In case you were previously unaware, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller is soulless human garbage in a suit and shouldn’t have a role anywhere near the President of the United States. But Donald Trump is our president, Miller has been one of the longest-tenured members of his administration, and here we are.
You may not know much about Miller other than that he has a receding hairline and pretty much every photo of him makes him look like an insufferable dick. He also can claim the dubious honor of having his own uncle call out his hypocritical douchebaggery in an essay that made the rounds online. His own uncle. Let that sink in for a moment.
Of course, resting bitch face and do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior do not a monster necessarily make. Promoting white nationalist propaganda and conspiracy theories, obsessing over conceptions of “racial identity,” and invoking Hitlerian attitudes on immigration, though, are more conclusive signs.
In a series of E-mails between Miller and Breitbart News editors first leaked to the Southern Law Poverty Center by Katie McHugh, a former editor at Breitbart, the depth of Miller’s affinity for white nationalism is laid bare. SLPC’s Hatewatch blog, in reviewing more than 900 E-mails which span from March 2015 to June 2016, characterizes the subject matter of these messages as “strikingly narrow,” unsympathetic, and biased. Regarding immigration, Miller focused only on limiting if not ending nonwhite immigration to the United States. That’s it.
To this effect, Miller’s correspondence included but was not limited to these delightful exchanges and messages:
Sending McHugh stories from white nationalist websites known for promulgating the “white genocide” theory as well as those emphasizing crimes committed by nonwhites and espousing anti-Muslim views
Recommending Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel depicting the destruction of Western civilization through mass immigration of nonwhites, as a point of comparison to real-world immigration and refugeeism trends
Pushing stories lamenting the loss of cultural markers like the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments
Embracing restrictive American immigration policies of yesteryear, the likes of which were based on eugenics theory and were referenced favorably in Mein Kampf
Offering original conspiracy theories as to why the “ruinous” history of the Hart-Celler Act wasn’t covered in “elitist” publications
Hatewatch also revisited Miller’s history with prominent white nationalist figures to provide context for these E-mails. Specifically, Miller has connections to Peter Brimelow, founder of VDARE, a white supremacist website, and Richard Spencer, like, the poster child for white nationalism and the alt-right, from his time at Duke. He and Spencer worked together to organize a debate between Brimelow and journalist/professor Peter Laufer on immigration across our southern border. Miller has sought to refute this relationship, but Spencer has acknowledged their familiarity with one another in passing. Miller’s denial is, as far as the SPLC is concerned, implausible.
As noted, these E-mails are several years old and his time at Duke yet further back. Still, not only are these messages not that far behind us, but Miller’s fingerprints are all over Trump’s immigration policy directives. As Hatewatch has also documented, Miller was one of the strongest advocates for the “zero tolerance” policy which saw a spike in family separations at the border with Mexico, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis there. In addition, alongside Steve Bannon, he was a chief architect of the so-called “travel ban,” which is a Muslim ban in everything but the name.
Again, as the leaked E-mails and SPLC’s additional context hint at, there is a path to these policies in Miller’s past associations. As recently as 2014, he attended an event for the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative foundation which traffics in Islamophobia, introducing his then-boss Jeff Sessions as a speaker.
There’s his involvement with the Center for Immigration Studies, too, a anti-immigrant think tank (if you can call it that; the inclusion of the word “think” seems like a stretch) whose very founders subscribed to white nationalist and eugenicist world views and of which misleading/false claims about immigrant crime are a mainstay. Miller was a keynote speaker at a CIS conference in 2015 and has repeatedly cited CIS reports in publicly defending Trump administration policy directives.
As always, one can’t know for sure how many of Miller’s professed beliefs are true to what he believes deep down. After all, he, like any number of modern conservative grifters, may simply be leveraging the prejudices of everyday Americans as a means of bolstering his own profile.
Ultimately, however, as with his current employer, it is immaterial what he truly believes. His words and (mis)deeds shared with the outside world are what matter, and the zeal with which he has pursued bigoted, racist, and xenophobic policies and rhetoric conveys the sense he really means it. Like the saying goes, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Stephen Miller walks like a racist and quacks like a racist. I don’t know about you, but that’s good enough for me.
At this writing, 107 Democratic members of the House of Representatives and Mike Coffman, a House Republican, have called for Stephen Miller’s resignation or firing. It’s not just members of Congress either. Over 50 civil rights groups, including Jewish organizations (Miller is Jewish), have likewise condemned Miller’s bigotry. Predictably, the White House has used these calls for the senior adviser’s head as fodder for charges of anti-Semitism, much as the man himself has tried to use his faith as a shield from criticism in the past.
The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, though. You can be a Jew and still suffer from prejudice. None of us are immune herein regardless of our religious or political beliefs. Besides, the nature of the White House’s defense obscures the intent of the growing resignation demand. This isn’t a bunch of totalitarian leftists trying to exploit the E-mail leak as political weaponry. Miller has given his critics across the political spectrum plenty of ammunition throughout his tenure in the Trump administration. The leak is just the racist, Islamophobic straw that broke the camel’s back.
Does all of this outrage matter, though? Will President Donald Trump turn a deaf ear to the controversy surrounding Miller, more concerned with his own concerns over his ongoing impeachment inquiry? Would he consider keeping Miller in his present role just to signify his stubborn will and/or to “own the libs?”
It’s hard to say. On one hand, some of the worst crooks and liars have seemed to do the best (that is, last the longest) in the Trump administration. Betsy DeVos is still carrying water for Trump as Secretary of Education despite a history of evidenced incompetence and notions she, like Trump, is using her position to enrich herself. Kellyanne Conway continues to be employed despite being a professional author of “alternative facts.” And don’t even get me started about Jared Kushner. If that guy has any personality or foreign policy know-how worth sharing, it is unknown to the rest of Planet Earth.
So, yeah, Stephen Miller is a natural fit for the Trump White House and this bit of public outrage may just be a blip on the radar of his career as a political influencer. Then again, it may not. While several Trump administration officials have resigned, Trump has let the ax fall on occasion. Among the figures identified by CNN as either “fired” or “pushed out” are high-profile names like Jeff Sessions (Attorney General and Miller’s one-time employer), John Bolton (National Security Adviser), John Kelly (White House Chief of Staff), Michael Flynn (also National Security Adviser), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), and Steve Bannon (White House Chief Strategist), not to mention holdovers from the Obama administration like Andrew McCabe (FBI Deputy Director), James Comey (FBI Director), and Sally Yates (Deputy Attorney General). Heck, Anthony Scaramucci only lasted 10 days as White House Communications Director.
When not striking a defiant tone, Trump and Co. have also exhibited a sensitivity to low public support. That zero-tolerance immigration policy championed by Miller which will forever serve as a black mark on an already-checkered American legacy? It has been formally ended, though it has been reported that children continue to be separated by their parents and logistical problems facing the reunification of families remain. Alas, nothing goes smoothly with this administration, especially not when cruelty is on the agenda.
The president has additionally and vocally wavered on Syria, not only with respect to withdrawal of troops but whether to support the Kurds fighting there or to roll out the proverbial red carpet for Erdogan and Turkey after widespread bipartisan condemnation of abandoning our allies there. Trump’s not a smart man, but he can tell when the prevailing sentiment is against him. (Hint: If the chowderheads at Fox & Friends and 2019’s version of Lindsey Graham are disagreeing with you, you know you screwed up.)
All this adds up to the idea Stephen Miller’s job may not be as safe as we might imagine. Whatever the outcome, the pressure for him to be fired or resign should continue as long as he is one of the worst examples of what the Trump White House has to offer and one of the ugliest Americans in recent memory given his personally- and professionally-stated beliefs. As his leaked correspondence with Katie McHugh shows, Miller is even worse than we thought. It’s time to get him out before he does any more damage to the country than he already has.
When Rep. Ilhan Omar intimated that the United States’ alliance with Israel is motivated primarily by money and later responded to a tweet asking who she thinks is paying politicians to be pro-Israel with the one-word reply, “AIPAC!”, the first-term senator could’ve chosen her words better. After all, it’s not truly all about the Benjamins. There are legitimate cultural, ethnic, geopolitical and religious concerns to be had with mapping out the two countries’ strategic partnership.
All the same, Omar’s comments clearly struck a nerve, and not just because of her purported anti-Semitism. That she was so swiftly rebuked by members of both parties suggests that, despite her indelicacy, she was more right than many of her colleagues would like you to know. In addition, the backlash Rep. Omar has received provides yet another lesson about the substantive role money plays in American politics and the degree to which it holds sway over the two major parties.
