Tribal Loyalty and Free Expression

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the role of scripture in either causing or justifying armed conflicts around the planet. The “hook” for the post was an article by a Turkish Muslim who argued that Muslim extremists don’t learn to hate from reading the Koran. They hate, and then they cherry pick words out of the Koran to justify their hatred. I took his word on this, because I’m unfamiliar with the Koran.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon elsewhere. Propagandists on “our” side like to cherry-pick verses from the Koran to argue that Islam teaches hatred. Muslim propagandists have have cranked out similar hate material about Jews. People hostile to Christianity cherry-pick verses from the New Testament to argue that Jesus was some sort of bloodthirsty rabble rouser. Interestingly, fundies use these same verses to justify their bigotry toward everyone who isn’t Them, homosexuals in particular.

I also once got an email from an atheist who had pulled a verse from the murky depths of early Sanskrit Buddhist texts — possibly a bad translation — to inform me that Buddhism teaches that women cannot enter Nirvana. My understanding is that no individual of whatever gender can “enter” Nirvana, however, so I’m not worried about gender bias in the dharmakaya. (See, for example, the Diamond Sutra, section III.)

Anyway, one commenter to the scripture post concluded I was either taking sides with or making excuses for Muslims. In fact, the only “side” I was taking is that people around the planet misuse scripture to justify their hatred and bigotry. Essentially, this individual mistook objectivity for “taking sides.” That’s fairly common with bigots. If you aren’t avowedly with them, they assume you’re “for” the other side. And attempting to understand what motivates The Enemy is tantamount to making excuses.

A couple of days ago Glenn Greenwald wrote a post called “Selective defenders of free expression,” pointing out that wingnuts promote anti-Muslim expression but try to suppress anti-Christian expression. A comment by Kathy Griffith Griffin — “suck it, Jesus” — has been cut from a pre-taped telecast of the Emmy Awards show after Catholic crusader Bill Donohue threw a fit about it. Donohue still wants Griffith Griffin to apologize to Christians. We can only hope he holds his breath until she does.

Anyway, Kathryn Jean Lopez at the Corner celebrated the “victory over Kathy Griffin’s mouth.” Meanwhile, Lulu and other righties are still flogging the Mohammad cartoon controversy, demanding that mostly crude and hateful depictions of Mohammad not be surpressed.

I’m not surprised by, and not really critical of, Fox’s decision to cut Kathy Griffin’s comment from the show. Commercial publishers and entertainment outlets often cut material they think might offend consumers or advertisers. By the same token, however, Michelle Malkin has no right to demand a newspaper publish anything it judges not to be fit for publishing.

About a year ago Little Lulu was up in arms because the Berlin Opera had canceled a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo that was disrespectful of Mohammad and might have given offense to Muslims. “Jihadists hate Western art and music,” she said. But last March she crusaded against a sculpture that she decided — purely a matter of opinion — was disrespectful of Jesus. Lulu doesn’t think much of Western art either, I guess.

This nation is being jerked around by brute mob hysteria wrapped in sanctimony, and I’m damn sick of it. Ed Pilkington writes in today’s Guardian:

Given the reception John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received for their London Review of Books essay last year on what they called the Israel Lobby, it would have been understandable had they crawled away to a dark corner of their respective academic institutions to lick their wounds. Their argument that US foreign policy has been distorted by the stultifying power of pro-Israeli groups and individuals was met with a firestorm of protest that has smouldered ever since.

The authors were assailed with headlines such as the Washington Post’s: “Yes, it’s anti-semitic.” The neocon pundit William Kristol accused them in the Wall Street Journal of “anti-Judaism” while the New York Sun linked them with the white supremacist David Duke.

The row became a focal point of a much wider debate about the limits of permitted criticism of the state of Israel and its American-based supporters that has ensnared several academics and writers, including a former president. Jimmy Carter was castigated earlier this year when he published a plea for a renewed engagement in the Middle-East peace process under the admittedly provocative title, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He was labelled an anti-semitic “Jew hater” and even a Nazi sympathiser. Meanwhile, a British-born historian at New York University, Tony Judt, has been warned off or disinvited from four academic events in the past year. On one occasion, he was asked to promise not to mention Israel in a speech on the Holocaust. He refused.

Naturally, much of the backlash targeted Mearsheimer and Walt personally and ignored what they actually said.

Mearsheimer and Walt have now come out with a book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, making the same argument.

