Sunday, December 17, 2006


In the long record of public wars between intellectuals the fight over Edward Said's Orientalism is not the most vicious, but it has peculiar contemporary significance.... Now, nearly 30 years after Said's influential bestseller landed like a scud missile in the arcane world of Eastern scholarship, British orientalist Robert Irwin has published a fresh and devastating critique, Dangerous Knowledge. In the tradition of great feuds, Irwin's grudge against Said, an Arab-American and long-time professor of literature at Columbia University in New York, has not mellowed with the years. "A work of malignant charlatanry" is how Irwin describes Said's sweeping polemic, which labels the entire field of oriental scholarship as racist and imperialist and inspired the field of postcolonial studies.

Said, who died in 2003, saw the sinister hand of orientalism behind every Western imperial adventure, from Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt to the 20th-century struggles over oil and strategic control in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan. From negative Western stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims to the West's sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority, orientalism, in Said's mind, was the guilty party. In a preface to the 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism he blamed experts on the Arab and Islamic world such as Princeton's Bernard Lewis and Johns Hopkins University's Fouad Ajami for helping US hawks think about "such preposterous phenomena as the Arab mind" and providing the reasoning for the Iraq war. "Without a well-organised sense that the people over there were not `like us' and didn't appreciate `our' values - the very core of traditionalist orientalist dogma - there would have been no war," he wrote.

Lewis coined the term "clash of civilisations" to describe the conservative Muslim collision with modernity. "Lewis's verbosity", Said bit back, "scarcely conceals both the ideological underpinnings of his position and his extraordinary capacity for getting things wrong."

But, as Irwin confirms, it is Said, not Lewis, who is guilty of that offence. He dedicates most of his tome to recording the colourful history of the "motley crew of intellectuals and eccentrics" whose scholarship through several centuries helped to establish orientalism in the West's leading universities.

In the process he debunks Said's thesis linking Western scholars of Islam and Arabic culture with European imperialism. On the contrary, he shows that for the main part orientalists have opposed colonialism and supported Arab nationalism. He accuses Said of ignoring German scholars' dominance in orientalism because Germany's failure to become an imperial power in North Africa or the Middle East undermined his central argument. He finds it equally curious, given Said's thesis, that imperialist Britain had to be dragged to orientalism. Oxbridge scholars through the 19th century were obsessed with biblical controversies, not Islamic ones.

Rebutting Said directly in the penultimate chapter, Irwin begins with character assassination, questioning Said's qualifications as a Palestinian, the identity he claimed as his driving force. Although he was born in Jerusalem in 1935, his parents were Lebanese and he was educated mainly at Cairo's Victoria College, "the Eton of the Middle East". The only Arabic spoken in his wealthy household was to servants and Said did not take lessons in the language until the 1970s.

Next he tackles Said's factual errors. As an example of his "breathtaking ignorance" Irwin points out that Said has Muslim armies conquering Turkey before they conquered North Africa, when it was the other way around, and Britain and France dominating the eastern Mediterranean from the end of the 17th century, when it was still controlled by the Ottomans.

Flagrant inconsistency is his second charge. The Persians under Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes built up a mighty empire and sought to add Greece to it. But rather than denouncing them for their imperial ambitions, Said presented them as the "tragic and innocent victims of misrepresentation by Greek playwrights".

Among the many orientalists Said curiously sneered at was E. G. Browne, author of A Year Among the Persians and a tireless campaigner for Persian independence and democracy.

The extent of Said's influence was underscored when the Art Gallery of NSW in 1998 staged "Orientalism: From Delacroix to Klee", an exhibition of paintings and photographs produced by European artists in the 19th century on subjects in North Africa and the Levant. According to the notes in the exhibition catalogue, the works confirmed Said's thesis about the "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture".

In an article for online journal The New Criterion at the time, Keith Windschuttle noted a contradiction. As Said wrote his book in the late 1970s, about half of the 19th-century orientalist art that was put to auction in London and Paris was being bought by dealers for Arab clients living in the West. Twenty years after Orientalism was published, collectors of North African and near and Middle Eastern descent dominated the market for the paintings Said found so demeaning, "with Western and Japanese buyers all but priced out". Irwin concludes it is an intellectual scandal that Said's argument about orientalism could have been taken seriously. It fed on the West's "hand-wringing and guilt" about its imperialist past. And despite some grains of truth, orientalism is "essentially fiction".

