Notes and Comment Blog

Talk geography

Sep 8th, 2015 5:14 pm | By

Have a fun quiz in the New York Times. It offers to say where you’re from based on your answers to 25 dialect questions.

It’s a little tricky if like me you have a habit of picking up bits of dialect from all over – but it’s not too tricky if you’re aware that you do that and can correct for it. I carefully gave the answers that were what I grew up with, not necessarily what I say now – and at the end there I was on the map. Good fun.

The exploratory mindset

Sep 8th, 2015 4:29 pm | By

An interesting post from July that I didn’t see at the time – by Joel Nowak –

So I am watching this thing play out on “Free Thought” Blogs where a blogger is being harassed and bullied to the point where she may well leave the site because a pro-trans activist who was “monitoring her” saw her post this thread to a facebook gender critical group about how questions such as “Do you believe trans women are women, yes or no?” may be overly simplistic and “anti-thought”. I do not know this blogger but I feel for her predicament. For simply starting this discussion, not even on Free Thought Blogs, members there are accusing her of a “thought crime” and demanding that she be expelled from the community immediately. Those demanding her expulsion are insisting that of course all transwomen are women. Fair enough … however I do have something to say here.

I am still trying to sort things out for myself, but part of my lived experience was that I was for a long period of my life a transwoman who identified as female.

And then he changed.

It was also something that, in my case, I outgrew because I realized that how I defined myself and how I came to understand the roles of sex and gender in my life had changed as I grew older. One thing I realized for myself, and this is very important for MY identity today, is that I was NEVER female in any way. I am male. I always was and I always will be. Now I know that by my saying that a lot of people will say “Ok this was a guy who just believed he was a transwoman and was mistaken.” Ok, you can think that if you want, but I assure you I WAS a transwoman. It is actually uncomfortable for me to say this, especially since I am doing the guy thing right now, but that is part of who I am and I can’t really be in denial about it.

This is one example – just one of many – of why I decline to answer “yes or no” questions unless they are such simple questions that it’s not a problem. What he says there is complicated. How we think of ourselves is complicated, and it’s subject to change over time. It’s a mistake to be absolutist and doctrinaire about it.

And I also think that is why I get a little peeved when I see all of this identity policing going on. When I see people like this current blogger getting beaten down for asking a fair question I am watching the same forces at work that make it hard for me to try to explore my own identity. Through intimidation it becomes yet another source of shame, scaring me back into my shell … almost.

See? See? This is what I mean, it’s what I’ve meant all along and still mean. We get to explore. We all get to explore, cis as well as trans, trans as well as cis. What the fools at Purethought Blogs did to me does not foster a climate friendly to exploration.

My journey has been real. I won’t let anyone define what sex I am or have been at various stages of my life based on their notion of political correctness. I am male and always have been … no matter what surgeries, legal name changes or social changes I have been through over the years. This is how I define myself. This is my right. You can define yourself as you please.  That is absolutely your right as well (and you too should defend it!) However, people should not be punished for asking questions based on honest and respectful  intellectual curiosity. That usually ends up pretty poorly for all of us.

Exactly so.

Fascism in action

Sep 8th, 2015 3:48 pm | By

Wow. The Guardian:

A camera operator for a Hungarian nationalist television channel closely linked to the country’s far-right Jobbik party has been filmed kicking two refugee children and tripping up a man at the border hotspot of Rőszke on Tuesday.

Petra László of N1TV was filming a group of refugees running away from police officers, when a man carrying a child in his arms ran in front of her. László stuck her leg out in front of the man, causing him to fall on the child he was carrying. He turned back and remonstrated with László, who continued filming.

Sure enough:

Watch closely – at 4 seconds you can see her kick a girl, but it’s over in a flash. The tripping of the guy carrying a child is slower and more in the open.

Image result for Petra Laszlo

Hungary’s leading news website Index had also caught László kicking a young girl and boy.

N1TV said László had been dismissed due to “unacceptable behaviour”. The channel’s editor in chief Szabolcs Kisberk said in a statement posted on the station’s website: “The camerawoman’s employment has today been terminated with immediate effect, the case is now closed for us.”

Hate campaigns are not harmless; they do their work.

Not a slur

Sep 8th, 2015 12:41 pm | By
Not a slur

Careful thinking.


Sabine ‏@ThatSabineGirl 21 hours ago
The sheer privilege of an oppressor class whining that they don’t like the word those they oppress use to describe them. It’s incredible.

