19 September 2007

Religious Oppression in the Military

Jason Leopold at Truthout has a follow-up to a story first reported by Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars and noted here:
A military watchdog organization filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and a US Army major, on behalf of an Army soldier stationed in Iraq. The suit charges the Pentagon with widespread constitutional violations by allegedly trying to force the soldier to embrace evangelical Christianity and then retaliating against him when he refused.

The complaint, filed in US District Court in Kansas City, by the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), on behalf of Jeremy Hall, an Army specialist currently on active duty in Speicher, Iraq, alleges that Hall's First Amendment rights were violated beginning last Thanksgiving when, because of his atheist beliefs, he declined to participate in a Christian prayer ceremony commemorating the holiday.
Jeremy Hall, it may be noted, was the author of two letters to Stars and Stripes ("Biased Views Out of Step" and "Camp Quest Legal") I previously quoted from here. Jason Leopold continues:
"Immediately after plaintiff made it known he would decline to join hands and pray, he was confronted, in the presence of other military personnel, by the senior ranking ... staff sergeant who asked plaintiff why he did not want to pray, whereupon plaintiff explained because he is an atheist," says the lawsuit, a copy of which was provided to Truthout. "The staff sergeant asked plaintiff what an atheist is and plaintiff responded it meant that he (plaintiff) did not believe in God. This response caused the staff sergeant to tell plaintiff that he would have to sit elsewhere for the Thanksgiving dinner. Nonetheless, plaintiff sat at the table in silence and finished his meal."
The other specific incident referred to in the article is the one already covered by Ed Brayton's piece. When Jeremy Hall set up a meeting for atheists and freethinkers with permission from the chaplains' office, "his supervisor, Army Major Paul Welborne, broke up the gathering and threatened to retaliate against the soldier by charging him with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice." Brayton's informant was a bit more graphic:
...the Major ... verbally berated the other attendees, accused them of plotting against Christians and disrespecting soldiers who have died protecting the Constitution, and threatened them with punishment under the UCMJ for their activities (said they were "going down") and said he would do whatever it took to shut the meetings down. Keep in mind that by this point, he had two of the attendees (one soldier fled when the shouting started) standing at the position of attention so that he could yell at them, berate them, and humiliate them. This apparently went on for several minutes at which time the Major shut down the meeting by saying he wasn't some "push-over Chaplain" and that he would not tolerate the meetings to continue.
Jason Leopold adds "The complaint also alleges that Welborne vowed to block Hall's reenlistment in the Army if the atheist group continued to meet - a violation of Hall's First Amendment rights under the Constitution. Welborne is named as a defendant in the lawsuit."

18 September 2007

News Bazaar

Sparks from the Telegraph

Paris--A French periodical has revealed an odd moment in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. When George Bush was attempting to persuade Jacques Chirac to support his planned attack on the oil-rich nation, he seems to have argued that Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East, and that the ancient prophecies of Ezekiel were on the verge of being fulfilled. The French President had no idea what the crazed Texan was talking about, and promptly called a theologian at the University of Lausanne for an explanation. Thomas Römer filled him in on these obscure figures from ancient near-Eastern mythology. As we all know, Jacques Chirac was unimpressed. Neither Weapons of Mass Destruction, nor the terrible Gog and Magog, were enough to convince him to join the Coalition of the Willing. And French fries would become freedom fries in the Washington cafeteria. (Rue 89; English translation at Truthout)

