Debate of the Living Dead

February 24, 2009

I think it’s safe to say that if a geologist decided it would not be worth his  time to engage in a staged discussion with a hollow-earth cultist, you would not hear people of average education accusing him of being pissy or trying to stifle scientific debate. That’s because people of average education and intellect understand that the interior of the earth is not a vast cavern with its own sun, and that the Pellucidar novels are pulp fantasy, not scientific speculation. They also understand that for a scientist, getting into a “debate” with a scientifically illiterate crank has no upside — it is simply a time-suck that will keep him away from career-advancing research, while giving the crank a spurious air of authority.

So why is it that somebody who is demonstrably well-educated in many areas fails to grasp that evolutionary biologist Nick Gotelli has better things to do with his time than engage in yet another “debate” about creationism and evolutionary theory with somebody from the Discovery Institute, that wellspring of bad-faith argument and impenetrable ignorance? And that Gotelli’s elegantly phrased and utterly scathing rejection of the offer of debate is not “posturing” or pissiness, but simply streetwwise recognition of the fact that the Discovery Institute is interested only in grubbing for publicity.

“Debate” implies an exchange of arguments that leads to a conclusion and an adjustment of opinions in the face of the stronger argument. Gotelli knows that he can spend hours demolishing creationist arguments, like other scientists before him, without changing a single mind on the other side. When a creationist’s points are refuted, he simply reshuffles and restates them. If George Romero makes another zombie movie, I humbly suggest he clothe the undead in t-shirts with terms like “Irreducible Complexity” and “Intelligent Design” across the chests. No matter how many times you shoot them down, they get back up and keep coming.

There is plenty of debate taking place every day about the nature of evolution. Creationism — or intelligent design or whatever new bottle is fashioned to hold the old whine — is not a part of that debate. The staffers at the Discovery Institute are either half-smart religious cranks, or fully sleazy operators who know better but keep pushing discredited nonsense because they want to keep cashing their wingnut welfare checks.

Refute Ben Stein’s B.S.

November 4, 2008

Some very clever people out there have figured out a way to add lie-correcting subtitles to Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the creationist propaganda film narrated by professional wingnut Ben Stein.

I wonder if a similar program is available for TV news and squawk shows?

What is the sound of one hand clapping? Beats me, but if you head over to the Observer Web site you can hear the sound of one Kearny High School history teacher getting hoist on his own petard.

Click over to the site and you’ll get the audio recording that student Matthew LaClair made when he sat down with the school principal to talk about his complaint that Paszkiewicz was neglecting pedagogy for proselytization. It’s not a very attractive performance by either the teacher or the administrators in the room. Paszkiewicz is allowed to speak pretty much without interruption; once LaClair starts speaking, he is constantly interrupted and contradicted, often before he can complete a single thought. Many of us are a long time out of public school, and this recording will be a useful reminder of all the overbearing ways adults use their authority on youngsters. LaClair keeps his cool long past the point when many other teenagers would have crumpled. This is not a guy you want to play against in a poker match.

You will also wish there had been a video camera on hand to record the facial expressions when LaClair revealed he had taped portions of the class. As he distributed the CDs, Paszkiewicz started to accuse LaClair of being an atheist out to bag a Christian scalp. Somebody (the principal perhaps) abruptly stepped in to keep Paszkiewicz from hanging himself with his own words. I can’t say that the recording shows anything like the same solicitude for LaClair.

The site includes three audio clips made in Paszkiewicz’s class, which are bothersome in unexpected ways. In all fairness I’d have to say that in the classroom Paszkiewicz doesn’t come across as an ogre: he’s polite to everyone, and you can even hear him praising LaClair’s arguments on some points.But the first two classroom clips are essentially long monologues from a guy who sounds like he hasn’t read a newspaper or cracked a book since Fox News started broadcasting. His presentation of evolutionary theory could have been lifted whole from a Jack Chick comic tract; his notion that the Big Bang, for instance, can’t be proved because nobody was there to see it is simply beneath contempt, especially coming from a man leading a discussion group for advanced students. After listening to these clips, I’ll hear no more nonsense about how liberals are corrupting education.

And there’s simply no denying that the third clip shows Paszkiewicz very clearly moving from being a believer saying “this is what my faith stands for” to becoming a full-out evangelist in the classroom. Not in a nasty way, to my ears; he isn’t some Elmer Gantry raining hellfire and damnation on his students. But he’s clearly over the line on this tape. And the way this mess has been handled so far isn’t going to inspire much . . . well, faith in either the curriculum or the competence in the Kearny school district.

Watch out, folks. The national gag reflex is about to be tested once again.

The ludicrous saga of David Paszkiewicz, the Preachin’ Teacher of Kearny High School, is poised to enter the same right-wing fantasy realm where Iraq is a budding wonderland of freshly painted schools, Hillary Clinton is plotting to turn all Americans into lesbian abortionists, and Terri Schiavo would even now be water-skiing off the Florida Keys if she hadn’t been murdered by euthanasia-crazed liberals.

