Thursday, July 05, 2007

Crime story

Nick Bromell teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is a widely published writer. He also went to school with Scooter Libby. In both The American Scholar and in Salon, he has written about his school friend.

Meanwhile, back in NZ, Zen Tiger rejoices that Libby's sentence has been commuted and Andrei of the The Briefing Room hopes for a pardon. Strange, I thought that both would favour criminals serving their full sentences.


Jake said...

Ironically, Bromell makes exactly the same point about the convictions that lie at the base of 'liberalism' as Wishart does about faith-based atheism, albeit in a more sophisticated manner.

Paul said...

An interesting observation. Would you like to expand upon it?

Jake said...

Specifically, he says:

"We liberals do want to hold onto the word true because we know that behind our policy proposals lurks a deep sense of right and wrong, a deep instinct about what makes life valuable and meaningful. But we do not fully articulate these beliefs, and we seldom even admit that we have them. Because they rest at bottom on conviction, not reason, and therefore cannot be justified without circularity, we hesitate to bring them into the open. We are nervous about admitting that in this sense our politics are as faith-based as those of any fundamentalist.

This is a failure of nerve, and it has two consequences: to people like Cheney we appear hypocritical, and to many others we appear uncommitted and indecisive. This is why the liberal temperament is challenged as never before. Everywhere in the world we are confronted by the fundamentalism that deposits bombs in commuter trains and that crafts Strangelovian strategies for global preeminence. In the face of these provocations, we are called upon to be firm but not inflexible, tough but not stubborn, determined but not dogmatic. We need something like faith, but it has to be a faith that makes room for the faith of others. Our deepest quarrel with fundamentalists in this country, then, is not about Iraq, health care, abortion, or gay rights. It’s about the very possibility of trying to be true without needing the truth. It’s about being able to commit to a truth while always remembering that this truth could be partial, incomplete, and provisional—a steppingstone forward, not an edifice of certitude."

Of course, "liberalism" in the US comes out of scientific progressivism touched with New Deal Keynesianism, and so isn't necessarily a comparable beast to the social democratic left in New Zealand and elsewhere, particularly because, as Bromell argues, the US right are for the most part fundamentalist (right into the President's office), whereas the right in NZ isn't.

The problem that he's identifying, really, is that by arguing with fundamentalists you yourself become a fundamentalist, I think because the argument so quickly gets polarised around the fundamentalist version of 'the Truth'. While Sam's arguments look, to us, like perfectly sensible responses ('I don't know, but the evidence suggests . . . '), Wishart can only respond with yes/no questions designed to force you into a position where you state what you think is 'The Truth'. So, you either fall for it, continue to equivocate and thus appear weak to those who believe in 'The Truth', or get so frustrated that you become fundamentalist about it yourself.

In a sense, Wishart is right. Atheism requires, at bottom, a degree of faith to fill a gap in knowledge. But the point is that this is not the same kind of faith which generates and submits to an elaborate mythology and power structure. It's not the kind of faith that comes with cast-iron rules about how we should behave for fear of divine retribution. It's faith of a different, much smaller order. But by framing the discussion in the way that he has, Wishart has made it about this, and thus drawn into a fundamentalist argument people who are trying to defend themselves against fundamentalism. Good trick.

(Oh, this is not to say that there aren't fundamentalists on the atheist-side of that argument. Anyone who describes themselves as 'Rand-ian' is necessarily a fundamentalist, and not, I think, an ally).

Anyway, my breakfast awaits, but I shall spend the rest of the day mulling over the dilemma of a secular belief structure that wants to admit all other belief structures while not actually accepting any of them. In the meantime, enjoy this website, which nicely encapsulates some of the central pathologies of American faith politics. I heartily recommend the negative feedback section:

Jake said...

I of course realize I've just taken up a whole chunk of cyberspace pointing out that you shouldn't argue with fundamentalists on a blog dedicated to arguing with fundamentalists, but I'm sure you'll appreciate the opportunity for self-doubt and reflection.

Paul said...

Yes, its happening before our eyes on The Briefing Room. Sam made a simple distinction between:

a) we don't know what the universe emerged from


b) the universe was created by God, and we don't know where he came from

Then Robk messes it up with his own assumption, so it now reads:

a) Atheistic science assumes i) there is NO God, ii) we don't know what the universe emerged from


b) I.D. assume that (a) is inadequate to explain the evident complexity therefore the universe must have been created by (some kind of ) God, ii) we don't know where he came from.

So (a), which is a statement of fact, becomes an assumption by "Atheistic Science;" (b), which is a statement of belief, becomes a criticism of (a). So, by the sheer power of forming bad sentences, Robk undermines a valid distinction and turns it into a pseudo-argument for his beliefs.

Meanwhile, on NZ Conservative Mr Tips refuses to believe that his contention that Lesbian gangs are violating schoogirls is disproved by the falsification of the evidence. Instead, he claims that his real point was that homosexual violence is under-reported (as opposed to invented, I suppose).

This is, in one word, Truthiness.

Sam Finnemore said...

Oh dear, I am become the case study de jour of the overly soft liberal. :) I guess someone's got to do it.

"How to Argue with a Fundy (If you Must)" would make a nice blog post in its own right, Paul...

Unknown said...

Look, if it is any consolation to both Sam and Paul (whose position I have also described as rational after we pushed debate to the edges a couple of months ago), I for one don't see this as a 'die in the trenches' semantic battle where one fell slip of the tongue is the end.

The position I take is really quite simple: each to their own, I cannot and would not wish to compel someone to believe one way or the other; likewise I believe that a truly rational basis for what any of us think or believe can only be arrived at if we do engage in sometimes hard-hitting debate.

Sometimes, these debates reveal weaknesses in our own lines of reasoning (whether we care to admit them publicly or not), and we then have the choice of doing more research on a particular point or living with the nagging doubt.

None of us over at TBR are sitting there giving loud hoots and high fives, just because Sam set out what to me was a perfectly rational statement. I don't see it as weakness. I see it as being intellectually honest.

My point about Atheism requiring faith is not to single Atheism out per se, but only to make people at the extremes of the argument realise that we are two sides of the same coin.

Sure, you are not actively collecting in groups and singing anti-deity songs (I think it is Anton la Vey's mob who do that :) ) but your decision to live your life as if God does not exist still requires, deep down, a belief that he doesn't.

Now you can anchor that tiny spark of belief in all of the naturalistic evidence you can assemble, and that provides a rational, balance of probabilities approach to the problem.

But ultimately you cannot prove the non-existence of God any more than I can prove the positive.

And please, before anyone gets hot and bothered on where the burden of proof falls - that's only relevant in the point scoring debates we have with each other.

When it comes to the nitty gritty, you cannot prove God's non-existence to your own self, any more than I can prove his existence to mine.

And so we sit, each of us, in positions that we each believe are rational based on the evidence we have seen and weighed.

And that's fine. It makes for good discussion fodder.

God bless y'all