Michael Maiello's picture

    The Stupidity of Talking To Stupid People

    Poor Reza Aslan who participated in a cringeworthy Fox News interview about his new book about the historical Jesus only to be asked repeatedly why he would even write such a thing since he is a devout Muslim.

    These are the minor incidences in life that fill me with dread.  They are the reminders that it is very hard to talk to a lot of people.  Worse, that other people very much control the conversation.

    Aslan tries to explain that he is a scholar who studies religion, that he has degrees in the history and interpretation of The New Testament and he stops short of trying to explain how he probably knows more about the topic than many of the most devout if only because his language skills allow him to read the original texts.

    Is the host an idiot?  Maybe.  Is the host playing to a certain audience?  Almost certainly.  I have not read Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth but the book has managed to annoy some Christian critics who have inspired a legion who will also not read the book to assume the worst about it.  By "the worst" we mean a Muslim hatchet job on a long dead religious leader even though, were such a thing actually published, nobody would care.

    Sigh.  Come on, people out there.  I just can't talk to some of you.  

    And now Jay-Z is in a feud with Harry Belafonte?  Really?  Come on, guys, you're both world treasures. Don't suck the air out of the room with this.

    Oh, but AP had a good economic scoop over the weekend.  I wrote a little something about it because I think the language is wrong on that one, too, but the insights are excellent.



    Stupid for sure, but there is method to the stupidity.

    In the conservative worldview, there is no such thing as unbiased scholarship. The academics who usually appear on Fox News are conservatives with axes to grind. If you are not an explicitly conservative scholar than you are--by default---a liberal scholar and therefore biased against conservative ideas.

    The only difference here is that the subject is religion. Did you notice the scholars she cited? Christian theologians who most likely have axes to grind when it comes to the history of Christianity. Every other scholar is by default anti-Christian. If Aslan hadn't been Muslim, she would have found some other reason to question his objectivity--such as secularism--but his Islamic faith was an easier target.

    I would change that last sentence to.... 

    his Islamic faith was THE target.

    Why would a Muslim religious scholar write a book about a figure Islam reveres as a prophet?

    Doc, this is beyond me.  I've spent all day trying to figure out why so many men are gynecologists and my head is spinning.

    I'm enjoying the #foxnewslitcrit meme on twitter. "Mr. Lewis, since you yourself are not a lion, a witch, or a piece of furniture, why should be trust you?"

    And... productive afternoon is now over for me.  To the Twittermobile!

    I don't get Twitter, but I certainly enjoyed this exchange.

    Knowing from the years spent at the Cafe that TPM is at best as fair and balanced as Fox when it comes to evangelical Christianity, I decided to check this story out beginning at the source, Foxnews.com. They helpfully include an excerpt from the first page of Aslan's book along with the video so I read that first. Now, after watching the video I honestly find it hard to say who set who up. 

    Given that the excerpt explains how Aslan "found Jesus"* at an evangelical youth camp then later found his way back to the faith of his fathers, it is not unreasonable to think that the interviewer expected to hear that story when she asked her first question, "...you're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" In reply, Aslan goes on and on and on and on about his credentials as a religious scholar when he could have simply recited the excerpt verbatim in the same amount of time.

    Aslan turned the interview into a perceived attack on his credentials and his religion. That may well have been the intent of the interviewer but since Aslan did not wait for a more definite attack before dominating the interview so completely -- and not answering the question, we will never really know. 

    *For those that may not know, evangelical expression for conversion to Christianity


    Seems a stretch to think that he set her up with the first page of his book.  Also, he has been under attack as some kind of Muslim fifth columnist historian of the New Testament, so it's easy to see where he's coming from.

    That is not what I said. I really doubt he chose the excerpt but I also doubt she read much beyond the first page and the book jacket either. 

    He was expecting an attack based on another Fox article. He said as much in the video. So he counterattacked. I just think he did it too soon. If one is going to play the victim, one should really wait for the assault before counterattacking.


