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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Kurtz should move on

Here's a self-important and self-pitying interview by Paul Kurtz, who manages in the space of one rather short discussion to compare himself to Jesus and Galileo.

Kurtz still seems to believe that, as the founder of the CFI and related organisations, he gets to have it both ways: he can oppose its current directions in public, while retaining all the perks of being treated as a senior officer or some sort of emeritus academic. He should have thought of that when he established the organisations with structures that would give them independence.

Yes, it's sad that the founder of the CFI does not agree with its current direction, which is a more aggressive one than when he was in charge, and that that has led to a rift. It doesn't follow that the more aggressive direction is incorrect. On the contrary, I think it's exactly what is required in our current historical situation. Nor does it follow that the underlying cause of the problems is a mere difference of policy, rather than someone's inability to let go.

In any event, the policy direction for CFI is set by the board. Kurtz cannot expect to hold a position on the board, taking part in its deliberations, while publicly attacking board decisions that he disagrees with. He's either part of the board, which means accepting responsibility for its decisions and advocating its chosen directions, even when he does not personally agree with them ... or not.

The choice he has made is ... not. He's left. Of his own free will, Kurtz is no longer a CFI board member. Fair enough, that was his decision to make - but if it's how he wants to play things he can't expect the organisation to publish his criticisms of it or to give him unsupervised access to its premises out of hours or all the other things he seems to want.

And, no, this is nothing like the church and state putting you under house arrest and censoring your work - as happened to Galileo. That comparison is fatuous. Kurtz is free to travel, and can publish anywhere he wants - he just has to convince someone his stuff is worth publishing. In that sense, he's exactly as free as anyone else, which Galileo most certainly was not. Nothing is stopping him from attacking the CFI management from any platform that he can find - which, for example, includes The New York Times. For a man with access to so many media platforms to complain of being censored is ... well, laughable.

Honestly, Kurtz is coming across more and more as totally clueless the more this drags on. His attitude seems to be that his way of doing things is the only right way, and that no one else on the board or among the management team had the right to exercise authority if it conflicts with his ideas. I get the impression from the interview that he would rather see the CFI fail than succeed while taking a direction he'd not have chosen. Doubtless he still has the power to be destructive, drawing on whatever residue of moral authority or good will he still commands, but surely he doesn't want to be remembered as an egotistical wrecker.

Move on, sir. Once again, all you're doing is destroying your own legacy.


tomh said...

Agree with all you say, but he's also 84 years old and obviously deteriorating.

Russell Blackford said...

Maybe you're right, though I have no way of knowing that (i.e. the bit about deteriorating) one way or the other. There are plenty of people who are older than that and mentally fine (my father among them), so I don't assume that that's the problem. His public statements sound more like someone who just doesn't get certain concepts ... but a lot of people who are much younger don't get those concepts.

Chris Lawson said...

Russell, he doesn't even need to convince anyone else to publish his work. In the era of free blogging platforms, anyone who can write can be a pamphleteer.

Russell Blackford said...

That's certainly true, Chris.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Age is often thrown up at someone who has taken a particular stand. I like to think perhaps he has developed a moderate approach based on extensive experience: that is not saying the aggressive stand point is totally counter productive, but hias inaighta might show aggression has it limitations.

The point about speaking out against a board you are on isn't an accurate assumption. Being on a board does not automatically dictate that you will agree with all or any of the board decicions, in fact boards act a bit like small democracies when working well, and dictatorships when they are not.

Always be wary of aggressive moves, as agression also can harbour anger and anger has a tendency to silence your voice when you need it most. CFI melted a little, the full reason for this may never be clear, but I am not sure over heating it, putting pressure and aggression in place qwhere wise planning and cautious intervention was used is a great move. It may work, so I'm not going to put mockers on the group; but even in my time I have seen how gentle manouverings get more done than agressive posturing.

Maybe I have just been involved with too much politics of late (of all kinds)

Before dismissing the aging voice, perhaps listen carefully to some of the advice and consider it carefully. So easily we dismiss people these days.

Anonymous said...

Well stated Robert N Stephenson. The blatant ageism displayed towards Kurtz by many of the younger turks (and some who are more mature) within the new atheist movement has been downright nauseating. "Get out of the way old man, you played your part, we're in charge now", seems to be their message. This is even true of some of the younger people within CFI. This is really beneath contempt and perhaps illustrative of the brand of atheism on the ascendant now, devoid of ethical humanism.

Erich Vieth said...

In the interview you reference, Paul Kurtz never compared himself to Jesus, contrary to your first sentence. A "Founder" of a church doesn't refer to Jesus. Google "founder church bishops" and you'll see your error, which unfairly portrays Kurtz.

I also find the lack of empathy perplexing. Take Kurtz out of the picture and consider the general scenario: Assume that someone named "Mary" founded a large successful organization and that she ran it for several decades, never taking a salary, and in fact, contributing $2M and raising many millions more. Assume that the organization is wildly successful and that most people associate Mary with the organization because she has given thousands of hours to the cause, and served as the editor of its flagship journal. Then consider that she has a falling out with the board.

Based on these facts, even if you think that Mary veered from the mission of the organization (I'm not suggesting that Kurtz has veered), isn't her pain and frustration understandable? Isn't it understandable that Mary would feel humiliated at not having full access to her office in what used to be her building? Wouldn't anyone in her position feel frustrated that what used to be "her" organization refused to publish several of her writings?

How does calling her "old" meaningfully advance the discussion?

Russell Blackford said...

You're just being silly. When "Founder" has a capital F it's pretty clear. In any event, Jesus did supposedly "build" his church on the "rock" of Peter. Any reasonable person will see him as comparing himself to Jesus.

And you talk about my lack of empathy when this guy is going around attacking others continually? Sheesh. Where's his empathy for Ron Lindsay? Where's his empathy for all the other staff who are being put through emotional trauma by Kurtz's constant public attacks?

And where did I try to add to the discussion by calling him "old"? The fact that he is old was one reason for the succession planning that took place, but I have not suggested he is demented or senile or anything of the sort. I'm about the last person who'd do that.