Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Levon Helm





RIP. These are probably my two favorite songs by The Band. Both clips are from Martin Scorsese's doc, The Last Waltz. Levon Helm was quite a talent.

(Side note: I played trumpet on a version of "The Weight" in high school.)

Eclectic Jukebox

Monday, April 23, 2012

National Poetry Month 2012

April is National Poetry Month. I'm a bit late posting about it, but as usual, I wanted to promote the wonderful Favorite Poem Project. If you participate, or post something else celebrating poetry this month, feel free to e-mail me your post or link it in the comments.

Art doesn't need to be political, but some good art is. Poet Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) died recently, and some of her best work had a political element. Democracy Now remembered Rich with her friends Alice Walker and Frances Goldin. The Nation featured five of her poems. Several obituaries mentioned her rejection of the National Medal of Arts during the Clinton administration. Rich wrote a memorable letter explaining her decision to Jane Alexander, who was head of the National Endowment for the Arts at the time:

July 3, 1997

Jane Alexander
The National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20506

Dear Jane Alexander,

I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.

Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright.

In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.

There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.

I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.

Sincerely,
Adrienne Rich
cc: President Clinton


I like several of Rich's poems, but I think my favorite is this one:

Diving Into the Wreck
By Adrienne Rich

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Monday, April 09, 2012

My God Can Beat Up Your God (Defining "Tolerance")


(This post is part of the annual Blog Against Theocracy. The twitter hatchtag is #AgainstTheocracy.)

Tolerance is a worthy value, but it's important to recognize that different religious traditions do not share the exact same beliefs (not even under different names), that atheism is not just another faith (as the saying goes, atheism is not a religion any more than "not collecting stamps" is a hobby), and that not everyone believes in, or practices, religious tolerance.

Occasionally, someone (almost always a conservative) will complain that someone else (normally a "liberal") is being 'intolerant of their intolerance.' (For instance, see Kirk Cameron's complaints that his religiously-based anti-gay views are not tolerated by "those who preach tolerance.") At first glance, such situations may seem to reveal a paradox or hypocrisy, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, it just ain't so.

Most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege." Typically, they do not recognize this, because they view their preferred power structure as the natural order. Theocrats and other religious authoritarians will raise a great hue and cry about their religious freedoms being violated. Most will honestly believe this, but they do not truly seek freedom of religion, which they already possess. What they seek is power and preferential status, the ability to impose their religious beliefs on others. Consequentially, to use a shorthand, it's important to recognize the difference between personal beliefs – for instance, an individual's specific religious beliefs or lack thereof, that affect that person – and system beliefs – beliefs about how our overall system should be organized, including whether religious faiths (as well as no faith) should be treated equally and neutrally, or whether a particular faith or faiths should be given precedence. These are not equivalent, and when we discuss "belief" and "tolerance," we must put them in context. Individual, personal beliefs that affect that person primarily are categorically different from shared, public policies that affect everyone. The First Amendment contains both an exercise clause and an establishment clause regarding religion; theocrats consistently ignore the latter (in fact, that's one of the defining characteristic of theocrats). While the law makes a number of accommodations for religious beliefs (and individual communities may make far more), as a rule religious beliefs do not trump the law; a murderer could not successfully argue that prosecuting him was a violation of his First Amendment rights because he belonged to the Cult of Kali. Understanding these distinctions is crucial.

The Local House of Worship

Back in December, I took a family member to a Christmas Eve service. This particular church is not really my crowd, but so what, as long as my family member likes it and is treated nicely by the congregation and church staff? One passage in the sermon really struck me, though (emphasis mine):

We live in a time when people demand that we assign equal value to all religious viewpoints. People bristle at the idea of just "one way to God." Tolerance is a wonderful virtue which we all need, but even tolerance must kneel at the cross of Jesus.

If you believe the New Testament story that God willingly sent his only son to be rejected, spit upon, trampled upon, maimed and mutilated, can you possibly believe that God would have sent his son to this if there had been any other way of salvation? Would you send your child away for such a fate, if it could possibly be avoided? No, to turn away from the cross and say I choose another way is really saying, "God, the sacrifice of your son wasn’t good enough for me. I want another option, I think I have a better alternative."

Is that tolerance, or is it pride?

Someone is very unclear on the concept of "tolerance."

Now, if there is any place where proselytizing is acceptable, clearly it is in a house of worship. Some congregations are more tolerant and inclusive than others, and this will appeal to some potential members. However, when on their own turf, obviously it's that congregation's right to proclaim that theirs is the best faith or the one true faith, that they're right and others are wrong, to cheerlead and trash talk, or even talk seriously about important theological differences. To quote an earlier post:

My assumption is that religious people think their religion is the best. If they grew up with the religion, they've probably heard that it's the best, or just naturally assumed it. Those that reflect on their religion as they grow older and stay with it come to some conclusion that their specific denomination is the best – or else they'd change it. Those that convert to a religion obviously think their new religion or denomination is the best, or else they wouldn't have chosen it. Some may choose to be part of a place of worship more for the community, or convert for a spouse, and may not subscribe to all of a religion's tenets nor that communities' practices. Still, generally speaking, it's not surprising if a religious person thinks his or her religion is the best, and/or the truest path.

At most churches, Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday are the most heavily attended services of the year. This makes sense given those events' centrality to Christian belief, and it would be surprising if a sermon did not touch if not dwell on the core stories of the faith.

