Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Friday Night Fights. Or Thursday.

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I have one of those schedules this term that could only have come about if I was paying no attention when I set it up–or when I let other people set it up for me, which is closer to the reality.   Whoever is to blame, I have ended up with a situation where I come in before eight in the morning on Thursdays, teach and office hour and do other things of supposed academic importance until nine o’clock at night, get home around ten, get to bed around midnight, get up around four, and then teach another class at eight o’clock Friday morning.

Then an odd thing happens–I have all the rest of the day after 9:30 in the morning free.   I do have to teach again on Friday afternoon–yeah, yeah, I wasn’t paying attention–but the rest of Friday is open. 

And, of course, what I normally do on Fridays after teaching is to sit down with a book, determined to get some serious reading done.  And then I fall asleep.

I didn’t quite do that today, because I’ve found myself caught in one of those weird whiplash things where a part of your life that you truly thought you were over and done with suddenly comes out of the atmosphere and hits me on the head.

One of the first things I ever did on the Internet was to join an e-mail discussion group called Sechum-L, run then by the Council for Secular Humanism.   I’m not going through the intricacies about how this discussion list morphed over the next ten years or so.  Let’s just say the sponsorship changed, the list blew up a few times, and I don’t know what else happened.

I do know that in the end I left.  And I left for a reason–because I had gotten completely sick of the everlasting tendentiousness of what I have heard other people call “atheist fundamentalism.”   I am not sure it is intellectually coherent to use “fundamentalistm” in that way, but I do know what people mean when they use that particular term.

A good example of it is Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great:  How Religion Ruins Everything.  In that book, a man who is usually among the most coherent on earth says so many things that are completely and utterly idiotic, it’s like he took idiot pills every day before he sat down in front of the typewriter.

I want to make it a point, here, that everybody on Sechum-L was not an atheist fundamentalist.  In fact, I met quite a few of my Internet acquaintances there, and some of them post to this blog now and then.

The problem is that getting started with an atheist fundamentalist is like getting started with any other kind of fundamentalist.  What seems on the surface to be an argument is really a psychodrama.  Fundamentalists (of all stripes) are like people who deeply and viscerally hate one of their parents, and who are determined to grow up to be nothing like them.

If the pain and anger are deep enough, then the urge is to deny that the hated parent had anything at all to do with your being who you are today–nope, nothing, everything the parent was was bad, and everything you are you made on your own, with no help from that.

The problem, of course, is that it won’t work.   If your grandfather was a convicted pedophile child rapist, and you are (to your credit) not, the fact remains that you could not be who you are today if he hadn’t been who he was first.  That is the way that works.  His genes have been in part passed down to you.  You are who you are because he was who he was.

Atheist fundamentalists have the same kind of problem with Western Civilization, because Western Civilization was, for over 1500 years, largely both religiously and culturally Christian. 

A great many ideas that we take for granted as “our values” were discovered or developed by Christian thinkers, who based their evolution of those ideas on Christian principles.

This is the kind of thing I tend to think ought to be obvious to anybody who has ever picked up a Freshman Civ textbook, but I have learned over time it is not true.

Most people have no idea where “their values” came from, or how they evolved, or on what principles they are based.  And atheist fundamentalists are like Christian fundamentalists in that neither wants to know.   As long as they don’t know, they can go on declaring that none of THEIR values has ever had anything to do with that other, yucky side.

The pit I fell into–only for a moment, I promise, I am not going to get sucked into this–started innocently enough.  I still hear from a number of the people from when I was on the list, and one of them is this guy Phil, who for some reason always writes to an old e-mail address that I keep but haven’t used for years.

An e-mail appeared on that address yesterday that said it was from Phil, and when I opened it contained seemed to contain a forwarded message from the Sechum-L list.  Thinking I was responding directly to Phil, I sent back an e-mail that said “I didn’t known Sechum existed any more.”

Well, it turned out that Sechum did exist, and it was sending e-mails to this old address–but I hadn’t noticed them, because there were nearly none.   The list had exploded, and was now nearly defunct–but the operative word was “nearly.” 

And I had just sent back an e-mail to the list.

Now, that’s a far as it needs to have gone, except that I’m me, and I can’t help myself.  And the next item that came across the bow was an e-mail by a poster I don’t know about a course on war giving by the US Military which had been shut down after complaints from nonreligious servicepeople that it was using religious materials, including work from Augustine and Aquinas on Just War Theory.

I did pay some attention to this at the time it first came out, but not a lot.  I did ask some people in my family who are in various branches of the service what it was all about, and I was told that the course tried to cover the history of the way we have thought about war, and included people like Clauswitz and Sun Tsu as well as the Augustine and Aquinas thing.