As always, context helps. This past Sunday, an article appeared on Haaretz.com regarding House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s vow to take action against fellow representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar for their criticism of Israel. In McCarthy’s mind, these women’s views are on par with or worse than that of Steve King, whose defense of white supremacy has prompted bilateral calls for his removal from key House committees, and in some cases, his outright resignation.
Even the authors of the Haaretz article noted it was unclear to what comments McCarthy was referring and, thus, to what extent anti-Semitism played a part. Speaking less diplomatically, though, come the f**k on.
In Tlaib’s and Omar’s case, their most notable “offenses” have been their support for the BDS movement, which advocates for boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions of Israel for creating what supporters of the movement liken to an apartheid state. It’s a controversial movement in that its criticisms of Israel are met with their own countercriticisms that A) Israel is not an apartheid state, B) BDS is anti-Semitic, and C) these criticisms of Israel would seek to delegitimize it.
In King’s case, meanwhile, it’s repeated defense of white supremacist talking points. The man has also repeatedly re-tweeted and met with far-right nationalist leaders across continents. At the very least, McCarthy is engaging in a bit of disingenuous whataboutism. Either way, it’s an implausible false equivalency. Besides, Tlaib and Omar are new to the D.C. scene and don’t possess nearly the stature and platform King does given his veteran experience in Congress. Rep. King has been dining on nativist bigotry while holding a federal public office seat for over a decade now.
With all this in mind, journalist Glenn Greenwald reacted to the cited piece with a tweet broadly condemning U.S. political leaders for their defense of a foreign nation at the expense of Americans’ free speech rights. To which Omar retweeted Greenwald with the titular line from the seminal Puff Daddy hit, setting off a political firestorm.
In the minds of many, it wasn’t just that Omar was inaccurate with her invocation of AIPAC and the Israel lobby, but that she appeared to do so by trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes. For Omar’s detractors, here were the tropes about “Jewish greed” and “Jews control the world with their money” all over again. The reference to AIPAC also ruffled feathers by suggesting that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is not an actual political action committee or PAC, gives donations directly to members of Congress. AIPAC merely encourages people to be generous with their contributions to pro-Israel members of the House and Senate. And it spends its money on lobbying, not on individual candidate campaigns.
But lo, how it spends on lobbying. As Matthew Yglesias of Vox fame explains, in 2018, AIPAC spent $3.5 million on lobbying, far and away the most when it comes to foreign policy influence (second on the list is UNICEF, which managed less than $1 million). This doesn’t include what Yglesias describes as “lavish” accommodations and airfare for trips to Israel for members of Congress and their families.
Accordingly, for all the furor over Rep. Omar’s tweets, precipitated by a largely unfounded attack on her and another female Muslim congresswoman, there was a teachable moment about how money in politics impacts stated policy positions and influences policy directives. In the ensuing outrage, however, that got lost.
Instead, people tweeted their dismay, pro-Israel members of Congress expressed their indignation, and even Chelsea Clinton somewhat bizarrely weighed in to advise Omar against reliance on anti-Semitic tropes “as an American” and, evidently, as a self-appointed arbiter of responsible language toward Jews and Israel. By the time Nancy Pelosi was condemning Omar’s remarks, the track to the Minnesota representative’s apology was well-oiled. Within a day of her initial retweet of Glenn Greenwald, Ilhan Omar issued a public mea culpa, taking absolutely the right tone. She professed that she never meant to offend her constituents, Jews, and the combination therein and indicated a willingness to accept criticism and learn from episodes like this.
As mentioned earlier, the magnitude of the outcry against Omar and the rapidity with which it occurred were striking, and the fallout from the fracas is still being felt. President Donald Trump himself, a man who is no stranger to controversy, rejected Omar’s apology as “lame” and made his preference known that she be removed from committees or asked to resign much in the way Steve King has been. Indeed, even for some of those who appreciate the nuance of what Omar was saying and the point she was trying to make about the corrosive nature of lobbyist money, they lament how she has given cannon fodder to the Republican Party and risked driving a wedge between her own party. So much for the power of social media.
And so much for that teachable moment. What could have been a meaningful dialog on the role of money has since degraded into a reflexive conversation about what constitutes anti-Semitism. This is not to say, of course, that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist or that it isn’t on the rise. Heck, a man ran unopposed as a Republican for Congress in the state of Illinois as a Holocaust denier just last November and got 25% of the vote. Still, if there was a lesson learned, it was not ours, but rather Omar’s. The lesson was to watch what you say about the pro-Israel lobby, and while instructive, it’s not all that gratifying for her or the rest of us.
Ilhan Omar’s apology was intriguing in that it was “unequivocal,” yet still strove to reaffirm the problematic nature of lobbying as it concerns AIPAC, the fossil fuel industry, and the NRA, to name a few. For the townsfolk holding torches and pitchforks, this was only salt in the proverbial wound and a hollow apology. From my standpoint, I believe Omar was sincere in what she said and that her allusions to Jewish stereotypes concerning money were unintentional. Granted, she could’ve chosen her words better, but there was more substance in her words than reporting on this to-do would lead the casual news consumer to believe. If her apology seemed forced, it’s likely because it was made to appease the members of Congress who disagree with her stance—both those who would weaponize it for political gain or discourage it because of fear of that very phenomenon.
In referring to the disingenuousness of Kevin McCarthy’s part in all of this that started this controversy off and running, his participation is not without a sense of irony. McCarthy made an appeal prior to the MAGA base in October warning voters to choose Republican in the 2018 election so as not to “allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election.” If Omar’s tweets can be branded as anti-Semitic, McCarthy’s (now-deleted) tweet sure can.
He’s not the only one. For all of the kosher meat Donald Trump has been throwing to the Zionist cause since being elected, prior to that, he was using anti-Semitic tropes and depictions of cash next to pictures of Hillary Clinton, dog-whistling from his platform as presumptive Republican Party nominee. Just because these men aren’t Muslims or don’t support the BDS movement doesn’t mean the allegations against them are any less valid.
As much as AIPAC’s mention has been papered over by the mainstream media, moreover, there are those who would defend Rep. Omar for her attention to a group that routinely deflects criticism from its membership and from the Israeli government, branding dissent as anti-Semitic and intimidating those who advocate for anything other than the status quo. Glenn Greenwald, for one, sees Omar’s censure as a segment of a pattern, pointing to attempts by Haim Saban, the Democratic National Committee’s top donor and outspokenly pro-Israel, to label Democrat Keith Ellison, also a Muslim, as an anti-Semite because of his public condemnation of Israeli expansion of settlements into contested lands.
It’s not like AIPAC has exactly been flying under the radar lately, either. As Ryan Grim of The Intercept recently reported, leaders of the pro-Israel lobby were caught on camera discussing the extent and nature of their influence, detailing how the Committee and its donors organize events in such a way so as not to be tied to the funds they generate. Plus, there’s the whole business of AIPAC using Ilhan Omar’s controversy in it of itself as a cause for a fundraiser. Nothing demonstrates your indignation and your support of Israel like a hefty donation. Please—be generous.
Despite calls for her head, so to speak, Omar has handled this whole situation with aplomb and has not backed down from her critics—at least not the Republican ones. She notably fired back at Pres. Trump pointing out to his track record of spewing hateful rhetoric following his aforementioned rejection of her apology.
Thus, as unfortunately as some would insist this all played out, the strength and—dare I say—chutzpah she and Rashida Tlaib have shown when dealing with negative attention suggests the Democratic Party’s diversity truly is a strength. It’s up to the Democrats to decide whether or not they’ll stand behind strong progressives like them or let moneyed interests dictate who they support and when.
Without having seen one of his YouTube videos or hearing him speak, I have to rely on second-hand accounts about intellectual and psychologist Jordan Peterson and his ideologies. From what I have read and witnessed about him, Peterson is a charismatic orator, a gifted debater, and intellectually brilliant. He’s also apparently arrogant, confrontational, and dismissive of opinions that are not his own. To even acknowledge his burgeoning popularity is to give credence to his platform and potentially invite a backlash from his adoring followers (though, given my limited readership, this probably all but negates the risk).
So, what is the appeal of writing a blog entry about Jordan Peterson, other than that I needed someone or something about which to write and I didn’t feel like writing about the Trump administration for the umpteenth time?
I suppose my interest was piqued in Peterson only in the last few weeks or so when I began to encounter an onslaught of negative press about the man, his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, and his musings about “enforced monogamy,” the latter of which supposedly is a not a dystopian, government-controlled “insistence” on the virtues of monogamy, but rather a socially and culturally promoted set of ideals which likewise supposedly is reflected in anthropological, biological, and psychological research and theory.