Logan, West Virginia--Raging Red reports: "Megan Williams, a 20-year-old mentally challenged black woman from Charleston, was held captive in a shed for a week in Big Creek, WV (about an hour southwest of Charleston) and was raped, beaten, stabbed, choked, forced to eat animal feces, and tortured in various other ways, until police received an anonymous tip and found her. Six people, all white, were arrested and charged with sexual assault, kidnapping, malicious wounding, battery, and lying to the police, among other charges. The group of six includes a mother and her son and another mother and her daughter, plus two other men." Although her captors are said to have repeatedly used racial epithets in addressing her, local pundits are reluctant to call it a hate crime. "Racists? Possibly," editorializes the Charleston Daily Mail, "But emblematic of Logan County's people, of West Virginia 'culture' or 'American race relations,' as some inevitably claimed? No. ... Distortions of that nature are a disservice to Megan Williams, whose suffering deserves the full attention of the justice system." And from Create West Virginia we learn "On WCHS-AM Charleston 580 radio's afternoon call-in show on Wednesday, an African-American man called in to share his frustration. He described himself as a well-educated professional who often runs into intolerance and racism in our state. The hosts had little patience for his attempt to connect the dots between other acts of intolerance in WV with the current Logan County situation. 'Right now, it's about Megan and helping her, not politicizing the situation. We can talk about that other stuff later.'" So it seems talking about racism or the nature of this hate crime is apparently "politicizing" matters. Somehow. Go figure. (From Raging Red

15 September 2007

Quotation of the Day

"I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

13 September 2007

Timeless Moments

I've never understood why people feel the need under trying circumstances to promote their particular brand of dogma. Some guy is pulled out of a river half-dead by a well-trained emergency crew operating from a helicopter and then revived by another bunch of trained medical workers--and asked about the "miracle" rescue, replies something like "I owe it all to Jesus"--or to Allah or to the Hidden Hand of the Free Marketplace or whatever his particular belief-system may be. If he forgets--well, on at least one occasion I actually saw a news interviewer remind the interviewee with words like "and of course God" when that person didn't mention a deity.

I personally find this at best tiresome, and at worst absolutely obnoxious. If people want to use their fifteen minutes of fame to put in a plug for something, what about some other kind of product? "Only the thought of once again enjoying sharp Tillamook cheese on Ritz crackers gave me the strength to go on." "I'm just glad I was wearing my Burlington Coat Factory jacket--that made all the difference." "I want to thank the good people at Hershey for making that wonderful candy bar that kept me going through the long cold night." It's no less ridiculous. And when it comes to thanking the deity for aid in a sports victory or an award, we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Which is why I got a kick out of reading about Kathy Griffin's reported acceptance speech on receiving an Emmy: "A lot of people get up here and thank Jesus for helping them win this award, but I have to say nobody has been less helpful in getting me to this moment than Jesus. I don't know what I ever did to him, I just think he doesn't like me that much, and if he had his way, Caesar Milan would be holding this statue right now, but he's not and I am! So I guess all I can really say is, 'Suck it, Jesus! This statue is my God now!'" (Kathy Griffin: loving her Emmy, hating the VMAs | My Life on the D-List | The Q&A | TV | Entertainment Weekly)

This well-deserved rebuke to those who tastelessly parade their religious notions at inappropriate moments was right to the point. It's high time somebody poked fun at this senseless (and annoying) custom. Of course not everybody sees it that way. William Donohue of the KKKatholic League, for example, rather predictably blew his top in feigned outrage over this "hate speech." As Aaron Kinney (Kill The Afterlife) aptly observed, "Donohue thinks that is hate speech? Oh man, he wouldn't know hate speech if it spoke to him!"

In response (apparently) to Donohue's intimidation E! has promised to censor Kathy Griffin's remarks from the broadcast version. As Dave (No God Blog) notes:
But now, the Emmys are bigoted. Say what you want about God and Jesus, as long as it's positive and thankful. If it's positive and thankful, it doesn't matter who gets offended or left out.

BUT... disavow Jesus, and you might as well be swearing, and you'll get bleeped.

Folks, this is discrimination, pure and simple. Theistic talk is welcome, Atheistic talk is not. Truly an uneven playing field, from the good folks who gave us the most boring television in the world.
But wait a moment! This is not discrimination. You see, Kathy Griffin is simply flat-out wrong, according to a concert pianist and former Miss Minnesota who covers religion for Fox News. "Jesus had everything to do with her winning that award. And here's the reasoning," writes Lauren Green. You're going to have to follow along closely to get this, so hang on tight.
Jesus died on a cross 2,000 years ago. His dying words were, "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do." He died and they buried him in a rock cut tomb. Three days later, as the Bible says, he rose from the dead. That day is what Christians celebrate as Easter.

