The Persecution of Honesty

A Bit About Honesty

In a previous post, I suggested that one reason I don’t really fit in today’s America is that I try to be honest. (I realize there are people who will say they “try” to be honest when what they mean is, they’re honest when honesty serves their own best interests. That’s not really trying to be honest. I also realize there are times when I am not honest — to which a fair response might be, try harder, even though doing so just seems to make me more of a misfit in this culture.)

I was reminded of that previous post when I read an American Conservative article by Zachary Yost (2018). Yost’s article, titled “The Triumph of Emotion Over Reason,” argued that, “[o]n both sides of the political spectrum, logical debate and analysis have been increasingly replaced by emotive signaling.” Yost offered the example of an exchange between a National Rifle Association (NRA) spokeswoman and students who had survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018. The NRA spokeswoman dismissed the students as young people who didn’t know what they were talking about; the students replied that, actually, they were experts, having been there during the shooting. Yost said both were wrong: young or old, the students might have been making an intelligent point; and at the same time, merely being there did not make them so expert as to exempt their beliefs from critique.

Honesty comes into the mix because The American Conservative itself hosts numerous articles by conservative Christian writers whose beliefs require profound dishonesty. (See 1 2 3 other posts for more on that.) In other words, this honesty thing can get out of hand. You might start out talking about how people should be more honest about political issues — but then, next thing you know, people might start expecting each other to be more honest about religion and relationships and money and everything else.

But let’s not go there. At least not now. Let’s limit ourselves to Yost’s argument. What he’s suggesting is simply a contrast between “classical and Christian traditions” and “the new morality”:

Under this new morality, moral evaluation is based not on the consequences of one’s actions, but rather on emotionally expressing the correct views and opinions. Notably, this form of moral evaluation is not very concerned with the results of the actions one takes; merely with the communication of those proper thoughts.

As just noted, I’m not so convinced of the Christian tradition’s truthfulness. I think Yost’s point is that Christians want to look at evidence and seek truth, on the subjects that they are prepared to discuss truthfully. But that’s true of the new morality as well. The predominantly leftist mentality that irritates Yost is equally prepared to base its arguments on evidence, when evidence leads to the desired conclusions.

Virtue Signaling

Nonetheless, Yost does have a point. I say that — in fact, I am writing about it — because, by some coincidence, I went from his article directly to an article in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart (2018). The topic of Beinart’s article is Mike Pompeo’s suitability to serve as secretary of state, for which he has recently been nominated.

I had nothing against Beinart in particular, going into this article; to the contrary, I have enjoyed some of his other material. But in this particular article, he made himself a poster child for what Yost was saying, “emotionally expressing the correct views and opinions” without regard for logic or evidence. Here are some excerpts from the Beinart article:

[Secretary of State nominee Mike] Pompeo has a record of making dangerously misleading statements about Muslims. . . .

Pompeo is closely allied to prominent anti-Muslim figures like Frank Gaffney and Brigitte Gabriel. . . . [who] believe that many American Muslims . . . are disloyal. Why? Not because they’re loyal to a foreign country but because they are loyal to Islam itself, which, according to Gaffney and Gabriel, does not permit allegiance to any non-Muslim government. (In earlier periods in American history, anti-Catholic bigots similarly argued that loyalty to the pope superseded loyalty to the Constitution.) . . .

In 2010, Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy issued a report alleging that . . . “most of the Muslim American groups of any prominence in America are now known to be, as a matter of fact, hostile to the United States and its Constitution.”

I, myself, am inclined to doubt that most American Muslims differ from most American Christians, Jews, or Hindus in such regards. There is probably some aspect of their culture, heritage, or religion that they would fight to keep, even to the point of subverting an American law or constitution that would criminalize it. But such issues tend not to come up. The Muslims I know, like the Christians and the rest, are mostly just focused on their jobs, their families, their homes, and other normal activities and involvements.

Guilt by Association

Pompeo and his buddies are probably wrong, if they think most American Muslims are disloyal in some way that does not apply to members of other religions. Of course, I’m not hearing Pompeo’s side of the story, here, so maybe that’s not what Pompeo thinks at all.

