“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My own favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and Muddling through Life after Life.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks’s Graphophilia and Other Compensations for a Life Lived “On the Move”

(4,762 words, link to printable version)

            Near the midway point of his recently published autobiography, On the Move: a Life, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks recounts a time in 2000 when he was busy writing an earlier book, a memoir about his childhood love of chemistry called Uncle Tungsten. In his late 60s at the time, Sacks was working on a chapter about spectroscopy and found himself roaming the streets of New York with a miniature spectroscope, an instrument that allows you to see the unique spectral light patterns emitted by each of the elements. Peering in through the window of a gay bar, he was dazzled by the display of light, but then he realized that the people inside were disturbed by the apparition of this eccentric old man looking at them through a strange device. Instead of withdrawing, though, Sacks went to the door and “strode in boldly,” shouting, “Stop talking about sex, everyone! Have a look at something interesting.” As it turned out, some of the patrons did stop to take a look. Sacks writes that after a span of “dumbfounded silence,”

my childish, ingenuous enthusiasm won the day, and everyone started passing the spectroscope from hand to hand, making comments like, “Wow—cool!” After everyone had had a turn with the spectroscope, it was handed back, with thanks. Then they all resumed talking about sex again. (238)

This episode encapsulates in microcosm the poignancy that pervades Sacks’s entire autobiography, standing out even amid the multitude of likewise humorous and quietly touching scenes. Sacks has for years been telling us to stop and have a look at something interesting, whether it be the case histories of his tragically, yet fascinatingly, afflicted patients, some pivotal discovery in the history of neuroscience, or the story behind one of his own personal epiphanies. What you wouldn’t know from reading this story apart from the rest of the book, though, is that Sacks didn’t wander onto that particular scene by sheer coincidence. 

Read in its context, this anecdote says a lot about what has afflicted Sacks himself for almost his entire life, leaving us to wonder if perhaps some of his infectious enthusiasm for science and literature and history—or at least the solitary proclivities that support it—came about through his efforts at compensating for those afflictions. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading On the Move is learning about the origins of what would become his abiding preoccupations, the central themes that shine through in his writing, the ones that, along with his gracefully meticulous prose style and his unmistakable compassion, have earned his essays and books such widespread acclaim. But at times it’s somewhat of a shock to discover just how much Sacks himself was struggling—and continues to struggle—with impediments both physical and social. Just before going into the story about the spectroscope, for instance, he writes,

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now that my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests—volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever—then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation (though I may still fail to recognize the person I’m talking to a moment later). (236-7)

Sacks only recently began talking about his own prosopagnosia, or face blindness, the topic of an essay that gave one of his earliest books its provocative title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—though Sacks’s own condition is much milder than the man whose case he explored in the essay (or at least it was until his vision began failing). After reading On the Move, though, that title, along with the one for his next collection, An Anthropologist on Mars, which took its name from an essay about Temple Grandin and Asperger’s syndrome, both seem like they reveal as much about Sacks’s own alienation as about the unique lives of his patients.

            Sacks’s homosexuality is also something he only recently began discussing, but it comes up early in his autobiography. One of the central themes of Sacks’s writing has been that what most of us are tempted to look at as disorders or diseases are often just different ways of perceiving and living in the world. When his parents found out about his homosexuality, his mother in particular responded with unforgivable harshness: “‘You are an abomination,’ she said. ‘I wish you had never been born.’ Then she left and did not speak to me for several days” (10). Sacks, however, does forgive her, or at least comes to understand her motives:

When, in 1951, my mother learned of my homosexuality and said, “I wish you had never been born,” she was speaking, though I am not sure I realized this at the time, out of anguish as much as accusation—the anguish of a mother who, feeling she had lost one son to schizophrenia, now feared she was losing another son to homosexuality, a “condition” which was regarded then as shameful and stigmatizing and with a deep power to mark and spoil a life. (61)

Today, it’s easy for most of us to think of homosexuality as just another aspect of healthy human diversity, not as a mental condition, certainly not as anything shameful; if anything, we recognize now, it was probably that stigma, and his mother’s inability to see past it, that threatened to spoil Sacks’s life. Remarkably, though, Sacks was by then questioning whether even his brother’s schizophrenia was best understood, and best treated, as a medical condition.

Two of his three older brothers were already on their way to becoming doctors by the time Oliver and the third brother, Michael, began entering into a type of conspiracy against anyone who sought, by some crude chemical means, to cure him. Michael was an avid reader of communist pamphlets and enjoyed his job as a messenger because he saw it as serving a heroic cause. Oliver writes,

             He once told me that the seemingly humdrum messages he delivered might have hidden, secret meanings, apparent only to the designated recipient; this was why they could not be entrusted to anyone else. Though he might appear to be an ordinary messenger with ordinary messages, Michael said, this was by no means the case. He never said this to anyone else—he knew it would sound bizarre, if not mad—and he had begun to think of our parents, his older brothers, and the entire medical profession as determined to devalue or “medicalize” everything he thought and did, especially if it had any hint of mysticism, for they would see it as an intimation of psychosis. But I was still his little brother, just twelve years old, not yet a medicalizer, and able to listen sensitively and sympathetically to anything he said, even if I could not fully understand it. (60)

When Michael began taking Largactil (or Thorazine, as it’s called in the U.S.) in the early 1950s, this blending together of the real world with his fantasy life came to an end. Michael became dull and lazy. The drug is, after all, a tranquilizer.

The treatment wasn’t altogether sinister, however, as Michael’s schizophrenia was often truly debilitating, and his delusions and violent mood swings were not only dangerous at times—they were a nerve-rackingly constant source of anxiety for anyone close to him, including his little brother. As Oliver writes,           

When I left England on my twenty-seventh birthday, it was, among many other reasons, partly to get away from my tragic, hopeless, mismanaged brother. But perhaps, in another sense, it would become an attempt to explore schizophrenia and allied brain-mind disorders in my own patients and in my own way. (65)

Thus equipped with the insight that neurological patients often see their own conditions much differently from the way doctors see them—not merely as problems needing to be fixed but as rare if onerous gifts intricately tied up with their sense of who they are and what their place is in the world—while at the same time still tormented by the condemnation of his mother and forever ill-at-ease in casual social exchanges, Sacks came to America, to explore, to see where he might fit in, to stay on the move so as to outpace some ultimate reckoning the nature of which he couldn’t begin to anticipate.

            On the Move reads briskly. The chapters are broken into mostly light-hearted and often quite funny anecdotes, vignettes, and mini-essays, while the overarching structure of the autobiography builds on the themes introduced in the earliest pages. When Sacks’s father, wondering why his son never seemed to be interested in any girls, asked him if he might prefer boys, the young Oliver responded, “Yes, I do—but it’s just a feeling—I have never ‘done’ anything” (10). While he would eventually get around to doing something with a handful of lovers, all these relationships were remarkable either for their brevity or for their lack of intimacy. In London in 1973, Sacks, celebrating his 40th birthday, met a young man from Harvard and spent the following week with him. Though it’s a little heartbreaking, it’s not exactly surprising when Sacks reveals that “after that sweet birthday fling I was to have no sex for the next thirty-five years” (203). It would have been under thirty years into this unenforced sentence of celibacy when Sacks burst into that gay bar in 2000 and shouted at the patrons to stop talking about sex so they could have a look at something interesting.  

            The multiple sections of each chapter are connected thematically, so they jump around in time to some degree, even as the overall temporal direction is forward from Sacks’s early childhood into the present. The descriptions tend to come as though from a distance, as Sacks resists the temptation to fill in details lost to the void of normal forgetfulness—though several of his quoted letters, journal entries, and unpublished narrative essays do intermittently lend some enticing texture to many of episodes he recounts. As effortlessly engaging as each section is on its own, the rapid-fire cascade of what appear at first glance like loosely connected, even somewhat shallowly rendered reminiscences could easily detract from any sense of progression, blunting any compulsion toward further reading. What saves On the Move from being submerged in tedious and chatty meandering is the general picture that incrementally emerges through the reprisal of themes harking back to Sacks’s childhood and the earliest pages of the book. Considered collectively, the individual sections come to seem like tiles comprising an intricate mosaic, a portrait of a man on a quest that’s part scientific expedition and part something much more personal, a search for a manageable form of human connection, and for a viable reconciliation of his two professional roles, each of whose objectives are frequently at odds with the other’s. 

When you consider the difficulty of arranging all the heartbreaks, triumphs, turning points, and tragedies that make up several decades of memories—along with all the scattered impressions and one-off encounters that have left their indelible marks—all into a book of under four hundred pages, you begin to appreciate the near impossibility of writing an autobiography that captures at all suitably the essence of a life. Most works in the genre rely heavily on the author’s celebrity for whatever modicum of interest they manage to pique. A man with an oeuvre as impressive as Sacks’s could also have coasted along on the promise of delivering the dish about what went on behind the scenes of his earlier works, all of which foregrounded the patients rather than the good doctor himself. With all those previous books, too, Sacks had the luxury of focusing closely in on the individuals, events, and relationships that he felt best illuminated whatever neuropsychological phenomenon he was then exploring—the memoirist’s advantage of a narrow scope. Approaching On the Move, Sacks faced the formidable challenge of composing an entire autobiography, which meant having to condense a long and extraordinarily rich life into a dozen or so chapters. The style and structure he adopted to meet this challenge, while much different from the methods on display in past books, serve as one more testament to his literary ingenuity.