After the resurrection, Christianity began to take off like wildfire, spreading from the Middle East northward to Europe and westward into Ethiopia. In 300 A.D. Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity and it beccame [sic] the religion of Europe. Rome soon became the seat of the faith. After several years of human failings, the church went through conflicts and quite a few unbiblical years — the crusades and the inquisition to name just two. Out of that came the Reformation — the reforming of the Church, sort of a back-to-basics Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Out of the Reformation emerged a vision of law by Samuel Rutherford, called Lex is Rex, Law is King. From that, others devised a secular version that is used to help lay the foundation of government for a new land called America. Ninety-four percent of America's founding era documents mention the Bible; 34 percent quote the Bible directly. The idea of bringing unity to the universal is a particularly Biblical concept.

The freedoms we enjoy in this country to speak freely and to live freely are directly related to that man who died on a cross 2,000 years ago.

So, you see, Kathy Griffin, Jesus has everything to do with you winning that award.
Words fail me. This is unbelievably silly. Meaningless verbiage like "The idea of bringing unity to the universal is a particularly Biblical concept" aside, her point seems to be that our first amendment freedoms are somehow derived from the Bible, which in turn goes back to the Roman church, which in turn goes back to Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified two thousand years ago. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing Jesus said, or is alleged to have said for that matter, has any bearing on the concept of freedom of expression. Nor did that freedom have anything to do (as far as I can tell) with Kathy Griffin's winning of that award--unless the idea is that thanks to our laws discouraging censorship, nobody stopped her from using her talent for comedy as she saw fit. The statement that "Ninety-four percent of America's founding era documents mention the Bible; 34 percent quote the Bible directly" is a lie. (The correct information is that 34% quote from, allude to, or mention the Bible, and that three fourths of these references come from printed sermons, which one would expect to at least make some reference to the Bible. The 94% figure is simply made up of cobwebs and moonshine, as far as I can tell. It doesn't come from any peer-reviewed survey, anyway, and contradicts the 34% figure, which does.) And her simplistic account of the Reformation is beneath contempt.

All right, so maybe I've wandered from the point a bit, but fake history tends to irritate me.

So where does this leave us? William Donohue, it seems, would enforce "the right of Catholics--lay and clergy alike--to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination" no matter how tasteless or offensive their remarks, while denying that same right to atheists. And presumably to anybody else whose observations run counter to his notions. A rational nation would ignore him and his bizarre little pressure group. Kowtowing to these extremists only encourages them.

Greg Laden, who apparently finds tasteless flaunting of random deities at inappropriate moments as irritating as I do, has a couple of practical suggestions here and here. For my part I don't expect to see Kathy Griffin apologize any time soon--she's got nothing to apologize for anyway. As for William Donohue, who ought to get down on his knees and beg her abjectly for forgiveness--well, I don't expect to see that either. At least not until pigs fly over the frozen pit of hell.

11 September 2007

Quotation of the Day

"No quarter whatever should be given to the bigotry of people so unfit for social life as to insist not only that their own prejudices and superstitions should have the fullest toleration but that everybody else should be compelled to think and act as they do."

10 September 2007

Dubious Documents: The Case of Foersch's Letter from Java

In days gone by there used to be a game show in which the object was to beat the host, apparently some kind of idiot-savant, in knowledge of trivia. The host often seemed sharp enough when the subject was general history, state birds, and other such miscellanea, but if the subject was science, in any form, he was clearly out of his depth. One time the question came up, in effect, to name the naturalist who was Charles Darwin's grandfather. (There was more to it, actually, but I don't recall the details.) I thought it was simple. Even if you didn't remember the exact relationship, there is only one other famous Darwin in the sciences, and that of course is Erasmus Darwin, author of The Loves of the Plants and other poems. The contestants all blew it, including the idiot-savant after whom the show was named, and he sneered that he at any rate had never heard of the guy.

Well, I'd heard of him. Many times, actually. He was one of a number of people who could plainly see the fact of evolution in the fossil record, without being able to discern the mechanism behind it. He was a big fan of Linnaeus, and popularized his work by writing poetry about it. (This may seem unlikely, but poetry was big in the eighteenth century. For an even more improbable example, check out Dr. Thomas Mouffet's book, The silk-worm and his fly, written if I am not mistaken [and I probably am] in the previous century.) His poetry was significant enough to be parodied in the Anti-Jacobin in a work called The Loves of the Triangles. (Of course the reason for his being pilloried there will have been his political views--he was a buddy of Benjamin Franklin and a supporter of the democratic revolutions in the United States and France.)

