Why I put PZ Myers in a hot air balloon
by Sam Kriss
I don’t blame PZ Myers for not liking me; if I were him I wouldn’t like me either. Myers is a grown adult and an associate professor of biology at UM Morris, best known for not believing in God, for refusing to condemn bestiality, and for a 2008 stunt in which he desecrated a Communion host along with some pages from the Qu’ran. He runs a blog, Pharyngula, which he disconcertingly describes as ‘random ejaculations from a godless liberal.’ (It’s not inaccurate – his daily rants do elicit that same combination of pity and disgust as the sight of someone rubbing one out in public.) If I’m honest, Myers first came to my attention when he wrote a brief response to my unfair and uncharitable hitpiece on Neil deGrasse Tyson, describing me as ‘an anti-intellectual reverse-snob — he thinks he should be proud of being so blatantly pro-mystery and anti-science,’ an epithet so apt I had to put it on my masthead. More recently, he’s taken exception to my essay on the general intellectual tenor of the atheist movement in the Baffler, writing a counterblast titled ‘Sam Kriss, master of projection.’ I’m not surprised; I struck first. The essay itself isn’t really original; nothing ever is: the core argument is for the most part a recapitulation of Max Horkheimer’s critique in Theism and Atheism, inflected with Kierkegaard, my own non-invidious alethiology, and vitriol. It’s the vitriol that Myers seems to be most upset by – which is strange, as he’s certainly capable of dishing it out. In my introductory paragraph I run through a couple of atheism’s leading lights, and the sheer strangeness of their behaviour. Richard Dawkins, for instance, is ‘a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism.’ Chris Hitchens, ‘blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.’ And Myers I describe as ‘psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon.’
‘Well, actually…’ he writes. His whole ideology can be contained in that ‘well, actually.’ I’m not really all that interested here in defending the substance of my essay from Myers’s counterarguments, such as they are; it can stand for itself. His invocation of projection, pointing out that I ascribe various degrees of madness to all these prominent atheists while at the same time coming across a little unhinged myself, mostly just shows that he doesn’t really get it. I’ll only note that it’s interesting to see, after having routinely criticised atheism for being dismally pedantic – blind to metaphor and nuance, relentlessly fixated on the stupid binary of true and false, seized with the monstrous idea that the best statement is one which blithely repeats an existing state of affairs and does no more – that both Myers and his readership are utterly baffled by my comment on Hitchens. ‘It wasn’t a fug that killed him,’ Myers writes, ‘or even his own rhetoric, but cancer.’ Well, shit. One Owlmirror speculates: ‘Did Hitchens at some point literally fall in the Euphrates? I mean, he was a journalist in the right area… Or could it be a convoluted reference to Hitchens’ fondness for whiskey?’ Another wonders if I’m ‘somehow referring to Euphrates the Stoic.’ I’ll leave them to work it out; what I really want to zero in on is Myers’s response to my characterisation of himself. He writes: ‘Again, “screeching death” is also terribly inapt, and why has he put me in a hot air balloon?’
It’s usually bad form to explain your own metaphors; as well as resolving the meaning of a text back to boring old authorial intention, it strips away all the indeterminacy that makes a metaphor interesting in the first place. If you can cut through the metaphor and explain what you mean without any damage to that meaning, you should have just said what you meant in the first place. But this is a special case; the object of the metaphor is himself demanding to know why he’s in a hot air balloon, and it wouldn’t be fair to trap someone in a basket high above the earth without at least telling them why. So I’ll give PZ Myers the explanation I owe him. This is why I put him in a hot air balloon.
- It’s funny. No man is more ridiculous than the one trapped in a gently listing hot air balloon, and PZ Myers has been trapped in a gently listing hot air balloon all his life. The man has a fairly round head, its taper towards the chin smoothed out by that odobenine beard; his body seems to dangle from the rising roundness of his head. All I did was put him next to a mirror of himself. As I cut the ropes and the hot air balloon started to wobble towards the heavens his big round head wobbled too, poking out from over the lip of the basket, demanding that I let him down at once. But it was too late. Even if I’d wanted to, there was nothing I could do to save him: PZ Myers and his balloon were already high above me, diminishing into the sky’s glittering haze, bloating upwards to a higher truth, to punch the face of God.
