Saturday, October 23, 2010

NPR firing chills free speech

I've volunteered at an NPR community radio station.  I regularly listen to NPR.  Heck, I have even been interviewed on NPR a couple of times.  But none of these facts diminish my sense of the chilling effect to free speech caused by the firing of Juan Williams (source).

Opining on Fox News cost
Juan Williams his job at NPR
In the larger context of the discussion on Muslim American stereotypes and the paralysis caused by political correctness, Williams' admission to "getting worried, getting nervous" upon seeing individuals in "Muslim garb" is a candid admission of personal anxiety (source).  Perhaps, given Williams' own writing on the African-American civil rights movement (source and source), his recent O'Reilly Factor admission of Muslim in-flight anxiety is a recognition of his own limitations, prejudices, and even bigotry.  Given the topic of the program, being the controversy on The View when two hosts walked off stage after blowhard Bill O'Reilly insisted on calling the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks as "Muslim" (source), one can easily understand Juan Williams is describing the very act of classifying groups of people rather than recognizing individual beliefs or actions.  This subject is, of course, a difficult and nuanced one to approach; invariably it will arouse passionate debate and disagreement.

Which is why NPR's immediate firing of Juan Williams is all the more disturbing.  The national conversation on Muslim assimilation in America, from the misnamed "Ground Zero Mosque" to the right vs. wisdom of holding "Burn a Koran Day," is not always genial nor are the conclusions altogether obvious.  Regardless of one's perspective, an admission of personal anxieties as a commentator shouldn't cost one their day job as a reporter.  And while it is understandable to find Williams' comments offensive, the response to NPR's firing has been largely oppositional, as the Christian Science Monitor reports (source):
The fall-out from William’s dismissal has been sharp and swift, and it’s likely to continue.  On NPR’s web site, ombudsman Alicia Shepard reported that thousands of comments had caused the organization’s “Contact Us” form to crash.  “The overwhelming majority are angry, furious, outraged,” she wrote. “They want NPR to hire him back immediately. If NPR doesn't, they want all public funding of public radio to stop. They promise to never donate again. They are as mad as hell, and want everyone to know it. It was daunting to answer the phone and hear so much unrestrained anger.”
NPR schill Vivian Schiller
NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller has been true to her name, schilling for her organization and claiming that the recent firing was over a pattern of comments Williams has made rather than simply the latest controversy about Muslims on airplanes (source and source).  One might be inclined to believe this, I suppose, if only the timing weren't so blatantly in swift response to a particular statement.  Schiller insists there were no violations of Williams' First Amendment rights:
"Juan has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants. He does not have a First Amendment right to be paid by NPR for saying whatever he wants."
Of course, never mind that Juan Williams comments were made while appearing on Fox News, not NPR.  And never mind that Williams further contextualized his comments later in the same interview by maintaining that Muslim Americans should not be associated with violent Islamic terrorists.  For Schiller, these issues fall by the wayside to the larger battle between media personalities such as Glenn Beck, George Soros, and others.

Understandably, several conservative politicians, such as South Carolina senator Jim DeMint and the ever-opinionated Alaska-governor-drop-out Sarah Palin, have seized the opportunity to call for a defunding of NPR's public support through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (source).  Frankly, it's hard to blame them.  USA Today reports:
"DeMint said the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service, has received nearly $4 billion in federal money since 2001 and is slated to receive $430 million in the 2011 fiscal year.  The country is over $13 trillion in debt and Congress must find ways to start trimming the federal budget to cut spending," DeMint said in a statement. "NPR and PBS get about 15 percent of their total budget through federal funding, so these programs should be able to find a way to stand on their own. With record debt and unemployment, there's simply no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize a liberal programming they disagree with."

While the amount of funding is minuscule in the scope of the larger federal deficit, the need for NPR in the 21st Century media landscape is questionable - particularly as other progressive news programs such as "Democracy Now!" and cable news network MSNBC provide a left-leaning information perspective without the overbearing political correctness NPR regularly binds itself in.

