Sunday, September 15, 2013

Richard Dawkins and the reverential New York Times

Naturally the New York Times Sunday Book Review is too respectful of celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins to mention the defining moment of his late career: his use of his celebrity to attack an obscure feminist atheist when she made a brief comment about being uncomfortable in an elevator with a man.

Just as the media gatekeepers prefer not to mention Christopher Hitchens' infamous Why Women Aren't Funny written for Vanity Fair (a magazine similar to the New Yorker except with half the intellect and twice the advertisements) in 2007; and President Obama prefers to ignore the Why Women are Bad at Science speech given by Larry Summers in 2005; the media overlords are not interested in Dawkins' infamous douchebaggery.

Because like Hitchens and Summers and Dawkins, the media overlords feel that it's a safe bet that you can shit all over women and get away with it, and women will stay shat on and STFU the way it's been done for millennia. Who cares if you insult half of humanity? It's the loser half, the half which doesn't have representation in the old boys media/New Atheist club.

Unfortunately for the media overlords many, possibly most people know who Hitchens and Summers thanks to their dumping on half of humanity, and people are rapidly coming to know who Richard Dawkins is for his contemptuous attitude towards women, as well as his insistence on frequently embarrassing himself in social media.

Like any good public relations firm, the NYTimes wants to present Richard Dawkins in the best possible light, promoting his book and asking him softball questions about his likes and dislikes. I found this section interesting:
Who are your favorite contemporary writers and thinkers? 
I’ve already mentioned Dan Dennett. I’ll add Steven Pinker, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Rees, Jerry Coyne — indeed quite a few of the luminaries that grace the Edge online salon conducted by John Brockman (the Man with the Golden Address Book). All share the same honest commitment to real-world truth, and the belief that discovering it is the business of scientists — and philosophers who take the trouble to learn science. Many of these “Third Culture” thinkers write very well. (Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist? Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen? Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?) 
You have written several books on science and secularism. What other books on the subject would you recommend? 
Look at the list of those who obsessively attack Sam Harris and you’ll get an idea of what a dangerously effective writer he is: clear, eloquent, penetratingly intelligent, suffers no fools. Much the same could be said of Christopher Hitchens, and the attacks on him have increased now he is no longer around to fight back. 
First, I find it interesting that Dawkins counts Jared Diamond as a favorite, since Diamond's take on human culture is basically via cultural materialism, whereas Dawkins and his BFF Steven Pinker are both fervent advocates of evolutionary psychology - aka sociobiology. Those two research strategies are mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, Diamond promotes a view of human cultural diversity that is utterly despised by Dawkins' other bestie, Sam Harris:
Diamond's most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, published in 2012, asks what the western world can learn from traditional societies. It surveys 39 traditional small-scale societies of farmers and hunter/gatherers, organized in tribes or bands, with respect to how they deal with universal human problems. The problems discussed include dividing space, resolving disputes, bringing up children, treatment of elders, dealing with dangers, formulating religions, learning multiple languages, and remaining healthy. The book suggests that some practices of traditional societies could be usefully adopted in the modern industrial world today, either by individuals or else by society as a whole.
As for Sam Harris' view of anthropology, as Jackson Lears write in The Nation:
He is especially offended by anthropology. Too often, he says, “the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer” have sanctioned some destructive practice (human sacrifice, female genital mutilation) by explaining its adaptive or social function. At their worst, ethnographers have created a cult of the noble savage that celebrates primitive cultures we should rightfully scorn. His scornfulness aside, Harris is not wrong about ethnographic sentimentality, but he thoroughly misunderstands cultural relativism. He seems to think it means cultivating a bland indifference to ethical questions rather than making a serious effort to understand ethical perspectives radically different from our own without abandoning our own... Nor is he aware of the pioneering work of Christine Walley on female genital mutilation in Africa. Walley illuminates the complex significance of the practice without ever expressing tolerance for it, and she uses cross-cultural understanding as a means of connecting with local African women seeking to put an end to it.
It's also interesting that Dawkins implies, in his inimitable contemptuous personal style, that critics of Christopher Hitchens are cowards because they won't STFU while he's all dead; and that because Harris is "obsessively attacked" it indicates what a superior thinker he is.

People attack Harris because he has repugnant right-wing views and is a second-rate thinker. Only a puffed-up media-darling jingoistic old-boys-network intellectual like Richard Dawkins could be impressed by Sam Harris.

I attacked Christopher Hitchens plenty when he was alive. Unlike most people, my first introduction to Hitchens wasn't through his shitting on women in Vanity Fair, it was shitting on his former leftist colleagues by making common cause with George Bush over the war in Iraq.

And as far as Steven Pinker, I agree he should get a literary prize - the literary prize for most times a mainstream writer has called on professional racists to defend his work.

And lest Dawkins think that I will wait until he's dead to attack him, I must step up my critiques - he's 72 so I'd better get to work. 

Now at least I know why Dawkins married his wife:
I’ve been reading autobiographies to get me in the mood for writing my own and show me how it’s done: Tolstoy (at one time my own memoir was to have been called, at my wife’s suggestion, “Childhood, Boyhood, Truth”)
I didn't think anybody could adore Richard Dawkins more than he himself.

In the puff piece Dawkins trashes Jane Austin. Now I'm on the record as a non-fan of Austen, but Dawkins' reasoning is:
“Pride and Prejudice.” It must be my prejudice, and I am not proud of it, but I can’t get excited about who is going to marry whom, and how rich they are.
He then says of all writers he would most like to meet William Shakespeare:
Who are you? And how did a humble country boy like you become the greatest genius, and part creator, of our beloved English language
Presumably Dawkins doesn't like several plays in the greatest genius' oevre, though, since Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Loves' Labour's Lost, Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew,  and Romeo and Juliet are all primarily about who is going to marry whom.