Notes and Comment Blog

Secularism Meets the Hijab

Oct 1st, 2003 7:19 pm | By

This is always an interesting subject. There are so many boxes one could put it in, for one thing. How unhelpful, self-cancelling, and ill-founded talk of ‘rights’ can be. How difficult or indeed impossible it can be to meet everyone’s desires and wishes – which is just another way of saying how self-cancelling talk of ‘rights’ can be. How difficult or impossible it can be to decide what is really fair and just to all parties, which is yet another way of saying the same thing. How incompatible some goods are, how irreconcilable some culture clashes are, how differently we see things depending on how we frame them. If our chosen frame is religion, or identity politics, or multiculturalism, or tolerance, or anti-Eurocentrism, or all of those, or some of them, then head scarves look like one thing. If our frame is feminism, or secularism, or equality, or rationalism, or Enlightenment, or some or all of those, then head scarves look like another thing. If we see merit in both sides of that equation then head scarves look like a damn confusing puzzling riddle.

In France, meanwhile, two teenage sisters have been suspended from school after insisting on attending class with their heads covered. The school says it is simply enforcing secular laws that ban all displays of religious faith in state schools and public buildings. “The girls’ argument that they have a right [to wear a headscarf] is incompatible with secularism and school rules,” Education Ministry Inspector Jean-Charles Ringard said. Alma and Lila Levy, whose mother is Muslim and whose father is a Jewish atheist, say they are simply demanding that two basic rights be respected. “We are being asked to decide between our religion and our education; we want both,” said Alma Levy, 16.

Yes, but then what about other rights? What about the rights of other girls not to have to learn in the presence of a symbol of female inferiority and subservience?

A constitutional ruling gives schools power to ban any religious symbol – headscarf, Jewish skullcap or Christian cross – worn as an “act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda.” The headscarf, or hijab as it is called in Arabic, has stirred controversy in France for more than a decade…French feminists and left-wingers say the scarf is a token of servitude, a sign of submission to male dominance rather than to God, as devout Muslims claim it to be.

Just so. Pressure, proselytism, propaganda. A head scarf carries a lot of meaning, it’s not just some neutral bit of decoration. No doubt I ought to, but I find it very hard to feel much sympathy for girls who ‘demand’ their ‘right’ to advertise their subordinate status.

Sympathy for the…

Oct 1st, 2003 12:37 am | By

Norm Geras’ blog has an excellent post on a recent Guardian column by Karen Armstrong. I thought it was excellent when I first read it, before Norm demonstrated what dazzlingly good taste he has by posting a, a, well, not to put too fine a point on it a rave review of B&W. I did a Note and Comment on Armstrong myself a few weeks or months ago, making a similar point. She’s too determined to be understanding and sympathetic and inclusive and non-Eurocentric and non-Orientalist about Islam, too unwilling to just give it up and be ‘judgmental’. Having read some of her memoirs and other books on religious subjects, I take her stance to have more to do with excessive sympathy for religion than it does with, say, multiculturalism or cultural relativism; but I don’t really know that, it’s just a guess. In any case, the effect is the same.

Armstrong’s diagnosis of the problem of terrorism is multi-factor, but it comes down to two threads: the fundamentalist-reaction-against-modernity thread and the Western-complicity-in-political-and-social-injustice thread. But prescriptively it’s only the second thread which counts. In this she is wholly representative of the post-9/11 liberal and leftist ‘doves’.

It’s interesting to ponder what the implications of taking the first thread seriously might be. Perhaps that’s why Armstrong drops it – why most people drop it. Because if you start to argue that we really ought to pay attention to what al Qaeda wants, i.e. give it to them, then one has to start contemplating the joys of living under an Islamic theocracy – an especially thrilling prospect for a woman. Gosh, I’m so spoiled, I’m so used to going out of the house whenever I want to, without having to ask a man for permission, let alone having to stay in unless a man I’m related to will come with me. It would be a bit of an adjustment, frankly, to have to start doing things bin Laden’s way.

And yet some people do make that argument, sort of, almost, partly. Or they hint at it, they gesture at it, they mumble about it, without actually coming out and saying Yes we should let people like bin Laden call the shots and if that means a little less freedom for half of humanity, well, so be it. At least I don’t know what else is behind all the reproachful noises people make about secularists and atheists refusing to take religion ‘on its own terms’. There is another post with similar comments from readers here.