“Enforced monogamy” also informs Peterson’s belief as to a solution to the likes of the attack allegedly perpetrated by Alek Minassian in Toronto last month, evidently a participant in so-called “incel” culture comprised of “involuntary celibate” men who show resentment toward a society that denies them the ability to have sex, actively or otherwise. As Peterson sees it, enforced monogamy is the cure for that anger, and specifically in Minassian’s case, he was angry at God. This despite any stated political or religious affiliations as indicated by authorities at the place and time of the incident. But, hey—maybe this is just another indication of Peterson’s brilliance that he was able to divine this information!
Some of you may read these musings of Jordan Peterson’s on monogamy and the Toronto van attack and think, “Well, this guy is full of shit—I’ve heard all that I need to hear.” Such is well within your right to believe. You may commence with skimming this article and head toward the conclusion. Still, for those of you like me who choose to dig deeper, beyond the headlines that may exist if only to bait you into clicking and to engender outrage (or are just plain masochistic), it’s worth it to study Peterson’s worldview with the help of those who have reviewed his public statements at length or those who know him personally.
One such reviewer is known by the nom de tweet Natalie Wynn, a transgender ex-academic with a background in philosophy who comments on the cultural and philosophical issues of the day from her YouTube channel ContraPoints. In her latest video, Wynn, while jokingly alluding to Peterson’s past invocations of hierarchies in lobsters in talking about human societal order and putting Peterson’s face on a dummy’s body and soaking with it in a bathtub—this is part of her offbeat charm—acknowledges that after listening to his podcasts, reading his books, and watching his videos on YouTube, she gets why people like him.
For Natalie, Peterson has real talent as a public speaker and life coach, with his major distinguishing quality being that Peterson infuses traditional self-help verbiage with biblical insights, Jungian psychoanalysis, philosophy, and psychology. In this respect, nothing that he presents is really new—especially if you’re familiar with the trappings of AA, Ms. Wynn quips—but as far as she is concerned, from a self-improvement standpoint, more power to the Canadian psychology professor.
The issue with Peterson’s life coaching, however, as Wynn views it, is that it is a “Trojan horse for a reactionary political agenda,” one that opposes progressive politics as something “totalitarian and evil.” Peterson refers to progressive politics by the term postmodern neo-Marxism, and Wynn, using her educational background, painstakingly dissects this use of the terminology. Going through a cursory-yet-lengthy history of modernism, she eventually gets to a point that Marxism is a fundamentally modernist worldview that theorizes the human condition in economic terms, while postmodernism is a kind of skepticism that denies humans’ capacity for knowing universal truths about the world around them.
Accordingly, these concepts would seem to be at odds, and Peterson’s use of the term would only seem to enhance the confusion. As Natalie Wynn outlines, Jordan Peterson’s animus is levied upon a rather nebulous group that includes administrators at colleges and universities, civil rights activists, corporate human resources departments, feminists, liberal politicians, Marxists, postmodernists, and so-called “social justice warriors (SJWs).” It’s a problematically loose association of leftists which ignores the tensions that tend to exist between so many of the subgroups under this umbrella and on which Peterson tries to pin the downfall of Western civilization amid his fearmongering.
Likewise problematic is Peterson’s concept of “the West.” As Wynn breaks it down, Peterson’s “West” is emblematic of concepts like capitalism, individualism, and “Judeo-Christian values,” while “postmodern neo-Marxism” is aligned with anti-Western sentiment, collectivism, relativism, and totalitarianism. Marxism and postmodernism, as Wynn elucidates, are Western philosophies, so this immediately calls Peterson’s framework into question, as does his insistence on SJW ideology as a non-Western function.
Moreover, Wynn argues, if Peterson were really concerned about celebrating individuality, he would be more open to, for instance, the use of gender-neutral pronouns to suit the needs of individual students (Peterson made headlines when he vowed he would refuse to comply with any provincial laws on the use of “alternative” pronouns). In addition, if he were more insistent on preserving “the West” as a geographical and philosophical construct, he would, you know, rail against Buddhism, or own that the Marquis de Sade, for one, was into some stuff that doesn’t really fit with “Judeo-Christian values,” and he was from the West. By these standards, Peterson’s categories seem woefully arbitrary and haphazard.
Thus, despite her mild admiration for Peterson’s attention to the tendency of some people on the left to shout down even slightly different opinions, as well as an appreciation for the need to provide folks with a positive, proactive ideology rather than a liberal focus on everything one shouldn’t be doing and a preoccupation with how society oppresses people without a path to corrective action, Natalie Wynn sees a real danger in Jordan Peterson’s anti-leftist rhetoric.
She’s not alone, either. Bernard Schiff, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto and someone who knows Peterson well as one of his historically staunchest defenders against other faculty at the university, recently penned a special opinion piece for the Toronto Star regarding his change of heart, so to speak, on Peterson and his methods. In Schiff’s opening to his expansive essay, he sets the tone for the piece by explaining what he admires about his colleague, and why he has more recently pivoted on someone he has considered a friend:
I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.
I was once his strongest supporter.
That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.
So, why did Schiff have to defend Peterson as a fellow professor among the faculty at the University of Toronto? Shocker!—though his celebrity may be bringing out the very worst in him, Peterson was always kind of a son of a bitch. Schiff concedes that Peterson possessed a rather immaculate record prior to his arrival at the University of Toronto, and despite misgivings from others about his “eccentricity,” he advocated for Peterson because he thought he could bring a fresh energy and new ideas to the department.
As it turned out, though, according to Schiff, Peterson wasn’t just a little “eccentric.” He sparred with the university’s research ethics committee, suggesting they lacked the authority and expertise to weigh in on his work (despite, you know, it being their government-mandated job to serve this function). He also, alongside numerous enthusiastic reviews from people who had taken his courses and a rapt audience of those who attended, repeatedly acknowledged the dangers of presenting conjecture as fact, and promptly went ahead and did it anyway in his lectures.
For Schiff, this was fine, albeit vaguely concerning; no one was getting hurt, and Peterson’s sermons were largely confined to the classroom. The turn came, however, when Peterson not only misrepresented the relationship between biology and gender in his opposition to Bill C-16, the aforementioned gender-neutral pronoun policy, but misrepresented his own risk at not supporting the law:
Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.
I have a trans daughter, but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him. It was an abuse of the trust that comes with his professorial position, which I had fought for, to have misrepresented gender science by dismissing the evidence that the relationship of gender to biology is not absolute and to have made the claim that he could be jailed when, at worst, he could be fined.
In his defence, Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech. He was a true free speech “warrior” who was willing to sacrifice and run roughshod over his students to make a point. He could have spared his students and chosen to sidestep the issue and refer to them by their names. And if this was truly a matter of free speech he could have challenged the Human Rights Act, off-campus and much earlier, by openly using language offensive to any of the already-protected groups on that list.
Perhaps this was not just about free speech.
Subsequent actions by Peterson to oppose legislative attempts by the province of Ontario to defend additional trans rights grew all the more worrisome. Peterson railed against the proposed Bill 28 under the premise that it “subjugates the natural family to the transgender agenda.” First of all, and apropos of nothing, the man missed an obvious opportunity to coin a portmanteau in transgenda. Secondly, what the heck is the “transgender agenda,” anyway? And how does it relate to a bill that sought to change the language about families away from “fathers and mothers” to “parents”? Bernard Schiff, for one, is confused, and I find myself similarly perplexed. You might, too.
This sense of wonderment quickly gives way to genuine fear, meanwhile, when considering Jordan Peterson’s conflation of Marxism, the left, and murderous regimes like those of Joseph Stalin that pervert their professed ideology to serve the purposes of the individual at the helm. Here is where Bernard Schiff’s concerns begin to echo those of Natalie Wynn’s. Wynn explicitly states her belief that Peterson is not a fascist. Whether or not Schiff believes Peterson has fascist tendencies is less clear, though he does make allusions to other people’s characterizations of Peterson and fascists in general, so that might tell you all you need to know. Regardless of exact labels, Schiff sees parallels between Peterson’s anti-Marxist, pro-status-quo language and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti-immigrant fervor. Obviously, this is not a flattering association.
Ultimately, Schiff puts forth that while he may be overstating the potential threat posed by his colleague, to remain silent presents its own risk—one he is not willing to take. Schiff, in suggesting that Peterson does not play by some of his own 12 rules—notably the ones involving assuming the other party knows something you don’t, pursuing what is important and not just what is expedient, telling the truth, and using precise language—expresses regret. Part of that regret lies in his inability to see Peterson’s rise as a self-styled cultural “warrior” coming despite the apparent warning signs. The other half of his regret, if you will, is his role in bringing Peterson to the University of Toronto in the first place. As Schiff plainly writes, “I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now.”
