Thursday, October 09, 2014

What Are Bill Mahr (and Sam Harris) and Ben Affleck (and Nicholas Kristoff and Michael Steele) Disagreeing About?

So here's a pop-culture dust-up about Islam on Bill Mahr's Show, and a response by Reza Aslan.
Seems to me that basically everyone involved here has (or at least may have, depending on some facts I don't know) good points.
I think Mahr and Harris are right, and liberals are overly hesitant to criticize Islam. This is just an instance of their general hesitance to criticize other countries and cultures, and is almost certainly in part a consequence of liberalism's on-going tryst with various versions of "relativism" (note: a term and a concept that barely make any sense...but the term conveys a general sense of the idea, and it's the term we're familiar with...)
OTOH, the other guys make some decent points, Aslan in particular. Steele is admirably clear and calm at a point in the discussion at which it is threatening to go off the rails.
What's really at issue here? Both sides cheat by emphasizing uninteresting versions of the question at various points, though on one hearing it sounded like Mahr and Harris cheated less on that point. Affleck and co. often slide fairly close to simply arguing that not all Muslims are illiberal, which no one doubts. Mahr and Harris are better at sticking to claims about majorities/pluralities/large minorities of Muslims.
Seems to me that there are two descriptive questions here and a prudential one:
Do Muslims tend to be more illiberal and/or violent than, say, Christians?
Are the doctrines of Islam more illiberal and/or violent than, say, those of Christianity?
And:
Even if the answer to one or both of those questions is affirmative, should we continue to pretend that they are in the negative, in the hopes of achieving practical ends?
Aslan seems to be arguing that there is no tendency whatsoever of Muslims to be illiberal and/or violent, and his general strategy seems sound: if Islam is sometimes illiberal and sometimes not depending on the country it's practiced in, then that seems to count against the relevant accusations, and for the claim that it is the political system of the country that is the controlling factor here. OTOH--and in a way I find this point most interesting--he commits a massive error when he falsely claims that religions cannot be illiberal or violent, but only people can be. That's a common view, but it's completely wrong. Ideas matter, and a religion that has but one tenet which is "kill everybody" is doctrinally more violent than a religion that has only the tenet "Don't kill anybody." It might be true that actual doctrines have little effect on action...but I rather doubt that. The interviewer tries to press Aslan on this point, but he seems to dodge it. He might just be frustrated at that point, but I can't tell.

25 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Replace the word "Muslims" with "Jews".

Writing without reference to history, the result is argument from the principle of perspectivism for thee but not for me.

http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=10072
http://www.accuracy.org/release/how-israel-backed-hamas/

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n15/mouin-rabbani/israel-mows-the-lawn

Sam Harris: "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists."

Your fantasies of context free reason are as faith-based as fantasies of American exceptionalism.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

"Your fantasies of context free reason are as faith-based as fantasies of American exceptionalism."

That is literally the stupidest thing anyone has ever said on this blog.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

Strangely, when Christians have been put in similar (dismal) political situations, similar results ensued. I speak of Northern Ireland, where there was a long sectarian battle. But this does not make Christianity as a whole a violent religion.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and is almost certainly in part a consequence of liberalism's on-going tryst with various versions of "relativism" (note: a term and a concept that barely make any sense...but the term conveys a general sense of the idea, and it's the term we're familiar with...)"

Contemporary Islam, like contemporary Judaism, Christianity, or any other set of beliefs or assumptions, including Anglo American philosophy, is the product of a history. I wouldn't quite say the same for mathematics.

I gave you a little history lesson that you can choose to ignore if you want, but as it is you're making arguments about politics without knowing a goddamn thing. Historians are specialists too. Think of them that way and maybe you'll take them more seriously.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

"Historians are specialists too. Think of them that way and maybe you'll take them more seriously."

Where on Earth do you get the idea that I don't take historians seriously? What a wild, entirely unfounded non sequitur.

Listen, man: don't quit your day job.

As a philosopher, you're probably a perfectly adequate historian.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh and:
For the love of God, the fact that a discipline has a history doesn't show that it's incapable of transcending that history. This is an elementary point.