So when the next e-mail on that account was a little rant about how the military was trying to force “religious dogma” down servicepeople’s throats–I just exploded.

What I said was, again, the kind of thing I would have thought unexceptionable in the years before I found the web.  The history of Western Civilization is, for better or worse, largely Christian over the single largest expanse of its history.   To say “government entities” cannot teach the intellectual and artistic history of that period of time is to say that no government-funded form of education, for the military or for your local public schools, can ever be first rate.  Stopping a “government entity” teaching about these things does not secure or enhance anybody’s rights, not does it advance any cause any sane person would want to be part of.

Then I said that I would not bother them any more with any of this, and that I was going back to real life.

I got a response from the original poster to the effect that I just wanted to hold to my ignorance and aggitate–so that obviously I must be a “tea bagger.”   This is not the kind of thing I find difficult to ignore, as I tend to think that people who resort to that sort of language are, you know, adolescents.

What got to me was a post that came in a few hours later, from a poster I had known when I was on the List, to the effect that it was too bad that we had to be saddled with all that stuff, and it was probably nice to know the history, but what we really needed now was to ditch that and concentrate on teaching our military leaders and others real and valid forms of reasoning.

And I just sat there.

Some of you on this blog get angry with me about the way I want to see education run.  You tell me I’m only interested in education for trust fund babies,  or that I’m being irrelevant, or some kind of elitist, or something.

But there–right there, in that post–is why I want everybody I can get my hands on to get a complete classical and liberal education.

Because I literally, and I do mean literally, do not know what to do with a statement like that.

For what it’s worth–Just War Theory is, first, not “dogma” for anybody.  It was an attempt by writers over time to reconcile the idea of war with the basic Christian message, which isn’t easy to do.

It began first with the idea that not all wars were just, and not all wars were therefore allowable under Christian morality–some wars, in other words, were evil, and therefore sin.

That in and of itself was a step in the right direction, especially coming out of the sack of Rome and the long period (leading up to Aquinas) of wars whose only justification was rape, plunder and conquest. 

Just war theory went beyond that, however, to posit that soldiers, in order not to sin while conducting war, had responsibilities in their relations with noncombatants and each other.  These included things like NOT raping the local women, and keeping prisoners and captives adequately fed and housed and not under painful physical duress.

The line from there to the Geneva Conventions is a long run that winds through Kant and Hegel and Liebnitz and a lot of other thinkers who would have defined themselves as at least basically secular–but it is a line.

We are the people who invented those particular rules for war because we are the people who had Just War Theory in our intellectual history.

And Just War Theory is in our intellectual history because Christianity is in our intellectual history, because Christian thinkers through the middle ages assumed it was a fact given to us by God that every single human being, rich or poor, smart or stupid, male or female, Christian or not, was a temple of the Holy Ghost whom we were bound to treat as “another Christ”–that is, whom we were bound to treat as well as we would treat Christ if we met him on the road.

I do not want everybody who can to have a classical and liberal education because I’m some kind of elitist snob who doesn’t really consider the fact that some people need to make a living.

I want it because to leave the fate of the Geneva conventions–or freedom of religion; or the acts of corporal charity–to people who know as little as this is about as safe as giving a paranoid schizophrenic a suitcase nuke and letting him loose in Times Square.

In the meantime, I am trying to be good.  I am trying to remind myself that this is the same man who refused to speak to me for two weeks after I said that even if there was a worldwide environmental crisis, “cleaning it up” was only one possible choice of what to do about it–and the man who, having finally been convinced that universities were enforcing draconian speech codes, refused to talk about them, period, because he just wasn’t going to deal with that.

If I can stay off the other e-mail address, I should be fine.

Written by janeh

September 9th, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

19 Responses to 'Friday Night Fights. Or Thursday.'

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  1. My trusty Webster’s New Collegiate gives as the second meaning of fundamentalism “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles” and defines fundamentalist as “an adherent of fundamentalism.” I think “atheist fundamentalists” are well within those definitions.

    You argue with fundamentalists of any stripe at the peril of your own lost time and temper. But you would get less argument over the value of a classical and liberal education if

    (1) you consistently made clear that you were not simply promoting everything not career-related, but a specific course of study, or at least certain core studies. If a “political science” degree from an Ivy League school or a Philosophy degree with no background in science or history isn’t what you have in mind, you need to say so every time, because that sort of thing is the first thing a lot of us think of when we hear “liberal arts.” It doesn’t help matters that in addition to atheist fundamentalists, there are liberal (American usage–I will NOT call them “progressive”) fundamentalists. A liberal education (your usage) is the last thing they wish to promote, and they run most of the places you want to send young people to get one.

