Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
tahmidriad on Reflections on a strange coincidence involving an Android app and a malfunctioning bus stop sign
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priscila on The ups and downs of English
Simon Gibbs on Wedding photography (4): Preparations
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Michael Jennings on Wedding photography (2): Signs
Most recent entries
- Pictures from Georgia and Warsaw
- Cats without tails are not scary
- Big Things blocked by the trees of Southwark Park
- Wedding photography (4): Preparations
- Bookshops as Amazon showrooms
- Reflections on a strange coincidence involving an Android app and a malfunctioning bus stop sign
- Feynman Diagrams on the Feynman van
- Rothko Toast
- Wedding photography (3): Technology as sculpture
- And another posting from my smartphone
- Posted from my new smartphone
- Google Nexus 4 photos
- Wedding photography (2): Signs
- Wedding photography (1): The superbness of the weather
- A Fleet Street lunch
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Category archive: Religion
So far, for me, one of the most impressive or a great many impressive things to be found in Steven Pinkers new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is his description of The Enlightenment. (I mentioned this huge volume, in passing, in my latest Samizdata posting, and at greater length in an earlier posting.)
So. The Enlightenment. This is a word I have heard all my life. But what did it, does it, mean? It is assumed that all educated people know what The Enlightenment means, and that it was and is a noble and fine thing, and why it was and is a noble and fine thing. But why, exactly? I guess that, until now, I was not educated.
What makes Pinker’s exposition of the ideas behind The Enlightenment so excellent is that he explains how the scientific project at the heart of The Enlightenment was joined at the hip to a new moral vision of mankind. This was not merely a couple of vaguely benevolent quests, for scientific truth on the one hand, and for moral excellence on the other. For, as Pinker asks, why did the quest for scientific truth necessarily imply a quest for moral improvement (as we now regard it), for greater “humanity” in our treatment of other humans? Pinker answers this question.
I found that picture of Pinker here.
Whenever I scan in a great gob of verbiage from a book into this blog, I warn readers that the posting may disappear without warning, in the event of the slightest objection from the author, or from the publisher, or from anyone else connected with upholding the intellectual property in question. There is no way that me reproducing this relatively tiny fragment of Pinker’s huge book will damage its sales, quite the reverse. But, if those charged with overseeing such things inform me that, in their view, a line has been crossed by this posting, a line they consider worth defending, this excerpt (from Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution”, pp. 216-221 of my Penguin paper edition) will immediately vanish.
In other words, if, having read the above, you decide that you will be wanting to read what follows, best to do that now.
Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, despotism, and war.
My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases - given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else - we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.
I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy - a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers.
It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty - all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.
Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).
We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.
Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.
The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.
By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways - their gender, their race, their culture - are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account - including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.
The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.
The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me - to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning - then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.
You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.
From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests over others’, we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange.
This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.
If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the universe), Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles.
I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen independently in those civilizations. And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era.
I participated in an interesting exchange today at Samizdata, on the subject of this posting, about why I support the Tea Party. But the exchange came towards the end of a longish, and nearly dead now, comment thread, so few will read it, and I at least want to remember what was said.
I disagree with this article for one main reason: the Tea Party has been nearly entirely co-opted by the social conservatives. The small-government folks seem to accept this as a necessary compromise, without realizing that they have lost control of the movement.
If you took a poll of people identifying themselves with the Tea Party, you would find that religious issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.)) are more important than government spending. From an article from 2011: “Tea Party supporters … are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.” (Emphasis mine)
Farther down in the same article: 42% of Tea Party supporters agree with the conservative Christian movement, while 11% disagree. The remainder are somewhere in the middle, but the dominance is clear.
The Tea Party was a great idea, until the religious zealots got ahold of it ...
Some of what you say is obvious and not bad news at all. None of what you say is definitely bad news.
Much depends, in surveys, on what questions are asked.
It’s obvious that Tea Party Christians get their social issue opinions from their Christianity. Who has ever doubted it? This does not prove that they will use the Tea Party primarily to spread or to enforce these Christian views to or upon others.
Even the claim that they take social issues more seriously than government spending, though suggestive of what you are arguing, does not prove it.