Furthermore, even if you do choose to go down that dead-end, it undermines your own claim to have some bird's-eye perspective on philosophy. Your own utterances are nothing but blah blah product of blah blah history.

And you think mathematics doesn't have a history????? I...am astonished. Mathematics has a long, complicated and interesting history. I don't understand how anyone can not know this... Especially someone who presumes to speak with some authority about such matters...

4:55 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

PM,

Right, a perfectly good point. But the real question here is something like: is Islam doctrinally more illiberal than most other major religions? Or: is there some general tendency in it that makes it worse than, say, Christianity?
Christians have done some really awful things, and it goes without saying that many good people are Muslim. But pointing to individual cases won't do much to answer the question about general tendencies.

Remember: I'm not presupposing any answer to these questions. I'm just asking them. I have no Earthly idea what the answer is.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But the real question here is something like: is Islam doctrinally more illiberal than most other major religions?"

Have you read the Old Testament? And Salaita's annoying, but have you followed any of this other than as a question of academic freedom? "A Jewish State for a Jewish people" "A German State for a German people" I love logic, don't you?
Zionism is racism.

"For the love of God, the fact that a discipline has a history doesn't show that it's incapable of transcending that history. This is an elementary point."

Give me and example of "transcendence" in philosophy that couldn't better be described by a historian as "change".

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2008/08/the-philosoph-1.html

Philosophers always claim to be "doing" philosophy, as if you were chemists "doing" chemistry. Analytics tried to escape the traps of theology by sticking to formalism, but formalism doesn't describe the world very well, as we experience it. Again, see your post and my links as the response: your rationalisms and my data.

In philosophy, it's either pedantry or mysticism, from the worship of gods to the worship of godlessness. And now theology is back in full. But no! Sam Harris calls for "spirituality without religion". Oy.

I'm a hard determinist and a not nice nihilist. Have your fun.
Ciao.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Wow, that really is a tour de force of ignorant nonsense, A. Really impressive, even by the standards of the internet.

I particularly like how your nihilism is confined to the arguments you don't like. But, then, nihilism is always for thee, and not for me...

But stick with it man! Maybe by your junior year you'll see your way clear of one or two of these confusions.

6:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, one more. "Nice Nihilism" is Alex Rosenberg's term for his own arguments.

Contemporary Islam is the product of colonialism, as continuity and as reaction. Saudi exists because the US guaranteed it. More data, related:

http://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/12/17/alien-legacy-0

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo5378447.html

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, one more. "Nice Nihilism" is Alex Rosenberg's term for his own arguments.

Contemporary Islam is the product of colonialism, as continuity and as reaction. Saudi exists because the US guaranteed it. More data, related:

http://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/12/17/alien-legacy-0

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo5378447.html

6:33 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

None of what you're posting is relevant to the question.

Say what you will about philosophy, but at least we can usually tell what does and does not count as an objection to a given proposition... It's not that I don't appreciate the non-hostile tone of this last comment...but, again, everything you've provided is completely and utterly irrelevant.

Another thing about philosophy: most of us don't just mindlessly repeat "sex...colonialism...sex...colonialism..." like a mantra. The "Desiring Arabs" link has nothing to do with anything. But, then, neither does the stuff about colonialism. The question at hand is: is Islam notably illiberal? Nobody is asking about the origins of the alleged illiberalism. So nothing about colonialism can possibly answer the question.

Honestly, I appreciate your comments mostly because they renew my faith in the value of studying philosophy...

9:34 PM  
Blogger D. Ghirlandaio said...

"None of what you're posting is relevant to the question."

"America's Kingdom" is a history of the US relationship to Saudi Arabia and its propping up of the most extreme form of Islamism, before the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, both of which were fostered by Saudi. That's history, not post-colonial theory.

