It is not my intent to start blogging again, at least not any time soon, certainly not of the kind necessitated in 2006. I have been writing two books since 2008, one of them a Memoir, and I have been able to do this largely in the comfortable privacy of my home, or, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, minded by nothing more than a handful of seagulls. I plan to keep it this way. I find that this approach increases literary productivity. It also helps blunt the memories pastor Douglas Wilson has blessed me with. Please be assured that my last post was not an easy task.
However, I have been unable to put out of mind Douglas Wilson’s current bullying, shaming, threatening, and libeling of Natalie, a recent member of his flock. That alone I might have walked away from, but Wilson is offering all this as direct reprisal for Natalie’s public comments about the abuse she endured from one of his ministerial students – abuse that was just obliquely confirmed by a letter from Peter Leithart. So what to do?
I have decided to offer some of my experience with the other child rape scandal, involving pedophile Steven Sitler. In that case too, Wilson preached the protection of victims, while eagerly harming those victims most close at hand. Rob Dreher at The American Conservative gave Pastor Wilson a large space to respond to criticism regarding both instances of child rape, but regarding Sitler, Wilson’s response left Dreher confused,
Pastor Wilson married them, knowing that Steven Sitler, by the confession he made to the police at Wilson’s urging, was a serial pedophile. This is I do not understand. Nor do I understand the kind of church culture in which an elder of the church sets up a young woman who is anxious to get married with a convicted pedophile. And nothing Pastor Wilson wrote here makes it any more understandable.
The following events of summer, 2006, will certainly not offer a full explanation, but I think they will at least help make it all bit more understandable.
Simon [name changed] had been pursuing me for some time over a case of child rape. Local critics of Doug Wilson were visiting the courthouse and building the best case they could, but molding Pooh was Simon’s most important work. He told me that Pooh’s Think was the best place for this news to first break. I explained that I wanted nothing to do with it. To this, Simon began his gentle bullying. Did I not understand the gravity of this?
To me, writing about this was not consistent with the purpose of Pooh’s Think. What I had accomplished was specific: I had remained a loyal member of Wilson’s community while protesting specific corruption from Wilson himself. And I protested the corruption primarily by defending those who Wilson was attacking – Brian McLaren, an X-elder, X-members – while simultaneously publicly defending Wilson and my fellow congregants where I thought public attacks were unjust or unsound. I did not assume evil, but rather probed and investigated always in the hope that I had seen the extent of wrongdoing. The momentum building over this child rape case was different. It seemed to be little more than the search for anything capable of unleashing violent public sentiment. This was my explicit thinking at the time and the same reason I refused even a journalist student at the University in search of a story.
But Simon finally provided me an argument that grabbed my attention: This story was going to break no matter what, and if I broke the story, I would have more control over the backlash. Simon now had a draft of a public announcement that Evan Wilson, Doug Wilson’s brother, allegedly Okayed. Perhaps out of sheer exhaustion, I finally agreed to look at what Simon had written. After I read it, I was relieved to know that this huge headache could go away by simply posting a short Announcement that was actually meager in what it implied about Doug Wilson’s delinquency.
I forwarded the announcement to Wilson as soon as I posted it. Unexpectedly, Wilson began pelting my inbox with moral outrage and ridicule. I published this and my replies on Pooh’s Think as it proceeded, so our exchange amounted to a public debate. I promised Wilson I would immediately remove the Announcement and publicly apologize as soon as just one of the many gross errors he alleged were specifically pointed out, but Pastor Wilson refused to provide any specific information as the Announcement gained more traction on-line. It became obvious that Wilson wanted the Announcement up and he exited the debate only after he began the rhetorical attack he would maintain publically for months, years even: By posting this Announcement I had harmed the victims’ families. Precisely how I had harmed the victims’ families was never made clear, but as we will see, Wilson was determined to insure the victim’s families were harmed, even if he must accomplish this all on his own.
As I recall, the only person responsible for bringing the words “victims” or “victim’s family” into the public discourse was Wilson. As others pointed out, this was a brazen use of ‘human shields’ to divert attention from his own failure to communicate the presence of a serial predator to the larger community. I hated what was happening. I did not want Wilson and the foundations of the beautiful world of our ‘Kirk’ to be little more than pure evil.
Wilson published his own counter-announcement two days after the Announcement at Pooh’s Think. The public claim – it was a bit more than an insinuation – was that I was just as bad as this serial predator who had raped countless young children in multiple states. I was a “sick” enemy, locked in a psychological prison for which there were “no visiting hours.” The serial predator, however, was now a forgiven friend. What had this rapist done to earn approval? He submitted to Wilson. Simon’s 40 part series addressing Wilson’s response to the Announcement was eventually hacked and destroyed, along with my entire original blog, but even this did not cause Wilson to remove his counter-announcement, with its incessant mention of the victim’s families.
The actual reason why Wilson and my friend Roy, the President of New St. Andrews, did not notify the public or the student body of the predation is obvious and banal. But the faux reason Wilson and Roy provided curiously paralleled the way Wilson was now seeking to ignite his next war: “[W]e didn’t want the victims, who were children, to suffer,” Wilson told a reporter.