One memorable passage from The Loves of the Plants reads:
Where seas of glass with gay reflections smile
Round the green coasts of Java’s palmy isle;
A spacious plain extends its upland scene,
Rocks rife on rocks, and fountains gum between;
Soft zephyrs blow, eternal summers reign,
And showers prolific bless the soil,—in vain!—
No spicy nutmeg scents the vernal gales,
Nor towering plaintain shades the mid-day vales;
No grassy mantle hides the sable hills,
No flowery chaplet crowns the trickling rills;
Nor tufted moss, nor leathery lichen creeps
In russet tapestry o’er the crumbling steeps.
—No step retreating, on the sand impress’d,
Invites the visit of a second guest;
No refluent fin the unpeopled stream divides,
No revolant pinion cleaves the airy tides;
Nor handed moles, nor beaked worms return,
That mining pass the irremeable bourn.—
Fierce in dread silence on the blasted heath
Fell Upas sits, the Hydra-Tree of death.
Lo; from one root, the envenom’d soil below,
A thousand vegetative serpents grow;
In shining rays the scaly monster spreads
O’er ten square leagues his far-diverging heads;
Or in one trunk entwists his tangled form,
Looks o’er the clouds, and hisses in the storm.
Steep’d in fell poison, as his sharp teeth part,
A thousand tongues in quick vibration dart;
Snatch the proud Eagle towering o’er the heath,
Or pounce the Lion, as he stalks beneath;
Or strew, as marshall’d hosts contend in vain,
With human skeletons the whiten’d plain.
Chain’d at his root two scion-demons dwell,
Breathe the faint hiss, or try the shriller yell;
Rise, fluttering in the air on callow wings,
And aim at insect-prey their little stings.
So Time’s strong arms with sweeping scythe erase
Art’s cumberous works, and empires, from their base:
While each young Hour its sickle fine employs,
And crops the sweet buds of domestic joys!
And, to support the story of fell Upas, the Hydra-Tree of death, the good doctor quoted from an article written by one N. P. Foersch, in the London Magazine for 1783 or 1784. (It was December 1783 in point of fact.) Foersch claimed to be a surgeon who in 1774 worked for the Dutch East-India company. While stationed at Java he had looked into the source of the poison that the locals used to tip their darts with. This virulent poison was derived from a tree called the Bohun-Upas. He wrote:
In the year 1774, I was stationed at Batavia, as a surgeon in the service of the Dutch East-India Company. During my residence there I received several different accounts of the Bohun-Upas, and the violent effects of its poison. They all then seemed incredible to me, but raised my curiosity in so high a degree, that I resolved to investigate this subject thoroughly, and to trust only to my own observations.
After taking care of necessary paperwork and getting a letter of introduction from one Malayan priest to another who lived near the tree itself, Foersch set out to examine it.
It is surrounded on all sides by a circle of high hills and mountains, and the country round it, to the distance of ten or twelve miles from the tree, is intirely [sic] barren. Not a tree, not a shrub, nor even the least plant or grass is to be seen. I have made the tour all around this dangerous spot, at about eighteen miles distant from the center, and I found the aspect of the country on all sides equally dreary. The easiest ascent of the hills, is from that part where the old ecclesiastic dwells.
The gum of this tree is enormously valuable, as it is a deadly poison, but the danger involved in procuring it is so great that only criminals condemned to death are employed in the process.
After sentence is pronounced upon them by the judge, they are asked in court, whether they will die by the hands of the executioner, or whether they will go to the Upas tree for a box of poison? They commonly prefer the latter proposal, as there is not only some chance of preserving their lives, but also a certainty, in case of their safe return, that a provision will be made for them in future, by the Emperor. They are also permitted to ask a favour from the Emperor, which is generally of a trifling nature, and commonly granted. They are then provided with a silver or tortoiseshell box, in which they are to put the poisonous gum, and are properly instructed how to proceed while they are upon their dangerous expedition. Among other particulars, they are always told to attend to the direction of the winds; as they are to go towards the tree before the wind, so that the effluvia from the tree are always blown from them. They are told, likewise, to travel with the utmost dispatch, as that is the only method of insuring a safe return. …