Bubble Car Blues

Sep 29th, 2003 8:35 pm | By

This is what you get when ‘offensive’ is the shut-up word of the day. You get archbishops complaining that the BBC is reporting on the church, and equating criticism with hostility and bias.

But there are clearly elements or individuals, mainly – as far as I can tell – within news and current affairs, who seem to approach the Catholic Church with great hostility. Certainly the Catholic community is fed up seeing a public service broadcaster using the licence fee to pay unscrupulous reporters trying to re-circulate old news and to broadcast programmes that are so biased and hostile. Enough is enough.

So – what would a friendly and unbiased report on the Catholic church look like then? An admiring enumeration of the Pope’s wardrobe? A fond reminiscence about the warm friendship between priests and choirboys? A ringing endorsement of the Pope’s stand on birth control? Would anything less flattering than that be called ‘offensive’?

It’s familiar stuff, but that doesn’t make it any more reasonable. An unholy alliance between identity politics and obscurantist religion that uses complaints about ‘offense’ to try to establish its right to be beyond criticism. Suck it up, bish. Your church is out there in the world telling billions of people what to do, including whether to have children or not. Claiming immunity on top of all that is really pushing it a bit.

Look on This Picture, and on This

Sep 28th, 2003 9:43 pm | By

There is an interesting exercise in compare and contrast in reading two of the obituary essays on Edward Said: one by Christopher Hitchens and the other by Alexander Cockburn. Hitchens’ is profoundly admiring, affectionate, grieved, as well as carefully honest about Said’s faults. Cockburn’s is unequivocally admiring and affectionate, but he is oddly enthusiastic about Said’s thin skin. Both Hitchens and Cockburn mention the subject, but only Hitchens expresses reservations as well as admiration:

Edward had a slight tendency to self-pity, and the same chord was struck even in the best of his literary work, which often expressed a too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood…Yet he was famously thin-skinned and irascible, as I have good reason to remember, if any criticism became directed at himself…And he was capable of stooping to mere abuse when attacking other dissidents—particularly other Arab dissidents, and most particularly Iraqi and Kurdish ones—with whom he did not agree. I simply had to stop talking to him about Iraq over the past two years. He could only imagine the lowest motives for those in favor of regime change in Baghdad, and he had a vivid tendency to take any demurral as a personal affront.

And then he adds a beautiful grace note…

But it can be admirable in a way to go through life with one skin too few, to be easily agonized and upset and offended. Too many people survive, or imagine that they do, by coarsening themselves and by protectively dulling their sensitivity to the point of acceptance. This would never be Edward’s way.

Cockburn, by contrast, simply cheers the rage and resentment.

How many times, after a week, a month or more, I have reached him on the phone and within a second been lofted in my spirits, as we pressed through our updates: his trips, his triumphs, the insults sustained; the enemies rebuked and put to flight. Even in his pettiness he was magnificent, and as I would laugh at his fury at some squalid gibe hurled at him by an eighth-rate scrivener, he would clamber from the pedestal of martyrdom and laugh at himself…He never became blase in the face of friendship and admiration, or indeed honorary degrees, just as he never grew a thick skin. Each insult was as fresh and as wounding as the first he ever received.

An understandable, all-too-human flaw. surely, but too closely related to an overvaluation of self to be simply celebrated, I would have thought.

It’s also interesting to note that Hitchens reports Said had the same experience with acolytes that Terry Eagleton did.

…a too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood. (I am thinking of certain passages in his Orientalism and some of the essays in Culture and Imperialism as well.) He was sometimes openly alarmed at the use made of his scholarship by younger academic poseurs who seemed to despise the classical canon of literature that he so much revered.

Oh those dreaded acolytes.

Second Stanza

Sep 28th, 2003 8:56 pm | By

And then fashion, chapter two. (You’ll think I’m obsessed. But then, it’s so important, isn’t it. We could label almost anything fashion. We learn from each other, we teach each other, and the more we learn and teach the better, yet it’s possible to call any of that teaching and learning ‘fashion’.) There is a very interesting interview with Terry Eagleton in the Independent, in which fashion plays a large though not quite explicit part.

But isn’t this a trend of his own making? The elusive pleasures of Barthes, Derrida, Foucault et al would surely have remained safely obscured from the masses if Eagleton’s passionate primer hadn’t burst on to student bookshelves and into their brains. “Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been on that particular bandwagon,” says Eagleton, breathtakingly. “Inevitably,” he adds, more convincingly, “those ideas grow out of or are developments of ideas that I’ve been involved in. Postmodernism grew out of Marxism and so on, so, to the extent that I’ve been involved in that whole game, I’m responsible. Of course,” he continues, with a huge grin, “I would say that I’ve been ill-served by my acolytes.”

