Friday, August 18, 2017

Racial Bigotry at Sojourners

Sojourners touts itself as a magazine of Christian love, reconciliation and Christ-like compassion. So why do they publish the sort of ugly, hate-filled rhetoric David Potter delivers to his readers in a recent edition of the magazine?

In the course of a piece on Charlottesville and white supremacy Potter decides that limiting himself to condemning white supremacists imposes too narrow a scope for his purposes. He pulls out all the stops and seizes his opportunity to indict the entire white race:
[I]t is imperative that white people understand that the construct of whiteness is a disease. In baring [sic] the brutalizing effects of whiteness, people of color are all too familiar with the reality that the overwhelming majority of domestic terrorism is committed by white men: the Oklahoma City bombing, the massacre at Emmanuel AME, the stabbing attack on a Portland train earlier this spring, and the Charlottesville car ramming that injured 19 counter-protestors and murdered Heather Heyer. That white men have the highest suicide rate, accounting for 7 of 10 suicides in 2015, provides further symptoms of this sickness.
Set aside the dubious claims about domestic terrorism and the peculiar interjection of the suicide rate and focus instead on what this writer claims about being white: Whiteness, he avers, is a disease. White people are sick.

Imagine saying anything remotely like that about blacks or Arabs, Jews or Asians. It would surely get the writer fired from many publications or opinion outlets. Yet it's apparently acceptable to voice this sort of bigotry at Sojourners. It's very sad that a putatively Christian magazine allows its pages to be disgraced by this sort of vitriolic small-mindedness.

If Potter thinks that telling people that they're diseased by virtue of their race will cause them to suddenly become more receptive to pleas for racial comity and reconciliation then he couldn't be more mistaken.

If he doesn't really care whether white readers become more interested in racial harmony and just wants to vent his own hatreds, prejudices and frustrations then he couldn't be acting less Christianly.

I don't know whether Potter is black or white, but it doesn't matter. It's columns like his which drive people into the arms of the white supremacists, and, ironically enough, language and insults such as he employs are the very sort of repulsive rhetoric employed by the neo-Nazis and other bigots who demonstrated in Charlottesville.

Perhaps Mr. Potter will have the grace to print a clarification or retraction, but if not, he has shown himself to have more in common with those whom he claims to be repelled by than he is evidently aware.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Pull Down Darwin, Too?

In an article for the Evening Standard journalist A.N. Wilson, who has a biography of Charles Darwin due for release next month, notes that Darwin's statue is prominently situated in the Natural History Museum in London.

In the article he goes on to discuss two of Darwin's big ideas and writes this:
Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless: that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for [s]issies whom Nature throws to the wall. Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer.

He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things. He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish.

Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.
To be sure, Darwin was opposed to slavery but not because he recognized the equality of the races. He clearly believed that whites were more highly evolved than, and in many ways superior to, blacks and famously elaborates on that belief in his Descent of Man:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. [Emphasis mine]
Such passages from Darwin arguably provided more ammunition for the pernicious propaganda of white supremacists in the 19th and 20th centuries than did any Confederate soldier or officer. When the mobs get done purging our public spaces of all the monuments to these relatively inconsequential figures perhaps they'll turn their attention toward those whose ideas really count.

On the other hand, Darwin, despite his racist views, is a revered saint on the left so his memorials are probably safe.

Equally secure are any memorials to Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, whose ambition it was to limit the production of black babies. Sanger is also a progressive saint so the mob won't be looking for her portraits to deface and burn.

It's too bad for those saddened to see the assaults on Robert E. Lee's monuments that Lee was never able to declare himself to be a Darwinian or pro-choice. If he had, ironically, his statues would be safe today.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Slippery Slopes

So leftist protestors have started pulling down statues of confederate soldiers who fought to defend the right of a state to practice slavery. Whatever one thinks of the propriety of this destruction, whatever one thinks of those who engaged in the buying and selling of human beings, one has to wonder where it will all end.

