Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Moral Equivalence Rearing Its Ugly Head

Salon's Michael Schulson has conducted an interview of Karen Armstrong, whom he says has "studied English at Oxford, spent seven years as a Catholic nun and then, after leaving the convent, took a brief detour toward hard-line atheism."    Having written histories of Buddhism, of Islam, and of God, she has "emerged as one of the most popular- and prolific- writers on religion."

Armstrong also, Schulson notes, has written a history of myth, evidently something which she is intimately familiar with. She was asked "When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam — Sam Harris said something like 'Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas' — when you hear something like that, how do you respond?" Armstrong replied

It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.

This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.

Well,  that's something of a leap, going from "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas" to the Holocaust and suggesting Auschwitz and Treblinka are in our future. In merely six sentences, Armstrong implies a) that Harris and Maher are pseudo-Nazis, for they've engaged in "the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe;" and b) that "being "guilty of great wrongs" while proud of "our fairness and our toleration" is similar to a concentration camp existing near a university.

More significantly, however, Armstrong commits what is gradually becoming a common analogy, attributing what the speaker believes are bigoted remarks or actions (whatever they may be) to racism. While she knows not to use the "r" word, she argues that the sentiments of Bill Maher and Sam Harris  are akin to  those  which "led to the  concentration camps in Europe" and are "the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and '40s in Europe."

This would be less loathsome were it accurate. But it is not.  Someone needs to remind Armstrong that Adolph Hitler's views were grounded in what he assumed was race; not nurture, but nature. Researchers at the Simon Wiesenthal Center once explained

It is evident from Mein Kampf and Hitler's speeches that he viewed racial conflict as the determining factor in all of human history. "The racial question gives the key not only to world history, but to all human culture." Race was not simply a political issue to be used to curry the favor of the masses, but the "granite foundation" of Hitler's ideology.

Hitler's racial ideology stemmed from what he called "the basic principle of the blood." This meant that the blood of every person and every race contained the soul of a person and likewise the soul of his race, the Volk. Hitler believed that the Aryan race, to which all "true" Germans belonged, was the race whose blood (soul) was of the highest degree. God Himself had, in fact, created the Aryans as the most perfect men, both physically and spiritually.

Since the blood (soul) of the Aryans contained specific spiritual energies, the "cultural energies" or "racial primal elements," as Hitler often called them, the Aryans supplied the culture that creates the beauty and dignity of higher humanity. In other words, all that man calls higher culture was ultimately the product of the spiritual and creative energies that exist in the blood of the Aryans.

To be sure, the problem lies not only with Armstrong but instead pops up with increasing regularity. During his famous argument with Maher and Harris several weeks ago on HBO's Real Time, actor Ben Affleck termed his combatants' remarks "gross and racist. It’s like saying, Oh you shifty Jew." Neither Maher nor Harris, as the video below will remind us, said anything about race, referring only to differences in religion and culture. Armstrong's mistake, however, is more alarming and arguably less justified, inasmuch as she is not a thespian but someone who has written extensively on the religion.

Karen Armstrong is, nonetheless, accurate about one important, related, matter.  She contends "We've recoiled, quite rightly, from our anti-Semitism, but we still have not recoiled from our Islamophobia. That has remained." That's true.  After all,  fear of terrorist who, partly motivated by religious hatred and bigotry, have attacked the World Trade Center (twice) and the USS Cole once, and made a tinderbox out of the Middle East is exactly the same as the Holocaust.

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