Part of what makes Jordan Peterson so frustrating to talk about is his seemingly intentional inscrutability, a quality his devotees laud as a virtue in that the “liberal media” can’t neatly fit him into a box. Indeed, Bernard Schiff goes to great lengths trying to plot out Peterson’s inconsistences. He defiantly asserts his own right to free speech, but then actively tries to steer students away from professors whom he associates with “postmodern neo-Marxism.” He claims to be a champion of scientific research and inquiry but rejects attempts by university administration to scrutinize his methods and cherry-picks data to prove his point. He, like so many conservatives, decries those on the left he sees as willing victims, but plays the martyr when challenged all the same. He’s calm and collected one moment, and angrily confrontational and defensive in the face of criticism the next. It’s a pretty maddening study in contracts.
Equally frustrating is trying to engage Peterson in a conversation on his terms. Natalie Wynn provides examples of Peterson’s rhetorical style, which essentially puts earnest interviewers like Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in a no-win situation. As Wynn frames it, Peterson verbalizes something generally accepted to be true, while at the same time implying something more controversial and possibly unrelated. For instance, he’ll say that “there are biological differences between men and women,” but in the context of the underrepresentation of women in government. Your apparent choice is either to fall into the trap of arguing against the factual information Peterson presents, or to try infer a meaning by which he can argue that you’re misrepresenting his point of view. Whatever that may be.
Wynn highlights how Peterson used this kind of argument with respect to his famous/infamous “lobster” comment, when he led with a discussion of the notion that human social hierarchies are a construct created by Western patriarchy, and followed that with a note about how lobsters exist in hierarchies and how this structure has existed before Western patriarchy. The problem with this line of discourse, instructs Wynn, is that no one is arguing hierarchies are a product of “Western patriarchy,” and that lobster hierarchies are a non sequitur to the discussion of human social hierarchies. That is, no one is trying to start a lobster revolution. Peterson’s argument, as intellectual as it sounds, is gobbledygook, more or less.
Another oft-cited moment in the Newman-Peterson interview was when Newman asked Peterson why his right to freedom of speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended, and Peterson countered by asserting that “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive,” and answering her question with another question: “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that?” Peterson’s extended response left Newman all but speechless, to which he interjected, “Ha! Gotcha!” Newman, flabbergasted, conceded defeat on this point. This moment is Exhibit A in Peterson’s supporters’ evidence that their icon “won” the interview over Ms. Newman, or “destroyed” her, or “obliterated” her, or did something else to nullify her very existence. Because there has to be a winner or loser in these types of discussions. Right.
Looking back at Peterson’s statements, it’s easier to find the flaws in his reasoning. To equate his personal offense at being challenged to a trans individual’s right to self-identification is a false comparison. This is to say that Peterson’s taking umbrage to a reporter’s queries results in nothing more than his personal irritation, while attacks on personhood for the trans community, a minority group, can lead to continued abuse and physical assaults. It’s not the same thing, something Cathy Newman might’ve been able to express given the time to parse out Peterson’s logic. You or I might’ve found ourselves similarly flummoxed in the same situation against such a skilled orator.
On top of this, Cathy Newman’s reward for attempting to take Jordan Peterson to task for expressed viewpoints and for inadvertently helping to elevate his stature? Numerous vicious personal threats. Peterson did intercede amid the harassment to ask his followers to back off, but his is the kind of sermonizing about the need to defend “Western” culture with obvious appeal to straight white Christian males that lends itself to preemptive strikes against members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, women, and everyone in between. When cultural debates are characterized in the context of a “war,” those who take up the fight with earnest believe all is fair, but this is not automatically the case.
Natalie Wynn ends her segment by abnegating personal responsibility in the debate about Jordan Peterson’s merits, professing she only likes to make YouTube videos for their production value. Bernard Schiff ruefully acknowledges his personal failure in identifying Peterson’s dangerous patterns of behavior and likens his (Peterson’s) desire to preach from the pulpit to the designs of late evangelist Billy Graham. Perhaps there is no single conclusion to be reached about Peterson that would prove satisfactory.
A common thread between the analyses of Wynn and Schiff, though—and one to which I might subscribe in my own thinking—is the idea that maybe those outside his vanguard need to take his meteoric rise more seriously. The “experts” who downplayed the threats of a “Brexit” or a Donald Trump presidency were summarily proven wrong. The hubbub about Jordan Peterson could be much ado about nothing. As with Schiff’s decision not to stay mum, however, do you believe it’s worth the risk of ignoring him?
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
In November of 2017, avid Donald Trump supporter Mark Lee, as part of a panel of Trump voters speaking with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, spoke about Trump’s possible collusion with Russia in the context of religious faith. His comments, which made the rounds on the 24-hour news cycle/water-cooler political discussion loop, were truly astonishing to many. Here’s the one that had people, if not up in arms, scratching their heads:
Let me tell you, if Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, “Hold on a second: I need to check with the president if it is true.” That is how confident I feel in the president.
You read that right. Hold on, Mr. Savior, I have to ask President Trump if what you’re saying is God’s honest truth. Beyond the seeming absurdity of this scenario—Jesus returned just to tell Trump supporters about his connection with Russia?—the expressed faith in Trump above all others (and I am not using the word faith lightly) was duly baffling.
When Camerota pressed Lee for additional context, Lee, a pest control business owner who expressed vague notions of Trump being an advocate of the little guy, America-first, a drainer of the swamp, and a non-politician, stressed his belief that Trump is a good person, and that he (Trump) “has taken so many shots for us.” Presumably, that “us” is the American people, and any backlash is related to jealousy of his constant “winning.” Dude can’t help it if he’s so famous, handsome, and rich—that’s just how he rolls.
Any number of observers might choose not to share Mark Lee’s views. Heck, I sure don’t. Still, as extreme as Lee’s stances might seem, they may not be that far off from other people’s admiration for or faith in the current President of the United States. Reza Aslan, author, commentator, intellectual, and religious scholar, recently authored a video for Big Think about his notion that the Trump presidency is a religious cult. At first blush, Aslan’s comments might seem as grandiose as Lee’s. Trump as a cult leader? And his devotees are the ones who have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid?
For all our skepticism, though, Aslan does make his case in a very well-thought-out manner. First, before we even get to “why” certain Americans feel compelled to hold up Donald Trump, there’s the matter of “who.” Aslan cites a statistic that 81% of white evangelists who voted in the 2016 election went for Trump. That’s pretty significant, especially when considering that’s a higher percentage than George W. Bush received, an actual white evangelical. What else is significant about this figure? Well, for one, 67% of evangelicals of color who voted cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. Thus, when Aslan instructs us not to ignore that there is a racial element to Trump’s support, we would be quick to agree that he ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.
As to why, however, white evangelicals “acted more white than evangelical” in their backing of Trump, as Aslan and others have put it, one element Aslan points to is the influence of what is known as the prosperity gospel. Loosely speaking, this is the idea that financial success is God’s blessing, and through faith, preaching the word of God, and, of course, generous donations, one’s material wealth will increase. In other words, if the Lord didn’t want you to have that Mercedes-Benz, he wouldn’t have made it so dadgum shiny. This is the sort of Christianity that Aslan explicitly dismisses and rejects, associating it with the likes of “charlatans” like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, but given Trump’s boasts of wealth and ostentatious displays of such, it makes sense that Christians who adhere to this doctrine would back him, even when his spiritual credentials are, er, lacking.
Additionally, Aslan points to Trump’s promises to afford secular benefits to white evangelical groups and other religious affiliations. In Trump’s apparently ambiguous vows to “give them back their power,” Aslan points to Trump’s willingness to defend Christians in their goal of making a stand on specific issues—even if he may not agree with their positions on those underlying issues—as well as his indication of intent, for instance, to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations like churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Just a few days ago, Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of the Treasury not to find churches guilty of “implied endorsements” much as secular organizations wouldn’t be. Never mind that this could help create a slippery slope that allows churches to bypass campaign finance laws and effectually become partisan super PACs. That sweet, sweet support from the religious right is too much to ignore.
Meanwhile, all of this may merely be prologue to a separate conversation we need to be having about Donald Trump, morality, evangelicals, and the intersection of the Venn diagram of their circles. As Reza Aslan insists, none of the above explains why white evangelicals have gone from a voting bloc that has insisted on a candidate’s morality as a significant qualification for office to one that eschews such concerns—in the span of one election cycle, no less. To reinforce this idea, Aslan highlights the fact that, re Trump, self-identifying atheists were more likely to consider morality as important than white evangelicals. So much for being “values voters.”
