Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Check Out Mixing Memory

Chris from Mixing Memory posted a comment on my post about Pinker and Summers, and it led me to check out his blog. I urge you to do the same. It doesn’t have much information about what Chris does, but I suspect it must have something to do with cognitive neuroscience or linguistics. Two recent posts really stuck out to me. The first was about the ways in which the secular left and the religious right misunderstand each other. In this post he makes two important points that I have often made myself. First, that there is a good deal of variation within what we often refer to simply as the religious right (I am certainly guilty of that myself sometimes). Second, that the religious right tends to either misunderstand or misrepresent the basic perspective of the secular left as advocating relativism:

But this problem is overshadowed, from the perspective of the religious left, by the almost complete lack of understanding of the our world-view by Christians on both the left and right. It is virtually impossible to find a veridical characterization of the secular left from anywhere on the right. The secular left world-view is treated by the right as a form “postmodernism” which to most on the right is a synonym for “relativism.” Yet for the most part, members of the secular left hold values that they consider objective, or at least absolute, such as tolerance and the avoidance of cruelty. Very few of us are relativists, and even those of us who are do not adhere to the caricatured form of relativism, in which all values are entirely subjective or culturally dependent. Our objective values are the basis for our arguments against common religious positions such on issues like choice, affirmative action, gay and women’s rights, and the environment. The right’s, and even the religious left’s failure to grasp this makes communication damn near impossible. Their representations of our positions and arguments will be entirely mistaken, so long as they do not include the fact that the values from which our positions are derived are not merely blowing in the wind like so many dandelion seeds which may be carried away at any moment.

He really nails this. There’s nothing more irritating to me than to be treated like a postmodernist, something I emphatically reject. I am not at all a relativist, yet I am continually called one. Very frustrating.

The second post is a fascinating exchange he had with David Horowitz, who I consider to be one of the most obnoxious people on the planet. Horowitz constantly talks about the lack of political diversity in academia, claiming that it is dominated almost entirely by leftists. He further claims that this is a result of outright discrimination. The irony, of course, is that when the issue is racial or gender diversity, Horowitz scoffs at the notion that a disparity in numbers proves that the cause of that disparity is discrimination. He rightly demands actual evidence of discrimination, not merely the assumption that all disparities are caused by discrimination, before accepting that premise – but when it suits his ideological purposes, he does quite the opposite. So Chris wrote to him and proposed a study that might take an objective look at the possible causes of the ideological disparity of more left-wing represtation in academia. Naturally, Horowitz refused the offer with derision because it was just obvious to him that discrimination is the only possible cause, even telling him in his usual charming manner not to “be an asshole.”

I hope Chris continues to post comments here, and I will definitely be reading his blog regularly from now on. I hope you’ll do the same.


  1. #1 Jon Rowe
    March 13, 2005

    I agree that Horowitz is an ass. But he gets a pass in my opinion. Given that academia is *so* skewed towards the radical Left.

    I can’t tell you how many left-wing versions of Ann Coulter there were at Temple Law.

    If I were the Dean, my first half dozen hires would be people like Coulter & Horowitz and then I’d make them team-teach Constitutional Law classes with their Left-Wing critical legal theorist counterparts.

  2. #2 Sean
    March 13, 2005

    Ed– If we’re going to be careful about respecting distinctions within the religious right, we might as well be just as careful about disctinctions within the academic left. In particular, “postmodernism” and “relativism” are not synonyms. Postmodernism isn’t even primarily a set of moral claims, much less the claim that anything goes. Postmodernists like to question philosophical presuppositions, but it doesn’t follow that the notions of right and wrong are meaningless.

    Another distinction is that there are a lot of people who will accept the label of postmodernist, while nearly nobody will admit to being a relativist. Confusing the two is just a rhetorical strategy on the part of anti-postmodernists. (It’s fine to be anti-postmodern, but you should be against what it really is, not set up a straw man.)

    And, more on topic: yes, Mixing Memory is a great blog. Good to have people on the internet who know what they’re talking about.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    March 14, 2005

    Sean Carroll wrote:

    If we’re going to be careful about respecting distinctions within the religious right, we might as well be just as careful about disctinctions within the academic left. In particular, “postmodernism” and “relativism” are not synonyms. Postmodernism isn’t even primarily a set of moral claims, much less the claim that anything goes. Postmodernists like to question philosophical presuppositions, but it doesn’t follow that the notions of right and wrong are meaningless.

    Point taken. Obviously, this isn’t really my field and I have long just accepted that postmodernism = relativism uncritically, so perhaps I have mislabeled it here. My point was simply that Chris is right to point out that liberalism is not at all synonymous with relativism.

  4. #4 Jillian
    March 14, 2005

    My favorite silliness on this topic is always the creationists like Jonathan Wells who insist that moral relativism is the cause of the current unravelling of Western civilization, yet themselves insist upon a reality relativism when they talk about evolution. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard one of his clones go on about how “we all have the same evidence, but we interpret it through a different metaphysical lens”, and I’ve always been struck by how similar that sounds to something a moral relativist might say – but they’d phrase it as “we all commit the same actions, but we understand them in different cultural contexts”.

    Why moral relativism is bad but reality relativism is good, however, is beyond me.

  5. #5 CPT_Doom
    March 14, 2005

    Two thoughts – there is not a society or a moral belief system that does not moral relativism or situational ethics in some degree. For instance, most conservative Christian faiths hold the 10 Commandments in high standing, and there is a very simple “Thou shall not kill” edict within those. Yet I do not know of anyone in those denominations who would want to prosecute someone (or even kick them out of their church) for killing in self-defense.

    That is one reason I hate the attacks on alleged moral relativism by many in the “pro-family” movement, because it ignores the reality that one can hold very strong moral views and then violate them in a completely moral way, because of the situation in which one is involved.

    On Mr. Horowitz, who is a total flake IMHO, but has the guts and civility to respond to emails, and respond in a generally intelligent manner, I simply do not buy the discrimination argument vis-a-vis colleges and universities. I do not believe there is a core of conservative academics who are pining away in poverty because they cannot get employment at universities.

    Granted, it has been some time since I personally attended a university (11 years since my Master’s), but I never experienced such leftist leanings in the two organizations with which I was affiliated as a student (not a scientific sample, I grant you). In fact, if anything, I became more conservative as a result of the teaching I received, and my professors ranged from the total leftists to moderates to old-boy rich conservatives.

  6. #6 raj
    March 15, 2005

    Horowitz isn’t a flake. He’s an example of the ultimate self-promoter. He was–or portrayed himself to be–a lefty in the 1960s when it was lucrative to be a lefty. He became a righty in the early to mid 1970s when it became clear that it would thenceforth be more lucrative to be a righty than a lefty. I have read his explanation for the cause of his transformation from lefty to righty, but, quite frankly, it strains credulity.

    Regarding the “leftist” bent in academia–Horowitz’s latest bit of self-promotion–Horowitz engages in the same type of “gotcha” actions and attempts at intimidation that had been used by lefties in the 1960s. One wonders, though, what is the relevance of the political bent of a professor in the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics for example) or mathematics? Even if the professor of physics is a consummate lefty, does that mean that his research into or instruction in general relativity is to be called into question merely because he’s a lefty? Don’t be silly.

  7. #7 CPT_Doom
    March 15, 2005

    Well, raj, considering I once had a conservative classmate question the use of a “Central Planner” in an economics class (the Central Planner, btw, was simply a construct used to contrast the actual economy against one in which at least one individual, call him God if you will, had perfect knowledge of the economy), apparently “politics” can come in any subject.

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