The above is an excerpt from an article by Deborah Hope that appeared in "The Australian" newspaper on December 9, 2006


By Jeff Jacoby

From the land that produced "A Christmas Carol" and Handel's "Messiah," more evidence that Christianity is fading in Western Europe: Nearly 99 percent of Christmas cards sold in Great Britain contain no religious message or imagery. "Traditional pictures such as angels blowing trumpets over a stable, Jesus in his manger, the shepherds and three wise men following the star to Bethlehem are dying out," the Daily Mail reports. A review of some 5,500 Christmas cards turns up fewer than 70 that make any reference to the birth of Jesus. "Hundreds . . . avoided any image linked to Christmas at all" -- even those with no spiritual significance, such as Christmas trees or Santa Claus.

Presumably the greeting-card industry is only supplying what the market demands; if Christian belief and practice weren't vanishing from the British scene, Christian-themed cards wouldn't be, either. But some Britons, not all of them devout, are resisting the tide. Writing in the Telegraph, editor-at-large Jeff Randall -- who describes himself as "somewhere between an agnostic and a mild believer" -- announces that any Christmas card he receives that doesn't at least mention the word "Christmas" goes straight into the trash. "Jettisoning Christmas-less cards is my tiny, almost certainly futile, gesture against the dark forces of political correctness," he writes. "It's a swipe at those who would prefer to abolish Christmas altogether, in case it offends 'minorities.' Someone should tell them that, with only one in 15 Britons going to church on Sundays, Christians are a minority."

Meanwhile, the employment law firm Peninsula says that 75 percent of British companies have banned Christmas decorations for fear of being sued by someone who finds the holiday offensive. And it isn't only in December that this anti-Christian animus rears its head. British Airways triggered a furor when it ordered an employee to hide the tiny cross she wears around her neck. At the BBC, senior executives agreed that they would not air a program showing a Koran being thrown in the garbage -- but that the trashing of a Bible would be acceptable. "It's extraordinary," remarks Randall. "In an increasingly godless age, there is a rising tide of hatred against those who adhere to biblical values." A "tyrannical minority" of intolerant secularists is openly contemptuous of traditional moral norms. "The teachings and guidance of old-fashioned Christianity offend them, so they seek to remove all traces of it from public life."

You don't have to be especially pious to find this atheist zealotry alarming. Nor do you have to live in Europe. Though religion remains important in American life, antireligious passion is surging here, too. Examples abound: In two recent best sellers (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), Sam Harris heaps scorn on religious believers, whose faith he derides as "a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement." A study in the Journal of Religion and Society claims that belief in God correlates with higher rates of homicide, sexual promiscuity, and other social ills, and that when compared with relatively secular democracies, the churchgoing United States "is almost always the most dysfunctional." Secular absolutists demand that schools and government venues be cleansed of any hint of religious expression -- be it a cross on the Los Angeles County seal, a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments, or the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

What is at stake in all this isn't just angels on Christmas cards. What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in God is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society. That is because without God, the difference between good and evil becomes purely subjective. What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong,but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: "Thou shalt not murder." What makes kindness to others inherently right is not that human reason says so, but that God does: "Love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the Lord."

Obviously this doesn't mean that religious people are always good, or that religion itself cannot lead to cruelty. Nor does it mean that atheists cannot be beautiful, ethical human beings. Belief in God alone does not guarantee goodness. But belief tethered to clear ethical values -- Judeo-Christian monotheism -- is society's best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones. The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves. That is anything but a tiding of comfort and joy.


Predator Panic: A Closer Look

"Protect the children." Over the years that mantra has been applied to countless real and perceived threats. America has scrambled to protect its children from a wide variety of dangers including school shooters, cyberbullying, violent video games, snipers, Satanic Ritual Abuse, pornography, the Internet, and drugs. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent protecting children from one threat or other, often with little concern for how expensive or effective the remedies are-or how serious the threat actually is in the first place. So it is with America's latest panic: sexual predators.

According to lawmakers and near-daily news reports, sexual predators lurk everywhere: in parks, at schools, in the malls-even in children's bedrooms, through the Internet. A few rare (but high-profile) incidents have spawned an unprecedented deluge of new laws enacted in response to the public's fear. Every state has notification laws to alert communities about former sex offenders. Many states have banned sex offenders from living in certain areas, and are tracking them using satellite technology. Other states have gone even further; state emergency leaders in Florida and Texas, for example, are developing plans to route convicted sex offenders away from public emergency shelters during hurricanes. "We don't want them in the same shelters as others," said Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw. (How exactly thousands of desperate and homeless storm victims are to be identified, screened, and routed in an emergency is unclear.)

An Epidemic?