All that said, the view expressed above is that we will "tolerate" other religious faiths, but they are inferior. That's not really tolerance; it's advocating social politeness (if we're being charitable). I was also struck by how that passage was delivered with a sense of indignation – 'how dare you reject this wonderful gift?' Technically, I suppose the "if" gives an out, but that was not the tone at all. The preacher was expressing anger at those who do not subscribe to his particular interpretation of Christianity. I want to make it very clear – if I or any individual voluntarily attends a worship service, and we hear something we deem offensive, the proper response is to either speak with the leadership afterwards (if one is a congregant) or not to attend again (more likely if one is a visitor, or "church shopping" or similar). The congregation has every right to say what it wants in its own space.

However, the rules change when it comes to debating public policy; anyone can still say anything, but their views are not given automatic deference just because of religion. To quote a recent post, "of course people of faith have a role in the public square, they just shouldn't have a privileged role. They can propose public policies, but they don't automatically get to have their way by citing their religion. They don't automatically get to win."

I don't really care if a particular house of worship thinks its religion is the best; I expect it. In a sense, I don't care if they don't practice religious tolerance while on their own turf (even if that may turn off some potential congregants). I do care, however, if they don't understand or respect that other people exist with different faiths who also feel their beliefs represent the one and true faith (and that some people reject religion altogether). I do care if, when they enter the public square, they don't understand how tolerance and the establishment clause of the First Amendment work. Such failures have very real, negative consequences.

The Pope and Ms. Lopez

Recently, Susan of Texas wrote a good post on authoritarianism, National Review editor Kathryn Jean Lopez and Lopez' praise for the Pope's supposed "defense and explanation of the essential nature of religious freedom." If you're not familiar with Lopez, she is an extremely conservative Catholic. According to a Guttmacher Institute study, "Among all women who have had sex, 99% have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same among Catholic women (98%)." Lopez opposes both abortion and birth control, putting her far to the right, even among women in her own faith. (Anyone who truly wants fewer abortions shouldn't also oppose birth control, but the agenda is social control.)

In any case, while in Cuba, the Pope gave a homily. Follow the link to read it in full, but much of it is proselytizing:

Convinced that it is Christ who is the true measure of man, and knowing that in him we find the strength needed to face every trial, I wish to proclaim openly that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. In him everyone will find complete freedom, the light to understand reality most deeply and to transform it by the renewing power of love.

The Church lives to make others sharers in the one thing she possesses, which is none other than Christ, our hope of glory (cf. Col 1:27).

I'm not offended that the Pope would proselytize; that's a huge part of his job. Nor am I surprised he thinks his religion is true and the best one. I'm more struck by his lack of diplomacy and lack of understanding of "freedom of religion" elsewhere in the homily (but not truly surprised, given Ratzinger's track record on this front). This paragraph is probably the least obnoxious and most inclusive:

The right to freedom of religion, both in its private and in its public dimension, manifests the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer. It also legitimizes the fact that believers have a contribution to make to the building up of society. Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, creates favourable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.

This is rah-rah for religion, and doesn't mention non-believers, but okay. The rest of the piece is more problematic in terms of "freedom of religion," as when he says:

Furthermore, the truth which stands above humanity is an unavoidable condition for attaining freedom, since in it we discover the foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person. This ethical patrimony can bring together different cultures, peoples and religions, authorities and citizens, citizens among themselves, and believers in Christ and non-believers.

Re-read that carefully. Ratzinger apparently believes you can't be truly free unless you're a Christian – and specifically, a conservative Catholic one. His view of religious tolerance is that everyone, including atheists and people who are religious but not Christian, should submit to the true faith, the Catholic Church. He's not just talking about being moral and leading by example, either. He both proselytizes and explicitly endorses proselytizing several times elsewhere in this piece. Again, it's not surprising, but this does confirm that he can be fairly viewed as a religious zealot (if an extremely prominent one) versus a person of tolerance. Religious zealots often seems terribly astounded that other people don't eagerly capitulate to their views and authority. This is not a good sales pitch to non-Catholics he hopes to win over. Ratzinger also says (emphasis mine):

When the Church upholds this human right, she is not claiming any special privileges for herself. She wishes only to be faithful to the command of her divine founder, conscious that, where Christ is present, we become more human and our humanity becomes authentic. This is why the Church seeks to give witness by her preaching and teaching, both in catechesis and in the schools and universities. It is greatly to be hoped that the moment will soon arrive when, here too, the Church can bring to the fields of knowledge the benefits of the mission which the Lord entrusted to her and which she can never neglect.

Of course he and the Church are claiming special privileges. It's not as if other faiths don't also feel they are serving a higher purpose, or for that matter, that many secular organizations don't feel the same. Members of the Catholic Church can preach all they want in their own churches and on street corners, and they can even be invited to schools and universities, but why should they be given automatic access? Furthermore, "special privileges" is precisely what American Catholic bishops have sought in trying to ban gay adoptions, and trying to ban insurance companies from providing women basic contraceptive coverage. What gives Catholic officials the right to interfere with legitimate medical decisions? Why should their beliefs be given precedence over those of their employees, and over the medical judgment of doctors? (Obviously, the contraception battles form a larger discussion, but likely you've caught some other pieces on it.)

Lopez herself ends with a laughable claim of religious persecution: "we ought to do our utmost to curtail our government’s eroding of our own first freedom." However, it's typical to hear such specious complaints from religious conservatives and authoritarians. More important is Lopez' selection of passages from the Pope (you can read her full post here). She could have just quoted the third paragraph she features about freedom of religion ("The right to freedom of religion..." quoted above). Instead, she says that the Pope offered a "self-consciously Christian statement — but one that highlighted why more than religious believers should care to insist on it..." and then Lopez quotes:

Convinced that it is Christ who is the true measure of man, and knowing that in him we find the strength needed to face every trial, I wish to proclaim openly that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. In him everyone will find complete freedom, the light to understand reality most deeply and to transform it by the renewing power of love.