Recently, during a quick fact check, I happened upon a newspaper report of Roy’s claim that the publicizing of the local child rape and the criticizing of Wilson’s response to it “is almost as reprehensible as the act.” I think Christopher Hitchens captures the more appropriate sentiment, one I hope is shared by Roy in his less defensive moments: “[If] I was suspected of raping a child . . . I might consider committing suicide . . . If I had actually committed the offense, I would welcome death in any form that it might take. This revulsion is innate in any healthy person, and does not need to be taught.”
Soon, the phone call came that would complete my investigation of the person and work of Douglas Wilson. A woman spoke with shaky voice, an almost hysterical voice, and yet, with strange firmness.
“I wanted to call you and ask you why you are doing this, why you would do this to us.”
“I am not sure I know what you mean.”
“What you are doing on your blog. That you would use other members of the church like this.”
“I have tried to be very careful the last six months about what private information I released. No one knows who you are. But I would be happy to remove any reference from my blog for you. I am sorry this has upset you. Have you discussed this with anyone else, like your elders?”
“Yes, we met with Doug Wilson this afternoon,” she replied.
I did what I could to control my anger.
“Listen,” I began, still gently but firmer, “Nobody is discussing details about you or your particular case. Everyone is only thinking about their own children. But now that I realize your anguish over this, I would be happy to remove the public announcement. I will remove anything, everything . . .”
“No, you do not have to do that,” she interrupted. She now spoke slowly. She seemed disoriented and the anger was gone from her voice.
“Well, then would you be willing to tell me what you would like me to do different and what to change in what has been posted? Anything you say.”
“I am not sure. I would have to read it again.”
“Ok. Please read it again and call me back anytime, and let me know.”
“Ok, I will do that” she said. But these words seemed hollow; I did not anticipate I would hear from her again, and I did not, even though Wilson continued to publicly reference the new plight of the “victims’ families” living in Moscow because of what I was “doing.”
Wilson had this mother of some of the victims into his office not to comfort her, but to outrage her. This was his sole argument he had committed himself to publicly. The families of the victims were now on the public stage in so far as Wilson daily put them there, but now he needed to make sure they keenly felt it.
Wilson started writing to the local discussion board Vision 2020 again, and he publicly referenced this phone conversation. Wilson addresses me:
And you were then asked by someone directly harmed by your action to take them down, which you have not, as of five minutes ago. Michael, you are the emotional equivalent of a sucking chest wound . . .
In another post to all “Visionaries,” Wilson revealed, accidently it seems, what his intentions were in meeting with this woman. He wanted to inform her about what I had “done.” “When I talked to the victims’ parents about what Michael Metzler had done on his blog, and what was being done here, do you think the response from them was more like, ‘Oh, good,’ or ‘Oh, no’?” (my emphasis). Again, I was the one privileged to know the immediate result of the pastoral care this woman received during that meeting.
Curious details started to surface, such as Wilson’s letter to the judge requesting the judgment be measured and limited. The Southern Poverty Law Center would later take this up, noting the monstrous incoherence of wishing the death penalty for adulterers and homosexuals but asking for a limited ruling based on already very limited non-Mosaic laws regarding serial child rape. A parent of one of the victims, whether local or from one of the other states where this rapist preyed I do not know, wrote the Judge about what was really causing them ‘harm’:
. . . she was only two years old . . . It was painful enough to be told of the perversion that [he] committed against [our daughter] yet now we have watched for the last six months as an admitted child molester has been living in the comforts of his parent’s home, whiling away the days that should be spent in jail.
Wilson never notified the larger community or the student body of New St. Andrews of the predation, but it was also confirmed that the insufficient communication to the Kirk congregations – I, a father with young children, was not informed – was itself postponed for eight months. But for me, Wilson’s chosen response to the Announcement was the real scandal. He was not only willing, but eager, to trample underfoot the weakest within his care for only a small amount of his own political gain.
A few years later, the Kirk encouraged and facilitated the courtship and eventual marriage (permitted by the Judge after debate) between this paroled serial predator and a young woman connected to the Kirk. When visiting Leithart’s church during our visit to Moscow in 2011, we witnessed an elder, Patch, standing before the congregation, beseeching God to bless this new happy union. Walking down the aisle later, Patch darted a snarling glance at me.
I will not offer here an analysis of Wilson’s intentions and motivations, or the social-psychological mechanisms that he co-opted with astounding success – this was when the majority of the Kirk community was finally steered to fear and abhor me. But I will at least give you a clue, or that is to say, pass along the same clue Wilson provided me offline: Girard. “It is all in Girard.”
A couple people have asked for my thoughts on Pastor Douglas Wilson’s latest platform-building success. The current buzz regards Jamin Wight’s and Steven Sitler’s inclination to rape young children in Pastor Wilson’s care. One of the victims, Natalie, has taken a remarkable public stand about the care she received from Pastor Wilson after the abuse was revealed. In 2006, I refused to mention Natalie’s story on Pooh’s Think, and I have so far left Natalie and her abuser Mr. Wight out of my Memoir altogether. After all, Pastor Wilson might have had a point about Natalie the Seductress – as her pastor, he would know – and not too much blame can be given a young man allegedly thrown a-top a virgin by her own parents. I had my doubts about this narrative, but I was too embattled and too weak to investigate and risk further reprisal from Pastor Wilson.
