Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Battle Fatigue

Ann Althouse* asks a very wise question:
Why not ignore what is worthless? It's a marketplace of ideas. Why are you even browsing the crap?

Ms. Althouse defends the burning of books for no other reason than to annoy liberals; the very idea of a university professor downplaying book-burning (and the implied repression of ideas) is beyond belief. She claims to be upset that some people don't like the idea of burning Korans in the spirit of religious intolerance, and thinks it is intolerant to criticize intolerance.
Good lord. There's an immense difference between burning your own book as a way of saying "I hate this book" — which adds more expression to the marketplace of ideas — and the confiscation and destruction of other people's books — which is about depriving people of access to expression that they want to consume.

This goes back to the conservative complaint that everyone criticizes their intolerance. Why can't they hate Blacks or Muslims or Jews or gays? Why shouldn't they be able to call people names, deny them the same civil rights as everyone else, forbid them to even exist in the public sphere? The intolerant aren't free unless they're free to persecute others without condemnation or criticism.
I find it hard to believe that Niebuhr and hyperventilators like him are big readers of important books, because their minds seem pretty feeble to me. "Torch a book and you at least symbolically deny your fellow men and women that freedom." At least symbolically. Or, to put it another way, i.e., truthfully: You don't deny other people anything. You give them something: the information that is your hatred of a book. And as they "decide for themselves whether what they read has meaning," they can take into account that you hate the book. It's not going to be a very influential piece of information, because you're just some attention whore who burned a book instead of articulating a pithy critique of it.

And therefore Nazi rallies were really the free exchange of ideas. (Although we do hesitate to criticize Althouse's deep and entirely genuine knowledge of attention whoring.)
Yes, conceivably, a private group burning its own books might be intimidating, but that would only be because we have other, much greater reasons to fear that group or the movement it represents. And yes, when you burn a book, you adopt an image associated with the Nazis, but that marginalizes you. We don't cower every time some marginal idiot draws a swastika or does the Hitler salute. You're free to express yourself, but I think lavishing outrage on some nobody empowers him.

Althouse might just have a point. What's the point of spending so much time and outrage on petty, cruel, people driven by hatreds and passions they don't understand?

The answer is pretty obvious. The idiots aren't always marginal and powerless. And everyone is not as eager as Althouse to ignore the threats, lies, and power plays of the far right. Many people realize that the Nazis didn't spring out the ground fully formed and ready to take over the country. When nobody protests the actions of liars, fools and thugs, they grow in power. There must be push-back or the marginal become mainstream. Bush didn't let the country take out their rage on Muslims in America after 9/11. In fact, one of the first things he did was fly Saudis in America out of the country for their safety. He has close business ties to Saudi Arabia and no doubt did not want to do anything to harm those relationships. The right does not have the same constraints on them now and are being actively encouraged to take out their anger and frustrations on convenient scapegoats. Ignoring them would be implicitly giving them permission. But fighting them doesn't seem to be working either.

Althouse doesn't care about the effect of her words. It's fun to take the contrarian position and it gets more attention than doing what is right. To support this idiotic, attention-getting device she must dredge up an idiotic reason--book burning adds to the "marketplace of ideas."

It doesn't matter if a blogger or journalist lies anymore. Megan McArdle and her ilk regularly lie and obfuscate for their corporate paymasters and nothing happens. Some people fight back, but still nothing happens. People spend hours, days, fighting the lies, providing proof, reasoned arguments, facts, logic--and none of it matters. The lies will start all over again the next day. And the liars will get richer, while the people who fight for truth and justice get poorer.

McArdle states that contrary to what Kevin Drum says, insurance companies are raising rates because of health insurance reform. Drum appears in comments to give her the facts. McArdle ignores him and the facts, adding her own sly fact-spinning. "Health insurance companies have relatively thin profit margins, so where, exactly, did they think the money was coming from to provide all these extra services?" They have thin profit margins, but you don't need big profit margins when you take in so much money. Don't tell us that McArdle doesn't understand volume sales.

But what does it matter? Fighting back has no effect. Why waste time, instead of letting the authoritarians continue on their inevitable path of destruction? Will protesting book burning change racist and bigoted minds? Will analyzing the lies of the financial elite and their boot-lickers change government policy? Probably not. Maybe it would be better to just do what most Americans do; ignore the people trying to destroy our country and sit back and enjoy what little money and power we do have. Enjoy our lives instead of getting angry and fighting back. Let it all go and grab as much as we can while we can, drowning our conscience in money and food and tv and alcohol and hatred.