As Aslan reasons, this is more than can be reasoned away by talk of race or the prosperity gospel or the Johnson Amendment, and points to a different conclusion: that Trump, his presidency, and his most influential supporters have turned a significant portion of his white evangelical base into a religious cult, and a dangerous one at that. From where he (Aslan) stands, all the signs are there. For one, he points to Trump’s infamous remark that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes as being a kind of prophetic revelation. Aslan also alludes to statements made by Pat Robertson that he (Robertson) had a dream in which God took him up to Heaven and Trump was seated at His right hand—the space traditionally reserved for Jesus Christ—and Robert Jeffress, Robertson’s pastor, who said that he (Jeffress) prefers Trump as a candidate to someone “who expresses the values of Jesus.” Suddenly, Mark Lee doesn’t sound so out of place.
The implications, in short, are scary. As Aslan instructs, cults, particularly when confronted by the realities of the world, do not tend to end well. The Trump presidency, for all its claims of stability and success, by most objective accounts is on the brink of collapse, its central figure “spiraling out of control,” as Aslan puts it, and the subject of regular conversations about impeachment or other removal. In the perhaps likely event that leadership fails, the response for cult followers is often to double down on the group’s mantra, and this creates, at least in Aslan’s mind, a very perilous situation for the country at large. As he closes his address, “The only thing more dangerous than a cult leader like Trump is a martyred cult leader.” Ominous, indeed.
Reza Aslan is a religious scholar, and since he often approaches worldly matters from a spiritual frame of reference, even with his treatise on why Donald Trump’s presidency is a religious cult, there would likely be doubters and dissenters on this point. On the right, because so much of politics these days involves taking sides, this is all but a given. Naysayers would undoubtedly highlight Aslan’s Iranian heritage and Muslim beliefs (in reality, his faith is more complex, having been born into a Shia Muslim family, converting to evangelical Christianity, and then converting back to Muslim, all while largely regarding religion as nothing more than a series of metaphors and symbols designed to express one’s faith), as well as his anti-Trump animus (after Trump’s comments on the 2017 terrorist attack in London in which a van struck and killed pedestrians on London, Aslan referred to POTUS as a “piece of shit” and “man baby,” comments that, ahem, didn’t go over too well with then-employer CNN). Never mind that that Aslan is a theologian and literally talks about, thinks about, and writes about this stuff for a living. Because he doesn’t care much for Trump, his opinions must therefore be invalid, right?
For the non-shameless-Trump-backers among us, though, there might similarly be reluctance to characterize the President’s following in terms of a destructive religious cult, since these societies tend to remind us of devices of works of fiction set in apocalyptic times. To this, I submit people may be understating just how abnormal Trump and his presidency are. Besides, as many would aver, we are in the midst of a crisis right now, one primarily borne of climate concerns, but not without worry over its political stability. Trump just pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal without an apparent replacement strategy. Does this make the world safer? Does this instill confidence that the U.S. is a country that honors its agreements and is therefore worthy of trust? On both counts, the answer is a resounding “no,” and that should inspire concern from Americans regardless of their political orientation.
Then again, maybe it’s just that devout Christians can be hypocrites or otherwise twist the Bible to suit their purposes. Phil Zuckerman, professor at Pitzer College and someone who specializes in studies of atheism and secularity, among other topics, penned an essay shortly after Donald Trump’s upset 2016 electoral victory regarding the role of religion in the election’s outcome. Zuckerman—who also cites the statistic about 81% of white evangelicals voting for Trump, as well as 56% of American voters who attend church at least once a week going for the orange-skinned one—points to other disappointing tendencies of the Christian right.
For one, they tend to regard men as superior leaders and reinforce values that support male dominance over obeisant females. They also hate, hate, hate homosexuals, and tend to fear and hate other religions, dividing people into a saved-unsaved binary. Furthermore, fundamentalist Christians place a stronger emphasis on authoritarianism, and mistrust and reject the science which clashes with their faith. Or, as Zuckerman frames this, they are a sanctimonious lot, a subdivision of the American electorate that touts morals and yet voted en masse to elect someone in Trump who is the epitome of immorality. As with Aslan’s criticisms, people would be wont to use context to dismiss Zuckerman’s views. He made these comments not long after Election Day, and thus was probably harboring strong feelings at the time of his piece’s publication. Also, he’s interested mainly in secular studies. Maybe he just hates religious types. PROFESSOR, YOUR BIAS IS SHOWING.
Maybe, maybe not. Irrespective of Reza Aslan’s invectives directed at President Trump and Phil Zuckerman’s discontent with strong Christians for voting for someone clearly not of the same mold, this sense of devotion to Trump by a significant portion of the American people is startling and disconcerting, especially in light of the comparisons between Trump and Jesus. These are the same kinds of “values voters” who, say, conceive of gun ownership as a God-given right. Fun fact: the right to bear arms is a constitutional amendment contained in the Bill of Rights, not one of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill. Gun ownership increases the likelihood you will violate this precept. How does one reconcile these two apparently competing interests?
One oft-cited biblical passage, Matthew 10:34, in which Jesus is believed to have said that he “did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” may just as well speak to Christ’s existence dividing (as a sword would cut) people based on their belief, if not a faulty translation from the original Koine Greek. Psalm 144 in the Book of Psalms, another quoted portion of the Good Book, has been translated as, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle.”
This is context-dependent, however. David, in speaking of bodily strength, ascribes true strength to God, and prays to Him to rescue him and his people “from the cruel sword.” In this context, David is King of Israel at a time when war among rival groups is common, and what’s more, the ending of the psalm expresses a hope for peace. This seems like quite a departure from the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which would have you believe in its promotional videos that America resembles a scene from The Purge. Lock ’em and load ’em, ladies and gents. Conflict is brewing, and nothing shouts His love like the cold steel of a .45.
Mark Lee’s pro-Trump comments seemed crazy at the time of first utterance, and a mere six months later, still do. As the Trump presidency wears on, though, at least until anything manifests with respect to impeachment or other means of removal, and as Donald Trump’s support from his base not only holds steady, but grows, one wonders whether Aslan’s depiction of Trump as a salvific figure, as something more than an inspiration to those blinded by patriotism, is accurate. For white evangelicals who support him, in particular, Trump’s actions should prompt them to look critically at their set of beliefs and the importance of morality to their worldview. Whether or not their apparent abandonment of their principles holds beyond Trump’s presidency, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess, and is hard to approach with any sense of faith on the part of those who already don’t believe in him.
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As I feel it must be reiterated, mostly because the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to be able to allow it to fully sink in, the Democrats have had their electoral asses handed to them of late. Despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by close to 3 million votes, they lost the 2016 presidential election at large to Donald Trump. In the Senate, they enjoyed a net gain this November of only two seats, and thus still trail Republicans 52 to 46 (two U.S. Senators identify as independents: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine). In the House of Representatives, they gained six whole seats, which sounds good until you realize there are 435 congressional districts and the GOP also has a lead here, 247 to 188. It gets worse. In terms of governorships, Democrats preside over only 16 states, with Bill Walker of Alaska being considered an independent. Roughly speaking, the Republican Party has a two-to-one advantage in this regard. And Lord knows what the situation is like at the county and local levels, but chances are the larger overall trend doesn’t bode well for the Democratic Party as the scope of provinciality narrows.
In light of this all-around political beatdown, how do the Democrats begin to try to regain a foothold at the various levels of government? Do they try to argue that their party is one of inclusiveness and moral rectitude, and hope that distinguishing themselves from the GOP in these regards will allow them to carry the day, especially as President Trump and his administration implodes (no guarantee, but they already show signs of cracking)? Tempting as it sounds, this doesn’t seem to be enough, and certainly wasn’t sufficient for them to garner the W in the general election. A critical part of the solution, as many see it, is for the Democratic Party to become bolder and to allow itself to be touched by an authentic progressive spirit. The popularity of the likes of the aforementioned Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth “She Persisted” Warren from Massachusetts, in particular, among young liberals and independents would seem to indicate the party needs to attract talent that not only reflects the identity of the electorate in terms of ethnic, gender and religious diversity, but a willingness to combat the entrenchment of moneyed interests in state and national politics and to level the playing field for voters and candidates across demographic groups. Other progressive stances which are seen as vital to this effort and thus necessary for the Dems to embrace include a stronger commitment to combatting climate change, a unified front on protecting and respecting the values of minority groups, including those of Native American Indian tribes, and a more pronounced shift toward principles of democratic socialism, namely that of a Medicare-for-all/single-payer health care system.