As so often happens. One could argue that Marx was ill-served by his, Darwin by some of his (Herbert Spencer springs to mind, followed by Francis Galton and Ernst Haeckel), Nietzsche ditto; Rousseau, Blake, Byron, Carlyle, Emerson, Dewey – they all have a lot to answer for. But what then? One hardly wants to recommend that no one propound novel or at least unfamiliar ideas lest some talentless epigones come along and adopt them stupidly.

It is certainly true that Eagleton has been “ill-served by his acolytes”, those jargon-spouting, willfully obfuscating and, sadly, often not too bright purveyors of the kinds of arguments that prefer to loop endlessly rather than take the risk of any kind of original thought. Whoever bears the responsibility for this cultural mire – and only a conspiracy theorist could lay the blame entirely at Eagleton’s DM-shod feet – there is, he believes, an urgent need for fresh, and more profound, thinking about the world we are in. After Theory outlines just some of them. With his characteristic lucidity and wit, it charts the gains and losses of cultural theory and its refusal, or inability, to engage with the Big Issues: not just political, but moral and metaphysical, too.

There you are then. That’s all anyone can do – just keep talking, and if the trend goes wrong, offer a correction.

Follow That Herd

Sep 28th, 2003 8:25 pm | By

This column by David Aaronovitch raises a lot of perennially interesting and chronically unanswerable questions. What is fashion? Who is fashionable? According to whom? In what circles? Who gets to decide? Does it matter?

This question comes up a lot on B&W, not surprisingly. Well it would, wouldn’t it, since we take ourselves (self-flatteringly enough) to be fighting fashionable nonsense, and since we have a fashionable dictionary. Clearly we think we have some idea of what’s fashionable. But equally clearly we’re using the word in a pretty narrow sense, or at least to apply to a pretty narrow population. We’re not talking about runways and models fashion, nor about best-seller list, this week’s top-grossing movie, Top Forty, hit tv show-fashion. But we are still talking about fashion, even though it is minority or coterie fashion. But coteries often have influence out of all proportion to their numbers, so it’s always worth looking at fashion among people with influence.

But it has to be done with care. It’s an easy pejorative, ‘fashionable’ is. Just as ‘politically correct’ is, and for much the same sorts of reasons. It’s one of those ‘Yes Minister’ irregular verbs again – ‘I am hip, you are fashionable, she is a sheep.’ (In fact I wrote an essay for TPM on this tension a couple of months ago.) So Aaronovitch marvels at the notion that Tariq Ali’s polemic against the occupation of Iraq is unfashionable while Aaronovitch’s position on the war in Iraq is fashionable.

The ‘fashionable lurch to the Right’ is, in terms of the war in Iraq (which is what we are really talking about), the least fashionable thing that some of us have ever done. The entire bien-pensant world, every political actress, every talking painter, every modish singer, every T-shirt designer, every clever cartoonist, every radio quiz-show panelist, every TV critic, every professionally young person who can string three words together, has been against us and with Tariq Ali. We have not just been wrong on balance, but wrong beyond discussion, wrong beyond the possibility of being the slightest bit right. Fashionable? We might just as well have ventured into Tate Modern wearing mullet hair and tartan hot-pants.

It’s a fair point. This is yet another kind of confirmation bias at work. People I don’t agree with are fashionable while I’m bravely independent and so are all my friends…


Sep 25th, 2003 7:51 pm | By

One can see from this story how hopeless it is to try to reconcile worries about injustice, torture, inequity, barbaric punishments, misogyny, and just outright cruelty and brutality and bloody awful ugliness, with worries about being tolerant and broad-minded and not colonialist or cultural imperialist or Eurocentric.

Prosecutors argued Ms Lawal’s child was living proof she committed a crime under Sharia. However, defence lawyers countered that under some interpretations of Sharia, babies can remain in gestation in a mother’s womb for five years, raising the possibility that her ex-husband could have fathered the child.

That’s interesting. What if there were no such interpretations of Sharia? What if every possible interpetation of Sharia that anyone could find anywhere held that a woman who had a baby that was not her divorced husband’s should be buried up to her neck and stoned to death? What then? How would defence lawyers counter the prosecutors in that case?