And it is interesting that I’m not hearing Pompeo’s side. Instead of reporting it, Beinart says Pompeo is guilty by association with Gaffney and Gabriel; his article goes on at considerable length, using the words of these other people to cast doubt on Pompeo. This is not fair, and Beinart knows it. In 2008, he complained that it was racist to consider Barack Obama guilty by association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had made remarkably unpatriotic comments (e.g., “God damn America”; see Los Angeles Times, 2008). Beinart’s words in an article in Forward (2017) illuminate his own hypocrisy:

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after all, officiated at Barack Obama’s wedding, baptized his girls and provided the title for Obama’s second book. That doesn’t mean Obama agreed with Wright’s political views. . . .

It’s easy to demand that other people apply ideological litmus tests to their relationships. It’s harder to do so in one’s own life. If people judged my politics by the synagogues I’ve attended, they could draw some disturbing conclusions, too.

Associations are useful in understanding someone’s life. But when it comes to charges of anti-Semitism, or any other form of bigotry, I’d suggest this simple test: Has the person made two statements that suggest animus toward a specific religious or racial group? We live in the internet age. The public record isn’t hard to find. Enterprising journalists can uncover the rest.

So why didn’t Beinart follow his own advice? If Beinart and Obama can associate with people whose views they do not share, why can’t Pompeo? Instead of this stuff about Gaffney and Gabriel, why didn’t Beinart behave like an enterprising journalist, dig up the public record on Pompeo, and talk about that? The answer appears to be that Beinart considered muckraking more likely to appeal to readers of The Atlantic. And he (and his editor at The Atlantic) may be right about that. But then his talk about the moral high ground starts to look rather dubious.

If Beinart wants to make a point about Pompeo’s views, he needs to use Pompeo’s words. Quoting other people, and then claiming that Pompeo agrees with them, is not journalism at all. It is an example of what Yost was saying: never mind the logic; just be emotionally triggered by Pompeo’s alleged association with people whose views you don’t like.

Allegiance to Foreign Powers

Assume, for the sake of discussion, that Beinart is right: assume Pompeo does share the views of Gaffney and Gabriel. What are those views? According to Beinart, as quoted above, those views include the belief that Islam “does not permit allegiance to any non-Muslim government.” So now we have a question for Gaffney and Gabriel: is that true, what you’re saying about Islam? It is a question that Beinart should ask, but he doesn’t; he simply assumes they are wrong.

So, helping Beinart do his job, let’s try to find out for ourselves. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance requires Muslim immigrants, becoming U.S. citizens, to renounce “all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty”; to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies”; and so forth. It’s possible that the vast majority of America’s first-generation Muslim citizens lied when they took that oath but, again, I haven’t seen evidence of any such thing. To the contrary, a search leads to a StackExchange – Islam discussion in which, at this writing, the most favored view is that a Muslim who acquires citizenship in a country “enters into a covenant with that country” and that the Quran requires Muslims to “fulfill every covenant.”

So it appears Gaffney and Gabriel are wrong. In that case, Beinart says, they are just like the “anti-Catholic bigots” who previously argued that “loyalty to the pope superseded loyalty to the Constitution.” With that, it’s Beinart’s turn to be wrong again. And that’s how it works with honesty in such arguments: you find there is truth in both sides, but also enough error and deliberate falsehood to encourage similar behavior on the other side. And saying so irritates both sides, because both feel very righteous about the part of the issue that they want to focus on. As The Atlantic and The American Conservative both seem to realize, honesty is not how you sell magazines and draw viewers’ eyes to the advertising that pays your salaries.

It’s really funny that Beinart accuses people in the 1920s of being anti-Catholic bigots. To quote Beinart himself, in an Atlantic article from just a few months earlier,

Before calling conservatives bigots, liberals should remember something about their own ideology: Progressivism is progressive. It seeks ever-greater moral advance. That means that if liberals have their way, the list of things considered discriminatory will continue to grow. . . . Because progressivism perpetually raises the antibigotry bar, today’s liberals likely espouse views that future liberals will consider prejudiced.

Beinart knew better than to throw around words like “bigot,” especially when talking about people in the past who were dealing with what may have been very different circumstances. But then he did it anyway. (Note, here, that we are not even starting to talk about the impact on attitudes arising from a great and, to many Americans, threatening wave of immigration, back in that era. According to Politico (Zeitz, 2015), “Between 1840 and 1924, over 30 million European immigrants relocated to the United States. Many were Catholic . . . .”)