If monuments of those who fought on behalf of the south in the 1860s are to be destroyed, will all the monuments in cities like Richmond and at civil war battlefields like Gettysburg be pulled down as well? If not, why not?

If monuments of confederate soldiers, most of whom themselves never owned slaves, are no longer tolerable on the American landscape what about monuments to men who actually bought, sold, and owned slaves? Shall we destroy the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.? Shall we change the name of the Washington Monument? Indeed, should we change the name of the city itself?

What about the state of Washington? How can the citizens of that reliably liberal enclave suffer to have the place in which they live be named for a slave-holder? What about all the universities and colleges and towns across the land named for Washington and Jefferson and other slave-owners? Should not their names be changed as well and the portraits and statues of these men removed?

How about the University of Virginia which was founded by Thomas Jefferson? Is it not sufficiently tainted by its association with its slave-owner founder that it should be closed down? And what should we do with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence which were written by slave-owners? Should they not be torn up and re-written?

While we're at it how can we abide having portraits of Washington and Jefferson on our currency and on Mount Rushmore? And speaking of our currency what's Andrew Jackson's portrait doing on the $20 bill? Jackson perpetrated one of the worst atrocities in our history when he evicted the Cherokees from Georgia. Shouldn't he be expunged from our historical consciousness as well?

Furthermore, consistency demands that the Democratic Party should, at the very least, be compelled to change its name since under that name it has historically been home to all of the major racists in our nation's past. Why don't those who insist on tearing down statues of Civil War soldiers, and those who support them, take their reasoning to its logical conclusion and insist that we do away with the very name of the party of George Wallace, Woodrow Wilson, Bull Connor and FDR who interned thousands of Japanese Americans during WWII?

The first step on a slippery slope - in this case the destruction of Confederate monuments - is always the easiest, but after the first step the logic upon which it was based makes it increasingly more difficult to find a place to stop the slide into sheer madness and mindlessness.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Value of Lecture

Students and teachers among Viewpoint readers might be interested in a column at the New York Times by Molly Worthen, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina. The column is about the value of lectures in college classes, a topic about which there's quite a diversity of opinion.

After introducing her essay by quoting some instructors who eschew lecture in favor of "active learning" and think others should, too, Worthen writes:
In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.
I wonder how many critics of lecture have in their minds a picture of something like a prof I had as an undergrad who, at the beginning of class, would sit on his desk, pull a lectern in front of him, and proceed to read his lecture from a series of blue books in which the lectures were recorded word for word.

This, I know, is how many scholars at professional conferences present their papers, and it's pretty much a waste of time for the listeners who could simply read the paper for themselves.

Worthen continues:
Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this. Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice.

Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.
It is indeed hard work to listen to an hour-long lecture, but the discipline it instills and the skills it develops are immensely valuable.
Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of non-stop social media. More and more of my colleagues are banning the use of laptops in their classrooms.

They say that despite initial grumbling, students usually praise the policy by the end of the semester. “I think the students value a break from their multitasking lives,” Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and an award-winning teacher, told me. “The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention.”
For my part, I don't think 60 minutes of non-stop lecture is particularly efficacious. The instructor needs to pause from time to time and let students digest what they've heard, to be questioned and to ask questions. Their opinions on the issues under discussion should be solicited and challenged and students should be encouraged to defend their views.

Many students, unfortunately, either have no questions or opinions or are reluctant to voice them, but those who do, learn.

One of the dismaying aspects of this approach, though, is that students frequently expect their opinions to be accepted tout court and to be immune to challenge. If the prof does press them on their view, or evinces some disagreement, students sometimes interpret this as a sign that they're not free in class to voice their thoughts. In other words, they see having their views challenged as a form of "put-down" when, of course, it's not that at all. It's simply an attempt to prod the student to sharpen his or her arguments, to express them in a rational fashion rather than simply emoting, and to think more deeply about what they believe.

Worthen goes on to talk about another valuable discipline: Note-taking. This is a skill that, for whatever reason, fewer and fewer students seem to have developed in high school, but in my opinion it's one of the major keys to student success in many college courses.