Natalie was Sapphira, dead and buried, forgotten by the world, and I was one of the many fools that helped shovel the dirt. But somehow, Natalie managed to resurrect herself, taking on the pain and the remembering, demanding the world to listen. As of two days ago, my wife having mentioned this post of Natalie’s, I am finally listening too.
I will never fully understand the perverse, meaningless horror that Natalie had to endure, but thankfully, Natalie has, as necessary, worked to give her readers at least a glimpse. Her story is about surviving the long-term physical and psychological torture of a predator, but it is also a story about her community’s response to the revelation of that abuse. She was refused normal empathy and in fact shamed for tempting the rapist – the rapist, in turn, received exorbitant defense – and even now, her very own pastor, Douglas Wilson, is publicly lying about her in the hopes to trivialize her suffering and silence her dissent. Still, I do not think anyone in this discussion has so far considered how deep the roots of this social violence go. This was evidenced by the approval Dr. Peter J. Leithart has just procured by his one-time participation in the public conversation. Leithart moved one commenter “to tears” by his “honesty, sincerity, and humility.” Even Natalie and her parents have apparently accepted Leithart’s ‘apology.’ In what follows, I ask you to take a second look at Leithart’s short letter.
Even limiting ourselves to the evidence internal to the letter, we have good reason to think that Leithart is offering little more than preemptive defense, not an expression of genuine contrition: He didn’t know about the abuse when it happened; he did not really ‘side’ with the rapist; it was his ‘duty’ to sit with the rapist in court (instead of the victim); he did not ignore or excuse anything; and it was good that the rapist remained a “member in good standing.” At the end of the letter, when Leithart finally gets to his own wrongdoing, he confesses only “misjudgment,” specifically, the sin of believing the best of a repentant sinner, a sin that looks awfully similar to saintly behavior. “I thought he was a godly young man who had fallen into sin. That was wrong.” No, it wasn’t wrong, not according to the context Leithart provides. Leithart has given us no reason to think he actually did anything wrong here – we all have untrue (‘wrong’) beliefs we are not culpable for. Perhaps the praise Leithart procured is not too surprising. That was the point of writing the letter, was it not? I think we’ll know when Leithart is ready to tell the truth when his words have at least the potential to damage his ability to make money as a spiritual guide. Leithart is on record saying false things in the rapist’s defense, and for that, he says he is “ashamed,” but given his complicity in his community’s violence towards dissenters, coupled with pathological protection of submissive pedophiles, I do not believe him. I think ‘embarrassed’ and ‘worried’ are probably more apt.
Leithart also offers sweeping concern about our ability to publicly discuss the evil done to little children. He emphasizes his reluctance to say anything online – his friends had to tell him to do this – since his words could give “fuel” to irresponsible people, presumably those who falsely attack religious leader Douglas Wilson, with whom Leithart is still politically aligned. Implied is that all current debate on this is “overheated.” “The internet” is probably not a good place to “expose evil,” since using the internet leaves those most damaged without a voice – an absurd claim. If Leithart’s claims were true, then he has simply given us reason to think that Natalie is simply wrong to take her story to the internet in the first place. In fact, Leithart followed up elsewhere with the argument that all such matters should be adjudicated by church leadership and never by broader society, a quite perverse stance to take after the global child rape scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. And when Leithart does get around to forthrightly defending the integrity of another person, other than himself, it is not the victim, and certainly not the victim’s right to have a voice. Leithart defends the victim’s abusive pastor, Douglas Wilson.
The primary problem here is the abuse from Leithart’s and Wilson’s community in Moscow towards Natalie after the rape was finally revealed, especially from those in social power (i.e. leadership). Leithart saves this for the end: “I disbelieved the victim’s parents.” He does not admit that this positive action from him caused anyone further harm. Just the opposite, since he had “no direct contact with the victim.” He further adds, in a way sure to mislead anyone not very familiar with his religious community in Moscow, that the victim was the member of a different congregation. Actually, so I claim, Leithart was at that time helping Pastor Wilson silence and harm Natalie’s father while keeping control of his crucial Main Street business, Bucer’s Coffee House and Pub.
I still have a few questions. Was not Leithart at the court proceedings? Did he not hear any testimony, see any evidence? And why does he say he disbelieved only the parents? They were not witnesses to the crimes. Is not it Natalie he disbelieved?
A little over a year ago, I finally asked Leithart to consider the harm he did to me during that same 2005/2006 period. He refused to listen, and the irresponsible internet had nothing to do with it: I approached him off-line, and to my current knowledge, what you are reading here is the first time I have ever posted something critical of him – a painful thing to do since I love him.
(On this general topic of abusing the victim after the abuse, please see my post here. And I would recommend some pages in Liar’s Club as a way to further communicate a young girl’s experience of oral rape.)