If any question had asked: What do you think the Tea Party is for? Cutting government spending? Or: propagating (or even enforcing) Christian values? Then, the answers would be interesting, and very troubling if the Christians mostly said: For propagating and enforcing Christian values. The government spending stuff is just something we say, in order to spread Christianity.
But a quick read of the piece you link to tells me that no such question was asked, or if it was, the answers was not reported. What this survey seems to be about is what else Tea Partiers tend to believe, besides believing in the Tea Party. Nothing in it surprised me, or lowered, or even altered, my opinion of the Tea Party.
By the way, not only am I a libertarian, I am also a strong atheist. I think Christianity is not just untrue. I think that Christian beliefs about such things as the virgin birth and the meaning of the crucifixion of Christ are downright daft. If I thought that the Tea Party was either founded to create a Christian theocracy or if I ever think in the future that it has degenerated into such an enterprise (as it certainly might), I would not merely stop supporting it, I would, for whatever difference it would make, oppose it. Meanwhile, what seems to unite Tea Partiers now is, see my posting, the belief that the US government does too much, spends too much and borrows too much, and making that idea stick is what the Tea Party is for. Nothing in this survey says otherwise.
I agree that Christians loom very large in the Tea Party, but Christianity is not the Tea Party’s publicly agreed purpose. As of now, I remain optimistic that whereas most Tea Partiers seem to be Christians, and as such profoundly influenced in what they think by their Christianity, these Christians do not think that the purpose of the Tea Party is to spread Christianity, and that the government spending stuff is just a front.
If your response to that is: well, of course they wouldn’t say that. My response to that would be that nothing is this survey settles that particularly argument about what these Christians are trying to accomplish one way or the other. Are you aware of any other evidence that Christian Tea Partiers are actually engaged in a huge deception of this sort? I am not, but that proves very little. What I do know is that your link does not supply such evidence.
An analogy. The libertarian movement seems to consist largely of men. (It’s certainly that way in London.) But this absolutely does not mean that the libertarian movement’s purpose is to spread the idea of male domination of the world generally. To say that “libertarianism has been taken over by men” is sort of true, in the sense that it is indeed mostly men. But as an attempt to describe what the men in the libertarian movement are really trying to accomplish, such an observation would be seriously misleading.
As yet there has been no reply, and probably there won’t be. That’s not itself any sort of argument. Just because you had the last word, if you did, that doesn’t mean you won. Merely that communication ceased.
More to the point, if there is any news or evidence that Tea Party Christians are indeed trying the old Popular Front routine rather than supporting the public agenda of the Tea Party in good faith, I would very much like to learn about it.
I am a godless supporter of gay marriage, but I do love this, not just because it says Don’t Vote Obama, but because it says it so eloquently. He is such a great speaker.
Proof that eloquent speaking straight to camera is more than good enough for the YouTube age.
Thanks, yet again, to Instapundit.
On the same day that I took this picture, of Waterloo Station with Vapour Trails, I also, somewhat earlier, took some other pictures. There I was, waiting for a bus to make its way slowly down Victoria Street, but instead what slowly made its way down Victoria Street was this:
My reaction on the day was that they were presumably English (what else would they be?), and processing on behalf of their mad Evangelical Christian cult, based in Essex or some such place. When I got home, I tried asking the internet what it was, but found no answer.
But last night I tried again, and eventually worked out that this was to do with Malta Day. Those are Maltese Crosses, now I think about it, and the date was a fit. They are processing from Westminster Cathedral in Victoria Street to … somewhere. The Maltese Embassy perhaps? For some kind of party?
Here are pictures of the exact same event, same place, same date, but five years ago.
So, foreign and not mad. Good to know.
That‘s not a link.
This (Pentecostalist minister who leaves his ex-wife to die, murders his wife’s ex-husband, drowns his son’s dog, strangles his wife, kills another woman who looks like his new wife, writes mad religious ravings on his cell wall in his own blood but is black) is a link.
Actually it’s by Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd. And it’s not that new; it was first published (in French) in 2007. But it has just been made available in English. And it is exactly the Todd book that, for several years now, I have most been wanting to read. It is entitled A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World.
If it is as interesting as I hope it is, this book could finally enable Todd to make his long overdue breakthrough into the English speaking world.