And no, cis/trans is not a binary, no more than skin colour, sexuality, or gender is.

So…it’s not a binary, but we have no right to say it doesn’t describe us. Ok…

There’s more of that careful thinking.

Cis people are SO FUCKING WHINY.

Cis. Cis cis cis cis cis CIS CIS CIS. YOU ARE CIS. And more importantly, you treat trans people like dirt and you need to stop.

Really? We all treat trans people like dirt? I don’t think that has been shown.

You’re cis. Deal with it. Like we have to deal with being trans, only you have a position of normality & a load of privilege to soften blow.

Hint: Oppressor’s feelings on what word those they oppress use to describe their oppressor class: NOT IMPORTANT

But “their oppressor class” is what’s in dispute.

Having privilege along a certain axis is not the same thing as oppressing people along that axis. It’s not the same thing at all. The difference is pretty important.

Being cis merely means you aren’t trans. It’s not a slur, it’s not an identity forced on you, it’s just a word which means ‘not trans’.

If it’s just a word which means ‘not trans’ then what sense does it make to say cis people “treat trans people like dirt”? How can it not be a slur if it means “an oppressor class” that “treats trans people like dirt”?

It can’t. Sabine is energetically using the word “cis” as a slur while energetically denying that it’s a slur. That’s incoherent.

These things matter.

Reorganize the worries

Sep 8th, 2015 11:22 am | By

Kim Davis is (or soon will be) out of jail, and her deputies are issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

U.S. District Judge David Bunning ordered Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis freed on Tuesday, five days after he held Davis in contempt and sent her to a Kentucky jail amid an escalating standoff over marriage licenses.

Davis was jailed at the Carter County Detention Center on Thursday after she refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples. The following day, her deputies began issuing licenses in her absence.

Five of the six clerks who work under Davis swore under oath that they could comply with the court’s order to issue marriage licenses. In a status report filed to Bunning’s court Tuesday, the couples who had filed suit against Davis after she first denied them marriage licenses said they were able to obtain them.

So there you go. All Davis has to do is stand back and let the deputies do the job. If she doesn’t, the court will consider appropriate sanctions.

I hope she won’t worry too much about Jesus crying heartbrokenly about the same-sex couples in Rowan County, Kentucky getting married.

What would be even better than that, though, would be if she did start worrying more about Jesus’s terrible priorities, and by extension, hers. It would be a good thing if she started to wonder why she objects so much to same-sex couples getting married when she could be worrying about things that actually are bad instead. If you’re going to worry, why not worry about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean? Why not worry about the women enslaved by Boko Haram and IS? Why not worry about climate change? Why not worry about human and/or animal suffering instead of something that causes no suffering or harm to anyone?

Guest post: The overwhelming reaction to the ban

Sep 7th, 2015 4:20 pm | By

Originally a comment by Rob on Currently being pulled from libraries, schools and bookshops.

Part of the problem here is that giving a book designed to be read by teens an R18 classification is a de facto ban. Having spent far too much time on the comments section of one of our main newspaper publishers yesterday I can conform that the overwhelming reaction to the ban has been that it is a bad thing, driven by conservative Christians out of step with modern NZ society. The commonality from the few commentators supporting the ban seemed to be “think of the 10 year olds” and “the author is old, writing about teen sex and therefore a pervert” and “these comments all confirm Christians are persecuted”.

Frankly I was shocked when I saw the headline yesterday. I couldn’t have told you when the last time a book was banned in NZ was. The last time I remember any significant debate about it I was in my teens, which makes it well over 30 mumble years. The last time I remember any real debate about the purpose of even having censors in this day and age there was actually quite a good bit of journalism where they interviewed the then chief censor. He explained how the work was carried out, the standards of assessment and how the censors work. They also showed a brief clip from a hard core porno while the censor explained the rationale for banning the dvd. In that case there was no overarching narrative, no examination of motives or consequences, absolutely nothing that might be regarded as art or social commentary. It was a fuck movie in which a girl of indeterminate age (but almost certainly too young) was coerced into doing something she did not want to do. The atmosphere was threatening, unsafe and the girl was either the best actress I have ever seen or she was clearly scared out of her wits. In short it was abusive and degrading. Quite different from the run of the mill ‘reluctance’ of much commercial porn. To the NZ censors sexual violence in the absence of some kind of meaningful social commentary or narrative that justifies its use is a no no.