    Ah, the Zimmerman gambit!  I kid, I kid... Too soon?

    I've watched the interview, and I don't understand how you can say that "Aslan turned the interview into a perceived attack on his credentials and his religion". That's like saying that this morning I turned the air into a combination of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide with a few other trace gases. As the interviewer made all too clear, the interview was an attack on his credentials and his religion. Alsan keept trying to divert her away from that attack, but she wouldn't let it go!

    As you said, even her first question was "...you're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"

    We must have watched different interviews. In the one I watched, Aslan dominated it and repeatedly cut off questions sometimes before they were fully formed. 

    And why do you think the first question is not valid? Did you read the excerpt? He begins his book explaining his personal religious background history. In other words, he introduced the subject. Plus the question was a great opportunity to get the book's hook out to a broader audience. Why treat it as an attack?

    When I was fifteen years old, I found Jesus.
    I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God. Amidst the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games, and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school. In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.

    For the record, I think it sounds like an interesting book. I may even read it. That does not mean I have to agree with how he is using a faux controversy with Fox to sell it.


    I just watched it during lunch today, and it seemed to me that Lauren Green kept cutting off his answers before they were fully formed with questions she'd already asked. She continued to ask how a Muslim could write a story about Jesus, seemingly unaware that Islam considers Jesus to be an honored prophet.

    I had not read that excerpt. Who excerpted it from the original text? Fox News? If so, who's fault is it that it sounds the way it does? In the original text, the following page provides information about his current beliefs. She obviously knew he was a Muslim and was trying to play gotcha (her first question makes that very clear), but had completely and utterly failed to do her homework.

    By the way, I do appreciate this dialog, and I hope you don't feel in any way that I don't. (I'm afraid my tone is coming off as more combative than I would like.)

    Edit to add: Mother Jones also has an interesting take on this.

    The excerpt is from the first pages of the book.  Look inside the book at Amazon to verify.

    Green continued to ask because he did not really answer. Being a religious scholar is not an answer to why he chose the specific subject of the book. The opening question seemed to me to be typical for book promotions and designed to give the author an opportunity to introduce the book.  In this case, as a Muslim -- just like his book does.

    You say Green is seemingly unaware that Jesus is an honored prophet of Islam. Where?  Not that that would not have been a better answer than endlessly repeating his credentials as a religious scholar. However, it is getting very irksome hearing from his defenders who assume ignorance of it among evangelicals. 

    IMO, if Aslan were to answer honestly, he would say he wrote a controversial book to make money and acquire celebrity. And I sincerely hope that is his main reason. I am so very tired of agitprop masquerading as scholarly research and even more so as entertainment. I guess I will have to read his book to decide. Dammit.

    BTW, thanks for identifying Green. I looked but did not see her name anywhere before.


    Slate doesn't quite agree with you, Emma, but they do stress his aggression.



    The opening question seemed to me to be typical for book promotions and designed to give the author an opportunity to introduce the book.

    You're giving Laura Green way too much credit here. I've done radio shows designed to give the author an opportunity to introduce the book. The interviewers do not typically come armed with quotes from dismissive reviewers. Nor do they open like this:

    This is an interesting book. Now, I want to clarify: You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?

    PS As an author who wrote a controversial book (and didn't make money), I can assure you that very few authors can reasonably expect to make any dough from their books no matter how controversial, particularly academic scholars. But for the sake of argument, if that were Aslan's intention, it would be imprudent to advertise that in a television interview.

    PPS WaPo has the transcript

    I still do not understand why that question is so controversial given his own introduction to the book. 

    So why did you write Blowing Smoke?


    There are friendly ways of introducing an author that every experienced interviewer understands. You start with open-ended questions and compliments to make the author feel comfortable, maybe make a joke, certainly open with softballs. If you sense that a line of questioning is making the him/her uncomfortable or creating conflict, you change the subject.

    Of course, not every interview is or should be friendly and complimentary. My point is just that this interview is clearly neither. First sentence (no smile): "This is an interesting book." That's not a genuine compliment or small talk or hey, thanks for coming on the show. It's a disingenuous nod at etiquette.