    (2) If the holders of such degrees could be disabused of the belief that a good grounding in various political and philsophical theories spares them from the need to learn facts of any sort–economic, political, or scientific, say–and fits them to command at any level. The saying that “you can always tell a Harvard man–but you cannot tell him much” is so old the school really did offer a liberal education at the time–but too many graduates regarded it as an end and not a beginning.

    And (3) you consistently emphasized that even people with good liberal arts educations are expected to earn their bread, and not simply think beautiful thought while being supported by the peasantry. You do say this, but only about one time in ten.

    For myself, I agree: everyone, for the sake of citizenship should at least have a basic grounding in history science and econmics, including intellectual history. I’d also like to see every schoolchild at least exposed enough to the arts to know that there are choices beyond gangsta rap, slasher movies and first person shooter games.

    But I would hate for it to end there. Socrates did not find being a stonemason a hindrance to being a philosopher, and more signers of the Declaration of Independence were farmers or foundrymen than lawyers. Engagement with an intractable physical reality is a tradition we could afford to renew.


    9 Sep 11 at 8:04 pm

  2. In my day, mid-fifties, here in Australia, much of what Jane is talking about was routinely offered, albeit to no great depth, in high school history curricula, and Latin was a core subject for at least three high school years, as was Greek in the “better” schools. One had to be as thick as two bricks to avoid learning something about the Just War theory, particularly that close to the atrocities of WWII and the then still current Korean War.

    And then, tragically, the Relevance Virus took hold, and education fell into the hands of fundamentalist zealots.


    9 Sep 11 at 8:27 pm

  3. “Atheist fundamentalism” is probably a better expression than my “Church of Militant Atheism” but I suspect they are the same thing.

    I do get tired of liberals saying the US is not a Christian country and ignoring the historical evidence that the ideas of equality and human rights come from Christianity.

    Robert, I’m amusing myself in my retirement by pretending I’m teaching special relativity to liberal arts students using only algebra, It isn’t easy! Teaching any meaningful science to English or History majors etc is very difficult.


    9 Sep 11 at 10:22 pm

  4. “Teaching any meaningful science to English or History majors etc is very difficult.”

    Just as teaching ethics, logic, or even statistics, to soi-disant “climate scientists” seems nigh on impossible.


    10 Sep 11 at 5:07 am

  5. Have my fellow History majors fallen so far? JD, keep up the good work: every Poly Sci and Philosophy major who can be brought to understand that some things are not maters of opinion is a step forward.


    10 Sep 11 at 7:21 am

  6. Robert, I remember the first time I asked a more radical friend why everything was ‘progressive’. I must have been in my late teens. I said didn’t that rather assume that all its policies would, if implemented, result in improvements? Of course, she said. Even then, I had my doubts about any group so uniformly certain of their ends.

    Oh, well, I’m out of step with the times.

    There are people you just can’t argue, or even discuss things with. And it’s not always because they are atheist or religious or vote NDP or Conservative. It’s more a personality thing, I think. Or perhaps the way they were raised and educated. I wish I could get through some people’s heads that (a) Stating a position in vivid language does not make it true or even, sometimes, vaguely plausible and (b) My personality, rearing, education etc means that my mind tends to turn off when presented with emotion-laden rants.

    Have any Americans heard this story about how the US government is planning to collect vast sums in back taxes and fines from US citizens abroad, using their own definition of who counts as ‘American’ so it would include people like me and certain of my relatives who either took out another citizenship in the days when that was a sure way to lose any claim to US citizenship, or never claimed US citizenship at all but happened to have an American parent although born, raised and now living outside the US?

    It sounds like lunacy to me, especially as some of the people who’ve reported it to me also think that the CIA is monitoring the google searches of foreigners (or perhaps alleged Americans living in foreign countries) who are about as apolitical as you can get and who have no connection to any of the usual terror suspects.

    Oh, well. It’s been a crazy few weeks, but things are improving, and although I have a persistent feeling that another shoe is about to drop and complicate my life still further, I doubt it’s going to be the IRS on my doorstep. And more importantly, Revenue Canada is happy with my tax returns. More so than I am, actually.


    10 Sep 11 at 7:59 am

  7. I’ve just finished Mark Steyn’s latest, “After America”. I’d like to think he was exaggerating, and that it was just another right wing rant as his critics will no doubt assert. But he marshals his arguments and supporting evidence very well and, besides, he won me when he scratched my anti-elitist biasses beautifully.

    His description of the usual suspects as “the Condescendi” was simply sublime!