It would be bigoted now to question American loyalty due to Catholic religion. But it was not necessarily bigoted then, in the 1920s, to do so. Many non-Catholics were uninformed and/or unsure on the question. They were not evil for expressing doubts and drawing conclusions based on the knowledge available to them. Yes, some of them may have come around to reality more slowly than others. But that is sometimes true of progressives as well.

In point of fact, for some Catholics, loyalty to the Pope clearly did supersede loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. For instance, in opposing the 1928 presidential campaign of Al Smith, an attorney named Charles Marshall presented an argument to that effect in The Atlantic Monthly (i.e., the periodical that now calls itself The Atlantic, where Beinart’s article appears). Marshall’s argument observed, among other things, that

[Catholic doctrine] makes the Roman Catholic Church at times sovereign and paramount over the State. . . .

The Catholic Encyclopedia clearly so declares: “In case of direct contradiction, making it impossible for both jurisdictions to be exercised, the jurisdiction of the Church prevails and that of the State is excluded.” . . .

Pope Leo XIII says: “It is not lawful for the State, any more than for the individual, either to disregard all religious duties or to hold in equal favor different kinds of religion.” But the Constitution of the United States declares otherwise: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

A brief search suggests that Marshall’s quote of Pope Leo XIII is legitimate. Leo’s source document seemingly went on to say that “unrestrained freedom of thinking and of openly making known one’s thoughts is not inherent in the rights of citizens.” In other words, Leo was no fan of the U.S. Constitution. Likewise, a search leads to a Catholic Encyclopedia page that still says what Marshall saw in it 90 years ago.

So Marshall seems to have been expressing official Catholic doctrine accurately. As far as I can tell from brief review, what was wrong about his argument was not this documentary evidence; it was that to a considerable degree American Catholics reserve the right to disagree with the Pope and/or the church. That may have been less true in 1928, although centuries of European rulers’ defiance and sometimes dominance of Rome did provide grounds for doubt that popes had enjoyed much practical control over secular governments, at least since the Middle Ages (see e.g., Moore, 1956, p. 62). Smylie (1960, p. 337) cited sources to this effect, such as a letter by the editor of The Commonweal suggesting that (at least in the view of that liberal Catholic journal) “the teachings of the Pope bound only those who accepted them voluntarily” — but Smylie (p. 338) also cited sources asserting a Catholic obligation to obey papal dictates. Shelley (2003) likewise acknowledged the existence of “reactionary Catholic ideologues whose anachronistic opinions gave credibility to Marshall’s charges of Catholic intolerance.” In short, it seems that Marshall stated views that Smith himself rejected, but that were correctly associated with at least some Catholics — that, in other words, there was a legitimate question and reasonable debate.

So there, again, we have Beinart not arguing the facts or the logic about Catholics in the 1920s, but merely making false accusations (e.g., “bigot”). Clearly, Beinart expects that readers won’t ask, “Wait — what was ‘bigoted’ about that?” but will instead unthinkingly climb on his bandwagon. I’m sure some will do exactly that: some will want to consider themselves honest about Important Causes, or at least the ones trumpeted by people like Beinart.

There is, however, a question as to whether such readers perpetuate the identity politics progressivism that helped Hillary Clinton lose the presidency. Developments over the last year — in Donald Trump’s popularity, for instance, and in his reading of Charlottesville — make me doubt that people like Beinart really feel the pulse of America, or understand why the public holds journalists like him in such low repute. (Hint: it’s got to do with honesty.)

Radical Islam and The American Dream

The reality appears to be that Catholicism did contend, in the 1920s (and today as well), that the authority of the Church superseded that of the U.S. Constitution. Saying this about Catholicism was not bigoted; it was merely truthful. Hardly anybody fears Catholicism in this regard anymore, not because the official Church writings (e.g., the Catholic Encyclopedia) have changed, but apparently because Catholic people have made their own decisions about how it’s going to be, for them, in this country.