We make decisions on how to live our lives. Why can't we decide to live with lies?

*Hi, Ann!


jp said...

**Good lord. There's an immense difference between burning your own book as a way of saying "I hate this book" — which adds more expression to the marketplace of ideas — and the confiscation and destruction of other people's books — which is about depriving people of access to expression that they want to consume.**

No wonder Althouse defends McArdle. She can't express a coherent thought or write a decent sentence either.

The excerpt above is just...nonsense. And then it gets worse from there.

Anonymous said...

No educated person in this, or any other, country should be unaware of the history of the burning of sacred texts--not just "books as product" but actual sacred texts. The Christians burnt the Torah thousands of times. They burnt them, and destroyed other sacred objects, and killed those who could read over and over and over again as soon as they had the political power to do so. They burnt the books of other Christians. Hell, they burned *other Christians* because those people chose to read and promulgate other texts as sacred. Althouse is a disgrace to educated people everywhere. I can't really fully express the shuddering horror I feel at reading her post on Rosh Hashona. There's something truly abysmal and abyssal about her complete lack of wisdom, thought, humanism, grace. Sometimes I can read McCardle just to make fun of her. After all, she's paid to misinform, not to educate. But Althouse is actually supposed to be able to impart knowledge--specific, historically grounded, knowledge of a system of rules we call laws. She has such utter contempt for morality and law that I can't imagine what her classes are like. And to the extent that the students don't know enough to walk out and demand their money back, you can be sure that she is deforming young minds as fast as they are exposed to her.


Kia said...

But aimai, what is all that compared to the opportunity to show how far you are willing to go to poke a liberal in the eye with a sharp stick?

Susan of Texas said...

She even disparages women, because supporting them is too leftist, I guess.

I should have made her meaner in my League of Extraordinary Bloggers.

Clever Pseudonym said...

I guess Ann doesn't understand those of us who are compelled to stand up and say "this person does not speak or act for me," especially in an age where news spreads like wildfire and people in Muslim countries are going to find out about this. Though I suspect she's just stirring the coals and being contrarian for the sake of it.

bulbul said...

I can't help but wonder what Professor Althouse's view on flag burning are...

John E. Williams said...

"Maybe it would be better to just do what most Americans do; ignore the people trying to destroy our country and sit back and enjoy what little money and power we do have."

I think what annoys people like Ann and Megan is the idea that everyone matters equally, when to their mind everyone clearly does not matter, equally or otherwise. That's why Ann thinks we shouldn't care when someone burns some stupid book -- it's just a book, after all, and not one she cares about. (Imagine burning of one of her books, if there are any -- the resulting shriek of indignation would be heard in every corner of the blogosphere.)

The more vicious minds on the Right express this belief quite openly (see Limbaugh, Rush), but being brought up properly, Ann and Megan certainly would never be so crass. But lord, how it must gall them sometimes to have to be so damned polite about it.

bulbul said...

At least symbolically. Or, to put it another way, i.e., truthfully
Wow. And she's a law professor.

the very idea of a university professor downplaying book-burning ... is beyond belief
There is something deeply wrong about burning books. No matter how offensive the tome , you just don't burn a book. Not Mein Kampf, not Liberal Fascism, not any book. Books are much more than repositories of ideas - they are the cornerstone of our civilization, what makes us a people and not just a collection of individuals.
Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen, a wise man once said. I beg to differ: those who burn books, burn humanity, period.

bulbul said...


it's just a book, after all, and not one she cares about
Hence my question about flag burning. Or to stay on the subject: What would Ann think if someone decided to publicly burn copies of the Constitution?

aimai said...

In answer to your question I think its pretty clear that Ann won't have an a priori, principled, response to any subject, whether flag or book burning. It will depend entirely on whose ox is gored--and on who is doing the burning, of whose flag. I would go further and say that she will not object to the rather common post-Obama conservative gesture of flying the flag upside down (to indicate distress) nor would she object if Glen Beck or others decided to burn the flag as an expression of disapproval of Obama and his policies. Because its not the act that gets her angry, its the temerity of the wrong sort of people in expressing the wrong sort of ideas.