In the author’s words, the book is really about bullying. The sex and drugs is simply window dressing to try and get the teen (boy) audience to read the book to expose them to the bigger message. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on how well integrated the theme is, but given that it has won a reasonable award it is probably fairly well done.

My real problem in all this is the role of the classification board. These people are not professionals like the censors. they are private citizens. Some are nominated by interest groups. Some nominate themselves. They are appointed by a Government Minister. In this case the professional censor(s) and the lay board are clearly at odds and the head of the board has used his power to enact the temporary ban. In my view it is an abuse of power, but one that was always likely given the structure of the system. This is certainly a view shared by others, see more here. Don Mathieson QC is apparently known to have conservative social values.


Sep 7th, 2015 3:41 pm | By

A strange conversation, or constellation of conversations, on Twitter this morning.

It started with a piece Alice Dreger wrote yesterday, How to Be An Ally to Cis-Women. She tweeted a link to it. Later she retweeted and commented on a reaction to her piece.

Alice Dreger ‏@AliceDreger 7h7 hours ago
Alice Dreger retweeted Zoé S.
I commit “structural violence” by asking we be allowed to talk/joke/write/sing about the bodies we were born with.

Zoé S. ‏@ztsamudzi
I’m so aghast at @AliceDreger’s list. But at this point, she and others are far too invested in structural violence to believe otherwise.

Too invested in structural violence? What can Zoé S mean by that? I wondered, so I looked at the whole long string of tweets about Alice Dreger’s piece. It’s full of that kind of thing.

Like this one:

Zoé S. ‏@ztsamudzi 7 hours ago
Trans women don’t need to be an ally to us cis women because it isn’t incumbent upon them to CODDLE VIOLENT OPPRESSORS.

What VIOLENT OPPRESSORS? Why is Zoé S claiming that cis women are VIOLENT OPPRESSORS? What can she possibly mean by saying that?

Why are so many people, including cis women, so enraged at cis women? Why are they claiming we are VIOLENT OPPRESSORS?

And this:

Zoé S. ‏@ztsamudzi 7 hours ago

Fellow cis women, be lucky that “TERF” is all you’re being called: violent patriarchal transmisogynistic abusive gatekeeper comes to mind.

And this:

Zoé S. ‏@ztsamudzi 7 hours ago

I don’t have any well-reasoned thing to say anymore. Just shut up with this violent understanding of sex & gender, leave trans women alone.

What is a “violent understanding of sex & gender”?

And this:

Zoé S. ‏@ztsamudzi 7 hours ago

We cis women owe our trans sisters OUR support because we are directly responsible for the state & interpersonal structures abusing them.

How? How are we directly responsible for that?

Maybe the answer is depressingly simple – we’re not, but it’s easy to rage and shout at cis women on Twitter while it’s much more difficult to do anything about state & interpersonal structures.

It’s easy, yes, but is it productive and useful? No, it’s not. It creates hostility where there doesn’t need to be any. Trans people need much better allies than this.

Mr President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed

Sep 7th, 2015 2:41 pm | By

I watched Dr Strangelove again last night, for the first time in way too long – I don’t know why I haven’t stirred my stumps to watch it before.

It holds up amazingly (except it doesn’t amaze me at all).

The performances Kubrick elicited from Peter Sellers and Sterling Hayden and above all George C Scott make my hair stand on end – as does the writing, as does the cinematography. General Jack D Ripper filmed from below, shadowy and mad.

This is perhaps my favorite scene.

Does everybody worship?

Sep 7th, 2015 12:48 pm | By

A Twitter conversation between Irshad Manji and Salman Rushdie.

Irshad ‏@IrshadManji
There’s no such thing as #atheism. Everybody worships. Our only choice is what to worship. ~ David Foster Wallace:

Salman Rushdie ‏@SalmanRushdie Sep 6

Wrong. Sorry. Just wrong.

.@SalmanRushdie “Just wrong”? Such absolutism has a name: dogma.

Well, no, not unless that were the sum total of the reply at all times and in all media. As a reply on Twitter it doesn’t amount to dogma.

And announcing that “everybody worships” is pretty dogmatic anyway. No, everybody doesn’t worship. I don’t think I do anything that could be called worship, for example. Worship is a specifically religious word, naming a religious emotion and attitude, and I’m pretty sure I avoid and repudiate it.

The required balance

Sep 7th, 2015 11:59 am | By

I want to take a more extended look at that gloating statement from “Family First.” The scare quotes are because it’s really from Bob McCoskrie, just as statements from “The Catholic League” are always really from Bill Donohue.