On the Move does feature its fair share of celebrities, both Hollywood types like Robert De Niro and Robin Williams and scientific types like Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Crick. You also get plenty of background to the stories told in Sacks’s groundbreaking books. A vital theme recurring throughout the book, however, is Sacks’s seemingly endless struggle to find the best way to represent his experiences, and the characters at the center of them, in a prose register that does justice to the real lives, the real dignity and spirit of his subjects, while at the same time casting light on the neurological phenomena that so fascinate him. What has always made Sacks’s books so wonderfully engrossing, and what makes Sacks himself such a treasure, is his dual identity as a profoundly compassionate doctor and a consummate artist, one in constant search of the ideal form to convey his stories. His essays and books aren’t just cogent explorations of scientific mysteries; they consistently achieve the status of true literature. And now, with On the Move, Sacks has bequeathed to us a masterpiece of the autobiographical form.

            As with all artistic masterpieces, though, you don’t close this book with any unalloyed feeling of uplift. Oliver Sacks’s life and his career raise some troubling questions about the driving impulse behind scientific and literary achievement. Again and again throughout his life, Sacks has played the role of outsider, either by force or by choice. The early chapters of On the Move in which he recounts his days as a motorcycling aficionado give a sense of what it took for him to quell his fears of isolation and unworthiness. He writes,

There is a direct union of oneself with a motorcycle, for it is so geared to one’s proprioception, one’s movements and postures, that it responds almost like a part of one’s own body. Bike and rider become a single, indivisible entity; it is very much like riding a horse. A car cannot become part of one in quite the same way. (96)

Sacks would usually experience this union of man and machine over the course of long journeys he embarked on by himself. He would thus spend hour after hour, alone but connected with a near-living machine that responded intimately to his bidding, and forever moving toward something, away from certain other things—this is Sacks in his element. But the motorcycling that gave him such joy wasn’t completely without a social dimension:

America, I imagined, was a classless society, a place where everyone, irrespective of birth, color, religion, education, or profession, could meet each other as fellow human beings, brother animals, a place where a professor could talk to a truck driver, without the categories coming between them.
I had had a taste, a glimpse, of such a democracy, an equality, when I roved about England on my motorcycle in the 1950s. Motorcycles seemed, even in stiff England, to bypass the barriers, to open a sort of social ease and good nature in everyone. “That’s a nice bike,” someone would say, and the conversation would go from there. Motorcyclists were a friendly lot; we waved to one another when we passed on the road, made conversation easily if we met at a café. We formed a sort of romantic classless society within society at large. (72-3)

Sacks could, in such a society, avoid being forced to answer for his difficulty recognizing faces. He could escape questions about his sexual preferences. Even within this ideal society, though, Sacks was given to withdrawing. He writes of being accepted by the Hells Angels, for instance, who were charmed by the notion of a biker with an MD, but he never actually got around to going on any rides with them.

            Another obsession that took hold of Sacks as a young man, and that takes up a significant portion of the first half of his autobiography, was weightlifting. This endeavor too brought Sacks into a community of sorts, and yet he participated in this loose-knit society in just as marginal a way as he did that of his biker comrades. Sacks’s descriptions of motorcycling suggest that for him riding was a way of settling the paradox of a fiercely guarded man quietly yearning to connect and belong, in union with a machine that could create the illusion of sentience, even acceptance. With weightlifting too, we see him engaged in solitary exercises that nonetheless take place in, and derive their significance from, a group of likeminded fellow practitioners. But Sacks reveals later in the book that what he was after with bodybuilding was much more straightforward.

I sometimes wonder why I pushed myself so relentlessly in weight lifting. My motive, I think, was not an uncommon one; I was not the ninety-eight-pound weakling of bodybuilding advertisements, but I was timid, diffident, insecure, submissive. I became strong—very strong—with all my weight lifting but found that this did nothing for my character, which remained exactly the same. And, like many excesses, weight lifting exacted a price. (122)

If motorcycling was for Sacks an attempt to square the circle of his competing needs for solitude and companionship, weightlifting seems to have been more about wanting to make himself powerful to compensate for feelings of powerlessness. Both obsessions, crucially, could be indulged in solitude, but both likewise attracted a circle of fellow enthusiasts. If there’s a single thread that ties the diverse episodes of Sacks’s autobiography together, it would be this theme of lonely intimacy, connection at a distance, roaming the far reaches in search of home.

            Sacks, it becomes clear, is not only perfectly aware of the repetition of these notes throughout the book; he’s using them quite deliberately and to striking effect. The title of the book derives from a poem by Thom Gunn, one of Sacks’s many close friends living at a distance. The two routinely shared lessons learned from their lives as writers, as well as insights gleaned from their experiences with hallucinogens and other drugs. Sacks writes,

We had launched on journeys, evolutions, developments, that could not be entirely predicted or controlled; we were constantly in motion. In “On the Move,” which Thom wrote in his twenties, are the lines
            At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
            Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
            One is always nearer by not keeping still. (278)

“Reaching no absolute” captures much of the essence of Sacks’s identity. Over the course of the autobiography, the stage on which he struggles with the many nuances and contradictions of his life shifts from the road and the gym to the hospitals housing his patients and the pages containing his prose. In his professional life, his obsessions have made him just as unplaceable as he is in his personal life. He’s had all the practical difficulties of balancing his patients’ needs with his readers’ desires, his desire to maintain his scientific professionalism with his graciousness toward his audience (a comment he once received from an editor: “The book is too easy to read. This will make people suspicious—professionalize it” [151]), and his role as a doctor with his role as a writer. But his stake in each of these struggles has always been deeply personal.
Oliver Sacks with Robin Williams

            Despite the theme of never-ending motion, On the Move does offer a gratifying sense of direction as we see how Oliver Sacks became the great figure we recognize today by that name. This evolution was as much personal as it was scientific, since to write his breakthrough work Awakenings, the inspiration for a movie of that title starring Robin Williams as a stand-in for Sacks, he not only had to do experimental drug treatments with catatonic patients, but he also had to arrive at an understanding of what his role could be as a doctor and a friend to his subjects, and as a writer turning them into semi-fictional characters. He then had to figure out how to convey something of the essence of that relationship to his readers. One of his favorite responses to the finished book came from none other than Thom Gunn, one of his partners in constant motion. Comparing Awakenings to some of Sacks’s earlier writing, Gunn admits he saw those initial works as deficient and despaired of his friend’s prospects for overcoming the underlying shortcoming. In a letter, Gunn explained,

What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied…. I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three… (276).

Sacks doesn’t have any fully resolved answer to the question of what precipitated the transformation, but he suggests that both his own and Gunn’s development had much to do with “the sense of history, of predecessors” (277).

Sacks’s coming into his own with the publication and success of Awakenings does place him in an easily recognizable position among the scientists and explorers of yore, so much so that it makes you wonder if his alienation could be attributed to him having been born some hundred-odd years too late. His essays often read like dispatches from exotic regions, messages home about how much stranger, how much scarier, and how much more wonderful the world is once you step beyond the bounds of your own personal known world. This element to his writing didn’t come about through chance. He writes,  
  
I used to delight in the natural history journals of the nineteenth century, all of them blends of the personal and the scientific—especially Wallace’s Malay Archipelago, Bate’s Naturalist on the River Amazons, and Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist, and the work which inspired them all (and Darwin too), Alexander von Humbolt’s Personal Narrative. It pleased me to think that Wallace, Bates, and Spruce were all crisscrossing one another’s paths, leapfrogging, on the same stretch of the Amazon during the selfsame months of 1849 and to think that all of them were good friends. (They continued to correspond throughout their lives, and Wallace was to publish Spruce’s Notes after his death.)
            They were all, in a sense, amateurs—self-educated, self-motivated, not part of an institution—and they lived, it sometimes seemed to me, in a halcyon world, a sort of Eden, not yet turbulent and troubled by the almost murderous rivalries which were soon to mark an increasingly professionalized world. (330)

All these great friends, traveling far and wide, corresponding at a distance, fueled by an insatiable wonder, and all writing unforgettable tales of their adventures—how could Oliver Sacks not love these stories? How could he not feel perfectly at home as his own career began to take on a shape resembling this lost ideal, even if the resemblances were only superficial?

