Thursday, July 21, 2016

Discussion of Two

There used to be pamphlets and short books at the Christian bookstores about how CS Lewis, and sometimes JRR Tolkien, weren't Christians.  Now they have websites instead, which I notice never have comments sections. Once in a while a character like that will show up on a Lewis or Tolkien FB page, attempting to argue the same tired points. The difficulty is that they have central ideas* that cannot be dislodged by any counterevidence or discussion. In my few pointless exchanges with them over the years I can report no success.  They cannot hear and there is no place for discussion.  This group has considerable overlap with the KJV-only folks, who present similar difficulties in discussion.

Whenever I have decided I don't like something, in this case a book, I always worry I'm going to be that guy. That's a bit of an overstatement, because I can find something of value even with writers I disagree with strongly.  Yet I do worry that I am too sharply on the lookout for further confirming examples that I was right the first time about this yo-yo, and may miss much. I had started Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson and gotten irritated right off by the introduction to the second edition.  They tell on themselves with some candor that they reacted badly to a mostly-positive review that nonetheless took them to task for their political bias, while loving a five-star review that contained no such criticism. They use this example to illustrate what they are exposing in others throughout their book, ruefully noting that we all, even they, are subject to these sorts or biases and inability to see objectively.

At which point they revert immediately to their bias with no correction, so far as I can tell.

I find this infuriating, because this is exactly the point at which a little thought should pop up and go "Huh.  I should make extra-special sure not to do this.  Especially over the next few sentences." I waited long before I went back at the book, and it does have some value, mostly as a handy reference book for the research behind the ideas on bias, self-justification, and memory. But the political bias continues throughout.  It is less blatant than what one encounters in news sources, but I don't know if the subtlety isn't actually more dangerous.

More on that to come, because it did open up a useful train of thought for me. But I put this forward in contrast to Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise. Silver has far less in the way of academic credentials for such discussions, but he knows how to look at a proposition and ask himself "Have I missed something? Am I seeing what I want to see, or what is real? Have others come to different conclusions?  What were their methods?"

I see on the sidebar that Bethany has just put something up about the book over at her site.  Haven't read it yet.  I hope she's not saying the opposite of what I do here.

Silver's book is more about predictions, why they fail and what can be done to improve them.  There has been enormous improvement in weather prediction, political polling, and the performance of athletes, even though these are all dependent on many interacting variables. Other predictions, such as climate change and the economy, also have improved, but not nearly so much, and we are not much better off on predicting earthquakes than we were fifty years ago.  He writes engagingly and convincingly why this would be so.  I have decided that his explanation and opinion on climate change are the best I have read for acknowledging both that some things are known, while others remain uncertain, and how initial bias on these matters prevents discussion.

The Tavris and Aronson book has the source material for much that we discuss around here about reliability of memory, personal and group bias. It does a good job of that - though very little of it was new to me, here it is now, all in one place. But that bias. While it is insisted in theory that everyone is subject to biases, different perceptions, and instantaneous excuse-making, there are apparently no gay people who are biased;  nor are there any people of color who misperceive; Democrats and liberals - especially ones from longer ago - do show some bias, both experimentally and by observation - but only in the context of Republicans and conservatives doing something worse. Similarly, women might do bad things to other women, but never to men, unless the man has done something worse that they are responding to.  If you want lists of groups that do evil things, corporate CEO's and religious leaders will show up.  But no employees of government unions, no heads of non-profits, and no academics do such things.  Nor are they observed to be biased. One black man, Bill Cosby, did do wrong things.  I note that he had become controversial in the black community for criticisng its culture.

I cannot imagine that this is intentional.  These are simply where their minds go when they look for examples. I was steaming as I read the section about recovered memory and the damage it caused, with no mention of Janet Reno and how that had launched her career (and oh, does the overreaction at Waco seem clearer now?); I shook my head in irritation when they pointed out that the 1979 Iranian Revolution had its roots in the 1953 CIA coup installing the Shah, ignoring the complexities and assassinations the few years before; and I won't even discuss the ways they were wrong-headed in discussing the Crusades. I looked at those and thought How can they leave those out? 

