Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Why do smart people do stupid things?

Sam Harris seems to be trying to set the world record for choking on his own foot. In a screed in today's LA Times he writes:


"Let me put it plainly: If you want someone just like you to be president of the United States, or even vice president, you deserve whatever dysfunctional society you get. You deserve to be poor..."


Leaving aside the question of whether or not Harris is actually right (let us assume for the sake of argument that he is), what on earth does he think he will accomplish by writing this? Does he really think that the people who support Sarah Palin will read these words, slap themselves on the forehead, and say, "Wow, Harris is right. I really am stupid, and all my friends are stupid, and I really do deserve to be poor unless I entrust my fate to someone who has a law degree from Harvard." Or is it more likely that they will respond more like this:


Well, gee, Sam Harris, just who do you think *is* qualified to be president? Someone like *you*? What do you know about my life? When was the last time you had to work two shifts to feed your kids? When was the last time you worried about whether to spend your last dollar on food or medicine? When was the last time you humbled yourself before God? Politics is *not* like brain surgery, and the fact that you think it is just proves that you Don't Get It. I'll take Sarah Palin over the likes of you any day of the week precisely because she is like me.


If Sam Harris really thinks he's going to win hearts and minds by telling people that they are too stupid to govern themselves then he is manifestly stupider than they are. The whole enterprise of democracy is based on exactly the opposite premise. And if Harris doesn't really believe this then I am at a loss to understand what he is hoping to achieve.

5 comments:

trimtab said...

Ron,

Get real. You are a bible thumping apologist. You're a "let's frame the discussion" wimp. Your "war" against Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens is ridiculous. The offence you take on behalf of the fragile religious nutjobs in the US is commendable, but actually quite ineffective. Your attempt to protect wakaloons from the harshness of the "strident" (so-called) "new atheists" is repugnant. Just the kind of drivel many men and subservient women have in the past used to try to silence feminists.

The idea of "winning hearts" as the sole means of "pushing back" against a culture of anti-science and anti-civilization is beyond insipid. Your monistic political rectitude sucks. Hard. Enough to pull light out of a black hole.

If you think Harris & co. wish instead to establish an oligarchy, composed of elitist intellectual, hoping to usurp democracy from the unwashed mass of ignoramuses, then you need to knock some major chips off those shoulders of yours, not to mention the H-beams in both of you eyes. For the love of four-letter words, learn to read without letting your damn bias getting in the way all the time.

Sorry if this appears to be just a bad case of SIWOTI syndrome.

Otherwise, I revere you as a Lisp Wizard(TM). In that respect, you are a god. Hallowed are the Lisp Prophets!

Ron said...

My goodness, that was quite a diatribe.

> Your attempt to protect wakaloons

My critique of Harris et al. has nothing to do with wanting to protect anyone from anything. My critique is that their (and your) caustic rhetoric is mostly ineffective and at times downright counterproductive. Do you really think you're going to convince someone not to vote for Sarah Palin by calling them a wakaloon?

> The idea of "winning hearts" as the sole means of "pushing back" against a culture of anti-science and anti-civilization is beyond insipid.

Unfortunately, I live in the United States, which happens to be a democracy in which many people vote their hearts, so winning hearts (or failing to do so) has real consequences out in the world. You and Harris are in as much denial about that as the "wakaloons" are about evolution.

> If you think Harris & co. wish instead to establish an oligarchy

I think no such thing.

> you are a god

You're wrong about that too. You're pretty much batting 1000 tonight.

trimtab said...

Ron, that people want to know that the president of the USA is a person (formerly) just like them is understandable. But people must also understand that a person just like them is very likely not qualified to run he country. The qualifications to run the country are most certainly different from those of the average American. Therefore, the ideal candidate should/must be different from the average American. Beer-drinking, bible-thumping, bronze-age creotardism just won’t cut it. People should be grown-up enough to be told the plain truth.

BTW, yes, I really think some people do change their minds when their viewpoint is very strongly opposed. It may not happen overnight, but it's part of any good seed-planting strategy. Softer approaches don’t necessarily work better with everyone, especially religious folks. I don’t see how dogmatically stubborn people would ever change their minds through mere appeal. Reasoning, in and of itself, is often grossly insufficient.