The Church lives to make others sharers in the one thing she possesses, which is none other than Christ, our hope of glory...

Wow. More than religious believers should care to insist on it. Like her leader, the Pope, but even more blatantly, Lopez has just argued that atheists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and all other faiths should submit to her specific religion. Apparently to her, this constitutes "religious freedom." (As usual, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege.")

Now true, K-Lo is a chronically inept writer, so that may be a factor here. But she, like Ross Douthat, really does seem to think that everybody would be better off if they were Catholic and submitted to Catholic authority, and that, deep down, everybody else wants to (or should). Naturally they think their religion is the true one, the bestest ever, and all that. But despite being reasonably educated adults, presumably with some life experience, they still remain utterly flabbergasted by the prospect that other people might see things differently, and not eagerly want to subjugate themselves to K-Lo's own personal deity.

To be clear, once again I fully support the right of the Pope and Lopez to believe whatever they want in terms of religious faith, and proselytize to their hearts' content. However, it's important to note that they do not truly understand or practice religious tolerance, nor do they respect "freedom of religion" as it is commonly understood (certainly not in terms of the First Amendment, not that its approach is unique in the world).

Kirk Cameron

If you missed the Kirk Cameron story, here's a pretty good summary from the New York Daily News (emphasis mine):

Kirk Cameron, who has come under fire for calling homosexuality “unnatural,” says he’s the one who’s a victim of “hate speech.”

The 41-year-old “ Fireproof” actor has been on the defensive since igniting an uproar after saying same-sex marriage was “destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization” during an interview Friday with CNN’s Piers Morgan.

Though he became a break-out star on the 1980s sitcom “Growing Pains,” Cameron has since become an evangelical Christian who is vocal about his religious.

“I spoke as honestly as I could, but some people believe my responses were not loving toward those in the gay community,” he told ABC News in an emailed statement Tuesday. “That is not true. I can assuredly say that it’s my life’s mission to love all people.

“I should be able to express moral views on social issues, especially those that have been the underpinning of Western civilization for 2,000 years — without being slandered, accused of hate speech, and told from those who preach ‘tolerance’ that I need to either bend my beliefs to their moral standards or be silent when I’m in the public square.”

Cameron added that he has been encouraged by the support of gay friends...

“Saying that gay people are ‘detrimental to civilization’ might be ‘loving’ in Kirk Cameron’s mind, but it’s gay youth and victims of bullying who truly suffer from adults like Cameron who espouse these ideas,” said Herndon Graddick, GLAAD’s Senior Director of Programs and Communications...

“So many Americans, popular celebrities and Christian leaders have stood up and said his views are out of touch. The fundamental dignity of gay people should no longer be a debate in this country.

“Obviously, Cameron has the right to recite his anti-gay talking points, just like fair-minded Americans have the right to tell him that his views are harmful and have no place in modern America.”

John Aravosis had a similar reaction (echoed by many commentators):

First off, if you want to talk about 2,000 year old traditions that were supposedly rooted in the Bible, let's talk slavery. Should we have been tolerant of that, Kirk?

Second, speaking honestly doesn't preclude you from being a hateful bigot.

As for your right to free speech, what about our right to free speech? You have every right in America to be a bigot, and a loud spoken one at that. No one is taking that right away from you. But we have the right to call you on your bigotry.

As for your supposed gay friends who are supporting you in this, name one.

The slavery comparison is very apt, because Cameron isn't just expressing a personal belief that affects his own personal religious life; he's expressing a system belief about how society should be organized. He's seeking to impose a power dynamic and control other people's lives. His personal beliefs cannot override their personal beliefs without their consent. He is not automatically allowed to dictate to others how they should live. He can certainly state his opinion, and proselytize all he wants, but his claims of persecution reveal his ideological narcissism; he is discounting others' beliefs, and saying his trump theirs. He is not simply saying "I'm right and you're wrong," which is common enough in debates. That's to be expected. He's saying (even if he doesn't realize it) that gay people are lesser beings who do not deserve equal footing with him. When discussing "tolerance," power dynamics and the actual consequences of "beliefs," the system aspect, should not be ignored.

These discussions can play out something like this:

Tolerance Advocate: I believe we should all have equal rights.

Intolerant Person: No, you're a second-class citizen.

Tolerance Advocate: Go to hell.

Intolerant Person: Why are you so rude and intolerant?

Civility Troll: Yes, why are you so rude?

Cameron's First Amendment rights have not been violated. The government has not banned him from speaking, and he can practice his religion all he wants – up to the point when it conflicts with the law and public policy. For instance, it's legal to be a bigot in terms of thoughts and speech, but not legal to racially discriminate in hiring practices. Cameron's personal beliefs are unfettered, but his system beliefs about how the overall system should work, including his rude, intolerant notions about gays being second-class citizens, do not need to be given any respect. They can and should be challenged.

A System of Tolerance

It's worth taking a step back to consider the big picture on tolerance, as we've looked at before (in "The Social Tolerance Charts" and "The Religion-in-Society Charts," among other posts; I'll be using graphics from both of them here). Within the context of the law, a tolerant person says, "I will live my life the way I like, and you can live your life the way you like." An intolerant person will say, "I will live my life the way I like, but you must also live your life the way I want you to." These are not equivalent. It is absolutely essential to recognize this and point it out whenever this distinction is obscured (as it is often). Talking about different individual beliefs, and tolerance for them, is crucially different from discussions about the overall system and whether it is tolerant or not. Political discourse often ignores power dynamics, or assumes that a dominant culture is the norm. A tolerant system looks something like this:


(Click any graphics for a larger view. These aren't drawn to scale, naturally.) A tolerant system allows room for both the personally tolerant and the personally intolerant. Since there can be competing intolerant groups, we can further picture the system like this:


In contrast, what intolerant people want (this would include theocrats) is to set up a hierarchy with themselves at the top:


Needless to say, this is a lousy system for "everybody else."

