The ultimate book review

Gordon Wasserman, the crime adviser to the Cameron government and now a Baron, left his copy of When Brute Force Fails on his desk in the House of Lords, and it was stolen.

Gordon Wasserman (now Lord Wasserman), an expert on policing, is a senior adviser to the Cameron government on crime control and the author of the Police and Crime Commissioners plan, which will create a new class of elected local officials who will be able to make budgets and to hire and fire Chief Constables. We hadn’t met, though we have lots of people in common, but (thanks to Joan Brody) I had a chance to meet him in London. Since he had votes coming up in the House of Lords, that’s where we met.

On my way out, after nearly two hours of wide-ranging and animated discussion, I gave him a copy of When Brute Force Fails. The next day he emailed me to say that he’d left it on his desk in the Lords chamber, from which it had been stolen.

I’m delighted that someone among the Peers has such excellent literary taste. Lord Wasserman, despite his extensive knowledge of British criminal procedure, is unsure whether this high-value theft will be investigated by Scotland Yard or by Black Rod.

If the marketing folks at Princeton University Press are on the ball, the next edition will have, emblazoned on the front cover, STOLEN FROM THE HOUSE OF LORDS.

How not to attack Ayn Rand

We should by all means inform people about all the reasons Ayn Rand’s philosophy is distasteful. That she didn’t believe in God is, pace the “American Values Network,” not one of them.

The popularity of Ayn Rand in Republican and Tea Party circles has given rise, fortunately, to efforts to educate people on what she believed.  ThinkProgress has a three minute video showing Rand attacking Medicare as no better than robbery, extolling selfishness, attacking majority rule, conceding that very few people are worthy of being loved, and so on. It is, to my mind, entirely fair comment.  (Rand’s atheism comes out, but only in a snippet from a quotation containing other points.)

And then, from the American Values Network—and recommended as an indispensable tool of persuasion by The Democratic Strategist—there’s this:

The video hammers on the single point that Rand is to be feared for advocating “a morality [cue ominous type size increase] not based on faith.” The video refers to Rand as an inspiration for Paul Ryan’s brand of economic individualism and capitalism, but strongly implies that the reason to be wary of economic individualism is that it’s secretly linked to atheism. The video carefully edits the quotation mentioned above so that only Rand’s rejection of religion, not her political and economic positions, is left in.  (Transcript after the jump.)

Though I didn’t seem to convince many people when I said this about Jack Conway’s Aqua Buddha ad, I’ll say it again (and the argument applies even more clearly this time): this kind of appeal is reprehensible.  We would be appalled if a fundamentalist Protestant group attacked a candidate for reading books basing his or her world view on books by Catholics, Jews, or Muslims.  As I explained in the earlier post, this is not because there’s anything wrong with being Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim but because the implication profits from the prevailing prejudice (among the intended audience) that it is wrong, holds greater force the more we can count on that prejudice’s being unshakable, and slathers an extra coat of implied respectability on the prejudice. We should find it equally appalling for a progressive religious organization to attack Republicans solely and specifically for reading books having a worldview invented by an avowed atheist.

Attacking Rand for her politics is one thing. Attacking her for the particular value (selfishness) in the service of which Rand rejected the Christian faith is more or less the same thing (and completely fine, as in the ThinkProgress ad). Portraying Rand as ominous and evil because of her rejection of faith as such is something completely different. But that’s what the video does.

The American Values Network should be ashamed of itself. And The Democratic Strategist—to which I’ve contributed in the past—should stop blurbing its shameful appeal.

Update: A reader pointed out that the ad faults politicians for their avowed worldview, not merely for “reading books” as in the original version. Quite right—but the larger point stands.

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Conservatives and Europe: it’s all about the secularism

Conservative references to “Europe” may sound like they’re about economics. But they’re really about religion. “Europe” means “secularism” and secularism means moral decline.

Steve Benen notes, and has long noted, that Republican references to failed economics in Europe are inconsistent. We’re supposed to decry Europe as socialist for its high-speed rail, national health insurance, and value-added taxes, but love it as hard-headed for its austerity, tight money, and nuclear energy (well, in France anyway).

Of course these references are inconsistent. But the reason to expect the inconsistency is that the conservative obsession with Europe is primarily cultural, rather than economic. Europe’s economic policies taken individually may be fine, even admirable. But “Europe” is still by definition in decline—because it isn’t Christian enough.

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I don’t care if Rand Paul’s been injured. I’ve been injured.

I don’t care if Rand Paul has been hurt by Jack Conway’s ad. I’ve been hurt.