            On the Move, as the autobiography of a scientist, is as much about the author’s evolution as an intellectual as it is about his personal development. The penultimate chapter is primarily focused on Gerald Edelman’s theory of neural Darwinism. The idea strikes Sacks as so compelling and far-reaching in its implications that he remembers feeling grateful when the full realization of its import sank in. “I thought, ‘Thank God I have lived to hear this theory.’ I felt as I imagined many people must have felt in 1859 when the Origin came out” (365). It’s not the least bit surprising that Sacks felt this way about a theory of neurological and mental development, especially one that could explain the quintessential uniqueness of each individual. What’s remarkable—genius really—is how the discussion of neural Darwinism ties so many of the book’s themes so neatly together.

What is the theory? The idea is that the mind emerges from the communication of a variety of distantly located regions of the brain. Sacks explains,

            Such correlation and synchronization of neuronal firing in widely separated areas of the brain is made possible by very rich connections between the brain’s maps—connections which are reciprocal and may contain millions of fibers. Stimuli from, say, touching a chair may affect one set of maps; stimuli from seeing it may affect another set. Reentrant signaling takes place between these sets of maps as part of the process of perceiving a chair. (363)

This reentrant signaling is a type of real-time updating of maps based on information coming in from various sensory inputs, as it gets channeled through and incorporated into still other maps. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to use as a metaphor for reentrance the rich correspondences of nineteenth century explorers and scientists, all collaborating to generate a more comprehensive and accurate view of the natural world. “And in its broadest sense,” Sacks writes, “neural Darwinism implies that we are destined, whether we wish it or not, to a life of particularity and self-development, to make our own individual paths through life” (369).

            Sacks’s endorsement notwithstanding, the scientific community is far from reaching a final verdict on Edelman’s theory. It may however receive quite a boost from Sacks’s treatment in his book (especially considering that Edelman’s own writing is significantly less reader-friendly). But what I was left wondering when I turned over the last page of On the Move was how much Sacks’s love of writing owed to his need to correspond at a distance, a need that very likely arose from the insecurity and rejection he experienced as a young man. You can’t be a great writer until you’ve found your great subject. For Sacks, this was neurology. But you can’t be either a great writer or a great doctor unless you’re driven by a mad passion to explore, understand, tinker, and improve. When Sacks writes about being shy and hiding out in a corner of some bar, we know he was probably busy either filling a notebook or marking up some text written any time in the last three centuries. While he’s sitting there failing to connect with his fellow humans, in other words, he’s working to produce the very pieces of writing that make him such a treasure to all of us. If he’d had a choice to begin with, would Sacks have considered this a good trade? Would any of us?

            Even if the obsession that underlies successful scientific and literary careers doesn’t originate as a compensation for some social debility, then that same obsession, once developed, is likely to become a social debility in its own right. I think about this now that Sacks is gone and any opportunity I had to write to him about how much his work has delighted, fascinated, influenced, and inspired me over the past two decades is gone with him. After his New York Times essay in February, in which he revealed that he had terminal cancer, I, along with probably thousands of other readers, felt a tiny panicked urge to write and express our gratitude before it was too late. Thinking of those thousands of others, I decided writing would be pointless. But that’s the paradox I’m left with: a man who touched countless lives but who remained unreachable, often despite himself, in his own life. The chief solace we have is that while Sacks’s personal struggles may not have ever been resolved, the scientific and literary work those struggles made way for remain for still more countless others to be touched by in the future. 

Also read: Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia

The Feminist Sociobiologist: An Appreciation of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy Disguised as a Review of “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding”

Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch Pilgrimage and the 3 Wrong Ways to Read a Novel
And:

The Soul of the Skeptic: What Precisely Is Sam Harris Waking Up from?

Friday, July 31, 2015

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara
[Link to printable version.]

        “I just hope,” Lac hears Chuck shouting from behind him, “that when we get there it’s not already overrun by the Salesians.” He turns his head to let the man whose hand is holding steady the boat’s outboard motor see his half-hearted grin. “It’s bad enough,” he adds, “that they’re elbows-deep in every part of the government down here.” Lac nods, prolonging the grin for an added beat before turning back to continue scanning the bank. It’s all the solidarity he can muster just now for this generous and amiable missionary taking him up the river with their two blessedly unobtrusive companions.

The word overrun gets caught up in the current of his thoughts, conjuring in his mind the image of robed monks marching in legions over the map of southern Venezuela into Brazil. But the word that’s been humming through his mind for the past two and a half days—an incessant drone melding with the brain-scrambling vibrations of the aluminum rowboat—is compromised. You can no longer find any bands or tribes anywhere in the Amazon Basin who haven’t been reached by the Salesians, Catholic missionaries with limitless resources and unchecked political influence, or by Chuck’s own evangelical organization, the New Tribes Mission, or by some other outfit out to spread the good news.

All the remaining tribes, he keeps thinking, are compromised to one extent or another, their ancient ways of life corrupted by civilization’s maniacal throbbing lust for gulping down populations entire. Chuck Clemens may be worried about being beaten to the punch by a rival Christian sect—he’s complained of how every time a missionary from New Tribes has to go back to the States for funding after making contact with an undiscovered group, he returns to find the damned Salesians pouring the foundation of a new mission compound in the area—but the fear that’s been gnawing at Lac is that when he finally gets a chance to start interviewing tribespeople, all they’re going to want to do is tell him about Jesus.

His weakly focused gaze glides over the heavy effusions of brush and leaves lining the east bank of the river as they slide past the prow of the boat. He’s never been sea sick before, and that’s not exactly what he is now. But something about the inescapable gasoline vapor emanating in minuscule pungent wafts from the five-gallon barrels lashed to the gunnels, mixing with the stench of human skin that has cycled once too often between drenchings in sweat and drying beneath a salty, oily film, rotting, putrescent, day after day, all this combined with the skull-straining spike in temperature from late morning to early afternoon, the hellish buzzing and rattling of the aluminum craft beneath him, cutting its serrated wake through the milky opaque waters, the painful swelling of his gnat-bitten hands, and the ache borne of his inability to rein back the manic roving of his eyes all throughout that first day—it’s all conspiring to make him feel listless, irritable, his insides nauseatingly aquiver, his skin rising up in searing revolt at the slightest prick—but every individual piece of this chronic discomfort is just this side of tolerable, none of it worth the attention complaining would draw. Everyone who goes into the jungle knows to expect the voracious insects and the bellowing furnace heat. What no one warns you about is the toll the prolonged disruption to your body’s equilibrium will take on your will to prevail over the steady accumulation of so many otherwise manageable difficulties. Real pain that last for mere moments, he thinks, would be preferable to these relentless meager miseries, this ceaselessly mild unease sapping by imperceptible increments the heroic tenacity that was in large part the basis for the notoriety he’d attained back at U of M.
Yanomamo Region Map

He sighs as he moves his eyes at a measured pace over the two Venezuelans beside and in front of him in the rowboat, both with their heads drooping over their folded arms, and then he peers indolently into the gray spaces stretching back beyond the leaves in the passing jungle. During their first meeting back in Chicago, Chuck told him that many of the Yanomamö he knew owned machetes. To Chuck, the relevance lay in the value the tribespeople placed in the tools, meaning they could be offered as incentives whenever cooperation wasn’t immediately forthcoming. He mentioned the fact in passing before going on to explain the tribe’s fraught relations with neighboring groups. But Lac was left silently lamenting the lost methods for clearing paths, the defunct stone tool industry, and, perhaps, the artificial advances he’d have to avoid mistaking for primeval traditions. This last of the world’s uncontacted people—at least, the last living in an environment capable of sustaining a tribal social organization, a level of cultural advancement between those of roving bands of hunter-gatherers and of more stratified sedentary chiefdoms—his best chance at studying a pristine culture, one at a key stage of development, possibly the last opportunity like this any anthropologist would ever have again—and he finds out they’re already walking around with the steel tools all the damned missionaries use to coax them closer to the main branches of the river.

“You feeling alright?” Chuck shouts. “You may have a fever from all the bareto bites. It’s a reaction a lot people have who’re unaccustomed to the area.” Bareto is what the Yanomamö call the gnats. Chuck had explained that the reason the tribes plant their gardens and build their villages so far inland is because the closer you get to the main waterways the thicker the clouds of bareto. The Catholic missionaries meanwhile want their potential converts close to the rivers for ease of access by boat, which for them means maintaining a connection with the civilized world. Trekking through the jungle on foot is an endeavor more painstaking and fraught with peril than your average priest or pastor is game for taking on—Chuck being exceptional in that regard, as Lac has to admit he is in quite a few other regards as well.

“So the gnats are pushing them away from the rivers,” Lac had said, “and the damned Catholics are pulling them back to the rivers with their bribes?” He cracked another of his mischievous half grins. “It’s pests pushing in one direction and more pests pulling in the other.” Chuck laughed along with him, apparently not suspecting that he thinks of the New Tribes folks as only slightly less pestilent than the Salesians. They were both in the Amazon Basin, after all, to further compromise the culture whose traditions he’s come to participate in and observe.