Family First NZ has successfully applied for an Interim Restriction Order on the book Into The River by Ted Dawe – a book laced with detailed descriptions of sex acts, coarse language and scenes of drug-taking. The book came to public attention after it took top prize in the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. Award organisers hastily sent “explicit content” stickers to booksellers after the book’s win. The latest decision of the Censor will also now be reviewed by the Board of Review.

“In a strongly worded Order, the President of the Film and Literature Board of Review Dr Don Mathieson QC has accepted the concerns of Family First and the hundreds of families who wrote directly to the Censor’s office to protest the content, themes and availability of the book,” says Bob McCoskrie, National Director of Family First NZ.

“The Order says that the classification of Into the River under the Act is a matter of wide public concern, that it was debatable and a matter of independent public interest whether the Chief Censor acted lawfully, and that it was highly arguable whether the Classification Office had reached the correct conclusion.”

They’re pissed off that the “Chief Censor” (what a title!) lifted an age restriction on the book. They want that mofo restricted, dammit.

“The Censor has tried to argue that freedom of expression was not taken in to consideration by the Board and that this freedom trumps the protection of young people. It is preposterous and down-right insulting for the Censor to suggest that the Board failed to achieve the required balance between the rights of the public have to be protected from the injurious impact of material deemed objectionable to young persons and children and the competing right that such persons have access to this material.”

There are rights of the public to be protected from the injurious impact of material deemed objectionable to young persons? I don’t think there are, you know – I think those are “rights” that Bob McCoskrie made up. Those rights bear a disquieting resemblance to the “right” of people in Bangladesh and India and Pakistan to be protected from the injurious impact of material deemed to “hurt religious sentiments.” There is no “right” to be protected from things you think are oooky.

“The author and his supporters in the Library service are focused on the ‘rights’ of adults to write this sort of offensive material under the guise of ‘freedom of expression’. But the Bill of Rights states that ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘freedom to access information’ considerations do not automatically trump the laws that were written to allow censorship to be applied to protect the public good.”

Does it? Really? Or is that just something Bob McCoskrie made up again. It sounds made up.

“We are also aware that the Censor has received over 400 emails of complaint about their latest decision from concerned kiwi parents. Their desire to protect their children must also be respected.”

Family First is now preparing their submission for the Film and Literature Board of Review. The 400+ complaints made to the Censor will form part of their submission.

Bullies on the march. Lock up your books.

Currently being pulled from libraries, schools and bookshops

Sep 7th, 2015 11:16 am | By

The Guardian has more details on the banning of Philip Dawe’s book Into the River.

Ted Dawe’s Into the River has been banned from sale or supply by the Film and Literature Board of Review (FLBR) after a complaint from conservative lobby group Family First.

It is currently being pulled from libraries, schools and bookshops around the country.

Family First objected to sexually explicit content, drug use and the use of a slang term for female genitalia.

Pussy? Cunt? Probably not twat, in New Zealand. Minge?

Whatever – using slang words for the genitalia is just that. There’s nothing wrong with it. Using them as epithets is another matter (a distinction that is lost on surprisingly many people), but it’s still not a reason to ban a book.

And it’s not just banned from sale, it’s being pulled from libraries and schools – which is a whole other level of shocking. What’s the matter with them?

Into the River won the New Zealand Post Children’s Book award in 2013 and is aimed at a teenage, largely male audience. Dawe said this audience was hard to reach.

“I have taught in secondary schools for the past forty years. Much of this time has been spent encouraging boys to read. Part of the challenge was to find books that ‘spoke’ to them. This meant books about issues that were relevant to them and written in a style that was authentic,” he said.

“There are many issues that young adults can not take to other people. They want to do their own thinking about them. There is no better, no more private medium for this than the novel.

“In this relatively safe context the teenager can navigate through issues such as race, sexual orientation, body issues, class discrimination and bullying and harassment. They can test their responses against the main characters and calibrate the differences without the need to discuss.”

But Family First doesn’t want them to think about those things. I guess FF wants them to think about family, and nothing else.

Banned in New Zealand

Sep 7th, 2015 10:44 am | By

Welcome to a brave new world of censorship.

From the New Zealand Herald:

The author of the first book to be banned in New Zealand for at least 22 years is asking: “Will I be burnt next?”

Ted Dawe, 64, the head of studies at Taylors College for international students in Auckland, is the unlikely subject of the first interim restriction order on a book under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993.

