Tuesday, January 02, 2007

10 Questions for Heather Mac Donald   posted by Razib @ 1/02/2007 03:35:00 PM

Heather Mac Donald is John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Well known for her realist take on immigration reform and law enforcement, of late she has been the center of a small controversy precipitated by a piece in The American Conservative where she expressed her atheism rather forcefully. Below are 10 questions and Heather's answers (here is an exchange Heather had with Luke Ford from a few years back).

1) OK, I'll get this out of the way. What prompted you to "come out" as an atheist in The American Conservative earlier this year? A friend of mine suggested that you might have become frustrated with the lack of a "reality based" conservatism during this administration, in particular in its attitude toward immigration. Is he going down the right track?

I wrote The American Conservative piece out of frustration with the preening piety of conservative pundits. I attended a New York cocktail party in 2003, for example, where a prominent columnist said to the group standing around him: "We all know that what makes Republicans superior to Democrats is their religious faith." This sentiment has been repeated in print ad nauseam, along with its twin: "We all know that morality is not possible without religion." I didn't then have the courage to point out to the prominent columnist that quite a few conservatives and Republicans of the highest standing had no religious faith, without apparent injury to their principles or their behavior.

Around that time, I had started noticing the puzzling logic of petitionary prayer. What was the theory of God behind prayer websites, for example: that God is a democratic pol with his finger to the wind of public opinion? Is the idea that if only five people are praying for the recovery of a beloved grandmother from stroke, say, God will brush them off, but that if you can summon five thousand people to plead her case, he will perk up and take notice: "Oh, now I understand, this person's life is important"? And what if an equally beloved grandmother comes from a family of atheist curs? Since she has no one to pray for her, will God simply look the other way? If someone could explain this to me, I would be very grateful.

I also wondered at the narcissism of believers who credit their good fortune to God. A cancer survivor who claims that God cured him implies that his worthiness is so obvious that God had to act. It never occurs to him to ask what this explanation for his deliverance says about the cancer victim in the hospital bed next to his, who, despite the fervent prayers of her family, died anyway.

As I was pondering whether any of these practices could be reconciled with rationality, the religious gloating of the conservative intelligentsia only grew louder. The onset of the Iraq war expanded the domain of religious triumphalism to transatlantic relations: what makes America superior to Europe, we were told by conservative opinionizers, is its religious faith and its willingness to invade Iraq. George Bush made the connection between religious beliefs and the Iraq war explicit, with his childlike claim that freedom was God's gift to humanity and that he was delivering that gift himself by invading Iraq.

I need not rehearse here how Bush's invocation of the divine gift of freedom overlooks the Bible, the persistence throughout history of hierarchical societies that have little use for personal autonomy, and the unique, centuries-long struggle in the West to create the institutions of limited government that underwrite our Western idea of freedom. Suffice it to say, the predictable outcome of the Iraq invasion did not convince me that religious belief was a particularly trustworthy ground for political action.

So in the American Conservative piece I wanted to offer some resistance to the assumption of conservative religious unanimity. I tried to point out that conservatism has no necessary relation to religious belief, and that rational thought, not revelation, is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law. I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?

My hope in writing the piece was that the next time a conservative pundit, speaking for and to other conservatives, assumes that he is surrounded by like-minded believers because of course to be conservative is to be religious, that for just a moment a doubt might pass through his mind whether some in his audience may be without faith. And the worst part would be: he couldn't tell who they are.

2) How exactly did you find yourself on the political Right? I recall that you were a liberal while in college, what happened that resulted in your political shift? Was in a "Eureka!" moment, or a gradual affair?

First I realized that I had wasted my college education on the literary theory known as deconstruction, being as I was then too stupid to grasp that nearly everything deconstruction had to say about language was lunatic and fictional. When multiculturalism hit the academy (several years after I had graduated), I was appalled that barely literate students were allowed to trash the most astounding creations of Western civilization before which we should all be on our knees. I came to New York in 1987, in the midst of a particularly craven period of capitulation to racial extortionists. Taking up journalism in the early 1990s exposed me to the total disconnect between liberal dogma about the underclass poor and the reality of their self-defeating behavior. I still have no idea how New York Times reporters can visit the same homeless shelters and welfare offices that I have and remain confident that the "clients" of those facilities are the victims of racism, rather than their own bad decisions. So I would say that reporting on social problems provided the coup de grace for liberal pieties. (I write about my political evolution at greater length in a forthcoming book of essays by various journalists called Why I Turned Right)

3) You've covered many absurd fads and fashions, from the banalities of teacher's colleges to the rise of "relevant" hip-hop curriculum. Of the various topics is there one that has struck you as an exemplar of all that is wrong with our culture?

First of all, I'm in such a period of doubt regarding the conservative establishment right now that I am not sure that I would still use the phrase: "all that is wrong with our culture." My recoil from contemporary conservatism is undoubtedly an overreaction, but even the cultural declinism that is one of its standard features--and which I have endorsed in the past--now strikes me as possibly overwrought.

That having been said, the most idiotic practice that I have come across remains the entire foolishness of progressive pedagogy: the insanity of having students "teach" each other (translation: sit around in class talking about the latest sneakers while the teacher-oops, I mean, "facilitator"--looks on benignly); the dismissal of knowledge as an essential legacy that a teacher must convey to his students; and the rejection of memorization and drilling as necessary to learning.

And having just read a hair-raising column in the New York Times (December 29, 2006) on parent-endorsed "talent shows" that feature 10-year-old girls simulating pole dancing, I am nearly ready to join the jeremiad against American cultural decline again.