Now, realizing he has yet to respond to Chuck’s question, he breaks his dazed silence by finally saying, “I may be a little sick, but I don’t think it’s anything serious.” If it weren’t for Chuck, he would probably have to spend an entire field season exploring the area before finding any of the Yanomamö villages—that’s assuming anyone would even know they existed. Chuck had first made contact with them back in 1950, when he was traveling up and down the Orinoco and its tributaries, searching for virgin souls in which to plant the seeds of his preferred breed of Christianity. As reluctant as Lac was to reach out to a missionary, as loath as he is to admit it even now, there doesn’t seem anything the least bit predatory about Chuck Clemens’ interest in the Indians. He just really believes all the Jesus crap, feels it’s his earthly duty to introduce it far and wide. He obviously doesn’t have a problem helping me out, Lac thinks, and we’re giving these two guys from the Malarialogìa a ride to help them reach an outpost Chuck says is nothing but two little huts where they try to keep track of outbreaks. So his benevolence must extend beyond the desire to acquire the Indians’ allegiance on behalf of his church.

Lac had hoped he would be able to relax the muscles around his eyes when the sky overhead began to streak over with a heavy layer of gauzy gray, tucking the wet teeming earth away from the vicious sun—hoped the span of overcast hours would let dissipate the stabbing pressure amassing just behind the spot where his brows come together over his nose. For some reason, though, perhaps because he does have a slight fever, his eyes are almost as sensitive to the diffused gray light as they were to the untempered sun and the scattered patches of its shattered reflection on the river. It’s only in view above the treetops sporadically, for a couple of hours at most, he tells himself. With any luck, when it disappears for the day behind the treetops, the darkening of the gray overcast sky will provide some relief.

Orinoco River
            At times over the last three days on the Orinoco, with the basalt mountains surfacing over the gap between the facing forest walls—silent sentinels, massive beyond human scale, blearily fading to blue in the incomprehensible distance—the sunlight on either side glimmering off the million-fold leaves in an illusion of great emerald cascades, at these times he has an unfamiliar sensation, as of a humming vibrant emptiness pervading the air around him, as his personhood melts away into the surroundings, leaving a charged feeling of vacancy, of radiance almost, suffusing every fiber of his bodily substance, his every thought and every perception rendered weightless and endlessly, somehow blissfully, inconsequential. It must be what people mean when they talk about the sublime, he thought after the first of these times.

But at other times the feeling is claustrophobic—the strained, overleaning towers of heavily soaked leaf clusters and drooping tangled festoons of moss-covered vines, the inescapable totality of the surrounding jungle pressing in, looming overhead like an enormous tidal wave violently thrust up from an agitated sea of infested jungle debris, only to be frozen by some horrific magic the instant before it crashes down, blotting them all four pathetically out of existence. During these times, he feels fated, doomed, drowning in the sense that the time and nature of his death have already been settled, the verdict on his remaining days irrevocably sealed, his every action hopelessly bereft of significance.

“Oh my God, Lachlan,” his sister Bess had burst out as he and Laura were departing after their farewell visit, “don’t get yourself killed in the jungle because you’re too damned stubborn to let anything go.” Laura, looking like she might break into sobs, instead laughed uneasily. “Seriously,” Bess added as they turned back toward the truck, “now would be a good time to learn how to recognize a lost cause when you see one.” Lac gave his smiling assent and final assurance as he climbed into the driver’s seat, waving, wishing Bess could have pulled him aside to admonish him in private. Even now on the river he still feels he’s left something unsettled with Laura.

Yet another unwelcome surprise has been that the irrevocability of each stage of their progression away from anything resembling an urban amenity—a toilet, say, or a bed with clean sheets, dry clothes, or a screened-in space of any kind—engenders a dread that drags behind him like an invisible anchor tied around his throat, a suffocating backward tug, a bereavement, almost a feeling of longing. It’s one thing to tell yourself you won’t have a refrigerator for seventeen months; it’s something else entirely to know you’re at least three days of the roughest travel away from a refrigerator if some exigency—or some desperate surging desire—were to make access to one imperative.

He’s spent a lot of the past three days wondering about Laura, about how rare a woman she must be. What other woman would not only abide her husband, the father of her two children, jumping off the map of the known world for a year and a half, but actually be enthusiastic about joining him? The plan is for him to make contact with the people in the village, establish himself as he makes sure the situation is safe, prepare a shelter for them of one sort or another as he begins the initial phases of his research, and then, perhaps in a few weeks, return to meet them at IVIC and escort them up the Orinoco to stay with him for the remainder of the field season. Sixteen months in the jungle with Indians who’ve probably only ever seen a handful of white people—if they’ve seen any—people with only the murkiest awareness that something we call civilization even exists—what kind of woman would even consider it, much less be excited about it?

Bess had something to say on the topic of his plan to have his wife and children accompany him into the jungle as well—or rather she had something she didn’t need to bother actually saying. “I think she’s interested,” Lac had said to her. “How many people can say they’ve lived like that for any length of time? How many people have experienced something like that?” Bess had just looked at him, smiling patiently, ever so subtly shaking her head. Bess, the oldest of his kid sisters, so compellingly affecting wisdom and forbearance the way she does.

All these discomforts and things left behind—but this is where he starts his real career. This is where he becomes not just a student but an anthropologist. A scientist. He casts his mind back to his U of M days, when he sat awed by his professors’ stories about their time in the field, each of them proudly pronouncing his kinship with the people he studied. It was a great honor, at least it sounded like one, to be adopted by the people whose culture you studied. Now, only hours away from arriving at his first Yanomamö village, the possibility is beginning to seem real to Lac for the first time that the people he finds there may not adopt him, may not like him, may reject him outright.

This dread initially arose alongside, and to some degree was overbalanced by, an upwelling of excitement at the prospect of finally seeing—of meeting—the people he’d been planning for so long to study, the people who’d play such an integral role in the future trajectory of his career, as well as its ultimate success or failure. Both the dread and the excitement surged the moment the boy came into view, the slight kid with what looked like old rags draped over his shoulders. He’d climbed out on a miniature archipelago of smooth rocks stretching out into the Orinoco at a spot just downstream from Tama Tama, the New Tribes mission headquarters where he and the two Venezuelans were to stop and pick up Charles B. Clemens. The kid’s rags gradually resolved into an outsized shirt and ill-fitting pair of pants, both garments frayed at every seam and threatening at any moment to disintegrate into piles of thread. As the rowboat neared the rocks, Lac noted first the boy’s hair—black as anything and cut in a neat circle so that it looked like a cap fitted closely over his ears. Or an upturned bowl, as Chuck had described the style. Just as Andres, one of his Venezuelan companions, was greeting the boy in Spanish, Lac muttered to himself, “A Yanomamö.”

The boy pointed up the river when they asked about the mission, but his responses to their other questions never went beyond and no. The Venezuelans joked behind their hands about Lac finally meeting someone in the country whose conversational Spanish was as patchy as his. But Lac was watching the boy’s eyes. He stood a little over five foot but he looked to be in his late teens. The way his eyes moved over Lac and his two companions, he thinks now, so thoroughly unconcerned about how we perceived him, though he was visibly curious, highly alert—it was like he believed himself to be invisible, even as he casually allowed us to engage him. There was a freedom in his bearing and an openness in his expression that Lac was utterly unprepared for. “Wild,” he whispered. “He’s actually wild.” And this was a young man who’d obviously spent time with the missionaries. What would the ones he met deep in the jungle be like?

No sooner had they pushed off from the rock and continued up the river than Lac began to experience a troublesome feeling of professional—or proto-professional—guilt. “Wild” is exactly what someone who’d never taken an anthropology course in his life would call these Indians. Franz Boas, the great man without whom there would be no science of anthropology, the patron saint of cultural relativism, the virtue set against the vice of ethnocentrism, had taught that you can’t truly learn about another culture if you see every practice and tradition as inferior, every deviation from the social norms you were enculturated with as immoral, every element of the technology as emblematic of stunted development. But there it was, something he’d never seen before in people of any nationality, something he hadn’t seen in the Native Americans he’d met back in the States, something he hadn’t even seen in the Ye’kwana, riverine Indians in the region to the north of where they are now. Lac had looked into the young Yanomamö man’s eyes and could see immediately that he was wild. And however unprofessional it may be, he came away from the encounter exhilarated. 
   
Now, after yet another day in the boat, the dull, uneventful tranquility of the turbid river, which people insist is uncannily similar in appearance to tea loaded with milk, but to Lac looks more like fresh motor oil percolated with fine dirt particles, is beginning to make him feel wistful. There’s something unsatisfying about it, and that feeling of dissatisfaction is in turn making Lac disappointed, disgusted even, with himself. He’s known too long and too well how foolish all the romantic images are that people have about the Amazon and the various other tropical rainforests of the world. The whole reason these regions remain largely unexplored is that they’re so inhospitable. He wanted to get to these places while he still could, because of the questions the people who lived in them could answer about who we are as a species, where we came from, where we may be going. He certainly didn’t expect to find pastels and water colors and mystical creatures beckoning to him to join them in their sparkly treetop dwellings, the pipe dream of so many hippies who imagined life before civilization as some idyll of perfect freedom and blissful unity with nature. The reality is that life in the jungle is hard. Damn near impossible.