To put it another way, what would we all think if the court had not overturned the execution? What would we think if it had gone ahead? Would we think Sharia was a disgusting nightmare that should be stamped out as fast as possible? Or would we think it’s none of our business.

This is the same question I always wonder about when people earnestly discuss the Koran and earnestly assure us that Sharia and the Taliban are aberrations, that fundamentalist Muslims misunderstand the Koran, that really in many ways it’s very egalitarian about women. Okay, I think, but what if it weren’t? Would everyone still go on finding excuses for Islam? Or would people summon up the nerve to just go ahead and reject that whole method of deciding on morality wholesale. It seems so obvious. 1500-year-old or 3000-year-old books dictated by a deity are not the best source for guidance on how to treat people in the real world. They’re just not.

281 to 1

Sep 25th, 2003 5:16 pm | By

I’m reading Mark Crispin Miller’s The Bush Dyslexicon, a witty but deadly serious analysis of Bush’s real as opposed to advertised nature, and what the election of such an ignorant, unqualified, spiteful man says about US politics and media. Miller makes, for example, one point that doesn’t get made nearly often enough or loudly enough – that Bush and his propagandists succeed by conflating ignorance with poverty – intellectual poverty with literal, financial poverty.

However, the comparison with Andrew Jackson is, to put it mildly, problematic. That military hero was, of course, a fiery democrat…When ‘the laws’ are used ‘to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful,’ Jackson wrote in 1832, ‘the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.’ Our president, on the other hand, is at the service only of the haves – as any cursory study of his record will make clear…

This calculated, transparent, insulting flim-flam serves a dual purpose: it gets a thicky like Bush elected, and it deceives a lot of people about the grotesque and ever-growing inequality of the US system, where CEOs make 281 times what their workers do. No problem. There’s a rich scion of privilege in the White House who got into Andover, Yale and Harvard on family connections, but he doesn’t know anything and he can’t put a coherent sentence together, therefore he’s just plain folks. Right.

News Flash

Sep 25th, 2003 12:19 am | By

Let’s re-invent the wheel again. How many times do we need to learn that democracy is not the same thing as freedom, that the majority will does not necessarily (in fact almost certainly doesn’t) represent the will of absolutely everyone, that in fact majorities are perfectly capable of deciding to oppress minorities? John Stuart Mill seems to be widely read, judging by the number of copies of On Liberty one sees in used bookstores, and yet we still go on telling each other with an air of innocent surprise that democracy in Iraq could possibly mean that people will vote in an oppressive fundamentalist Islamic government. Well yes, it could mean exactly that.

Nicholas Kristof pointed this out in the New York Times a few weeks ago:

Paradoxically, a more democratic Iraq may also be a more repressive one; it may well be that a majority of Iraqis favor more curbs on professional women and on religous minorities. As Fareed Zakaria notes in his smart new book, “The Future of Freedom,” unless majority rule is accompanied by legal protections, tolerance and respect for minorities, the result can be populist repression.

It’s not really even paradoxical. Just for a start, the U.S. democracy elected pro-slavery president after pro-slavery president in the 19th century. Of course majority rules needs to be accompanied by legal protections in order to avoid populist repression. For that matter, we don’t always entirely avoid it even with those protections, do we.

[Another recycle.]

Ya Big Meanie

Sep 24th, 2003 9:05 pm | By

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting story in June – interesting albeit peculiar. So many people arguing so back-to-front – I don’t like this/this is offensive/this hurts my feelings, therefore this has to be wrong. Not that it’s exactly a news flash that people do argue that way – it’s even possible that I’ve been known to argue that way myself – but there is so much of it in this story it does get one’s attention.

Other scholars and activists have blasted the book for reinforcing inaccurate stereotypes.

Hmm. Why do I suspect that those scholars and activists would still have ‘blasted’ the book even if the stereotypes had been accurate? Why do I wonder if they bothered to investigate whether the stereotypes are really inaccurate or not? Why do I think they probably just assumed from the outset that the stereotypes were inaccurate, and ‘blasted’ accordingly?

Despite the draw he has on the campus, many of the descriptions of Mr. Bailey and his new book that have appeared on Web sites and in interviews have been ugly. “Cocky,” “insensitive,” “lurid,” “condescending,” and “mean-spirited” are just some of the designations used.