As night follows day, the dispute has started anew. The New York Sun has dedicated a section of its website to the controversy; Dershowitz has revved up again, calling the book “a bigoted attack on the American Jewish community”; and Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, has gone to the trouble of writing his own book in riposte – and it’s in the bookshops a week before The Israel Lobby appears. …

…But the authors have brought into the open aspects of American intellectual life that needed airing. They cast light on the overweening activities of specific pro-Israeli groups, most importantly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Aipac is a self-avowed lobby (it calls itself America’s pro-Israel lobby) and has been ranked the second most powerful such body in the US. With a staff of more than 150 and a budget of $60m, it wields extensive influence among Congressmen, working to ensure criticism of Israel is rarely aired on Capitol Hill. The Guardian invited it to comment, but it declined.

Though Foxman insists the furore is proof that debate is alive and kicking, Walt and Mearsheimer have also put their finger on the limits of acceptable discourse in the US. It is notable that none of the candidates standing for president in 2008 have a word of criticism for Israeli state behaviour; this week Barack Obama pulled an advert for his campaign from the Amazon page selling The Israel Lobby, denouncing the book as “just wrong”.

So what happened to America’s commitment to free speech, the First Amendment? “We knew from De Tocqueville this country is driven by conformity,” Judt says. “The law can’t make people speak out – it can only prevent people from stopping free speech. What’s happened is not censorship, but self-censorship.” Judt believes that a few well-organised groups including Aipac have succeeded in proscribing debate. He recalls a prominent Democratic senator confiding to him that he would never criticise Israel in public. “He told me that if he did so, for the rest of his career he would never be able to get a majority for what he cared about. He would be cut off at the knees.”

In the final chapter of the book, Walt and Mearsheimer make a shopping list of reforms. They call for: a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis; greater separation of US foreign policy from Israel for both nations’ sake; and campaign finance reform to reduce the power of pro-Israeli groups.

Nothing outlandish, or even controversial, there. Coming at the end of such a bumpy ride of claim and counter-claim, the conclusion feels almost disappointingly gentle. That in itself bears eloquent witness to the state of affairs in America today, where thoughts considered unremarkable elsewhere are deemed beyond the pale.

I haven’t read Walt and Mearsheimer’s London Review of Books article or their book, and I’m not going to endorse either sight unseen. I’m just saying I know a mob when I see it.

Although one never knows what’s in another person’s heart, I would take people like Donohue and Malkin more seriously if I saw an occasional spark of genuine piety or devotion in them. I believe that for them and for many allegedly “religious” Americans, religion is merely a matter of tribal loyalty. And I don’t care if you’re Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist; when religion is merely part of your tribal identity, it’s a piss-poor excuse for religion.

Also at The Guardian, Andrew Brown writes,

The point about theological disagreement is that it is almost entirely arbitrary. Perhaps, among philosophers trained in the discipline, there are rules of argument. But it is not philosophers we have to fear; and theological disputes certainly become entirely arbitrary at those unhappy times when they become really popular, which is to say divisive. The more arcane a theological point can be, the better it will serve as a tribal rallying point.

This isn’t because theology is wicked, but because people are.

If we see politics as essentially a matter of conflict between shifting coalitions, one of the functions of religious argument is to strengthen and enlarge your own coalition in a way that pure politics, with their suggestion of grubby self-interest and compromise, just won’t do. Appeals to theology function to make your position inflexible when it needs be, because they are by definition appealing to a supreme value; but they can also have the opposite effect, when surrender becomes inevitable, they have the further advantage over merely political claims that the sacred text can be reinterpreted without losing any of its immemorial authority. Look at the role that Christianity played first in justifying apartheid, and then in proving the need to demolish it.

All these are good reasons, perhaps, for liberal democracies to be suspicious of political movements animated by theology. But they are absolutely not reasons to suppose that religious belief will shrivel, or that it is irrational. If it is true that appeals to the sacred are among the most effective political technologies mankind has ever stumbled on, no Darwinian should expect them to be replaced by less effective pieties.

This takes us back to my original point about the misuse of scripture. People who are desperate to defend whatever conceptual boxes they live in will grab at anything for support. Religion can be the ideal crutch, because it is both infinitely malleable and infinitely authoritative. I believe most of the world’s Malkins, Donohues, etc. would lose all interest in religion if it stopped reinforcing their bigotries. And if that ever happened, they’d find another crutch.

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