Thursday, July 17, 2008

The "Moties" in Martha Nussbaum's Eye

by Ray Soller

I picked the leading line for this post as a takeoff on the title of a science fiction novel, The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. All that I know about Moties, the first alien species from a distant universe that are contacted by Mankind, comes from a quick inspection of the Wikipedia article. So for those science fiction fans please don't expect too much.

Thanks to Jonathan's June 3, 2008 blog, Nussbaum on The Rights of Conscience, where he talks about Nussbaum's book, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality, I watched the May 14 lecture, Equal Respect for Conscience: The Roots of a Moral and Legal Tradition, and then I enthusiastically ordered the book. When it arrived, I pored through the book. I was sufficiently absorbed, and even highlighted a number of significant passages. Here's my favorite:
If we want a fair nation, we must try to make it fair pervasively, and not just trust that a few people will set us right when we have gone terribly wrong. That means, always, not pointing out the mote in our neighbor's eye without attending to the beam in our own. "Unchristian partiality" and "the Great God Selfe" is what Roger Williams would have said. Those sins are still with us today.

Even with all this good report I, sorrowfully, have a problem. In spite of Nussbaum's great concern for "the rights of conscience," she still finds space in her book to give three "Moties" a disdainful once-over. They are Daniel C. Dennett, Micahel Newdow, and Jon Krakauer.

Take for instance where Nussbaum, on page 10 of her book, writes:
It is certainly supremely annoying when intellectuals talk down to religious people, speaking as if all smart people are atheists. Philosopher Daniel Dennett is particularly guilty of this. In an Op-ed piece in the New York Times, he coined the term "brights" for nonbelievers, suggesting very clearly that the right name for believers was "dummies." In his popular new book Breaking the Spell --- whose very title drips contempt --- he contrasts religious people with philosophers, as if there were no such thing as a religious philosopher. I am a philosopher, but I am and many of my professional colleagues disagree with Dennett personally: we our ourselves religious people. Almost all, furthermore, would disagree with Dennett about respect for others: we think that people's religious commitments should be respected, and it is simply not respectful to imply that religion is a "spell" or that people who accept such beliefs are dummies. [Here' the part where I get concerned - ] Michael Newdow , the Plaintiff in the Pledge of Allegiance case (and in a new similar case recently decided in California) is similar to Dennett: a proud atheist who has evident contempt for religious beliefs and religious people. Many Americans of goodwill associate the very idea of the "separation of church and state" with this sort of smug atheism.

After reading the previous paragraph, I thought it would be wise to read Dennett's Op-Ed piece to see whether Nussbaum was being accurate. It turns out from what I read, Nussbaum was explaining more about how she reacted when she had read (or, perhaps, just heard about) rather than what the article said. Just look at this Dennett quote from the article:
The term "bright" is a recent coinage by two brights in Sacramento, Calif., who thought our social group — which has a history stretching back to the Enlightenment, if not before — could stand an image-buffing and that a fresh name might help. Don't confuse the noun with the adjective: "I'm a bright" is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.

A simple observation shows Nussbaum was wrong about the statement saying that Dennett had coined the term "brights," and Dennett, at least in his own mind, wrote that self-identification as a bright "is not a boast" but a matter of establishing a group awareness of one's self. Personally, I can take Dennett at his word, because it is something of a stretch to say that the title of Dennett's recent book, Breaking the Spell, is "dripping with contempt" without Nussbaum citing a single sentence from the book.

Nussbaum continues by saying Micahel Newdow is "similar to Dennett: a proud atheist who has evident contempt for religious beliefs and religious people." Now that's a mouth full, and it is a matter on which I can respond with a degree of personal experience. I've worked as an historical researcher at Newdow's invitation to examine the question as to whether George Washington actually added a religious codicil to his presidential oath, and I've also been a one-time guest of his hospitality. I, consequently, have no qualms stating that Nussbaum's allegation against Michael Newdow has no substance to it other than how she sees the the world through her own mote-speckled eyes. My experience has been that anyone who refers to Michael Newdow as "an outspoken atheist who openly scoffs at religious belief" is woefully ill-informed.