In short, a partial answer to the question of, “Where do the Democrats go from here?” seems to be, “Left.” That is, further left then Hillary Clinton and other establishment politics might have otherwise been willing to go, especially prior to the presidential election. This begs a follow-up question to the answer, assuming it is, in fact, a correct partial answer: “Is moving purely left of center enough?” If exit polls from November are any indication, perhaps not. Where Hillary Clinton fared well, according to CNN polls, perhaps is no surprise. A 54% majority of female votes were “with her,” as were people under the age of 45 by similar percentages. Clinton also fared significantly better than Donald Trump with non-whites, people with annual incomes under $50,000, unmarried respondents, and those who reported their identity as Jewish, Muslim, or belonging to some other religion. By contrast, Hillary did not fare as well among voters 45 and over, among whites, among less educated voters, among married people, especially men, among veterans, and among Christians—Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, other branches of Christianity, you name it. While Clinton’s gender may be a bit of a confounding factor here, especially with respect to the sex of the poll respondents, on other dimensions, the other disadvantages she faced likely speak to challenges Democrats face as a whole and will continue to have to address in coming elections.
Concerning the concept of going further left, for the Democratic Party, seeing as progressivism is related to liberalism, and in the present-day context, is somewhat of a more extreme version of it, or perhaps liberalism carried to its logical next point, as exemplified by the jump from ObamaCare to a single-payer health care and insurance system, adopting positions that appeal to independents would seem like a relatively easy task. Through collaboration with Bernie Sanders’s surrogates and supporters, Hillary Clinton and her team crafted a party platform in advance of the election that both sides could champion as the most progressive in the modern history of the party, although lacking in several respects, notably failing to support a $15 minimum wage, not coming out strongly in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals, proving silent on the issue of deportation, rejecting the Medicare-for-all paradigm, not going far enough on legalization of marijuana, and doing little to address the bloated U.S. military budget. Then again, this shift away from center may be easier said than done, especially in light of the influence of money and lobbying from industries and business leaders in establishment politics. For instance, someone like Cory Booker, Democratic Party darling from my home state and someone I generally support, is principled enough, but when it comes to, say, a bill or amendment which would allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada at a cheaper rate, his vote against the measure makes sense when you consider he has accepted the most money from the pharmaceutical industry of any Senate Democrat in the past six years. It is oft said that money talks, and in the sphere of politics, this is time and again achingly apparent.
Reaching across the aisle, meanwhile, presents its own challenges. Going back to the 2016 presidential race, even if Hillary Clinton were to try to extend a proverbial olive branch to those on the right, if she didn’t in the same breath negate her sincerity with her infamous “basket of deplorables” comment, she likely would have had many die-hard Republicans firing up chainsaws at the sight of that olive branch. Even after the election, the non-politicians among us, too, are wont to struggle with “bridging the cultural divide,” as much as detractors on both sides of the aisle accuse their counterparts opposite them of divisiveness. Susan Shaw, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University, recently penned a very considerate piece expressing her frustrations in trying to understand and communicate with white Christian Trump supporters, as we know, a pivotal source of strength for Donald Trump in the election. Shaw, a self-identifying progressive, expresses her alienation from the religious right as someone who grew up within this environment:
My white, conservative Christian upbringing had told me that was the American Dream—to work hard and succeed. I did, and I feel you’re holding it against me now that I no longer share your views. I think you must imagine the liberal elite as East Coast, Ivy League-educated, trust fund babies completely out of touch with how most people live. Sure, some faculty members grew up with money. Some went to Ivy League schools. But a lot of us professors were you—working class kids who did whatever it took to get a college education. Along the way, a lot of us developed progressive ideas, not out of our privilege, but out of our own experiences of discrimination, struggle and oppression.
Shaw’s description of the source of her progressivism within the context of “discrimination, struggle and oppression” admittedly makes more sense coming from her than someone like me, a white male in a suburban middle-class household. In this regard, I suppose the extent of hardships we face is always relative—someone, somewhere has it worse. Regardless of who has the more “legitimate” claim to progressive ideals, if there is such a thing, Prof. Shaw appears to indicate that such a political orientation is buoyed by experience with the kinds of disparities, injustices and problems progressivism seeks to address. In other words, while their social critics—professional and amateur alike—demean liberals as delusional, soft and unable to cope with the “real world,” Susan Shaw speaks to the notion that individuals on the left and far left are rather resilient, strong, capable people, and what’s more, they may be better in tune with reality than those who preach the very virtue of cold realism.
In defending so-called “out of touch” liberal elites like herself, Shaw also takes her target audience—at least in name—to task for their apparent tone-deafness. As she remarks in cutting fashion, “We really do know a lot about what we’re talking about, and we have something to offer in a real conversation across our differences (including the East Coast Ivy Leaguers who aren’t as out of touch as you may think). But I don’t think you want to hear us or me.” Thinking along these lines, much of the rest of Shaw’s open letter to white Christian Trump supporters reads like a list of grievances. The reasons why she feels this distance from them, despite her upbringing, include the following:
1. You call people “sore losers” and tell them to “get over” Trump winning, but this is because you don’t have as much to lose as other Americans.
As Susan Shaw explains, for all the talk of who’s “winning” and “losing,” the policies enacted by the new administration aren’t a game to many Americans. President Trump has made his intention clear to support “religious freedom,” and in doing so, has put protections for the LGBT community in the crosshairs. With the White House pushing for the Muslim ban despite its unconstitutionality, and ICE agents rounding up undocumented immigrants regardless of whether or not they violate criminal laws, gloating over an electoral victory belies the sense of fear people are feeling in response to Trump’s agenda. It’s at best insensitive, and at worst, unnecessarily hateful and cruel.
2. You’re blaming the wrong people for your own grievances.
Shaw identifies an attitude of discontentment among Trump supporters that they don’t get what they deserve or that someone who doesn’t deserve what they have has taken what is theirs. The cited cause often is illegal immigration. You know the refrains. “They’re taking our jobs.” “They’re stealing our benefits.” No, they’re not. The real problem is an economic system that pits workers against one another and, as Shaw terms it, “limits their work and financial security.” For all the bluster about “illegals” committing violent crimes, it is white-collar crime and conditions which lend themselves to widening income and wealth inequality which truly depress the upward mobility of the “other 99%.”
3. You keep promoting “fake news.”
And no, not the CNN kind. Susan Shaw is talking about, as much of an oxymoron it may sound, real “fake news.” Here’s Ms. Shaw again in her own words:
You say you want progressives to listen to you. Then prioritize truth. This election was filled with “fake news,” shared widely on Facebook, and this administration already has begun to create a language of “alternative facts” to misinform and mislead. If you want to talk, offer evidence, real evidence based on verifiable data and reliable sources, not wishful imaginings or fabricated Breitbart stories. An internet meme is not an informed and legitimate point of argument that facilitates dialogue. We’ve reached a point where you’d rather believe an overt lie if it supports a belief you already hold than pursue the truth if it might challenge your currently held belief.
Shaw goes on in the same thought to point out the apparent hypocrisy in upholding the Bible as a book of truths and, at the same time, believing in or, at the very least, sanctioning a lie such as the White’s House version of the comparative sizes of Donald Trump’s Inauguration crowd and those of Barack Obama for both of his presidential victories, when simple visual evidence tells the true story. The principal conflict herein, then, would seem to exist between personal beliefs and gut feelings, and logic and verifiable evidence, an ideological struggle that has manifested in the interplay of faith and science for centuries. And maybe Susan Shaw and people like myself are again betraying a liberal, elitist bias, but seriously—people need to learn how to choose and cite their f**king sources. It’s one thing if you didn’t get in the habit of doing so if you never went to college, but be that as it may, it’s still important to ascertain the reliability of vital information.
4. You celebrate a man whose commitment to Christian values is, ahem, highly questionable.
Donald Trump is clearly no saint and no Jesus. Not even close. Even the most devoted Trump supporters are liable to agree on this point, which makes it that much more mystifying how Christian Trump supporters try to reconcile his actions and beliefs with that of the teachings of the Bible. Dude has either condoned within his base and staff, or participated himself in, acts/speech of anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, racism, and sexism. Old “Two Corinthians” Trump even made fun of a disabled reporter. That’s f**ked up.
Aside from this, Shaw also takes issue with the idea that the religious right insists on “religious freedom,” except if you happen to be anything other than a heterosexual Christian, which would make our nation only more religiously constrained as a result. Not to mention it was never our Founding Fathers to make this a purely Christian nation. America is meant to be a melting pot and a land which respects tolerance for all faiths. As Henry Drummond quips in Inherit the Wind, “The Bible is a book. It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.” Amen, brother.