Back when "hippies" were "desecrating" the flag by wearing it on jackets, people like Ann would have opposed that. But now that the Beckers and others are wearing the flag on everything up to and including their underwear its just symbolic of their love of country. See how that works?

But there is, of course, a class component here. I'm sure Ann isn't pro Quran burning because she's pro toothless christianist hatemongers per se burning books. Her attitude, as expressed in this post, is that his actions are meaningless because she doesn't acknowledge him to be more than a fringe political actor. The fact that his provocation is not besides the point but the whole point, the fact that he's just the most vocal edge of the spear of right wing islamophobia and xenophobia and bigotry is something that she has to ignore. Because she doesn't want to publicly align herself with the ugly, lower class, face of the republican party. She wants to pretend that the tea party and its adherents are epiphenomenal and somewhere there's a respectable, educated, anti democratic Republican party struggling to get heard.

To Ann this guy is getting side show geek style bigotry all over her corporatist tax cuts.


Susan of Texas said...

I wonder if she's just into conservatism for the meanness factor. Liberals are supposed to be nice, although I'm trying my best to change that. Maybe she just likes being on the side that calls people names and tells them to go back home where they belong.

Mr. Wonderful said...

Go here, play this:

(XTC live on The Late Show. Sample lyric:

Books are burning
In the town square
And you know where
They burn books
People are next...)

Kathy said...

Megan-types equate administering of principals of equality and justice to everyone, even accused criminals and terrorists, with being "nice" to everyone.

Ergo: liberals are required to be nice to conservawingers, even the craziest and most vicious bigots.

Their underlying belief -as usual!- is an error, or stupid lie if you prefer.

A huge number of Americans believe the lie that ALL MUSLIMS attacked us on 9/11; and that the public burning of the Koran is fair retaliation for that attack: a strike by America in the War on Terror, which is just the same (they have been taught) as a War on Islam.

As for burning books: it is making a statement, it is Free Speech. Nero Wolfe once burned a dictionary because it said the words infer and imply could be used interchangeably.

bulbul said...


Nero Wolfe once burned a dictionary because it said the words infer and imply could be used interchangeably.
Yes, but he was a) a fictional character, and b) an idiot.

aimai said...

You know, I don't even have the heart to blog about it over at NMMNB but the absolute, hands down, shittiest, stupidest thing ever written about the Quran burning stunt was written by Pharyngula.

I'm an atheist and I respect anti clericalism as much as the next descendant of anarchists and revolutionaries but christ on a pogo stick the burning Koran stunt is not about American "right to free expression" at all--it takes place on a world stage, is meant to shame/humiliate/attack literally a billion muslims by defaming a book that they hold sacred. There is no right answer to what we should do as a society, but its the wrong answer to ask our political leaders, whose job it is to liase with Muslims around the world, to shrug their shoulders and say "hey, your imaginary sky god can eat shit, y'know?" What's so hard about admitting that people's sacred objects, whether their sacred texts or their pictures of grandma *actually mean something to them.* You aren't more enlightened than they because you despise someone else's magical or sentimental beliefs. As the old joke goes you just despise *one more set* of magical beliefs than they do. That doesn't mean you don't have some private beliefs, some loves, some cultural icons that you do value and that it would hurt you to see traduced, defamed, or otherwise harmed.

aimai said...

I've always disliked the anti-atheistical crap that gets flung around at PZ and Harris and whoever. They are entitled to be as grating and as aggressive as they want. Generally speaking they don't bug me as much as other kinds of evangelicals bug me. But being pro-science, or whatever the fuck PZ thinks he is, doesn't entitle him to be practically autistic when it comes to social and cultural needs and symbolism. Humans communicate through symbols. Its practically the only way they communicate. Taking a shit on the conference table or burning someone's holy books is probably a really bad communicative strategy from a political and social point of view. Certainly if you are planning to hold a conference around the table. Of course our top political leaders who have to hold that conference, over and over again, would prefer not to see the pile of shit there. Also, they don't start every conference ritually tearing up family photos of the conference members on the grounds that they aren't important, or there are copies, or its not our ancestors.


Susan of Texas said...

