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Friday, February 03, 2006

Geology reduces existence to rocks

Ben's link to Daniel Dennett's web site put me in mind of Deborah Solomon's ridiculous interview with the author in her "Questions for..." weekly feature in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (January 22, 2006). Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea is one of my top-10 favorite books. Solomon's weekly feature is my least favorite part of the Sunday magazine--even more than Safire's "On Language" because I'm content to let him believe he's preserving something that was never stable in the first place. Solomon interacts with genuinely interesting, sometimes iconoclastic people and badgers them with questions that are basically repetitions of something like, "Why aren't you more mainstream?" This tendency has never been more apparent than in her interview with Dennett about his new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In the interview, Solomon is unable to countenance atheism.

Solomon: I take it you do not subscribe to the idea of an everlasting soul, which is part of almost every religion.
Dennett: Ugh. I certainly don't believe in the soul as an enduring entity. Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul.
Solomon: That strikes me as a very reductive and uninteresting approach to religious feeling.
Dennett: Love can be studied scientifically, too.
Solomon: But what's the point of that? Wouldn't it be more worthwhile to spend your time and research money looking for a cure for AIDS?
Dennett: How about if we study hatred and fear? Don't you think that would be worthwhile?

She asks similar questions in her interview with geologist-turned-popular historian Simon Winchester (January 25, 2005):

Solomon: One problem I have with geology is that it reduces existence to rocks. Do you believe in God?
Winchester: You have to take it on faith. And I don't have that degree of faith. Looking at life from the perspective that geology offers, which renders man incredibly insignificant, I find it difficult to regard man as anything other than a biological accident.
Solomon: And what about nature? Do you find it benign or evil?
Winchester: Nature is not evil. The world occasionally shrugs its shoulders, and people get knocked off. The earth, for geological reasons that are well known, is a fairly risky place to live. To be evil, you have to have intent. Any remarkable natural happening in which no human will is employed cannot be regarded as evil.
Solomon: How will the tsunami change you?
Winchester: I am afraid it doesn't. When the world works in a terrifying way, it doesn't alter my beliefs.
Solomon: If not you, do you think other people will be spiritually tested by the tsunami?
Winchester: In northern Sumatra, it will make for more fundamentalist Muslims, and that has to be dangerous. The imams are there, and the only buildings that survived were the mosques. They survived because they were well built, a solid place of refuge.

Winchester makes this argument linking Islamic fundamentalism and natural disasters in the conclusion to Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883. I wasn't convinced of that argument when I read the book--the idea seemed tacked on and not fully explained--so I'd rather read an interview about that. Krakatoa is good, otherwise.

Many people may not agree with the way Dennett explains religious belief, and many people see spirituality in nature in a way Winchester doesn't, but Solomon's questions are simplistic and reactionary. She's not asking for explanation, just a defense against her reductive bullying. Dennett and Winchester, to their credit, respond pretty well.

Here's part of Solomon's really weird interview with Jonathan Kozol (September 4, 2005) about his 2005 book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America:

Solomon: Isn't that why President Bush enacted No Child Left Behind, to narrow the achievement gap between white students and minorities?
Kozol: I would hesitate to try to navigate the thought processes of that sophisticated, well-educated product of Andover.
Solomon: Seriously, why would Republicans, who have traditionally opposed big government, encumber schools with the testing requirements attached to No Child Left Behind?
Kozol: The kind of testing we are doing today is sociopathic in its repetitive and punitive nature. Its driving motive is to highlight failure in inner-city schools as dramatically as possible in order to create a ground swell of support for private vouchers or other privatizing schemes.
Solomon: Where did you attend elementary school?
Kozol: I went to a moderately progressive school in Newton, Mass. It was a joyful experience.
Solomon: You can't possibly pretend that all suburban childhoods are joyful. Besides, as a future writer, didn't you go through the requisite period of alienation and melancholy?
Kozol: I don't like the word ''melancholy.'' It makes me think of melanoma, and it frightens me.

I guess there are sections of the interview edited out, but that last question is really ridiculous.


Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Feb 03, 06:30:00 PM:
I think my least favorite part of the Times magazine—after Safire, of course—is the column about diagnoses. Eww. I don't do medical stuff. But truth be told, I read less and less of the magazine every week.

I always get the feeling that Deborah Solomon's interviews have the shit edited out of them (literally and figuratively, I suppose), because they don't read like any conversation two people would have in real life. They're much too succint and pithy. Who talks like that? And what am I supposed to get out of reading these oversimplified baiting sessions?

Deborah Solomon strikes me as being the weird evil twin of Toni Schlesinger from the Village Voice, who writes the "Shelter" column. She sometimes goes off on these weird tangents and seems to be a little off her rocker, but she doesn't verbally accost people in the way that Solomon does. Or if she does, whoever edits her columns takes those parts out.