But the contempt he feels for the cartoon romanticism that typifies so many people’s ideas of life in a state of nature and the forest that supports it hasn’t kept him from having recurring dreams in which he’s led by mysterious dark figures along a path running through one of the unmapped areas he’ll soon be exploring; he follows along behind them until they reach a rocky trail leading up the side of a waterfall hidden behind spiraling columns of mist. Each time, he awakes startled by the dream’s power to peel back layer after layer of his adult sophistication, confronting him in this long-forgotten naked innocence with scenes and sentiments that in his waking life he’d never be susceptible to. For several moments after he wakes, the tears that welled up in his sleep from the encounter with—with what? He struggles to find words for it. They all ring false, annoyingly inadequate. Frankly, they all sound ridiculous. His waking self can’t come close to capturing the full force of what the events mean to his more sensitive, his utterly exposed dreaming self.

            He once again hears Chuck speaking to him over the sound of the motor. But he’s been struck by a thought. In those damned dreams, he thinks, with all those layers of adult learning and responsibility peeled away—is that what it’s like to be wild?   

            Chuck is pulling the boat up toward a grassy spot on the bank. This is where the men from the Malarialogìa will be disembarking. The infernal noise of the motor abruptly cuts out. Chuck nudges him as they coast up alongside the shore, the other two men standing and setting the boat to bumping and rolling from side to side.  “The village we’re headed to,” he says, “is just another couple miles up the river.”  

[More to come.]

Also read:

The World Until Yesterday and the Great Anthropology Divide: Wade Davis's and James C. Scott's Bizarre and Dishonest Reviews of Jared Diamond's Work

Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia 

Percy Fawcett's Two Lost Cities: An Essay on David Grann's "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon"

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Issue with Jurassic World No One Has the Balls to Talk about

            We all know who the real stars of Jurassic World are—actress Bryce Dallas Howard’s deftness at running from myriad dinos over diverse terrains in posh heels (without messing up her ruler-straight hair), and actor Chris Pratt’s ability to find a miraculously smooth path for his motorcycle as he speeds through the tangled jungle alongside the raptors he’s trained as bloodhounds. So maybe the mosasaur was a bit too big, and maybe the denouement’s interspecies melee was a little too reminiscent of Godzilla vs Mothra vs Ghidorah, and of course the dinos were altogether too featherless. But these are quibbles. The movie is supposed to be fun. And it works. There is, however, one serious issue with the movie no one has the courage or moral clarity to discuss (except me of course).

            First a confession: until seeing Jurassic World, I hated hipsters as much as any red-blooded American male who came of age in the 90s. The ironically overgrown or overly manicured facial hair, the freakishly tight pants, the conspicuously conspicuous three-pounds of corrective eyewear, the fan boy nostalgia for the most annoying pop culture era in history, the contra-scientific certainty that vinyl sounds better, the bitter beer, the way talking to them makes you feel like you’re being interviewed by a dimwitted stand-in for Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. It’s all just awful. But as I was watching Jake Johnson’s nerdy character in the movie being ruthlessly juxtaposed with the ultra-masculine Chris Pratt, my repulsion began to give way to pity.

Maybe it was because earlier in the day I’d read about some poor bastard who’d written a letter seeking advice from the hosts of a literary blog. The letter writer, who fashioned himself a poet, had been all but talked out of ever writing poetry again. Here’s how he describes his crisis:

I am a white, male poet—a white, male poet who is aware of his privilege and sensitive to inequalities facing women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals, but despite this awareness and sensitivity, I am still white and still male. Sometimes I feel like the time to write from my experience has passed, that the need for poems from a white, male perspective just isn’t there anymore.

You can picture this guilt-ridden sad sack scrunching his face and balling his fists in an attempt to will himself out of existence. But much to his consternation, no matter how hard he tries to erase the reality, there he is, white and male as ever. He goes on:

Sometimes I write from other perspectives via persona poems in order to understand and empathize with the so-called “other”; but I fear that this could be construed as yet another example of my privilege—that I am appropriating another person’s experience. Write what you know and risk denying voices whose stories are more urgent; write to learn what you don’t know and risk colonizing someone else’s story.

What a little bitch, right? On the one hand, he’s paralyzed with the fear of being seen as someone who exercises his supposed privilege; on the other, he’s egocentric enough to think any of those scare-quoted others give a shit about his poetry. “I feel terrible about feeling terrible about this,” he whines, “since I also know that for so long, white men made other people feel terrible about who they were.” I mean, modern poetry is pretty horrific, but come on—it’s not slavery.

            I admit, my first thought after reading the letter was of how much I’d like to slap the shit out of this loser. Then I settled for a good laugh at how pathetic he is. But then I got to thinking. And while I was thinking I was halfheartedly scrolling through my Facebook feed. Apparently, some dude named Bruce Jenner very publicly decided to become Caitlyn Jenner. And all Jon Stewart, a guy I admire, could think to joke about with regard to the story was how sexist the coverage was. Then there’s this Rachel Dolezal character, who was head of an NAACP chapter in Spokane Washington—until her parents revealed that she’s not even a little black (though I guess we can assume she’s still a woman). The consensus seems to be that it’s cool to switch genders, but not cool to switch races. I honestly can’t make myself care enough to learn what the reasoning behind this distinction might be—though I am a big fan of that awesome ice cream swirl braid. And of course there's already a controversy about just how sexist Jurassic World is. This was as predictable as the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster; every majorly successful movie and every majorly successful book gets accused of being sexist sooner or later. I defy you to find one that isn't. (Chris Pratt, well aware of the inevitability of this type of controversy, actually wrote a preemptive apology on Facebook.)

            As I was watching the bespectacled and mustachioed Jake Johnson in Jurassic World play with the toy dinosaurs lining his computerized workstation, recounting the story of how he purchased his vintage Jurassic Park t-shirt on e-Bay, it occurred to me: these pseudo-dudes are a product of all the insanity surrounding issues of racial and gender identity suffusing social media (where it has trickled in from college campuses). The hipsters present themselves as these parodies of manhood because they’ve been made to feel ashamed of their status as male. They bury their opinions and predilections layers deep in the cheapest irony because they’re insecure about being tourists in the regions and cultures they’ve stolen from other people. And, damn, it’s no wonder they’re nostalgic for the simpler, more innocent days when dudes could watch Star Wars without wondering if the boner they get from Carrie Fisher in a slave bikini is proof of an inherently oppressive nature.

(TRIGGER WARNING: The following paragraph contains empirically well-substantiated conclusions that are nonetheless considered by identity activists to be thought crimes--er, um, I mean, microaggressions.)

            Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but my email and Facebook feeds—not to mention the magazines and news shows I watch—are lousy with click-baity bullshit toeing the line of the most brain dead identity politics theories. Don’t get me wrong, we as a society really do need to do a lot more about racial inequality. But guilt tripping really nice geeky white dudes isn’t going to accomplish a damn thing. And I understand that women really are systematically abused and oppressed and discriminated against—in the fucking Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia. I appreciate that all the Facebook feminists genuinely believe they’re working to make the world a better place, but the facts they like to cite are completely wrong, almost to a one. They scream about how women are paid less than men, but they leave out the fact that it’s because women make different career and lifestyle choices—and that they make those same choices cross-culturally. The Twitter activists vent their outrage about how many college girls are assaulted, but they studiously cover up the fact that the numbers they’re citing are based on surveys designed to produce exaggerated incidence rates. Using similar methods, you can actually show that just as many men are raped in the U.S. as women. Clear evidence of discrimination in science and technology fields, where so many hipsters dwell, dried up over a decade ago. And yet the activists have only grown more insistent, more outraged, and more numerous. 

(It should be noted, the very stupid idea of trigger warnings is based on misconceptions about trauma.) 

            I sat in the movie theater watching the scene where Johnson’s character gets rebuffed when he goes in for a kiss with his geeky coworker, and I wondered what it would be like to be a young man or young woman today, working out your ideas about who you are and what role you might play in the world, forming your identity, amid this never-ending caravan of Quixotes tilting at their postmodern windmills. Race doesn’t really exist, we read again and again. Really? Then why is it so fucked up that Rachel Dolezal has decided to be black? But the more important question is, why do we think it makes you racist to believe that race actually does exist? Can’t someone who believes in race also believe that everyone should enjoy the same rights and freedoms regardless of it? And can’t someone who accepts the evidence that biology plays a large role in gender hold that same view of the universality of rights and freedoms without being sexist?

            It’s easy for me to wade through all the identity activists’ bullshit, because I think it’s all bullshit. If we want to remedy racial inequality in America, we’re going to have to do a lot more than address those implicit biases people are always talking about. It’s going to take reforms to our economy and education systems. (Those biases, incidentally, tend to be based on social reality, rather than social reality being based on them.) And though I know the case for sexism in the western world is sketchy, I certainly don’t envy young women, many of whom we can predict are going to have stereotypical tastes and stereotypical desires, even though they’re being taught that stereotypes are evil and anyone who reinforces them is complicit in all kinds of horrific crimes. Let’s face it, for most women, hipsters just aren’t sexy. But we have to ask, who do young people have that they can turn to for straight answers these days? They can’t go to their teachers because their teachers are probably drinking the same Kool-Aid as the activists. And they can’t go to scientists because they keep hearing how scientists are all white male oppressors.  

