In Athens, in the year 399 B.C.E., a man gave a defense of himself. Accused of teaching new gods, and of corrupting the youth of the city, he responded famously. An oracle of Apollo said that none was wiser than he, which the defendant took to mean that he am wise because he knew that he was not. That man was Socrates, and his awareness of his own limits was part of what made him a great man. His quest for wisdom made him an immortal figure for history, one of two deaths which fundamentally shaped Western civilization. Today, however, the idea of knowing your limits, of being humbly Socratic, is no longer fashionable. A man who seeks to be listened to ought to be wise and humble, after the fashion of Socrates. But that will not do for the 21st century. All that humility is too much work, and stems from too much indebtedness to evil white men.
It is now much better to behave like Ben Affleck than Socrates.
Recently, Ben Affleck appeared on the Bill Maher Show, of which a partial transcript can be found here. Maher is a progressive and an atheist, so he was well-paired with Sam Harris, a well-known atheist author. Maher and Harris opened by claiming as liberal principles such notions as freedom of speech, religion, the freedom to leave a religion and the equality of women and homosexuals. All of these are nice ideals to believe in. Then they took the step and said, “But when you say in the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking, they get mad.” Harris joined in by noting that liberals would often go after white theocracy, but wouldn’t touch Muslim theocracy. This is when Affleck leaped to the defense of Islam.
Affleck first attacked Harris by asking, “Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? Are you the interpreter of that?!” This makes little sense, since Affleck holds zero known expertise in any field of religious studies at all. Harris responded that he was “well educated” about Islam, and Affleck backed off of that one. The idea that no one can understand Islam but a Muslim, which underlies Affleck’s comment, is sheer buncombe. This is a low key version of Edward Said’s intellectual terrorism: if you aren’t one of the group, you cannot truly know the group, and if you think you do, you are a racist, imperialist, etc. Affleck went on to insinuate that attacking Islam like Harris did is “gross” and “racist.” Having been attacked by this last smear myself, I am still confounded as to how Islam is a race. A little later, Affleck responds to one comment with the words “Jesus Christ” as a term of abuse. As one Christian commentary has asked, did Affleck even notice that he was defending Muhammad while damning Jesus?
When Harris and Maher defended their position on Islam, Affleck compared it to saying “You shifty Jew!” The question is not whether criticizing Islam is good or bad, morally speaking, but whether that criticism is factually right or wrong. If I say, “Islam teaches war,” I must be able to back that up, and it can be. A Socratic question for Maher and Harris would be, “what does Islam teach or do that makes you criticize it?” Affleck’s comparison is, consequently, faulty: there is nothing in Jewish teaching which teaches a Shylock way of living, always looking for monetary advantage. But such is beyond Affleck’s knee-jerk reaction to well-stated critiques of other people’s beliefs.
Technically, that last part was only half true. Progressives like Affleck only get upset when the beliefs of protected groups are under criticism. It is perfectly fine to attack Christian beliefs because Christians are hateful, mean, etc., and we generally don’t fight back with violence. But criticisms of people who actually do commit violence on behalf of their faith, as Muslim extremists have been doing for years, mustn’t be allowed. Raymond Ibrahim rightly asks if Affleck really is this clueless. One wonders.
I won’t review the whole of the episode, but you get the point. This sort of behavior is common to the Progressive left. Why bother with study when you can damn the very notion of critique? Socrates would cringe if he could see part where Harris concedes defeat and says, “let me just give you what you want.” The very rhetoric used by Affleck to smear others is an example of the Sophists of Athens, men who would use rhetoric to convince someone of anything at all, seeing the truth as unimportant. Affleck shows that he thinks he knows the truth, and is willing to bulldoze others into silence.
The men who condemned Socrates would be proud, as we’ve found a way to silence the mental gadflies of our own time: don’t answer them sincerely, just shout them down.