In a previous installment, I asked the obvious questions about the intangible, heinous, and inexorable social power of the Islamic State:
Is this power derived from religious faith? If so, is it only Islam we should fear, or is this just one more iteration of the violence endemic to all classic monotheism?
I ventured the suggestion that George Packer has, the last week, brought us close to the beginning of an answer: the Islamic State’s indiscriminate massacre and torture are acts of purification, and the Jordanian pilot’s slow death by fire the ultimate sacrifice. The blood and dread serves to excite, unite, and grow the new community.
But before traveling further down this explanatory path, I want to back up for some context setting and take a look at what is, or at least should be, the larger debate.
There is no better place to start than new atheist and cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris, who has more than anyone helped galvanize the post 9/11 American imagination. In his best-selling End of Faith (2004) Harris announces that Americans should fear “the fall of civilization” given the new close proximity of religious fanatics to weapons of mass destruction. Religion – more exactly, religious faith – “has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years” and the “most prolific source of violence in our history” (26-27). “The problem is with Islam itself.” The reason Osama bin Laden intended to kill innocent men, women, and children is obvious.” Bin Laden believes “in the literal truth of the Koran.”
Some of Harris’ arguments are quite persuasive. Consider this one:
Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible, as does the spectacle of the public jubilation that invariably follows their deaths; insert these peculiar beliefs, and one can only marvel that suicide bombing is not more widespread (33).
Harris also points to results from a 2002 global survey of over 38,000 Muslims. The survey revealed a shocking acceptance of suicide bombing and violence against civilian targets: 82% of Muslims in Lebanon endorsed suicide bombing and violence against civilian targets, 73% in Ivory Coast, 66% in Nigeria, 65% in Jordan. A number of countries not included in the survey would have shown percentages higher than Lebanon’s 82%.
Holy War. An innocent, secular America caught in the cross hairs of the latest man of fanatical irrational faith, speaking on behalf of the Almighty. Or maybe not. In her newly released Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong tracks the interplay of religion and violence from the dawn of civilization up to today’s global jihad. For much of our history, Armstrong argues, all violence was sacred. We devised rituals to cope with our need to destroy beautiful and awe-inspiring animals when we roamed the wilderness freely in the dangerous hunt for food. Just so, the ruling elite of the new agrarian civilizations devised stories about their special mingling with gods – in need of some way to make intelligible the inescapable ‘structural violence’ in their communities, specifically, their control and exploitation of most the human population (land-working peasants). If the economics of civilization has always been intrinsically violent and religion intrinsically political, then religion has always been ‘implicated’ in violence, but never its ‘sole cause.’ If we really want to understand the causes of the insidious violence in the Middle East, we cannot continue to make a scape goat out of religion.
When Salon recently asked Armstrong about Sam Harris’s (and Bill Maher’s) opinion that there is “something inherently violent about Islam,” Armstrong responded this way:
It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. . . . Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university. . . . [John Locke] said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time. That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.
To the new atheist complaint over the ‘irrationality’ of religion, Armstrong reminds us that we will always have ‘myth,’ since that is what we are.
I am inclined to think that both of these polarizing stances carries an important truth. But I am more certain about an ironic similarity between Harris and Armstrong, one that has so far gone unnoticed. It is where they agree, perhaps inadvertently, that they are each deeply flawed.
More to come soon.
Subtitle: And Thank You God for Helping Us Burn Alive the Indian Women and Children 600 Years Later
You may have heard of or seen the mighty backlash to Obama’s mention of the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Of course, a little balance, a little history, a little humility, and little subtly when talking about the causes of war do not hurt anyone, particularly in these unsettling and confusing days of the Islamic State. But the Crusades? Okay. Tricky subject. The reference gave a little rope to the Fox News post-journalists – not enough to hang the President with, but at least enough to stuff up his nose.
If you read the transcript of Obama’s speech, you will see that his critics are not too concerned about what Obama actually said, in context, or the historical truth to his claims. I know, I know, no news here. But then there was this interesting criticism from Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC: “You can’t really go back to 1095. It’s so out of context. It is so much in passing. . . .You don’t use the word crusades in any context right now, it’s just too fraught . . . And the week after a pilot is burned alive. . .”
Ok, then, let’s fast forward 600 years and talk about the birth of our own nation – and we will even limit our discussion to burning people alive. You may not know that our very own puritan Pilgrims declared more Thanksgiving Days for the successful massacre of Indians than they did for successful harvest and feast. The will of God was straightforward, for example, when the Pequot refused to hand over those responsible for killing two slave raiders. In the pre-dawn hours, 700 Pequot, gathered for a festival, were ordered to come out. Once the killing began, the terrified women and children, huddled indoors, were burned alive. The Governor of Plymouth offered thanks to God for the successful operation:
Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.
The leader of the massacre wrote, “Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion? …sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…. We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.” Some of the Pequot were taken as captives. What to do? Leviticus 24:44 provided the answer. Kill most the men and enslave the women and children. According to anthropologist William Newell (and the Native Americans who still remember), the killing of the Pequot was the real occasion for our first ‘Thanksgiving Day.’ The stench of the burning flesh of women and children is a sweet aroma wafting into the heavens, a foundation on which to build the New World.
