The Perfect Storm (of Stupid)


Newsweek's Lisa Miller
Never buy a corn muffin from this woman

If you’re someone who reads 1585, which evidently you are, then there’s a good chance you also came across Christopher Hitchens’s post on Slate two weeks back, essentially a plug — albeit a characteristically eloquent and enjoyable plug — for the cinematic release of Collision, a documentary chronicling last year’s debates between the initimable Hitchens and one Pastor Douglas Wilson (I believe it hardly necessary for me to inform you of the subject matter).  What you may not have done is clicked on the link Hitchens provided to Newsweek’s surprisingly harsh review of the film — both because this would have required tearing yourself away from Hitchens’s addictive prose, and because his mention of the fact that reviewer Lisa Miller dismissed Collision on the grounds that both debaters were white males likely made you suspect that her review would not be your cup of tea.

Anyone who did click on Miller’s review — or should I say her proclamation of refusal to review — knows that Hitchens was not just being flippant.  The review’s title is “Two White Guys Walk Into a Bar,” and its second paragraph, in its entirety, reads “Really, what’s the point of all this?”  After breezing past the maddeningly obligatory mention of the fact that the various New Atheists — Dawkins and Sam Harris are mentioned by name, in addition to Hitchens — have made money from their books (non-atheist authors write for free, I suppose?), Miller portions out the meat of her argument:  the New Atheists are rhetorical “adolescent boys,” merely “showing off” to one another — on the internet, of all places (ahem). 

She suggests that a better approach to questions of faith is exemplified by Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt: a History, which advises investigating them like a poet.  (Presumably, not counting any of the first-class poets who also happen to have been unapologetic show-off atheists, like Percy Shelley, Wallace Stevens, or Philip Larkin.)  Apparently, this involves not particularly caring about what the right answer actually is.  This is, of course, not a tenet of poetry at all, but rather a tenet of postmodern academic feminism.  When Lisa Miller says “like a poet,” what she really means is “like a girl.”

Needless to say, this is offensive to both girls and poets.

The “questions of faith” at hand — as Dawkins, Hitchens, et al have been forced to tell us again and again — are not metaphors about what renders it beautiful to be alive.  They are questions of faith versus evidence centered on mutually exclusive propositions about empirical reality.  One cannot investigate the age of the planet or the origins of our species “like a poet,” any more than one can build a rocket like a ballerina.  Poetry in and of itself is not a position on an issue.  Lest I be accused of soullessness, I remind you that I am a dedicated, published, favorably-reviewed poet and I am still saying this, and feel quite honorable in doing so.  I would expect the same courtesy from a scientist, should anyone ever suggest to him or her that poetry be written with a scanning electron microscope. 

The other Anti-New-Atheist role model Miller holds up is Harvard’s “secular chaplain,” one Greg Epstein.  I carried out my due diligence on him, and he seems like a very bright and incredibly nice guy.  I have no problem with his being held up as a role model.  But Miller is starting to lose me here.  After all, this Greg Epstein fellow is also a Caucasian male.  Based on the fact that he bothers to voice his opinions and argue for them as opposed to other ones, he appears also to — gasp — believe that he is right.  So why does Miller decline to dismiss him out of hand, as she did with Hitchens and Wilson for no less?  Is it because he’s ethnically Jewish?  According to everyone but Hitler and Vincent Gallo, Jews are still “white people.”

Ugh.  I hate this.

Having to talk in seriousness about who does or doesn’t “count as white” makes my flesh crawl.  But Lisa Miller has forced me to do so by using “whiteness” as a criterion in her evaluation of the worth of others’ opinions.  I will concede that she — along with every other Academic Liberal who dismisses the blusterings of “white males” with an eye-roll and a knowing fist on the hip — is doing so with the best of intentions; even with admirable intentions, born of beliefs that I largely share.  But once this is done, it cannot stop being done.  A rebuttal to a piece that attacks Hitchens and Wilson as white males, even a very skillfully done rebuttal, as I hope this is, must risk the appearance of defending them as white males.  Of course, Lisa Miller and others who employ the same tactics know this perfectly well, and this is what makes the rhetoric so reprehensible.  Open an argument by asserting that anyone who disagrees is a bigot — quite possibly without knowing that he is, the poor thing — and upon the appearance of disagreement, there will always be some readers all too willing to believe as much.  If not out-and-out a bigot in the sense of active animosity towards any marginalized demographics, one at least appears boorish enough to defend a couple of white males against someone who isn’t such, which for many people is quite enough.