Israeli support for Hamas early on against the secular and socialist Fatah is also a documented fact. No literary criticism necessary. I gave you one link; here's another, to that conspiracy-peddling rag, The Wall Street Journal
http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB123275572295011847

Israel deported Mubarak Awad, a Christian promoter of Gandhian non-violence, while the founder of Hamas was left alone to speak. Why?
Israel does not want people; it wants victory, including the occupied territories. According to Israel my father had more right to land in a place he'd never been than someone whose family has lived there for 2000 years. How's that for modern liberalism?

I posted a link to the LRB, which begins with a passage from Haaretz in 2004 quoting an advisor to Sharon, referring to Israel's pulling out from Gaza
---
"The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with … a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress … The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."
---

Here's a Quaker woman, a journalist, whose husband was on Nixon's NSC, writing about the women of Hamas. http://justworldnews.org/?p=3521

And none of what I'm posting is relevant to the question?

US support for Zia and the ISI in Pakistan, and their support in turn for fundamentalists as a power base is not relevant to the history of fundamentalism?

Rosenberg, the "disenchanted naturalist" says "History is bunk" Descartes said the same thing.

You want to think of ideas as causes, but they're responses to previous events. Americans live a fantasy of their own free will and the irrationalism of others. Maybe you should read Graham Greene.

I apologize if this is sloppy but everything I've posted is rich with data, while you're riffing on assumption. Rationalists rationalists.

10:37 PM  
Blogger D. Ghirlandaio said...

http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/2010/06/1-shot-2-kills-sharpshooters-t-shirt.html. religious extremism in the Middle East. You can explain the rise of fundamentalist Jewish extremism in the same terms you can for Islam. Israel was founded by secularists but Ben Gurion helped to create a nationalist religiosity. Girls now have had acid thrown at them for dressing immodestly in Jerusalem.

11:29 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, my response was too large for the comment character limit. Allow me to link you to my response: http://bluehatrecord.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/islam/

I don't mean to commandeer the discussion or anything, just consider the contents another comment in this thread.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

1.
"You want to think of ideas as causes, but they're responses to previous events. Americans live a fantasy of their own free will and the irrationalism of others. Maybe you should read Graham Greene.

I apologize if this is sloppy but everything I've posted is rich with data, while you're riffing on assumption. Rationalists rationalists."

Again, you have a really hard time sticking to the point. This is a simple, basic skill that everyone needs.

Though I'll get to the more substantial bits of what you said below, the point I want to start with is:

No, for the love of God, read what I wrote and stick to the point.

Reading comprehension: it's your friend.

A.
I did not assert nor assume that the idea (the doctrine) was the cause. I rather asked with it was.

B.
Pointing out that there are other causal factors (which is usually the case) does not show that the cause in question is not a factor.

C.
You're mostly just talking about Palestine.

And, mostly importantly:

D.
Ideas *are* often causes, and only bad philosophy convinces people otherwise. Though I didn't assume this, I'll take the opportunity to note it. You're the one with the weird view: ideas are, magically, and despite much evidence to the contrary, never, ever the cause of human actions.

E.
All I can do with respect to your comment about "rationalism" is facepalm. God knows what you mean by it, but if you mean to reject reason wholesale, then you simultaneously give arguments for a social-scientific conclusion about the causes of some human behavior and (apparently) assert that no arguments are valid. Self-refutation. OTOH, if you mean to argue that ideas never move people, then you are simultaneously arguing that I should change my beliefs on the basis of the reasons you give and asserting that no one ever does anything (including changing their beliefs) on the basis of reasons. Again, self-refutation...though there's some wiggle room there.

Your arguments in this case would be much more interesting if you took more care to formulate the historical reasoning clearly and stripped away the bad philosophical veneer.

2.
As it stands, your argument seems to be:

to the first question:
Yes, Muslims tend to be more illiberal or violent.

To the second:
No, it is not doctrinal. Rather, it is a result of a kind of selective pressure...but that's the fault of the West in general, and, in the case of Palestine, Israel in particular.


Just a friendly point:
There's interesting stuff in what you write. If you're interested in helping people (e.g. me) understand something, you might be more effective if you saw this as a cooperative enterprise aimed at learning the truth, rather than some kind of debate contest where the goal is to insult the other party.

