About Me: A(n Unknown) Friend Challenges Me

I am about to leave for three weeks with my wife to East Asia, where I have not been since my undergraduate years in 1968. I will be leaving the blog inactive for those three weeks, and have been thinking about the final posts I’ll make before I leave. I’ve been having a private correspondence with a Jeffrey B. who has challenged me to reveal more about myself to my readership. I will only partly satisfy his request, but I do think he raises major issues that the blogosphere and the 21st century need to deal with in terms of evaluating information, presentation, argumentation.

Dear Dr. Landes,

Thanks for your reply. You seem reluctant to divulge any information beyond your CV. I’m sure there are legitimate reasons for that stance, but I’d like to take one more stab at persuading you that making some background info available to your readers would be valuable.

My sister Heather is a “born-again” Christian who believes in the literal inerrancy of the bible. Although she has no training in geology, paleontology, or archeology, she teaches classes on “Creation Science”. You can know all about Heather’s education and employment history, but unless you know about her religious beliefs, you can waste a lot of time talking to an apparently intelligent, reasonable, open-minded person, who just doesn’t seem to “get” what you are saying and will never admit doubt or error about an opinion. Only when you understand that her knowledge is based on “revealed truth” rather than empirical data is it clear that it is pointless to discuss scientific facts – she will always have an explanation for fossils, speciation, etc. even if it devolves to “God said so”. The only fruitful discussion would be about the biblical basis for her beliefs , but she has no real interest in discussing the limits and contradictions of her belief system. She is convinced that she already has the truth, and is only interested in promulgating it to others.

If Heather had a blog, I think it would be very useful for readers to know “what she knows and how she knows it”. They would realize that there is no point in discussing the fossil record showing that organisms become progressively more complex in progressively higher strata. The creation scientists have already shown that this is simply a result of differential settling after the flood. Readers would realize that only informed discussions of the bible (creation as allegory?) would be potentially useful in challenging Heather’s thinking. I think disclosure of one’s formative experiences is crucial for understanding/evaluation/criticism by self and by readers and should be made available by [the writer](?)

An eloquent case for self-revelation. And of course I’d want to know this kind of information about a person. But I also think one can find that kind of background material from a careful reading of the person’s writings (or speech) without being given it predigested (and self-consciously) by the person (or even someone else). I like to think that anyone who reads me, and my responses to their comments, can get to know the timber of my mind without my giving them my potted self-presentation. It’s why as soon as I realized what cyberspace and the blogosphere permitted, I moved over here from academia.

(Not that I don’t have any more academic ties and commitments. I love academia, and nothing gets me going more than a good seminar with high level exchanges and arguments. Of course I prefer light to heat, but heated exchanges can illuminate.)

But right now, it’s not from academia that the next generation of successful civic paradigms (and their curricula) will emerge. Just like the printing press replaced manuscript culture in “early modern” Europe, creating the “city of letters” in which the modern paradigms emerged, so has cyberspace given birth to the community blogosphere and the conversations that will generate the orientations we need to survive this onslaught against our hard-fought for civil society.

This won’t be easy, and if we lose, the whole experiment in freedom represented by the WWW (with its anarchic genetic structure) will be taken away by an ruthless elite that will most resemble those mafioso and fanatic rulers who have so dominated the history of mankind for lo these many millennia. But this is where it will happen if it does. And I want to be part of that great intellectual adventure.

As for religious issues, I feel that I am sufficiently iconoclastic to say, “that’s not at issue.” It’s not what we believe about the nature of the divine that matters so much as how much integrity we have. If I understand your description of your sister, it’s a waste of time for someone to speak with her about scientific matters because she has an religious agenda and for her the evidence is subordinated to dogmatic demands. I once met a very impressive minister who said to me, “If you’re a true Christian, you don’t have to tell people, they’ll figure it out.” Precisely.

People who feel they must press their denominational identities on people — either by converting them, or insisting on their “literal” interpretations of sacred texts — are often working out other problems. The very notion that there can be a single “literal” interpretation of a text (or of reality for that matter), is a kind of idol worship.

There’s a joke about how the atheist says, “The god I don’t believe in would never do that” [where “that” stands for a tidal wave or earthquake that kills thousands of innocents, or orders to exterminate another people]. So the theist can say, “The G-D I do believe in would never demand I do that” [where “that” means reading the Bible literally, being dogmatic, burning heretics, or even speaking explicitly about matters of belief].

While in my close friends I may prefer people with whom my personal beliefs and commitments resonate, what I am concerned about with others is not their beliefs, but their moral commitments to “others.” What I find so terrifying about Islamist Jihadis, is that for them there are no moral commitments to non-believers. In denominational soteriology you are “saved” by which faith you hold; in moral soteriology, you are “saved” by how you treat your fellow man. You don’t have to be any denomination to do that well, indeed you don’t have to be a religious believer to do that well.

