Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Huntress of the Moon, and Lady of the Earth

The early 70's were strange times. People actually believed in the possibility of a revolution in the United freaking States of America. A lot of the people who believed that, well, actually, the vast majority, were stupid kids who had very little idea what they were talking about. Three of those kids (Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold) were making bombs one day in their Greenwich Village Townhouse, when one of their bombs went off - killing them.

That was on March 6, 1970. Less than three months before Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark had been murdered in their sleep by the Chicago police. And less than two months later, on April 30, President Nixon ordered the US invasion of Cambodia, which in turn sparked demonstrations on college campuses around the nation. On May 4 National Guard troops opened fire on student demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four and wounding 9. Then in the early morning of May 15 police opened fire on a dormitory building at Jackson State University, killing 2 and wounding 12.

The result of these and similar events was that in the Spring of 1970 liberals became radicals and radicals became revolutionaries. The famous San Francisco rock-group Jefferson Starship captured the zeitgeist of this time on their 1971 album Sunfighter, and especially in the song Diana, which portrayed Diana Oughton as a revolutionary hero (another song on the same album, Holding Together, also expressed open sympathy for the Viet Cong):
[Diana, Part 1]
How do you feel to shoot down your brother now

And bury us in cages of cement and steel

What do you see when you look at one another now
Who do you see tell me how do you feel

Sing a song for the children who are gone

Sing a song for Diana

Huntress of the moon and a lady of the Earth

Weather woman Diana

[Diana, Part 2]
How do you feel as you cut
Down your children now
And leave them dying
On the grass in the sun

What do you see
When you look at one another now
Tell me old man
Tell me where will you run

Sing a song
For the children going down
Remember - the ones you knew
Remember how we danced
And remember how we sang
In Amerika
So many years ago.

[Diana, from the album Sunfighter, 1971]
If you have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, then I strongly recommend you see the amazing 2002 documentary The Weather Underground by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. Whether you were there or not, whether you think people like Diana Oughton were evil, foolish, heroic, or possibly some combination thereof, this is an amazing film.

No townhouses or young revolutionaries were harmed in the creation of the beautiful statue Diana of the Chase (pictured at the top of this post), by the spectacularly talented sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. This sculpture can be seen, among other places, at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland. It can also be seen at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, and also at the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art at Harvard University.

Huntington's stunning sculpture inspired her friend, Maxwell Anderson, to write the following poem in 1922, the closing lines of which are, well, kind of freaking me out right now as I write this and ponder how eerily appropriate those words are:
Now you have shot your arrow at the Sun,
little Diana, and the god caught you there -
the living wind still in your up-blown hair,
your eyes burnt back from staring hard upon
the target of the glory of high noon -
caught and immured you in his burnished air
forever, a too valiant challenger,
lifting the empty sockets of the moon.

Had you walked soberly your forest shade
and hid your virgin lustre under cloud
and let your bow hang at the eaves unstrung
you had not died so light and fierce a maid,
for, dying, gone to join the mutinous crowd
of beautiful blind rebels who died young.

"witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards?"

Some Pagans might be tempted to think that there's little or no point in defending a conservative evangelical Christian like Francis Collins against a nice liberal atheist like Sam Harris. Some might even be tempted to think that Harris has some valid points to make. That could be a very serious mistake.

The thing that Harris cannot stand about Francis Collins is that Collins proves, just by his very existence, that being a deeply religious person is perfectly compatible with being a good, even a great, scientist. And the thing for Pagans to realize is that Harris would be just as outraged, as he has made clear in his own own words, or possibly even more outraged, if Collins were a Pagan rather than a Presbyterian.

Sam Harris is especially incensed by the fact that the prestigious science journal Nature ("which remains the most influential scientific publication on earth") favorably reviewed (Building Bridges, Nature 442, 110) Collins' 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In fact, the Nature review
praised Collins for engaging “with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs.”
Harris is certain that the editors of this esteemed scientific institution must have been duped, or cowed, or bought off, or put under a magical spell, or something like that. To dramatize just how wrong-headed Harris thinks the Nature editors to have been he asks us to consider this question:
Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards?
Harris answers his own question:
Not a chance. In fact, we can be confident that his scientific career would have terminated in an inferno of criticism.
[The Strange Case of Francis Collins]
All that is missing is the MWAhahahahahaha as Harris rubs his hands together and licks his lips at the thought of scientific careers being "terminated in an inferno of criticism" on the basis of the religious beliefs of the scientists in question. In case anyone could possibly not see where Harris is going with this, he approvingly points to how "biochemist Rupert Sheldrake had his academic career decapitated, in a single stroke, by an editorial in Nature." And in case even that doesn't spell this out clearly enough for anyone, one only needs to know that the title of the editorial in question was, and I am not making this up, A Book for Burning? (Click here to download the pdf for that review.)