Because freedom of religion means that the government is neutral when it comes to matters of faith and no faith at all, America has something like this, with the religious, non-religious and anti-religious all equal when it comes to the law:


If we want to contrast a religiously tolerant society with a theocratic one, it would look something like this:


Finally, since I do know nice religious folks who feel a bit persecuted, I offer this slightly exaggerated and tongue-in-cheek graphic:


Change the terms slightly if you wish. (This version substitutes "authoritarian" for theocrat[ic].) "Liberal" is, as noted, liberal in the Enlightenment sense, which would include tolerant small "c" conservatives and the like, anyone who is committed in general to basic social equality. As for "smug hipster asshole," basically, if a religious person or anyone else feels, say, Bill Maher is an asshole, that's perfectly fine. It's fine for them to condemn Maher or others for being obnoxious to them, or personally "intolerant," as the term is commonly used. However, Maher does not support locking people up for their religious beliefs (unless I've missed something). He supports a legal system of tolerance, no matter how obnoxious he may be personally. Meanwhile, there are "friendly but misguided theocrats," religious authoritarians who may be fairly nice on the interpersonal level, but truly believe the country would be better if it was a theocracy. There's nothing wrong per se with hanging out with them socially, but any theocratic measures they take politically should be opposed. (The same goes for theocratic assholes, obviously, and they tend to be a very nasty bunch.)

As I've written in previous posts, I have some sympathy for nice people who are religious and wind up in a situation where they feel someone is degrading all people of faith as idiots or zealots. (I've spoken up for them in some cases.) However, the solution to such situations is social in nature, not legal. When it comes to politics, I'm much more concerned about theocrats and others who don't support a system of tolerance. Unfortunately, these two types of "tolerance" are often conflated, and this makes for needlessly poor discussions.

Yet again, most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege." Anyone is free to bring his or her religious beliefs into the public sphere, but when it comes to public policy and debate, those beliefs don't automatically "win" because they're religiously-based. Last year's post explored this in more depth, but a world of difference exists between bringing in religion into the public sphere in an authoritarian way – "We must help the poor because God commands it" – and having faith inform one's beliefs, or even citing scripture, to invoke a greater, shared principle that is not dependent on specific religious beliefs, like so:

COLBERT: I like talking about people who don't have any power. And this seems like some of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave. And, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, these seem like the least of our brothers, right now. And I know that a lot of people are the least of my brothers because the economy is so hard, and I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that, but migrant workers suffer, and they have no rights.

Stephen Colbert cites scripture obliquely here, but this is not a theocratic argument; he's invoking a greater principle of compassion which does not depend on specific religious beliefs. (However, such beliefs may be a given individual's way of coming to compassion and understanding it. Meanwhile, let's also note that religious authoritarians rarely concern themselves much with the poor.)

Privilege, Not Equality

The difference between privilege and equality deserves more discussion, particularly the fact that theocrats seek the former, not the latter. Bob Altemeyer's book The Authoritarians (2006) is extremely helpful for explaining how authoritarians (and specifically, religious authoritarians or theocrats) think regarding freedom of religion, personal conduct and public policy. Chapter 4, "Authoritarian Followers and Religious Fundamentalism," is particularly relevant. Consider this extended passage:

“In the United States [Mark Noll] writes, it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and intellectual.” “Modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life.”

I have found nothing in my research that disagrees with this assessment. Indeed almost all of the findings in the last chapter about the authoritarian follower’s penchants for illogical thinking, compartmentalized minds, double standards, hypocrisy and dogmatism apply to religious fundamentalists as well. For example, David Winter at the University of Michigan recently found that fundamentalist students, when evaluating the war in Iraq, rejected a series of statements that were based on the Sermon on the Mount--which is arguably the core of Jesus’ teachings. Fundamentalists may believe they follow Jesus more than anyone else does, but it turns out to depend a lot on where Jesus said we should go. And we can augment such findings by considering the thinking behind three of the fundamentalist’s favorite issues: school prayer, opposition to evolution, and the infallibility of the Bible.

A. School Prayer: Majority Rights, Unless... Suppose a law were passed requiring the strenuous teaching of religion in public schools. Beginning in kindergarten, all children would be taught to believe in God, pray together in school several times each day, memorize the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Bible, learn the principles of Christian morality, and eventually be encouraged to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. How would you react to such a law?

The great majority of people in my samples who answered this question, including most of the Christians, said this would be a bad law. But most fundamentalists liked the idea, for this is exactly the kind of education they would like to see public schools give to everyone’s children. When I asked fundamentalists about the morality of imposing this learning on the children of Hindus, Jews, atheists, etcetera, they responded along the lines of, “This is a Christian country, and the majority rules. If others don’t like it, they can pay for private education or leave.” (As I said, most people do not favor this proposal, but since the days of the “Moral Majority” fundamentalists have tended to overestimate their numbers in society.)

What do you think happened when I asked people to respond to this parallel scenario?

Suppose you were living in a modern Arab democracy, whose constitution stated there could be NO state religion--even though the vast majority of the people were Muslims. Then a fundamentalist Islamic movement was elected to power, and passed a law requiring the strenuous teaching of religion in public schools. Beginning in kindergarten, all children would be taught to believe in Allah, pray together facing Mecca several times each day, memorize important parts of the Koran, learn the principles of Islamic morality, and eventually be encouraged to declare their allegiance to Muhammad and become a Muslim. How would you react to such a law?