In any case, be glad that President Obama has made one more attempt at curbing American bigotry and arrogance. It was a step in the right direction, and we are all safer for it.
*Note: there is doubt that William Newell was head of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, as many web sites claim.
(Image from the Smithsonian ‘s article on the Pequot massacre).
Today, Google celebrates Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 148th birthday. I appreciated the nudge, since it called to mind Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. According to historian Jennifer Burns, although she “took no public credit, Lane was essentially a coauthor of the best-selling Little House on the Prairie series,” weaving “libertarianism delicately through the nostalgic books.” Google’s prod also revealed that it was not until this year that Wilder’s autobiography published, describing life as it really was: Pioneer Girl
As for Lane, she is known as one of the three founding mothers of the American libertarian movement and had the privilege of corresponding with Ayn Rand when Rand decided to move forward with her Atlas Shrugged. But as much as Lane tried to understand and embrace Ayn Rand’s developing individualism, she found herself opposing it at its core. Describing a typhoid epidemic on the prairie, Lane writes to Rand:
People ‘helped each other out,’ that was all . . . It was just what people did, of course. So far as there was any idea in it at all, it was that when you were sick, if you ever were, the others would take care of you. It was ‘common neighborliness.’ . . . The abnormal, that I would have thought about, would have been in its not being there . . . There IS a sense of ‘owing’ in it, of mutuality, mutual obligation of persons to persons as persons.
This way of thinking about moral deliberation and the role of ‘reason’ in our knowledge of the good is surprisingly similar to some of my work at the intersection of philosophy and cognitive neuroscience. What is ‘normal’ in our social environment disappears. It is not really ‘there for us’ in terms of conscious thought and deliberation. It is not positive perceptual stimulation that gives rise to what we explicitly see in the world. Rather, conscious engagement is provoked by the absence of the normal. What is ‘there for us’ is what unsettles, the new.
This is good company to have. Lane was skeptical of any talk of ‘rights’ that implied ‘dualism’ (which wasn’t as easy to do then as it is now) and she is known as one of the few intelligible libertarian moral philosophers of the 20th century.
Making use of hidden cell phones, the Islamic State’s sex slaves have made contact with the outside world. There are thousands of them – young Muslim women, some just over 12 years old, snatched from the lifeless arms of their butchered mothers. The brutality and disorientation they continue to suffer – between beatings and rape they hear sermons on why God does this to vile unbelievers – requires removal of all means of suicide. Stealing a moment for a private call, one of the women begs for the merciful bombs of American fighter jets. She does not want to hear that beautiful rumble from high to see her captors punished or that she may once again be free. She begs for the bombs simply so that she and the other women may die. Envious of the 41 women she knew who were successful at suicide, she pleaded, “Please call the plane, we want them [to] kill us, we want to kill ourselves.”
After spending time with refuges Angelina Jolie asks, “What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself.”
Even after months of now a billion dollar air campaign by the U.S. military has had little impact on the Islamic State’s control over its people and it ability to recruit and grow. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, has sought unconventional sources of expertise in trying to understand the Islamic State’s social power. “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.” Confidential minutes of phone conferences reveal that the three dozen experts consulted cannot agree on “whether [the Islamic State’s] main objective is ideological or territorial.” In response, General Nagata said he wanted “one hell of a debate.” After six weeks of debate, he explained that he still did “not understand the intangible power of [the Islamic State].” (See Eric Schmitt’s report here.)
Is the intangible power of the Islamic State the power of faith? Is this religious violence we are dealing with? If so, is the culprit Islam, or is this just one more iteration of a violence intrinsic to all monotheism? Is simply ‘religion’ the problem? I think George Packer is getting close to the beginning of an answer. In the New Yorker yesterday:
There’s an undeniable attraction in this horror for a number of young people . . . who want to leave behind the comfort and safety of normal life for the exaltation of the caliphate. The level of its violence hasn’t discouraged new recruits—the numbers keep growing, because extreme violence is part of what makes ISIS so compelling.
Even closer still is Packer’s elaboration today, while interviewed on NPR (I do not yet see any transcript): The Islamic State burned to death Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh as a sacrifice to unite and excite the group. This was an act of total purification.
*photo from here
There was nothing too disturbing about my little girl’s new cough, until we found her, late one night, with blood in her mouth. We are able to romanticize much of the evil we see in the world – a natural part of our repertoire of self-delusion – but no storyline made sense of the soft, subtle horror as I held in my arms this beautiful, frail, blood-stained girl.
My older son clung to his mother with all his strength as nature ruthlessly forced from him that hideous whooping sound. It was not enough for nature to devise a cough worse in extent, ripping up the insides like a hook in a fish’s throat. A special torment was needed, one differing in kind, although to this day I do not know what it is about this particular form of biological war that makes a young child literally cling to a parent for dear life – groping, squeezing, as if trying to survive an act of torture. “Like a common cold,” said one of the defensive California mothers this week.
