Last Thursday a link titled “The case against Christopher Hitchens” on Bookforum pointed me to an article on the website Butterflies and Wheels. April Fools must have fallen on July 17th this year since the article really was making the case for Hitchens:
A one-time Marxist, Hitchens’s politics could be defined not so much as ideological but a broad opposition to establishment power and discourse, and solidarity with victims of cruelty.
Something suggests that the author of the article, a 27 year old aspiring novelist, might have been attempting fiction when he wrote that Hitchens was opposed to “establishment power”, but apparently not. The defense of Hitchens jibes with the editorial slant at Butterflies and Wheels (referred to subsequently as B&W), a fountainhead of Islamophobia that you can also find on Harry’s Place and Norm Geras’s blog. There is the usual defense of the Danish Mohammad cartoons, etc. There are attacks on other religions as well all in the name of the kind of scientific rationalism epitomized by Richard Dawkins’s recent atheist tome.
In addition to religion, the website mounts attacks on multiculturalism and other forms of “fashionable nonsense.” Kenan Malik, a Spiked Online regular, seems to be a designated hitter when it comes to such matters. In an article titled “Identity is That Which is Given” that currently appears on B&W, Malik argues:
You do not even have to be human to possess a culture. Primatologists tell us that different groups of chimpanzees each has its own culture. No doubt some chimp will soon complain that their traditions are disappearing under the steamroller of human cultural imperialism.
This clever phrase is just the sort of thing you can find on New Criterion, a magazine edited by the neoconservative Hilton Cramer or any other rightwing standard bearer in the “culture wars”. Under the guise of enlightenment values and the brotherhood of man, what you find basically is seething hostility toward any national minority trying to defend itself against forced assimilation. B&W, of course, defends the French government’s banning of the hijab.
Curious to see what drove these people ideologically, I went to “About B&W” and discovered that my old friend Alan Sokal was their primary inspiration:
Butterflies and Wheels has been established in order to oppose a number of related phenomena. These include:
1. Pseudoscience that is ideologically and politically motivated.
2. Epistemic relativism in the humanities (for example, the idea that statements are only true or false relative to particular cultures, discourses or language-games).
3. Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.
There are two motivations for setting up the web site. The first is the common one having to do with the thought that truth is important, and that to tell the truth about the world it is necessary to put aside whatever preconceptions (ideological, political, moral, etc.) one brings to the endeavour.
The second has to do with the tendency of the political Left (which both editors of this site consider themselves to be part of) to subjugate the rational assessment of truth-claims to the demands of a variety of pre-existing political and moral frameworks. We believe this tendency to be a mistake on practical as well as epistemological and ethical grounds. Alan Sokal expressed this concern well, when talking about his motivation for the Sokal Hoax: ‘My goal isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. Like innumerable others from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, I call for the Left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots.’
This confirms for me once again how troubled the Sokal hoax was, even though at the time I greeted it with great enthusiasm. Initially, my impulse was to hoist Alan on my shoulders since I thought it was about time that somebody stuck it to the dirty postmodernists who were writing all those attacks on Marxism as an oppressive “grand narrative” using language of the kind that was eligible for Denis Dutton’s yearly “Bad Writing” award.
It took about five years to figure out that things were not so simple. To start with, Social Text, the journal that was suckered into publishing Alan’s hoax in a special “Science Wars” issue, had been prompted to put out a special issue as a reaction to a conference at NYU that had been organized by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, two of Alan Sokal’s colleagues. Levitt, a mathematician who taught at NYU alongside Sokal, was acknowledged by Sokal as a primary inspiration for his hoax.
I did not know at the time that the Gross-Levitt conference was made possible by funding from the Olin Foundation, a long-time backer of ultra-right causes. If I had, I never would have been so enthusiastic about Alan’s hoax. While he was politically to the left of Gross and Levitt, and had even taught in Nicaragua as a Tecnica volunteer, there was sufficient reason for me to be a bit more wary of the hoax given the initial inspiration.
What would be the Olin Foundation’s motivation in funding a conference on the Science Wars? Did it think that “intellectual relativism” was eating away at the fiber of the American academy? I don’t quite know how to put this, but the idea of the Olin Foundation coming to the aid of “enlightenment values” strikes me as almost as ridiculous as Christopher Hitchens opposing “establishment power”. Their main interest should be obvious. Olin doesn’t want leftwing scientists mucking about on issues such as global warming, carcinogens in the food we eat, water and air pollution, etc.