    10 Sep 11 at 9:47 am

  8. Cheryl, I don’t think even the IRS could do anything under current law. You pay income tax where you’re paid the money–or, in some cases, where you live. They could redefine “US citizen” to their hearts’ content, but if someone both lives and works abroad, the IRS has no claim.

    That said, I do remember a research paper from my graduate school days on the finances of the City of Philadelphia. When you looked at them over a span of decades, the striking thing was the continual shifting of the tax burden to people who couldn’t vote in Philadelphia elections. (Federal grants are only the latest step in this process.)

    It might be worth pointing out to US elected officials that if you’re a US citizen you can vote in US elections, and that you’ll be voting out anyone who proposes such a law.


    10 Sep 11 at 10:08 am

  9. Actually, having lived and worked abroad, and had a husband who did the same–US citizens are indeed required to file and pay income taxes on the money they earn while living outside the US, whether that income is US-based or earned entirely in the foreign country.

    There is an exclusion amount–it was $70,000 in 1994–but any money above that is taxable by the US.

    You do get to take your foreign taxes as a deduction.


    10 Sep 11 at 10:11 am

  10. The IRS thing ought to be interesting, trying to broaden who owes American taxes at the same time some legislators are making noises about restricting who is defined as an American citizen, perhaps even eliminating those whose parents are not citizens, even if they’re born here.

    Talk about yer taxation without representation!

    Sometimes the stupid is so thick on the ground you can’t imagine what’s going to happen tomorrow.


    10 Sep 11 at 1:47 pm

  11. Robert, to clarify, I am not actually teaching. I’m reading a modern textbook on classical mechanics for my own intellectual pleasure. The chapter on relativity is hard going. I find it helps if I mentally imagine myself explaining it to students with no science background and no math beyond basic algebra.

    re taxes. I moved to Australia in 1971 and became an Australian citizen in 1985. While I remained a US citizen, the IRS would send me a thick airmail package of forms and instructions each year. I’d dutifully fill out the forms, deduct my Australian income tax, and report via sea mail that I owed nothing in US taxes. It gave me great pleasure to know that it cost the US gov’t $2 to find out I owed nothing!

    When I changed citizenship, I had to sign a form renouncing my US citizenship. That was a US government form and required by an agreement between the Australian and US governments. I have since heard that the US Supreme Court has held that requirement unconstitutional and that I can apply to get my US citizenship back. I’m not going to bother.


    10 Sep 11 at 2:08 pm

  12. My error, obviously. Best I can say in my own defense was that my sources ought to have known.

    Citizenship does get dicey on the margins. During WWII, Germany having reclaimed Alsace, the young men of Alsace were conscripted into the German forces–commonly the Waffen SS. At the conclusion of the war, France having reclaimed Alsace, the survivors were told they hadn’t performed their French military service, which was now required of them.

    Both Brazil and Mexico have small communities descended from US emmigrants–most but not all ex-Confederates–but that doesn’t even get them immigration priority, while the Japanese are happy to have “their” Brazilians, and anyone of German descent still has a legal claim on German citizenship.

    I felt the Supremes were unreasonable on dual citizenship, by the way. Surely one full set of laws and loyalties is enough and sometimes a surplus?


    10 Sep 11 at 2:51 pm

  13. As an atheist, I am just as annoyed by fanatical atheists (call them fundamentalist, militant, or whatever) as by fanatical Christians. Maybe more so, because the rantings of people like Hitchens get a lot of airplay and generate a lot of hostility toward atheists and atheism. The non-existence of God is not a surrogate religion for me, it’s just a fact of life like gravity, government corruption, and the conservation of mass-energy.

    The extent to which a few people want to deny any historical influence – at least any positive influence – of religion is as demented as those revisionists who think that Crispus Attucks was the real hero of the American Revolution or that all the great accomplishments in history were done by women (men just stole the credit).

    These people are only to happy, however, to give men/whites/religion credit for any and all crimes and social ills. Religion, they say, is the main motivator for all sorts of cruelty – war, pogroms, slavery, whatever – but whenever someone gives religion as their motive for charity, tolerance, or mercy, why, that’s just an illusion, they would have done it anyway.


    10 Sep 11 at 4:48 pm

  14. That US citizens living abroad were expected to pay US taxes (or at least file a return), that much I knew since my father was an American citizen living outside the US. That the US has changed it’s views on dual citizenship, I’d heard. That they can claim taxes from people living as foreign citizens in a foreign country on the grounds that the latest US laws on citizenship makes them American for the purposes of tax collection, I doubt.