We were an under-immunized family – young fundamentalists, enjoying life in a small farming and University town in North Idaho. That’s right, we were yokels, the usual Scopes trial hillbilly suspects. My wife had been talking to folks and reading up at the Center for Disease Control. I asked my doctor and he simply explained the math: so long as enough people are vaccinated, there is little risk for everyone. So everything was fine . . . until it wasn’t (thankfully, no one died).
But in case you have not heard, we yokels are not really responsible for this new measles epidemic in America. If over half of a bible-belt community had filed personal-belief exemptions from child vaccinations, we might have heard about it before now. As it is, the culprits live in some of the wealthiest communities in America – Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Orange County.
York Times Frank Bruni explains it this way: “You can be so privileged that you’re underprivileged, so blessed with choices that you choose to be a fool, so ‘informed’ that you’re misinformed.” This is such an enjoyable piece of prose that I almost wish it was true, but certainly the yuppies of coastal SoCal know at least as much as us foothill bumpkins did. As long as the lower ninety-percenters are cajoled into sending their children into the laboratory to get zapped, the wealthy can cruise their Tesla down the 101 with little concern about the underworld of violent disease. The new epidemic? All forms of oppression carry a risk. I would not be surprised if many of my wealthy American neighbors were uncultured fools, but I have a hard time believing that, as a general rule, they are underprivileged fools. I would place my bets on the hypothesis that these are rather shrewd over-privileged folks not lacking in knowledge of how our world really works.
Yes, pseudo-science is still a problem here, but given our new post-journalism age, this is not a problem with its own two feet to stand on; anti-science on the internet is attached to a larger dilemma. Besides, some skepticism is good, given all the irresponsible and arrogant rationalistic naturalism running loose today (more on that later). You cannot legislate appreciation for science. I no longer believe in the giraffe heads poking up out of Noah’s ark, but I needed some space to warm up to a more diverse medley of empirical method.
So this is the question that interests me the most on this issue: What of our freedom to choose? Can society or the government see to it that wild concoctions are injected into your very own children against your will? In some cases, the answer will probably be yes. As a free born American, I need these kinds of reminders: there really is no such thing as the pure Freedom I so desperately need and hope for. Total freedom is impossible. So the real question is this: Just how far is genuine Freedom from our grasp?
. . . off for a business meeting at Disneyland Hotel. Wish me luck.
*(note on image: A quick search for a picture brought me to the most disturbing group of images I have ever seen, and right in the middle of the horror was this little girl, who looks a bit like my youngest – from this blog.)
More than one person has approached me about Doug Wilson’s commentary on the scandal surrounding Vision Forum’s Doug Phillips. I had no desire to visit Wilson’s blog, but I was curious enough about the scandal to google ‘Doug Phillips.’ At the very top of the search results was a precarious blogger I knew from years ago. Second on the list was a recent Huffington Post series. A little further down, I found a hard-hitting, albeit tardy, article from the evangelical World Magazine.
‘This is what Wilson is talking about?’ I thought to myself.
So I read Wilson’s blog too. I was not disappointed.
After briefly acknowledging Phillips’ misconduct with three words, “tragic, sad, and humbling,” Wilson goes on at some length praising Phillips for the way he resigned from Vision Forum Ministries. More than a few words are also spent castigating Phillips’ public critics. God’s thoughts about them are obvious: “the enemies of the Lord can be readily identified.”
Because of my investigative endeavors while on my way out of Wilson’s inner ring (2005), I do not find this response surprising, or even curious. Yet, there is something about this new scandal, which is now partially constituted by Wilson’s chosen response to it, that finds important intersection with some of my current writing – ‘the book’ in particular.
My interest regards foremost the extent of incoherence in the person and work of Doug Phillips. Phillips was not your average down-the-street preacher. He was passionate about a highly specific cultural vision of chastity and marital fidelity, and this vision defined his core identity, both public and private. Further, his recently exposed naughtiness was not a ‘two ships passing in the night’ affair. The relevant rendezvous, many not explicitly sexual, spanned over a decade, often in the broad light of a Sabbath day. Please see Julie Ingersoll’s reporting at the Huffington Post for an introduction to Phillips’ alleged long-term oppression of the young lady that here concerns us. I would also recommend this site as a credible and comprehensive reference. What I want to better understand – I think I have made some progress already – is why it is so common for religious leaders to brazenly disregard precisely that good they passionately identify with.
Some of you might not be aware of my unique qualifications for speaking to this scandal. I was the one who was best poised to help ‘take down’ Doug Phillips back in 2006, but after an analysis of the evidence put forward, I decided to instead defend him. I eventually teamed with one of Phillips’ friends in the efforts to do so. This decision came at a personal cost. The aforementioned ‘precarious blogger I knew from years ago’ was the anonymous source of the evidence I refused to endorse. This blogger might be harmless enough, but she was then writing anonymously for Ministry Watchman, which was linked to a racist movement known as ‘kinism.’ It was to all appearances a kinist internet war that was launched against me in retaliation, a war that still lingers today.
The Huffington Post implies that the deviant relationship Phillips fostered was a partial result of his extreme patriarchalism. The young woman was under Phillips’ authority in his small church from the time she was fifteen, for example – a fact that Texas law, in its wisdom, is well poised to address. Wilson offers the counter-argument: the immorality was, rather, in spite of Phillips’ professed patriarchalism, and the feminist in this debate is caught in a contradiction: the woman should be treated as a responsible, independent adult while also defended as a dependent girl, incapable of simply packing her bags and leaving as soon as Phillips’ intentions became clear.