5. You claim to be “pro-life,” but you’re really just “anti-choice.”
The most plausible reason I can see that Christians, especially evangelicals, would be willing to support Trump over Hillary Clinton despite the former failing to confirm with Christian values on the whole, is that they support the man for his position on one or more particular issues with a religious tint. Perhaps it is his rejection of Muslims. Perhaps it is because he chose Mike Pence for his running mate. Or maybe, just maybe, it is his pro-life stance, a more recent “evolution” of his political and social ideologies. Susan Shaw, undoubtedly concerned with matters of abortion and birth control as a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, takes specific umbrage to this holier-than-thou mentality from conservative religious types. She puts forth her arguments pretty tidily as such:
To cling to overturning Roe v. Wade as the only way to end abortions is a fantasy based on ideology rather than medical science and social science, and it flies in the face of the evidence for what is successful. So the real question is are you more interested in actual effectiveness in lowering abortion rates or ideological purity? We can lower abortion rates together but not by denying women choices over their own bodies. We can be effective together by listening to the data and working together to ensure all women have access to contraception, education, and social and economic resources. Are you willing to have that conversation?
Denying women access to abortions and reproductive health services, as Shaw argues, is not going to stop them from having abortions, or trying to take matters into their own hands. Not only does this obviously still put the baby at risk, though, but it endangers the pregnant woman as well. Conservative Christians seem to want their cake and eat it too, i.e., they want to prevent abortions but they also want to prevent women from having access to birth control and contraceptives. Right—we get it—there’s abstinence. But this is unrealistic for many, not to mention it assumes real romantic feelings can’t exist for teenagers and young adults who lack the income to pay for contraception out of pocket. Either way, it’s governance based on religious conservatism and a strict morality thrust upon Americans within a sphere that should be reserved for secular applications. Besides, for those “pro-lifers” who would seek the unalienable rights of the fetus upheld only to turn around and demand the state-sponsored killing of someone convicted of a heinous crime, it kind of throws a wrench in the whole idea of the sanctity of human existence, ya know?
In closing, Susan Shaw communicates two critical points. The first is that on the subject of simply “agreeing to disagree,” much like Trump supporters reproaching his critics for being sore losers, it is not as if the areas affected by the President’s policy decisions are some sort of game or part of some abstract theoretical exercise. Real lives are affected by what President Trump says and does, and thus agreeing to disagree is unacceptable for those with a conscience or stake in what is decided. The second isn’t so much a point as much as a series of questions to the religious right, once more expressed in a spirit of desperation:
We need to talk, and I don’t know how to talk to you anymore. I need to know, is it more important to you to win than to do good? Or can we build coalitions? Listen to science? Rely on real evidence? Be effective? Put the needs and rights of all others above ideologies? Can we live the love of God we claim? You want me to hear and understand you. I get that. I also want you to hear and understand the rest of the world that is not you or your kind. Because they too are God’s people and therefore are in the circle of those whom we must love. You taught me that when I was a child. If we can agree on that now, we have a place to start.
The Bible teaches, “Love thy neighbor.” The Declaration of Independence asserts, “All men are created equal.” And yet, the mood and tone struck by the Trump administration tell us to fear our neighbor, and to reject those who are not like us as inferior. If these words which are supposed to mean so much to conservatives and/or Christians are not observed, how are we supposed to have a honest conversation between individuals on both sides of the political aisle? How are we on the “godless” left supposed to understand those holy rollers who don’t quite practice what they preach? Shaw rightly believes that if those on both sides can’t agree that all the world’s people are God’s people and must be loved as such, we as a nation can’t even begin to bridge the divide. In doing so, she provides no answers, and only searches for them—because realistically she can’t provide them. Those of us searching for answers in our own right are met with the same difficulties.
Of course, this doesn’t imply that the Democratic Party shouldn’t try to expand both left and right of center if it is to grow stronger and to make a dent in its minority political status across the American landscape. Nonetheless, little progress will be made on this front unless authentic receptivity is felt on both sides to listen to what the other is saying. It has also been said that “everyone is forgiven by God, but not everyone is saved.” From a political standpoint, the fear exists that this may be true of some members of the general electorate as well.
As I’m sure you’re aware, on the evening of January 29, in Quebec City, a 27-year-old man named Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec mosque and started firing. By the end, six men were killed, with others injured, and the next day, Bissonnette was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted weapon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to condemn the attack as a terrorist act and one of cowardice on the part of the assailant, and authorities and Canadian citizens alike called for a spirit of inclusivity and togetherness in the wake of the violence. While mass shootings have become regrettably almost run-of-the-mill in America, mass shootings in Canada have been relatively sparse.
Within the United States, however, for a number of vocal Trump supporters during the early confusion of details filtering down from Quebec, the attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique was Exhibit A as to why the recently-enacted “Muslim ban” is not only advisable, but patently necessary. Initial reports identified two suspects in connection with the shooting, one of whom was Mohamed Belkhadir, a 29-year-old engineering student originally from Morocco. The jingoists among us, eager to fly the Stars and Stripes at first notice of an exclusionary narrative onto which to latch, were likely already foaming at the mouth at mention of the name “Mohamed,” and news of Belkhadir’s connection with the crime just sent them over the top. See, this is why we don’t want to let refugees from Muslim nations into the country! There’s too great a danger! You never know when ISIS might be lurking around the corner! Bear in mind Morocco isn’t one of the countries specified in President Trump’s ban on immigration, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good argument, shall we?
Except for the eventual revelation Mohamed Belkhadir was not actually a suspect in the mosque attack, but a witness. Oops! According to reports, Belkhadir was trying to administer first aid to a friend and fled to the cultural center’s parking lot when he saw someone with a gun, not knowing that person was a cop. Indeed, the search for a narrative and the desire to run with it led to a hasty presumption based on unconfirmed information and betrayed a series of arguments predicated on racial and xenophobic prejudice. What’s more, regarding the person of Alexandre Bissonnette, a synopsis of various media sources by Manisha Krishnan, writing for VICE, paints a picture of the Laval University student that might easily be recognized stateside as well as in Canada. According to these reports, he is a loner, a subscriber to right-wing views, a xenophobe, someone who displays misogynistic tendencies and trolls a Facebook group for refugees, is a white nationalist, and—to top it all off—is a fan of Donald Trump and his policies. Oops, again! While I personally might balk at the idea that Bissonnette is one of the Trump Train lot, as, ahem, not every Trump supporter is a mass murderer, that Bissonnette would seem to be an admirer of the President’s puts an almost ironic twist on the quick finger pointed at the Muslim world wholesale by those espousing similar right-wing views.
There are any number of striking things about this example of brutality. Certainly, the idea that Donald Trump’s influence translates into French Canada and abroad may startle, though the rise of white nationalism is certainly not limited to Trump; Alexandre Bissonnette is also said to be an admirer of France’s Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party has gained popularity by adopting a similar anti-immigrant stance. What also grabs the attention, however, at least for yours truly, is statistical information regarding all Canadians’ attitudes toward Muslims. Justin Trudeau, either because he’s being diplomatic, he truly believes it, or both, has, in the wake of the mosque attack, consistently preached the country’s support for the Canadian Muslim community and solidarity with the population. Personal views, meanwhile, tend to vary. Alyssa Favreau, a Montreal-based writer, connects the Quebec shooting to a rising sea of anti-Muslim sentiment.
As Favreau notes within the piece, police-reported hate crimes against Muslims more than doubled in Canada from 2012 to 2014, and the raw number (99) stands to be much larger because the majority of these crimes go unreported. What’s more, the attitudes of average Canadians toward Islam on the whole speak to a vague apprehension about the religion and its practitioners. A 2015 survey by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that, despite about half of respondents having reservations about organized religions in general, a significantly higher percentage of those surveyed said they felt more uncomfortable about someone wearing a hijab as opposed to one wearing a cross. As for the Canadian population as a whole, based on a Forum Poll (Canada’s leading public opinion service) survey, more than a quarter of respondents had unfavorable feelings about Muslims. In other words, if Trudeau’s sentiments conveyed the sense some sort of love-fest exists in his country for followers of Islam, evidence points to the contrary.