I want you to trust or not what I say based on your sense of the evidence and the argument. Not on who I am or where I’m coming from personally. Granted, you have a right to wonder whether or not I might be manipulating you. That’s always a possibility. It’s our inability to ask these questions of Muslims that has us paralyzed right now. That’s why I spend so much time talking about demopaths and their dupes. But that’s also why I think we have to develop the crap detectors not to be dupes.

So part of my answer is, it’s not in what someone says, but how they respond to challenges, how they respond to being wrong, that tells you what’s up. You can spot a demopath in a second, just by giving him a hard time. Not needling and hostile. Just firm and penetrating. Very few of them handle challenges well, partly because their positions are so fragile, partly because no one challenges them. So why should they get better?

[By the way, this issue of reliability of information providers, is absolutely critical. It’s the failure of the MSM to c lean their stables that puts us in our present dilemma, and cyberspace introduces a whole who realm of players we need to become familiar with. Ultimately, it’s going to be an important part of the emergent blogosphere that we have brief bibliographies of key players. (We’re planning that for the key players in the “second intifada” for an initiative we’re preparing.) I think the cyberspace should have a “Watchers” portal that does the best job it can keeping track of the reliability of various “news and analysis” experts and sites. That way the people who want the public’s trust know they are being critically appraised, and the public can consult to know more about the people and sites they consult.]

Please take the following comments in the “opposition is true friendship” context, and with the knowledge that I don’t know much about history and have only read a fraction of the material on augean stables. Also that I am diplomacy-challenged.

My kind of guy.

So one question in my mind is whether you (or any blogger/writer) are on an objective quest for truth, open to alternative points of view and willing to revise your opinions as new evidence warrants it? Or are you seeking to promulgate your opinions and hone your presentation of them in preparation for the next debate, conference or book? I see evidence of the former in the choice of many topics (you have set up an excellent framework for identifying and addressing issues), but I also see strong evidence of the latter. Of course all the comments I have read have been affirmative, and when one doesn’t get challenged one’s thinking can get pretty far off base.

Let me take each question/comment in turn.

So one question in my mind is whether you (or any blogger/writer) are on an objective quest for truth, open to alternative points of view and willing to revise your opinions as new evidence warrants it?

I would not phrase the first part as you have: “objective quest for truth.” I have a radical sense of modesty where the “truth” is concerned and believe that I can never claim to “possess” the “truth.” Equally I have no confidence in our ability to (or even its desirability) to reduce reality to some “objective” verbal formula. Every “fact” (data point) needs interpretation to have meaning, and all interpretations are subject to correction and revision. Nor would I ever claim to have produced some verbal formula that was “objectively true.”

(Note this is not necessarily how scientists think, but then I’m interested in humans [subjects] not things [objects]. You can’t be objective about subjects, despite the silly claims of economics or psychology or “political science” to be sciences.)

Now I do come closer to the second part of your sentence: “open to alternative points of view and willing to revise your opinions as new evidence warrants it.” That’s certainly one of my ideals. My thought has constantly evolved over time in response to the evidence. For me, Al Durah was a paradigm buster. I had no idea the media could be as bad as they were in this case. I looked at the footage of the rushes, and my jaw dropped. And when Enderlin said, “Oh, they do it all the time“, I knew that as cheap and obvious as these Pallywood fakes were, that our MSM had was recycling this stuff without a second thought. That did “blow my mind.” And much of the framework you find interesting, came about as a result of meditating on the problem (and failing to get the MSM to pay the slightest attention to it).

As for correcting oneself. The only time I made an outright mistake that I’m aware of, was during the Lebanese war this summer in a picture of corpses at Qana. I corrected immediately.

Overall, our ability to “reality test,” which means taking in the evidence that contradicts our icons of understanding, is a major factor in both our effectiveness and our freedom. This means the ability to listen, reconsider, re-evaluate, and, where necessary, self-criticize. An intellectual (a term that came in during the Dreyfus affair), is not someone who’s smart or knows a lot, it’s someone who can change his mind based on the evidence. And that is our constant test, ours and every generation to come.

Aayan Hirsi Ali says that she never heard a grown man say he was wrong before she came to Holland. That’s passing from an honor-shame culture to an integrity-guilt culture. That’s the basis of freedom for others precisely because you won’t sacrifice someone else’s freedom to your vanities and insecurities, which is what, ultimately both the Inquisition and current Islamist aggressions are all about.

Or are you seeking to promulgate your opinions and hone your presentation of them in preparation for the next debate, conference or book?

