Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dennis Prager, Master of a Thousand Strawmans

Due to my long absence, it has come to my attention that there have been many stupid things said on the Internet that I have been unable to comment on. Hopefully I will be able to whip up a smorgasbord of stupidity soon. In the meantime, please enjoy this "What the Hell are you talking about, Dennis?" crap-stravaganza.

First up in the innanely titled "Is God just a a Big Toe Giant Air Conditioner?"Dennis wanks on about how awesome the English-speaking world is, thanks to a single, magical word:

One of the reasons for the ascendance of the English-speaking world has been that the English language is almost alone among major languages in having the word "earn."

Those of us whose native language is English assume that the phrase "to earn a living" is universal. It isn't. It is almost unique to English. Few languages have the ability to say this.

We're also the only people who say "don't hold your breath." Linguistic anthropology is a fascinating area of study, Dennis, but I think you're overdoing it here.

In the Romance languages, for example – a list that includes such major languages as Spanish, French and Italian – the word used when saying someone "earns" money, is "ganar" in Spanish, "gagner" in French. The word literally means "to win." In Hebrew the word "marveach" means "profits." In German, the word "verdient" means "deserves."

Obviously, it is very different to "win" or to "deserve" or to "profit" than to "earn."

True, but in many of those same languages the idea of earning money or making a living is closely related to the idea of "work," terms and concepts which certainly exist in those linguistic cultures. By narrowing your scope to a single phrase, you're majorly skewing your data. Not that I'm surprised.

Another increasingly widespread concept that undermines the notion of earning is "unconditional love." The term, which was barely used prior to the 1960s, is now ubiquitous. It is a prominent goal, a human ideal to strive for. The idea of having to earn love is more than unheard of today; it would strike most moderns as morally suspect.

Not necessarily; it's an issue of context. I would think that many people would say whether or not they apply or believe in unconditional love is dependent on the situation-- and the fact that one can simultaneously love someone for their closeness to you (say, a mother's love for her son) while also holding them responsible for their actions (crashing the car, stealing money, eating a baby). The concept of unconditional love seems to be connected with the question of how do you juggle issues of close emotional bonds that may then be tested by different behavior, such as an adult man struggling over whether to "love" his formerly abusive father. He has been told that he should honor and love his parents, yet feels that he was wronged, even betrayed by his father. The result is a big emotional, guilty mess, not at all a clean-cut scenario of "unconditional love or earned love" like Dennis would portray it. Then again, Dennis is the king of superficial blanket statements.

We expect God to show unconditional love to all people, again no matter how they act. According to the doctrine of divine unconditional love, God loves sadists as much as He loves the kindest individuals. No one earns God's love; we receive it, like sports trophies, for breathing. Many fine people believe this about God, but I think it is religio-cultural-specific, and non-biblical. In 15 years of study in a yeshiva I had never heard the phrase, and it would have struck me, as it still does, as quite odd. It depicts God as a love machine who, like an air-conditioner that emits the same amount of cold air no matter how the inhabitants of a house act, emits the same amount of love no matter how we act. It means that we in no way influence God's love for us. I don't find that comforting. And it is certainly no more likely to induce decent behavior in human beings than a God who does show conditional love based on human decency.

More blanket statements: who is this "we?" And isn't part of the problem of figuring out who God loves the issue of many of us not feeling like we can know WHAT God loves or approves of? (Particularly the modern and post-modern among us.) I certainly feel this as a non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jew. The Orthodox claim that God's approval is entirely dependent on mitzvot observance; I'd like to think that he also takes less tangible elements into account as well. So there's a debate, an ultimately unsolvable one. Does God love everybody? That would depend on your starting definition of God's attributes, for instance, how you define the "Is God Good?" guestion? Some people might say that a God that is perfectly good cannot hate, though he does judge. Again, we have the question of whether love negates judgment or punishment. Also, it seems that Dennis is mixing up the idea of love and approval; perhaps the concept is that because we are all children of God we are all unconditionally loved by God, however it is possible to do things that please and displease him. By the way, this whole question seems rather moot anyway, given the old traditional argument that we are so small and God is so big that we have no way of knowing what the hell he thinks about anything anyway.

Dennis blathers on a little longer, concluding by saying the lack of earning also means we think we should all get automatic forgiveness without earning them, and lastly leads to a mass welfare state. What country does Dennis use as his poster-child of "A world without Earning?" Read on if you dare...

America became a great civilization thanks to a culture based on the value of having to earn almost everything an American got in life.

Especially people that inherited their wealth or got it from being slave-owners, right?

As it abandons this value, it will become a mediocre civilization. And eventually it will not be America. It will be a large Sweden, and just as influential as the smaller one.

Sweden? Oh God, the humanity! Better to be hit by a giant meteor and incinerated!

Moving on, Dennis has presented us with "9 Questions on Torture the Left Needs to Answer," another list column, which is what he does when he can't be bothered to think of an actual narrative to connect his thoughts together.

1. Given how much you rightly hate torture, why did you oppose the removal of Saddam Hussein, whose prisons engaged in far more hideous tortures, on thousands of times more people, than America did – all of whom, moreover, were individuals and families who either did nothing or simply opposed tyranny? One assumes, furthermore, that all those Iraqi innocents Saddam had put into shredding machines or whose tongues were cut out and other hideous tortures would have begged to be waterboarded.