Well, probably because they didn't know about them, I suddenly realised.  If you don't read the conservative press Janet Reno's prosecutions against supposed ritual abusers in Dade County never come before you.  If your goal is to trace back events until you can hit a point where you can blame exactly who you want, you will look no deeper, no wider, no older. So, the terrible events of 1953 just pop out of thin air, and Christians travel thousands of miles to kill Moslems and capture a few square miles of territory for no discernible reason. It's not really their job to get the history exactly fair, but to find good examples from history to illustrate their points. I would have wished an editor or fact-checker along the way had noticed something awry, but that would be unlikely.  They are from the same culture.  They don't know either.

When one looks at it that way, that's pretty much what all of us do, including me. If things look bad for My Fellows, My Tribe, My Team, I look about until I can find a parallel event, a mirror injustice, or an older chapter until I can get them out from under, at least a bit. Sometimes I can largely exonerate them - sometimes there really isn't much in the way of mitigating circumstances.

This is the reason that control of institutions and eliminating counternarratives is important to so many in the present day, and why the destruction - no, the defanging of the past and of traditions is worrisome. It is not merely that "well, they did some wrong things that we'd like to stop doing," - it's an entire program of having nothing to set against the present and the imagined future. Destroy the past, and even the skeptical mind will find nothing to fasten on to raise as a question.

On the other hand, the information explosion works against this very thing.  One political or social group can write all the textbooks and all think alike when they write scripts and essays.  But when I go looking for something, I find...other things, quite by accident.

*For the record, the first is usually that there is magic in the stories, and everything to do with magic is satanic - the Bible says so; second that they believe in Purgatory (Lewis thought it likely but did not insist on it), which is Roman Catholic and we all know they aren't really Christians.


Brad said...

Most of us run in circles where we either agree with each other or agree not to discuss certain topics, so it's very important to have someone on "the other side" that challenges you. One is the web, but I still self select more conservative viewpoints. I have a friend that has drifted far to the Left (San Francisco lawyer whose wife is an Episcopal priest, so no surprises there). He regularly challenges my Facebook posts and really forces me to think about what I believe and why. I could block him to avoid the aggravation (and you can imagine how aggravating a SF lawyer can be) but I don't just so I have that other view pushed in my face.
Regarding Lewis and Tolkien, the whole "magic" thing is a stumbling block for some, but Lewis made some very good cases for why mythology is important to telling truths. A lot of folks are very inconsistent on this issue, where they will let their kids read Naria but not LOTR, or both those but not Star Wars. I enjoy it all (plug for "The Dresden Files" and "Grimnoir Chronicles" book series).
Really enjoy your posts, even when I disagree (heh).

james said...

Is there really an information explosion, for most of us?

Yes, I've learned an amazing number of things via the net, and books suggested on the net, but I'm not exactly in the middle of the distribution.

I know many people who are curious, but not dramatically so, and who are quite willing to learn from History Channel rather than read for themselves. Never mind that the information density and transfer rate are higher with the book, it is easier and more involving to watch. OK, it takes all kinds.

Outside their own lives they tend to know only what they have been given. That's OK if they've been given adequate info--but typically they aren't, and the universal library at their fingertips might as well not be there.

Earl Wajenberg said...

The anti-Inklings who object to the "magic" stuff have apparently, and to no surprise, not read the books, or they would notice that no human character in either Lewis or Tolkien's fiction, ever does magic without regretting it.

Mostly, they never do magic at all. The only exceptions I can think of are in the Narnia series. In The Magician's Nephew, the titular magician is one of the main villains are gets himself very nearly damned for his pains. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy recites spells from a magic book, but the book itself is clearly magical, so it's not clear if she's doing magic or just operating a magical tool (one not made by any human, but by a star in human form). But in either case, using a spell to spy on a school friend results in the end of the friendship and a (very mild) scolding from Aslan.