             So I decided to rein in my contempt for the hipster character toward the end of the movie. After all, Chris Pratt’s character is almost too perfectly manly a man—he’s a bit of a parody himself. Instead of making fun of and brutalizing hipsters, we should start trying to help these gender-confused race-shamed little cowards. The only reason they’re trying so hard to be trendy dressers is because it distracts them from their perceived role as natural oppressors. The only reason they look so ridiculous is because they believe the only role they deserve at this point in history is the one of providing comic relief. And though they may take their one-punch knockout ironically, I’d be willing to bet they'll still go home and cry about it.

            What do you all say? Let’s do something useful on social media for a change and use it to end hipster abuse. Join the movement! Write about all the other stereotypical and discriminatory portrayals of hipsters in movies and literature. Maybe we can even do some surveys to get some quasi-evidence of all the tragic tribulations hipsters face in their daily lives. I mean, how horrible must it be to let the activists neuter you only to discover that everyone just hates you more afterward? Oh, and maybe boycott Jurassic World… nah, on second thought, go see Jurassic World. It’s a really fun movie.


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Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Idiocy of Outrage: Sam Harris's Run-ins with Ben Affleck and Noam Chomsky

Affleck, Harris, Maher
(5,608 words. Link to printable version.)

        Every time Sam Harris engages in a public exchange of ideas, be it a casual back-and-forth or a formal debate, he has to contend with an invisible third party whose obnoxious blubbering dispels, distorts, or simply drowns out nearly every word he says. You probably wouldn’t be able to infer the presence of this third party from Harris’s own remarks or demeanor. What you’ll notice, though, is that fellow participants in the discussion, be they celebrities like Ben Affleck or eminent scholars like Noam Chomsky, respond to his comments—even to his mere presence—with a level of rancor easily mistakable for blind contempt. This reaction will baffle many in the audience. But it will quickly dawn on anyone familiar with Harris’s ongoing struggle to correct pernicious mischaracterizations of his views that these people aren’t responding to Harris at all, but rather to the dimwitted and evil caricature of him promulgated by unscrupulous journalists and intellectuals.

In his books on religion and philosophy, Harris plies his unique gift for cutting through unnecessary complications to shine a direct light on the crux of the issue at hand. Topics that other writers seem to go out of their way to make abstruse he manages to explore with jolting clarity and refreshing concision. But this same quality to his writing which so captivates his readers often infuriates academics, who feel he’s cheating by breezily refusing to represent an issue in all its grand complexity while neglecting to acknowledge his indebtedness to past scholars. That he would proceed in such a manner to draw actual conclusions—and unorthodox ones at that—these scholars see as hubris, made doubly infuriating by the fact that his books enjoy such a wide readership outside of academia. So, whether Harris is arguing on behalf of a scientific approach to morality or insisting we recognize that violent Islamic extremism is motivated not solely by geopolitical factors but also by straightforward readings of passages in Islamic holy texts, he can count on a central thread of the campaign against him consisting of the notion that he’s a journeyman hack who has no business weighing in on such weighty matters.
Sam Harris

Philosophers and religious scholars are of course free to challenge Harris’s conclusions, and it’s even possible for them to voice their distaste for his style of argumentation without necessarily violating any principles of reasoned debate. However, whenever these critics resort to moralizing, we must recognize that by doing so they’re effectively signaling the end of any truly rational exchange. For Harris, this often means a substantive argument never even gets a chance to begin. The distinction between debating morally charged topics on the one hand, and condemning an opponent as immoral on the other, may seem subtle, or academic even. But it’s one thing to argue that a position with moral and political implications is wrong; it’s an entirely different thing to become enraged and attempt to shout down anyone expressing an opinion you deem morally objectionable. Moral reasoning, in other words, can and must be distinguished from moralizing. Since the underlying moral implications of the issue are precisely what are under debate, giving way to angry indignation amounts to a pulling of rank—an effort to silence an opponent through the exercise of one’s own moral authority, which reveals a rather embarrassing sense of one’s own superior moral standing.

Unfortunately, it’s far too rarely appreciated that a debate participant who gets angry and starts wagging a finger is thereby demonstrating an unwillingness or an inability to challenge a rival’s points on logical or evidentiary grounds. As entertaining as it is for some to root on their favorite dueling demagogue in cable news-style venues, anyone truly committed to reason and practiced in its application realizes that in a debate the one who loses her cool loses the argument. This isn’t to say we should never be outraged by an opponent’s position. Some issues have been settled long enough, their underlying moral calculus sufficiently worked through, that a signal of disgust or contempt is about the only imaginable response. For instance, if someone were to argue, as Aristotle did, that slavery is excusable because some races are naturally subservient, you could be forgiven for lacking the patience to thoughtfully scrutinize the underlying premises. The problem, however, is that prematurely declaring an end to the controversy and then moving on to blanket moral condemnation of anyone who disagrees has become a worryingly common rhetorical tactic. And in this age of increasingly segmented and polarized political factions it’s more important than ever that we check our impulse toward sanctimony—even though it’s perhaps also harder than ever to do so.

Once a proponent of some unpopular idea starts to be seen as not merely mistaken but dishonest, corrupt, or bigoted, then playing fair begins to seem less obligatory for anyone wishing to challenge that idea. You can learn from casual Twitter browsing or from reading any number of posts on Salon.com that Sam Harris advocates a nuclear first strike against radical Muslims, supported the Bush administration’s use of torture, and carries within his heart an abiding hatred of Muslim people, all billion and a half of whom he believes are virtually indistinguishable from the roughly 20,000 militants making up ISIS. You can learn these things, none of which is true, because some people dislike Harris’s ideas so much they feel it’s justifiable, even imperative, to misrepresent his views, lest the true, more reasonable-sounding versions reach a wider receptive audience. And it’s not just casual bloggers and social media mavens who feel no qualms about spreading what they know to be distortions of Harris’s views; religious scholar Reza Aslan and journalist Glenn Greenwald both saw fit to retweet the verdict that he is a “genocidal fascist maniac,” accompanied by an egregiously misleading quote as evidence—even though Harris had by then discussed his views at length with both of these men.

 It’s easy to imagine Ben Affleck doing some cursory online research to prep for his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher and finding plenty of savory tidbits to prejudice him against Harris before either of them stepped in front of the cameras. But we might hope that a scholar of Noam Chomsky’s caliber wouldn’t be so quick to form an opinion of someone based on hearsay. Nonetheless, Chomsky responded to Harris’s recent overture to begin an email exchange to help them clear up their misconceptions about each other’s ideas by writing: “Perhaps I have some misconceptions about you. Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false”—this despite Harris having just quoted Chomsky calling him a “religious fanatic.” We must wonder, where might that characterization have come from if he’d read so little of Harris’s work?

 Political and scholarly discourse would benefit immensely from a more widespread recognition of our natural temptation to recast points of intellectual disagreement as moral offenses, a temptation which makes it difficult to resist the suspicion that anyone espousing rival beliefs is not merely mistaken but contemptibly venal and untrustworthy. In philosophy and science, personal or so-called ad hominem accusations and criticisms are considered irrelevant and thus deemed out of bounds—at least in principle. But plenty of scientists and academics of every stripe routinely succumb to the urge to moralize in the midst of controversy. Thus begins the lamentable process by which reasoned arguments are all but inevitably overtaken by competing campaigns of character assassination. In service to these campaigns, we have an ever growing repertoire of incendiary labels with ever lengthening lists of criteria thought to reasonably warrant their application, so if you want to discredit an opponent all that’s necessary is a little creative interpretation, and maybe some selective quoting.

The really tragic aspect of this process is that as scrupulous and fair-minded as any given interlocutor may be, it’s only ever a matter of time before an unpopular message broadcast to a wider audience is taken up by someone who feels duty-bound to kill the messenger—or at least to besmirch the messenger’s reputation. And efforts at turning thoughtful people away from troublesome ideas before they ever even have a chance to consider them all too often meet with success, to everyone’s detriment. Only a small percentage of unpopular ideas may merit acceptance, but societies can’t progress without them.