To many people, sex offenders pose a serious and growing threat-especially on the Internet. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has made them a top priority this year, launching raids and arrest sweeps. According to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, "the danger to teens is high." On the April 18, 2005, CBS Evening News broadcast, correspondent Jim Acosta reported that "when a child is missing, chances are good it was a convicted sex offender." (Acosta is incorrect: If a child goes missing, a convicted sex offender is among the least likely explanations, far behind runaways, family abductions, and the child being lost or injured.) On his NBC series "To Catch a Predator," Dateline reporter Chris Hansen claimed that "the scope of the problem is immense," and "seems to be getting worse." Hansen claimed that Web predators are "a national epidemic," while Alberto Gonzales stated that there are 50,000 potential child predators online.

Sex offenders are clearly a real threat, and commit horrific crimes. Those who prey on children are dangerous, but how common are they? How great is the danger? After all, there are many dangers in the world-from lightning to Mad Cow Disease to school shootings-that are genuine but very remote. Let's examine some widely repeated claims about the threat posed by sex offenders.

One in Five?

According to a May 3, 2006, ABC News report, "One in five children is now approached by online predators." This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators, but the factoid is simply wrong. The "one in five statistic" can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ("The Youth Internet Safety Survey") that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Anyone bothering to actually read the report will find a very different picture. Among the study's conclusions: "Almost one in five (19 percent) . . . received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year." (A "sexual solicitation" is defined as a "request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult." Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin-or got lucky with a recent date-could be considered "sexual solicitation.") Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the "sexual solicitations" came not from "predators" or adults but from other teens-in many cases the equivalent of teen flirting. When the study examined the type of Internet "solicitation" parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from "one in five" to just 3 percent.

This is a far cry from an epidemic of children being "approached by online predators." As the study noted, "The problem highlighted in this survey is not just adult males trolling for sex. Much of the offending behavior comes from other youth [and] from females." Furthermore, "Most young people seem to know what to do to deflect these sexual `come ons.'" The reality is far less grave than the ubiquitous "one in five" statistic suggests.

Recidivism Revisited

Much of the concern over sex offenders stems from the perception that if they have committed one sex offense, they are almost certain to commit more. This is the reason given for why sex offenders (instead of, say, murderers or armed robbers) should be monitored and separated from the public once released from prison. While it's true that serial sex offenders (like serial killers) are by definition likely to strike again, the reality is that very few sex offenders commit further sex crimes.

The high recidivism rate among sex offenders is repeated so often that it is accepted as truth, but in fact recent studies show that the recidivism rates for sex offenses is not unusually high. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study ("Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994"), just five percent of sex offenders followed for three years after their release from prison in 1994 were arrested for another sex crime. A study released in 2003 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that within three years, 3.3 percent of the released child molesters were arrested again for committing another sex crime against a child. Three to five percent is hardly a high repeat offender rate.

In the largest and most comprehensive study ever done of prison recidivism, the Justice Department found that sex offenders were in fact less likely to reoffend than other criminals. The 2003 study of nearly 10,000 men convicted of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation found that sex offenders had a re-arrest rate 25 percent lower than for all other criminals. Part of the reason is that serial sex offenders-those who pose the greatest threat-rarely get released from prison, and the ones who do are unlikely to re-offend. If released sex offenders are in fact no more likely to re-offend than murderers or armed robbers, there seems little justification for the public's fear and the monitoring laws targeting them. (Studies also suggest that sex offenders living near schools or playgrounds are no more likely to commit a sex crime than those living elsewhere.)

While the abduction, rape, and killing of children by strangers is very, very rare, such incidents receive a lot of media coverage, leading the public to overestimate how common these cases are. (See John Ruscio's article "Risky Business: Vividness, Availability, and the Media Paradox" in the March/April 2000 Skeptical Inquirer.)

Why the Hysteria?

There are several reasons for the hysteria and fear surrounding sexual predators. The predator panic is largely fueled by the news media. News stories emphasize the dangers of Internet predators, convicted sex offenders, pedophiles, and child abductions. The Today Show, for example, ran a series of misleading and poorly designed hidden camera "tests" to see if strangers would help a child being abducted. [1] Dateline NBC teamed up with a group called Perverted Justice to lure potential online predators to a house with hidden cameras. The program's ratings were so high that it spawned six follow-up "To Catch a Predator" specials. While the many men captured on film supposedly showing up to meet teens for sex is disturbing, questions have been raised about Perverted Justice's methods and accuracy. (For example, the predators are often found in unmoderated chatrooms frequented by those looking for casual sex-hardly places where most children spend their time.) Nor is it surprising that out of over a hundred million Internet users, a fraction of a percentage might be caught in such a sting.