Truth matters. And ideas matter. And ideas often guide actions and beliefs. And I and most people who frequent this place am/are interested in figuring things out.

I'd appreciate the benefit of your expertise, but my policy is to react in kind when people are condescending assholes...

So how about we drop all that crap?

8:07 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ok, just for the record, and to get our background assumptions straight, you do realize that no one here is defending such stuff by Israel, right?

More to the point:
I'm unsure to what extent we can generalize from the case of Israel and the Palestinians.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Mystic,

Wow.

Thanks for that.

Very, very interesting.

8:30 AM  
Blogger D. Ghirlandaio said...

"As it stands, your argument seems to be: to the first question: Yes, Muslims tend to be more illiberal or violent."

The Middle East is violent. Is it religion or economics? Oil and history. Again I supplied data.

Moving elsewhere, here's a photo of Kabul University in the 60s before the wars, which themselves had nothing to do with Islam.
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/files/fp_uploaded_images/100527_2-Afghanistan-61.jpg
You can find more on the web.

"I did not assert nor assume that the idea (the doctrine) was the cause. I rather asked with it was."

Written like a bland defense not of the Bell Curve, but of the questions it asks. Harris has contempt for experts, dismissing them as liberal apologists. You're following Harris in ignorance. I repeat: I supplied data.

"You're the one with the weird view: ideas are, magically, and despite much evidence to the contrary, never, ever the cause of human actions."

Taking my logic to the extreme, I could say that Ideas are causes no more than flowers are causes of plants. Ideas qua ideas are articulations. But I'm less interested in the extreme version than I am with the assumed superiority of philosophy.

A review in the NDPR that always makes me laugh
http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23014-money-and-the-early-greek-mind-homer-philosophy-tragedy/
A philosopher reviews a book by a historian
---
Overall, Seaford’s book is interesting, insightful, and combines expertise in ancient sources with careful reasoning. It certainly offers an invaluable discussion of the origins and cultural contexts of early Greek philosophy. But Seaford’s concern with the historical explanations of Greek philosophy suggests that his book may not appeal to scholars interested exclusively in the philosophical content and argumentation of Presocratic texts. The author often explicitly minimizes intellectual explanations of a philosopher’s views in favor of socio-political, religious, and psychological factors (219; 253–4; 273). In fact, he insists that comprehending the relevant cultural factors is necessary for understanding Presocratic metaphysics. We must, he maintains, avoid treating ancient philosophy as if it were created in a “historical vacuum” (10), even if this threatens most Presocratic scholars’ “control of their subject and the autonomy of ’doing philosophy’“
---
"the autonomy of ’doing philosophy’“ Wishful thinking. The autonomy of doing theology.

"Pointing out that there are other causal factors (which is usually the case) does not show that the cause in question is not a factor."

Again: Have you read the Old Testament?

12:35 PM  
Blogger D. Ghirlandaio said...

continuing since it was too long for one comment:

"You're mostly just talking about Palestine."

"Operation Ajax" overthrew the government of Iran. The US helped install Saddam Hussein before we overthrew him. The US sent people to be tortured in Syria (Maher Arar) before we started funding Islamist attacks (again). Saudi Arabia is not Palestine. Suez is not Palestine. The US fleet in Bahrain is not in Palestine. When Bibi says the Gulf states see Israel as an ally, he's referring to monarchies. Livni refers to Saudi as moderate. There are no Jews allowed in Saudi. A group of Christians were just arrested there for religious activities in their own homes.

"Your arguments in this case would be much more interesting if you took more care to formulate the historical reasoning clearly"

I think the links are enough, but you have to read them. Two more just for kicks.
Gambetta and Hertog on engineers and terrorism.
http://www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/users/gambetta/Engineers%20of%20Jihad.pdf

Engineering the Revolution: Arms And Enlightenment In France, 1763-1815
http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo8779949.html

Engineering and the preference for simple binaries, black and white, the law of non-contradiction rather than the rule of ambiguity. Modernism, etc. The "Post-Modernists" that annoy Leiter so much are really bad at articulating ambiguity. They want to have it both ways. I grew up around lawyers. I got no problem with ambiguity.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

1.
Look, dude, you can't just keep posting nonsense and expect a response. This sort of scattershot, half-baked semi-argument is not worth responding to.