His award-winning book for teenagers, Into The River, has been banned from sale or supply under the order issued by the president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, Dr Don Mathieson, QC.

The president of the what? What the hell is the Film and Literature Board of Review, that it has the power to ban books from sale or supply? Especially award-winning books for teenagers by teachers?

It appears to be a government censorship board. It describes itself in bureaucratic gobbledygook that goes in circles:

The Film and Literature Board of Review is the body that reviews publications that have been classified by the Office of Film and Literature Classification. It is an independent body carrying out quasi-judicial functions. Anyone seeking a review of a publication must do so within 30 working days of publication of the List of Decisions in which the classification appears.

The Classification Office maintains a Register of Classification Decisions. This records all of the classification decisions made by that Office, as well as the decisions of the Board. This register is by law the official repository of classification records. If you want to know the classification of any publication you should contact the Classification Office. Each month the Classification Office also releases a listing of all new classification decisions in its List of Decisions, to which anyone with an interest may subscribe.

Yes but what does “reviews” mean here? What does “classified” mean? What does “quasi-judicial functions” mean? What kind of “decisions”?

It appears to mean censorship. I’ll dig more later. Back to the Herald:

In the meantime, media law expert Professor Ursula Cheer has said it was illegal to supply the book even to a friend.

“Having it for your own personal use is okay. Passing it around to your friends is not,” she said.

As if it were a dangerous drug. Wtf? How did it win an award if it’s such a horrifying book?

Mr Dawe said he was “blindsided” by the ban, which was sought by lobby group Family First after deputy chief censor Nic McCully removed a previous R14 restriction on the book on August 14, making it totally unrestricted.

“Family First”…so that will be Christian theocrats then?


Hi, I’m Bob McCoskrie

Are you concerned about rising family breakdown and the decline in standards and responsibility? I know I am.

Having spent several years teaching in secondary schools and tertiary institutions, working as a social worker with young people in South Auckland for more than 15 years, and engaging with the issues of the day on talkback radio, I am all too aware of the social cost of family breakdown.

In New Zealand, the married two-parent family is increasingly sidelined while the divorce rate skyrockets.

etc etc etc

Family First will:

  • be a voice for the family in the media speaking up about issues relating to families that are in the public domain
  • promote and advance research and policy supporting marriage and family as foundational to a strong and enduring society
  • participate in social analysis and debate surrounding issues relating to and affecting the family being promoted by academics, policy makers, social service organisations and media, and to network with other like-minded groups and academics
  • produce and publish relevant and stimulating material in newspapers, magazines, and other media relating to issues affecting families
  • speak from a family friendly perspective with an emphasis on the Judeo-Christian values which have benefited New Zealand for generations.

Emphasis added.

So a Christian pressure group got an award-winning novel for teenagers banned from sale and distribution.

They’re bragging about it.

Family First NZ has successfully applied for an Interim Restriction Order on the book Into The River by Ted Dawe – a book laced with detailed descriptions of sex acts, coarse language and scenes of drug-taking. The book came to public attention after it took top prize in the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. Award organisers hastily sent “explicit content” stickers to booksellers after the book’s win. The latest decision of the Censor will also now be reviewed by the Board of Review.

“In a strongly worded Order, the President of the Film and Literature Board of Review Dr Don Mathieson QC has accepted the concerns of Family First and the hundreds of families who wrote directly to the Censor’s office to protest the content, themes and availability of the book,” says Bob McCoskrie, National Director of Family First NZ.

Back to the Herald:

“It’s extraordinary,” Mr Dawe said. “I’ve had quite a few emails from people who share that sense of outrage. Do we live in a country where books get banned? I’ll get burnt next.”

He said Family First director Bob McCoskrie and Dr Mathieson, who wrote a dissenting view advocating an R18 restriction when the majority of the board rated the book R14 in 2013, were overstepping the rules of a democratic society.

“Those two individuals are united in their determination to establish this as a line that will not be crossed. I feel they have wildly overstepped the whole mechanism of looking at art and making judgments on it,” he said.

“New Zealand has taken a giant step towards that sort of regulatory moralising that I think most people felt we had left far in our past.”

It’s just astonishing. It sounds more like Bangladesh than New Zealand.

He said it was not easy to write a book that teenagers would want to read, or to get it published.

“People involved with teaching boys, especially English teachers, know how important books like this are because they speak to boys about the things that other boys’ books don’t have the firepower or the vitality to do effectively,” he said.

