Sunday, October 30, 2011

Matt 24 Watch, 142: Neighbourhood bullies . . . and the dangers of ill-informed (or outright cynical) gotcha rhetoric manipulating the public in democratic polities

CY, in an exchange at the UD blog, draws our attention to Bob Dylan's 1983 song, Neighbourhood Bully:

This biting commentary on ill-informed and/or cynically manipulated public opinion in our day, is sobering backdrop for addressing a wider cluster of issues.

It is worth pausing to note that not only has there been a report that Iran is within six months of nuke weapon production capacity if it wants to (as in does a flea-ridden dog want to scratch?), but there are serious questions as to whether it has got a few ex-Soviet tactical nukes by black-market means already. (I first heard whispers of that from Hal Lindsey in the mid 1990's; looks like he may well have had a point.)

That's why I read Mr Netanyahu's recent "better a bad press than a good eulogy" remark at the UN baked up by the pointed question he asked as to whether the world really wants to see nukes in the hands of Iran, as  most likely a restatement of the point that sometimes, there is no avoiding a war, in such circumstances, it may only be postponed to the advantage of your enemies. As of course happened in the 1930's, when Europe's recoiling in horror from the slaughter of the 1914 - 18 war led to not acting in good time to avert an even worse war from 1939 - 1945. Hitler was not a man who could be placated, he could only be contained or stopped.

They failed to contain him, so they then had to stop him, at horrific cost, and with even more horrific possibilities lurking in the background.

Sadly, this lesson may be playing out again in our day, so we may need to do some rethinking about who the real bully in the neighbourhood is.

Against that disturbing backdrop of the way that turnabout accusations can make us see the intended victim as the aggressor -- e.g. Churchill was dismissed in the 1930's as a war-mongering has-been when he was warning about the rising tide of Hitler -- I want to reflect on a recent brew-up on the Internet over Atheism advocate Richard Dawkins' recently announced reason for refusing to debate with Christian Philosopher-Theologian, William Lane Craig. 

Namely, Dawkins -- falsely -- accuses Craig of supporting genocide, a word that drips with the implication: Nazi. (ADDED, Nov 3: In case this is needed, this clip documents Dr Craig's actual views on morality, including obviously genocide etc.)
(NB:The particular matter is about a debate over the handling of  the invasion of Canaan and some of the troubling issues it raises for Judaeo-Christian theists. Cf. my notes here.)

The utter cynicism and turnabout manipulation behind Dawkins' rhetoric can be seen from his 1995 Scientific American Article, "God's Utility Function" [pp. 80 - 85.]:
Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This lesson is one of the hardest for humans to learn. We cannot accept that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous: indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.
We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it difficult to look at anything without wondering what it is "for," what the motive for it or the purpose behind it might be. The desire to see purpose everywhere is natural in an animal that lives surrounded by machines, works of art, tools and other designed artifacts - an animal whose waking thoughts are dominated by its own goals and aims . . . .
Somewhere between windscreen wipers and tin openers on the one hand, and rocks and the universe on the other, lie living creatures. Living bodies and their organs are objects that, unlike rocks, seem to have purpose written all over them . . . . The true process that has endowed wings, eyes, beaks, nesting instincts and everything else about life with the strong illusion of purposeful design is now well understood.

It is Darwinian natural selection . . . . The true utility function of life, that which is being maximized in the natural world, is DNA survival. But DNA is not floating free; it is locked up in living bodies, and it has to make the most of the levers of power at its disposal. Genetic sequences that find themselves in cheetah bodies maximize their survival by causing those bodies to kill gazelles. Sequences that find themselves in gazelle bodies increase their chance of survival by promohng opposite ends. But the same utility function-the survival of DNA-explains the "purpose" of both the cheetah [--> i.e. predator]  and the gazelle [--> i.e. prey] . . . .

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference . . . . DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
[NB: This article raises the issue of the problem of evil, here emphasising the problem of natural evil; probably the strongest argument in the atheists' arsenal, but one that only works by implicitly assuming that good and evil, thus moral obligation, are real; while ducking the implication that the only valid worldview in a world in which OUGHT is real, is one that has a foundational IS that adequately grounds ought. And materialism -- scientific atheism today, has no such is. So, the objecting atheist actually has no grounds to stand on to make the argument; his argument, in the end is self-defeating, and so the proper response is to insist that such an atheist face that issue before proceeding further. (Cf here for a preliminary discussion of the problem of evil from a Christian perspective.)]

Given this additional perspective, we can now see that for Dawkins, appeal to moral sensibilities ends up being little more than a cynical means to persuade by manipulating emotions, for in his more frank and straightforward moments, he admits that, on his materialistic worldview, there is "no evil and no good." 

