Tuesday, April 01, 2008


I thought I was familiar with the vast majority of right-wing indictments of us evil liberals, but until now I've somehow missed one that shows up in a Jonah Goldberg column in today's L.A. Times -- that the "Darwin fish" (a parody of the "Jesus fish") is both bigoted and cowardly:

I find Darwin fish offensive. First, there's the smugness. The undeniable message: Those Jesus fish people are less evolved, less sophisticated than we Darwin fishers.

I think what's being argued is that evolution itself is a more sophisticated creation story than the one in the Christian Bible. Is Goldberg arguing that it isn't? Is he arguing in favor of creationism and/or intelligent design? If he isn't -- if he believes Darwinism is solid science but thinks saying so out loud is bigotry -- then isn't he just being a cultural relativist? Isn't he arguing that everyone's version of the truth is equally valid and that "objective reality" doesn't exist? Rather odd, that, for a right-winger.

The hypocrisy is even more glaring. Darwin fish are often stuck next to bumper stickers promoting tolerance or admonishing random motorists that "hate is not a family value." But the whole point of the Darwin fish is intolerance; similar mockery of a cherished symbol would rightly be condemned as bigoted if aimed at blacks or women or, yes, Muslims.

As Christopher Caldwell once observed in the Weekly Standard, Darwin fish flout the agreed-on etiquette of identity politics. "Namely: It's acceptable to assert identity and abhorrent to attack it. A plaque with 'Shalom' written inside a Star of David would hardly attract notice; a plaque with 'Usury' written inside the same symbol would be an outrage."

But a piece of paper with a Star of David accompanied by proselytizing words about Christianity wouldn't be an outrage -- it would be a Jews for Jesus flyer, and if you got one walking down the street and didn't agree with it, you'd just toss it out and forget about it instantly. Why is one item that uses the symbol of one belief system to proselytize for another an outrage, while the other is, at worst, a minor nuisance?

And is the Darwin fish really "Christian-baiting"? Back when I was a Catholic child, I was a Christian and a believer in evolution -- which my church didn't reject. And despite a nod or two to the creationists, the Catholic church still supports evolution -- as do the majority of mainline Christian denominations.

The people who don't accept evolution are a subset of Christians, who claim oppressed status while working to pack school boards with people who want to substitute dogma for science in everyone's public schools. So a defense of evolution is political.

The other meaning of the Darwin fish, of course, is a nonbeliever's rejection of the dominant strain of religious belief in America, i.e., Christianity. Goldberg, I guess, is arguing that Christians are an oppressed majority, under the thumb of a ruling minority caste of atheists. (You say a majority of Americans categorically reject the notion of an atheist president? That just proves our point! Your neck is oppressively planted under our foot!)

But the most annoying aspect of the Darwin fish is the false bravado it represents. It's a courageous pose without consequence. Like so much other Christian-baiting in American popular culture, sporting your Darwin fish is a way to speak truth to power on the cheap.

Jonah, it's not meant to be courageous. Plenty of political speech isn't courageous. Your column isn't. Your book isn't. This blog isn't. We engage in political speech because we have a constitutional right to do so, and because it's good to argue political points.


All of this is in the service of a boilerplate right-wing argument I am familiar with, because I've heard it incessantly since 9/11: that liberals have a moral responsibility to tell Islamicists that they're poopyheads. Goldberg brings this up in the context of the Geert Wilders film "Fitna," which has inspired some death threats.

The Darwin fish ostensibly symbolizes the superiority of progressive-minded science over backward-looking faith. I think this is a false juxtaposition, but I would have a lot more respect for the folks who believe it if they aimed their brave contempt for religion at those who might behead them for it.

See, there's a war on, and for the duration we're not allowed to have a political argument with our fellow citizens, because attacking the ragheads is a much higher priority. (Right-wingers, however, are free to attack us without being accused of detracting from the war effort, an example being Goldberg's column.)

Ah, but I understand. All the scolding of Islamicists by right-wingers isn't working, but it would work if we lefties joined in, right? After all, even though we avoid church and have all that non-marital (and frequently non-heterosexual) sex and drink all that Chardonnay, jihadists are really, really sensitive to our opinions. Right?

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