Spineless Virginia Heffernan Attacks PZ Myers as Lacking Class for Sketching Mohammad

Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times wades into the gravity of the ScienceBlogs solar system (with PZ Myers as its sun) and finds herself distinctly unimpressed:

Clearly I’ve been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Her conclusion on her way to the exit:

Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd.

And of PZ Myers she writes this:

Science writers play rough. They like hoaxes, humiliations and Oxbridge-style showdowns that let them use words like “claptrap” and “gibberish.” . . . Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet— PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”

OK, but isn’t Virginia Heffernan also playing a one-up elitist game herself? Her tone is that of the hip New York Times writer who is above the sort of things that PZ Myers and his fellow ScienceBlog atheists critique and parody. And she wouldn’t, for example, think of broaching United Nations-style etiquette about Mohammad cartoon drawing. But in the teeth of real (not hypothetical) Islamic fundamentalist threats of violence against people who do, how could Virginia Heffernan, a writer, snarkily call PZ Myers’s courageous public solidarity with South Park’s creators a “stunt”? Surely she must value freedom of expression every bit as much as PZ Myers, right?

Apparently not.

In this context, what Virginia Heffernan wrote about PZ Myers is far, far more grotesque than anything PZ Myers might have put in his Mohammad sketch.

If PZ Myers and ScienceBlogs lack class, Virginia Heffernan lacks spine.

Here’s how Virginia Heffernan concludes her article:

Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

Oh, so that’s what it is. Class-war claptrap. That’s an emotionally manipulative thing to throw into an argument, isn’t it? Nobody likes to be called a snob, but apparently all is fair in shutting up atheists. If you want to talk about bigotry, that’s bigotry: try to shame people away from being out about who they are and what they think; discourage their directness.

But there’s a lesson in Virginia Heffernan’s little essay. The next time someone in the public eye speaks his or her mind about religion—you know, really says what he or she thinks about it—Virginia Heffernan can be expected to be there, on cue, ready to shame them, and side with the enemies of free speech, giving aid and comfort to those enemies, and declaring the anti-free speech religious agitators (who are sometimes violent) to be the true representatives of the people.

What bullshit.

To loosely echo the gay rights slogan:

Atheists are here. They’re clear. Get used to it.

I’m an agnostic myself. And no, I won’t be going back in the closet for Virginia Heffernan, nor will I be gauging my rhetoric to her sense of vulgarity, propriety, and good taste. Needless to say, I assume that PZ Myers, the creators of South Park, and those at ScienceBlogs won’t either.


UPDATE: I wonder what Virginia Heffernan will say about the murdering in Paris of twelve people at the satricial magazine Charlie Hebdo–apparently because of this:



And lest it be said that Charlie Hebdo singles out Muhammad for cartoon parody, here are some of the magazine’s other covers:


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Spineless Virginia Heffernan Attacks PZ Myers as Lacking Class for Sketching Mohammad

  1. andrewclunn says:

    And here are two of mine:

  2. Gunlord says:

    To be fair (and I don’t mean to be a gratuitous guest or anything) I think there’s a bit more to Virginia Heffernan’s piece than just ‘atheist-bashing.’ She’s not critiquing Dr. Myers for showing “solidarity” with the South Park dudes, she was using him as one example of how scienceblogs, in general, seems to be more full of posturing, saber-rattling, and making fun of people than actual science. I mean, I’m all for free speech, and solidarity with the south park guys is great, but there’s a time and a place for everything. If I go to scienceblogs, I’d like to see science, not ‘solidarity’–or making fun of fat people (to be fair again, Sciencegrrl’s ‘fat’ post was about the health hazards of Pepsi rather than just gratuitous cruelty), or implications that vaccine denialists are ‘religious’ to some degree (not that I’m a denialist, but several prominent nonbelievers are, most notably Bill maher). Is it really such a bad thing to ask Scienceblogs to keep to science rather than a host of other causes, regardless of how worthy such causes may be?

    • santitafarella says:


      You are right that I zeroed in on just one part of her argument and not the whole, but Heffernan was engaged in a hatchet job; a piece that, in its overall effect, was designed to malign those who critique religion as “elitist” (ironic from a writer at the New York Times). And I’m sorry, but calling South Park solidarity (and the risks that it entails) a “stunt” is unforgivable. I think that I zeroed in on the moment in which she put in the dagger and exposed her own maliciousness.

      As for science bloggers, I can only speak as a blogger whose discipline is English. Why can’t people who are scientists range freely at their blogs? Blogs are about the range of life and the obsessions of the blogger. Sometimes—indeed, a lot of times—you blog about the things that you aren’t doing at work. The blog is often the outlet for the things you think about outside your discipline and outside the classroom. Why pigeonhole scientists as having to be bloggers who focus on science? Like everyone else, scientists are people and are finding their voice via blogging. That they gather together as scientists and range widely is natural. Blogging is more like Whitman (wide-ranging) than like what Yeats called “coughing into dust” (focusing on a narrow specialty).


  3. Gunlord says:

    Why can’t people who are scientists range freely at their blogs?

    Oh, of course, of course, I apologize–sincerely–if I came across as insinuating that scientists shouldn’t have freedom of speech. I firmly believe they should be able to write whatever they want on their own blogs. My question is, however, which blogs? You’re a blogger whose discipline is English, but you’re not really on an “English blog”–specifically, you’re on wordpress. In my opinion, anybody on wordpress, blogspot, livejournal, or other similar blogging sites is 100% permitted to write and say absolutely anything they want (in accordance with the terms of service of those blogs, of course XD). Thus, I wouldn’t be much sympathetic to Ms. Heffernan’s argument if Dr. Myers and the rest of his crew were on pharyngula.livejournal.com or sciencegrrl.wordpress.com, like you’re at santitafarella.wordpress.com.

    Since they’re on scienceblogs, however, I do think it’s not entirely unfair to hold them to a higher standard. When I go on WordPress or Livejournal or Blogspot, I expect the blogs on those places to talk about whatever their proprietors want, whether it’s internet drama or their hobbies and interests or video games or whatever. I hardly expect any such blogger to be academic 24/7, or even most of the time. However, when I go to a place like Scienceblogs, which has as its stated purpose to “increase the public understanding of science,” I don’t think it’s as unreasonable to expect things to be mainly if not entirely about science. Like I said, South Park solidarity’s great and all, but it’s better suited to Livejournal or WordPress than Scienceblogs, IMO.

    • santitafarella says:


      Well, I agree that advertising as “science blogs” sets up a certain expectation for the first-time visitor. But if it’s not matching what that initial visitor wants, they’ll drift away anyway. Our culture is loaded with misleading messages that get people in the door (right or wrong). But I also don’t think it is news that scientists are generally secular people and get easily screwed up over American and Islamic fundamentalisms and other anti-Enlightenment stupidities (like postmodernism). It’s hard not to be.


  4. andrewclunn says:

    Oh it fits so well!

  5. Pingback: A Cartoon for Virginia Heffernan « Prometheus Unbound

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