Strawman. The left did not oppose removing Saddam because they liked torture, and I'd love to see any quotes to that effect. The issue was the administration fluffing up their case and misleading us into a war by scaring the pants off of us with skewed information. Also, I don't recall "Saddam's a torturing bastard" being high on the administration's list of reasons for us going in. Finally, Dennis, the fact that one act of torture is more painful or horrible than another does not make the first one ok. That would be like suggesting that we should start branding the faces of thieves again because, after all, it's a lot better than chopping off their hands.

2. Are all forms of painful pressure equally morally objectionable? In other words, are you willing to acknowledge that there are gradations of torture as, for example, there are gradations of burns, with a third-degree burn considerably more injurious and painful than a first-degree burn? Or is all painful treatment to be considered torture? Just as you, correctly, ask proponents of waterboarding where they draw their line, you, too, must explain where you draw your line.

I acknowledge gradations in most things, so sure. But again, the fact that some torture is more painful than others does not mean that less-painful torture is ok or NOT morally objectionable. To use your example, a first degree burn might be preferable to a third-degree one, but I'm pretty sure you don't want me applying either to your face.

3. Is any maltreatment of anyone at any time – even a high-level terrorist with knowledge that would likely save innocents' lives – wrong? If there is no question about the identity of a terror suspect, and he can provide information on al-Qaida – for the sake of clarity, let us imagine that Osama bin Laden himself were captured – could America do any form of enhanced interrogation involving pain and/or deprivation to him that you would consider moral and therefore support?

I might even support behavior that I would normally consider morally questionable depending on the circumstances and the likelihood that it would actually be effective. However, one of the more irritating things about the entire torture debate has been that it has radicalized the left and the right to the point that neither is willing to realize and concede that A-limited torture under very specific conditions (while still morally ambiguous) can have useful effects, but also B- other interrogation techniques, like actually TALKING to the suspects, can sometimes get even better information! Do what works but use it as a last resort, not a first crack, and understand that as soon as we start permitting torture in the open, we are exposing ourselves to a very tricky and very ugly moral dilemma. We cannot be the nation of torture, and if the right is getting pissy about the left crying foul over every mistreatment of terror suspects, let me tell you, I'm getting pretty disgusted with the right trying to sidestep the entire issue by claiming that nothing we've done qualifies as torture. (Best idiot moment courtesy of Karl Rove.)

5. Presumably you would acknowledge that the release of the classified reports on the handling of high-level, post-Sept. 11 terror suspects would inflame passions in many parts of the Muslim world. If innocents were murdered because nonviolent cartoons of Muhammad were published in a Danish newspaper, presumably far more innocents will be tortured and murdered with the release of these reports and photos. Do you accept any moral responsibility for any ensuing violence against American and other civilians?

Who's "you?" Last I checked I wasn't the President. However, let's think about this, Dennis. You're saying that torture is fine but releasing reports admitting we tortured is irresponsible. News flash, shmuckles: if acknowledging doing something morally questionable and highly controversible is bad, then the original act must be a lot worse! And everyone already knew we were torturing, except that the administration wanted to keep up their 1984-speak and call it "coerced interrogation," as opposed to the other, voluntary kind that apparently involves hookers and cotton candy. At least by owning up to it and committing to changing it and having a national discussion about it, we're undermining our enemies who claim that we all love torture and do it in secret.

6. Many members of the intelligence community now feel betrayed and believe that the intelligence community will be weakened in their ability to fight the most vicious organized groups in the world. As reported in the Washington Post, former intelligence officer (Mark) Lowenthal said that fear has paralyzed agents on the ground... If, then, the intelligence community has been adversely affected, do you believe it can still do the work necessary to protect tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people from death and maiming?

The intelligence community has a job to do and if they have a problem doing it for the new administration they should step down. Maybe now that we have a President that doesn't care if our translators are gay we can even get some new recruits in.

9. You say that America's treatment of terror suspects will cause terrorists to treat their captives, especially Americans, more cruelly. On what grounds do you assert this? Did America's far more moral treatment of Japanese prisoners than Japan's treatment of American prisoners in World War II have any impact on how the Japanese treated American and other prisoners of war? Do you think that evil people care how morally pure America is?

America can help itself internationally by improving its image and standing in the world as much as possible. Our moral treatment of prisoners can help us win over moderates or people doubting the terrorists' promise to our side (ex: Sunni Awakening in Iraq), and it can also potentially help us, as it did with Abu Zubaydah, in actual interrogations when suspects that have been told how horrible we are see that we are actually treating them like human beings, despite having the tactical upper hand.

Nice try, Dennis. But you're still wrong. Even worse, you're still stupid.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

--America became a great civilization thanks to a culture based on the value of having to earn almost everything an American got in life.--

"Especially people that inherited their wealth or got it from being slave-owners, right?"

A compelling argument you have not provided with that statement -- the sky is blue, right?

You have pointed to the infinitesimal -- America achieved greatness through earning it, yes. You have somehow excluded the other 99.999999999999999999% of us who built the country in that one statement.

'You' is a generic encompassing term when applied in that fashion, and 'you' know this.

Actually I hate all things politic so am bowing out of this, accidentally came across it searching for something completely unrelated.

Take care.