Simply, for example, asserting that ideas have no effect on human action, or that the content of philosophical positions explains nothing about their acceptance is not argument.

In fact, you're not even formulating your claims clearly enough to make them worth responding to.

This is fairly common among dilettantes who would like to be able to assert philosophical conclusions without doing the work of actually understanding philosophy.

So: unless you can do better than that, I'm not going to waste time responding to your hemi-demi-semi arguments.

2.
"The Middle East is violent. Is it religion or economics? Oil and history. Again I supplied data."

Do try to formulate your arguments clearly. Are you accepting the claim that Muslims tend to be more illiberal/violent, and asking what the cause of that is? Because that's the best interpretation of what you write.

As far as I'm concerned, it hasn't even been established yet that they *are* more violent.

3.
Excreting long quotes from some book or other about philosophy is not an argument, and doesn't come close to even approaching providing anything like serious argumentation for your ill-formed claims.

Seriously, man. You're out of your league here. We're pretty casual around these parts, and the standards aren't that high...but you fail to meet them.

I don't know what discipline you're in, but if it accepts this kind of shoddy work--even in blog comments--you ought to think about moving on to something else.

If you want your comments to be posted, and want to contribute to the conversation here, you need to formulate your positions clearly, make arguments, and stop just excreting huge, incoherent posts.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

1.
We're well aware of Operation Ajax and the rest around here. You're not telling anyone anything they don't already know.

No one around here--and not even Harris--has denied that the U.S. et al. has played a role in messing up the ME. This, however, is consistent both with the conclusion that Muslims are not, even as a result of those things, any more violent than other religions, and with the conclusion that Islam itself plays some role in the violence.

These are answerable questions, but you're not contributing to answering them.

No one needs your links--we're all aware of the relevant facts. The question is: how should we think about them? Does the political history of the region suffice to explain the violence? Is there, in fact, excessive violence to explain?

It would be simple to formulate your points clearly, but you seem unable or unwilling to do so.

Again, if you want to participate and continue to have your comments posted, you need to calm down and formulate some decent arguments instead of just posting links and quotes an leaving everyone else to figure out what you're trying to say.

2.
"Engineering and the preference for simple binaries, black and white, the law of non-contradiction rather than the rule of ambiguity. Modernism, etc. The "Post-Modernists" that annoy Leiter so much are really bad at articulating ambiguity. They want to have it both ways. I grew up around lawyers. I got no problem with ambiguity."

You aren't making any sense at all. That paragraph is an embarrassment. You simply aren't making any sense. No one in this vicinity has any problem with ambiguity. Perhaps you're thinking that someone is arguing that Islam is responsible for all ME violence? God knows...you're not making any sense, so one can't tell. Certainly no one has made any arguments even vaguely in the vicinity of that there. You are the only one arguing that there is exactly one type of explanation for the relevant phenomena.

Seriously: you're going to have to do better than this in order for your comments to continue to be posted.


1:03 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh God that "Engineers of Jihad" paper...what an incredible joke...
Are you a sociologist? Because...that would explain a lot...

Also note:
Ideas never, ever cause anyone to do anything...except, y'know...when science causes people to kill.

Because that happens...

Is this the method of argument in your discipline? Try to overwhelm the other side with too many confusions to address individually?

1:07 PM  
Blogger D. Ghirlandaio said...

Catholocism is illiberal by definition, but Luther was illiberal as compared to Erasmus. That's how these things work. As to blaming monotheism; you leave no room for irony I guess. I said before that I don't bother defending determinism in its strongest form. Mostly I just have no patience be the fantasies of philosophy. I hold out maybe absurd hope that retrospective intelligence can be used in decision making.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

"I just have no patience be the fantasies of philosophy"

...writes the self-professed determinist and nihilist...

LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL

Oh man.

You really can't make this stuff up...

11:32 AM  

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