There's much else of interest to both teachers and students in her column, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Shapiro on the Alt-Right

In the wake of Charlottesville Ben Shapiro fired off a series of tweets about the alt-right which I wish to almost completely affirm. Shapiro's tweets are in italics accompanied by my comments:

1. The so-called alt-right is an evil movement having nothing to do with - and actively opposing - Constitutional conservatism.

Any movement based on hatred is evil. The alt-right is not evil because they're nationalistic although that could be troubling. They're evil because they wear the mantle of the nazis and the nazi ideology of racial purity which leads almost inevitably to racial-cleansing.

2. They've done an excellent job, with the media's ignorant help, of portraying themselves as large and powerful.

I don't know how many of them there are, but I suspect there are many more who sympathize with them than actually belong to any organization.

3. And broadening their definition to include anyone who is anti-establishment .... That's not what they are.

This is one of the frustrating things about the progressive media. They constantly commit the fallacy of undistributed middle, i.e. they assume that because group A shares certain beliefs in common with group B that therefore the two groups are identical. It's like arguing that because dogs and cats both have four legs that therefore dogs are cats. The fact that conservatives favor some of the things the alt-right favors does not entail that conservatives are alt-right.

4. The alt-right has a very definite philosophy, articulated by people like Spencer, Taylor, and Vox Day. 5. And excused and popularized by people like Milo Yiannopoulos. They were successful online in convincing key figures that they were 6. An important constituency. Immoral politicians and advisors then made the conscious decision not to carve them off. 7. Yes, that includes Trump and Bannon.

This was indeed a mistake on Trump's part which it's not too late to rectify. Barack Obama stood by Rev. Wright for years until Wright's rhetoric made the association untenable. Trump should completely dissociate himself from any support alt-right individuals like David Duke may be giving him. If that costs him support in the polls, so be it. It's the right thing to do. It's perhaps worth noting that despite the awful rhetoric from some elements in the Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent murders of police officers, the left never really pushed Obama to disavow BLM, but they're certainly critical of Trump for not more explicitly separating himself from the alt-right.

8. Three elements assure their continued growth: pandering politicians and media figures catering to or ignoring them [i.e. the alt-right], and 9. Left-wingers labeling all right-wingers alt-right and therefore leading innocent people to believe that alt-right Judy means right.

See #3.

10. And left-wing violent groups like Antifa that drive fools into the belief that anyone who fights Antifa is necessarily an ally [of the alt-right].

11. We're watching a tiny microcosm replay of brownshirts vs. reds in Weimar Germany. They're even carrying the same flags.

This is precisely right. There's no substantive difference between the alt-right and the far left. They're both steeped in hatred and both would impose a socialist totalitarian tyranny if they could. The only differences between fascists and communists is that fascists are more militaristic, racist and nationalist (blood and soil) while communists are less fond of overt military trappings, base their hatreds more on class and religion rather than race, and are more globalist. Otherwise, the neo-nazis in Charlottesville and the left-wing protestors in Hamburg and elsewhere are simply two sides of the same coin. They're equally noxious. Given power they would both oppress the groups they hate or, if history is a guide, seek to slaughter them.

12. And leadership in media and especially the White House must actively and thunderously condemn the evil we're watching metastasize.

Trump's response yesterday has been criticized because he didn't explicitly condemn white supremacists and other fascists. I think this is unfair, but even so, the Charlottesville marchers and their ilk, like their counterparts on the left, do need to be explicitly and specifically deplored.

It would be nice, though, if the people so outraged at Trump's measured response yesterday had been as critical of Obama for his disappointing unwillingness to call Islamic-inspired domestic terrorism by its name as well as his failure to dissociate himself from the hateful rhetoric of certain elements of BLM instead of inviting them to the White House.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Few Rarities

Nature enthusiasts have been treated to several avian rarities in Pennsylvania this summer, and since it's been awhile since I've posted anything on birds I thought I'd share the news about these feathered visitors. None of the photos below are of the actual birds found in Pennsylvania this summer, but they are pics of birds of the same species.