“The book was never about sex and drugs, it was always about bullying people and how that damages people for the rest of their lives. That is really the underlying theme, everything else is just the trappings that go along with that.”

Oh well no wonder the Christian bullies don’t like it.

They sure do, Chip!

Sep 7th, 2015 9:54 am | By

A viral cartoon by a friend who wants to be anonymous (but wants the cartoon to be shared) via South Jersey Humanists

Pete and the Weavers

Sep 6th, 2015 5:57 pm | By

Happy Labor Day tomorrow for those of you in the US.

H/t Jeffrey

The mysterious identity

Sep 6th, 2015 5:20 pm | By

Remember the blog Gay Girl in Damascus? By a Syrian lesbian blogger? Who turned out to be a straight married guy in Edinburgh? That was 2011.

The mysterious identity of a young Arab lesbian blogger who was apparently kidnapped last week in Syria has been revealed conclusively to be a hoax. The blogs were written not by a gay girl in Damascus, but a middle-aged American man based in Scotland.

Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old Middle East activist studying for a masters at Edinburgh University, posted an update declaring that, rather than a 35-year-old feminist and lesbian called Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, he was “the sole author of all posts on this blog”.

The admission – confirmed in an email to the Guardian from MacMaster’s wife – apparently ends a mystery that has convulsed parts of the internet for almost a week. But it provoked a furious response from those who had supported the blogger’s campaign, with some in the Syrian gay community saying he had risked their safety and seriously harmed their cause.

The blog A Gay Girl in Damascus was launched in February, purportedly to explain “what it’s like to be a lesbian here”, and gathered a growing following as Syria’s popular uprising gained momentum in recent months. Amina described participating in street protests, carrying out furtive lesbian romances and eventually being forced into hiding after security forces came to her home to arrest her.

Then, on 6 June, a post appeared in the name of Amina’s cousin “Rania O Ismail”, who said the blogger had been snatched by armed men on a Damascus street.

Then there was a campaign to get her out…and then people started asking questions. Lots of questions. IP addresses were traced, photos were traced, everything led to MacMaster.

So he confessed, and said something about the pervasiveness of “liberal Orientalism.”

Despite MacMaster’s assertion “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone”, activists were furious. Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym for the Damascus editor of, wrote: “To Mr MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us.”

What if, instead of confessing, he had simply said he identified as a Syrian lesbian blogger?

H/t Alona.

For bringing philosophy into conversation with culture

Sep 6th, 2015 3:20 pm | By

An excellent piece of news from CFI

The Center for Inquiry extends its heartfelt congratulations to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who will be given the National Humanities Award by President Obama for her lifetime of inspiring and enlightening work in philosophy, literature, and the history of science. Dr. Goldstein is an honorary member of the Board of Directors of CFI, an organization that promotes science, reason, and humanist values, and this summer delivered the keynote address at CFI’s international Reason for Change conference.


The White House announced today that the ten winners of the 2014 National Humanities Award, including Dr. Goldstein, will be given their medals by President Obama on September 10 in the East Room. The award is intended to honor those who have demonstrated the power and impact of the humanities on American life.

“We are delighted that Rebecca Goldstein has received this well-deserved recognition,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “This award is a fitting one, indeed, as her work exemplifies the importance of the humanities. Few writers are as gifted as Rebecca Goldstein is in fiction, or as insightful as she is in nonfiction. Her wide-ranging body of work is philosophically compelling, richly rewarding, and deeply humane, engaging both our intellect and our emotions, and in the process making us laugh, cry, sigh … and think. Whether writing about Plato, Spinoza, or the joys and travails of love, Dr. Goldstein unfailingly manages to illuminate the human condition.”

The White House praised Dr. Goldstein for “bringing philosophy into conversation with culture” in its official citation, stating, “In scholarship, Dr. Goldstein has elucidated the ideas of Spinoza and Gödel, while in fiction, she deploys wit and drama to help us understand the great human conflict between thought and feeling.”

Goldstein first earned national prominence in 1983 as a writer of fiction for her first novel, the critically acclaimed bestseller The Mind-Body Problem. She has since published six other novels, including 36 Arguments for The Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, in 2010. Having earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton and a “genius grant” as a MacArthur Fellow, she is also the author of several influential nonfiction books including Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, which was named one of the top science books of 2005 by Discover Magazine, and of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, which received the Koret International Prize for Jewish Scholarship. She has been awarded several honorary doctorates, Guggenheim and Radcliffe fellowships, and is a Humanist Laureate. Her newest book is Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, for which she won the 2014 Morris D. Forkosch Award from the Council for Secular Humanism, a program of CFI.