Notice how all those designations desribe the putative character of the researcher and his attitude but say nothing about the accuracy of the book or the reliability of his methods, and then when you’ve noticed that, notice how back-to-front that is. The book may or may not be dead wrong, but calling the author a big meanie doesn’t prove that it is. Peer review is an excellent institution, and it does not function by peers calling each other mean-spirited and insensitive. No, peers have to do better than that.

But no doubt Mr. Bailey is used to this sort of thing; he ran into it as an undergraduate.

Instead, he pursued an interest in Freudian psychology that was piqued by an undergraduate history course on the topic. “Freud was into all this dark and sexy stuff with the unconscious and how people’s motives are usually hidden,” says Mr. Bailey. “I thought, ‘I can become a psychoanalyst.'” But at Texas he quickly grew annoyed with the clinical-psychology program. “The people doing it were not really researchers. They were more like an authoritarian cult: Believe this or else,” he says. He was more attracted to scholars who were “being hard-headed and asking questions,” and even considering unpopular possibilities, like a link between IQ and genes.

Yes, believe this or else. Or else we’ll say strange things like this:

“He is looking to the body for truth, as opposed to social and cultural frameworks,” says Lane Fenrich, a senior lecturer in the history department who teaches gay and lesbian history and the history of the AIDS epidemic. “It’s in many ways no different from the way in which people were trying to look for the alleged basis of racial differences in people’s bodies.”

Imagine, he’s looking to the body for truth about things that happen in the body. How very shocking. When everyone knows that social and cultural frameworks operate in a complete vacuum, and should be studied that way. Otherwise, people will start making dark references to looking for the alleged basis of racial differences, and if that doesn’t shut you up, what will? Belive this or else we’ll call you inthenthitive and mean-thpirited, and then you’ll be sorry!

[If you’ve been reading B&W for awhile and this seems familiar, that’s because it is: it’s a slightly re-worded version of a N&C that disappeared when the server crashed in July.]

Sauce for the Gander

Sep 24th, 2003 4:35 pm | By

So, as if to prove my point, here is an article that gives some idea of the kind of thing the Competitive Enterprise Institute gets up to. Helping the Bush White House to ‘play down’ research on global warming that could have consequences the CEI wouldn’t like, for example.

White House officials wanted the CEI’s help to play down the impact of a report last summer by the government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in which the US admitted for the first time that humans are contributing to global warming…The email discusses possible tactics for playing down the report and getting rid of EPA officials, including its then head, Christine Whitman…The CEI is suing another government climate research body that produced evidence for global warming.

Interesting. On the one hand we have an article from someone at the CEI who cites malfeasance by two count them two scientists, but talks about ‘the scientific community’ and ‘environmental scientists’ as if there were no difference between two scientists and all scientists. On the other hand we have the CEI colluding with the Bush administration to ‘play down’ (it’s not clear from the article whose language ‘play down’ is, whether it’s actually in the email in question or it’s the reporter’s paraphrase) scientific findings they don’t like.

And then…it’s interesting that Iain Murray draws our attention to one speech by a scientist and one article by another, but doesn’t draw our attention to the way Bush’s staff suppressed and re-worded whole sections of an EPA report on climate change.

A temperature record covering 1,000 years was also deleted, prompting the EPA memo to note: ‘Emphasis is given to a recent, limited analysis [which] supports the administration’s favoured message.’ White House officials added numerous qualifying words such as ‘potentially’ and ‘may’, leading the EPA to complain: ‘Uncertainty is inserted where there is essentially none.’…When the report was finally published, however, the EPA had removed the entire global warming section to avoid including information that was not scientifically credible.

What price the ideals of science or ‘science as an objective tool in public policy decisions’ now, eh?

Leaving Out Words

Sep 22nd, 2003 9:28 pm | By

This is an interesting article that makes a useful point. I thought about posting it in News but then decided not to. The trouble is, there’s too much rhetoric and not enough evidence.

There is a crisis emerging in the scientific community. The ideals of science are being sacrificed to the god of political expediency. Environmental scientists are becoming so obsessed with the righteousness of their cause that they are damning those who wish to use science as an objective tool in public policy decisions.

But Iain Murray gives only two examples. One from 1989 and one new one. But that’s not ‘the scientific community’ or ‘environmental scientists’ as a group, obviously. So why write as if it were? In order to discredit all scientific as opposed to market-oriented discussion of environmental issues? That would seem to be a goal consistent with the outlook of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Now, if someone from the CEI writes an article saying some scientists are unscrupulous about their public rhetoric, fine, we’ll put it in News. But if they leave out the ‘some’ then they are playing the same game they accuse ‘environmental scientists’ of playing, aren’t they.

