[ASIDE: $300,000 is essentially pennies to the Koch Brothers, so to view this scheme as a major investment is misguided; if they were actually involved, I don’t think they took the idea very seriously. Another Mother Jones article referred to all these Republican plans to split their states as “shenanigans,” not serious talk.]
First, the Koch Brothers were funding DBD legislation in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania way back in 2011, when an Obama defeat seemed possible, and a narrow Obama victory seemed even more possible. In such situations, 17 electoral votes can mean a lot. (The majority of states have fewer than 10 electoral votes.) If the Kochs had successfully changed election laws in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, they would have essentially given Romney a superstate with the population of North Carolina and more electoral votes than Michigan or Georgia. (In case you don’t know, those are big states.)
Even if Obama still won the election, they’ve made Generic Republican’s path to victory in 2016 a little easier. But they’ve also effectively created a monster. Obama won the popular vote in Pennsylvania (52% to 46%), but in the Koch system, Romney would have essentially won the state (14 to 6!). And this would happen again and again, in every presidential cycle: a handful of little Bush v. Gores every four years.
But that leads to point two: why is a state better than a district? If anything, a congressional district is a truer expression of the people’s will vis a vis the federal government. What’s so special about states? Historically, the winner of the national popular vote almost always wins the electoral college, even if you retroactively apply the DBD rules. As many political historians noted after the uproar over the 2000 election, the system works 98% of the time.
Of course, a popular vote would work 100% of the time, if full representation is what you’re aiming for. But let’s assume we’re stuck with the electoral college. Dividing by districts is, arguably, a better way to distribute electoral votes. People whose voices have historically been ignored – large political minorities in California, Texas, and Illinois – would suddenly appear on the magic election night map.
And to be fair, Mother Jones‘s alarm at conservative meddling is probably separate from its writers’ feelings about a district-based electoral college. What troubles Mother Jones is that powerful conservatives used (and, more horrifically, funded) political mechanizations to unseat Barack Obama. And if those powerful conservatives had been victorious – if those 17 votes somehow lodged Romney into the White House – half the country would be screaming “foul!”
But even if efforts to divide up Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were funded by shadowy Republican billionaires, it’s still a (potentially) good idea. Do the Koch Brothers care about the integrity of American elections? Maybe not. But, motives aside, they’re advocating legitimate democratic reforms with cash. This, and almost everything else unseemly about the 2012 election, is far less appalling than the tactics employed by Bush allies in South Carolina and Florida in 2000. Apart from their persistent desire to hide most of their political contributions (I guess if money is speech, they’re the equivalent of Anonymous), the Koch Brothers have nothing to be ashamed of – they were funding a noble cause! And in the end, Obama would still be president. Plus we’d have a 17-electoral vote monster, one that would inevitably turn on its creators (the Brothers Koch, Republicans, conservatives, whoever). Because if history is any indicator, U.S. political parties are especially susceptible to the law of unintended consequences. Cases in point:
Republicans in the 1940s supported the presidential term limit. They foresaw a long cascade of New Deal presidents queueing up into the 21st century. They couldn’t envision Republican majorities springing at record pace from the wombs of all those veterans’ wives, all of them voting to cut income taxes by divisions of three.
The post-1968 primary reforms, overseen by George McGovern, helped Richard Nixon manipulate the Democratic primary process, effectively choose his candidate (McGovern), and then eviscerate him. In the long run, these reforms have arguably resulted in longer, uglier, more costly primary races. (This almost certainly cost ardent McGovern supporter Hillary Clinton the White House in 2008.)
Democrats wailed about defending the integrity of the electoral college back in October 2000, when polls indicated that George W. Bush might win the popular vote but not capture 270 electoral votes.
– Citizens United, the apparent fruition of years of conservative efforts to conflate speech and money, helped Obama win the White House a second time, and will invariably help elect future leftist lawmakers who devise genuine campaign finance reform.
Radical changes implemented for political gain invariably backfire, and sooner rather than later. Conservatives who yearn for those Republican districts in California will feel the sting of those large, mostly Hispanic Democratic districts in Texas. They’ll certainly discover how many blue districts you can squeeze into all those dense, red-state cities (“they look so small on the map!”). And Democrats will discover how many large, rural districts stretch out across New York and Illinois. Why would anyone spend money for that? Two hundred twenty-three years of political meddling should have taught them this much: you don’t hijack the American political system. It hijacks you.