Yesterday’s announcement that the American Civil Liberties Union and the People For the American Way Foundation are gearing up to take legal action against the Kearny Board of Education is sure to send the Bill O’Reilly types into orbit. The fact that the school board appears to have ducked its civic obligation to the students and citizens of Kearny will scarcely matter – not when there’s another chance to denounce the ACLU. Every golden oldie in the American conservative jukebox is going to be played over and over. God is being banished from our schools! Our tax dollars are being wasted on frivolous lawsuits. Liberals are using the courts to brainwash our children into hell! Secular humanists gonna git your mama!

The problem here is that when presented with incontrovertible evidence that a teacher was going way over the line by preaching Christianist nonsense in the classroom, the board went into full CYA mode and took several measures that effectively painted a red circle around Matthew LaClair, the teenager who blew the whistle on the Preachin’ Teach. They’re still doing it:

“It is unfortunate that public dollars will be spent in defending our school district when this matter is already being addressed through dialogue and action,” ed board President Bernadette McDonald is quoted as saying in the statement.

The district, she said, has already retained Edwin H. Stier, a former director of the state Division of Criminal Justice, to conduct an independent investigation into student Matthew LaClair’s “claims” that a Kearny High School history teacher/Baptist minister crossed the line between church and state in class.

There, you see? This whole thing could be dealt with nicely if only that kid would stop making waves. Well, let him go on making waves. The kid has guts. He’s going to need them, too, because once the radio ranters and cable clowns go to work on this story, Matthew LaClair is going to have trouble recognizing himself or his cause in the distorted picture that will be broadcast around the country.

What he should always keep in mind is that he is standing up for American values. Real American values. Forget the bilge about God being chased out of schools and the public square. A secular country is a place where religious values of every stripe can flourish. These religious hysterics are determined to forget that the separation of church and state was a matter of utmost practicality, that it stopped a developing crisis in which some freshly minted states immediately started arresting and fining members of other Christian sects they didn’t like. We don’t need an America in which a religious wacko can tell a student in the middle of a class that she’s going to hell.

That’s why we need groups like the ACLU so desperately.

Every time some blowhard starts sounding off about the ACLU, ask him this: The ACLU works to uphold the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Which of those documents do you have a problem with? The ACLU represents the rights of the individual against abuses of power by the state and other authorities. Since when did that stop being a conservative cause?

The first word represented in the ACLU’s acronym is “American,” and a big part of what that word stands for is also what’s at stake in this situation.

 

Matthew LaClair, the gutsy young man who exposed the fact that a Kearny High School history teacher was using his classroom as a pulpit call for Christianist nuttery, will be attending the Kearny school board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

Though it’s possible that young master LaClair may be planning to make a prediction of which character will be killed off in the upcoming Harry Potter novel, it’s far more likely that he’ll be there to offer his thoughts on the board’s “Don’t Bother Asking and Don’t Even Try to Tell Us” philosophy for dealing with educational malfeasance.

You’ll recall that LaClair taped-recorded history teacher David Paszkiewicz informing his captive audience that evolution and the Big Bang were an unscientific hoax, that dinosaurs were part of the cargo on Noah’s Ark, and that only those who were down with the wingnut program were going to get a pass through the pearly gates. The school board responded with a number of weak-kneed measures, the most odious of which was to ban all future taping within classrooms — the only way LaClair had been able to prove his complaints in the first place.

The board meeting will be at 7 p.m. at Washington School in Kearny. I’m not saying you should go, but if you did, your rational well-mannered presence might help counterbalance the mob of religious hysterics that will probably be there as well. The values of American civilization have to be defended in all sorts of unexpected places, and if Kearny is one of them, so be it.

It will no doubt pain him to hear this, but the ongoing saga of David Paszkiewicz — the Kearny High School teacher who got caught using his classroom as a pulpit for Christianist wingnuttery — has been an object lesson in the workings of evolution, in terms of the Kearny school board’s response.

Like evolution, the school board worked very slowly. Presented with a fall incident in which Paszkiewicz (whose official designation is that of a history teacher) denounced evolution as “unscientific” and told a Muslim girl she was bound for hell unless she got down with the Christianist program, the board waited until January to take any kind of action.

Like any organism caught up in the endless competition of life that powers evolutionary processes, the board also adopted a number of survival strategies.

In an attempt to placate parents and taxpayers who expect schools to be places of education instead of asylums for half-baked preachers, the board announced that it had taken some kind of unspecified disciplinary action against the Preachin’ Teach. Biologists will recognize this as a “threat display,” an attempt to appear big and menacing that’s employed by all manner of life forms both vertebrate and (appropriately, in this case) invertebrate. Since the Preachin’ Teach has reportedly been running around telling students that people who talk about global warming are using Nazi-style propaganda techniques, it seems doubtful that the threat display is very convincing.