    Then she jumps straight into the hardball. "Now, I want to clarify: You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" In another context, I suppose that could be a matter of curiosity, though it's unusually direct. In this context, it's clearly a loaded question. She won't let him change the subject, and she's got rebuttal quotes at the ready. (And hello, this is Fox News, home of the War on Christmas and endless Muslim-bashing.) She knows the question is loaded, he knows it's loaded, the entire audience knows its loaded--except apparently one blogger at dagblog.com ;) She brought him on the show to cut him down and failed rather spectacularly.

    PS I wrote Blowing Smoke bc I wanted to write a book, because I was curious about right-wing paranoia, because I thought that I had something worthwhile to say about it, and because I thought that I had a shot at getting a publisher on that topic.

    I first heard about it and watched from a post by Corey Robin who I have been following for a while now. The title of his blog post was Islam is the Jewish Question of the 21st Century.


    WE pretty much agree about the interviewer. I think her tone of voice defined the question. It could have been asked in a way that politely opened the interview and got a question, which much of the Fox audience might have wondered about, out of the way. Instead it was asked badly several times.
     Aslam would have done better, IMO, to respond more politely the first time it was asked. He clearly looked, though, like he had been asked that question [which no academic would ever ask to begin with] too many times already and I thought he was on the verge of being rudely sarcastic in his responses right from the beginning. His book might be good, who knows, who cares? I'm thinking that based only the interview, nobody.  He seemed almost as much a jerk as did the interviewer, though after some instigation so he's ahead on points.
     I am surprised it has received the amount of attention it has.

    I'm not sure of her source (so take this with a grain of salt), but my wife told me that Aslan (or his book) was the number one search term for a while on Google yesterday. If so, that's definitely in part due to Green's interview. That makes me smile.

    I am not surprised at the spike in Google hits, I gave Amazon a hit myself to skim the reviews of the book.

     My surprise is that the interview itself went somewhat viral but once it did then nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, so I guess the old adage of  'all publicity is good publicity' is demonstrated. It would be interesting to see a graph of new orders along with the spike in interest. No doubt the interview sold a few books so I guess his demeanor playing off Green's worked in Aslam's favor whether my impression was correct or not. 

      The reviews indicate that the book is not a polemic [which might appeal to a niche audience looking for confirmation of their bias's on the particular subject] but rather is an academic study written in a readable style so I doubt that many who were drawn to the controversy rather than to the subject of the book will want to read it just because a Fox personality created news about it by [acting?] like a jerk.

    It is possible that I am wrong. It has happened once or twice in the past. Sales do seem to have spiked.


    Wow, the current rank is #1! (On Amazon, at least.)

    I just watched it again with what you said in mind, and I noticed that at about :58, he seemed like he was beginning to answer her first question in more detail, but then she cut him off before he had a chance (you'll notice he was in the process of saying, "…but I've been obsessed with Jesus since…" right before she cut him off):



    Sure, he was a little condescending to her, which some might see as a jerky way to be, but personally, I thought he demonstrated remarkable self-control given the way that she was treating him (and as Michael points out, the way he has been treated in the past). Places where he cut her off? Well, maybe at 2:15ish, but she was reading something very dry and it sounded like she had nothing to add. And, yeah, I suppose he cut her off at around 3:30, but presumably he already knew what "those claims" were, and given her monotone delivery of written material, he did the audience a favor in cutting her off there. For the most part, however, for a Fox News show there was very little cutting off from either side. What was sad was how often she kept going back to her ill-prepared written notes even after he's already addressed the question she's about to ask. That would make me very frustrated if I were him. Her reading that twitter comment, or whatever it was at around 7:00. In that discussion, she cut him off at around 7:20. He yielded to her for a few seconds until she said asked another stupid non-sequitur of a question, and he retook control of the point he'd been making when she cut him off. She then cuts him off again at 7:54 (the interruptions happen more quickly near the end, not surprisingly) and makes an absurd claim (that he's not just an observer, implying that he does have a bias that, where presumably a Christian wouldn't have one). He cuts back in and asks the very valid question, "why would you say that?" She then calls him dishonest at about 8:20, which clearly catches him a little off guard, and he then comes to the very reasonable conclusion that she doesn't know what she's talking about because she hasn't read his book. She also cuts him off again at 9:05, and he it takes him a while to yield to her stupidity until about 9:14 when she claims that he has hidden the fact that he's a Muslim.