I think people need rituals and, as you say, symbols. Plus the desire to belong to a group is incredibly strong. The only problem I have is that when people to decide to live a fiction, there is no end to what they have to do and will do to maintain that fiction. It messes up a lot of lives and teaches them to substitute wishful thinking for reality.

aimai said...

I don't know, culture, art, music--these are all as much social constructs as religion. They can all help us overcome suffering and sorrow--or they can increase suffering and sorrow. In general I agree with you about authoritarian religions and social structures (like the family, some schools, prisons) but there's just no hard and fast line between religion and other cultural artifacts and belief systems that makes one "real" and the other "false." If I call one person my biological sister, but treat another as my social sister, is one "really" my sister and the other not? PZ likes to emphasize the magical/sky god part of specifically monotheistic and manichean world religions. Its like shooting fish in a barrel. But there's lots of other religious/poetic/artistic apercus and understandings that can't be understood as "real" or "fake." Its not "efficacious" or "not efficacious"--like modern American christian notions of prayer to get shit from god, or to avert the angry crisis. Its just a different way of apprehending meaning.

I'm not defending religion per se since I'm pretty anti religion as practiced. I'm just defending the existence of culture and the numinous as component parts of human experience. PZ is a strict rationalist and an engineering type (just like many of my own family members) and they tend to dismiss as absolute bunk anything that they don't enjoy or recognize. But they aren't above culture. They are a cultural type themselves. And they deeply resent interference with their cherished loves as much as the next irrational idol worshipper.


Susan of Texas said...

I think I understand--I love Christmas even though I'm an atheist. I'd rather that everyone abandoned worshipping gods and goddesses because it's not rational, but sometimes we need to be a little irrational.

Just sometimes!

aimai said...

Yes, Christmas (or, Saturnalia, as my father prefers) is a good example of things that have an origin in specific relgious traditions but which can and are enjoyed simply for the accretion of delicious acts and meanings that have grown up around them. I love christmas--trees, parties, gifts. But to get back to the question at hand: how is an atheist supposed to think about the burning of the Quran in an American or an international context I guess I'm just stunned that PZ's first thought is to act/think/want Muslims to leap to a "hey, wottthell, its only a book" sort of feeling. I've got my husband's great grandmother's yiddish prayer book upstairs. I don't read yiddish and I sure don't pray. But I'd be pretty upset if someone burned it. Or publicly burned a whole lot of some other prayer book.

PZ would say "but its not someone's grandmother's prayer book, its private property. PZ wants to privilige totally American notions of "property" over symbol and say "those Quran's are the Florida guy's property so he can do with them what he wants." That belief--that books are not also sacred objects, that they can be wholly owned by any one person, that how they are treated is analagous to other forms of chattel is totally western. You kiss the book that falls to the ground in India and in the Judaic tradition. The Torah is treated like a person: written in a certain way, handled in a certain way. Its not fungible and its not to be destroyed. By extension you might argue the same thing for the Quran. Its not a phonebook. And to argue that it is, which is where PZ's argument goes, is itself a culturally embedded notion, a symbolic notion. Its not more rational than other notions. Rationality or irrationality isn't the question. Attachment, love, history, culture--these simply are. Without them we aren't human.

Too much?


aimai said...

Of course there's a teachable moment here which we are all forgetting which is that the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the big Buddha at Bamiyan. I'm not arguing that there's a tit for tat argument here. I'm arguing that it would be so great if our country could stand against destruction of other people's cultural monuments and religious icons instead of feeding the hysterical monotheistic fervor.

In fact I heard some fantastic interviews with American Muslims on the eve of Eid saying exactly that. That from their perspective the disambiguation of Islam from the repressive state, along with the protections of the first amendment and the hate crimes bill, make America the best place to be a Muslim. Something they'd love to explain to Muslims the world over. They've become secularized and tolerant by living here. Not because of the efforts of PZ to make them ashamed of their religious beliefs, but because a plural, complex, religious society enables people to get over their fears of forced conversion, repression, and cultural death.


Susan of Texas said...

achment, love, history, culture--these simply are. Without them we aren't human.

That is true. Yet many people grow up without love or attachments and must find them where they can. It's a double-edged sword. It makes your mind (and therefore life) more free in some ways since you are not as constrained by tribalism's conformity. But you miss out on the emotional richness of that life. A lot of people join a tribe--convert--just for that reason.