That’s probably what will happen — indeed, has already happened — to American Muslims too. Beinart says that Pompeo (through the words of Gaffney and Gabriel) believes otherwise — that “most of the Muslim American groups of any prominence in America are now known to be, as a matter of fact, hostile to the United States and its Constitution.” Obviously, Beinart thinks this is wrong. And what is Beinart’s evidence? We don’t know because — you guessed it — he doesn’t provide any. Once again, he doesn’t bother explaining what any specific Muslim-American groups believe. He doesn’t even offer a random quote from some prominent Muslim, to illustrate some different viewpoint. He just implies that all Muslim-American groups are Good, and that picking on any of them is Wrong. This is exactly as Yost called it: we readers are expected to recognize that this is our cue, that we are to feel and express outrage on behalf of some alleged victim, without any actual evidence to support our self-congratulatory posturing.

Here, again, the fact-oriented reader is obliged to do his/her own digging, to assist Beinart in the task of behaving like a journalist. Unfortunately, I was not ideally positioned to give myself expert information on this; I didn’t know what the most prominent Muslim-American organizations might be. A search led to the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, whose Council Members page listed 24 organizations. I wasn’t going to explore the political views of those 24 organizations, but I thought maybe I’d get a flavor of the situation by looking at one with a particularly Islamic-sounding name. I tried the Islamic Society of Boston, but that was a bust: its Wikipedia page said it stood for “a path of moderation that is free of extremism.” The Islamic Shura Council of Southern California likewise gave a flavor of its leanings, in a Chairman’s letter that condemned recent killings in Syria with these words:

[W]e should try our best to avoid being dragged into political arguments that cause divisions within our community, and focus on what we all agree upon, which is rejecting the attacks and inhumane conditions imposed on innocent civilians as a result of fighting factions. We are committed to the causes of justice, fairness and mercy, regardless of sides.

So, OK, it was sounding like Beinart’s assumptions were right. Again, I was not surprised that the country is not filled with radical Muslims; the point is just that good journalism is not about preaching to the choir. It is, rather, about anticipating the reader’s next question. Surely Gaffney and Gabriel were not completely delusional. Hence a truth-seeker will ask what Beinart did not: where, exactly, did they get their ideas?

On that, Beinart does provide a link, but then fails to discuss it. The link leads to a 2015 report by the Center for Security Policy (CSP), of which Gaffney is founder, president, and CEO. As Beinart said, that report (p. 15) claimed that over 80% of U.S. mosques were “shariah-adherent and promoting jihad.” As it turns out, that was not a silly assertion. Unlike Beinart, the CSP report supported that claim by citing research, published in the Middle East Quarterly (Kedar & Yerushalmi, 2011). That report summarized observations gained through multiple visits to what it called “a random sample of 100 mosques” (p. 68) across the United States.

That research did provide support for CSP’s claim. For example, Kedar and Yerushalmi found that 81% of studied mosques offered printed materials praising acts of violence or terrorism against the West, imams in 82% of those mosques recommended studying texts promoting violence, and 80% of mosques offered materials promoting the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the U.S. (pp. 65, 71, 72).

Thus, it appeared that Beinart was seeking to deceive his readers in implying that Gaffney’s CSP was steered by an essentially stupid hatred. Rather than impugn Pompeo for association with people who (unlike Beinart) were willing to offer some research in support of their views, Beinart should have provided the intellectually honest public service of attempting to engage with the facts presented by the other side. Granted, doing so would have been less sensational, and that realization seems to have steered the Atlantic editor who approved publication of Beinart’s junk.

As often happens, engaging honestly with CSP’s facts might actually have been kinder to American Muslims, insofar as it might have fostered a more nuanced dialogue between Muslims and those accused of hating (more likely, fearing) them. I say that because other findings from the Kedar and Yerushalmi (2011) study raised questions about CSP’s interpretation. Specifically, in contrast to the high figures just cited (e.g., 82% of imams recommended texts promoting violence), the study found very low percentages supporting specific personal acts. For instance, only 8% of mosques encouraged people to join a terrorist organization, only 9% distributed material featuring jihadists or terrorist organizations, and only 6% openly collected money for known terrorist organizations (p. 65).

Now, that would have been an interesting finding to share with the public. Even Beinart’s most ideologically corrupted readers might have perked up at that — might have been willing to take the CSP study seriously, that is, if they had known that it might help to support their version of honesty. It appears that Beinart didn’t mention it because he, supposedly a journalist, did not himself bother to read the study, mistakenly assuming that it said things he wouldn’t wish to hear.