She is currently an honorary member of the Center for Inquiry Board of Directors, along with physicist Lawrence Krauss and journalist and author Susan Jacoby. She has spoken at two of CFI’s Women in Secularism conferences, and keynoted the 2015 Reason for Change conference. Rebecca Goldstein identifies as a humanist, and apparently this is the first time that the National Humanities Medal has been awarded to someone who has openly identified as such.

See Rebecca Goldstein deliver a presentation at CFI’s Women in Secularism 2 conference on “The Mattering Map.”

See the National Endowment for the Humanities’ official announcement.

I have two interviews with Rebecca right here on B&W – one from 2005 when her book Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel was published, and one from March 2014 when Plato at the Googleplex had come out and was getting rave reviews.



Sep 6th, 2015 12:47 pm | By

The working group investigating the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico, released its report today, the LA Times tells us.

The Mexican government’s claim that 43 missing students were killed and burned in a local trash dump in the state of Guerrero nearly a year ago has been discredited by a six-month investigation from an international working group.

The inquiry, published Sunday, also found that the police who allegedly attacked and abducted the students last Sept. 26 could have been acting directly under the orders of drug traffickers to reclaim a cargo of illegal heroin stashed in at least one of the buses in which the students were traveling at the time the attacks occurred.

The report, carried out by an interdisciplinary working group created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, says there is no physical evidence that a fire sufficient to reduce 43 bodies “to ashes” took place on the night of the disappearance. Officials have claimed the bodies were incinerated in a trash dump in the small town of Cocula, which is about a 15-minute drive from Iguala.

The report describes a direct connection between Iguala and the supply of illegal heroin to Chicago. It cites evidence presented in a recent case in Illinois that shows the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel used public transport buses in Mexico to move heroin north from Iguala. The mountains around Iguala are dotted with clandestine poppy fields as well as illicit graves, and Guerrero state is one of the biggest producers of illegal heroin for sale in the United States.

Well that makes me feel proud to be an American.

The inquiry also raises the possibility that the government investigation into what has become known as the “Ayotzinapa” case could have omitted important facts. Five buses were commandeered that night by the students — a practice common among youth groups lacking resources as a way to get to events — yet only four are mentioned in the government investigation, according to the working group.

The investigation also concluded that the Mexican military was present during the incidents of that night — something the government has always denied.

The students who disappeared all studied at a rural teachers college in the small town of Ayotzinapa, about an hour’s drive from Iguala. Some of them and other civilian bystanders were killed when the police opened fire indiscriminately at various locations across the city. Then 43 students were allegedly dragged away and stuffed into police pickups; they haven’t been seen since.

Sounds legit.

Everyday heroism

Sep 6th, 2015 11:55 am | By

A nurse with MSF, Alison Criado-Perez, blogs about her next job.

The phone wakes me early on the morning of my departure. I’m heading for Malta, to join up with the MSF/MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) team on the Phoenix, rescuing people attempting to cross the Mediterranean in leaky, un-seaworthy vessels.

It seems that yesterday yet another leaky, unseaworthy vessel was the cause of another tragedy. “We may have to reroute you to Rome,” John, our logistician in Malta, tells me. “The team has gone out on a rescue, a big one, over 40 dead… we’re not sure yet where the boat will land.”

I think of the terror the migrants must have felt as their boat filled with water, or capsized – I haven’t heard the full story yet. And I know that only desperation would have forced them onto that perilous journey across the deep waters of the Med. Desperation with their lives in Somalia, Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya: war-torn, anarchic, little-hope places.

She thinks back on her time working with MSF with Syrian refugees in Turkey, and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa she met in the aftermath of the Libyan conflict.

I think back to my time in South Sudan where people, bombed out of their homes in Blue Nile State in Sudan, had trekked through the bush for up to three months, living on berries, arriving in South Sudan so dehydrated and malnourished that dozens just died on the side of the road.

It is with the plight of these refugees in mind, these people whose faces I remember so well, who I think of as I set off on this trip to help rescue yet more hundreds, thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, are forced to leave their countries.

She considers it a duty to help them rather than lock ourselves up in Fortress Britain or [insert your country’s name here].

I don’t know exactly what lies ahead of me. I hope I’m prepared, physically and mentally, for this trip. I’ve done a fairly arduous sea-safety training, which entailed me leaping from a height into water, dressed in a survival suit, and clambering into a wobbly life-raft. But I don’t think anything – not even seeing people dying miserably from Ebola – can prepare one for finding 52 people dead in the hold from asphyxiation, as my colleagues did recently.

