Friday, October 05, 2012

Chris Hedges: Why does my flesh creep? (1.5th most hated review)

We now come to my really-and-truly second least-popular Amazon review of all time.  My last review came in at Number Two on the scorecard, but that is only because I couldn't confine myself to just ten hated reviews. 

The author is New York Times journalist, Harvard Divinity School graduate, and all-around shmuck, Chris Hedges.  Sorry, I shouldn't say that latter -- he may be a very nice fellow, when he's not writing this book.  (I don't think I can endure reading any of his other books, to see how they compare.)  But here we go, the review speaks for itself, and also explains why Hedge's fans seem to hate it: 

Christopher Hedges, American Fascists

51 + / 99 -


"Why, Oh Why does my Flesh Creep?"
Of the some 300 books I've reviewed at Amazon -- and I disagreed with half of them -- this may be the worst. Let me (begin to) count the ways:

(1) The writing is pure schlock. Hedges makes bold assertions -- Dobson is a fascist, evangelicals are totalitarians, conservative Christianity is all about mind control and subjugation of women -- gives a single anecdote, then fills page after page with meandering psycho-babble. How does a graduate from the Harvard Divinity school become an authority on Freud? Don't they teach them to qualify, specify, or avoid sweeping generalizations at the New York Times?

If you like rigorously defined claims, backed up by strong evidence and clear logic, this book will drive you crazy.

Want an ill-informed hatchet job on Christianity? Read Harris or Dawkins: their books are at least well-written.

(2) Hedges accuses the "religious right" of hatred, but I've never seen anything so one-sided and uncharitable from any Christian writer that I can recall. Hatred radiates from every page of this book.

(3) Hedges defines "fascism" so vaguely (admitting up-front his definition is self-contradictary, as if to pre-empt criticism), that it could apply to anyone or no one. Whole chapters of this book seem to have nothing to do with his thesis. So what if James Kennedy teaches people to use canned evangelistic techniques?  Fascism is supposed to be about storm-troopers and concentration camps, not campy religious come-ons.

(4) Hedges makes liberal use of the "heurmeneutics of suspicion." "Anything you say can and will be used against you." Mother Theresa would come out looking like a Nazi after he was done with her.

Full disclosure. I am (broadly speaking) one of Hedges' targets. I'm Christian, vote Republican, and am fairly conservative. I grew up among conservative Christians -- I've visited over 300 fellowships of one kind or another around the world, and my family and friends all belong to this sub-culture.

You might take that as a reason to reject my review as "sour grapes." But it also means I know this group of people -- what they think, what they want -- far better than Hedges, Goldberg, Harris, Phillips, or Dawkins do. While I am not objective of course, I have reviewed many books by atheists, communists, Buddhists, Hindus, gays, Muslims, and all sorts of other people, and usually find something good to say. I certainly don't deny that there are flaky Christians. But as a generalization about the Christian community, this book is the vilest slander. It is demogogic, paranoid, and deeply dishonest. It is also one of the most tedious books I have ever opened -- like listening to a sermon by a malevolent elderly pastor who thinks he is profound because he is vague, and thinks he is charitable because he uses words like charity, even while he tries (in his vague way) to cut the throats of people he hates.

I can't help thinking of the Grimm story of the boy whose flesh would not creep, try as he might. "Why, oh why, does not my flesh creep?"

Read this book, kid.


Crude said...

What a review.

I decided to look him up on wikipedia, just out of curiosity. It seems his immediate next book was attacking the New Atheists, in some pretty fierce terms.

As near as I can tell, this guy is the rare sort who will go after anyone who disagrees with at full-throttle. No punch pulling either, since he's written a book about liberal hypocrisy, and apparently took part in a lawsuit against Obama's administration after that whole 'ability to detain people indefinitely without habeas corups' thing went through.

Unitarian universalist, which in my experience explains a lot.

David B Marshall said...

Come to think of it, one of my least charitable and most judgemental critics was also of that sect. It would probably be unfair to generalized based on a sample of two, though.

Rudy said...

@Crude, @David, sorry, I've been away for a while.

I can't say I feel as strongly about Chris Hedges as you seem to, though I also think he is over the top; "War is a Force..." seems to be his best book (sometimes people only get one good book; I haven't written one at all but I'm sure it's just waiting...) . He is pretty down on pacifists, too.

Where I'm surprised is to hear you call him a UU; are you *sure* about that? Where does he say that? (He's pretty clearly religious, in a more traditional-language vein than most UU's I've known, but it might vary regionally).

@Crude, I checked out Behe, and didn't think too much of his definitions and examples; I'm not a biologist, but the basic criticism (yes, I looked up his critics too) that he ignores the fact that historical scaffolding for present function may have disappeared, seems on the mark. He also was as naive about complexity as a topic as I remembered (Stuart Kaufmann gets dismissed out of hand, for example, and he doesn't give even a call-out to Herbert Simon, unless I missed it.)

Crude said...

but the basic criticism (yes, I looked up his critics too) that he ignores the fact that historical scaffolding for present function may have disappeared, seems on the mark.

I don't think it's fair to damn Behe too hard for a criticism which, put that way, amounts to 'Yes well maybe it happened some way we don't understand and now can't figure out, and if it did then Behe is wrong. This is science!' Behe's inferences are, and he admits this fully, open to reply and counter-evidence in the future. He's not ignoring the possibility that may be wrong, he's waiting to be shown it - and until then, he maintains his inferences hold.

He also was as naive about complexity as a topic as I remembered

Complexity has more to do with Dembski's views than Behe's, and really, pointing out that he doesn't bring up Herbert Simon is a pretty tame criticism.

Let's try this: what is irreducible complexity according to Behe?

Regarding Hedges, I thought I read on his wiki page that he was UU, but either it changed recently or I was wrong.