When the hour of their departure arrives, the priest puts them on a long leather cap with two glasses before their eyes, which comes down as far as their breast, and also provides them with a pair of leather gloves. They are then conducted by the priest … about two miles on their journey. Here the priest repeats his instructions, and tells them where they are to look for the tree.

Foersch informs us that the priest told him he had sent more than seven hundred criminals off in this manner, and only about one tenth of them made it back safely with the poison. Documents he saw supported this claim. Although he had made efforts to get some hard data on the tree, the difficulties involved rendered this impossible.

This, however, is certain, though it may appear incredible, that from fifteen to eighteen miles round this tree, not only no human creature can exist; but that, in that space of ground, no living animal of any kind has ever been discovered. I have also been assured by several persons of veracity, that there are no fish in the waters, nor has any rat, mouse, or any other vermin been seen there; and when any birds fly so near this tree, that the effluvia reaches them they fall a sacrifice to the effects of the poison. This circumstance has been ascertained by different delinquents, who, in their return, have seen the birds drop down and have picked them up dead, and brought them to the old ecclesiastic.

There are several obvious problems with this account. The first, and greatest, difficulty is that there is no such tree. There is a tree called upas, and it is the source of a poison, but past that the account is clearly, well, wrong. The zone of death that surrounds it, the birds falling from the sky, the convicts sent out to fetch the poison--these are things that never were. The parts about the zone of death, the birds falling in mid-flight might have been suggested by phenomena that occur with carbon-dioxide-filled valleys resulting from volcanic activity, maybe. So the obvious question is, where did Foersch get these notions? Was he fooled by mendacious locals who stuffed him with wild tales? Or was he the hoaxer himself?

Sometimes the obvious question is the wrong one, and this is one of those cases. The relevant question is: was there ever an N. P. Foersch? And if not, what exactly are we looking at? The piece in The London Magazine may seem to be a straightforward article, but there are clues that it is something else altogether. Consider the magazine's introduction:
The following description of the Bohon Upas, or Poison-Tree, which grows in the island of Java, and renders it unwholesome by its noxious vapours, has been procured for the London Magazine, from Mr. Heydinger, who was employed to translate it from the original Dutch, by the author, Mr. Foersch, who, we are informed, is at present abroad, in the capacity of surgeon on board an English vessel.

This account, we must allow, appears so marvellous, that even the Credulous might be staggered. The readers of this narrative will probably think of the celebrated Psalmanazar, and his equally famous History of the Island of Formosa. But this narrative certainly merits attention and belief.

Now Psalmanazar was a celebrated fraud, a fake Formosan whose bogus account of the island fooled many in England in the eighteenth century. The reference to this as an account so marvelous that even the credulous might be staggered appears also to be a hint. My strong impression is that the editor means us to understand that this is a hoax, and nothing more. The fact that N. P. Foersch is otherwise unknown may also be a clue.

To put it as simply as possible, this letter is not a translation from the Dutch; N. P. Foersch never made any investigation of the upas tree, and indeed there is no reason to think that Foersch ever existed outside the imagination of the author. Far from being an account of a bizarre tree on an exotic island, this piece is a work of fiction, apparently inspired by various traveler's tales from the orient.

So who was the author? Whose fantasy was it that so captivated Erasmus Darwin's imagination?