Cultural Relativism, Again

Sep 21st, 2003 8:56 pm | By

Here is an interesting item. At least I think so. A blogger commenting on our In Focus article ‘Cultural Relativism’ and how the subject has exercised him since he arrived in China (where he lives and works, he’s not just visiting). Then he updates the entry with a link to an article in which the subject is absolutely central. A Norwegian journalist spent some months living with a middle-class family in Kabul and has written a book (now a best-seller) on what she learned there. What she learned, among other things, is that the nice urbane bookseller treats the women in his houshold ‘like dirt’. Now the furious bookseller himself has come to Europe determined to ‘drag Seierstad through the courts and campaign for the destruction of her book’.

The difficulties in cultural relativism show up in for instance the reaction of

Norwegian anthropologist and Middle East specialist Professor Unni Wikan, who doubts the authenticity of much of the book – ‘especially some of those bits she gives in quotation marks’. He said: ‘There is no way she could have possibly had such access to people’s hearts and minds. The moment I saw it in Norwegian, I thought it would be a catastrophe when it came out in English. She has revealed the secrets of the women, which is shameful and dishonourable. It will be regarded as an affront for its lack of respect for Afghans and Muslims.’

Lack of respect for Afghans and Muslims? Really? Is Professor Wikan not perhaps just conflating ‘Afghans and Muslims’ with ‘adult male Afghans and Muslims’? Ishtiaq Ahmed addressed this very issue in a column in the Daily Times of Pakistan a few weeks ago:

The problem is that the cultural relativists exaggerate the supposed consensus prevalent in a culture. Differences of class, sect, caste, gender, ethnic origin and so on are present in all cultures. What is usually defined as the culture of a people is in reality the interpretation and discourse put forth by the ruling class and its allied intellectual elite.

So there is the familiar difficulty. Tim Judah remarks in the Guardian article that ‘The case has opened serious questions about the ethics of journalists and authors from rich countries writing about people from poor countries with very different cultures,’ which may be so, but then what about the ethics of anthropologists from rich countries taking the side of men from poor countries who treat women and children badly? Is that so obviously morally preferable? If so, why, exactly? One has to wonder.


Sep 20th, 2003 10:53 pm | By

There’s a lot of nonsense upon stilts around. Maybe our subtitle should be Fighting Fashionable Nonsense Upon Stilts. I heard something on the BBC World Service this morning that surprised me a good deal. It came at the end of a rather dreary discussion of sport that I wasn’t really listening to – about people who change their nationality in order to compete for a different country, and some of the drawbacks to this arrangement. And then we heard from someone from the European Commission on Human Rights, saying that if governments took a too ‘punitive’ approach (odd word) then they might be violating the human rights of the athletes. ‘People have a right to compete for their country,’ she said. They do? (And what do you mean ‘their country’ since the issue is precisely their swapping countries? And why call the potential reconsideration of this policy ‘punitive’? Is declining to allow people to do something necessarily punitive? If I don’t let you come into my living room without permission is that punitive?) (You see? We can just never get away from rhetoric.) Why do people have a right to compete for their countries? And then, why do they have a right to compete for someone else’s? Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems like an odd conception to me.

It reminds me of a story I linked to some weeks ago, about a UN representative who said that testing schoolchildren could be seen as a violation of their rights. I can see claiming that testing is a bad idea, not helpful, counter-productive, harmful – but a violation of rights? That seems like a stretch.

Julian’s latest Bad Moves discusses some of the reasons a proliferation of rights and rights-talk is not necessarily a good idea.

Yet when people claim the government owes them support to conceive a child artificially because they have a right to have children; that they should be allowed to spread racist or homophobic views because they have a right to free speech; or even that there is no need for greater gun controls in America because of the right to bear arms; it should be clear that it is all too easy to evoke a seemingly unobjectionable right to justify a possibly objectionable course of action.

Indeed it should. People here in the US do claim (very loudly) not only that there is no need for greater gun controls, but also that there is urgent need to get rid of the few weak controls we have, and furthermore that if their ‘right’ to bear arms is eroded any further they will use those arms to resist. And then there is the tragic irony of the way the First Amendment is used to overturn legislation that attempts to reform the way political campaigns are financed – which is, not to put to fine a point on it, by means of large bribes. The courts argue that the right to give millions of dollars to the party of one’s choice is constitutionally protected free speech – with the result of course that the ability of corporations and rich people to influence the governement is protected. Of course, it’s perfectly fair. Just as everyone has a right to sleep under a bridge, as Anatole France said, so everyone has a right to shovel millions of dollars into the pockets of the people who run things. Yes, rights can be quite tricky.

