Friday, September 12, 2008

Satire and dismissive epithets

Billionaires for Bush is a political street-theater organization that satirically purports to support George W. Bush for activities perceived to benefit corporations and the super-wealthy.

The organization stems from a group founded by Andrew Boyd as "Billionaires for Forbes," but Steve Forbes left the 2000 race for the Republican presidential nomination early due to a lack of adequate voter support. In 1999 the Billionaires were present as Forbes announced his candidacy for President, jeering him as he signed a flat-tax a pledge in New Hampshire. At the action the demonstrators unfurled a large banner which read: "Billionaires for Forbes: Because Inequality Isn’t Growing Fast Enough." The Billionaires started chanting "Let workers pay the tax so investors can relax!" and other slogans. Forbes and his handlers were discombobulated, a little tussle ensued, and the Billionaires were pushed off to the side away from the cameras. Not wanting to miss the action, half the TV crews left the Forbes speech to cover the Billionaires.

Then the Billionaires planned a "Million Billionaires March" to coincide with the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Other activities included a "Vigil for Corporate Welfare” and an auction of advertising rights for the Liberty Bell.

At a March 2004 fundraiser on Long Island attended by President George W. Bush, Billionaires for Bush came to show their "support," with men dressed in tuxedos with top hats and women in evening gowns and long gloves. The group’s laminated posters featured such slogans as "Leave No Billionaire Behind” and "Corporations Are People Too."

From time to time the group resurfaces, invoking their shtick to raise awareness about an array of economic issues including Social Security privatization, the Iraq War, the estate tax, and gentrification. As a rule members dress in stereotypically wealthy attire, donning tuxedos and top hats, or evening gowns and pearls. They affect names like "Mo Bludfer Oyle" (more blood for oil, a reference to the Iraq war) and "Phil T. Rich" (filthy rich).

I was reminded of this group when I read about another such effort that began in Kansas several years ago. Here are some words about the spoof group FLAT (Families for Learning Accurate Theories) by its founder Adrian Melott, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Kansas.

“In Kansas . . . we've had this struggle over creationism and the state science standards. We could see this coming like a freight train long before the publicity started. Two things happen in the spring of 1999 — one of them was that creationists began shadowing the hearings of the science committee of the state board, going around the state and objecting to their draft science standards. Simultaneously with this, in Lawrence, Kansas, a group called POSH [Parents for Objective Science and History] formed, lobbying our local school board in Lawrence for creationist changes. Some people got together and decided how to respond to this.

“We decided to do an experiment in not really taking them seriously as we struggled against them. We had a brainstorming session about how to do this and someone had the idea of organizing FLAT — Families for Learning Accurate Theories. . . .

“Two people, I and a religious studies professor named Paul Mirecki, who were judged to have nothing to lose, were the people who represented FLAT and its platform. we sent out press releases and read our statement. Here are some excerpts:

"’We wish to stress that we are a secular organization. We respect good science and good scholarship and have confidence that when properly done, the results will always agree with Bible. Thus, we are interested in promoting good standards.

"’The 'round-earth' theory is being taught in Lawrence, contrary to the Bible. Of course, having the four corners does not mean the earth is a square or rectangle. It could be a tetrahedron. Our group is divided on this matter. We agree that careful experimentation will determine the outcome. You might ask about the astronauts who have gone out into space and why they haven't reported about the true shape of the earth. Or how about those space satellites that go all around the earth. (Notice the use of the word 'round.' the subtle brainwashing.)’”

This is amusing, yet it is not at all clear that a Creationist and anti-Evolutionist worldview requires one to subscribe to flat-earthism.  In fact, this is a canard invented by skeptics (who are not above some myth-making of their own).  To be sure, the bible writers believed in geocentrism--the idea that the earth is stationary with the sun and the planets revolving around it--but so did most people before Copernicus.  Yet geocentrism is not the same as flat earth.

In this vein some skeptics claim that Revelation 7:1 assumes a flat earth since the verse refers to angels standing at the "four corners" of the earth. In all likelihood, the reference is to the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. Similar terminology is often used today when we speak of the sun's rising and setting, even though we know that the earth, not the sun, is doing the moving. As one religionist points out “Bible writers used the ‘language of appearance,’ just as people always have. Without it, the intended message would be awkward at best and probably not understood clearly.”

In the Hebrew Bible, Job 26:7 explains that the earth is suspended in space, the obvious comparison being with the spherical sun and moon.

A literal translation of Job 26:10 is "He described a circle upon the face of the waters, until the day and night come to an end." A spherical earth may also be implied in Isaiah 40:21-22--"the circle of the earth." This point seems more ambiguous, as a circular earth could be a pancake.

However, Job 26:10 indicates that where light terminates, darkness begins. This suggests day and night on a spherical globe.

This brief review of some relevant biblical texts suggests that, at the very least, the matter is moot. I doubt if many Creationists feel the need to subscribe to the dogma of a flat earth. In ordinary discourse, the terms flat earth and flat-earther have come to be short hand for “obviously absurd.” No matter how remote the analogy, simply to invoke this language is to condemn any view deemed mistaken by the speaker.

I fear that this ploy reflects a certain PC/liberal smugness. In this parochial perspective the "progressive" doctrines embraced by the speaker are obviously true, while opposing views are simply too ridiculous to merit any rational discussion. Invoking the label “flat earth” does all the job that is needed.

Like all such labels, the application of this epithet serves to mask mental laziness. It is tacitly assumed that there is no need to confront the actual arguments of one’s opponents, because “everyone knows that they are wrong.” Unfortunately, not everyone knows that Creationism is wrong. One must show its errors in detail, not just hurl an epithet such as “flat earth.”

How did this seductive meme of ridicule come into common use? In fact the common misconception that before age of exploration people universally believed that Earth was flat entered the popular imagination after Washington Irving’s 1828 publication of "The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus." This belief is even repeated in some widely read textbooks. Irving builds his story of the 1486 Salamanca meeting around the issue of the sphericity of the earth. He presents some of the arguments against the sphericity (based on the impossibility that there be unredeemed or unredeemable humans on the opposite side); however, he also admits that other learned scholars of the day accepted the sphericity of the earth.

In reality, however, the issue in the 1480s and 1490s was not the shape, but the size of the earth. It was not doubted that in principle going west would eventually lead to Japan and China; instead the issue was the ability of European ships to sail that far across open seas.

During the nineteenth century, the popularity of Romantic conception of a European “Dark Age” allotted much more prominence to the flat-earth model than it ever possessed historically.
In his monograph "Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians," Jeffrey Burton Russell (professor of history at University of California, Santa Barbara) argues that the flat-earth theory is a fable used to impugn premodern civilization, especially that of the Middle Ages in Europe. Today many scholars agree with Russell that the "medieval flat earth" is a stereotype, which only attained popularity in the nineteenth-century. From this origin it developed into a generic term of abuse for any theory held to be transparently false.

Although a Flat Earth Society formerly existed, today the idea claims very few adherents. Yet the notion survives as a convenient epithet. For example, climate skeptics are often pilloried as flat-earthers. So too are those who cling to the idea that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. Such concepts need to be addressed on their own terms, and not simply dismissed with a flourish of rhetoric. To those who are tempted to resort to the handy shorthand of the flat-earth analogy, I would ask: Is this really the best way of winning over one’s opponents? Clearly it is not, but in many “progressive” quarters the appeal of this labor-saving rhetorical device is perennial.



Post a Comment

<< Home