Because there is little hard data on how widespread the problem of Internet predators is, journalists often resort to sensationalism, cobbling a few anecdotes and interviews together into a trend while glossing over data suggesting that the problem may not be as widespread as they claim. But good journalism requires that personal stories-no matter how emotional and compelling-must be balanced with facts and context. Much of the news coverage about sexual predation is not so much wrong as incomplete, lacking perspective.

Moral Panics

The news media's tendency toward alarmism only partly explains the concern. America is in the grip of a moral panic over sexual predators, and has been for many months. A moral panic is a sociological term describing a social reaction to a false or exaggerated threat to social values by moral deviants. (For more on moral panics, see Ehrich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda's 1994 book Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance.)

In a discussion of moral panics, sociologist Robert Bartholomew points out that a defining characteristic of the panics is that the "concern about the threat posed by moral deviants and their numerical abundance is far greater than can be objectively verified, despite unsubstantiated claims to the contrary." Furthermore, according to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, during a moral panic "most of the figures cited by moral panic `claims-makers' are wildly exaggerated."

Indeed, we see exactly this trend in the panic over sexual predators. News stories invariably exaggerate the true extent of sexual predation on the Internet; the magnitude of the danger to children, and the likelihood that sexual predators will strike. (As it turns out, Attorney General Gonzales had taken his 50,000 Web predator statistic not from any government study or report, but from NBC's Dateline TV show. Dateline, in turn, had broadcast the number several times without checking its accuracy. In an interview on NPR's On the Media program, Hansen admitted that he had no source for the statistic, and stated that "It was attributed to, you know, law enforcement, as an estimate, and it was talked about as sort of an extrapolated number.") According to Wall Street Journal writer Carl Bialik, journalists "often will use dubious numbers to advance that goal [of protecting children] . . . one of the reasons that this is allowed to happen is that there isn't really a natural critic. . . . Nobody really wants to go on the record saying, `It turns out this really isn't a big problem.'"

Panicky Laws

Besides needlessly scaring children and the public, there is a danger to this quasi-fabricated, scare-of-the-week reportage: misleading news stories influence lawmakers, who in turn react with genuine (and voter-friendly) moral outrage. Because nearly any measure intended (or claimed) to protect children will be popular and largely unopposed, politicians trip over themselves in the rush to endorse new laws that "protect the children."

Politicians, child advocates, and journalists denounce current sex offender laws as ineffective and flawed, yet are rarely able to articulate exactly why new laws are needed. Instead, they cite each news story about a kidnapped child or Web predator as proof that more laws are needed, as if sex crimes would cease if only the penalties were harsher, or enough people were monitored. Yet the fact that rare crimes continue to be committed does not necessarily imply that current laws against those crimes are inadequate. By that standard, any law is ineffective if someone violates that law. We don't assume that existing laws against murder are ineffective simply because murders continue to be committed.

In July 2006, teen abduction victim Elizabeth Smart and child advocate John Walsh (whose murdered son Adam spawned America's Most Wanted) were instrumental in helping pass the most extensive national sex offender bill in history. According to Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the bill's sponsor, Smart's 2002 "abduction by a convicted sex offender" might have been prevented had his bill been law. "I don't want to see others go through what I had to go through," said Smart. "This bill should go through without a thought." Yet bills passed without thought rarely make good laws. In fact, a closer look at the cases of Elizabeth Smart and Adam Walsh demonstrate why sex offender registries do not protect children. Like most people who abduct children, Smart's kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, was not a convicted sex offender. Nor was Adam Walsh abducted by a sex offender. Apparently unable to find a vocal advocate for a child who had actually been abducted by a convicted sex offender, Hatch used Smart and Walsh to promote an agenda that had nothing to do with the circumstances of their abductions. The two high-profile abductions (neither by sex offenders) were somehow claimed to demonstrate the urgent need for tighter restrictions on sex offenders. Hatch's bill, signed by President Bush on July 27, will likely have little effect in protecting America's children.

The last high-profile government effort to prevent Internet predation occurred in December 2002, when President Bush signed the Dot-Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act into law, creating a special safe Internet "neighborhood" for children. Elliot Noss, president of Internet address registrar Tucows Inc., correctly predicted that the domain had "absolutely zero" chance of being effective. The "" domain is now a largely ignored Internet footnote that has done little or nothing to protect children.

