Monday, February 13, 2006

Darwin in Church

A NY Times piece today describes how Darwin's birthday was marked in some church services yesterday.

I think it's important that the media run pieces like this that show how religious people engage with the theory of evolution and recognize the (mostly) separate realms of religion and science, in contrast to the bulk of media coverage of church-science controversy that paints a purely confrontational picture. If the issue is always portrayed as a face-off between starkly opposite positions, that becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.

Evolutionists are right that denying Darwin's theory based on religion has consequences: natural processes become less understandable and a valuable tool to improve the lot of humanity is lost. But anti-evolutionists also have a point: evolution itself is value-less, and attempts to derive values from evolution have historically had scary consequences, from social Darwinism and ethnic cleansing to the potential for human cloning. But denying each others positions wholesale just entrenches the opposition more.

Calling attention to the evil uses of evolution is a better strategy to avoid their repetition than denying the validity of the theory. Folks on both sides can see eye to eye on preventing values like respect for human life from being eroded by the theory, or religious intolerance arising from a perversion of it. Fostering personal trust between evolutionist scientists working on medical applications and anti-cloning activists will do more good than winning any intellectual argument.

I think that open discussion on precisely this point, the historical and potential perversions of the theory of evolution, is where the money is on putting this devisive issue behind us.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Gay Marriage Hearings in NH

In neighboring New Hampshire, the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage has reached the phase of legislative hearings. Valley News points out that the hearings may backfire for the gay marriage opponents.


In an extraordinary six-hour legislative hearing reminiscent of the ones that eventually led Vermont to bless civil unions, more than 100 people testified about the proposal. While a number came to argue against same-sex unions, the majority came to support them.

This was no abstract public policy debate. Many of those who spoke did so from deep personal experience and belief. The most powerful messages came from courageous teenagers, who stood before the crowd and told of their deepest fears and fondest hopes.

Rigel Cable, a 17-year-old Hartford High senior, spoke of growing up near the leafy expanse of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish and of his dreams to one day be married there. If the amendment passed, that dream might die.

“To be told that I cannot marry in the place where I have spent so many years is very saddening,” said the teen. “It makes me feel as though my own hometown is rejecting me.”


What I found interesting about this passage is the teen's view of marriage as a way he hopes to participate in his local community--in contrast to the image often portrayed of a separate and insular 'gay community'.

There may well be a certain fraction of gay Americans who do think of themselves that way, but the desire for gay marriage seems to be more often conceived of as striving for normalcy than it is as a fundamental challenge to society in the minds of its proponents.

Gay Marriage Hearings in NH

In neighboring New Hampshire, the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage has reached the phase of legislative hearings. Valley News points out that the hearings may backfire for the gay marriage opponents.


In an extraordinary six-hour legislative hearing reminiscent of the ones that eventually led Vermont to bless civil unions, more than 100 people testified about the proposal. While a number came to argue against same-sex unions, the majority came to support them.

This was no abstract public policy debate. Many of those who spoke did so from deep personal experience and belief. The most powerful messages came from courageous teenagers, who stood before the crowd and told of their deepest fears and fondest hopes.

Rigel Cable, a 17-year-old Hartford High senior, spoke of growing up near the leafy expanse of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish and of his dreams to one day be married there. If the amendment passed, that dream might die.

“To be told that I cannot marry in the place where I have spent so many years is very saddening,” said the teen. “It makes me feel as though my own hometown is rejecting me.”


What I found interesting about this passage is the teen's view of marriage as a way he hopes to participate in his local community--in contrast to the image often portrayed of a separate and insular 'gay community'.

There may well be a certain fraction of gay Americans who do think of themselves that way, but the desire for gay marriage seems to be more often conceived of as striving for normalcy than it is as a fundamental challenge to society in the minds of its proponents.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Low Fat Diet

JAMA has a well-publicized article this week on results from the Women's Health Initiative showing to benefit from low fat diets in terms of cancer or cardiovascular risk.

A few caveats--it is only 7 years of followup, which might be too short to see a difference, compliance is unclear, and we already knew that total fat doesn't matter, it's saturated fat.

But let me just harp again on the silliness we have of thinking that tweeking our diet in certain ways affects our health. We can sum up what we know about nutrition as Marion Nestle does:

1. Eat less calories.
2. Eat more vegetables.
3. Move more.

Any advice more specific than that should come from your doctor.