Such a simplistic construal of ‘freewill’ can be very useful for those enjoying social power. Part of the evil lurking behind this particular argument is that Wilson knows very well the reach of his own social power and the difficulty or even impossibility of someone simply ‘leaving’ relationships and institutions that have come to form a core part of their identity. Three men who had been close to Phillips for years perhaps revealed a bit more truth than intended when they expressed their dismay over the role that authority played in the aberrant relationship: “ . . . church leaders have a weighty obligation regarding the power they hold over congregants in their care.” [World Magazine, my emphasis]
Focusing on individual psychology, independent of social situation, does nothing to help Wilson’s argument. All heightening of Phillips’ advances would have likely been extreme violations of social expectation and trust and therefore, I would argue, should be seen as at least mild forms of rape. Please consider then the following confession of Halee Gray Scott, raped at age 21 by her church’s youth pastor:
Why did I let him in? Why did I not fight harder? Why did I just lay there, crying like that? Guilt fell on me like a bucket of hot ash. I wouldn’t know until years later the neurobiology of the assault response [see link in article] or tonic immobility [see link in article]. (From Christianity Today’s How I Beat Back the Darkness after Rape)
Wilson’s eldest daughter might not disagree that Phillips is responsible for something like rape. The entire thing, for example, “grosses [her] out.” But for her, the call to action is to think more deeply about how she can train her daughters to be the kind of women that can stand up to bad men. (Thankfully, this issue has more recently motivated her to try to empathize with abused women – an encouraging thing to hear from such an arrogance-drenched community.)
Back to the central point: Wilson, not at all happy about folks calling Phillips’ object of domination a ‘victim,’ thinks we ought to be wondering, instead, why this young woman and the entire family “wasn’t gassing up the car the next morning [after first obvious advance?] to head down the road to find a place where the spiritual leader wasn’t a toad” ( from this post). Again, the real trouble here is that Wilson knows why.
He did seem to slip at one point, when arguing that the ‘right kind’ of patriarchalism would have offered this young woman “insistance” that she “be moved to safety” (This point is made here) Yet, the only real victim, according to Wilson, is Phillips’ wife, even though she has taken up the same arrogant defense as her husband – as testified to by five of Phillips prior associates and friends, according to World.
What motivates Wilson to comment in this way? One motive seems undeniable to me: One of Wilson’s main competitors has just gone, quite literally, out of business. This rhetorical strategy is sure to provide some profitable market penetration.
I think it was early 2005 when one of my fellow ministerial students offered pastor Wilson the following question: “I saw that World Magazine did comment about the local controversy. Did they contact you about this?” Wilson said that he called the editor to explain that World was “missing the real story here in Moscow”. But this did not help. As Wilson explained, there is a growing void in evangelical leadership. All the old stand-ins are near retirement—John Macarthur, RC Sproul, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson. “World would like to fill that void and sees me as a competitor.”
That is all I have for now. Another topic that I think should be discussed, in relation to everything above, is the prevalence of covering up the sexual abuse of children within conservative communities.
The goal of Stephen Meyer’s recent book, Darwin’s Doubt, seems straightforward: clear an ecumenical path for the scientific viability of Intelligent Design. Of interest to me was Meyer’s detailing of allegedly non-Darwinian theories recently spawned from within the scientific establishment, the inevitable response – so the argument goes – to the still unexplained proliferation of new animal forms during the Cambrian period. Given Meyer’s humble underdog appeal, patient tutoring, and respect for the relevant sciences, I even found myself appreciative of his eventual philosophical argument for the classification of Intelligent Design as a ‘scientific’ theory.
But I wondered. What would the ‘other side’ have to say about all this? Gareth Cook’s review for the New Yorker satisfied some of my curiosity. Cook tells us that the “aim” of Meyer’s book is to “rekindle the ‘intelligent design’ movement” [all emphases here are mine]. The theory of intelligent design is “Probably best understood as the central element of a cunning legal argument,” for which the “engineers” of intelligent design “improved the disguise” of creation science. “Their agenda” was setback in 2005 when a federal judge declared intelligent design a “religion.” Darwin’s Doubt is “pseudoscience.” Meyer “appears” serious and reasonable. Those “who sense that science is a conspiracy against spiritual meaning will find the book a thrilling read.” The most “honest moments” come at the very end of the book, when Meyer offers a few personal reflections on meaning and the universe. “Here, at last, Meyer is not pretending to be a scientist.”
If Cook was after an accurate and informative book review, he failed. That may not have been his goal, however, in which case, he perhaps succeeded brilliantly. But I have saved Cook’s most striking comment for last:
Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.
This is decisively not the book’s explicit stance on knowledge. Meyer offers his theory as the ‘best explanation’ according to ecumenical criteria such as falsifiability and the ability to make predictions. I think the New Yorker owes a correction, and given the word “absurd,” perhaps also an apology.