In a perfect world we would be able to belong to a group without feeling we are in competition with others or being afraid of other groups. And we would be able to not belong to a group, since that is not something we always want or can control.

I think it all comes down to why we are part of a group. Do we look for the group to give us something we are missing inside? That leads to investing one's self-image in something outside one's self, which then must be defended against anything that contradicts or criticizes that group, or the person's self-image will be damaged. Or do we belong to the group because of what is already inside--we have so much love and appreciation for others that we want to share it with the group?

aimai said...

That's a very interesting point. But I'm not sure we have a choice about being in or out of the groups into which we are born. I mean, sure, people have horrific family lives and miss out on specific things--always have lousy Christmases, have abusive families, fall in class status and suffer for it, etc... but they are still born into a culture/language/symbolism through which to speak their griefs and their loves. Maybe its a worse grief, for example, to imagine a perfect "holy family" model when coming from a broken home--but maybe its just another available model that you can adopt or not?

I guess what I think, and maybe this isn't responsive to what you are arguing, is that as an anthropologist its "turtles all the way down" for me. You know that old joke right? Indigenous person tells anthropologist that the world is held up by a turtle. And the inquisitive anthropologist asks him what the turtle is resting on. "Another turtle." "And that one?" "Another Turtle." "And *that* one?" "After that [implied "you jerk"] its turtles all the way down."

What I mean is that even the ways we are disappointed by our families, if we are, are culturally constructed. Mother love? Enough mother love? Not enough mother love? Breastfeeding or bottlefeeding? Footbinding or keds? These are all things that we practice because we are part of a culture that priviliges them. Abandoning them, or adopting them, only means something within a cultural context.

Thanks for being willing to have such an extended chat with me. Wish we were neighbors IRL and could have a cup of coffee.


aimai said...

I think, on reflection, we're talking about different things. If I take your point in the "groups" post you are arguing that all/much group membership, such as membership in religious groups, identification with a particular nationality, sports teams, etc... is just a kind of childish search for a larger/stronger identity that can protect the weak individual? I think that is certainly a very good way to think about the reality for passionate group identification: the "good Christian Man's" investment in being known to be the best/strongest dad. The jingoism within nationalism. The bigotry and fear that underlies a lot of evangelical and/or fundamentalist religions and sects. But I'm not sure I accept the notion that there is any individual born outside society and its groupings (my first advisor wrote "Corporations and Society" a long and tedious book on the multiple groupings and associations in which the individual is nested). There's no state of nature for humans. We are always in a group: those who speak our language? those who share our (imaginary) history? family members, people on the block where we live, schoolmates, co-workers. We just can't escape membership even though we can be more or less attached, more or less emotionally defined by those relationships and memberships.


Batocchio said...

Late to this thread, and I may return when I have more time.

aimai, I've found some of PZ's stuff to be sharp, but I was very disappointed by part of his post on Koran burning the other day, for some of the reasons you describe.

BTW, there's an annual Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm, normally around Easter weekend, and participants include atheists and religious folks. Also, it's Banned Books Week at the end of this month. Sharpen up those blogging pencils!

brad said...

I'm even later to the thread, and I was also dismayed by PZ's post. As much as I hate such simplistic formulations, I couldn't help but wonder what PZ would have written if it were a certain work by Darwin at risk of incineration.
I'd be a so-called militant atheist but I just can't manage to be that big an asshole anymore. I finished the reactionary phase sometime in undergrad. If people want to be superstitious it's not my business, provided they don't try to force their superstitions on me or others. Religion is, at this point, like one of those ancient viruses which managed to become part of our dna.
And, tbh, from a simple tactical standpoint I find that not condescending to people who believe in spoooooky magic sky gods, at least to their faces, about it makes it easier for me to work around the poor logic inserted into their thinking by the institutions maintaining and benefiting from their superstitions.

pseudonymous in nc said...

I couldn't help but wonder what PZ would have written if it were a certain work by Darwin at risk of incineration.

What would PZ think about, if, say, someone bought a bunch of live squid from the fish market and whacked them to bits with mallets as performance art in an explicit fuck-you to the squid biologist?

The animate/inanimate thing doesn't matter: the point is that toleration is not the same as approbation.

And village atheists bore me: in their attempt to have done with God (or gods) they want to have done with lots and lots of stuff which has nothing to do with theology but has plenty to do with people.