The first is a Roseate spoonbill which inhabits wetlands along the coast in the southern states but rarely ventures as far north as the mid-atlantic region and even more rarely as far inland as Pennsylvania.

Even so, there were two of them present in the state last month within forty miles of each other. One of them is still here. Notice the oddly shaped bill which the spoonbill uses to push mud around as it probes for insects, worms, and other delicacies:

Roseate spoonbill
The second is a small heron that also is found along the southern coasts and very rarely inland this far north. Yet there was one, and maybe two of these birds in PA at the end of July as well.

It's called a Tricolored heron and the reason I said that there may have been two of them is that when one bird was no longer being seen a second one was discovered at a lake only about twenty miles away from where the first was originally found.

Tricolored heron
The third visitor is the most remarkable. It's called a White-winged tern and it's indigenous to eastern Europe and central Asia:

Yellow is its breeding range. Blue is where it winters
How this lovely bird found its way to a small lake in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania this week is a mystery, but its striking black and white plumage and extreme rarity (it may be the only Pennsylvania White-winged tern on record) have been delighting birders and photographers who've been making the trek to Tioga Co. to see it for several days now:

White-winged tern
The natural world is full of beautiful jewels, and birds are among its most gorgeous treasures. To see these creatures in real life can sometimes take one's breath away.

Friday, August 11, 2017

More on Purpose

A couple of days ago I did a post on materialism in which I argued that a materialist worldview empties the world and life of any genuine meaning despite the efforts of some materialists to salvage some measure of purpose in the fleeting ephemerata of human existence.

A friend wrote to respond to the post and add some thoughts of his own which I'd like to share. Here's the core of his response:
As is evident in the article you cite, the problem of materialists is that, no matter how hard they try, they can never fully jettison their human essence. Like C.S. Lewis says in Miracles, "While denying humanity, they all the while remain human."

Materialism is the immediate (and pitifully jejune) result of positivism. The materialist basically says, "I refuse to speculate about realities that can't be empirically verified. Prudence demands that I only give credence to what is posited to my senses--to what I know with certainty is actually there. Therefore, I reject any notion of inherent purpose and meaning.

But there are few things which are more empirically obvious than the existential reality of human beings for whom purpose and meaning are more necessary than food. As you likely know, this is the premise of Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning. Man's incessant search for meaning is an empirically verifiable, existential reality.

To fail to see this one would have to be as obtuse as the willfully blind fundamentalist Christian who refuses to consider any evidence that the earth more than 6,000 years old.

The materialist explanation that purpose is only for evolutionary "benefit" also exposes the reality they are trying to deny. Benefit necessarily implies purpose or telos--benefit means an advantage that contributes toward an end cause. But then having an end cause, like increasing evolutionary sophistication and functionality, requires an intent (aka "purpose") and the concept of intent is nonsensical apart from a will and a mind which does the intending.

It's hard for a materialist to write two sentences without asserting some kind of value attribution. But, as you have so keenly pointed out, like purpose and meaning, according to them, there can be no inherent value in anything.

All is an illusion, but then that can't even be said without a value assertion; either an illusion is "bad" because it keeps us from what is real and true, both of which have inherent value, or illusion is "good" because it enables us to gratify ourselves in some way, but then apart from sheer, visceral itch-scratching, "gratifying" one's self smuggles in notions of individual happiness and fulfillment, which are inherently valuable and thus constitute an important purpose.

To paraphrase Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, "Nothing makes a man look less like an animal than assuming he is one."
Quite so. The materialist, in my opinion, is living in a state of metaphysical tension. He realizes that human life requires meaning, significance and purpose and realizes at the same time that any genuine meaning, significance and purpose are extremely difficult to reconcile with the tenets of his materialism which reduces everything to the chaotic swirl of leptons and baryons.

Yet he soldiers on, clinging to his materialism, his desire to embrace a metaphysics which allows him to avoid a confrontation with God evidently outweighing his desire for a meaningful life. One might well wonder why.