A Syllabus of Errors
This blog is meant as a kind of antidote to many of the chapters you may have read in Disorientation. You will find 14 clear, digestible refutations of Zmirak’s cartoonish, hyperbolic “summaries.” Each chapter of Zmirak’s compilation is compelling, intriguing and disastrously wrong. Much of the moral confusion and pointless bickering in the media comes from this inclination to hyperbole with the few who cannot be convinced to accept anything other than archaic ideas facing off against the devotees of other concepts inconsistent with outdated or flawed worldviews.
Now that the parody is out of the way, let’s dive into Zmirak’s introduction.
The chapter begins with little more than rhetorical fluff, not unlike the paragraph above, asserting a conspiracy to impart false information to students. Claiming that these ideologies are so pervasive they effect every possible field of study (a sure sign of truth is consistency!). Humorously Zmirak claims that the essays in the book serve to summarize these ideologies – in reality they are anything but summaries. Each chapter sets up a satanic strawman and then participates in a public witch trial in which the wrong ideas are refuted in the wrong way.
On the very first page he makes the claim that “feminism and utilitarianism cooperate to undermine the sanctity of life.” These claims are refuted more fully in other posts but the idea that feminism is not a motion to value all lives equally or that utilitarianism does not value human life are patently false and directly refuted by the ideologies themselves. Likewise the assertion that the Gospel cannot be reconciled with Multiculturalism and Progressivism or that these are “the most dangerous ideas running loose today” (ever heard of terrorism, racism, nazism, fascism or religious absolutism?).
He then proceeds to make a confession that shall probably amount to the sum of any response to my refutation. He admits that none of these ideas are completely false. However he fails to account for the implications of even partial truth or the fact that his argument cuts both ways. The claim that “ideologies […] narrow our vision, whip up our emotions, and tempt us to throw aside common sense, faith and finally even logic.” made me chuckle – is he unaware that Catholicism and Conservatism are also ideologies subject to the same indict?
Next paragraph, at the end of this post is a list of the individual authors of each essay and their qualifications. Most of the time they are indeed experts in their own fields, as Zmirak asserts, however their fields are entirely unrelated to the subject matter of the essay itself. Also note that Zmirak concludes this paragraph by asserting a conspiracy among professors to punish students for presenting new ideas or contesting the status quo – he excludes the possibility that essays in a biology class asserting that science is false because Jesus existed might get failing grades for reasons other than mass conspiracy and fear in academia.
In the next paragraph he makes a couple of assertions that warrant attention. First that ‘bold new ideas’ serves as a counterpoint to the childhood idyllic world of “the Faith you grew up with.” (Perhaps he didn’t have the same experiences with ruler-wielding nuns that I did…). He proceeds to make the claim that there is nothing new under the sun, a classic way to justify older and outdated word-views as being justified because ‘Marxism really isn’t all that different from the Egyptians in Exodus.’ He concludes with one of the most fashionable conservative lies of our age – claiming that the essays in his book are simplistic (read: inadequate) because they “cut right through the crud.”
The next paragraph is fine, I actually agree that many of these ideologies can have a substantial impact on the lives of young people, I disagree with the assertion that those impacts are negative.
The paragraph after that however is hilarious. It starts our with the Weaver quote that “ideas have consequences” then segues into the argument that ‘North Koreans had ideas, and look at the consequences, also Iranians had ideas, they aren’t happy either.’ This argument begs the question by assuming that the ideas presented in the book are false or more dangerous than Catholic conservatism, something that has yet to be proven but is being argued enthymematically.
Then, just as most climate deniers, he proceeds to indict the value of consensus – a rhetorically brilliant strategy because it allows him to assert that an overwhelming disagreement by more qualified experts amounts to little more than conspiracy. Consensus has the same value as democratic vote, it prevents radical and inauthentic ideologies from being carried out, it is the reason freedom exists and stupid ideas are brushed aside before they become dangerous ones. Some people have dedicated their lives towards studying particular ideas and their views on those ideas should be valued equally – consensus and peer review provides a means towards achieving that goal.
The final two paragraphs are fairly religious. As promised I shall refrain from engaging the debate about if Christianity is true or not since I feel that Zmirak has not been given the space to present his arguments on that front. Still, I think it is important to note the claims that Christianity is the only thing that is true – something patently false, things such as mathematics can be more consistent and logical than scripture and present what might be called ‘truth.’ He also claims that every correct ideology is merely a reflection of Christianity, again this cuts both ways, if aspects of other ideologies are true then they must also be considered Christian. He gives no reason why every tenant of the Faith must be ipso facto truth other than the assertion that Christianity is truth itself. If something else true serves to refute a previously held belief the tenant of the faith can be exchanged for a new tenant to create a new faith. That is why the church can accept (although it took them awhile) that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. Just because someone believes something or has ‘faith’ in a concept does not mean that it cannot be disproven or contested. His call to the idea of an unchanging Church runs counter to scripture and God’s creation, both of which are in a constant and beautiful state of change. He says there is “always something about faith that rubs people the wrong way” and then rather than ask what the problem with ‘faith’ is he jumps to the ad-hominem that something must be wrong about people. Personally things like the Crusades tend to rub me the wrong way…
One last thing – he claims that the Catholic church “saved the great books of the ancient world from destruction during the Middle Ages” – this is false, most of the books came from the Middle-East after the end of the Middle Ages. Catholics actually burned vast quantities of ancient texts (http://fh.oxfordjournals.org/content/10/2/240.extract makes for an interesting read).