Once we appreciate that we’re all susceptible to this temptation to moralize, the next most important thing for us to be aware of is that it becomes more powerful the moment we begin to realize ours are the weaker arguments. People in individualist cultures already tend to more readily rate themselves as exceptionally moral than as exceptionally intelligent. Psychologists call this tendency the Muhammed Ali effect (because the famous boxer once responded to a journalist’s suggestion that he’d purposely failed an Army intelligence test by quipping, “I only said I was the greatest, not the smartest”). But when researchers Jens Möller and Karel Savyon had study participants rate themselves after performing poorly on an intellectual task, they found that the effect was even more pronounced. Subjects in studies of the Muhammed Ali effect report believing that moral traits like fairness and honesty are more socially desirable than intelligence. They also report believing these traits are easier for an individual to control, while at the same time being more difficult to measure. Möller and Savyon theorize that participants in their study were inflating their already inflated sense of their own moral worth to compensate for their diminished sense of intellectual worth. While researchers have yet to examine whether this amplification of the effect makes people more likely to condemn intellectual rivals on moral grounds, the idea that a heightened estimation of moral worth could make us more likely to assert our moral authority seems a plausible enough extrapolation from the findings. 

            That Ben Affleck felt intimated by the prospect of having to intelligently articulate his reasons for rejecting Harris’s positions, however, seems less likely than that he was prejudiced to the point outrage against Harris sometime before encountering him in person. At one point in the interview he says, “You’re making a career out of ISIS, ISIS, ISIS,” a charge of pandering that suggests he knows something about Harris’s work (though Harris doesn't discuss ISIS in any of his books). Unfortunately, Affleck’s passion and the sneering tone of his accusations were probably more persuasive for many in the audience than any of the substantive points made on either side. But, amid Affleck’s high dudgeon, it’s easy to sift out views that are mainstream among liberals. The argument Harris makes at the outset of the segment that first sets Affleck off—though it seemed he’d already been set off by something—is in fact a critique of those same views. He says,

When you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and freethinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us. [Affleck breaks in here to say, “Thank God you’re here.”] And the crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.

This is what Affleck says is “gross” and “racist.” The ensuing debate, such as it is, focuses on the appropriateness—and morality—of criticizing the Muslim world for crimes only a subset of Muslims are guilty of. But how large is that subset?

Harris (along with Maher) makes two important points: first, he states over and over that it’s Muslim beliefs he’s criticizing, not the Muslim people, so if a particular Muslim doesn’t hold to the belief in question he or she is exempt from the criticism. Harris is ready to cite chapter and verse of Islamic holy texts to show that the attitudes toward women and homosexuals he objects to aren’t based on the idiosyncratic characters of a few sadistic individuals but are rather exactly what’s prescribed by religious doctrine. A passage from his book The End of Faith makes the point eloquently.

It is not merely that we are war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been “hijacked” by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet. A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do. (109-10)

But most secularists and moderate Christians in the U.S. have a hard time appreciating how seriously most Muslims take their Koran. There are of course passages in the Bible that are simply obscene, and Christians have certainly committed their share of atrocities at least in part because they believed their God commanded them to. But, whereas almost no Christians today advocate stoning their brothers, sisters, or spouses to death for coaxing them to worship other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6 8-15), a significant number of people in Islamic populations believe apostates and “innovators” deserve to have their heads lopped off.

            The second point Harris makes is that, while Affleck is correct in stressing how few Muslims make up or support the worst of the worst groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, the numbers who believe women are essentially the property of their fathers and husbands, that homosexuals are vile sinners, or that atheist bloggers deserve to be killed are much higher. “We have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it,” as Harris insists. The journalist Nicholas Kristof says this is a mere “caricature” of the Muslim world. But Harris’s goal has never been to promote a negative view of Muslims, and he at no point suggests his criticisms apply to all Muslims, all over the world. His point, as he stresses multiple times, is that Islamic doctrine is inspiring large numbers of people to behave in appalling ways, and this is precisely why he’s so vocal in his criticisms of those doctrines.

Part of the difficulty here is that liberals (including this one) face a dilemma anytime they’re forced to account for the crimes of non-whites in non-Western cultures. In these cases, their central mission of standing up for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden runs headlong into their core principle of multiculturalism, which makes it taboo for them to speak out against another society’s beliefs and values. Guys like Harris are permitted to criticize Christianity when it’s used to justify interference in women’s sexual decisions or discrimination against homosexuals, because a white Westerner challenging white Western culture is just the system attempting to correct itself. But when Harris speaks out against Islam and the far worse treatment of women and homosexuals—and infidels and apostates—it prescribes, his position is denounced as “gross” and “racist” by the likes of Ben Affleck, with the encouragement of guys like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald. A white American male casting his judgment on a non-Western belief system strikes them as the first step along the path to oppression that ends in armed invasion and possibly genocide. (Though, it should be noted, multiculturalists even attempt to silence female critics of Islam from the Muslim world.)

The biggest problem with this type of slippery-slope presumption isn’t just that it’s sloppy thinking—rejecting arguments because of alleged similarities to other, more loathsome ideas, or because of some imagined consequence should those ideas fall into the wrong hands. The biggest problem is that it time and again provides a rationale for opponents of an idea to silence and defame anyone advocating it. Unless someone is explicitly calling for mistreatment or aggression toward innocents who pose no threat, there’s simply no way to justify violating anyone’s rights to free inquiry and free expression—principles that should supersede multiculturalism because they’re the foundation and guarantors of so many other rights. Instead of using our own delusive moral authority in an attempt to limit discourse within the bounds we deem acceptable, we have a responsibility to allow our intellectual and political rivals the space to voice their positions, trusting in our fellow citizens’ ability to weigh the merits of competing arguments. 

But few intellectuals are willing to admit that they place multiculturalism before truth and the right to seek and express it. And, for those who are reluctant to fly publically into a rage or to haphazardly apply any of the growing assortment of labels for the myriad varieties of bigotry, there are now a host of theories that serve to reconcile competing political values. The multicultural dilemma probably makes all of us liberals too quick to accept explanations of violence or extremism—or any other bad behavior—emphasizing the role of external forces, whether it’s external to the individual or external to the culture. Accordingly, to combat Harris’s arguments about Islam, many intellectuals insist that religion simply does not cause violence. They argue instead that the real cause is something like resource scarcity, a history of oppression, or the prolonged occupation of Muslim regions by Western powers.

            If the arguments in support of the view that religion plays a negligible role in violence were as compelling as proponents insist they are, then it’s odd that they should so readily resort to mischaracterizing Harris’s positions when he challenges them. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who believes religion is such a small factor that anyone who criticizes Islam is suspect, argues his case against Harris within an almost exclusively moral framework—not is Harris right, but is he an anti-Muslim? The religious scholar Reza Aslan quotes Harris out of context to give the appearance that he advocates preemptive strikes against Muslim groups. But Aslan’s real point of disagreement with Harris is impossible to pin down. He writes,

After all, there’s no question that a person’s religious beliefs can and often do influence his or her behavior. The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinct causal connection between belief and behavior.

Since he doesn’t explain what he means by “necessary and distinct,” we’re left with little more than the vague objection that religion’s role in motivating violence is more complex than some people seem to imagine. To make this criticism apply to Harris, however, Aslan is forced to erect a straw man—and to double down on the tactic after Harris has pointed out his error, suggesting that his misrepresentation is deliberate.

Few commenters on this debate appreciate just how radical Aslan’s and Greenwald’s (and Karen Armstrong’s) positions are. The straw men notwithstanding, Harris readily admits that religion is but one of many factors that play a role in religious violence. But this doesn’t go far enough for Aslan and Greenwald. While they acknowledge religion must fit somewhere in mix, they insist its role is so mediated and mixed up with other factors that its influence is all but impossible to discern. Religion in their minds is a pure social construct, so intricately woven into the fabric of a culture that it could never be untangled. As evidence of this irreducible complexity, they point to the diverse interpretations of the Koran made by the wide variety of Muslim groups all over the world. There’s an undeniable kernel of truth in this line of thinking. But is religion really reconstructed from scratch in every culture?

One of the corollaries of this view is that all religions are essentially equal in their propensity to inspire violence, and therefore, if adherents of one particular faith happen to engage in disproportionate levels of violence, we must look to other cultural and political factors to explain it. That would also mean that what any given holy text actually says in its pages is completely immaterial. (This from a scholar who sticks to a literal interpretation of a truncated section of a book even though the author assures him he’s misreading it.) To highlight the absurdity of this idea, Harris likes to cite the Jains as an example. Mahavira, a Jain patriarch, gave this commandment: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, or kill any creature or living being.” How plausible is the notion that adherents of this faith are no more and no less likely to commit acts of violence than those whose holy texts explicitly call for them to murder apostates? “Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept” (23), Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation.

            Since the U.S. is in fact a Christian nation, and since it has throughout its history displaced, massacred, invaded, occupied, and enslaved people from nearly every corner of the globe, many raise the question of what grounds Harris, or any other American, has for judging other cultures. And this is where the curious email exchange Harris began with the linguist and critic of American foreign policy Noam Chomsky takes up. Harris reached out to Chomsky hoping to begin an exchange that might help to clear up their differences, since he figured they have a large number of readers in common. Harris had written critically of Chomsky’s book about 9/11 in End of Faith, his own book on the topic of religious extremism written some time later. Chomsky’s argument seems to have been that the U.S. routinely commits atrocities on a scale similar to that of 9/11, and that the Al Qaeda attacks were an expectable consequence of our nation’s bullying presence in global affairs. Instead of dealing with foreign threats then, we should be concentrating our efforts on reforming our own foreign policy. But Harris points out that, while it’s true the U.S. has caused the deaths of countless innocents, the intention of our leaders wasn’t to kill as many people as possible to send a message of terror, making such actions fundamentally different from those of the Al Qaeda terrorists.