The Colorado Question

Sep 17th, 2003 7:57 pm | By

There’s a heated debate going on in Colorado right now, over something called the ‘Academic Bill of Rights,’ planned legislation that would enforce or promote or encourage universities to adhere to or comply with said Bill of Rights, David Horowitz, the imbalance between registered Democrats and registered Republicans in the political science departments of Colorado universities, and whether and how something should be done about said imbalance. The Academic Bill of Rights itself sounds pretty unexceptionable, declaring for instance that scholars should be hired on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge, not their political beliefs. That provision, for instance, is simply another version of B&W’s mission statement. So far so good. But it is difficult to help being suspicious. It is a Republican governor and legislature that has landed on the idea like a duck on a June bug, and I don’t share Republicans’ assumption that it is only the left that has an axe to grind. I wonder, for example, what these surveys that tell us how many Democrats and Republicans are in the political science department, have to say about how many of each are in the business school – which is, if Colorado universities are typical, much, much larger than the poli sci department. My innocent guess is that Republicans are well represented in business schools. Perhaps over-represented. Does this worry the Republican governor and legislature? If not, why not?

And then there is the question of why there are more Democrats than Republicans in the political science department. It’s not automatically or self-evidently the case that that could only happen if the people doing the hiring were applying political criteria. That’s one possible explanation, but surely it is not very difficult to think of others. Self-selection, for instance. Perhaps the kind of people who prefer teaching political science to, say, selling real estate or bonds, are also the kind of people who prefer to be Democrats. Now, how would the governor and legislature go about fixing that, if it turned out to be the explanation? People’s free choices about how to live their lives, what kind of work they do, what they think and believe, what parties they do or don’t belong to, are supposed to be the kind of thing Republicans are keen to protect. Aren’t they? Am I wrong? Wouldn’t they think it was what they like to call ‘social engineering’ to start fretting about the fact that there are ‘too many’ of one kind of people in universities and ‘too many’ of another kind in real estate, and start issuing instructions and laws and regulations designed to ‘fix’ the ‘problem’?

I don’t know. It seems likely to me that there is a lot of the second kind of reason involved along with (perhaps) some of the first, but I don’t know. Meanwhile at least there is an array of opinion represented in reply to this article at History News Network. And the article makes some good points, too.


Sep 16th, 2003 12:32 am | By

It’s interesting how ideas can go off in unexpected directions. Sort of a six degrees of separation thing – it can seem as if any given idea can lead to any other in three or four steps, however remote they may seem at the beginning. I noticed it yesterday, for instance: I started writing my TPM essay thinking it was going to be about one thing, and after the first paragraph found myself talking about something quite different. I started out thinking the idea led into one subject (and it did) but in the writing found that it also led into another, so followed it there instead.

The core idea was that of competing goods. A familiar enough idea: that many desirable things are incompatible with many other desirable things. Equality and freedom, just for one example. So I meant to do a semi-jokey rant about the unfairness of the arrangement, but found myself instead doing an ironic rant about the unfairness of various other arrangements, and never got to the competing goods aspect at all. Then this morning I was reading a bit of Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, for no particular reason (I often read things and bits of things for no particular reason), and he said something interesting about ‘the tension between sympathy and judgment,’ which made me want to write the first essay again. We’re never finished with ideas. We take them on, we think about them, we wrestle with them, we come up with a further idea or two, we think that’s that. And then a day or two later a new thought occurs, and we realize that’s not that after all. And so we keep ourselves occupied.

Just a Bit More

Sep 14th, 2003 11:36 pm | By

Just a little more about the religion article. Because there really is a lot of nonsense in that piece. I only talked about some of it, and I find there’s another bit I just can’t leave alone, in the last paragraph.

It is often said that science answers “how” questions while religion asks “why”, but that is simplistic. The greater point lies in their scope. Religion, properly conceived, attempts to provide an account of all there is: the most complete narrative that human beings are capable of. Science, by contrast, is – as the British zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter – “the art of the soluble”. It addresses only those questions that it occurs to scientists to ask, and feel they have a chance of answering. The account it provides is wonderful. It has shown that the universe is incomparably more extraordinary, and altogether more glorious, than could ever be conceived by the unaided imagination. Yet it succeeds by narrowing its focus, as a matter of strategy. The story that science tells us, then, does not stand in contrast to that of religion (properly conceived). It is embedded within it.