But of course, I am not defending white males.  Neither am I attacking them.  I am doing neither because I refuse on principle to lower myself into a discourse wherein people’s opinions are slated either to be respected or dismissed based even partially on identity politics, regardless of whether this is being done because of (ahem) “real” racism, or (cough) “only” as a hip academic-feminist talk-to-the-hand.

Never mind that she defended Hitchens during her interview with Dawkins, in order to support her point that Dawkins was far and away the most obnoxious of the New Atheists.  The absolute worst white male, it seems, is whichever one Lisa Miller happens to be writing about that week.  To her credit, she did make this accusation directly to the face of (the unflaggingly polite) Dawkins.  In fact, this was so impressively courageous, I hereby encourage her to insult Christopher Hitchens to his face at the earliest possible opportunity.  Preferably after 5pm on a Friday.  And to make sure that a camera is rolling.

The fact that Miller is also a self-identified atheist makes it all the more infuriating.  Her implication is that we (women? nonwhites? who exactly?) are allowed to be atheists, because when we do it it’s about rejecting the phallocentric hegemony of foundational knowledge… but they (white males? British white males? famous British white males? who exactly?) are not allowed to be atheists, because when they do it it’s about showing off how smart they are, which is just more phallocentric hegemony.

This, I fear, is simply what happens to one’s brain when one attends Oberlin College during the apotheosis of French Feminism.  She calls herself an atheist, because if you’re PC you’re not allowed to be religious — but stops short of actually asserting that there’s no God (which is what the damned word means), because that would constitute a definitive position on a question of empirical truth, which PC doesn’t allow you to have.  Lisa Miller is the perfect storm of illogic — the union of religious apologism and poststructuralist feminism.

 Two Towers Orthanc and Barad-Dur

How wide was Miller’s grin as she reported the results of an experiment proving that religious people think religious things with the same part of the brain that rationalists use to think rational things.  Is any further response necessary than to point out that believing something with the “fact part” of your brain does not actually make it a fact?  I am quite sure this is the part of the brain where Hitler and Jack the Ripper stored the “facts” that Jews and sexy women deserve butchering.  This is, as I have helpfully pointed out so many times about so many things, what “insane” means.

Am I reneging on my pledge to embrace theological noncognitivism?  Hardly.  The statements used in this experiment went rather considerably beyond “Something that could rationally be called God as likely exists as not.”  And what Miller has missed, in her paean to compromise and self-doubt, is that the religious subjects were chosen specifically because they were the least likely to doubt their beliefs.  It is no surprise that a fundamentalist protestant regards “Jesus ascended to Heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father” no differently from “two plus two is four.”  Perhaps they should try it again with some East Coast Catholics and see what lights up when they push the green button for “I am 100% certain that the Father emanates from the Holy Ghost and the Son from the Father even though all three have always existed and are actually all the same anyway.”  Or trouble an incipient teenage suicide bomber for a moment of his time, and test him on “I am totally psyched about blowing myself up tomorrow.”

It is no defense to point out that fundamentalism “satisfies an emotional need.”  Of course it does.  But it is not the emotional need simply for meaning and beauty, which loosey-goosey moderate spiritualism satisfies equally well, if not better.  Fundamentalism satisfies the emotional need for exclusivity and hatred.  Of homosexuals, single mothers, or whomever is to hand after the addition of man and country.  Someone as deeply mired in a PC worldview as Lisa Miller evidently is becomes so obsessed with telling “boys” that they are being “mean,” it is often forgotten that the boys are being mean to other boys who are being even meaner.  The act of rape presumably “satisfies an emotional need” in rapists.  As for the fact that the New Atheists “enjoy the fight,” it is equally true that law-enforcement officials enjoy catching rapists and putting them in prison — does this mean they should stop doing so?

What even is the compromise Miller longs for with regard to such statements of foundational knowledge?  We should all believe that Jesus sort of ascended into Heaven, where he is sort of seated at the right hand of the Father?  (Even Jews, who should start believing that he was sort of the Messiah after all?)  The proposition is either sacred truth or utter nonsense.  There is no third option.

Furthermore, I suspect her views about the universal desirability of compromise might be different if the example at hand were a debate between Jesse Jackson and David Duke, or between Dan Savage and Fred Phelps, or between Gloria Steinem and Tucker Max.  Like any academic feminist worth her salt, she is no doubt well versed in the mantra of “There are absolutely no objective truths… except for Sexism Is Bad.”