So, that’s my response to the claims prefaced in his introduction. Here are the qualifications I promised of the authors who wrote each of the essays:
Sentimentalism – Elizabeth Scalia – random writer for the Catholic blog “Catholic Portal at Patheos,” not sure if educated, writes under a pseudonym “The Anchoress.” No education in relevant 17th-century moral epistemological theories, seems to define ‘sentimentalism’ merely by her understanding of the word ‘sentiment.’
Relativism – Eric Metaxes – popular biographer, no education in moral theory, known for writing “Amazing Grace” which grossly misrepresented William Wilberforce’s child-labour interests behind the abolitionism movement in England, also writes scripts for Veggie Tales.
Hedonism – John Zmirak – our favorite editor! arguably the most qualified author in the entire book, his degree in English from LSU certainly speaks to his way with words. Also a self proclaimed expert on Catholics and their alcoholic beverages. He’s a neocon but it’s up to you to decide if that’s a bad thing.
Progressivism – Peter Kreeft – smart guy, very high profile PhD. apologist with a sense of humor, indicting him isn’t difficult because he says a lot but he might be in the running for most qualified propaganda writer, although not in the study of progressive politics, the one time they get a philosophy prof to write it’s about an unrelated field. Bigger fish than me have indicted him and his work here, here, here and here.
Multiculturalism– Robert Spencer – this guy’s work serves as it’s own indict, it is racist, totalizing and offensive to muslims and anyone with a sense of decency and respect for the beliefs of others. Most of his work strikes me as borderline hate speech and academically corrupt. Wikipedia does a better job explaining my issues with him than I can:
Karen Armstrong criticized Spencer’s citations of Islamic scripture as cherry-picked, stating among other examples that “Spencer never cites the Koran’s condemnation of all warfare as an ‘awesome evil’, its prohibition of aggression or its insistence that only self-defence justifies armed conflict…” She concludes that “His book is a gift to extremists who can use it to ‘prove’ … that the west is incurably hostile to their faith.” Spencer responds: “Yet the verse she quotes (2:217) actually says only that warfare during the ‘sacred month’ is an ‘awesome evil’ , and adds: ‘Persecution is worse than killing.'” Spencer accuses Armstrong of context-dropping by omitting the fact that this was a defense for Muhammad’s war in response to his persecution.
Benazir Bhutto accused Spencer of “falsely constructing a divide between Islam and West”. She said he was using the Internet to spread hatred of Islam by presenting a “skewed, one-sided, and inflammatory story that only helps to sow the seed of civilizational conflict”.
Dinesh D’Souza, of the Hoover Institution, wrote that Spencer downplays the passages of the Quran that urge peace and goodwill to reach one-sided opinions. He contends that Spencer applies a moral standard to Muslim empires that could not have been met by any European empire.
In an article discussing Bat Ye’or‘s 2005 book Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, French academic historian Ivan Jablonka refers to Spencer, saying he has made a specialty of denouncing Islamist threats and quoting Spencer’s own review of Eurabia as criticizing Europe for “selling its soul to the devil ‘in exchange for markets'”.
Spencer co-founded Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) and the Freedom Defense Initiative (FDI) with Pamela Geller. Both organizations are designated as hate groups by the Anti-defamation league and the Southern Poverty Law Center In the Summer 2011 issue of Intelligence Report, published by the SPLC, Robert Steinback listed Spencer as a member of the “anti-Muslim inner circle”, noting that “Spencer has been known to fraternize with European racists and neo-fascists, though he says such contacts were merely incidental.” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) listed Spencer as a “Smearcaster”, and stated that “by selectively ignoring inconvenient Islamic texts and commentaries, Spencer concludes that Islam is innately extremist and violent”.
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called Spencer and Geller American anti-Muslim writers because their writings “promote a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the pretext of fighting radical Islam. This belief system parallels the creation of an ideological — and far more deadly — form of anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” He continued, “we must always be wary of those whose love for the Jewish people is born out of hatred of Muslims or Arabs.”” “
Anti-Catholicism – Jimmy Akin – another random religious writer, at least he is writing in his field this time.
Utilitarianism – Dwight Longenecker – California Priest and christian author. No experience in philosophy or risk calculus worth speaking of. Clearly has no idea what “Utilitarianism” actually is since he defines it incorrectly from the first paragraph onwards.
Consumerism – Eric Brende – Amish at heart, minor Luddite, anti-technology, no experience in economics or capital theory, also, this essay is in direct contradiction to the one on Marxism
Cynicism – George William Rutler – random priest, no one thinks cynicism is good so he is preaching to the choir anyway, has trouble distinguishing between cynicism and skepticism a distinction that will be drawn in the corresponding post.
Feminism – Donna Steichen – writes about a very obscure and absurd thing that was called feminism in the 1980s but has since been replaced with modern theories of gender. She makes the claim that feminism is the root cause of witchcraft in her book. A website similar to my own breaks down each of her claims and refute them.
Scientism – John W Keck – by far this is going to be my favorite essay to respond to – but first about Keck – he is (was?) a crazy-smart physicist however he started to get political around 2006 and has been drifting right ever since. Nothing wrong with his science but I have some beef with his philosophy. Also one of the more qualified essay writers.
Americanism – Mark Shea – I like this essay despite it’s tensions with the Multiculturalism essay. It has some problems I will point out and Shea is by no means a historian or anything other than another random christian author (there do seem to be a lot of those)
Marxism – Jeffery Tucker – interesting guy, I’ll reply to his economic ideas with some of the big name ‘marxists’ (Zizek, Herod and friends) but for now suffice it to say that even this guy thinks capitalism should change (a recurring theme in his articles) and believes that all intellectual property laws should be eliminated because ‘everyone has ideas.’ He works for a libertarian think-tank as a hip conservative economist.
Modernism – John Zuhlsdorf – another random priest, no expertise in cultural or social studies and no idea what modernism is – frequent commentator on Fox News.