There doesn't seem to be any hard evidence, but one name springs to mind for a hoax of this sort--George Steevens. Steevens was a great Shakespearean scholar, but he was also fond of hoaxes and practical jokes. One of his most celebrated hoaxes was his creation of the tombstone of Hardecanute, about which a paper was presented to the Society of Antiquaries in 1789. Another well-known deception was his discovery of a letter written by the Elizabethan playwright George Peele telling of his meeting with William Shakespeare and Henry (not Christopher) Marlowe. Of course any hoax of the time was likely to be attributed to him; some even suspected his involvement in the William Henry Ireland Shakespearean forgeries, and in Chatterton's Rowley poems. Isaac D'israeli wrote in Curiosities of Literature (1824):
If we possessed the secret history of the literary life of George Steevens, it would display an unparalleled series of arch deception, and malicious ingenuity. He has been happily characterized by Mr Gifford, as “the Puck of Commentators!” Steevens is a creature so spotted over with literary forgeries and adulterations, that any remarkable one about the time he flourished may be attributed to him.
He seems quite confident that Steevens was the author of the Foersch account:
The marvellous narrative of the upas-tree of Java, which Darwin adopted in his plan of “enlisting imagination under the banner of science,” appears to have been another forgery which amused our “Puck.” It was first given in the London Magazine, as an extract from a Dutch traveller, but the extract was never discovered in the original author, and “the effluvia of this noxious tree, which through a district of twelve or fourteen miles had killed all vegetation, and had spread the skeletons of men and animals, affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described, or painter deimeated,” is perfectly chimerical. A splendid flim-flam!
Sidney Lee in the Dictionary of National Biography seems equally convinced. Conviction, however, is not evidence. Steevens was entirely capable of perpetrating such a fraud; that isn't quite the same thing as demonstrating that he actually did it. I'm inclined to think he did; the thing has the qualities of his dark and shadowed personality all over it. D'Israeli observes of his pranks:
They were the habits of a depraved mind, and there was a darkness in his character many shades deeper than belonged to Puck; even in the playfulness of his invention, there was usually a turn of personal malignity, and the real object was not so much to raise a laugh, as to “grin horribly a ghastly smile,” on the individual.
This piece, especially if his contemporary Erasmus Darwin was his intended victim, fits well with his psychology. It may well have been his most successful practical joke. Poems, operas, political metaphors, all drew from this malicious fantasy, long after the perpetrator had passed on. A splendid flim-flam indeed.

07 September 2007

Quotation of the Day

"An atheist is just a fundamentalist who believes in one less god than the other." From Dave Away From Home.

06 September 2007

Dennis James Kennedy (1930-2007) R.I.H.

Vibrations in the ether bring me glad tydings: Dennis James Kennedy no longer breathes and walks this earth among us. He has, as they say, gone on to his reward.

Charles Erskine Scott Wood, in Heavenly Discourse, revealed how such figures as Anthony Comstock and Teddy Roosevelt were received in heaven. When Billy Sunday, the first radiovangelist, showed up, St. Peter had to bleach him in a sulfurous pit to remove the stench.

In 1953, during the height of the McCarthy era, dance instructor Dennis J. Kennedy was inspired to wonder about his own potential reception in heaven by the question of a Philadelphia preacher: "Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to ask you, 'What right do you have to enter into my heaven?'—what would you say?" This improbable scenario apparently was the catalyst for the transformation of D J Kennedy, dance instructor, into D. James Kennedy, gay-basher, history-faker, and anti-science zealot.

The evil this man did lives on. The good, if any, appears to have died long ago. I spent some time scanning the obituaries for positive things to say about this Christ-monger, and all I could find were:
He was kind to a Baptist teenager... (Albert Mohler, Jr.)
Dr. Kennedy lived modestly and was never tainted by moral or financial scandal. (Washington Post)
On the other hand the work he did in promoting false stereotypes of gays and lesbians, in supporting putting AIDS victims in concentration camps, in opposing scientific research towards cures for certain diseases on lame theological grounds, in rewriting American history to support the Christian America lie, in rewriting biology, geology, and physics to support the crazy notions known as "Young Earth Creationism"--well, if Satan is truly the father of lies, then we know whose side "Dr." Dennis James Kennedy was on. And indeed, from The Daily Pulp, we learn:

According to sources close to the prince of darkness, the late Rev. D. James Kennedy, of Coral Ridge Power Hour fame, has been assigned a key position in hell.