Anyone who cares to see beyond Nussbaum's version of "Newdow, the scoffer" can see the real, live Michael Newdow when he presented his case against “under God” in a panel discussion, Religious Freedom and the Pledge of Allegiance, along side Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, and Phillip Munoz, an assistant professor of political philosophy and American Constitutional law at Tufts University. The discussion was moderated by Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and director of Boston College's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. It's available here.

The remaing person on Nussbaum's list of Moties is Jon Krakauer. Here, the Krakauer-dressdown appears well into book, near the end of Capter 5 - Fearing Strangers, Section I - Principles and Anxities. On page 179 she writes:
Journalist Krakauer's recent book about Mormon polygamy, for example. is a direct descendant of the sensationalistic anti-Mormon novels of the 1850's. It manages to meld contemporary instances of highly unusual dissident behavior with the history and traditions of the mainstream religion itself, thus whipping up panic about the book's own subtitle calls "A Story of Violent Faith."<5>

Page 381 - footnote 5: Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Random House, 2003). Krakauer is known for writing about mountaineering, and appears to have no credentials in the area of religion.

I've read Krakauer's book, and he is definitely not a Mormon apologist. However, this doesn't imply, by any means, that his book resembles the anti-Mormon sensationalist novels from the 1850's. Krakauer is a journalist, and he does a responsible job of supporting his narrative with the necessary facts. His book describes the religious-cultural setting and events that led up to the Lafferty brother's murderous rampage, which occurred on Utah's Mormon Pioneer Day of July 24, 1984. He follows up with the arrest of Dan and Ron Lafferty, their trials, and conviction of the murder charges. The book is a worthwhile read, and Chapters 23, Judgment in Provo, and 24, The Great and Dreadful Day, by themselves, deserve to be read by people of all varieties of religious belief.

Nussbaum, in her section of footnotes, takes a crack at Krakauer, because he "appears to have no credentials in the area of religion." This ignores Krakauer's explanation (page 334), where he says, "I spent approximately a year writing this book, and more than three years doing the research on which the writing is based." Had Nussbaum consulted with Krakauer, or properly researched the material for Chapter 5, Section II, Mormon Polygamy: "Always ... Odious"?, it would have shown itself. Instead, we have:

  • Page 182 - Smith's early career causes concern about fraud since he was accused of bilking people out of their money.
    Not exactly true. There was only one charge of his being engaged in a disreputable occupation - treasure digging. His elderly employer, Josiah Stowell, testified that he felt confident that Smith could find treasure on his property. Family members filed charges to keep their father from squandering his money (their inheritance). Smith was found guilty and was told to get lost and not to come back. No one asked for a refund of the wages that were paid out. Smith promised to reform himself. (Nussbaum might better have said that this was a frivolous charge in contrast to Smith's later legal problems in Illinois.)

  • Page 183 - Smith imprisoned in Nauvoo, IL, on a frivilous charge.
    Not true. Smith was incarcerated in the jail located at Carthage, Illinois. His answering to charges based on the destruction of the brand new anti-Mormon Expositor press was not "frivolous." I've read that Smith claimed some legal grounds for his action, because he & the town council ruled that the offensive publication endangered the peace. The "apostate" Mormons who owned the Expositor were trying to expose polygamy that the Mormon leaders were secretly passing off as spiritual wives.

  • Page 183 - The [Nauvoo] jail was stormed by 100 men. Joseph Smith and his brother were murdered.
    That's a whitewash. The assassination occurred in Carthage, Illinois. The "100 men" were members of the Illinois state militia sent out by the State Governor, Thomas Ford, to "restore order" among the Mormons. After Smith's arrest, the militia was disbanded with Smith in jail, and they, then, being fully armed stormed the jail. It was a state-sponsored vigilante execution. No convictions were ever obtained for the double murder. Mormons were expelled from the state. (I can't imagine why Nussbaum, who holds several positions at the prestigious University of Chicago, didn't tell more of this story that occurred in the fine state of Illinois).

  • Finally then, if Nussbaum really feels that "This [public] conversation will go better if education at all levels does better at conveying the facts about the different religions that are present in our society," (page 359) then my word of advice to her is that she engage in a process of self-examination to see what's causing her irritable eye-Moties.

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