Just to take one example, the Olin Foundation donated more than $25,000 to an outfit called the American Council on Science and Health. Other donors included the General Electric Foundation, the Monsanto Fund and other such bodies dedicated to fighting bad writing and fashionable nonsense.
If you go to their website, you will find an article on the home page titled “Claims of Industry Tampering with Science Are Overblown”. Well, I should have known. The executive director of ACSH, who claims that “A new scientific McCarthyism is alive and well in America today”, was introducing an ACSH study titled “Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science: The Crusade Against Conflicts of Interest”, written by one Ronald Bailey. Bailey argues:
Why should having once consulted with Pfizer or DuPont disqualify a scientist from serving on a government advisory board or writing a review article in a scientific journal, while being a lifelong member of Greenpeace does not? And if owning $10,000 in Dow stock represents a potential conflict of interest, surely $10,000 in funding from the Union of Concerned Scientists does too.
This argument raises speciousness to stratospheric levels. The mission of the Union of Concerned Scientists is to search for science-based solutions to problems facing society as a whole. Nobody has ever accused the Union of bias, except perhaps against corporations that have a well-documented history of screwing the public in pursuit of profits.
Ultimately, outfits like B&W and Spiked Online, which focus on restoring “enlightenment values”, are really more about defending the status quo than debunking “fashionable nonsense”. It is easy for some naive leftists to get confused about their goals since who could possibly be opposed to clear thinking and scientific rationalism–that is, unless you have a class analysis of bourgeois society. When I once suggested to Alan that he read Richard Levins or Richard Lewontin, he appeared loath to waste his time reading other scientists who were far more skeptical of the “free marketplace” of ideas than he was. When Pfizer, Monsanto, General Electric and the Olin Foundation are doling out millions of dollars to refute their leftwing enemies, the idea of a level playing field seems utopian at best.
The last time I saw Alan Sokal was at conference at the New School co-sponsored by the libertarians at Spiked Online and Reason Magazine. His colleague Norman Levitt was one of the main organizers. The purpose of the conference was to refute the environmentalism associated with Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups that have not been corrupted by corporate payoffs. This was the trajectory of the Sokal hoax, a virtual repeat of the Gross-Levitt conference funded by the Olin Foundation. I have no idea who funded this one, but imagine that there are always buckets of cash available for any attack on outfits such as Greenpeace or the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The B&W website is not particularly concerned with such issues, preferring to bash religion rather than environmentalism. There is one exception, however. They do seem to get worked into a lather when it comes to the animal rights movement, which they obviously consider an impudent assault on the absolute rights of Scientific Research. They have taken up the cause of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a company that has been the target of the Animal Liberation Front.
I first came across Huntington in the course of a movie review of “Your Mommy Kills Animals“, a documentary that is sympathetic to the Animal Liberation Front. Things sort of come full circle now that I look at what I wrote at the time:
There’s quite a rogue’s gallery in opposition to animal rights. We see Christopher Hitchens holding forth on how the activists become self-righteous absolutists in their desire to crush their enemies. Hearing these words coming out of his mouth was sufficient to get me to bag up all my leather shoes and bring them down to the thrift shop and to swear off chicken and fish (I have already given up red meat because of my blood pressure.) We also see Ron Arnold, the author of “Eco-Terrorism”, making the case against animal rights. Although I am very familiar with Arnold from past debates with his British allies, the ex-Marxists organized around the website Spiked Online, I have never heard him before. Arnold is an odd character. He couches his anti-environmentalist and anti-animal rights arguments in populist rhetoric, but has been exposed as a tool of big timber and mining interests.
I would not be surprised to discover that B&W gets some funding from Huntington and other such animal torturers. One of these days, the victims of the corporations and the governments that act in their name will get sick and tired of the pollutants that kill them, the rotten health care system that fails to treat them, the foreclosures, the job losses, and the daily indignities of wage labor and rise up against the system that perpetuates them. A working class in power will then have access to the dossiers that contain all this information about who paid the piper. God protect the souls of those who fed at the trough of the big corporations and the intelligence agencies since an aroused people will have properly earned the right to extract justice.