Rudy said...

@Crude, it's not that his critics say that "well maybe the scaffolding's gone", to explain away his examples. It's that his definition of IC doesn't account for this (pretty plausible) possibility, that could undermine *any* claim for something to be IC. His functionalist definition of IC is ahistorical.

No, he doesn't need to have mentioned Herbert Simon per se, it's just that Simon is the most relevant and most classic writer on this in his book Sciences of the Artificial (from the 1960's, I think). I don't remember Behe addressing *any* writer on complexity except Kaufmann, and that just to dismiss him with some snark about how complicated Kaufmann's self-organized pathways are (ironically, since Behe points out how complicated metabolic pathways are; they are pretty amazing.)

I am not sure how much Hedges' views on fascism are colored by seeing up close how fascism galloped back into the Balkans. Fascism in Russia seems to be arriving with the help of (some of) the Russian Orthodox Church, unfortunately. And Evangelicals and some of their conservative allies have thrown their weight around in ways that are alarming: driving non-religious families out of the Boy Scouts for example; that's not fascism yet, but you can see that if it were Jews that were thrown out, where things would be going. (sorry that's not phrased well: I mean, that throwing out the non-religious (or gay) Scouts was the kind of edge of the wedge phenomenon that I presume Hedges would be after. But of course I'm talking about the book I'd write, not Hedges' actual book, which might be all you say.

Rudy said...

@Crude, I'm not mixed up (this time!) about Dembski and Behe, I should probably be using "systems theory" or something like that instead to clarify what work I'm talking about. And one issue I have is that he doesn't seem to know this literature (except for the part he is casually dismissive of.)

No, I didn't have any trouble understanding what Behe was after with his definition of IC; I'm not sure what you are fishing for me to say about that. Functional part that can't be simpler and still play the same role? That part? (I don't have the books any more, so I can't go look up his wording.)

David B Marshall said...

Rudy: Of course, I'm politically conservative, so found Hedges more obnoxious than you might. But obviously, I also disliked the tone and quality of his argument, as a fellow writer and disputant. To each, their own, though. Maybe some of his other books are better.

Rudy said...

@David, I haven't read Am. Fasc., so, so far, our reading experiences of Hedges are non-overlapping! But he does sound like one angry guy much of the time (he's been in disputes about Occupy, but that's all I can remember, I can't remember what his views were!).

On the other hand I've been in enough pointless angry political arguments to not be one to throw stones; I'm just lucky they aren't in print.

Crude said...


It's that his definition of IC doesn't account for this (pretty plausible) possibility, that could undermine *any* claim for something to be IC. His functionalist definition of IC is ahistorical.

If by ahistorical you mean fairly novel, sure - but I don't see where that's a problem. I should also point out that going for Kauffman to counter Behe right away would be a concession, insofar as Behe has in his sights Darwinism - and Kauffman is questioning some of the more fundamental aspects of Darwinism as well.

At the same time, no, I don't see how Kauffman's work would undermine Behe's claim of something being IC. Now, what someone could possibly do is argue that an IC artifact could come about by such and such processes. But in that case you haven't undermined the definition of irreducible complexity anyway, you've just shown how such an IC thing could come about. You could also undermine a claim of ICness for a particular structures - 'Oh, this structure can still perform this identified task with fewer parts than we thought' - but again, the IC definition stays intact.

No, I didn't have any trouble understanding what Behe was after with his definition of IC; I'm not sure what you are fishing for me to say about that.

I didn't say you didn't. I wanted to see what you learned from reading him, and if you knew that pretty fundamental view of his.

Also, I don't think it's fair to say "Behe doesn't seem to know this literature" just because he doesn't reference it, especially when his focus is largely elsewhere (orthodox neo-Darwinism). You could probably go after Behe for not spending much time on Lynn Margulis' thoughts too, and that wouldn't pan out to much for similar reasons.

Rudy said...

@Crude, no, I meant "ahistorical" in the sense of "his definition doesn't take process history into account", not "ahistorical" meaning Behe's use of previous work.

Re: orthodox Darwinism, yes, it's fair to enough to say that Behe's target wasn't systems theory etc., so he need not have known this work; on the other hand, it also means he's kind of a lightweight compared to say Kaufmann or the folks, who know their evolution, and their biochem, AND their dynamical systems theory (I only know one of these very well, so, I'm lighter weight still... so there's that.)

I brought up Kaufmann at least partly to complain that Behe deals with him snarkily and lazily, not because anything in Kaufmann seems to bear directly on IC. (I think the remarks about Ka. are in DBB in a section on origin of life issues, something which worries Behe, I can't remember why; probably he'd like to claim that OofL is also not explainable by natural selection but I can't actually remember; I think he talks around in there somewhere about OofLife experiments just producing sludge. Could be the 2nd book though, my memory is running them together.) Anyway, this is just an annoyance, not to the point of what you were asking about anyway.

I think I feel myself dodging your question a bit: yes, I do think I learned something from Behe's definition, as much as I hate to admit it. I think he's wrong (for the reasons all his critics say), and there is something kind of fishy and circular about his definition, but it's the the kind of fishy and circular that sparks interesting thinking, like the Ontological argument, say (actually I *like* the Ont. argument, but it's the example people most people would say was fishy... I can't think of a better one at the moment.) But it has a pretty strong feeling of being unfalsifiable.

Crude said...


Well, then let's leave it at that, and I admire you for actually hunkering down, reading the books, seeing what he has to say, and that grudging admission. I admit, I think Behe is in better shape than that - I think his idea is respectable once it's actually understood (something many of his critics go out of their way to avoid helping with), even if I disagree with him on a key point (I don't think inferences about design, positive or negative, are science). But we can disagree there.