Understanding the Enemy

While my last post was a meditation on preventing emotionally charged issues from turning oneself into a partisan in spirit, this one focuses on the way to think about an enemy one means to defeat, i.e. militant Islamism.

Yesterday on NPR a former Army officer (I'm afraid I didn't catch his name) made a distinction I think is useful to think about--he said that we need to really understand our enemies, not just explain them away.

That is to say, that to predict the enemy's actions and take effective countermeasures, we need to understand him on his own terms, rather than applying our own meanings to his actions in a facile way.

But how can we know whether a given proposition about the Islamists is real understanding or just expaining them away?

One measure might be to see whether the proposition leaves one feeling superior in some sense; if so, it is likely 'explaining away'. For example, a conservative might interpret a protest against American occupation as opposition to freedom, and that certainly places the interpreter on the right side of history. Or a liberal might interpret suicide bombers as the result of imperialist policies oppressing the colonized class, again casting the observer as an anti-imperialist whistleblower. This criterion cannot by itself prove a proposition wrong, but if it is met on honest introspection, one should take it as a red flag that the idea/opinion ought to be examined more closely.

I would also worry that a proposition about the enemy is not rooted in true understanding if the enemy himself would not agree with it. For instance, if you asked an al Qaeda member if he is against freedom, or against the moral decadence fostered by Western secular materialism, I'd guess he'd answer the latter. Defining him as an anti-freedom fighter as Bush has done plays well at home, but might lead us to make statements and adopt policies that don't actually serve our goal. In this example, for instance, we might make more headway on our hearts-and-minds campaign if we focus on answering the charge that freedom leads to decadence, rather than touting the idea that freedom is pleasurable.

I welcome other ideas on what pitfalls of 'explaining away' the enemy might be.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

We are all Danes now...

Writes Jeff Jacoby in Boston Globe:


Freedom of the press, the marketplace of ideas, the right to skewer sacred cows: Militant Islam knows none of this. And if the jihadis get their way, it will be swept aside everywhere by the censorship and intolerance of sharia.

Here and there, some brave Muslim voices have cried out against the book-burners. The Jordanian newspaper Shihan published three of the cartoons. ''Muslims of the world, be reasonable," implored Shihan's editor, Jihad al-Momani, in an editorial. ''What brings more prejudice against Islam -- these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras?" But within hours Momani was out of a job, fired by the paper's owners after the Jordanian government threatened legal action.

He wasn't the only editor sacked last week. In Paris, Jacques LeFranc of the daily France Soir was also fired after running the Mohammed cartoons. The paper's owner, an Egyptian Copt named Raymond Lakah, issued a craven and Orwellian statement offering LeFranc's head as a gesture of ''respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual." But the France Soir staff defended their decision to publish the drawings in a stalwart editorial. ''The best way to fight against censorship is to prevent censorship from happening," they wrote. ''A fundamental principle guaranteeing democracy and secular society is under threat. To say nothing is to retreat."


Like most Americans, I feel very strongly about maintaining freedom of the press and am deeply critical of efforts to silence political discourse. This cartoon flap has enormous geopolitical implications, and it is worth thinking hard about how to make sense of it.

My own first reaction, is to take sides. I agree with the Danes, so I guess that puts me on their side. But what does that mean? That I will support the Danish government in some way? the Danish newspapers? The cartoonists themselves? Or does it mean that I will support the US government in offering diplomatic or military aid? In point of fact, really all I have the power to do for the Danes is to root for them, and offer moral support on a blog.

And why is it that I took the Danes' side and not the Islamists? Do I not find disrespect for religious sensibilities distasteful? Surely I do, and would find any desecration to fall on the spectrum between an act of impoliteness at best and hateful bigotry at worst. So while not completely unsympathetic to the Islamists, I find myself valuing free speech over blasphemy-avoidance, because of the consequences to democracy if the press is so constrained. It is conceivable to me however that a reasonable person might feel the other way.

So is this taking of sides all that useful? Here is the crux. Holding a strongly valued political opinion allows one to be a vigorous voice in the democratic debate, but taking sides based on cultural affinity, personal allegiance (to a political leader) or ideological concordance is the slippery slope to authoritarianism--and is the root of organized violence.

So I take the side of freedom of press, vigilant to avoid the temptation to use each flash of threat to cherished Western values as a focal point to divide the 'us' from the 'them', but rather as a reminder that our broadest goal is to expand and protect the circle of 'us'--sometimes with a carrot, sometimes with a stick--both in the international community, and in the way each of us thinks about how our culture is situated in the world.