And it is, as Instapundit is always saying, in the post.
In all my previous Todd googlings, I had never before come across this stuff about Todd, although I am almost certain that it has been there all along. Will read this tomorrow, or failing that, Real Soon. (And ooh look: at the top left, under where it says “NEW!!!”, there is me, and three of my Todd postings.)
Yes, a quota photo of another pub, this time a pub dwarfed by modernity:
That’s a pub the other side of Victoria Street from me, snapped by me in July of 2009. As you may observe, it is in Petty France, so if you want to google, that makes it easy.
Behind it, dwarfing it, is the old Home Office, which looks like an Eastern European embassy, circa 1970.
From the Preface of The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins:
A lawyer or a politician is paid to exercise his passion and his persuasion on behalf of a client or a cause in which he may not privately believe. I have never done this and I never shall. I may not always be right, but I care passionately about what is true and I never say anything that I do not believe to be right. I remember being shocked when visiting a university debating society to debate with creationists. At dinner after the debate, I was placed next to a young woman who had made a relatively powerful speech in favour of creationism. She clearly couldn’t be a creationist, so I asked her to tell me honestly why she had done it. She freely admitted that she was simply practising her debating skills, and found it more challenging to advocate a position in which she did not believe. Apparently it is common practice in university debating societies for speakers simply to be told on which side they are to speak. Their own beliefs don’t come into it. I had come a long way to perform the disagreeable task of public speaking, because I believed in the truth of the motion that I had been asked to propose. When I discovered that members of the society were using the motion as a vehicle for playing arguing games, I resolved to decline future invitations from debating societies that encourage insincere advocacy on issues where scientific truth is at stake.
I uphold the right of people to indulge in such debating games, but share Dawkins’s extreme distaste for having any part in them myself. I also think that Dawkins makes his point very well, as is usual with him.
The thing that pissed me off about university debating societies like this one was not so much the insincerity, as the fact that they seemed to use the argument as a mere excuse to do bad stand-up comedy. They weren’t seriously pretending to take the other side. They frivolously refused to take any side at all, and didn’t give a damn that they made this entirely obvious. Poor, pathetic you for taking the subject so absurdly seriously, for caring about it all, for getting so involved.
The thing some people don’t seem to get about Dawkins is how much emotion is involved in his fiercely logical harangues. They assume that because he is trying so hard to be logical, which he is, that therefore no deep feeling can be involved. But there is no necessary conflict between logic and depth of feeling, any more than there is a necessary conflict between a car engine and petrol.
Just now I am on the look out for little (or big) things from books, so that I can practice scanning stuff in, to my new computer, with my new scanner. Right now it is still a bit of a struggle, so expect more bits from more books.
Scientology enthusiast is now Climate Change Minister
Defeating Islam (2): Conversion to Christianity will trump higher birth rates in Islamic countries
St Matthew reinterpreted
Links to this and that
Everybody draw Mohammed every day!
God is not One
Gaddafi looking rather like Alan Rickman
How building St Peter’s Rome split the Catholic Church and how marzipan was invented in Luebeck
God is killing cinemas!
Signs of the times in Belfast
God moves in mysterious ways
Truth is true
The impossibility of God but the possibility of Michael Flatley’s cure and of super-super-flees
Jesus above the keyboard instead of beyond it
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
“It’s only a parable!”
Modernity dwarfed by church
Stuff God Hates
I’ve been busy today so here’s a nice picture of the tower of Westminster Cathedral
The Lord is watching
Fifty million Bible bombs
Hear ye hear ye
Mark Holland on believing in something and believing in nothing
Richard Dawkins on the Muhammad cartoons affair
Islam was peaceful and tolerant until the Christians attacked it
Glenn Gould on the hereafter
Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology
Islam is evil - and that’s me carrying on normally
Top tips from Viz
Theodore Dalrymple is an Islamic Fundamentalist and so am I
A car called Jesus
I won’t be doing any television myself in the near future but in the meantime have a watch of this
A Happy Christmas to all my readers
I am an atheist but I often prefer the Christians
iPods From Space
How can intelligent decent people be so badly mistaken? And did 9/11 make you more opinionated?