[In an e-mail from July 2005 I respond to a friend's off-color joke.]
Recently I received a warning about the use of this politically incorrect term, so please note, we all need to be more sensitive in our choice of words.
I have been informed the Islamic terrorists, who hate our guts and want to kill us, do not like to be called "Towel Heads", since the item they wear on their heads is not actually a towel, but in fact, a small folded sheet.
Therefore, from this point forward, please refer to them as "Little Sheet Heads." Thank you for your support and compliance on this delicate matter.
And, God Bless America.
Just so you know, I agree with what I see implied in this joke. That a major dimension of today's problems go undiscussed because of political sensitivities. We're so careful not to offend anyone that we avoid discussing the real issue. This hyper-sensitivity to anything cultural bothered me to no end at [college] and still does today. Believe me, I am no bleeding heart liberal.
The terrorism problem is cultural and religious regardless of whether the politicians are willing to say so. I was discussing this recently with a [work] friend. He found some amusement in his relatives relating insular church anecdotes when today's problems with terrorism and the Middle East are also due to insular church attitudes- Islamic medievalism. We in the West are lucky enough to stand on the shoulders of giants, all the great scientists and writers of our past, whereas those brought up in Islamic culture do not enjoy such advantages. Their culture and religion has not yet found a way to live in the modern world mainly because they are not comfortable with science and free speech. In my mind, that is the real issue. Also oil, in the sense that we subsidize corrupt Arab regimes and therefore buy social stagnation. We give the Arab royals our money, they grant us oil rights. Then they tell their Islamic clerics, "Look, we could make life for you and your followers miserable if we wanted to. We hold all the money and power. But we won't- if you never say anything bad about our leadership. We don't criticize your (medieval) religion, and you don't criticize our (profligate) lifestyle. That's the bargain." So we in the West are partially to blame.
After this conversation I dug up a quote from a scientist, Richard Feynman. He was a brilliant, eccentric physicist. He wanted to understand how the world worked, in all its dimensions. I consider him a hero of mine. The quote basically sums up my feelings of what is causing all our post Sept. 11th problems with Islam and terrorism. Though I don't think the leadership of our country recognizes or is willing to discuss these issues.
What Is Science?
The question is: Is it possible to learn more rapidly what somebody learned from some accident than the rate at which the thing is being forgotten, either because of bad memory or because of the death of the learner or inventors? So there came a time, perhaps, when for some species the rate at which learning was increased, reached such a pitch that suddenly a completely new thing happened; things could be learned by one individual animal, passed on to another, and another fast enough that it was not lost to the race. Thus became possible an accumulation of knowledge of the race.
This has been called time-binding. I don't know who first called it this. At any rate, we have here some samples of those animals, sitting here trying to bind one experience to another, each one trying to learn from the other. This phenomenon of having a memory for the race, of having an accumulated knowledge passable from one generation to another, was new in the world. But it had a disease in it. It was possible to pass on ideas which were not profitable for the race. The race has ideas, but they are not necessarily profitable. So there came a time in which the ideas, although accumulated very slowly, were all accumulations not only of practical and useful things, but great accumulations of all types of prejudices, and strange and odd beliefs.
Then a way of avoiding the disease was discovered. This is to doubt that what is being passed from the past is in fact true, and to try to find out ab initio, again from experience, what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past in the form in which it is passed down. And that is what science is; the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past. I see it that way. That is my best definition.
Islamic culture falls far short of this goal. How many men or women raised in Islamic culture have gone on to win Nobel prizes in biology, chemistry, or physics? Very few, if any. Where is their equivalent of the Protestant Reformation? In other words, where is the loosening of religious superstition to accommodate science and democracy? I don't think it has occurred yet in the Islamic world. So a culture and economy of One Idea (what the clerics allow) finds itself competing against the culture and economy of Many Ideas (the Bill of Rights, separation of church and state, the free press, respect for science). It's an unfair fight. That's what creates all the desperation, sense of humiliation, hatred, and ultimately, violence. It's cultural, but we're too afraid to talk about it for fear of offending someone.
Well, that's my politics.