And so, he acts as one who holds power to manipulate to advance his perceived interests: if your feelings can be so twisted by a false but persuasive accusation against one of those "ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked" backward, anti-science "fundamentalists," that you are repelled by the dominant idea of God we see in our civilisation, the Judaeo-Christian, Bible-based view, then that is pulling us away from fairy tales to get us to accept Science as the fount of practically all knowledge and truth. Which to him is as close to good and purpose as he gets.

"The end justifies the means," "might makes right," and "all is fair in love and [culture] war," etc.

If that is his real underlying view (and the evidence we can see points that way), then the willingness to smear, snip out of context and knowingly falsely accuse make a lot of saddening sense.

It is an effective means to a desired end, and one Dawkins expects to get away with in the major media.

Which, he knows, are in his corner.

No wonder, then, we see the amoral cynical heart-numbness that seemingly is unhesitating in smearing and slandering. For, Dawkins knows -- must know -- that neither Craig nor any other serious Christian thinker supports mass murder of a race; i.e. genocide.

But, if you think you can get away with the false accusation, and so get out of a tight spot . . .

The issue has stirred up somewhat of a storm of comment exchanges across the Internet, including at a leading Intelligent Design blog, Uncommon Descent. In one of the threads there that deal with the matter, I have felt it wise to comment as follows, in response to some rather heated exchanges. 

I believe the matters raised are of sufficiently broad interest and relevance that I wish to now share them in their own right, here at the KF blog. 

I pick up from an exchange of comments by CY and SA:


>>  . . . a major problem with Christian ethics on the ground, is that we tend to absolutise the turn the other cheek principle, taking it out of its proper context — do not be waspish in the face of insults and personal abuse, and turn it into a governmental mandate.

If you look carefully in the Gospels, you will see that Jesus has occasion to deal with the question of force in the teeth of determined evildoers. 

For instance, that lurks under his dealings with soldiers including Centurions. He does not say, quit; he says, serve God. When he deals with the Herod family, as a prophet he is pretty direct in criticising the pattern of injustice. When challenged on taxes, he gives a classic: give Caesar what is his, and God what is his. The subtlety involved is what Paul discusses in Rom 13:1 – 10. Caesar is God’s servant to do us good by defending the civil peace of justice, holding the power of the sword in that cause and having taxing power in support of that mandate. Of course, as God’s servant, he is accountable under God for justice. 

Also, elsewhere in scripture — Moshe’s “Let my people go” is classic — when a tipping point has been reached; i.e. when evil triggered by selfish abuse of the power of choice becomes an exceeding danger in the teeth of obvious consequences and ignored correction God will act on the behalf of an oppressed people. And a part of that can be expressed in popular uprising and actions of legitimate representatives.

This by the way is what across 2,000 years of Christian influence on our civilisation, was channelised into the peaceful means of the general election.

Then, when Jesus comes towards the end of his ministry, there is a crucial but puzzling incident. For, he says go buy a sword, and he is understood literally, there are two swords.

He says, that is enough.


Then, we come to Gethsemane, and Peter pulls one of the swords and tries to start the revolution. 

There is a palpable echo here of the situation in the Maccabees where at Modein, the pagan rulers have sent agents to make the village sacrifice pigs to idols. The revolution begins when the first Jew to turn traitor and blasphemer steps forward and the sword is pulled, cutting him down, with the officials who came to impose evil and apostasy by force. To abuse the power of the sword in the hands of government to protect the civil peace of justice. Wolves, in shepherd’s clothing.

The father and six of seven Hasmonean brothers perish in the struggle, in which the recurring theme is, that the Gentiles always break their treaties. 

This is the background against which Peter tried to cut off the head of the servant next to him; he ducked, that’s why the ear was cut off instead.

Jesus’ reply was that those who live by the sword die by it. And he healed the servant.

Somehow, that did noting to defuse the situation, and seemingly, it was suspiciously missing in action in the trials that followed.

Somebody was suppressing highly relevant evidence that did not suit the kangaroo court’s agenda.

Jesus’ mission was NOT to launch a new Maccabean revolution. 

Indeed, that is what comes out very explicitly in his trial: the authorities are reacting to a teacher of righteousness who is making them uncomfortable in injustice, hypocrisy and corruption [don't forget, he seems to have cleansed the temple twice, driving out the money changers at whip point] by treating him as if he were a rebel. Indeed, they end up manipulating the crowd — notice, the issue of the flip side of democracy, misrule influencing and influenced by manipulated, intimidatory mobs shouting out foolish slogans as popular will — to literally put him in the place of a notoriously murderous leader of rebellion and brigandage, Barabbas.

Notice, when he does speak before a judge willing to at least listen to the sound truth — he is silent before those who are just raging mobs dressed up in fancy robes and sitting in seats of government — he points out that he has not been leading rebellion, but publicly teaching the truth and calling men, including of course men in government, to repentance in light of the Kingdom of God in heaven. The ultimate kingdom foreshadowed by Daniel that shall grow as a mountain filling the whole earth, shattering the proud and arrogantly wicked kingdoms of unjust man in rebellion against his maker. 