Regardless, the repercussions to NPR should be pronounced and longstanding.  I find Juan Williams to be a generally insightful voice in the national conversation and this sharp reprimand over a comment on a contentious issue only reveals a disquieting sensitivity police state at National Public Radio.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

QualiaSoup on "Lack of Belief in Gods"

YouTube member QualiaSoup frequently produces some of the most sound, rational arguments in audio/visual form.  His latest video, "Lack of Belief in Gods" goes far in "explaining the concept, refuting common objections and giving a number of reasons that atheists are sometimes 'fervent.'"  Enjoy:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sam Harris' Moral Landscape

For far too long, non-believers and religious skeptics have been dogged by questions not of fact but of value.  Most religious fundamentalists, and certainly religious moderates, claim that their faith is born not out of factual claims about their (outdated) religious texts but rather out of the ethical guidance their religion gives them.  Atheists, many religious practitioners allege, have no "moral compass" as they have no basis on which to substantiate their values.  While secular societies tend to be the least violent in the world, a common assumption remains that without an objective framework by which to evaluate ethical problems, atheists are lost in a sea of moral relativism.

source: 2009 Global Peace Index
And for far too long, scientists have taken explicit exception to the notion that their fields of study have normative implications.  Science, as Hume would argue, can only tell us what is - not what ought.  As a result, the public has rightly perceived moral questions as being outside the bounds of objective, secular inquiry - leaving only religious zealots to questions of good and evil.  While moral relativism may comfort many atop the ivory towers of academia, the intellectual battle for civilization fought on the grounds far below demands greater than the nuanced, subjective posturing of effete liberalism.

Along comes Sam Harris, a favorite author and lecturer of mine.  Having had the pleasure of meeting him and attending his presentation in person recently, I can say with sincere conviction that his new work addresses the problem of science and human values in a compelling, lucid way.  Have a quick glimpse at Harris' summary of his new book, The Moral Landscape, just released this month:

Of course, Harris' previous books - The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation - have become bestsellers and powerful manifestos of "The New Atheism" - a term applied to a handful of non-believers who have made it their stated mission to refrain from adhering to the social taboos and sacred cows of religious dogmatism any longer.  Recounting his experiences upon completing his previous books, Harris notes that few religious practitioners are eager to engage in evidentiary debates with him about the existence of Noah's Ark, Muhammad's ascension into heaven on a winged horse, or the specific whereabouts of Vishnu.  Rather, theists contend that these stories and the allegorical meaning behind them inform their lives and give them a sense of right and wrong.  Further, Harris discovered, most Americans in particular believe that atheists are the least trustworthy minority (source) because they have no singular source for their ethical intuitions.

With his newest book, Harris asks readers to imagine that all of human experience exists on a moral landscape - one in which peaks of happiness and valleys of suffering express individual and societal consciousness.  Utilizing a variety of academic and scientific disciplines, ranging as widely as physics and neurobiology to sociology and even philosophy, Harris argues that objective answers can be discovered to questions of morality.  Further, without such a framework, secular society will continue to be held hostage to the claims of religious superstition.

The beginnings of
a universal morality?
I believe Harris is suggesting a way forward in a globalized society, one in which the tribalism of religious belief can no longer stand for the best insights into human livelihood.  While too many ecumenical liberals are eager to concede their own convictions to the moral relativism of "every culture is defensible in its own way," Pakistanis are having their mosques bombed and population killed or maimed for being Shia or Sufi (source), Afghan girls are having their faces burned by battery acid for learning to read under Taliban rule (source), and the Catholic Church continues to believe that condom use in HIV-infested Africa is a greater moral problem than the institutional protection of their pedophilic priests (source and source). With The Moral Landscape, Harris outlines a rational system by which questions of value can be answered.  It is the tip of the secular morality iceberg, no doubt, but such a model is urgently needed in a world of increasing cultural confrontation.

It is easy for me to understand why Sam Harris is among the most important intellectuals of our time - and conversely why he is so widely threatened and harassed by religious fundamentalists and moderates alike.  Yet until the separate moral communities of religious tribalism - making genuinely incompatible claims about the nature and purpose of human identity - can be bridged through scientific reasoning and secular common ground, the moral landscape remains daunting and distant.  Harris' book is indeed a start.