Of course I’m trying to promulgate my own opinions and hone my presentation of them. Do you think I spend this much time thinking about these matters and forming my opinions so that I can present them sloppily? Especially now, when how we interpret what’s going on is so important. These two should not and need not be “either/or.” There was a bumper sticker in the 60’s that read: “The Mind is like a Parachute: It only works if it’s open.” Of course, a parachute only works once if you can’t close it. We need flexibility not dogmatism either of belief or disbelief. Yang and Yin, firm and yielding. We don’t possess the truth, we wrestle with it.

I see evidence of the former in the choice of many topics (you have set up an excellent framework for identifying and addressing issues), but I also see strong evidence of the latter. Of course all the comments I have read have been affirmative, and when one doesn’t get challenged one’s thinking can get pretty far off base.

That is something that I’ve been puzzled by. Most bloggers talk about the trolls they get. I’ve never really gotten any. I wish I had more challenging responses than I do. I try and respond respectfully but substantively to those I do get. If you look back, you’ll see a number of posts where I take a comment (like yours) and respond point by point. Helas.

My advocacy position: I am, like everyone who is passionate, an advocate. I believe in civil society and the freedoms it fosters and wealth it generates and distributes more generously than any other civilization on record. It is a miracle that it exists and the West fought long and hard as a civilization to achieve it, and it takes a sustained commitment to positive-sum interactions with others. It is not perfect, far from it. But it is so superior to every earlier effort that I watch with astonishment as people who say they are committed to its values (especially “progressives”) throw it away with abandon.

6 Responses to About Me: A(n Unknown) Friend Challenges Me

  1. Cynic says:

    Doctor Landes,
    You wrote above Most bloggers talk about the trolls they get. I’ve never really gotten any.

    Thanks for posts which have brought enlightenment about today’s media.

  2. Abu Nudnik says:

    He wants you to say you’re a Jew and it’s because you are a Jew that you think all these thoughts as you think them. If you weren’t a Jew you wouldn’t be saddled with your own demopathy and you could see clearly now the rain has come. I know that if I weren’t a Jew, I’d probably see how beastly were all my thoughts when I had been one. After all, the Jews are awful people: Abraham arguing for justice on the road to Sodom, the prophets warning that without real justice nothing will stand. Shame on me!

    I think Augean Stables will play an increasingly important role–not just it but blogs in general–because of the reasons you note. It is the story, how it’s presented, the argument, how convincing: these things and not the reputation of the news presenter. That’s all dead. thank God. Daddy isn’t reading the papers to the children anymore.

    Uh-oh! I’ve been too positive and supportive. Let me be more challenging. The only thing I wonder about on your blog is the danger of putting too much weight on concepts like demopathy, shame-honor, and such things (much as Camille Paglia oversimplifies some things with her “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” antimony). They have their uses but they are pivots to use while the architecture is evolving, not permanent structures. Paradigms only become visible from a distance. “We don’t know who discovered water but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t fish.” I forget who said that.

    Ah! One more negative! You really ought to have a “preview” button. Shame on you sir!!!

  3. rlandes says:

    thanks for the comments and encouragement (the sarcasm of the first paragraph aside).

    it may be that the honor-shame stuff, etc., are scaffolding to be taken down later. i personally think that demopathy is a key concept and until we learn to detect demopaths, we’re in very bad shape. it may well be that terms like demopathy and definitions like the way i define civil society are part of the vocabulary of a new paradigm.

    right now i’m in china, and thinking a great deal about the nature of honor-shame, especially its impact on historical thinking. they still have a picture of chairman Mao over the entrance to the forbidden city. they can’t even begin to think about what enabled a ruthless demopath with no personal commitment to the values of his party — he spend the Long March in a sedan chair, even on the mountainous ascents — was able to take over and kill over 70 MILLION of his own people, in peacetime. when face matters more than facing history, where can you go?

    right now they gliding on modernity, the place is booming, but they have, as far as i can make out, very little orientation in an ideological or conceptual way. perhaps i’m wrong, and these things are taking place at other levels. i don’t speak any chinese, and my only contacts are limited. but public life is strange, and starbucks in the forbidden city is weird.

    honor-shame here is linked to a culture of consensus… very different from the tribal strife of, say, bedouin culture. still trying to sort things out.

  4. igout says:

    I’ve been away for awhile myself, unfortunately not in as interesting manner. Perhaps you did so while I was elsewhere, but it would be interesting to apply your honor/shame analysis to the British Marines incident. Judging from the letters in the Daily Telegraph, I think that a hell of a lot of Brits felt dishonored and shamed, and rightly so.
    Enjoy your holiday.

  5. Joanne says:

    I think that JeffB has come out with his own views in his comments to Finkielkraut’s essay. While asking you to question your views and put them to the test, he does not seem to want to do that with his own.

    I wrote some sharp things about his views in my last comment, to whit, that his views are simplistic and his knowledge superficial. I should have softened the language, but I cannot help thinking that his views ARE simplistic and his knowledge IS superficial, even if I see logic in some of them.

