Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Intellectual honesty is a rapidly disappearing commodity ...

... especially in academia.

I'm not going to take on the often-cited factoid that liberal thought controls our colleges and universities (because the reality is much more complicated than that).

But I do want to talk about the fact that the regrettable tendency of politicians to lampoon their opponents' views has thoroughly infected the scholarly world. On one level I'm not upset about that; students in higher education should understand that they are in marketplace of ideas, and that a large part of their training is to develop a well-honed bullshit detector.

Yet it is intellectually dishonest to slide your ideological material--without notice--into basic survey texts upon which people depend for foundational information, or to do so by uneven selection of documents and slanted editing.

Here are two examples.

The first comes from the two-volume American History survey text, Give Me Liberty, by renowned historian Eric Foner. Foner is at once (a) the premiere American historian of race and reconstruction during the period 1830-1877, and (b) a far left social activist. In his work on race and reconstruction, he acts as any historian should: he builds and tests theses, presents evidence, and deals honestly with counter-arguments against his conclusions.

His survey text is, unfortunately, another matter. There Foner has taken all of his personal interpretive lenses and written an American history narrative as if they were all true rather than merely his personal philosophical opinions.

This is the (lengthy) rough-draft segment of a History 201 online course I am putting together, that helps students learn how to read critically. It suffers a bit from being excerpted, but even so:

Religion? Important topic for our author, and it’s worth looking carefully at what he says about “Indian religion” at the bottom of pages 12-13:

“Their lives were steeped in religious ceremonies often directly related to farming and hunting. Spiritual power, they believes, suffused the world, and sacred spirits could be found in all kinds of living and inanimate things—animals, plants, trees, water, and wind. Through religious ceremonies, they aimed to harness the aid of powerful supernatural forces to serve the interests of man. In some tribes, hunters performed rituals to placate the spirits of animals they had killed. Other religious ceremonies sought to engage the spiritual power of nature to secure abundant crops or fend off evil spirits. Indian villages also held elaborate religious rites, participation in which helped to define boundaries of community membership. In all Indian societies, those who seemed to possess special abilities to invoke supernatural powers—shamans, medicine men, and other religious leaders—held positions of respect and authority.”

First thought: ah, those quaint, simply spiritual Indians!

Second thought: this paragraph actually includes Foner’s definition of ALL religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and etc.

Check it out: “Through religious ceremonies, they aimed to harness the aid of powerful supernatural forces to serve the interests of man…. Elaborate religious rites, participation in which helped to define boundaries of community membership…. Those who seemed to possess special abilities to invoke supernatural powers…religious leader—held positions of respect and authority.”

So here’s religion as far as Foner is concerned:

1. Belief in the supernatural (God counts as belief in the supernatural, doesn’t She?)
2. Attempting to get the supernatural to do what you want (we’d call it prayer)
3. Religious practice defines community boundaries (why Catholics hated Protestants)
4. Those who “seemed” in contact with the supernatural (divine) “held positions of respect and authority” based on that (to Foner) incorrect claim.

Something you need to realize up front: our author does not see religion—any religion—as a positive social force, nor does he believe in any religion. He would (and will) describe Western faiths in much the same language—unsubstantiated belief in the supernatural.

Now I don’t personally care whether you are a shamanist, Christian, Muslim, Rastafarian, agnostic, or atheist. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Whether my neighbor believes in one god or twenty gods neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket.”

BUT you usually expect your textbook author to be objective and neutral about such issues, despite his own beliefs. Actually, if you expect that, it only proves that you haven’t been reading your textbooks all too closely. Authors ALWAYS try subtly to influence your beliefs, just like professors.

Which makes it absolutely critical that you understand that belief in the supernatural (which ranks belief in Jesus or Moses alongside throwing salt over your shoulder for good luck or praying to trees) is to Foner ALWAYS irrational and ALWAYS an incorrect way to view the universe. That’s going to affect the way he tells his story just as much as if he were a devout Buddhist or an Evangelical Christian.

In fact, given that Foner’s big theme in this book (and in virtually all of his work as an historian) is the development of human freedom, it is important to know RIGHT UP FRONT that he sees organized religion as one of the BIGGEST IMPEDIMENTS to human freedom throughout history.

He might be right. And if he is, we should examine that. But what bugs me is that he’s not intellectually honest about it: he’s trying to slip it by you here.

One final point before we leave religion: technically what the Indians did was not practice organized religion in the sense that we think of the term in the modern world, or even in the sense that Europeans thought of it in 1500-1800. This is very important. The Europeans came in with a few competing variations of the same general faith (Christianity—Protestant or Catholic), and a belief in a UNIVERSAL church.

Universal or evangelical religions—of which Christianity and Islam are the two best examples—see themselves as having the mission to convert everyone else to their exclusive way of worship. And when they convert you, you’re supposed to drop everything you previously believed. In reality it never works out that neatly (how many Christians still, secretly, don’t want a black cat to cross their path or will avoid walking under a ladder to escape bad luck?). But my point here is twofold:

1. Indian religions were in the tribal, animistic, shamanistic stage of development, which is quite different from that of large, organized religions.

2. Indian religions were not exclusive in the modern monotheistic sense (they really didn’t care what people believed in the next village, and while they would go to war over a beaver pond, they certainly wouldn’t kill anybody for believing in the wrong Great Spirit).

This would make them quite vulnerable to European missionaries.


OK, second example: Ronald Storie and Bruce Laurie, The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945-2000, A Brief History with Documents.

This is a reader of excerpted Conservative documents designed for a modern history or political science course. Neither of the editors appears to be a Conservative, which is not a problem, except ....

When you are dealing with someone else's political, philosophical, or ideological beliefs, you have a special obligation to take great care and be as accurate as possible in your presentation. That's why, in recent posts regarding Dave Burris, Dana Garrett, and Frank Knotts I have done my damndest NOT to distort their views before I took issue with them.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of Storie and Laurie.

First off, to any student reading the initial section of this book you will get the following individuals as the putative great grandfathers of the modern Conservative movement: Strom Thurmond, Joseph McCarthy, Douglas MacArthur, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Brent Bozell.

Thurmond, McCarthy, MacArthur, and Bozell belong in the clear reactionary section of American post-war politics, and have little or nothing to do with the intellectual underpinnings of the Conservative movement.

Friedman is a Libertarian who never really reconciled to the Libertarian/Social Conservative alliance, and whose influence (if you follow the editors' selections throughout the book) is minimal.

Buckley IS one of the founding fathers (or foreskins, Dana) of the Conservative movement, and Russell Kirk IS another of its major lights, but neither of the pieces selected is representative of their best or most influential work.

Likewise the selections in this part by Goldwater and Reagan are bland, misleading, and poorly chosen.

Then there's the editing. I have not read all of the documents, but the ones I have worked through are often chopped into nearly unintelligible fragments. Ronald Reagan's March 1983 Speech to the National Association of Evangelicals [find the complete text here] is ostensibly included to link Reagan with the Christian right. The version of the speech that students will get, however, has been sliced up to place all the religious references (and there weren't actually that many) end to end, omitting all the other material he spoke about.

Thus has Ronald Reagan, who really held evangelicals at something like arm's length, been dressed up in the same clothing as a modern Mike Huckabee, pandering to the religious right by promising to change the Constitution to make it consistent with the Bible.

The problem: that's neither an accurate portrayal of Reagan nor of the state of the Conservative movement in 1983.

The bigger problem: students have no way of knowing that.

This is a book that seems to have been designed to help liberal academics trash the Conservative movement by falsifying its history.

As such, I suspect, it will get wide use.

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