A kingdom that comes peaceably by the truth in love, in the teeth of fire and sword.

So, he is cutting clean across those who would lead a revolution against Rome: Rome has not yet filled the cup of its iniquity, but ISRAEL has, now culminating in scheming against Messiah.

An Israel that will not heed the sign of Jonah, nor the counsel of God by the example of Assyria: repentance even on the brink of prophesied national destructive judgement by disaster may avert it. For, God is merciful.

Something that Dawkins et al conspicuously omit in their overheated incendiary rhetoric.

Against that backdrop, those who tried to rise up against Rome, three times [once in the diaspora], would fail, at horrible cost to the nation over the next 100 years.

There are many lessons in that for our time and our civilisation, one that is rapidly filling up the cup of its iniquities.

In that context, I think we need to take serious and sobering stock of what it is for leaders of government to confront radical, out of control evil, and the dilemmas they often face of choosing the horrible in the face of the worse than merely horrible. And, we must tear our hearts through that reflection, until we have been opened up to be wounded, so that our hearts have lurched in the face of such terrifying dilemmas. 

So, let us stand by the side of the road [to Verdun] with Petain, watching the young men he is forced to send to their doom because foolish policies maintained for years in the teeth of his own advice [advice that seems to have retarded his career . . . ] have brought the nation to that point where the forts they needed were not well guarded, had indeed been stripped of guns, and the officer corps was not properly prepared to handle the challenge of Germany; they had been trained to think in terms of fast-moving infantry attacks and cavalry tactics, in the face of over a decade of evidence from South Africa and from Eastern Russia on how much the world had changed thanks to the rapid fire long range rifle and the machine gun. Not to mention, the heavy mobile, rapid firing guns that were needed were missing — they were only then being hastily designed or improvised. 

Stand by Petain as he sees the ashen faced, staggering few survivors coming back down the same road a matter of days later. 

Knowing that this horrendous rent in blood was what was holding the pivot of the line. (The very reason why Verdun — guard city of a major invasion route ever since the days of Gaul — had in the 1880′s been re-fortified in the modern way [a ring of more or less underground forts at enough distance to keep artillery out of range of the key point] in the aftermath of the defeat at the hands of Prussia in the 1870′s, and had been updated in the early 1900′s.)

Let it rip a hole in our hearts, a sobering hole that can open our hearts and minds to understand that things too often are much much more painful, difficult, horrible and complex than we would like them to be.

THEN, we can safely address the sorts of issues that Craig was grappling with, with a perspective that is sufficiently broad to see that whichever way we come out on it, there will be horrific difficulties that we with our bounded rationality cannot fully understand.

And in particular, we must come to grips with the sort of dilemma a Churchill faced as he made the decision to send in heavy but fragile and vulnerable bombers to force Germany to fight a major home front attritional campaign that drained it of the crucial resources that would otherwise have made mincemeat of the Russians. 

88 mm Flak 18 in action against tanks
in North Africa (note antiaircraft mounting)
For just one crucial instance, if the capacity to make the infamous 88 mm anti aircraft and antitank dual use gun was not largely diverted to protecting German cities, it would have been available on the Russian Front, with predictable horrific consequences — think of the slaughter just a few of those guns did so often in the Middle East at that time, or indeed how Rommel’s gun line of just such guns had stopped the counterattack at Arras at a crucial point in the May 1940 campaign. 

The same, for the fighter and fighter-bomber capacity that went into fighting off the bombers. 

And the imposed losses on the cities put a severe restraint on the capacity of German war production to surge. 

But, at a horrific cost in civilian lives, including children.

Note the abortive Arras counter-attack, stopped in key part by Rommel's improvised 88 mm gun line
Because Rommel’s improvised gun-line held in May 1940, there was not going to be a Western Front in France until the Germans had been bled white through horrific attrition, on the East Front and over Germany. 

Attrition that could not even be put in words to the public who had seen what the Western Front in 1914 – 18 had cost and would do almost anything to avoid that again, which is exactly what led to the ill-advised passivity and appeasement in the face of Hitler in the 1930′s when he could have been stopped at far lower cost. (And let us not forget, the Russians paid something like over 20 million lives to defeat the Germans. But the alternative was much, much worse.)

I hope this is enough, that we have been duly torn, sobered up and shamed over our habitual superficiality and glib gotcha rhetorical tactics.

Those who refuse to learn from bitter history, are doomed to repeat it.

It is in that context, that I am utterly incensed at Dawkins’ cynical cowardice, lying — VJT has demonstrated that beyond doubt — and slander. Neither Craig nor any other responsible Christian leader or thinker is an advocate of genocide; something Dawkins full well knows.

