Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Supporting the PEN Six

If you've been following the news or been on Twitter recently, there's a good chance you've heard about the PEN Charlie Hebdo controversy, but in case you haven't, I'll summarize briefly. PEN American Center, a literary society, decided to award its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo; in response, six writers decided to withdraw as literary hosts from the organization's gala this May. The writers have written out their rationales and made them public; their arguments basically hinge on the magazine's ugly portrayal of Muslims, which, as I've noted, a journalist who used to work with Charlie excoriated them for (well before the massacre happened).

Teju Cole, one of the six writers (Chester Higgins Jr./
The New York Times)

These writers, in my view, made the right decision. The award should not go to Charlie Hebdo. I've heard the argument that since the award is for "courage," it doesn't matter if you don't like Charlie's content. I'm gonna go ahead and call bullshit on that one. Saying something is courageous always implies at least some appreciation for the action being taken, which is why we don't describe the 9/11 hijackers as courageous men even though they knowingly sacrificed their lives for their cause. As has been pointed out, no one would be all right with this award being given to a KKK or neo-Nazi publication that had continued to put out its vile material in spite of threats or violence from its opponents. Am I saying that Charlie Hebdo is the equivalent of the KKK or the Nazis? No. But I think a lot of their content, as their former associate Olivier Cyran has criticized them for, has only contributing to the horrifically Islamophobic climate in France. That deserves no award, regardless of how willing they were to continue in their work in the face of violence and threats.

There is a group of people I would like to applaud for their courage, though, because I think they have done and said some important things: the writers withdrawing from the gala in protest, the PEN six, as they've been called. These are people who have the integrity to refuse to go along with the uncritical deification that's happened to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. From what I've read of their comments, I've been pleased with how well the problems with Charlie's content has been noted. We can, as the writers have said, think that a horrible injustice was committed when the Charlie Hebdo journalists were killed, but that doesn't mean we have to view their work as deserving of praise. Alas, as human history shows again and again, being killed is often enough to get a person forever viewed as, in Marilyn Manson's poetic words, "a martyr and a lamb of God."

It was against this unjustified glorification of these "martyrs" and secular saints that these six writers laudably stood up, even though they had to know in the process they were throwing themselves into the New Atheist viper pit where not just their decision but their character and integrity would be shamelessly attacked, which is exactly what's happened. We've had Salman Rushdie, for instance, childishly attacking them as "pussies" and Sam Harris saying they should be ashamed.

Their arguments have been distorted by those who claim they've equated or compared Charlie Hebdo with the Nazis. And, unlike the Charlie Hebdo journalists (if one can be generous enough to call them that), they've suffered this not as a result of mocking and denigrating a group of people, but just for voicing their own opinions and acting on their own principles. Once again, the New Atheist movement and its leaders have shown their own vile, fascistic intolerance of anyone who deviates from the acceptable viewpoint—an intolerance they claim ad nauseam to be victims of, with "PC liberals" as the supposed aggressors.

But, even as the sanctification of the Charlie Hebdo "journalists" goes on and those who speak against it are spat at by the likes of Harris and Rushdie, those who, like myself, find the scene deplorable can at least take some comfort in the fact that there are people willing to stand up against it. The PEN six deserve to be applauded for their actions. We can hope that, at some point in the future, that will be universally recognized. Until then, at least we have our dissidents.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Peeple Are Dumm

I find myself altogether too frequently impressed by the creative ways in which people around me make idiots out of themselves. I'm not talking about circles where one would expect this, either—I don't just mean I've seen it on the Internet (though I certainly have); I've seen it from my classmates (at a highly rated private university), some of whom are in the school's honors program. And I don't mean that I see people misspeak or say something stupid by accident, but expose themselves to be really, genuinely stupid, in overpowering ways.

The stupidity of the masses is genuinely amazing. In advanced, developed countries, large numbers of people continue to cling to irrational beliefs, prejudices, and fears when the evidence necessary to dispel them could hardly be any easier to obtain; when presented with it, they generally refuse to be disabused of their idiocies. Examples of this principle are abundant, particularly in the United States; a recent poll, for instance, found that eighty percent of Americans believe that ISIS poses a serious threat to the United States. Based on what, exactly? Where are the experts who have argued that? Where is the evidence?