- Atheism, of the type I describe in the Baffler piece, could be considered as a form of helplessness before the facts. The highest endeavour of humanity is to catalogue all the stupid details of our physical universe, to ingest them and then barf them out again; the human being is just a mechanism by which the universe repeats itself, for no good reason. We are not active, we do not form our own world; any attempt to do so is denounced as superstition and untruth. Atheists always love to present their interventions as being exceptionally brave, personal conscience against the follies of society, but in fact it’s hard to conceive of an ideology that’s more thoroughly passive. To give him his due, Myers distinguishes himself from some of his contemporaries with a stated commitment to social change; he’s broadly pro-feminist, he supports LGBT+ struggles, and so on, like so many social liberals he is at least opposed to the more morbid symptoms of the disease – but all this, as his response shows, remains in the context of that same godawful pedantry. His arguments for egalitarianism are epistemological arguments; like so many liberal Aufklärer he considers social justice to follow from the brute facts, rather than as something that seeks to abolish them. In other words, we are in the hot air balloon, knocked about by the winds, unable to steer our own course; all we can do is embrace the jetstreams as they knock our big blobby heads across the skies, because if nothing else they are at least factually true. Myers roars his power and indignation, and all the while his balloon tilts onwards to nowhere.
- Consider the loneliness of the man in the hot air balloon. Up on his lonely rootless perch all other figures slowly melt into their backdrop. Houses fade into cities, cities fade into a fuzzy urban smudge; above a certain height, even the birds will no longer visit him. The gaze of scientific rationality is abstract and disembodied; it sees the world of facts spread out beneath it, and knows that it can never come back down. PZ Myers is a monad. Like all dogmas atheism has its schisms and its cleavages, but Myers has managed to utterly alienate himself from his co-religionists: he’s disliked by the bigoted, bellicose contingent because of his attempts to disown the nerd misogyny and the general unpleasantness that surrounds organised atheism; he’s disliked by the social-justice contingent for his furious outbursts, his bloodthirstiness, his malice, his badly cloaked self-regard, his bellicose bigotry. PZ Myers fell into the sky. You can see him sometimes, on a clear day; a tiny dot hovering by the edge of a faded afternoon moon, his screams unheard, the ruler of his pelagic isolation.
- In 2008, the Brazilian priest Adelir Antônio de Carli died in a cluster ballooning accident. De Carli was a champion of the poor and destitute in his city of Paranaguá, defending beggars against police violence; he regularly carried out similar stunts to raise money for local charities. On his last balloon flight, de Carli found himself floating out over the ocean, where he lost contact with his ground team; months later, his body was found near an offshore oil rig. PZ Myer’s response was sheer gruesome delight; his only concern was that more priests weren’t dying thousands of miles from the ground. ‘I am imagining a day,’ he wrote, ‘when every priest in the world stands smiling beneath a great happy bobbing collection of many-colored balloons, and they all joyously loft themselves up, up into the sky, joyfully drifting away before the winds until they are just a tiny speck and then … gone.’ (This is a minor quibble, next to the sheer monstrosity of his fantasies, but nobody who uses ‘joyously’ and ‘joyfully’ in the same sentence should ever think of criticising someone else’s writing.) PZ Myers dreams of massacring Latin American Catholic priests, shooting them down with ‘an ultralight aircraft and a BB gun’; he dreams with the Escuadrón de la Muerte; it was only right that someone should put him in a balloon all for himself.
- He was rude to Tami, which is unforgivable.
- PZ Myers struggled at first, when I put him in the hot air balloon. All the usual complaints: no, I don’t want to go, don’t put me in there, I don’t like it. But he settled down once it started to rise; whatever the indignity, it’s fun to go on a hot air balloon ride – even if you are alone, even if you can never come back down. I put him there because I could, and he stayed there because that hot air balloon is where he’s always belonged.