They are grappling — and sometimes stumbling in the grappling — with issues that cut right across history and come down to today as we see how we foolishly talk about an Arab Spring, not seeing the rising tide of Islamist naked aggression that seeks to exploit the uprisings, or the Iranian nuke and ballistic missile programmes that back it. 

Why is it that in an information age with experts on instant tap, we are so willfully ignorant of the religiously motivated ideology of the IslamISTS? 

Why do we not even know that even the DATE of the 9/11 attacks — 318 years, less one day from the last IslamIST surge high water mark at the gates of Vienna in 1683 under the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph, just before Jan Sobieski of Poland personally led the Cavalry charge on the 12th of Sept that broke the siege — is pregnant with symbolism of the IslamIST intent? (Hint: UBL was making a bid to be Caliph, and his base “in the direction of Khorasan” was itself pregnant with symbolism connected to the end of days global conquest Black Flag Army and related hadiths.)

We live in a very, very dangerous time, and are too often willfully ignorant and foolish.

That is the price we pay for the sort of foolish gotcha polarising rhetoric that we tolerate in public discussions.

A price that predictably leads on to blood.

Rivers of blood.

That is the context in which Netanyahu has denounced the UN as a theatre of the absurd and has declared: better a bad press than a good eulogy.

Israel faces an existential crisis manipulated by Iran as it races to complete its nuke programme. 

I am highly confident on the track record of 1967 that Israel will act decisively soon, regardless of the horrific cost and the price they will pay in the eyes of the world as “neighbourhood bully” [Thanks, CY]; for the alternatives are far worse than merely horrible. (Indeed, in that regard, I think the Schalit exchange is a clearing the decks for action.) 

Against that backdrop, Dawkins is using the excuse of a known false accusation of support for genocide, to duck being held publicly responsible for his many ill-founded but manipulative statements over the course of decades.

That is a strong sign of a man who knows he is in the wrong, but is too proud to climb down, whatever the cost to others.

THAT is the main focus that his thread has from the Original Post.

The tangential and poisonous distractive talking point does need to be addressed, but it can only be soundly addressed in a context where we have first taken the time and effort to build enough background and have had enough moral pain to feel the weight of the full balance of the issues. 

A weight that must start with: why is it that we find ourselves inescapably under moral government, even in the teeth of the materialistic ideology that Dawkins et al champion in the name of science, that leads to the implication that there is no real OUGHT, there is just IS, and no is that — per materialistic premises, can ground ought?

From that and other related considerations, we will then see that ethical theism is a serious and respectable position. 

Then, we can look at the central warranting argument and grounds that are foundational to the Christian, ethical theistic tradition; a point that has been central to the Christian intellectual-prophetic challenge to our civilisation ever since Paul challenged the Stoics and Epicureans on Mars Hill on 50 AD. (This point, we must note, is pivotal to Craig’s argument as he then goes on to grapple with a difficulty on grounds that are much less firm either way. A responsible addressing of what Craig actually argued, would fairly deal with that context in a sober fashion instead of brushing it away in a gleeful, willfully out of context “gotcha and so I don’t need to talk to you.”)

Look back above and in other threads where this has come up, onlookers, and see if the objectors have seriously and soberly grappled with that context. 

On fair comment, no; this has all been an exercise in selective hyperskepticism and too often gleeful rhetorical bashing.

That should be sobering, and it is a big part of why I have called up the sort of wider context as above. 

We must be responsible.

In that context, we can then reasonably look at the particular issues in a more balanced, more informed, more sober-minded way. One that I find conspicuously missing in action.

And, onlookers, it is no accident that, after several times of linking the discussion just linked, there has been no responsible addressing of these aspects form the circle of objectors.

Red herrings, led away to strawmen soaked in vicious ad hominems [the false charge of support for genocide fairly drips with the implied accusation, Nazi] and ignited through incendiary gotcha rhetoric are rhetorically very effective. But hey come at a terrible price: clouding the issues, poisoning the atmosphere, polarising it, and stirring hostility that all too soon becomes hate and scapegoating, leading on to violence, overt mob violence or covert violence by abuse of the power of law and policy and institutional dominance.

Those are the tactics that Dawkins et al have been indulging for decades, and it is high time that they were called to public account for that.

That will not happen if we keep on following red herrings and cheering on the burning of ad hominem soaked strawmen.

So, please at lest think about what is at stake in the wider context of all this, for our civilisation.>>

I trust this will prove helpful, as we reflect on troubling issues and even more troubling times. END

1 comment:

GEM of The Kairos Initiative said...

F/N: I have seen a reaction to the above in one of the Anti Evo forums.

If it were not so sadly revealing, it would be something to laugh over. It is clear that we are dealing with not only an ignorance of relevant history and issues, but a willful disdain.

I am reminded of the grim assessment that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.