The first thing to note in the email exchange is that Harris proceeds on the assumption that any misunderstanding of his views by Chomsky is based on an honest mistake, while Chomsky immediately takes for granted that Harris’s alleged misrepresentations are deliberate (even though, since Harris sends him the excerpt from his book, that would mean he’s presenting the damning evidence of his own dishonesty). In other words, Chomsky switches into moralizing mode at the very outset of the exchange. The substance of the disagreement mainly concerns the U.S.’s 1998 bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. According to Harris’s book, Chomsky argues this attack was morally equivalent to the attacks by Al Qaeda on 9/11. But in focusing merely on body counts, Harris charges that Chomsky is neglecting the far more important matter of intention.

Noam Chomsky
Chomsky insists after reading the excerpt, however, that he never claimed the two attacks were morally equivalent, and that furthermore he in fact did consider, and write at length about, the intentions of the Clinton administration officials who decided to bomb al-Shifa—just not in the book cited by Harris. In this other book, which Chomsky insists Harris is irresponsible for not having referenced, he argues that the administration’s claim that it received intelligence about the factory manufacturing chemical weapons was a lie and that the bombing was actually meant as retaliation for an earlier attack on the U.S. Embassy. Already at this point in the exchange Chomsky is writing to Harris as if he were guilty of dishonesty, unscholarly conduct, and collusion in covering up the crimes of the American government. 

But which is it? Is Harris being dishonest when he says Chomsky is claiming moral equivalence? Or is he being dishonest when he fails to cite an earlier source arguing that in fact what the U.S. did was morally worse? The more important question, however, is why does Chomsky assume Harris is being dishonest, especially in light of how complicated his position is? Here’s what Chomsky writes in response to Harris pressing him to answer directly the question about moral equivalence:

Clinton bombed al-Shifa in reaction to the Embassy bombings, having discovered no credible evidence in the brief interim of course, and knowing full well that there would be enormous casualties. Apologists may appeal to undetectable humanitarian intentions, but the fact is that the bombing was taken in exactly the way I described in the earlier publication which dealt the question of intentions in this case, the question that you claimed falsely that I ignored: to repeat, it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street. On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human. That is exactly the situation.

Most of the rest of the exchange consists of Harris trying to figure out Chomsky’s views on the role of intention in moral judgment, and Chomsky accusing Harris of dishonesty and evasion for not acknowledging and exploring the implications of the U.S.’s culpability in the al-Shifa atrocity. When Harris tries to explain his view on the bombing by describing a hypothetical scenario in which one group stages an attack with the intention of killing as many people as possible, comparing it to another scenario in which a second group stages an attack with the intention of preventing another, larger attack, killing as few people as possible in the process, Chomsky will have none it. He insists Harris’s descriptions are “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing,” because they’re nothing like what actually happened. We know Chomsky is an intelligent enough man to understand perfectly well how a thought experiment works. So we’re left asking, what accounts for his mindless pounding on the drum of the U.S.’s greater culpability? And, again, why is he so convinced Harris is carrying on in bad faith?

What seems to be going on here is that Chomsky, a long-time critic of American foreign policy, actually began with the conclusion he sought to arrive at. After arguing for decades that the U.S. was the ultimate bad guy in the geopolitical sphere, his first impulse after the attacks of 9/11 was to salvage his efforts at casting the U.S. as the true villain. Toward that end, he lighted on al-Shifa as the ideal crime to offset any claim to innocent victimhood. He’s actually been making this case for quite some time, and Harris is by no means the first to insist that the intentions behind the two attacks should make us judge them very differently. Either Chomsky felt he knew enough about Harris to treat him like a villain himself, or he has simply learned to bully and level accusations against anyone pursuing a line of questions that will expose the weakness of his idea—he likens Harris’s arguments at one point to “apologetics for atrocities”—a tactic he keeps getting away with because he has a large following of liberal academics who accept his moral authority.

Harris saw clear to the end-game of his debate with Chomsky, and it’s quite possible Chomsky in some murky way did as well. The reason he was so sneeringly dismissive of Harris’s attempts to bring the discussion around to intentions, the reason he kept harping on how evil America had been in bombing al-Shifa, is that by focusing on this one particular crime he was avoiding the larger issue of competing ideologies. Chomsky’s account of the bombing is not as certain as he makes out, to say the least. An earlier claim he made about a Human Rights Watch report on the death toll, for instance, turned out to be completely fictitious. But even if the administration really was lying about its motives, it’s noteworthy that a lie was necessary. When Bin Laden announced his goals, he did so loudly and proudly. 

Chomsky’s one defense of his discounting of the attackers’ intentions (yes, he defends it, even though he accused Harris of being dishonest for pointing it out) is that everyone claims to have good intentions, so intentions simply don’t matter. This is shockingly facile coming from such a renowned intellectual—it would be shockingly facile coming from anyone. Of course Harris isn’t arguing that we should take someone’s own word for whether their intentions are good or bad. What Harris is arguing is that we should examine someone’s intentions in detail and make our own judgment about them. Al Qaeda’s plan to maximize terror by maximizing the death count of their attacks can only be seen as a good intention in the context of the group’s extreme religious ideology. That’s precisely why we should be discussing and criticizing that ideology, criticism which should extend to the more mainstream versions of Islam it grew out of.

Taking a step back from the particulars, we see that Chomsky believes the U.S. is guilty of far more and far graver acts of terror than any of the groups or nations officially designated as terrorist sponsors, and he seems unwilling to even begin a conversation with anyone who doesn’t accept this premise. Had he made some iron-clad case that the U.S. really did treat the pharmaceutical plant, and the thousands of lives that depended on its products, as pawns in some amoral game of geopolitical chess, he could have simply directed Harris to the proper source, or he could have reiterated key elements of that case. Regardless of what really happened with al-Shifa, we know full well what Al Qaeda’s intentions were, and Chomsky could have easily indulged Harris in discussing hypotheticals had he not feared that doing so would force him to undermine his own case. Is Harris an apologist for American imperialism? Here’s a quote from the section of his book discussing Chomsky's ideas:

We have surely done some terrible things in the past. Undoubtedly, we are poised to do terrible things in the future. Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent. There may be much that Western powers, and the United States in particular, should pay reparations for. And our failure to acknowledge our misdeeds over the years has undermined our credibility in the international community. We can concede all of this, and even share Chomsky’s acute sense of outrage, while recognizing that his analysis of our current situation in the world is a masterpiece of moral blindness.

To be fair, lines like this last one are inflammatory, so it was understandable that Chomsky was miffed, up to a point. But Harris is right to point to his moral blindness, the same blindness that makes Aslan, Affleck, and Greenwald unable to see that the specific nature of beliefs and doctrines and governing principles actually matters. If we believe it’s evil to subjugate women, abuse homosexuals, and murder freethinkers, the fact that our country does lots of horrible things shouldn’t stop us from speaking out against these practices to people of every skin color, in every culture, on every part of the globe.

            Sam Harris is no passive target in all of this. In a debate, he gives as good or better than he gets, and he has a penchant for finding the most provocative way to phrase his points—like calling Islam “the motherlode of bad ideas.” He doesn’t hesitate to call people out for misrepresenting his views and defaming him as a person, but I’ve yet to see him try to win an argument by going after the person making it. And I’ve never seen him try to sabotage an intellectual dispute with a cheap performance of moral outrage, or discredit opponents by fixing them with labels they don't deserve. Reading his writings and seeing him lecture or debate, you get the sense that he genuinely wants to test the strength of ideas against each other and see what new insight such exchanges may bring. That’s why it’s frustrating to see these discussions again and again go off the rails because his opponent feels justified in dismissing and condemning him based on inaccurate portrayals, from an overweening and unaccountable sense of self-righteousness.

Ironically, honoring the type of limits to calls for greater social justice that Aslan and Chomsky take as sacrosanct—where the West forebears to condescend to the rest—serves more than anything else to bolster the sense of division and otherness that makes many in the U.S. care so little about things like what happened in al-Shifa. As technology pushes on the transformation of our far-flung societies and diverse cultures into a global community, we ought naturally to start seeing people from Northern Africa and the Middle East—and anywhere else—not as scary and exotic ciphers, but as fellow citizens of the world, as neighbors even. This same feeling of connection that makes us all see each other as more human, more worthy of each other’s compassion and protection, simultaneously opens us up to each other’s criticisms and moral judgments. Chomsky is right that we Americans are far too complacent about our country’s many crimes. But opening the discussion up to our own crimes opens it likewise to other crimes that cannot be tolerated anywhere on the globe, regardless of the culture, regardless of any history of oppression, and regardless too of any sanction delivered from the diverse landscape of supposedly sacred realms. 

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