America has a worldwide reputation for stupidity, but this sort of ignorance is by no means confined to the US; take Israel, where ninety percent of Israeli Jews endorsed last summer's murderous offensive against Gaza. Or Germany, where they've given Angela Merkel almost ten years in office so far so she can push austerity policies that are disastrous for the rest of Europe (hardly a result that can be in Germany's long-term interest, either, for that matter). And, again, let's keep in mind that these are advanced, developed countries we're talking about. Ignorance alone is one thing, but these are examples of people actively holding beliefs and making decisions that any rational, intelligent person should be able to understand are ridiculous. And yet, even otherwise intelligent people will hold to beliefs like these.

Think back through history; is there any time where ignorance, superstition, bigotry, and barbarism didn't abound? Any time where the average person was perceptive, skeptical, and wanted to advance humanity rather than hold it back? I can't think of any examples, to be honest. The genuinely creative and intelligent people of history have always been not only a small minority, but frequently a persecuted one. The same still holds true today. In advanced countries, we may not kill or prosecute people for heresy anymore, but that doesn't keep us from marginalizing and attacking them.

I'm not trying to say I'm any different than the rest of humanity, or immune from the stupid tendencies I see in others; but I know I make an effort to at least be rational in what I believe and how I behave, and often I feel that the people who are willing and able to make that effort are in short supply. I don't see myself as some sort of genius, but I can't help but see the majority of people as being easily led around and unable or unwilling to critically examine a lot of the things they believe and act upon.

For humanity to truly achieve its full potential, the intelligent, capable minority has to be free to achieve its full potential, unfettered by the foolishness of those around it; the unthinking masses, on the other hand, have to somehow be kept at bay. The achievements and discoveries of the minority will benefit them in the long run; until then, they can be kept occupied by the necessary chores that somebody has to do, but nobody really wants to.

To be clear, I'm by no means endorsing the sort of plutocracy we see today; clearly enough, American capitalism does not reward the most capable or innovative, the best and brightest minds society has to offer—rather, in enriches a small number of people who profit off the work of the masses, and then frequently hoard their money or spend it on frivolous things. The rich are no less stupid than the poor; all too often, their money makes them stupider, if anything.

Nor am I endorsing some kind of fascism, where the law is imposed by some ruling caste. The best and brightest minds of society—the Da Vincis, and Beethovens, and Shakespeares—should by no means have to spend their time running a country and handling the mess of economic and political issues that inevitably comes with such a task. That would be neither the best use of their time nor likely to produce good results.

Rather, what is needed is a system that liberates the best minds from control or hindrance, whether economic or political, by the masses (or by any sort of "elite" that consists, in reality, of the least elite people imaginable, such as in the US today). In the United States, an exceptionally open society in many respects, there are still a number of factors that hinder the ability of the best and brightest to realize their full potential; in a number of ways, society has either imposed equality where it should not exist, or made "superiors" out of people who are not, in fact, superior in any meaningful sense of the word.

For example, the vote of an ignorant bigot counts every bit as much as the vote of a well-informed, thoughtful, and tolerant-minded person; in numerous instances, this artificial, legal equality has resulted in idiots and demagogues winning elections, or, in referendums, the imposition of pointless and moralistic restrictions. I don't ask that we give more weight to the votes of the more intelligent or better-informed, because any criteria for evaluating these qualities would open the door to abuse and unfair exclusion or devaluation; rather, I ask that we give no one the power to impose their morality on anyone else, and to restrict the actions of others based on their own prejudices. It is no coincidence that those most committed to giving the best minds the opportunity to realize their full potential (Emerson, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Wilde) have been the greatest opponents of government power. 

None of this is to try and say that the masses of humanity should be disregarded or despised; there are certainly times when the masses have been willing to take up admirable causes or embrace important ideas, and that is an important fact to acknowledge. But we should not have to wait for the bulk of humanity to embrace the idea of individualism, of allowing each person to flourish unfettered by the factors that today make that more difficult, for that principle to be put into effect.