Tragic Misdirection

The issue is not whether children need to be protected; of course they do. The issues are whether the danger to them is great, and whether the measures proposed will ensure their safety. While some efforts-such as longer sentences for repeat offenders-are well-reasoned and likely to be effective, those focused on separating sex offenders from the public are of little value because they are based on a faulty premise. Simply knowing where a released sex offender lives-or is at any given moment-does not ensure that he or she won't be near potential victims. Since relatively few sexual assaults are committed by released sex offenders, the concern over the danger is wildly disproportionate to the real threat. Efforts to protect children are well-intentioned, but legislation should be based on facts and reasoned argument instead of fear in the midst of a national moral panic.

The tragic irony is that the panic over sex offenders distracts the public from the real danger, a far greater threat to children than sexual predators: parental abuse and neglect. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders but instead by the victim's own family, church clergy, and family friends. According to a 2003 report by the Department of Human Services, hundreds of thousands of children are abused and neglected each year by their parents and caregivers, and more than 1,500 American children died from that abuse in 2003-most of the victims under four years old. That is more than four children killed per day-not by convicted sexual offenders or Internet predators, but by those entrusted to care for them. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger."

If journalists, child advocates, and lawmakers are serious about wanting to protect children, they should turn from the burning matchbook in front of them to face the blazing forest fire behind them. The resources allocated to tracking ex-felons who are unlikely to re-offend could be much more effectively spent on preventing child abuse in the home and hiring more social workers. Eventually this predator panic will subside and some new threat will take its place. Expensive, ineffective, and unworkable laws will be left in its wake when the panic passes. And no one is protecting America from that.


Black Activists Criticize CNN Report on Racial Bias

Project 21 Members Say Establishment Media Poll and Report on Race Had "Predetermined Outcome"

A CNN December 12 news report and poll data implying that Americans are racist is being criticized by members of the black leadership network Project 21. Results of a survey of 328 blacks and 703 whites conducted for CNN by Opinion Research Corp. found that 84 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites considered racism a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem, and 51 percent of blacks and 26 percent of whites claim to have "been a victim of discrimination." Percentages were lower when people were asked if they knew anyone who was "racially biased," with only 31 percent of blacks and 21 percent of whites saying they did. Only 12 percent of blacks and 13 percent of whites surveyed further admitted to being racially-biased themselves.

"I think all of this had a predetermined outcome, needing only anecdotal comments to lend a veneer of credibility," says Project 21 Chairman Mychal Massie. "The CNN report serves only one purpose, and that is to convince the public at large - specifically white people - that they are evil racists. It is a vulgar exercise to try to find racism in the fiber of every white."

"Racism is based on ignorance. Hard work, perseverance and accomplishments on the part of individuals can evaporate racial bias," notes Project 21 Fellow Deneen Moore. "For example, Troy Smith, the black Ohio State quarterback, received a record percentage of votes from sports journalists to win the Heisman Trophy last week. What mattered most were Smith's superior accomplishments on the field and not his skin color. During World War II, white bomber pilots called for the help of the Tuskegee Airmen because of their success in combat and not because of their skin color. When individuals excel at what they do, others will see them for their accomplishments not their skin color."

Project 21's Massie adds: "Racism and ignorance are not synonymous, but racism has unfortunately too often become a catch-all for anything a person of color does not like. We dislike for a plethora of reasons. It is entirely possible for a white person to be critical of a black person who wears 'gangsta' attire and listens to violent and misogynistic rap music. That doesn't make them a racist. Even if popular culture leads them to believe that the majority of blacks subscribe to gangsta rap's anti-social mannerisms, it makes them ignorant and not necessarily racist."

To apparently offset the lack of admitted racists in the survey, CNN reported one researcher's claims that an estimated 80 percent of white Americans are racist but don't realize their bias. Professor Jack Dovidio of the University of Connecticut said "racism is like a virus that has mutated into a new form that we don't recognize" that "is not conscious" and "expressed in indirect, subtle ways." This new, subtle alleged racism is said to occur when realtors steer clients toward racially-homogeneous neighborhoods and in employment discrimination against non-European names.

Project 21's Mychal Massie responded to the latter allegation by noting, "The only 'discrimination' I have ever faced because of the spelling of my name is from people who think it is a woman's name. When I owned my own business, my clientele was 100 percent white, and my retention rate was over 90 percent. I don't think these people chose me because of my color, but because of the quality of service I provided."

Noting the bias in the means with which CNN tested people for its televised report to prove inherent racial prejudice, Project 21's Moore adds: "The racial bias test touted by CNN last night only proves what we already know - when given a choice, individuals will prefer individuals of common ancestry. This is basic human nature, not racism. There is a huge difference in a computer test where individuals must make a split-second choice based on color versus real life experiences."


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