If this is what the ‘other side’ has to say about Darwin’s Doubt, then I encourage everyone to buy Meyer’s book and read it.
But I pause. Crucial to Meyer’s argument is the satisfaction of this criterion: our scientific theories must appeal to causal connections observable in the world today. Meyer argues that good science can talk about design by non-physical Intelligence, even if we have no idea how this could work, since this is the explanation we give every day for the information-rich products of our own conscious, intentional acts. I do not think this argument works. That our intentionality and creative acts are themselves constituted by physical mechanisms is a defining assumption in current mind science.
Meyer side steps this problem, perhaps inadvertently, by appeal to the conventional ‘mind-body problem’ philosophers like to talk about, a reference to our apparent inability to explain, in principle, the subjective ‘what it is like to be me’ (consciousness) in purely objective terms. This might make for an interesting argument for the limitations of science, but that would not be what Meyer needs. Meyer needs to show that we do observe today, even though we cannot explain it, non-physical minds causing physical items rich with information. To do this, Meyer conflates this mind-body explanatory problem with an outdated Cartesian metaphysics. To complete his argument, Meyer appeals to a “principle” we see operative in the world today by which “immaterial thought” and “rational activity of mind” impresses “itself on the physical world.” Thoughts, decisions, and choices “occur in our conscious minds” and then somehow “affect our material brains, nerves, and muscles.”
Given the current state of the mind sciences and the now entrenched concern over ‘embodiment,’ Meyer’s centuries-old metaphysic is not going to work as part of an argument that otherwise seeks to appeal to the most current scientific questions and data. The problem extends beyond the abstract question of what kind of thing the mind is. The idea of ‘thoughts’ and ‘decisions’ existing inside ‘conscious minds’ gives expression to the lingering myth of the Autonomous Rational Self. If we are not god-like in this way – and we are not – then we do not have an observed model by which to conceive of a disembodied spirit willing new animal types into existence.
There is one other thing. Meyer’s overall story and argument suffers from a high degree of implausibility when set in proper context: After hundreds of millions of years of the natural development of the worm, a supreme intelligence decided to help things along by morphing the worm into a trilobite?
As a side note: I was inclined to offer more protest here to the arrogant ‘priesthood’ of science, but ambivalence settled in once I remembered the history from which this metaphor draws its power.
I do actually intend to blog again. It’s just that the surfing keeps getting in the way. . . . perhaps if I blog about the poetics and philosophy of surfing? It has been a watery world for our household: reading through Moby Dick, inching through the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and 10 hours over Cardiff Reef each week (dolphins, seals, whale spouts . . .).
I do happen to have news regarding the events of 2005, the same events that gave birth to the original Pooh’s Think of 2006 (hacked and destroyed by the opposition a while ago, sorry). I have just completed a letter to my friends: an introduction to the American Kirk and the story behind the story — some of you might recall I promised this some years ago. If you do not receive this and are interested, please shoot me a note.
While exploring a bit of American literature last year, I stumbled onto a topic that many folks today would call “homeschooling.” I was surprised by the author who provided the occasion: it was Paul Ryan’s preferred sage, the extravagant Ayn Rand.
I have inferred from Jennifer Burns’ outstanding autobiographical work on Rand (Goddess of the Market, Oxford, 2009) that Rand’s cultish authoritarianism, her drugs, her infidelity, and her own irrational rage—while protesting anti-rationality—have not entirely eclipsed her greatness, and her legacy they never could (you might recall Ted Turner’s 248 billboards asking, “who is John Galt ?”). Perhaps some social conservatives will consider the truth of this suggestion after venturing the following passage from Atlas Shrugged (page 785 in my Plume by Penguin, 1999):
She often saw them wandering down the trails of the valley—two fearless beings, aged seven and four. They seemed to face life as she had faced it. They did not have the look she had seen in the children of the outer world—a look of fear, half-secretive, half-sneering, the look of a child’s defense against an adult, the look of a being in the process of discovering that he is hearing lies and of learning to feel hatred. The two boys had the open, joyous, friendly confidence of kittens who do not expect to get hurt, they had an innocently natural, non-boastful sense of their own value and as innocent a trust in any stranger’s ability to recognize, they had the eager curiosity that would venture anywhere with the certainty that life held nothing unworthy of or closed to discovery, and they looked as if, should they encounter malevolence, they would reject it contemptuously, not as dangerous, but as stupid, they would not accept it in bruised resignation as the law of existence.
“They represent my particular career, Miss Taggart,” said the young mother. . . . “They’re the profession I’ve chosen to practice, which, in spite of all the guff about motherhood, one can’t practice successfully in the outer world. . . . I came here, not merely for the sake of my husband’s profession, but for the sake of my own. I came here in order to bring up my sons as human beings. I would not surrender them to the educational systems devised to stunt a child’s brain, to chaos with which he’s unable to deal, and thus reduce him to a state of chronic terror. You marvel at the difference between my children and those outside, Miss Taggart? Yet the cause is so simple. The cause is that here, in Galt’s Gulch, there’s no person who would not consider it monstrous ever to confront a child with the slightest suggestion of the irrational.”