The board also announced that all teachers would receive mandatory training on the Constitution’s separation of church and state and how it should guide classroom discussions. As any marine biologist will tell you, most species of octopus and squid, when confronted with something big and scary (like representatives of the civilized world) will produce a big splurtch of ink that hangs in the water and distracts the predator while they look for a safe place to hide. Since the young man who exposed the Preachin’ Teach to daylight has a father who is not inclined to take this kind of nonsense lying down, it remains to be seen if this distraction strategy will be effective.

Finally, biologists are also aware that there are life forms once capable of sight that have turned their backs on the daylight and elected instead to live in lightless caverns and stagnant pools far beneath the ground. Though some of these creatures retain vestigial traces of eyes and other sensory organs, these have become useless over the generations. These creatures paddle in darkness, untroubled by the doings of the world above.

It would appear the school board is working toward this goal by announcing that from now on, no student is permitted to tape-record a teacher during class. Since it was a tape-recording that permitted the intrepid student to expose the Preachin’ Teach with evidence in the first place, we can only assume the school board would rather paddle around in the dark, signing off on maintenance reports and cafeteria menus, rather than deal head-on with the educational and intellectual malfeasance now being practiced in the school’s halls.

I’m not a biologist or evolutionary theorist, simply a layman who respects both science and the bedrock principles of American society. I know there is fossil evidence of land animals returning to the sea, but I don’t know if any evidence has been found of vertebrates evolving back into invertebrates.

But I think we should all keep our eyes on the Kearny school district, where such an evolutionary retreat may yet happen. It’s already pretty hard to find any evidence of backbones on the school board.

David Paszkiewicz, the Kearny High School history teacher caught using his classroom to proselytize for his particularly flaky brand of Christianity, lays bare his worldview and the quality of his intellect in a letter to the local Kearny newspaper. All I can do is echo the quip delivered by David Niven when a streaker interrupted his remarks during the 1974 Oscar broadcast: Some people just seem to feel compelled to strip down and display their shortcomings in public.

Paszkiewicz’s letter is apparently an extended cut-and-paste job from the Web site of WallBuilders, a Christianist group founded by pseudo-historian David Barton. Barton’s shtick is to cherry-pick lines from letters and speeches in order to push the notion that the doctrine of separation between church and state is “a myth,” and that the Founding Fathers were in actuality a jolly bunch of Jesus-whoopin’ Bible thumpers who could scarcely be bothered to pause to sign the Declaration of Independence before rushing off to conduct full-immersion baptisms in the Delaware River.

For example, Thomas Jefferson’s oft-repeated remark that he was a “true disciple” of the teachings of Jesus, clearly a slap at pious hypocrites, gets lathered and rinsed by Barton and his mob into an argument for turning America into a theocratic state. It has been demonstrated time and again that Jefferson was a Deist who gave religion a place in society but opposed any notion that a particular form of religion should be given dominion over all.

Take down the Library of America edition of Jefferson’s writings and turn to page 510, where you will find his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

What does David Paszkiewicz, “history teacher,” make of this?

The so called “wall of separation” is mentioned only in a letter to an organization of Baptists in Danbury Conn. in which Jefferson uses that phrase to assure them that he will not restrict their religious liberty. It is unfortunate that this is the only Jefferson quote on the subject that gets attention in the press. Allow me to share some more.

Yo, teach, Jefferson does in fact refer to the “wall of separation” again in his 1808 letter to the Virginia Baptists:

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

Pretty hard to miss the meaning of those words, don’t you think? But our Meadowlands scholar, apparently not blessed with research skills, is more interested in offering a line of carefully culled quotes meant to twist Jefferson — a man frequently accused of atheism by his political enemies, whose used Deist terminology like “Creator” and “Nature’s God” with great consistency, and who was demonstrably moving away from religious relief in his last years — into a proto-Jerry Falwell.

Jefferson wrote that letter to the Danbury Baptists while still vice president, and only a couple of months before he began his tenure as third president of the United States. Yet Paszkiewicz, scouring letters for upbeat references to religion, tries to toss this clear statement of purpose away as meaningless. Any history teacher worthy of the title knows that Jefferson worked with James Madison to block attempts to levy taxes in support of churches, and that as president he repeatedly refused to issue proclamations of national days of prayer. Jefferson had spent time in France just before the Revolution; he had seen the malign influence of the clergy on public affairs.

This goes beyond a simple difference of interpretation: Paszkiewicz is perpetrating intellectual fraud.

David Paszkiewicz can whine all he likes about “enemies of religious freedom who appeal to the decisions of tyrannical courts,” but the plain fact of the matter is that he got caught using his classroom to conduct a pulpit call instead of fulfilling his role as an educator. His only defense is to recycle distorted quotes from a wingnut Web site and try to pose in the rags of a Christian martyr. This is a history teacher? What a shabby performance!

If the Kearny school board doesn’t mind seeing the district become a national laughingstock — well, that’s their lookout. But if I were a parent in the Kearny school district, the thought that this guy is teaching in the high school, rather than pushing a floor-waxer down its halls, would be causing me some sleepless nights.

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