    I also cringed at around 3:25 when she pulled out the old "what others are claiming" gambit that Fox News loves so much.

    Does anyone think it's weird that Aslan has the same name as the Jesus-inspired messianic lion from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

    I don't know how weird it is, but it's been noted all over the place.

    Not really. Grew up with people named Jacob, Seth, lots of Sarahs and Rebeccas, Josephs, Joshuas, Josiah, Ezekiel ...

    but it might explain his early interest in Christianity. What kid named Aslan wouldn't want to be a messianic lion...


    Fwiw, Aslan is his last name.

    What difference does that make?



    Not much. Never mind, it was just a joke anyway.

    I’m with you, Michael.

    The advent of the internet and Fox News have made me very nervous. Prior to the electronic media coming into being, the existence of people as clueless as that woman on Fox News, and some of the people I’ve run across on the internet over the years, was just a rumor. But now that I see how many of them actually exist, I no longer feel safe, because now I know for a fact that there are hoards of people in this world who can be brainwashed into believing anything. I used to think that gross stupidity was the exception, but now I’m not so sure. I preferred being ignorant to that fact.

    I wonder how many Protestant Christians know that the Bible was written by a committee similar to Darell Issa’s. Think about that!

    About the Bible

    The Catholic Church literally created a book that was written and compiled by man; it’s called, "The Holy Bible."

    "A group of bishops in the council at Carthage in 397 A.D assembled the Bible. The actual books and chapters are credited to various prophets, apostles and disciples. But, the book as a whole was created by an assembly. They wanted to collect the most important Christian writings and histories into a single book that would be enough for any person to have all that they needed to study and understand God's message. They put together the Bible. They did not write it but they made it. Like an editor putting together a book of short stories or essays. There is no one person that wrote the Bible. Although some people say God wrote it this is untrue. The Bible is SUPPOSED to contain God's message but most of it is in the words of the people who did the writing. If you accept the notion that Jesus was God in the flesh, then you COULD say that the words of Jesus were part of what God "wrote." The same would apply to the instances where someone HEARD THE LORD SPEAK TO THEM."


    "For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no Bible as we know it today. Christians had the Old Testament Septuagint, and literally hundreds of other books from which to choose. The Catholic Church realized early on that it had to decide which of these books were inspired and which ones weren't. The debates raged between theologians, Bishops, and Church Fathers for several centuries as to which books were inspired and which ones weren't.

    "In the meantime, several Church Councils or Synods, were convened to deal with the matter, notably, Rome in 382, Hippo in 393, and Carthage in 397 and 419. The debates sometimes became bitter on both sides. One of the most famous was between St. Jerome, who felt the seven books were not canonical, and St. Augustine who said they were. Protestants who write about this will invariably mention St. Jerome and his opposition, and conveniently omit the support of St. Augustine.


    "I must point out here that Church Father's writings are not infallible statements, and their arguments are merely reflections of their own private opinions. When some say St. Jerome was against the inclusion of the seven books, they are merely showing his personal opinion of them. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. However, A PERSONS PRIVATE OPINION DOES NOT CHANGE THE TRUTH AT ALL. There are always three sides to every story, this side, that side, and the side of truth. Whether Jerome's position, or Augustine's position was the correct position, had to be settled by a third party, and that third party was the Catholic Church.
    "Now the story had a dramatic change, as the Pope stepped in to settle the matter. In concurrence with the opinion of St. Augustine, and being prompted by the Holy Spirit, Pope St. Damasus I, at the Council of Rome in 382, issued a decree appropriately called, "The Decree of Damasus", in which he listed the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments. He then asked St. Jerome to use this canon and to write a new Bible translation which included an Old Testament of 46 books, which were all in the Septuagint, and a New Testament of 27 books."