In the United States, meanwhile, according to a report by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and the director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, just under half of respondents across a composite of four polls during the election year disapproved of Islam on the whole; the approval rate for Muslim people fared yet better, with 70% of respondents viewing this subset of the population in a positive light, as opposed to 28% surveyed viewing Muslims in a negative light as of October 2016. This actually marks an improvement on these ratings since November 2015, and in spite of the salience of events like the Orlando shooting. As Telhami instructs, the upward trend in pro-Muslim leanings is almost exclusively attributable to changing views among Democrats and independents, and may well be a reaction to Donald Trump’s divisive actions and rhetoric. While the direction of this trend may be surprising, the source seems less so. After all, we would expect more liberal-oriented respondents to more readily embrace Islam and those who practice the faith.
If American views of Islam and Muslims are on the upswing, and even though progressives would like to see improvement on the dimensions governed by the polls interpreted by Shibley Telhami and his associates, it is therefore somewhat troubling to have people who would more readily identify with the left espousing views that mischaracterize Islam. By and large, I appreciate the comedy of Bill Maher, and while I may not agree with all of his positions on key issues, I have a certain degree of respect for the man. His stances on Islam and Muslims, on the other hand, I patently disagree with, and his embrace of fringe theories about this religion is not only arguably counterproductive, but potentially dangerous as well.
On a recent airing of his show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the namesake host featured a conversation with Sam Harris, author, cognitive neuroscientist, and co-founder of Project Reason, on the nature of Islam. Harris, no stranger to the program and notable for being a leader within what has been coined the New Atheist movement, had some choice words for the Muslim world and those liberals who support them. According to Sam Harris, “the left has allied itself with Islamists and closet Islamists,” and while on one hand, he and Bill Maher reject the merits of the Muslim ban, he had this to say about criticisms from left-leaners of others possessing Islamophobic tendencies: “You don’t have to be a fascist or a racist or even a Trumpian to not want to import people into your society who think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet.” Maher was quick to chime in at one point on this broad subject, condemning comparisons made between Islamist terrorist groups and the Ku Klux Klan, saying dismissively, “The KKK is not seeking nuclear weapons.” Um, bully for them then?
Both Sam Harris and Bill Maher, in discussing Muslims and Islam in this way, appear to be making a fundamental error. Harris, making a sweeping generalization, evidently believes all Muslims and refugees from countries where the predominant faith is Islam think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet Muhammad or otherwise representing them in a less-than-holy light, when realistically, this is a hallmark of radical or ultra-conservative Muslims, and not necessarily your everyday followers. As for Maher, he makes the distinction between the Ku Klux Klan and various Islamist groups, as if to say, “See? What did I tell you about Islam!” If saying the KKK doesn’t want nukes is your primary defense of this group, though, it’s a bit of splitting proverbial hairs, no? It’s like saying Donald Trump isn’t Hitler because he hasn’t tried to exterminate the Jews. That’s really a cold comfort, and besides, dude’s still got ample time in his first 100 days and Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King pouring poison into his ear. In either case, Harris and Maher are conflating the work of jihadists with that of rank-and-file Muslims, and such discourse not only seems to be steeped in faulty logic, but potentially is dangerous given the national voice these figures possess.
Sadly, this is nothing new for either man. Though a bit dated by Internet standards, Salon in 2015 compiled a compendium of Bill Maher’s “greatest hits” on Islam, which includes references to Muslims’ beliefs as “pernicious,” the Koran as a “hate-filled holy book,” and to Islam itself not being a religion of peace. As for Sam Harris, Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the best journalist you’ve never heard of, penned a lengthy op-ed about Harris and other New Atheists on “anti-Muslim animus” back in 2013. I know—positively ancient, right? And yet, not much seems to have changed or evolved within Harris’s world view since. Greenwald acknowledges Sam Harris’s antipathy toward organized religion as a whole (Bill Maher, though not an avowed atheist, is like-minded in his distaste for organized religion and its more deleterious effects), but notes how Harris, for lack of better phrasing, has a hard-on for Islam and those that worship in accordance with its precepts. From the essay:
The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”
This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreed that “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We”—the civilized peoples of the west—are at war with “millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”
This isn’t “quote-mining”, the term evidently favored by Harris and his defenders to dismiss the use of his own words to make this case. To the contrary, I’ve long ago read the full context of what he has written and did so again yesterday. […] Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy prescriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims. As the atheist scholar John L Perkins wrote about Harris’ 2005 anti-religion book: “Harris is particularly scathing about Islam.”
The larger significance of these kinds of attitudes, as Glenn Greenwald sees things, is that this thinking can be used to justify all sorts of aggression, human rights abuses, and violence against Muslims, the kinds of acts to which rights activists independent of political affiliation strongly object. They include anti-Muslim profiling, state violence (i.e. liberals are “soft” on terrorism), support for Israel even in the face of international criticism, and torture. What’s more, whereas defenders of divisive behavior and rhetoric on the right might view this as justified based on vague ideas of Christian righteousness or outright racism and xenophobia, the foundation of New Atheism’s anti-Muslim sentiments is feelings and notions of a moral superiority. Sure, Sam Harris and his confederates might view their objections to Islam as more correct because they are not based on strict adherence to religious doctrine, but viewed in the context of secular morality and a battle of good versus evil, they are equally as insidious, if not more so. “They know not what they do”? Hardly. Harris and Company know exactly what they do—and that’s the point.
As Glenn Greenwald frames his arguments, then, Bill Maher’s and Sam Harris’s wholesale character assassination of Islam fits in all-too-nicely with a generalized American and Western condemnation of the Muslim world, and a tendency to side with our own interests even when they may be seen as wrong. Greenwald describes the problem with Harris’s denigration of Muslims and Islam quite succinctly:
Harris’ self-loving mentality amounts to this: those primitive Muslims are so tribal for reflexively siding with their own kind, while I constantly tout the superiority of my own side and justify what We do against Them. […] He is at least as tribal, jingoistic, and provincial as those he condemns for those human failings, as he constantly hails the nobility of his side while demeaning those Others.
As Sam Harris and other New Atheists would have it, the end game of Islam is to convert everyone to the faith, politically subjugate those who don’t convert, or kill those who stand in the way. Otherwise, the assumptions they make about the way Muslims think are based not on factual observation or rational, intellectual inferences, but rather a spirit grounded in religious or “tribal” attitudes—and if we really want to get down to brass tacks, this liberal Islamophobia is pretty much a religion in of itself. So much for that whole “no religion” bit.
It’s one thing for educated folks like Bill Maher and Sam Harris to sneer at the section of right-wing America that, to paraphrase Barack Obama’s infamous quote, clings to its Bibles, its guns, and its resentment against the foreign and the unfamiliar. It’s quite another, however, for their likes to convey an elitist tone and deride the Muslim ban as an obvious poor choice while they, in the same breath, denigrate Muslims and what they believe. So, while Maher, Harris and other non-believers/agnostics may thumb their noses at those who get caught up in matters of sectarian conflict, looking down at the rigidity of organized religions from atop their high horses, by painting Islam and Muslims with broad, largely negative strokes, they are no better than the Americans who, say, argue Muslims are a danger to the United States because they want nothing more than to make sharia law the supreme law of the land and subvert our existing statutes in the name of Allah.
Speaking of which, on that last note, in another one of those quasi-ironic twists that I seem to love these days, if anything is liable to bring religiously-motivated laws into a position of greater influence and effect, it is not Muslims, but the man behind the ban himself, President Donald Trump. Alongside plotting a gutting of the Dodd-Frank Act, a piece of legislation crafted in direct response to the irresponsible banking, lending and other regulatory practices which led to the global financial crisis almost a decade ago, Trump vowed recently to destroy the Johnson Amendment, which effectively bars churches from making political contributions, and thus, is an important aspect of the separation of church and state in the United States. Evidently, and in short, Trump, his cronies, and Republicans who aid and abet him in terrible policy-making are content to let the financial industry and religious organizations alike run amok. As many of us may reason, they might as well. You know, after confirming the likes of Rex Tillerson, a man who has ties to Vladimir Putin and who until recently helmed a company that dealt with countries considered state sponsors of terrorism, and Betsy DeVos, whose millions of dollars of political contributions somehow are supposed to count for a complete lack of competence and experience, there’s almost nowhere to go but up. Almost.
What we don’t need, therefore, returning our focus to the topic of anti-Muslim sentiment, is more noise from individuals professing to uphold science and intellectualism but instead giving way to beliefs that smack of white ethnocentrism and are reliant on a warped understanding of a religion practiced by over a billion people worldwide. People like Sam Harris argue liberals are in bed with jihadists and others like Bill Maher feel political correctness holds us back from having an honest and open conversation about Islam and the Muslim world, and at worst, makes us “pussies.” Little do they realize, however, it is, to a considerable extent, their closed-mindedness which only fuels mutual misunderstanding between East and West and drives us all further apart.