Without Beinart’s help in finding experts to interpret this evidence, I had to arrive at my own explanation for the dichotomy in the CSP data. The explanation, I suspected, was that most American Muslims pay lip service to the grand causes of their religion — to “jihad” against the “infidel” — just as Christians sing songs about “Onward Christian Soldiers” and talk loosely about “following Jesus” without planning to do anything significant, in their own lives, that relates to either Jesus or any literal warfare. When you get to the actual decision to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13), you start to separate the spiritual men from the boys, among Christ’s alleged followers. And, guess what, there sure are a lot of boys.

In other words, my reading so far suggests that most American Muslims are no more eager to see their children march off to jihad than American non-Muslims are to send their kids to die in Afghanistan. But I could be wrong — American Muslims could be much more favorable to violent jihad in the U.S. than I realize; there may be some other explanation for that inconsistency in the data gathered by Kedar and Yerushalmi. Anticipating that uncertainty, and seeing Beinart’s apparent ignorance of the research, the Atlantic editor should have chosen a writer more interested in facts and less driven by ideology. That didn’t happen, and the honest writers out there thus received one more lesson in America’s (not to mention the media’s) de facto hostility to truthseeking.

Dragging the Jews Into It

Beinart’s most prominent gamble, in this article, was to believe that a profitably large subgroup of Americans want to attack conservatives for fearing the worst in Islam, regardless of what the facts might be. But while he was rolling the dice on that, Beinart went even further, in an almost comical effort to invent controversy: he dreamed up an angle that would involve Jews. But, silly me, of course jihad is all about Hitler — right?

This was the point at which I decided The Atlantic probably has good reason for not allowing reader comments: people like me would be saying, What???

Here’s how it works. Beinart links Pompeo with Gaffney and Gabriel — and then says that Gaffney and Gabriel, for Muslims, are just like Louis Farrakhan and David Duke, for Jews. So then, by implication, Pompeo is like the KKK. I mean, if you aren’t laughing by now … Seriously, here’s a quote:

Duke believes that American Jews—at least those who support Israel—are not loyal to the United States. “I’m against Jews or anybody else,” he declared in 2016, “that puts the interest of some of other place, another country, over our own country.”

In that little quote, Beinart positions himself as the purveyor of a patent lie about Duke. Putting the interests of Israel first is obviously very different from merely supporting Israel. Lots of Americans support Israel. We ship over a ton of money. That doesn’t mean we would put Israel’s interests before the interests of the United States. Beinart claims Duke’s statement is bizarre — and yet, as we have just seen, Duke is merely repeating a requirement of the naturalization oath: to become U.S. citizens, immigrants have to renounce “all allegiance” to any foreign state.

So, with this little gesture, Beinart reminds us that Israel sometimes conducts itself in a manner hostile to American interests, gratuitously highlights those unpatriotic American Jews who put Israel first, displays his own ignorance of or hostility to the concept of national loyalty, and makes David Duke look reasonable. I mean, wow: a journalistic quadfecta!

The Atlantic editor evidently did not realize that, the farther you reach for sensationalism, the more you expose your own dishonesty. For instance, I, myself, have never gone beyond maybe a brief Google search to see who David Duke was; but after encountering this absurdity, I am made more aware that I have probably swallowed a mainstream media demonization of the man, courtesy of publications like The Atlantic, without actually learning about his views.

Conclusion

Let us return to the starting point. Yost, in The American Conservative, said that people seem more interested in arguing about emotion than about finding fact. Beinart, as if determined to provide a case in point, published an article that actually goes in search of extraneous emotional baggage with which to freight his vapid avoidance of relevant facts. As a consequence, instead of using the opportunity to engage in a serious and honest discussion of Muslim teachings and national loyalty, Beinart encourages emotional outrage on behalf of Muslims, some of whom do display exactly the jihadist tendencies feared by some people who are at least vaguely familiar with — can you remember what was supposedly the topic of his article? Right! Pompeo’s nomination as secretary of state! Of course!

In multiple ways, Beinart’s article is an exercise in falsehood, no better than the B.S. that passes for the “Christian tradition” in Yost’s world. An honest country would be a place where everybody was open to uncomfortable facts about such matters. A country that persecutes honesty is one in which leading sources of news and opinion, preferred by one side or another, are encouraged by their readers to publish misleading material, to stir up anger and hatred, and to ignore or shout down those who try to hold them to account.

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