    There is something to the comfort of ignorance here.  Yes, it was a false comfort and I think, based on our life experiences that I might have been more safely nestled away from reality than you have been but I kind of come from a fantasy planet where civil, rational discourse wins the day and where argument is governed by certain rules of conduct.

    Like, if you look at Emma Zahn's posts in this thread, you'll see exactly what I mean.  I think she's wrong but I agree with the spirit of her enterprise which is to take a step back and say, "Whoah, Former Destor, are you arguing with a straw man of your own making?  What does the argument look like if we give the Fox side a little more credit?"

    Misguided generosity, I conclude, but we're better for it.

    What freaks me out is that I don't really know how to start a conversation with somebody who sees Christianity and Islam to be on such separate teams that for a member of one religion to write a book means that it is and assumed takedown.  These people view members of the religions to be in conflict on par with McDonald's and Burger King.  Where do you even start?

    That is the crux isn't it? Americans are obsessed with competition and being or belonging to  'the best' ...  Catholics are Coke, Protestants are Pepsi, Muslims are Dr. Pepper.  Jews are Dr. Browns Cream (Reform) or CelRay (Orthodox) Soda

    We're the best God-Worshippers!! Woo-Hoo!   My God rules, your God drools! Go Faith!

    Yup.  It's hard to start  a serious discussion with people like that.  But ... Who am I to judge them?  Well ...


    The topic is controversial, I guess, because many people are oversensitive about religion. But when I watched it I was struck more by how utterly unprepared she was. Ever watched Jon Stewart interview an author with a new book? That guy does his homework. And he's a comedian. The interviewer on Fox didn't strike me as stupid. Just young and going to toe to toe with somebody who was obviously not prepared to indulge her.

    Speaking of oversensitivity to religion, it's Ramadan and here in Malaysia, three people have been arrested for posting to youtube and facebook  that are insulting to Islam. The first was a facebook picture posted by a young Chinese couple. The caption says basically, "Happy Ramadan" and they are eating pork. In poor taste, yes. Deserving of a jail sentence? 

    Then, just today, a Muslim woman was arrested because a three-year-old video got some attention. She's also saying, "Happy Ramadan" while she's washing a dog. She's a dog breeder. The person who reported her to the police said the video compared the ablution before Muslim prayer to the washing of a dog. Therefore, this (Muslim) woman believes Muslims are dogs and she must be punished.

    Teh stupid. It burns.

    Wow, just wow, on that last example of teh stupid. And the video is three years old? So this person is like scouring YouTube for possible offenses? I envision this person just constantly boiling with rage about all the "insults" of Islam there are in the world....best dare not wish anyone a Happy Ramadan, Orlando, you might do it wrong to the wrong person....

    Unfortunately, things are getting weirder and weirder here in Malaysia. It used to be a pretty modern, semi-multicultural society. Now, there is more and more pressure for everybody who is Muslim to be uber-Muslim and for everybody who is not to "respect" Muslims. The respect definitely does not go both ways. A couple of weeks ago, the top woman in the uber-Muslim political party said (out loud, in front of cameras) that the Malaysian government must do a better job enforcing the Sharia dress code because short skirts and shorts lead to sex crimes. The prime minister said (in response to that pork picture on Facebook, once again out loud and in front of cameras) that free speech was detrimental to society. 

    I'm so totally over it. My contract is up at the end of September and I'm going back to Jakarta where people live in this century. 

    I like your use of the term "uber-Muslim," really gets across the behavior you're trying to convey without getting into issues that don't apply. Glad to hear you have an option so soon to get back to Jakarta where one of the main sports is not competitive Islam.

    Imagine if there was some sort of organized group scouring all our internet and phone records for possible offenses. Fortunately I have nothing to hide.