But I’m glad that I can be there to help these desperate people with my medical skills in whatever way I can.

Now that’s walking the walk.

Updating to add:

MSF tweeted a photo of her on the job:

Embedded image permalink

“With other faith leaders”

Sep 6th, 2015 11:29 am | By

The archbishop of Canterbury has written a typically (typically for the office rather than the person – I have no idea what’s typical of Justin Welby the person, nor do I care) dishonest and bullying piece about an assisted dying bill that Parliament will be debating.

With other faith leaders, I have joined in writing to members of parliament, urging them to oppose Rob Marris’s assisted dying bill.

We have written, not in an attempt to push “the religious” viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.

There’s the first dishonest bit right there – of course it’s an attempt to push “the religious” viewpoint on others. What the fuck else would it be? Notice that four words into his piece he tells us he and his fellow clerics are “leaders” – that’s very loaded, manipulative, dishonest language.

While some individual religious voices, including that of my distinguished predecessor, Lord Carey, have called for a change in the law, the faith leaders’ letter represents the considered opinion of our communities that have analysed, discussed and debated the issue over many years. Their response springs from philosophical and theological reflections as well as from a vast range of pastoral experience and a profound sense of compassion.

Bully bully bully, it’s all bullying. It’s all loaded language meant to shame and pressure everyone into agreeing with the nice pious compassionate man and his nice pious compassionate friends. “Religious voices”; “distinguished”; “faith leaders”; “our communities”; “theological reflections”; “vast range of pastoral experience”; “profound sense of compassion.” It’s eyewash, it’s flapdoodle; it’s bullshit.

What there is of the substance:

While it is not a crime in the UK for someone to take his or her own life, we recognise that it is a tragedy and we, rightly, do all that we can to prevent suicide.

Not always. If there are ways to help the person planning suicide such that suicide would no longer be desirable, we do all we can to do that. If there are no ways to help – that’s a different story. Clearly some people will still do all they can to interfere, but the claim the archbish is resisting is that they shouldn’t.

At present, we can show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide. We can try to intervene, to support them to embrace life once more. We can do all in our power to surround those who are terminally ill with the best possible palliative care, including physical, emotional and spiritual support. We can redouble our efforts to alleviate suffering.

We can still do that, with assisted dying in place. Assisted dying would not prevent that. It’s not up to other people to decide what level of suffering anyone has to bear. If X says thank you for all your efforts but you can’t alleviate the suffering and I want to check out now, it’s not the job of “faith leaders” to bar the door.

Opening up about gender fluidity could get messy

Sep 6th, 2015 10:25 am | By

Pink News introduces us to a gender-fluid father who identifies as a straight lesbian.

Perhaps Pink News has merged with The Onion? No, they say the father wants to raise awareness.

A young father has opened up about his gender fluidity, in a bid to raise more awareness regarding the subject.

Jas Sutherland always knew he felt like both a male and a female, but said that until recently, he never though he could be open about it.

However, now, he says he can transition between his two personas regularly and is determined to generate a better public understanding about what it is to be gender fluid.

It must be so exciting to reinvent the wheel.

Why do we have to conceptualize it that way? Instead let’s conceptualize it the opposite way: “feeling like” a female or a male is just a formula we paste onto our sense of self (which is another such formula, it’s formulas all the way down), and we could use a different formula. It’s possible that nobody really “feels like” a female or a male at all; it’s possible that we all just feel like ourselves – our selves – and the categories are external and imposed.

Maybe we all just feel like people…or maybe not even that, maybe we all just feel like a set of senses and thoughts and actions.

I, at least, don’t feel like either a female or a male, nor do I feel “gender fluid” in the sense of alternating between the two. I feel like someone who is seen as a female by the rest of the world. In here? I couldn’t really tell you. A secret agent, a dissenter, a taker of notes.

He made the decision to come out four months ago after consulting a life coach who he says helped him come to terms with his identity, as did seeing more gender fluid stars – such as Ruby Rose – in the spotlight.

“I have had theses feelings for many years but just suppressed it,” he says.

“Knowing I didn’t want to change sex or be a cross dresser it was hard to find myself with that.

“It was not until the term came out that I felt comfortable coming out myself. Stars like Ruby Rose have certainly made life easier for the rest of us.”

So he’s a straight lesbian. Whatevs.