Again, a great majority of my samples thought this would be quite wrong, but this time so did a solid majority of Christian fundamentalists. When you asked them why, they said that obviously this would be unfair to people who help pay for public schools but who want their children raised in some other religion. If you ask them if the majority in an Arab country has a right to have its religion taught in public schools, they say no, that the minority has rights too that must be respected. Nobody’s kids should have another religion forced upon them in the classroom, they say.

So do fundamentalists believe in majority rights or minority rights? The answer is, apparently, neither. They’ll pull whichever argument suits them out of its file when necessary, but basically they are unprincipled on the issue of school prayer. They have a big double standard that basically says, “Whatever I want is right.” The rest is rationalization, and as flexible and multi-directional as a reed blowing in the wind.

[pp.115–117]

Incidentally, Altremeyer found that atheists overwhelmingly opposed laws:

...requiring strenuous teaching in public schools against belief in God and religion…

Atheists typically hold that religious beliefs/practice have no place in public schools, and that includes their own point of view. No double standard there.

[p. 117]

I still remember reading this chapter for the first time, because it (and another passage) answered some questions for me about theocrats. I wanted to assume, charitably, that some religious authoritarians were merely cloistered and unreflective, and had not really thought through the logical consequences of their positions. (Similarly, I'd say that a deep understanding of civics is severely lacking in America.) The what-if-you-lived-in-a-Muslim-country question is fairly obvious. (I've posed a similar question in the past, as have many other writers.) Clearly some theocrat leaders were acting in bad faith (no pun intended, although it works), but perhaps that did not apply to all of their followers. However, the studies indicated otherwise. True, religious authoritarian followers are not a reflective bunch, but apparently, even when starkly confronted with the choice between equality and privilege, they choose privilege.

The Threat of Theocracy

Apologies for the occasional repetitiveness of this post; I may be beating a dead horse, but I find myself frustrated by the seemingly constant complaints from social conservatives that others are 'intolerant of their intolerance.' (Sometimes they say this almost verbatim.) It's a ridiculous argument if one adds a little thought and nuance to the notion of "tolerance," and points out the role that power dynamics play, or the difference between "personal" and "system" beliefs (pick other terminology if you like). Alas, thought and nuance seem to be very rare when dealing with social conservatives and authoritarians, religious or otherwise. They have a sense of aggrievement, but little command of history, and no commitment to a fair system.

The ultimate point is that theocrats already possess freedom, but they are pushing for more – privilege and power over others that infringes on others' freedoms. They may be sincere, and some may even be nice on the individual level, but they are also dangerous and dead wrong about how society and the government should be organized. If their personal practices are wonderful, there is nothing to prevent them from saying so and winning converts. But their preferred power structure is inherently unfair, and historically, has lead to horrible abuses. Truly upholding freedom of religion necessitates opposing theocracy.

(Revised slightly for clarity. For more on the notion of tolerance, see the paradox of tolerance, John Rawls on tolerance, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. For more VS posts on this general subject, see the categories for Blog Against Theocracy, Religion and the Religious Right. The most pertinent posts may be "The Social Tolerance Charts," "The Religion-in-Society Charts," "The Conservative Brain Trust Takes On: Freedom of Religion!" "You Damned Kids Get Into My Church" and "I'll See Your Jesus and Raise You 10,000 Buddhas.")

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Surely the Constitution Must Match My Theocratic Beliefs

(This post is part of the annual Blog Against Theocracy. The twitter hatchtag is #AgainstTheocracy.)

Rick Santorum's understanding of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state matches his understanding of almost everything else. Santorum's corruption should not be overlooked, nor should his vengeful hyper-partisanship, but what truly defines him is his combination of belligerence, zealotry and ignorance. It's what makes him an authoritarian's authoritarian. He can be completely, utterly wrong on factual matters, even matters of basic civics and history, but he will not let that temper his relentless attacks on his perceived foes. (Being one of the Righteous has its perks.)

It's hard to keep up with all of Santorum's factual inaccuracies, but Blue Texan summed up the highlights back in February:

It's difficult to recall a presidential candidate who had such a poor grasp of the basic facts of history [as] Rick Santorum. He's mangled the Crusades. Less than two weeks ago, he botched the French Revolution. And Saturday, he revealed an astonishing ignorance of U.S. history as well with his remarks on public education.


That list doesn't even include his amazing claim that the Dutch euthanize their elderly.

Certainly Santorum's political views are also extreme, including his positions that contraception is a "grievous moral wrong" and abortion should not be allowed even in cases of rape or incest. Instead, women should be forced to just "make the best of a bad situation." Because, holds Santorum, life is precious (not counting people we kill overseas), and "The right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you."

Santorum's religious knowledge doesn't seem any more impressive. As Mike Lux asks, What Bible is Santorum reading? Meanwhile, Juan Cole points out the top ten Catholic teachings Santorum rejects while obsessing about birth control.

There's plenty more to be said about Santorum, but for the moment, let's focus on his misunderstandings about freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. As a reminder, the First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


The actual phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" appears in a letter by Thomas Jefferson, echoing earlier writers, and further explains the establishment clause. Freedom of religion was further defined by the highly-influential Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, penned by Jefferson, with the help of James Madison. (More on this later.)

So where does Santorum stand on all this? On Sunday 2/26/12 on This Week, Santorum defended his previous remarks that John F. Kennedy's famous speech upholding the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up":


Here's the transcript:

STEPHANOPOULOS: That speech has been read, as you know, by millions of Americans. Its themes were echoed in part by Mitt Romney in the last campaign. Why did it make you throw up?