In her glowing review of Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus, a new examination of the Gospels, she makes no bones about condemning the New Testament’s anti-Semitism.  No compromise there.  The Christians who believe that the Jews are cursed, even a little bit, will be given no quarter, as bloody well they should not be.  But the Christians who believe that Jesus literally walked on water, or turned water to wine, or rose from the dead?  How dare the rest of us imply that these things are impossible!

Of course, many of the New Atheists have attacked the Bible for its racism, sexism, and homophobia at least as much as for its questionable chemistry and physics, if not more so.  But you see — and pay attention here, because this point is complicated — they are men, whereas Mary Gordon is a woman.  Here endeth the lesson.  Being possessed of ovaries, it is a fait accompli that when she says all the same things, it is for all the right reasons.  (Curiously, the review eschewed mention of whether Gordon has made money from her book.)

Any and all -isms may be pursued past the cathedral doors, but an open mind must be kept about floating seas and talking snakes.  Science?  Tish-tosh.  All the self-important boys should just put their willies away and agree that the planet is 2,499,997,000 years old (i.e., halfway between five billion and six thousand).  That’s simply the only way mommy is going to be able to hear herself think in this madhouse.

Did it sit poorly with you just now when I mocked my opponent on the basis of her gender?  It should have.  Just like it should have sat poorly with you when my opponent dismissed Hitchens and Wilson on the basis of theirs.  I might add that a joke made between points, however impolitic, is still preferable to ignoring altogether the points themselves, and encouraging others to do so.

Despite my obstinate willie-swinging belief in objective truth, I am quite able to “imagine the worldview of another.”  For example, I have so far spent some four pages quite vividly — and I daresay accurately — imagining Lisa Miller’s, and found it wanting.

Nowhere more so, perhaps, than when she defends Harvard’s abstinence club, the so-called True Love Revolution.  It is in this piece that Miller is at her most naively well-intentioned — and, by extension, at her most pitiful.  Her fatal mistake is to take TLR at their word, and believe that their stated goal of empowering women to seek romance rather than settle for the alleged status quo of ceaseless inebriated rutting is actually their true goal.  But beware of virgins bearing pamphlets.  

I was in college from 1996-2000, and unless something has very drastically changed in the last decade, college women definitely do not need any help saying no.  Without revealing an ungentlemanly amount of information in this public forum, during my undergraduate tenure I had sex (meaning orificial intercourse below the waist, for anyone who may “count” anything else as sex) with four women who were students at the same school.  One was my girlfriend for a long time, one was my girlfriend for a short time, one was a woman I hoped to date and who turned out to have other plans, and one was a female friend who said what the hell.  I “hooked up” with, if you insist upon that term, an additional dozen or so, and on most of those occasions things did not progress to a point that anyone would “count as” sex, even under the most generous of definitions.

And I’m good-looking.

But something too much of this.  Miller’s point — which, incredibly, she seems actually to expect to be taken under good-faith advisement — is that the abstinence society at Harvard would do well to ditch their “traditional marriage” rhetoric and simply advise women that it is okay to take things slow, to demand to be wined and dined and tossed a bouquet once in a while, and so forth.  For what it’s worth, I heartily agree.

I would also heartily agree if Lisa Miller informed the Taliban that they would do well to ditch all the cold-blooded murder and simply try to increase the number of Muslims who star in their own sitcoms or play professional baseball.  But alas, I suspect that the Taliban would not.

And neither will the True Love Revolution.  Miller, bless her heart, gives them far too much credit by assuming that their primary goal is to make women’s lives better.  It most certainly is not.  The primary — indeed, the only — goal of such organizations is to advance a far-right theological worldview.  And, to paraphrase Mr. Lincoln, if they could advance this worldview without freeing any woman they would do it, and if they could advance it by freeing all the women they would do it, and if they could advance it by freeing some and leaving others alone they would also do that.

I can’t believe that Lisa Miller fails to see this.  After all, she’s an atheist.  It’s just that she’s the kind of atheist who thinks there’s actually a decent chance that everything* from the Bible is true.  In other words, not an atheist.

    *(except the racism, sexism, and homophobia).

In memory of famous British white male Isaac Newton, Lisa Miller is cordially invited to leap from the tallest conveniently located building, and see whether rolling her eyes — or perhaps reading aloud from a book of poems that are ambivalent about gravity — suffices to keep her from hitting the ground.

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