    In his querying of your background and thought processes, he is not encouraging rigorous analysis, I don’t think. I’m under the distinct impression that he’s just questioning the credibility of your beliefs.

  6. RiverCocytus says:

    Very interesting stuff. I think it is good to be forthright about one’s beliefs, but only as far as necessary. Which is to say, there are some things when said they will not be understood correctly in that context and thus be useless to relate. In this sense I think you are right in not ‘completely revealing’ your beliefs. In fact, I am one of those (he would probably call me) ‘fundies’.

    The thing he misunderstands in large part is, that many of us live testing our faith and testing the word (in the form of the Bible.) Some say what they do- not because they are stupid, bovine unthinkers, but because they have had a half of a lifetime to test their faith and have not found it wanting. For some, for what they have been through and were exposed to it says a lot. To compare the faith of some Christians to that of the usual Muslim, who lives in isolation from anything but their honor/shame culture, is dubious at best, I think.

    In fact, despite the that I do believe for the most part the Bible is inerrant, I respect your desire to keep your beliefs personal. I’m not concerned with the dogma so much as the ethics, and the understanding of an objective truth existing, one that transcends what is known as material reality.

    We don’t hold the ‘truth’ in the sense of a complete understanding of material reality. For one, while everything may be intelligible, reality consists of a near infinite variety of things, and to imagine that our finite brain and mind could handle them all at once is a bit ludicrous.

    I don’t think that it is either/or in having a strong (and often dogmatic) belief and being intellectually rigorous. My belief is that if we believe that what we believe is true, then there are consequences of it. IF there is something I believe that is untrue, I would like to be rid of it. The dogma in my opinion does not exist to ‘force conformity’ (though some would use it as this) but to encapsulate truth in an effective form. So if someone recites the Nicene creed I don’t hear someone saying they belong to a club, but rather stating something that is true in a recognizable fashion.

    There is an interesting article on the subject here: John Mills…

    An excerpt:

    Jargon is often a technical necessity (“classes” is a useful term for understanding how people act in groups), but one can move very easily from using jargon as a sort of shorthand to using it to avoid those realities. “Compare ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ with ‘The supreme being transcends space and time’,” Lewis wrote his brother just after his conversion.

    “The first goes to pieces if you begin to apply the literal meaning to it. . . . The second falls into no such traps. On the other hand the first really means something, really represents a concrete experience in the minds of those who use it; the second is mere dexterous playing with the counters, and once a man has learnt the rule he can go on that way for two volumes without really using the words to refer to any concrete fact at all”

    I would suggest that it is not nearly as simple as Jeff asserts and that certainly much of Heather’s responses have as much to with him as they do her. When a person detects that you are trying to manipulate them they will become defensive and ‘closed’. As a Christian myself I do not find believers to be this way. It is only because Jeff attacks her that she appears as dogmatic as she does. Sure, there are those who truly are so. That’s undeniable as well.

    When you don’t come across parroting a party line or belief system, you will find that people are more open to you and you can be more open to them. Those who rail against Christianity often accidentally project an anti-Christian agenda (just as those trying to evangelize often project an agenda) and thus find their ‘opponents’ to be far more defensive and closed than they would otherwise be.

    I found that people sniff out agendas pretty quickly – and avoid them like the plague. If what you want for them is good, it should speak for itself instead of having to be forced down their throat. A true Christian understands that a confession is only as effective as the faith behind it, so pounding people with Jesus often has only a detrimental effect.

    Besides, a real understanding of faith tells us what a difficult task it is – to give someone something they by default don’t want or believe they need, and with no real way to know for certain they received it. One point of confession and baptism is to give the person a way to show to others that they indeed believe. It can be done falsely, but there isn’t any real way to avoid that. Classes and all manner of layers of teaching prior to confession just make the liars more sophisticated.

    That being said, I really do appreciate what you do here. You tend to be a person who clearly defines what they are talking about and why it is important, instead of those who often will throw out terms such as ‘neocon’ (a favorite) without clearly defining it (ever) or explaining why it ought to be used in any clear way.

    Also, Jeff misunderstands to his own detriment the importance and gravity of ‘revealed truth’. Revelation itself (the true kind) is never someone coming and declaring they got one; but it is as rigorous a process as scientific investigation. Just because this or its appearance has faded from mainline Christianity does not mean it does not exist. The idea that Truth is One requires examination of prophecies and revelations and an understanding that not all that is said is literal.

    There is one concrete reality, but we all live in our own worlds. Part of life is reconciling those worlds to one another, and all to what is real. Thanks for your assistance and clarity – the world is made of language – so let us respect it and use it well – I would like to believe you are an example of doing so.

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