New Atheism’s Simplistic Political World View

Sam HarrisLast week, Usaid Siddiqui wrote an amazing article over at Aljazeera America, New Atheism’s Astonishing Hypocrisy Toward Islam. It focused on Sam Harris, of course. Harris has claimed that the murder of the three Muslims in Chapel Hill had nothing to do with the murderer’s atheism. And he might be right. But Siddiqui went on to discuss other cases like the French man who was recently convicted of shooting at a mosque for explicitly atheistic reasons. But more important, he talked about the way that the explicitly atheistic Chinese government is oppressing religious minorities.

The response by New Atheists to these things is actually quite reasonable: it is far more complicated than just a question of their atheism. I totally agree! The problem — hypocrisy, as Siddiqui correctly noted — is that such complex sociological and political explanations don’t ever seem to occur when New Atheists talk about violence coming from Muslims. In those cases, Sam Harris can grab some awful passage from the Quran and say, “See?!” And the New Atheists except this as proof rather than pushing him aside and noting that he’s just a bigot.

Another aspect of this is to claim that such atheists don’t really get it. And this speaks to another troubling aspect of New Atheism: its inbred character. That’s right: the nice upper middle class white people who can afford to go to Skepticon aren’t violent! Yeah, that tends to be the way. The thing about having power is that the violence that your lifestyle depends upon is farmed out to other people — or drones. Sam Harris may get to write articles defending torture and casual murder from the sky, but he knows he will never have to do it himself.

Christopher HitchensWhat’s more, this idea that atheists who go around physically attacking Muslims are not true New Atheists is a standard rhetorical fallacy: No True Scotsman. And it is one that I hear all the time from Christians. But I accept irrationality from Christians — after all, they’re Christians. But how is it that the “I don’t believe anything I don’t have proof for” crowd should so easily fall into this trap? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. We all know why: the New Atheists are no more rational than anyone else, they just think they are.

It all reminds me of David Brook’s entire career. He thinks the only reason the poor are in a bad state is because they don’t act like the rich people who he hangs out with. And that’s what we get from the New Atheists: a lot of tired “us versus them” thinking mascaraing as clear-eyed rational debate. And it isn’t. It’s just age old hatreds.

If Christopher Hitchens hadn’t died, there would be three main figure in the New Atheist community — the other two being Harris and Richard Dawkins. And they are more known for their anti-Muslim beliefs than anything positive about atheism. Most people are to be forgiven that the primary belief of atheism is a hatred of Muslims. I don’t like this, given that I am a traditional (or old) atheist. In addition, this kind of thinking tilts decidedly to the political right. It still amazes me that atheism — long associated with humanism — has largely be co-opted by neoconservatives.

But what do I know? I’m just one of those stupid liberals who want to make everything complicated. I’m like Obama who sees the Iranian regime in the context of history and politics, and doesn’t realize — like Christopher Hitchens — that it is all due to Islam and that our only choice is to bomb them into submission. This is the state of New Atheism: simplistic answers to complex political questions. But they all believe in evolution! And that strikes me as a rather low bar, given that they share that fact with Pope Francis.

Nobody’s Rich in America!

Danielle KurtzlebenThe median household income in the US is around $52,000. So can households earning twice that much really consider themselves middle class? …

Americans’ conceptions of what it means to be middle class seem to defy logic. But given what the middle-class lifestyle costs, it may be that you simply have to be rich to be middle class in America.

Here’s one fascinating finding: only 1 percent of Americans consider themselves upper class…

Not only that, but a majority of people in households earning $100,000 or more per year consider themselves middle class…

Depending on how you look at it, the numbers can seem downright ridiculous — if you count the upper-middle and lower-middle groups as part of a broader middle, 87 percent of Americans are middle class, leaving very little to be in the middle of.

—Danielle Kurtzleben
Why Do so Many Rich People Consider Themselves “Middle Class?”

Stop Punishing the Poor

Tom PhilpottLast week, Tom Philpott wrote a really interesting article over at Mother Jones, People on Food Stamps Make Healthier Grocery Decisions Than Most of Us. It references a number of studies that back up this claim. And it isn’t surprising. I know when I’m hungry, the last thing I want is a candy bar. Those are things that people buy when they have the rest of their nutritional needs taken care of.

The fact that we assume that poor people eat poorly is just like assuming that African Americans smoke more cannabis, “I knew this black guy and all he did was smoke pot!” Of course, African Americans actually use cannabis a bit less than whites. But once a stereotype is formed, people filter data so it fits the narrative of the stereotype. I’m sure we’ve all seen people purchasing junk with a SNAP card. But that proves nothing. And think about it: is it something so common that you don’t even notice it? Or is it something that is rare enough that it sticks out? In my case, it is the latter.

What’s more, the issue is not whether people on food stamps are perfect consumers. The question is whether they are reasonable consumers. And the studies indicate that they are better than average. But an even better question is why we are so hung up on the issue at all. Philpott correctly noted, “No one denies me the occasional candy bar or Coke; why would I feel entitled to exert that kind of control over poor people?” Don’t worry: I am well aware what most people would say in response to that, “Because they aren’t paying!”

Except: that isn’t true. I’m so tired of this ridiculous notion that people have about government programs. Every person on Social Security claims that they deserve their benefits because they paid. But then they will claim that poor people didn’t pay for their SNAP benefits. That’s a total distortion of reality. We all pay taxes to the government and we all get benefits from the government. That’s how it works. And a rich person is being served by the safety net just as a poor person is, the same way people with insurance — whether healthy or sick — are being served by it.