And yet, I look around for signs that such pedagogical stupidities and parental cluelessness are retarding our progress, and I can't find them. For all the barbarity of popular entertainment and the historical ignorance of the American public, American civilization and the West generally are at the top of their games-contrary to war on terror hysteria that holds that we face an "existential threat" from Islamists. The rate of technological innovation is higher than at any point in human history and will undoubtedly only accelerate in the future. We are reaping a whirlwind of unfathomable benefits from scientific research.

Would I prefer it if our elites had the taste of 18th century aristocratic patrons and were subsidizing the likes of Mozart, Haydn, and Tiepolo, instead of Jeff Koons and Richard Prince? A thousand times, yes! But as much as I yearn to live in a world that could produce such beauty, I have to recognize that this is the best of all possible times to be alive. I don't know how many of us would give up our astounding array of choices, despite their costs above all in family stability, to go back to a time of more restricted individual autonomy.

4) You've taken a hard look at Latino "family values." When I say "hard," I must be frank and admit that it doesn't seem like it is that difficult to scry that Latin American cultures do not exhibit the sort of family values typical of the Anglo-American tradition, rather, you simply read out the data as it was. Do you think that facts can eventually supersede the cant on this issue?

Given that the liberal elites have ignored the 70% black out-of-wedlock birth rate for decades in discussing the causes of black poverty, I am confident that open borders conservatives will prove just as capable of ignoring the 48% Hispanic out-of-wedlock birth rate as they perpetuate the myth of redemptive Hispanic family values.

5) Do you think that the Bush administration was bad for conservatism? If so, how bad?

Since Bush was not a conservative, arguably he did no harm to conservatism. His failings were not those of conservatism but rather of a Wilsonian absolutism: faith in the universality of his favorite religiously-based abstractions and in the ability of government to impose those abstractions globally.

6) Do you take a particular interest in the natural human sciences? For instance, evolutionary psychology, behavioral ecology, neuroscience, and so on.

I have not read much evolutionary psychology, but I take it that it may come in very handy in rebutting the claim that human altruism proves God's existence (as Francis Collins recently proposed at the 92nd St. Y in New York City, before leading the audience in a sing-along to You Really Got a Code On Me," a tribute to the genome and God, set to Beatles music). As for neuroscience, I am in awe of its power. If I could be any kind of scientist, I would study the brain.

7) You've labelled yourself a 'skeptical conservative.' Would you also say you are hopeful about the trajectory that this republic might take into the future, or do you warrant that the corner is likely turned and we'll be fighting a rearguard action for most of our lives?

I will interpret your question to mean whether I think secularism will strengthen in the U.S. over time. I am not ordinarily an optimist, but I take heart from the incensed response to the existence of a mere three contemporary books debunking religion. While the proportion of Americans who believe in Biblical revelation remains depressingly high and doesn't yet show much sign of decline, the reaction of religion's conservative apologists to a few atheists sticking their heads out of the foxhole suggests to me a possible nervousness about religion's hold in the future. First Things editor Joseph Bottum calls secularists "superannuated," in the aforementioned book Why I Turned Right. Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henninger claims a religious provenance for the following "American" virtues: "fortitude, prudence, temperance, justice, charity, hope, integrity, loyalty, honor, filial respect, mercy, diligence, generosity and forbearance." Yet Classical philosophers and poets celebrated many of these "religious" virtues as vigorously as any Evangelist or Christian divine, and these ideals are in any case human virtues, which is why religion can appropriate them. As for Henninger's suggestion that mercy and hope had to wait upon Christianity to make their appearance on the scene, I would need more evidence. Do these overbroad claims for the necessity of religion suggest that the theocons are running scared? Perhaps.

Up to half of the conservative writers and thinkers whom I know are non-believers. And yet because of the rule that one may never ever question claims made on behalf of faith, they remain in the closet. At some point, however, they may emerge to challenge the idea that without religion, personal and social anarchy looms.

8) If you are 18 and figuring out what course of study to pursue for the next 4 years what changes would you make to your educational path now that you have some hindsight?

I would study a lot more history. Thanks to my college's refusal to tell its ignorant students what an educated person should know-heaven forbid that it actually exercise intellectual authority!-I was required to study no history and didn't know enough to do so on my own.

9) John Derbyshire has offered in the past that evangelical religious conservatives aren't really reliable conservatives in a Burkean sense considering that evangelicalism was aligned with progressive and radical causes in the past. What's your opinion of this assessment, is the Religious Right here to stay as part of the grand conservative coalition?

I defer to John Derbyshire in all things. But given the view of conservative spokesmen that they need the patina of piety, I can't see anyone drumming the Religious Right out of a "grand conservative coalition" in the future, even if the RR were to suddenly embrace the cause of global warming, say. And since our current reigning Republicans are not particularly worried about expanding government, I don't see how anything the RR might want in that arena would get it in trouble.

I have always been amazed that the liberal media is willing to let stand the right's equation between "religious voters," "values voters," and opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. There is no necessary relation between being religious, having values, or opposition to stem cell research or gay marriage, in my view. That having been said, the current obsession with homosexuality on the part of the Religious Right would seem to assure it a political relevance for the Republican Party for some time.

10) Were you surprised at all at the reactions to your piece about your atheism?

I had led such a sheltered life that I had never come across people like the letter writer who chastised me for not mentioning "God's sacrifice of his Only Begotten Son" in my discussion with Michael Novak. For the letter writer, this sacrifice constituted unassailable proof of Christianity. That type of reasoning was new to me.

As for the conservative intelligentsia, I was surprised-but that is my fault. I was ignorant and naive enough that somewhere in the back of my mind, I think, I might actually have assumed that presenting what strike me as pretty strong empirical arguments against the claim that God is just and loving, say, would end the matter. And I was unaware of the depth of commitment to the idea that religion is the source of values and that conservatism and religion are inseparably linked. For me, conservatism was about realism and reason.