    Citizenship can get incredibly complicated. Quite a few years ago, Canada reformed ours, incidentally changing some of the rules that had made my own situation rather complicated. But they didn’t get quite everyone. There were still a few groups of people who didn’t quite fit the rules – I think they were very elderly war brides (most of whom were covered, but some not for various arcane reasons) and the a few people who had lived in the country since infancy but didn’t quite qualify for citizenship and didn’t know it until they applied for a passport.

    I once knew someone who got on a flight to the UK with a dubious medical certificate saying she was able to fly in spite of her advanced pregnancy because although her parents were UK citizens, she’d been born abroad, and both she and her husband (who was not a UK citizen) were currently living in a country of which neither of them were citizens, and it just seemed to simplify matters a lot if the child had UK citizenship by birth as well as by ancestry. The parents hadn’t really thought out all the citizenship ramifications earlier in the pregnancy, hence the hasty trip.


    10 Sep 11 at 6:49 pm

  15. “That they can claim taxes from people living as foreign citizens in a foreign country on the grounds that the latest US laws on citizenship makes them American for the purposes of tax collection, I doubt.”

    In my case, the only way they could collect would be to send me the forms and I’d just throw the forms out! I have no assets in the US so what could they do?


    10 Sep 11 at 7:56 pm

  16. Citizenship is very complicated these days, since dual citizenship is all the rage. Of my five grandchildren, only one is Australian-born. Three were born in the UK, one in Hong Kong and the last in Australia. All the ‘foreigners’ were registered as Australian citizens at the relevant embassy/high commission, but all, including the Hong Kong and Australian born kids, have dual British-Australian citizenship, something that will, I hope, continue to be more advantageous than not. Somehow I doubt that our young Chinese-born boy will want, or be granted, Chinese citizenship even if they do come to rule the world as seems likely to happen within his lifetime.

    Australia has some weird citizenship loopholes. For example, there have been a number of recent cases where habitual criminals in their 40s have been deported despite having spent almost their entire lives, and certainly all their formative years, in Australia. They made the serious mistake of not formally taking out Australian citizenship as soon as they became eligible to do so.

    One guy was deported from summery Australia to the depths of a fierce European winter to somewhere in the Balkans whence his family had originated. He couldn’t speak or understand a word of the language, had no financial resources or marketable skills, and had been living hard literally on the streets for months when a local campaign by human rights activists forced the Australian government to revoke its earlier deportation decision. It wasn’t that this bloke was a Mafioso or stone cold killer. He was a basically just a petty thief, more of a nuisance than anything else, and I couldn’t get past the idea that whatever he was – nuisance or otherwise, he was _our_ nuisance because he had spent all but a year or two of his life in Australia.

    Politicians and bureaucrats are the same the whole world over. As Lymaree says, the stupid is thick on the ground.


    10 Sep 11 at 8:33 pm

  17. Canada does the same thing, Mique, and I don’t have much problem with it. Less, certainly, than stripping citizenship from elderly people who, whatever the allegations against them elsewhere, have been living blameless lives in Canada for decades. Extradite accused criminals of any age, sure, there are procedures for that. But take away their citizenship when they’ve been good citizens for decades? I don’t agree.

    Various countries – usually in the Caribbean – tend to take your point of view about Canada sending whatever they’re calling landed immigrants these days back to their country of origin because of their criminal activity.

    Some of them seem to find it remarkably easy to either elude the deportation or return illegally, so maybe it’s a moot point.


    11 Sep 11 at 5:58 am

  18. Deportation is tricky. Last I heard, the US prison system contained some outright villains who had served their time, but whose homelands wouldn’t to agree to accept them. On the other hand, for a long time it was standard practice to tell someone we only had on illegal immigration charges that he would be deported–and then to release him pending appeal. Not a lot of those showed up for the next hearing.

    But the fuss sometimes works the other way. There was a recent execution in Texas of a stone cold rapist and killerwho’d been in the US since age 3. The Mexican government is still complaining that when he was arrested we didn’t contact their embassy.

    The Mexicans can suit themselves, but there are certain Americans I’d just as soon not claim as countrymen.

    Query: where does a dual Australian-UK citizen working in, say, Kenya, file a tax return?


    11 Sep 11 at 6:59 am

  19. “Query: where does a dual Australian-UK citizen working in, say, Kenya, file a tax return?”

    As far as I know, the Australian Taxation Office does not require a tax return from an Australian citizen (dual or otherwise) working overseas who has not lived in Australia, or received any income from Australia, for a certain period of time. Not sure how long, but neither of our sons, who spent many years working overseas (UK and Hong Kong) were required to submit tax returns in Australia when their sole income was from their overseas earnings.


    11 Sep 11 at 8:28 am

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