The results that Dawkins et al. can achieve cannot always be measured instantly. Firstly, faith-heads need time for their shock and rage to dissipate. Their bruised self-love will cause them to dig their grave a bit deeper, momentarily. But when they quiet down, and hear the same message over and over, from different sources and varying levels of stridency, the message can eventually get through. Granted, being wrong your entire life is not something most people are willing to swallow in a single gulp, if at all, but they can be brought to do it.

There is no denial on my part about the importance of “winning hearts”. I fully understand the limitation of both approaches. Yet, both approaches are necessary. Think good cop/bad cop. It worked for feminism and homosexuality, why not for godlessness?

The message you attribute to "new atheists" is not, as you seem to imply, merely a name-calling festival. The vast majority of the “new atheists’” speech and writing is devoted to expounding rational arguments. You seem to seldom acknowledge this. I know you like to object to their calling contradictory and nonsensical reasoning (or lack thereof) as stupid or dim, but, damn it Ron, call a cat a "cat", once in a while. Some people’s thoughts are stupid. And sometimes, people are stupid too. Yes, some people, when told that their ideas or arguments are stupid, will be offended and turn off, but others will listen, eventually, in order to understand. And some do indeed wake up.

Ron said...

> The vast majority of the “new atheists’” speech and writing is devoted to expounding rational arguments. You seem to seldom acknowledge this.

Because it's irrelevant to the point I'm making, which is that their rational arguments are seasoned with histrionics (like "If you want someone just like you to be president of the United States, or even vice president, you deserve whatever dysfunctional society you get.") that leave a very bad taste in many people's mouths and make them stop listening to the rational arguments.

> But people must also understand that a person just like them is very likely not qualified to run he country.

By "people" do you mean "some people" or "all people"? If you mean all people, then your statement is clearly false because it would then follow that no one would be qualified to run the country. So you must mean "some people." But that just begs the question of who those people are. You answer is:

> the average American [b]eer-drinking, bible-thumping, bronze-age creotard...

So my question to you is the same as my question to Harris: how do you propose to bring about this understanding? I submit that calling the average American a "beer-drinking bible-thumping creotard" is not likely to advance your cause no matter how much rational argument may underlie it.

Saying that a "beer-drinking bible-thumping bronze-age creotard" is not fit to run the country is no so different from saying that a "godless amoral monkey-brained atheist" is not fit to run the country. The only difference is that so many people already agree with the latter statement that no one actually needs to resort to saying it in order to keep an atheist out of the White House.

> The results that Dawkins et al. can achieve cannot always be measured instantly.

Indeed not. Dawkins & co. have been at this for decades, going back to Madalyn Murray O'Hair in the 60's. What has been gained? How many atheist members of Congress are there? How many atheist Senators? Governors? Zero. None. Zip. Zilch. (Well, there's one. Pete Stark came out of the closet in 2007. It remains to be seen if he will keep his seat.) Forty years. No results. That's failure.

BTW, since you're a Lisp fan, I'll point out that Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens/Kurtz/Flynn/O'Hair et alia all fail for exacly the same reason that Lisp proponents fail: they are convinced that Rational Truth in and of itself has the power to persuade. Ironically, they believe this despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In this they are no different from the religious fanatics they lambaste.

> call a cat a "cat", once in a while

That is exactly what I am doing in case you hadn't noticed. You should go read Matthew 7:3. And then you should reflect on what else those bronze age ancestors of yours might have to teach you about life, and how the people who study those lessons might feel about your characterization of them as "creotards."

trimtab said...

You might find the following interesting:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/26/islam.religion

Although this is merely anecdotal, and applies to Islam instead of Christianity, it does suggest the power and usefulness of "stridency". It also underscores my claim that minds can slowly, but surely, be changes, albeit only slightly.

Again, I don't advocate satire, ridicule and in-your-face rationality as the only means of getting messages across. I actually advocate a multi-pronged approach.