SANTORUM: Because the first line, first substantive line in the speech says, "I believe in America where the separation of church and state is absolute." I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.

This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. Go on and read the speech. I will have nothing to do with faith. I won't consult with people of faith. It was an absolutist doctrine that was abhorrent at the time of 1960. And I went down to Houston, Texas 50 years almost to the day, and gave a speech and talked about how important it is for everybody to feel welcome in the public square. People of faith, people of no faith, and be able to bring their ideas, to bring their passions into the public square and have it out. James Madison—

STEPHANOPOULOS: You think you wanted to throw up?

(CROSSTALK)

SANTORUM: -- the perfect remedy. Well, yes, absolutely, to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can't come to the public square and argue against it, but now we're going to turn around and say we're going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.


Santorum cites the exercise clause, but conveniently completely ignores the establishment clause. While Santorum defended his "throw up" line several times with Stephanopoulos, he later said "I wish I had that particular line back." However, he stood by everything else. Moreover, some readers may recall Santorum attacking JFK's speech before. Steve M. chronicles at least five occasions Santorum has done just that, dating back to 2002. This was not a one-off; Rick Santorum is a theocrat, and his misrepresentations of the First Amendment and Kennedy's speech have long been central to who he is as a political figure.

You can watch the video of Kennedy's speech here, or read a transcript and listen to the audio here. The context is important; as NPR reports:

On Sept. 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of his religion. At the time, many Protestants questioned whether Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith would allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the church. Kennedy addressed those concerns before a skeptical audience of Protestant clergy.


Here's the key section Santorum was criticizing:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.


Clearly, Santorum has grossly misrepresented Kennedy, who was expressing a fairly mainstream and historically sound understanding of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Kennedy never said that "people of faith... have no role in the public square." He said precisely the opposite. This should be glaringly obvious to anyone who actually reads Kennedy's speech (plus, Kennedy was publicly a person of faith himself). He's also an odd figure for Santorum to attack since Kennedy, the only Catholic to be elected president to date, remains a source of pride for many American Catholics even if their political views differ.

So who exactly is Santorum's audience? And why does he misrepresent Kennedy so badly? Scroll back up and read what Santorum said again, and it is truly astounding to see how utterly, completely wrong he is. This makes his anger even more disturbing. Discussing his motivations, we're entering the old stupid-evil-crazy debate. Obviously Santorum is a theocrat, a far right religious authoritarian, and his views on JFK should play well with other religious authoritarians in the conservative base. But he doesn't seem aware that his take on this speech is far outside any mainstream reading. It won't play with the general electorate, and it would be hard to disown all his theocratic statements later. In truth, his reading is strikingly anti-textual. Is he just dumb? The evidence to date suggests Santorum isn't a bright man, and stupidity probably is a factor, but I think that the dominant factor here is "crazy," or zealotry.

There's a tendency among some people to project their own notions of wisdom into exalted works. It is common for people to cite the Constitution, the works of Shakespeare, and sacred texts such as the Bible or Koran as sources of wisdom. People of very disparate views will agree that these works contain wisdom, but they will often disagree vehemently about what that specific wisdom is. Among people of reasonable intelligence and good faith, there's room for disagreement and earnest debate, of course. However, not all interpretations are created equal. Nor is the level of effort that goes into those interpretations equal. Certain people never really take the time to read these works carefully and reflect on them, or to study their history and context. Certain people take an anti-textual approach, projecting whatever they consider wisdom onto the work itself even when the text directly contradicts their views. Needless to say, this is a highly ideological approach. Subconsciously, it goes something like this: "The Constitution is wise, and my views are righteous and correct, so surely the Constitution must match my beliefs." (Who actually needs to read the damn thing?)

I think that's part of what's going on with Santorum here. What we're seeing is zealotry fueling pure denial. He simply cannot accept the words in front of him, nor the concepts behind them. He hears "separation of church and state," and to him this is dangerous and threatening. If we're feeling especially charitable, we could say that because Santorum feels his religious beliefs are under siege, he interprets "separation of church and state" as an attack, and this irrationality overwhelms him. Of course, he has a B.A., M.B.A., J.D. and is an adult, so he should be able to follow a logical train of thought. (Nor is this cognitive collapse an isolated incident.) Fundamentally, the First Amendment promises religious equality and neutrality, and that is precisely what Kennedy espouses in his speech. This is only a threat to theocrats, for people who don't want equality, but dominance. Most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege," and that is definitely operative here. Of course people of faith have a role in the public square, they just shouldn't have a privileged role. They can propose public policies, but they don't automatically get to have their way by citing their religion. They don't automatically get to win. That's really what Santorum objects to; he opposes any sort of meritocracy when it comes to policy and ideas. He believes his faith is the true one and he knows the truth. Therefore, he is entitled to impose it on others. In his fevered mind's eye, equality is a threat; anyone who does not capitulate to his righteous order is a threat. This is why he can stare at Kennedy's words and transmogrify Kennedy's defense of religious freedom into an attack on it. Santorum is a poster boy for belligerent opposition to the reality-based community. Even when Santorum's completely, absolutely wrong, he'll angrily fight for his beliefs, and if anyone has the temerity to push back, why then, he believes they're infringing on his freedom of religion. Santorum's petulant, stunningly anti-textual approach to these and other matters may fairly be called ignorant, but his is a hard-won, hard-fought ignorance full of pride and driven by religious zealotry.

On that note, let me return to one of my favorite attacks by Rick Santorum against JFK and freedom of religion, from back in March 2011:

Rick Santorum told about 50 members of the group Catholic Citizenship that he was “frankly appalled” that America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, once said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

“That was a radical statement,” Santorum said, and did “great damage.”