"He's going to make a great addition and we've already made room for him," one of Satan's lieutenants reported to the Pulp. "The hard part was figuring out where to put the little devil. We considered the eighth circle with the frauds. I mean, c'mon, Kennedy was a "man of God"? Would Jesus sponsor a hate festival? As we say down in these parts, hell no. Then there's the fourth circle, for the materialists. Have you seen that gaudy palace he built on Federal Highway? Plus, he loved the rich and never gave two snots about the poor. But we decided he'd make a better addition to the fifth circle, where he'll fight with other wrathful hatemongers on the river Styx."

I suppose the excuse that might be made for him was that he was doing what was right in his own mind. It's a pretty poor excuse, if you ask me.

03 September 2007

Can You Say "Frivolous Lawsuit"?

Many years ago certain people who have adopted an anti-science agenda under the pretext of religion set out to teach their children garbage instead of science. (They also substituted fairy-tales about the past for the study of history, which was of more immediate interest to me, but let's stick for the moment to the science.) At the time I commented that this was all very well and good, but what on earth were they going to do when their kids grew up and wanted to attend college? Colleges would expect them to actually know science and history, rather than garbage and fairy-tales. All I could think of at the time was that they would have to go to places like Liberty or Bob Jones, where their notions might pass.

Turns out that there is a second possibility. The parents who had so badly mis-educated their children might sue colleges to try to get special privileges for their offspring. Other people's kids might have to actually master Biology or learn American History, but not their precious little angels. They should get a free pass, because their religion forbids them to come to grips with reality. Instead of hard biology, what about substituting Fun and Frolic among the Flood Fossils? Instead of learning the facts of American History, what about singing "God Bless America" and have done with it? And instead of ancient history, what about a little group discussion on What the Bible means to me? This is horseshit.

Yes, in the most frivolous of frivolous lawsuits, various parents who insulated their children from too-harsh realities of science and history are actually suing the University of California to try to force it to recognize Bob Jones foolishness as the equivalent of a real course. Their excuses are idiotic. You can't judge a course by the quality of the textbook chosen, for example. Substituting horseshit for information constitutes only adding religious content to a standard course. (By the way, in my book at least, a "history" course that adds a clutch of outrageous lies a la David Barton [for example] to otherwise true information ceases at that point to be a history course, unless of course the instructor is teaching his students how to evaluate fake history or something of the sort.) The courses in question are clearly not teaching science but religion. They should therefore not qualify as science courses, no matter how their parents choose to spin it. Teaching anti-science is not teaching science. Parents may have a constitutional right to bamboozle their children, but that doesn't give their children any rights to special privileges as opposed to other people's children who actually worked for their place in college. In my view not only should this case be settled in favor of the University of California, but these ignorant and arrogant parents should have to pick up their court costs. To quote from The Questionable Authority : "Viewpoint Discrimination" and the California Creationism Case.: "If they want their students to be credited as having taken biology, they need to teach biology. If they want to continue to exercise their right to deceive and mislead their children, they need to be willing to accept the consequences of that act." Damn right.

02 September 2007

Dubious Documents: The Case of the Vanishing Letter

Baylor University is a Baptist institution located in Waco Texas. From Wikipedia I learn that the university is working on an ambitious program to, among other things, "Establish an environment where learning can flourish," "Develop a world-class faculty," "Attract and support a top-tier student body," "Provide outstanding academic facilities," and "Achieve a two-billion dollar endowment." Under these circumstances it is easy to understand why they would prefer not to have tools and cranks hanging around their campus. Therefore Baylor University's decision to distance itself from an "Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory" run by notorious IDian William Dembski in association with Robert Marks, a professor of engineering should not be a surprise to anybody. If it really did make such a decision.

Somebody at Uncommon Descent claims to have received a communication from John Lilley, president of Baylor University. The text given there reads:
The removal of Prof. Robert Marks' so-called "lab" on the Baylor server is entirely consistent with Baylor's stance on academic freedom. Prof. Marks was hired to do research and obtain grants for work in engineering, not to devote the bulk of his time to work in religion. I am not moved by Prof. Marks' protestations that he is working in the field of intelligent design and that this work falls under his job description. Judge John E. Jones III ruled decisively in Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design is religion, and that's good enough for me. We have a religious studies program here at Baylor as well as a seminary. Unfortunately, Prof. Marks is not qualified to serve in either of these programs otherwise I would recommend his transfer.

