Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sam Harris' Silly Column

I've never been impressed with the arguments advanced by uberatheist Sam Harris (See Ten Myths about Atheism in the Hall of Fame on the left margin of this page), and little that he says in a recent column in Newsweek gives me reason to reassess my opinion. The article is, like much of his work, a rant against Christian belief, embodied, in this case, in the person of Sarah Palin. His list of particulars against her includes the following:

She's a closet theocrat:

"If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could."

Harris offers, however, no evidence that Palin has theocratic tendencies so his charge is little more than petty libel.

Harris also castigates Ms Palin for being as unprepared for the responsibilities of the presidency as, well, as is the Democratic standard-bearer:

"She comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her....She is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history."

"The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security ... the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them."

"What doesn't she know about financial markets, Islam, the history of the Middle East, the cold war, modern weapons systems, medical research, environmental science or emerging technology? Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin's ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth."

To all of which one must ask how much Barack Obama knows about these matters and how have the last 44 years prepared him for the presidency? Harris doesn't seem interested in these inconvenient questions, however. He much prefers to dash off to compile more reasons to dislike Palin.

For instance, like many of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of Western civilization, Governor Palin believes God is sovereign. Harris finds this both disagreeable and disqualifying:

"I care even more about the many things Palin thinks she knows but doesn't: like her conviction that the Biblical God consciously directs world events."

Also, like millions of Americans Governor Palin has the temerity to think that parents should be able to decide whether their minor children have an abortion:

"She has also fought vigorously for a 'parental consent law' in the state of Alaska, seeking full parental dominion over the reproductive decisions of minors. We know, therefore, that Palin believes that she should be the one to decide whether her daughter carries her baby to term. Based on her stated position, we know that she would deny her daughter an abortion even if she had been raped. One can be forgiven for doubting whether Bristol Palin had all the advantages of 21st-century family planning-or, indeed, of the 21st century."

Most galling to Harris, perhaps, is that Palin is a confident woman:

"Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth: 'Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?' "

Among the most annoying of Harris' indictments of Palin was this one:

When asked about these remarks [her prayer that the U.S. would be within God's will in Iraq] in her [ABC] interview with [John] Gibson, Palin successfully dodged the issue of her religious beliefs by claiming that she had been merely echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln. The New York Times later dubbed her response "absurd." It was worse than absurd; it was a lie calculated to conceal the true character of her religious infatuations.

Harris' accusation has the misfortune of being completely misleading, grossly unfair, and manifestly wrong all at once - a kind of trifecta of intellectual irresponsibility. Palin was explaining to Gibson that her intent when she made those remarks was to reiterate, however imprecisely, Lincoln's response to a clergyman who ventured to say, in his presence, that he hoped 'the Lord was on our side'. Lincoln replied "I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side." Palin was obviously trying to emulate Lincoln, to hold his prayer up as her model. For Harris to call her a liar just makes him look the ignorant fool.

But speaking of having a tenuous relationship with the truth, Harris himself seems to be no stranger to the seductions of making stuff up. He writes:

[W]e cannot ignore the fact that Palin's impressive family further testifies to her dogmatic religious beliefs. Many writers have noted the many shades of conservative hypocrisy on view here: when Jamie Lynn Spears gets pregnant, it is considered a symptom of liberal decadence and the breakdown of family values; in the case of one of Palin's daughters, however, teen pregnancy gets reinterpreted as a sign of immaculate, small-town fecundity.

I don't know of any conservative writer or commenter who has suggested that Bristol Palin's pregnancy is anything but an unfortunate illustration of the sorts of problems that so many people have to wrestle with in our world. For Harris to characterize conservatives as interpreting Bristol's situation as somehow benign is ridiculous. But, perhaps, when your goal is to diminish someone in the eyes of others and when you're philosophically unhampered by any moral constraints yourself, such fabrications come easily to the tongue.

Harris concludes his essay with this:

[H]ow has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth-in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.

Here I agree somewhat with Harris, but I think I know the answer to his rhetorical question. Washington is in a mess precisely because we've entrusted it to the graduates of the Ivies. Who does Harris think has been running this country for the past century? Who does he think has run our financial markets into the ground? What makes Harris think that what we need is more of the same? Why does Harris think that a degree from an expensive college means anything more than that you had a rich daddy? Why does Harris think that the children of privilege are better suited to run this country than anyone else? Didn't the execrable George W. Bush graduate from Yale? Money and brains are worthless without values and virtue, and Harvard and Yale do nothing to instill either of those in their graduates.

The late William F. Buckley once famously opined that he would rather be governed by the first 100 people in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. A lot of Americans see his point. What we don't need are bigots like Harris telling us that those who've come from humble backgrounds are not suited to assume the duties of citizenship just because they never got stoned at an Ivy league school.