Part of me regrets saying more about Jack Conway’s “Aqua Buddha” ad. But  I have to, because what seems to be a huge majority of the Left Blogosphere has grossly, dangerously, missed the point.

The ad is not complicated (transcript after the fold).  It attacks Rand Paul for being an atheist. (The focus on Buddha is a gigantic red herring, and I’m not fishing. I’ve lived in Tennessee, and assuming Kentucky to be roughly similar, I can bet that almost no strongly religious person there would recognize the difference between Buddhism and atheism. If it’s not Christian, it’s godless—with Jewish people getting a sort of honorary get-out-of-Hell-free card, most of the time, out of charity and a bit of confusion.)

Jonathan submits that the ad criticizes Paul not for disbelieving religion but for mocking it. Jonathan is incredibly smart and this is the only gobsmackingly absurd argument I’ve ever heard him make.  But the first time’s a doozy.   Stipulating for argument the possibility that Conway would cut an ad on the theme “Paul’s atheism is just fine, but his irreverence is disqualifying,” this ad isn’t doing that.  If you want proof, look at the repeated word in the upper left-hand corner: “Why?” That Paul’s college club mocked Christianity is not in dispute.  The question “why” can be digging for only one implication: he mocked Christianity—and praised Aqua Buddha and hates faith-based-initiatives—because he’s a non-Christian. The mockery, the implication goes, could be a drunken college prank—but it points towards what’s really sinister: the atheism.

Defenders of the ad (who include, besides Jonathan, digby, Theda Skocpol, and Kos [see below]) say Paul and the Republicans have no cause for complaint because Paul is demonstrably using religion instrumentally and because scores of Republican ads are bigoted, false, or both. I actually agree.  Let’s blaze away, and display very big cojones (or your favorite macho metaphor, since they seem to be mandatory on this one).  Paul and Rove deserve everything they get.

But I don’t.

As an unbeliever in America, I’m used to being a religious minority and I’m not especially aggressive in that role. I don’t insult the religious; I don’t even expect politicians to defend the legitimacy of my beliefs (though it would be nice if they did; it might chip away at the clear majority of Americans who would never vote for a candidate who shared my beliefs or the near-majority who would never want me to marry their daughter).  But I do insist that candidates who belong to my party and ask for my support not gratuitously reinforce bigotry against me, nor attempt to profit from it.  Implying President Obama is a secret Muslim is despicable not because there’s anything wrong with being a Muslim but because the implication profits from the prevailing prejudice that it is wrong, holds greater force the more we can count on that prejudice’s being unshakable,  and slathers an extra coat of implied respectability on the prejudice. And the same is true of implications that somebody is secretly and shamefully a Jew, a quarter Black—or an atheist.

Kos’s defense is particularly pathetic (and again, that’s the first time I’ve said that).  He admits that “the ad attacks Rand Paul for his irreligious beliefs” but then writes:

Personally, I see nothing wrong with it. Voters are less concerned with issues than values when casting their ballots, and for many voters, religion speaks to the candidate’s values. I may not like it, but it’s a democracy, and the notion that the source of a candidate’s values are off-limits is patently absurd.

Sure, that means that as an atheist I would never get elected in Mississippi or Alabama or Kentucky, but so what? No one has a right to electoral office, and in a democracy, you have to sell yourself to the voters. In many places, religion is part of the package.

If we crossed out “atheist” and wrote “Muslim,”  nobody—least of all progressives—would doubt the cowardice and injustice of this surrender to bigotry.  If we wrote “Jew” instead, we would wonder how somebody so self-hating could stand to show his face outside the shtetl. But when it comes to atheism, naked, shameless political prejudice directed against one’s beliefs is not to be denounced.  It’s not to be shrugged off as regrettable but unavoidable. It’s not even  to be quietly disapproved of but tolerated.  It’s to be cheered on: hey, that’s the way to show guts and a sense of democracy.

The projection involved here—and in the hundreds of tub-thumping comments that back Kos up—is breathtaking.  Disapproval of the ad is supposed to show that Democrats are wussy and don’t know how to fight back when punched?  That’s a strange way to put it.  Faced with a calculated, effective slander of his own group as unfit to share political office with real Americans, Kos hasn’t just said “thank you sir, may I have another.” He’s loudly called on every other atheist in the room to do likewise.  Strategy is one name for that, but not the best name.

Jack Conway has been praised for following “the Chicago Way,” for pulling a gun when the other guy pulls a knife.  Again, fine.  I’m not sorry for the guy with the knife.  I’m sorry that to get to that guy Conway casually decided to mow down a few million innocent bystanders—including me.  And I wish that fellow progressives could see the blood.

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