The Boston Globe reports that Santorum, who is Catholic, criticized the increased secularization of politicians, which he related back to a speech Kennedy gave at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. Kennedy had made the speech to a group of Protestant clergy as a presidential candidate, in order to allay fears that the Catholic church would influence his decisions if elected.

“We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process,” Santorum said Monday.

“Jefferson is spinning in his grave,” he added.


He actually said Jefferson. It's hard to think of a worse choice among the founding fathers (maybe Thomas Paine) for Santorum to invoke. I believe Santorum said "Jefferson" because of his poor understanding of the Declaration of Independence and childish demonization of government. However, Jefferson was a deist, who rewrote the Gospels (the so-called "Jefferson Bible") to take out the supernatural elements (basically, he admired Jesus' moral teachings, but disliked what he viewed as evangelical additions). He studied theology and owned a Koran. (Jefferson was also a fierce advocate for public education, contrary to Santorum's beliefs that the founding fathers opposed it, so his ignorance on Jefferson specifically is particularly impressive.)

Most importantly, Jefferson actively fought for the separation of church and state that Rick Santorum so despises. As mentioned before, the very phrase "wall of separation between church and state" comes from a letter by Jefferson, even if similar sentiments were expressed by earlier writers. Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the three accomplishments he listed on his tombstone (being president was not one of them), and the statute was highly influential. (You may also recall that Kennedy mentioned it in the speech Santorum so distorted. Apparently, this did not prompt Santorum to study more about Jefferson and freedom of religion in America.) Susan Jacoby provides some important background.

In America, where the great debate over the federal Constitution was just beginning, Virginia's law was hailed by secularists as a model for the new national government and denounced by those who favored the semi-theocratic systems still prevailing in most states. As the Constitutional Convention opened in 1787, with George Washington as its president, legally entrenched privileges for Protestant Christianity were the rule rather than the exception in most states. The convention could have modeled the federal constitution after the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, which extended equal protection of the laws , and the right to hold office, only to Christians. And not all Christians: Catholics were only permitted to hold public office if they took a special oath renouncing papal authority "in any matter, civil, ecclesiastical or spiritual." Even that restriction was not enough for the most committed descendants of the Puritans; sixty-three of Massachusetts towns registered official objections to the use of "Christians" rather than "Protestant," bearing out a prediction by Adams that "a change in the solar system might be expected as soon as a change in the ecclesiastical system of Massachusetts." State religious restrictions were grounded not only in old prejudices but in the relative political strength of various religious constituencies. The 1777 New York State constitution, for example, extended political equality to Jews -- who, though few in number, had considerable economic influence in New York City -- but not to Catholics (who were not allowed to hold public office until 1806). Maryland, the home state of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, guaranteed full civil rights to Protestants and Catholics but not to Jews, freethinkers, and deists. The possibility of equal rights for non-Christians had not even occurred to Carroll. In this old age, he wrote, "When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England, but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion, and communicating to them all equal rights." In Delaware, officeholders were required to take an oath affirming belief in the Trinity, and in South Carolina, Protestantism was specifically recognized as the state-established religion.

But the framers of the Constitution chose Virginia, not the other states, with their crazy quilts of obeisance to a more restrictive religious past, as the model for the new nation. The Constitution is a secularist document because of what it says and what it does not say. The first of the explicit secularist provisions is article 6, section 3, which states that federal elective and appointed officials "shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." No religious test. This provision, much less familiar to the public today than the First Amendment, was especially meaningful and especially sweeping in view of the fact that the necessity of religious tests and religious oaths for officeholders had been taken for granted by nearly all the governments of the American states (not to mention those of the rest of the world) at the time the Constitution was written. The addition of the affirmation is significant, because it meant that the framers did not intend to compel officeholders to take a religious oath on the Bible. The intent could not have been clearer to those who wanted only religious men -- specifically, Protestant believers -- to hold office. As a North Carolina minister put it during his state's debate on ratification of the Constitution, the abolition of religious tests for officeholders amounted to "an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us."...

The significance of Virginia's religious freedom act was recognized immediately in Europe. News of the law was received with great enthusiasm -- not by the governments of the Old World, with their entrenched state-established religions, but by individuals who wished to promote liberty of conscience in their own countries. The Virginia law, translated into French and Italian as soon as the text made it across the Atlantic in 1786, was disseminated throughout most of the courts of Europe, and, as Jefferson wrote to Madison, "has been the best evidence of the falsehood of those reports which stated us to be in anarchy." Expressing his pride in Virginia's leadership, Jefferson observed that "it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions."


Notice that had religiously intolerant forces in 18th century America had their way, Rick Santorum's Catholic faith would have been officially persecuted. Instead, the Convention voted for religious freedom and neutrality, a separation of church and state. It would be one thing if Rick Santorum and other theocrats made an honest argument, and said, "Even though the Constitution forbids theocracy, and centuries of legal decisions uphold that, we want to impose theocracy on America. We seek to overturn the establishment clause of the Constitution." But honesty and basic civics literacy are not their style. This is always the way of theocrats – they yell and whine about being oppressed, but they already have freedom – what they really want is privilege and power over others. They are petulant, dangerous bullies, and this is why, in the democratic process, they must be prevented from gaining power. They do not truly know or care about the actual founding of America and freedom of religion. Rick Santorum is free to exercise his own religion, and free to express his own bigotry and ignorance, precisely because the founding fathers he knows so little about chose a different and better path.