In any case, academic freedom does not warrant the toleration of labs and groups willy-nilly. Surely you would not object if I took measures similar to those I took with Prof. Marks' lab if a Baylor history professor proposed to start a "holocaust reexamination group" or a physics professor here proposed to found a "zodiac and astrology lab." Academic freedom comes to an end where reason and common sense give way to ignorance and nonsense. I plan to issue an official statement concerning Baylor's stance on intelligent design in coming months. The short of it is that ID is not welcome here in Waco and professors who want to work in this area can do so on their own time.

Thank you for your concerns. I hope that we can put this matter to rest quickly and that Prof. Marks can get back to being a productive member of the Baylor community.
The communication is signed "JL."

The thing that struck me immediately about it was the tone. I'm sorry, but this thing just didn't read to me like the work of a university president. It's not that all university presidents write alike--but they usually withdraw quietly under a cloud of unctuousness, rather than to strike a combative note, at least in issues like this. Phrases like "so-called 'lab,'" "that's good enough for me," "willy-nilly," and "ID is not welcome here" don't ring true to me. Of course JL could be a different breed of university president. I decided to check him out.

Here is a sample of John Lilley's prose, taken from the Baylor University website:
The Board of Regents bestowed a great honor, a challenge and an opportunity in its invitation for me to serve as Baylor's 13th president. After more than 25 years of leading universities in Pennsylvania and Nevada, it is a great privilege to return to the institution that had such a transforming effect on my life.

I look forward to serving alongside the more than 1,800 faculty and staff who have invested themselves in this great university. It is apparent to me that everyone associated with Baylor wants it to be in the ranks of America's top universities.

To accomplish that, we need to be intentional about our mission as a Christian university in the historic Baptist tradition, and we need to provide inspiring teaching/mentorship while increasing our research and creative endeavors. These are goals that have been consistently embraced by the Board of Regents, the Faculty Senate, the Staff Council, Student Government and many other Baylor constituents.

In the weeks since my election as president, I have spent many hours meeting with regents, administrative leaders, faculty, staff, students and alumni leaders. The primary purpose of these meetings has been to listen. One of the things I have heard is that the natural disagreements in our academic life need to be spoken in a more respectful manner, one that is consistent with the Christian community of which we are a part.

Over the next few weeks, I will be asking the university community to help in identifying the specific objectives that will allow us to achieve the two goals mentioned above. This process will allow all of us to help set priorities for strengthening current programs and for creating new programs and for the allocation and reallocation of resources and space. That collaboration can build consensus if we are successful in communicating more effectively.

I am eager to engage more of you in the days ahead as we work together to make stronger this university which all of us serve and so dearly love.
Now that's what a university president writes like. I particularly invite your attention to the part where he comments on the need to deal with "natural disagreements in our academic life ... in a more respectful manner, one that is consistent with the Christian community of which we are a part." Come on--does that really sound at all like the guy that wrote the letter Uncommon Descent claimed to have received?

I'd got this far in looking things over when I had to deal with the real world. It's my sister-in-law's birthday, and cake and ice-cream were in order up the street at my brother's house. Before I left I checked Uncommon Descent again, finding now that they were now claiming that this letter was a parody. When I got back home, bloated on pound cake and appetizers, the letter had vanished completely. Fortunately PZ Myers had noted the letter, and his post sent me to this link at Panda's Thumb, where a screen-shot preserves the letter in all its glory. Otherwise I might have started wondering if I had imagined the whole thing.

Now, I know something about parody, at least enough to recognize a parody when I see it. Whatever this letter was supposed to be, it was not a parody. Compare the styles of the two documents quoted above. Is there any similarity? If the author of the first thought he was anywhere close to parodying the author of the second item, he was kidding himself.

Whatever the intentions of the author, what the first is is a common, or garden, fake. There is no element of humor, satire, or exaggeration in it. The only purpose I can see is to stir IDians up against John Lilley in particular, and Baylor University in general. If it was intended as a joke of some kind, apologies are in order. If not--well, then, words fail me.
Copyright © 2005-2022