In Tolkien's works, no one human (or hobbit) ever does magic at all, so far as I recall. It would appear they can't, nor do they try. Elves can do "magic," but don't even realize they are doing it and don't know what mortals mean by the word.

james said...

In Tolkien's work many characters are able to impose their will on others through some innate or enhanced power. Dunno if that qualifies. In any event it is probably not what the aI are complaining about.

I wonder if it's just humans doing magic that they object to. Lewis also wrote of river gods and dryads and other items from mythology as part of the story. I haven't read any aI stuff--do they object to pagan influences too? Or principally?

RichardJohnson said...

For what happened in Iran in 1953,I have found the following useful: Advanced Google Search @ Helian Unbound: “electric Kool-aid acid coup.”

BTW, Valerie Jarrett was born in Iran, but in 1956, and her parents didn't get to Iran until 1955-56. So we can't weave her or her parents into the coup narrative.

Grim said...

In Tolkien's works, no one human (or hobbit) ever does magic at all, so far as I recall.

The example to look at is smoke rings, oddly enough. It's the only sort of magic that seems to cross racial lines for Tolkien. The Istari is far better at it than the dwarves, who are better at it than Bilbo -- but Bilbo grows better at it.

But as to men, lots of them do magic if they are Númenóreans. The Mouth of Sauron is said to be a sorcerer, for example.

Galen said...

There is an entire genre of semi-intelligent self-help books along the lines of "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)", such as "Focus", "Wisest One in the Room", "Dance with Chance", "Flourish", "Practical Wisdom", and "Being Wrong", etc., to name but a few, and as you can tell from the list, I am a sucker for them. They are entirely predictable and follow the script from "Made to Stick." It is impossible not to hear NPR in your head as you read them.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't know about the web in general, James, but my commenters make me smarter.

@Galen - I'll bet we cou8ld say that about a lot of things. And I will.

Texan99 said...

I found Lewis pretty scrupulous about sorting through whether magic was lawful or not. I really enjoy "That Hideous Strength," which lots of Lewis fans don't care for, for some reason. Merlin shows up, and Lewis spends time on whether magic was truly innocent even in his day, and how it has become less innocent since. Most truly supernatural effects that are unambiguously good are shown to be under the fairly direct control of God. Tolkein also obviously thought a lot about the dangers of abuse of magical power. Sauron corrupted lots of creatures that way.

What I find theologically interesting about most fantasy worlds--Lewis being nearly the only exception--is the complete absence of Christ. At their most orthodox, they're essentially Deist. Lewis is among the few writers who fully incorporated into his imaginary universe the idea of the Incarnation and an essential change in the order of the universe as a result.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I would say that George McDonald did it, not fully successfully, and John White did it, too overtly. I think there were some didactically Christian series that came out, but I never read them. I did talk about how the emphasis on good and evil brings out some interesting Christian things in even secular fantasy authors. Piers Anthony and Susan Cooper wre rather dragged in almost against their will:

Madeline L'Engle seemed to make it work. Some of the Arthurian novels as well.

Earl Wajenberg said...

I don't know that it's specifically Christian, but the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher features a heroic Catholic priest and occasional encounters with the archangel Uriel, who is a Good Guy and in no way played for laughs. So I think it's "Christian friendly" or "Christian compatible."

Grim said...

I rather liked Gene Wolfe's Wizard Knight books -- there are two of them, one called The Knight and the other called The Wizard. It sets up a neoplatonic structure in which things are more or less real the further they get from God; fairies are less real than people, but the Norse Gods are more real, and angels like Michael yet more real than them. Then you have this fascinating interplay between creatures at various levels of reality, which is philosophically interesting at the same time that it's also just a good story.

To ask what it means for something to be more or less real is not immediately obvious as a question, since for the most part we treat everything as real or not real. But it is very much appropriate to the theological history. For Aquinas as for Avicenna, God's essence is existence. Nothing else exists essentially, which means that nothing else really 'exists' in the same way at all. Wolfe seems to have grasped a lot of the deep philosophy, and to have worked it into those books.

Texan99 said...

Lots of good suggestions here.