(On a related note, a 2007 post looked at Mitt Romney's "anti-JFK speech.)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

First Aid Kit – "Emmylou"



This one keeps getting stuck in my head. Every time I hear that chorus, I think, wow, the scansion of "Gra-ha-ha-ham" is terrible, but damn, that's one hell of a come-on. Plus, the band is two Swedish sisters, only 22 and 19 years old, mostly doing their own songwriting, and writing and performing in a second language, not to mention an American genre. Overall, I'd say they're pretty impressive, and their best work is hauntingly gorgeous.

I feel it all comes through in the song itself, but here are their comments on this one:

The artists we mention in 'Emmylou' are some of our all-time favourite singers and songwriters. They have inspired us endlessly and in a way this is a tribute to them. When they sing together it's an otherworldly power. You can hear the love seeping through those vocals chords. The song is about the intimate connection you get when you sing together. Johnny and June were obviously married and although Emmylou and Gram never were an official couple there are certainly rumours. To us the song is saying: 'We may not be able to be together, but at least we can sing together.'


Eclectic Jukebox

Blog Against Theocracy 2012


If you didn't know, this weekend is the annual Blog Against Theocracy. I'll just go ahead and quote Blue Gal:

This is a blogswarm dedicated to the separation of church and state.

It is not a blogswarm against religion. Bloggers who believe in religion, and those who don't, are equally welcome here. What we share is a common commitment to the First Amendment to the Constitution and its guarantee of church-state separation.

This is also not a blogswarm against a particular candidate or party. But this year the Republican side has attacked both the reproductive rights of women and the marriage rights of LGBT citizens in the name of religious "liberty." It is the position of this blogswarm that separation of church and state protects both, and that freedom of, or freedom from, religion is a choice every American has the right to pursue. We are for marriage equality, and also insist on the rights of every American family and individual to pursue their own reproductive choices without uninvited clerical interference.

Blog Against Theocracy uses the hashtag #AgainstTheocracy on Twitter and Facebook to promote our posts.

We are not affiliated with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, but we highly recommend their website and organization as a resource for church state issues, and we deeply appreciate their commitment to the cause of church state separation.

Unfortunately, there's plenty of material to work with this year, and that makes participation all the more welcome, if you feel so inspired. If nothing else, you can always tweet a relevant older post. (I have a couple of posts in the works, but we'll see how many I can finish this weekend.)

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Fool's Day 2012


Happy (April) Fool's Day! This year, I thought I'd feature the findings of a 2001–2002 study conducted by Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire (UK) to find "the world's funniest joke." There's more at his site, Laugh Lab. The top joke, selected from over 40,000 submissions (and apparently, adapted from a Spike Milligan sketch), was:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

The runner-up was:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go on a camping trip. After a good dinner and a bottle of wine, they retire for the night, and go to sleep.

Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."

"I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes," replies Watson.

"And what do you deduce from that?"

Watson ponders for a minute.

"Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe... What does it tell you, Holmes?"

Holmes is silent for a moment. "Watson, you idiot!" he says. "Someone has stolen our tent!"

One of the interesting parts of the study is how different cultures tend to favor certain forms of comedy. From the study:

People from The Republic of Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand expressed a strong preference for jokes involving word plays, such as:

Patient: “Doctor, I've got a strawberry stuck up my bum.”

Doctor: “I've got some cream for that.”

Americans and Canadians much preferred gags where there was a sense of superiority – either because a person looked stupid, or was made to look stupid by another person, such as:

Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard grad: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay – where are you from, jackass?”

Finally, many European countries, such as France, Denmark and Belgium, liked jokes that were somewhat surreal, such as:

An Alsatian went to a telegram office, took out a blank form and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”

The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”

“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”

These European countries also enjoyed jokes that involved making light of topics that often make us feel anxious, such as death, illness, and marriage. For example:

A patient says: “Doctor, last night I made a Freudian slip, I was having dinner with my mother-in-law and wanted to say: “Could you please pass the butter.” But instead I said: “You silly cow, you have completely ruined my life”.”

Interestingly, Germany was the exception. Germans did not express a strong preference for any type of joke - this may well explain why they came first in our league table of funniness – they do not have any strong preferences and so tend to find a wide spectrum of jokes funny.

Dr Richard Wiseman commented:

These results are really interesting – it suggests that people from different parts of the world have fundamentally different senses of humour. Humour is vital to communication and the more we understand about how people’s culture and background affect their sense of humour, the more we will be able to communicate effectively.


In my own experience, I'd say that physical comedy travels the best across cultures, while word play is the toughest (not that either should be surprising). And supposedly, if you show a mixed audience of Americans and Brits A Fish Called Wanda, they will laugh at different parts. Obviously, though, these are generalizations, since some individuals have much broader senses of humor than others, regardless of their "home" culture.

Wiseman considers both the superiority and incongruity theories of comedy. There's truth to both, but I remember being annoyed when I read a comedy book insisting that all comedy is based on superiority and someone else's pain or humiliation. It's clearly not true, and refuted by many forms of comedy, from sheer silliness to the reflective "ah, I recognize myself" humor of Garrison Keillor and others. There's truth to the self-regard in Mel Brooks' great line (one of the rotating quotations in the left column) that "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." But comedy is often self-referential, "meta," provocative, or breaks the fourth wall. I'd say Brooks' line – in addition to being funny – tweaks us on our own self-absorption. To quote an earlier post:

Comedians take many forms. There’s the crass insult comic, the observational humourist, the reflective raconteur, and the incisive satirist. Perhaps the most sublime is the Shakespearean fool, who can tell truth to power in the form of a joke, imparting wisdom while still avoiding a beating (most of the time)...

Or, to quote a more recent post, and a line attributed to Billy Wilder (and others), "If you're going to tell people the truth, make them laugh, or they'll kill you."