The main thing about welfare in the United States is that we want to make the poor feel bad about any help that they are getting. When we help more affluent people, we don’t do that. In fact, we go out of our way to hide the fact that they are even getting welfare. Every year, the government pays my sister thousands of dollars toward her house in the form of the mortgage interest deduction. Yet my sister — and maybe even you, if you haven’t been reading me regularly — doesn’t think of this as welfare. And why should she? The program is designed so that people like my sister don’t feel that they are getting a handout.

But a handout they are getting! As I discussed a couple of years ago in Fixing the Unfair Mortgage Interest Deduction, this welfare program costs the federal government $70 billion per year. This is roughly the same price as the entire SNAP program. People who want to micromanage the nutrition of food stamp recipients really need to ask themselves why they don’t want to micromanage the housing choices of people who are benefiting from the mortgage interest deduction.

Really, it all comes down to the fact that people getting food stamps are poor. Now I don’t think that the average American looks down on the poor any more than they look down on African Americans. But it is now embarrassing for people when they explicitly talk about African Americans as if they were lower forms of life. But there are no norms that stop people from speaking about the poor as though they are lesser people or children who must be taught the basics of life. In fact, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. The Ayn Rand belief that capitalism is perfect and gives people exactly the amount of money they are worth is usually presented as in, “Mark Cuban deserves his billions.” But the other side of that is even worse, “The poor deserve their poverty.” And that’s something that you can hear any day on Fox News or CNBC. It needs to stop.

Democrats Have Plenty of Potential Presidents

Jonathan BernsteinOn Thursday, Jonathan Bernstein made a good point, Democrats Have No Bench? Be Serious. He’s been making the case that people should lay off the criticism of Hillary Clinton. A lot of people are making this assumption that Clinton is just being given the Democratic nomination for president out of some feelings of duty on our part — rather than her having earned it. The truth is that she would be the presumptive nominee regardless. But her four years as Secretary of State sealed the deal. As a result of that, there aren’t people lining up to run for the nomination. His point is that there are plenty of really qualified (And exciting!) Democrats to run.

But I’m focused on who the Republicans are running. Bernstein lists what he and most everyone else consider to be the top tier candidates: “Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Bobby Jindal.” Are we really supposed to think that these are great candidates? The only one on that list that strikes me at all interesting in a general election is John Kasich. Walker is exciting to the press because billionaires love him. Rubio continues to come off like a 12-year-old playing at being a Senator. And Jindal is destined to be the Herman Cain of of this election.

The fact that the Republicans think that a third Bush is their best route to the White House should be some indication of how desperate the party is. And he is the only person they have that dates from a time when the Republicans can claim to have been somewhat reasonable. And this is the guy who had a law passed so he could take control of the healthcare decisions of one particular woman. And he is the main “adult” that the Republicans have to run in 2016. That’s pathetic.

It makes me wonder just what it means to be a serious candidate for president. It seems that all it means is that the mainstream media take you seriously. There is a kind of tautology here where a candidate is serious because she is serious: the media take her seriously because the media take her seriously. And along with that is the media’s disinterest in anything substantial about a candidate. I keep coming back to Todd Akin, but his example is telling. Everyone knew that he was an abortion absolutist. But when he said the wrong words, the media decided that he was beyond the pale. And like the good social animals we are, many people just followed along.

At this point, does anyone really question but that Al Franken would make a perfectly good presidential candidate? He’s one person who Bernstein mentioned but who no one talks about. But it really doesn’t matter. If Clinton drops out or implodes, the vacuum will be filled with at least a few good candidates. In the end, it’s all going to come down to the economy in 2016. None of the Republican candidates pose a special problem, just like Ronald Reagan posed no special problem in 1980. It’s the economy, stupid.

Morning Music: Three Cherokee Songs

Cherokee Nation FlagAfter doing “Running Bear” yesterday, I feel like I should make up for it. But sadly, you get outside of the twelve-tone scale, and I’m lost. But I decided to look. All I could think to search for were Cherokee songs. I have a special love for the Cherokee people because they totally disprove the conservative claims about the white power elite accepting other peoples. The Cherokee did everything that could possibly be hoped in terms of living inside the context of the western invaders, and they got nothing but abuse for it. But I’ll leave the politics aside.

I came upon this guy, Barry Winfred Bailey. He has a YouTube channel with a whole lot of songs from native peoples. Sadly, it looks like Bailey has died in the last year. But I found the following video of three traditional Cherokee songs. Clearly, they’ve been adapted to our twelve-tone scale. And you can hear some bluegrass influence. But it makes me wonder: did the music of native peoples influence it? Regardless, I don’t know just how authentic this is, but it is very enjoyable music. They are: “Welcome Song”; “Water Song”; and “Mourning Song.” I think I’m right about that last one because it is mournful, but it could be the “Morning Song.”

Birthday Post: Cotton Gin

Cotton GinOn this day in 1794, the cotton gin was born. Well, not born. But that was the day that Eli Whitney got the patent for it. The cotton gin had terrible social consequences for America. It reminds me of a story I once heard about Leonardo da Vinci inventing some labor saving device designed to make life easier on the workers. But all it actually accomplished was to put a bunch of workers out of work. In the long-term, that kind of thing is good for workers — in theory. But in the short-term, it sucked. The direct effect of the cotton gin was to require fewer slaves to separate cotton. But the indirect effect was to greatly increase the need for slaves in other areas of cotton production.

The cotton gin gave American slavery a great boost just when it needed it. Of course, that’s a lot to lay at the feet of one invention. As we know from the book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, the slavery industry used slaves just the way regular industries did: constantly pushing slaves for more and more productivity. So who knows? Maybe the slaves just would have been driven to work faster separating the cotton. The main takeaway here is that technologies have unpredictable consequences — and they are usually bad.

But happy birthday cotton gin!