There are, of course, a great many scientists, physicians, engineers, etc. who do, as a matter of fact, not only believe in "witchcraft, astrology or Tarot cards" but dare to believe that such beliefs are compatible with science. And as I discussed in a recent post ("detached from the masses and usually disempowered"), such things as Alchemy and Astrology were accepted parts of western intellectual culture from antiquity up until the early 18th century. This period includes the so-called "scientific revolution", and we now know that Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and many other paragons of modern science, were heavily involved in just the kinds of things that Sam Harris now insists are far beyond the pale.

I have a PhD in physical chemistry (as does Francis Collins). I also probably have more sets of Tarot cards than Collins has Bibles, and at least that many books on Astrology (including several ancient ones written in Latin or Greek), and I am also a member of a Wiccan tradition whose members consider "Witch" to be a title of honor and respect. And the only PhD that Sam Harris has, by the way, is the type that stands for "Piled higher and Deeper", as we used to say back home in Indiana.

Sam Harris apparently would like to see a purge of all scientists (especially prominent scientists employed by the government) who do not adhere closely enough to the party line. Those who are deemed to be insufficiently atheistic should have their careers "terminated in an inferno of criticism" or, better yet, "decapitated in a single stroke".

Harris is already well on his way to promulgating a list of proscribed subjects and authors. Anyone found to be in possession of such forbidden literature will be terminated, decapitated, etc. Banned authors would include Carl Jung, who wrote about Astrology, Alchemy and even Tarot; Margot Adler, Starhawk, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and all other Wiccans, Witches, etc; Rupert Sheldrake and anyone sympathetic to him, which would include noted mathematician Ralph Abraham, and physicist David Bohm; Arthur C. Clarke who showed an unhealthy interest in reincarnation, psychic phenomena, and communication with non-human species; Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon, one of the greatest anti-totalitarian works of literature ever written, who also bequeathed almost a million English pounds to the study of parapsychology; not to mention such obviously verboten authors as Aldous Huxley, Alice Walker, Kim Stanley Robinson, Deepak Chopra, Erica Jong, Philip K. Dick, Herman Hesse, William Butler Yeats, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, Goethe, Shakespeare, Milton, and so forth. Also, all books on Buddhism and Hinduism must be banned because those religions promote reincarnation, karma, mantra recitation, meditation and other similarly ridiculous ideas.

I realize that some people might think I am exaggerating the sinister nature of Sam Harris' intentions. But consider what Sir John Maddox, who was editor of Nature for 22 years, had to say when interviewed on BBC television in 1994, 13 years after writing A Book for Burning?:
Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy.
Harris goes out of his way to say that in his opinion Francis Collins is worse than Rupert Sheldrake, and to imply that what he would like to see happen to Collins should be worse than the "career decapitation" that happened to Sheldrake!

The next logical step would seem to be for all scientists to be required to take some kind of Rationality Oath. Also graduate students should be encouraged to denounce professors who are suspected of being soft on religion. Any scientist who comes from a religious family, or who is married to a spouse known to frequent synagogues, churches, Hindu temples, New Age bookstores, or other off-limits venues should be subject to proportionately greater scrutiny.

And the case of Rupert Sheldrake makes it painfully obvious that mere career decapitation is not enough to silence these dangerous heretics. More effective measures must be brought to bear to rid the world of Presbyterians, Pagans, Tarot card readers, and all those who threaten to confuse our public discourse and sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids. But don't worry, because Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne & Co. are doing their best to bring us closer to that bright, shining, spiritually sanitized future when science will have already answered all of our questions before they are even asked.

[Thoth Tarot card images were downloaded from the keepsilence.org website.]

Sam Harris. In Defense of Torture. Srsly.

Sam Harris said of himself in October, 2005:
I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, this is not a comfortable position to have publicly adopted.
Do tell.

Harris even titled the Huffington Post essay the above quote is taken from "In Defense of Torture".

W. T. F?

But it gets even better. In the same year that Harris wrote "In Defense of Torture" he was the recipient of a PEN Award. According to the PEN Charter:
IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES, and particularly in time of war, works of art and libraries, the heritage of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.

MEMBERS OF PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect among nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in the world.
PEN even has its own "Campaign against torture"!! On their website PEN says:
we are campaigning for the restoration of the right of habeas corpus and an end to torture, arbitrary detentions, extraordinary renditions, substandard trials, and secret prisons.
But Sam Harris says:
I will now present an argument for the use of torture in rare circumstances. While many people have objected, on emotional grounds, to my defense of torture, no one has pointed out a flaw in my argument.
I would suggest that the flaw isn't so much in Sam Harris' argument as it is in Sam Harris himself.

To learn more about the nice liberal atheist Sam Harris and his public support "for the use torture in rare circumstances" (words that even George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, etc, have never dared to say out loud much less put into print), just do a google search, or read Andrew Brown's recent blog on the subject over at the UK Guardian. Brown states bluntly that Harris "argues unambiguously for the use of torture. Why pretend otherwise?"

Why, indeed.