Thursday, July 31, 2003

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine

Harmful to Minors is an expose of the craziness of American attitudes towards sex and children, including our hysteria about pedophilia and child pornography, our dotty notion that there’s something pathological or criminal about nine year olds playing doctor, and the official promotion of abstinence as a panacea. From a statistical point of view, children aren’t at much risk of sexual attack from strangers—family members are another matter—and notion that sex offenders are a homogenous population of incorrigible monsters is not so much a psychological generalization as a rule of genre fiction like the convention that you can’t see vampires in a mirror. Levine usefully reminds us that these received truths hurt a lot of actual people. Minor offenders are branded for life and subjected to vigilante justice, and children get stigmatized by pointless psychiatric interventions backed by the force of law. Meanwhile, the obsession with real or imagined sexual misbehavior opens up vast prospects of blackmail and political extortion to public and private sex police and other entrepreneurs.

In most respects, Harmful to Minors is an unremarkable effort. Levine, a journalist, is neither a remarkably good or remarkably inept writer, and her book features the mix of anecdote and generalization usual in general nonfiction. In any case, making a case for the obvious isn’t all that difficult. What makes the book notable is that it was published at all, even by a minor university press. Indeed, I expect that the University of Minnesota Press wishes it had stuck to learned treatises on phenomenology since the publication of Harmful to Minors was greeted with gouts of venom from the usual spitting cobras. Levine is not a pamphleteer for NAMBLA or a promoter of sexual liberation ala Reich; but she was nevertheless denounced, and not just on AM radio, as a debaucher of children and an agent of the Prince of Darkness. The dogmas of American sexual politics are far too fragile to be defended without fanaticism.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

An Unfortunate Consideration

A good many people seem to think that only God can establish moral rules and that without supernatural fiat and sanction we wouldn’t be able to figure out what we should do or bring ourselves to do the right thing if we somehow managed to guess what that might be. This belief is problematic in a practical way. If a theological irrationalist gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and decides he can no longer hypnotize himself into believing he believes, a potential psychopath is born. Unfortunately, one has to be very optimistic indeed to think this is only a theoretical possibility.
Has Anybody Pointed Out

Conservatives continue to insist that the observed warming of the Earth has a natural rather than a human cause. To judge from the tendency of articles I’ve read in various journals, the consensus against this proposition is pretty strong and getting stronger—the most recent issue of SCIENCE included a paper reporting evidence that the troposphere, the lowest level of the atmosphere, is swelling, a phenomenon consistent with anthropogenic warming—but the issue of why the Earth is warming may be less important than the more imperious fact that it is warming. Mankind may have to take collective action to deal with the consequences of global warming whatever its cause. And even if, contrary to the current evidence, greenhouse gases aren’t responsible for the warming the Earth, reducing emissions of such gases would remain an obvious way to counter a rise in average temperatures.
What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Without any particular strain or great expense, I drove more than 5,000 miles in the last month; but I was able to move so effortlessly only because I stayed to well-beaten paths like a marble rolling in a groove. At right angles to the Interstates, I could barely have traveled at all. The freedom of the open road is freedom in much the same way and to the same degree that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is an adventure—keep your hands inside the car at all times.

Technical Note: Accounts of the “inner” history of mankind sometimes leave the impression that what has changed in the last couple of centuries is an affair of worldviews or mentalities. What made parts of the Earth into Our World is not something primarily psychological but a real physical process. Dasein really is a clearing in the woods, often enough a clear cut; and our experience is a communal fantasy structured by a physical network of narrow but well-greased pathways paved with concrete and lined with Quality Inns and Burger Kings.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Report from the Heartland

On my recent inspection tour of the continental United States, I mostly inspected the mile or so on either side of various Interstates. I sampled the airwaves more adequately, however, even though with the car in drive and my mind in neutral, what was actually being said in the broadcasts didn’t stick with me. I listened as dogs listen, not to the words but to the tone of the voice. Clear Channel D.J.’s sound a trademark note on every station even when it isn’t literally the same person celebrating the vibrant personality of Amarillo, the Athens of Potter county, on Wednesday and the pioneer spirit of the old Northwest in Terre Haute two days later. On Clear Channel stations, however, it often is the same person.I could also usually tell I had tuned into right-winger talk show by the perpetual snarl. Similarly, NPR announcers almost always sound like psychiatric nurses trying to calm excitable patients. There are exceptions. The musical segues on NPR seem to feature Mongolian throat singing with remarkable frequency, and conservative commentators spend a certain part of every hour flattering their listeners as if the entire middle of the country was suffering from a perpetual crisis of low self esteem.

Travelers to this country often remark on the monotony of its commercial landscapes, the identical strip of brand name stores and restaurants plunked down in an astonishing variety of physical settings; but, to judge by the radio, anyway, America’s feelings are as franchised as the burger joints.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out, edited by Ibn Warraq

[Note] I tell myself that the best thing is to be satisfied with your fate and get on with it. For example, if you’re a Superhero, it doesn’t do to bitch that you are an off-brand superhero. True, I’m not as strong as the Hulk, as mysterious as the Shadow, or even as stretchy as Plasticman, but I do read a lot. Think of me as what would have happened if the guy in the Twilight Zone episode hadn’t broken his glasses. In that spirit, the first of innumerable very brief notices of mostly unnoticed books:

Ibn Warraq is probably the most prominent anti-Muslim writer who comes from the Muslim world. Leaving Islam and his earlier book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, are effective if unoriginal polemic. You don’t have to be a great shot when you’re shooting an elephant at close range but you do have to keep your nerve—Ibn Warraq, whose real identity is understandably kept secret, is under a death sentence for apostasy as are all male apostates under Muslim law as interpreted by all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In any case, as the narratives in Leaving Islam make clear, criticisms of religion that have been commonplace in the West since the Enlightenment are still news in Pakistan and Egypt. Indeed, one of the benefits of reading these first-person accounts is to recover the force of the old arguments. Other themes are perhaps more surprising: many male and female apostates cite the deep hostility of traditional Islam to women and many non-Arabs see Islam as an Arabic imperial ideology. I was also interested to read that many ex-Muslims are as unimpressed with the literary quality of the Koran as I am.

While works like Leaving Islam may have a more immediate impact, I expect that Ibn Warraq’s more academic books will turn out to more important in the long haul. In his What the Koran Really Says, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and The Origins of the Koran, all anthologies of serious scholarship, Ibn Warraq examines the remarkably thin evidence that lies behind the official story of how Islam and the Koran came to be. Sympathetic Western accounts of Islam have left many people with the impression that, unlike Moses or Jesus, Muhammad’s career unfolded in the light of history. In fact, contemporary Byzantine accounts of the Arab invasion of Syria and Egypt don’t even mention Muhammad, and the familiar just-so story of his activities is based on biographies and histories written down two centuries after the death of the Prophet. It is also quite impossible to squeeze a coherent narrative out of the Koran itself, surely the worst edited as well as the worst written of the major scriptures. In any case, while Jewish and Christian writings have been subjected to four hundred years of serious philological research, the corresponding process has barely been initiated for the Koran. Ibn Warraq’s own conjectures about the origins of Islam may not prove to be accurate or even on the right track—he is perfectly well aware of how tentative all such reconstructions must be given the state of the evidence—but the effort itself is a vital precedent and a huge improvement on the thinly disguised apologetics (Watt!) that often pass for serious scholarship on Islam.