    Happy Ramalamadingdong

    Well if Bill O'Reilly ever gets ahold of X-Keystore, no more war on Christmas for you, bub. (Go figure, I thought for sure you'd pick up on the dog angle of Orlando's story: Walkies!)

    Grandma got run over by a Muslim ...

    please rethink your analysis of religious 'oversensitivity'. 'Under' sensitivity to the effects being delivered to our democratic destiny by religions needs to acted upon, so that all Americans begin to have an inkling of the danger to our country. There is no difference between the possible outcomes of religion in government, the dire situations endured by the people of those countries that long ago allowed religion in government. Absolutism is a requirement to a religion that mandates conversion of others. There is no way out, no avenue of escape, because believing in a non-existent supernatural being allows you to do anything to achieve your ends to power. Are you a troll planting a seed?

    You seem like a bit of an absolutist…

    I don't understand your comment and sincerely wish that you would pay more attention to grammar and syntax. 

    I don't think I'm a troll and I don't know what seed I would be planting. I've shared a personal viewpoint of my perspective of a culture that I happen to be familiar with. 


    Okay, but the peeps have been talking to me for five years?

    What does that tell us?

    the end

    Just maybe it is time for a med change.  Me, I got rid of cable and I have felt better ever since.


    I'm about to do the same thing - get rid of the cable. Because the level stupidity that I see on every channel is beginning to scare me. I felt much more comfortable when I lived under the delusion that most people in the world had common sense. Now I truly understand the wisdom in the axiom that "ignorance is bliss."

    I canceled cable several months ago, and I've enjoyed not being tied to a network schedule.

    the word 'ignorance' seems to me to be full of opportunity because anyone who wasn't totally stupid might prevail against it. But you had it right early, stupid is the right word. They are informed that certain places harbor stupidity, and they flock there to drink in the, not ignorance, but stupidity.

    Great article by Michael Maiello, he has written good piece on politics. Although there are some contradictions I found but yet I appreciate what he wrote.

    MM, saw this from TPM:

    As you can see, Reza Aslan says he feels bad for the Fox News host who asked him those ridiculous questions about how he got off writing about Jesus when, despite his academic credentials, he’s a Muslim. Well, ask Reza your own question. He’ll be joining us for aTPMPrime Live Chat [today] at 5:30 PM eastern. Get your questions in now.

    Will you be there. If so, please report back on it.


    I will.  I put in a question.

    I was very pleased to see some support for my suggestion that it was Aslan who set Green up in the Jewish Review of Books » What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot
    Which brings us back to Aslan’s awful interview on Fox. Lauren Green’s questioning of Aslan’s right, as a Muslim, to write his book was absolutely out of bounds, but perhaps she was, quite unwittingly, onto something about his agenda. While the form taken by Green’s questions was unacceptable and made Aslan look like the victim of an intolerant right-wing ambush, might it not be the case that it was Aslan who very deftly set her up? He prefaces the book with an “Author’s Note,” which is a lengthy and deeply personal confession of faith. Here Aslan recounts his early years in America as an essentially secular Iranian emigré of Islamic origins with no serious attachment to his ancestral faith, his subsequent teenage conversion to evangelical Christianity and finally his return to a more intense commitment to Islam. Aslan ends this intimately personal preface by proudly declaring:
    "Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity have made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ."
    This unsubtle suggestion that Evangelical Christians’ discipleship and knowledge of Jesus is inferior to his own makes it rather harder to sympathize with him as an entirely innocent victim of unprovoked, ad hominem challenges regarding his book’s possibly Islamist agenda. Aslan had to know that opening a book that portrays Jesus as an illiterate zealot and which repeatedly demeans the Gospels with a spiritual autobiography that concludes by belittling his earlier faith as an Evangelical Christian would prove deeply insulting to believing Christians.
    Please do read the whole review. It is a very scholarly critique of Aslan's book.
    And, icymi, one from The Nation as well: Reza Aslan—Historian?

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