Here’s a cute fact about copyright law. The first big copyright case—in fact, maybe the first copyright case—in the U.S. Supreme Court is Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 (1834). Notice the “8 Pet.” citation. That’s a cite to the old reporters. In the days before the “United States Reports” were published, Supreme Court decisions were published by different publishing companies whose names were used as the citation. So “8 Pet.” is short for “eighth volume of Peters Reports.” Peters happens to be the same Peters whose name appears in the case name. Some Supreme Court decisions appear in “Wheat.” which is short for “Wheaton’s Reports,” and that’s the name in the case name, also—because the first big Supreme Court copyright decision was a dispute between different companies that published the Supreme Court decisions themselves!
I do not share this anxiety to find a special dispensation beyond the laws of nature to breathe life into some of the unexpected configurations of atoms. And, indeed, I think this is something of a philosopher’s fraud. Certainly man is wonderful, and so is life; but they are wonderful in different ways, and it seems to me a poor exchange for the dignity of man dethroned to take refuge in the miracle of life. Whatever makes man unique, it is not the divine spark of life, or the elan vital that enraptured Henri Bergson. Man is above the other animals not because he is alive as they are, but because he has a life unlike theirs.... [O]ur uneasiness...lies in a feeling that if the dance of atoms in our bodies is not different in kind from the pattern in the star and the stone, then we have suffered some loss of personality: a denial of the mind in our sense of human self.... Men what to be selves, that is, different selves; and they want to be different selves even if they are identical twins. And, of course, the twins are right. It is a fallacy (the perpetual fallacy) to suppose that in order to be unique, one must be born unique. The heresies tried and failed to unseat this fallacies: the assumption that man or life, if they are to be unique, must be endowed with uniqueness as if it were a physical gift, from conception.
The Agnosticism/Atheism blog has a post criticizing Justice Janice Brown for a speech she gave recently. Now, Austin Cline does not appear to have actually heard or read the speech; he links only to a newspaper article about it; yet he inexplicably labels the speech a “tirade.” In this “tirade,” Cline says, Brown complained about “atheistic humanism”—a phrase which Cline puts in quotes although nowhere does the article claim that Brown used that phrase. She very well may have, but we’re operating on scanty information.
We do know that, in her speech, Brown argued that “[w]hen we move away from [religious morality], we change our whole conception of the most significant idea that America has to offer, which is this idea of human freedom and this notion of liberty,” and that this transformation “handed human destiny over to the great god, autonomy, and this is quite a different idea of freedom…. Freedom then becomes willfulness.”
This is all very standard conservatism, and it has the added virtue of being true. From the end of the nineteenth century through the present day, the concept of freedom has changed significantly, due in large part to changes in religious attitudes and even the abandonment of religion by intellectual leaders in western culture. As an atheist myself, I see much of this change as a good thing. But it cannot be denied that there have been very bad results as well—in large part, the origin of what John Dewey,Michael McGerr,Eric Foner,Paul Johnson,Louis Menand and others have described as the Progressivist notion of freedom. This notion has two major features: moral relativism and greater government intervention in the lives of people so as to improve their lives. Combine these two, and you have the concept of autonomy, or what Johnson calls “the permissive society”: where liberty does not mean the freedom to accomplish what you may on your own, but rather that society exists to eliminate the burdens in your life, provide for your needs, whatever they may be; and that each individual is on a guideless quest to self-actualization, in whatever form it may take, paid for by others. Simply put, religious morality, which was based on a fairy tale, was replaced, not as it ought to have been by an objective morality tied to human nature; rather it was replaced by the idea that there is no right and wrong, just taste, and that society exists to serve your tastes. This is, indeed, a major moral, cultural, and political crisis in America, and Brown is not an extremist for saying so.
When Cline asks “I wonder what Janice Rogers Brown has against autonomy?” he misunderstands that concept. Autonomy does not mean the freedom to act without the interference of others; it means the “freedom” provided by the welfare state—a “freedom” bought and paid for by money stolen from hardworking producers. As Mike Cernovich (who, like Brown, is a Christian) put it just yesterday, when discussing abortion,
You have your right to an abortion, and I have my right to refuse to enable that right. It’s something people seem to forget. All they think about are their own rights.
“But I have a right to an abortion!” Yes, you do. Comes then the non-sequitur: “You must help me exercise that right!” Wrong. We both should have the right to choose.
I have been following Justice Brown’s career for years now. She has never, so far as I know, uttered or written a word to justify Cline in referring to her as a “Christian extremist.” Brown is a Christian, and believes some things that I, as an atheist, think are bad. But Brown is not a threat to religious liberty. She opposes moral relativism and the welfare state—and the constituencies that support these things are going to put up a major fight in opposition to her. As Cline says, “She isn’t criticized simply for being a ‘person of faith.’” Yet if it’s unfair for her supporters to claim otherwise, it is equally unfair for her opponents to claim that their opposition to her rests on her nonexistent “Christian extreme[ism].” The dishonesty of that allegation is demonstrated by this statement by Cline, which is as hysterical, unreasonable, and dishonorable as anything the fundamentalists say:
I think it’s likely that she’s part of Christian Dominionism, a religious movement designed to establish Christian theocratic control over all aspects of society. That may be why she was nominated for the federal judiciary in the first place—the Christian Right needs people like her on the bench in order to have any hope of winning some of their most important cases…. Dominionist judges around…will [ignore the law] in favor of what they think their God wants.
Where is the evidence for this claim? Can Cline cite a Brown opinion that supports this allegation? Perhaps a law review article? Or even a speech? No, not one. In fact, the Brown nomination is a bone thrown to the libertarian wing of the Republican party—not a bone for the religious right constituency. Cline’s ignorance of the dynamics of the party are almost as obvious as his ignorance of Janice Brown’s jurisprudence.
Atheists must keep in mind that not every religious person is our enemy. Some of them may be our very best friends. Justice Brown has been a consistent defender of liberty, including the liberties of those whose views she personally despises. In her Aguilar dissent, for example, she defended in the strongest terms the right of racists to utter racial epithets in the workplace—a right which had been vigorously ignored by the ACLU, which filed a brief opposing free speech in that case. (Why? Because the ACLU is concerned with autonomy, not liberty—with manipulating society to achieve a desired result, rather than freeing people from other folks’ wrong acts.)
Justice Brown would be a consistent defender of the rights of atheists, if she were placed on the federal bench as she ought to be. She is a credit to the profession, an outstanding judge, an consistent defender of freedom, and, despite her flaws, a friend of the rights of atheists. Shame on Austin Cline for a prejudiced and ignorant blog post.