A Greene Bumpkin for Senate

Alvin Greene is an incredible political fiasco the equal of which we aren't likely to see again for decades. He has no ability to speak intelligently; it is to the continued embarrassment of the Democratic Party that he is running for the Senate.  Every interview he does is like watching a public relations train wreck in slow motion.  Consider his latest attempt at communicating with the good people of South Carolina as to why he, and not Republican Jim DeMint, should be elected into the most powerful legislative body in the land:

Greene's entire campaign has been a sham the likes of which we have not seen since Putney Swope - and that was just a cult film from a bygone era!  Facing federal felony charges of showing pornography to an 18 year old student (source), Greene is an unemployed 33 year old veteran currently living with his parents.  With no prior leadership experience and questionable funding sources for his $10,000 Senate bid (smells suspiciously of elephant dung), Greene managed to win the primary against Vic Rawl without a campaign headquarters or advertising of any kind other than "word of mouth, mostly" (source).  Apparently, Greene's platform of "Yes, I'm unemployed so I know how you feel" was effective.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was because "Greene" appeared above "Rawl" on the primary ballot.

"Senator" Alvin Greene?
In an odd way, perhaps Alvin Greene's inarticulate, camera-clumsy demeanor and general "failure to launch" persona will garner votes in the general election.  In a year of ex-witches and Civil Rights Act hating candidates all throwing Tea Parties, such a political sideshow seems only to fit right in with the circus.  Nonetheless, it remains exceedingly hard for this blogger to conceive of how a bumpkin like Greene, with an IQ hovering precariously at room temperature, is fit to be a U.S. Senator.  Political pornographers will be studying this campaign disaster for years to come - especially since seasoned politician Jim DeMint will handily obliterate Greene in the general election next month.  It would all be so funny if only this were a surreal comedy instead of a political reality with high stakes and real consequences for millions of South Carolinians.

And for rhetorical effect, I will leave you with an archived excerpt of Greene's official campaign website - which itself resembles an amateur wasteland of digital shit that any second grader with a loose command of HTML could best.  In a funny way, website Greene says everything one needs to know about candidate Greene.

Yes, this really is the frontpage of Alvin Greene's official site.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Indigenous Peoples Day?

I distinctly remember the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World.  It was October, 1992 and I was sitting in elementary school learning a song about the virtues of Christopher's "discovery."  Even then, I was aware to some degree of the sham (and the shame) of the entire affair.  I knew, for instance, that:

  1. Columbus had no idea he would arrive at a new continent in the Western Hemisphere.
  2. He mistakenly assumed he was in India.
  3. Columbus had rather dubious motivations for trade route profiteering.
  4. Norse sailors (such as Leif Erikson) journeyed across the Atlantic centuries earlier.
  5. Columbus never landed on mainland America (named after explorer Amerigo Vespucci).

One of many common images critical of Columbus

So it is no surprise, then, that every year of my anti-establishment youth only grew my intense dislike for Columbus Day.  Not mentioned in my state-sponsored education was the growing indigenous movement against Columbus and the cultural imperialism and genocide of American natives that Columbus represented.  Yet when I discovered such a movement existed, I found intellectual camaraderie on this issue.

Simply put: Columbus Day should not be a federal holiday.  It has become a painfully outdated and increasingly menacing mark of cultural division in the United States.  I am not particularly in favor of federal holidays in general, of course, but if the role of government must include occasional recognition of particular historical figures, Christopher Columbus is an exceptionally poor choice.  While the biography of Columbus the man is not exceptionally bloody (source), the celebration of Columbus Day is hardly one of a navigator (who got lost and never found his intended destination).  Rather, Columbus Day is used rhetorically and symbolically to represent the expanse of European colonization generally and the establishment of the United States in particular.

Second perhaps only to slavery, the widespread massacre and subjugation of American natives is the darkest chapter of American history.  Surely slave trade moguls and plantation owners are undeserving of a federal holiday in contemporary America - so why should Columbus and the imperialism he represents be any different?  If not outright removed, Columbus Day should be replaced with "Indigenous Peoples Day" in recognition of the rich and diverse heritage that reverberated across North America long before European colonization.

UPDATE: October 9th has been designated "Leif Erikson Day" but remains obscure (source).