The longer you look at that the more ridiculous it becomes. First of course there’s the obvious point, that religion can ‘ask why’ all it wants to, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it can’t answer the question any more than anyone else can. It claims to answer it, of course, but as I keep saying, that’s another matter. Claiming isn’t doing; the word is not the deed and shouldn’t be taken for it. But that’s a comparatively minor point next to the really absurd last three sentences. Science is somehow inferior or subordinate to religion because it narrows its focus, it addresses only the questions scientists feel they have a chance of answering. Oh, I see – that’s a problem, is it? It’s better to do what religion does, and ask questions it doesn’t have a chance of answering? And then answer them anyway, by the simple expedient of making it up? That’s better, is it? Ask impossible questions and then make up answers instead of finding pesky old evidence? Thus coming up with the most complete [however fictional] narrative that human beings are capable of? What about those of us who don’t actually want a ‘narrative’ (which is a nice way, i.e. stealth rhetoric, of saying myth or fairy tale or story) but instead want an explanation or a hypothesis? Are we ’embedded’ in the story that religion (properly conceived) tells us too? I refuse, I refuse to be embedded.

A reader emailed me the witty suggestion that the article is a Sokallish hoax. Interesting thought. ‘Perhaps funnier though mortifying if he really meant it. I hope it is an attempt to expose how ‘religious tolerance’ allows utter drivel to not just be printed but thought.’ Indeed. Religous tolerance has a lot to answer for.

Another Stack of Jumpers

Sep 14th, 2003 1:39 am | By

Oh good, more fuzzy-headed nonsense about religion. There does seem to be an inexhaustible supply of it out there. This one is so full of odd, vague, fuzzy statements it’s hard to know where to begin.

One of the highlights of this week’s meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was a discussion on why, although the existing religions do not capture all of what’s out there in the universe, some at least of their endeavours must be taken seriously.

Well what on earth does that mean? ‘Endeavours’? What do you mean endeavours? For that matter, what do you even mean by ‘capture all of what’s out there in the universe’? What do you mean by ‘capture’, what do you mean by ‘all of what’s out there’? Oh never mind. But ‘endeavours’…that could cover a lot of territory. Kindly hand-waving, or telling people they’re damned to hell if they masturbate, or flying planes into tall buildings – the existing religions have had a part in all those ‘endeavours’. Yes I know the planes thing isn’t an official part of the religion in question, but that’s just it, that’s why we need some precision of language here. But vaguest of all – what do you mean ‘must be taken seriously’? I do take religion very seriously indeed, I assure you; I think it can be very dangerous, and I also think it does a lot of more subtle harm even when it’s not actually killing or damning people. But perhaps what is meant by ‘taken seriously’ is ‘believed’. One of those bits of stealth rhetoric like ‘on its own terms’ which we discussed a few weeks ago. Only people don’t want to come right out and say ‘There are some at least parts of religion which must be believed’ because that would seem a bit much. Ever so slightly coercive. So instead there’s just some vague unmeaning rigamarole about taking some (unspecified) endeavours seriously. Well sure, we can all agree to that, right, hon? On account of how we don’t know what it means.

Watson’s and Dawkins’s atheism is rooted at least in part in a mistake. They seem to assume that serious interest in religion must be fundamentalist.

No they don’t. You just assume they do, perhaps because you don’t think anyone can actually disagree with a little harmless theism. But you assume incorrectly. Dawkins is by no means talking only about fundamentalism. He is among other things talking about this line of nonsense:

Religion of course can be discussed from many angles, but the absolute and immediate importance of religion lies in its contribution to morality.

What contribution? What contribution does religion make that philosophy and other kinds of secular thought cannot make? What qualifies religious people to pronounce on morality? The Bible? No, because we pick and choose which bits of the Bible we admire and which we don’t, so clearly we’re using our own judgment on that issue (and besides Tudge has already told us he doesn’t mean fundamentalism, so that lets out Biblical inerrancy). Long practice in thinking about the subject? But moral philosophers can make the same claim, and so can thoughtful amateurs. What then? Just tradition and authority, custom and habit, as far as I can tell. And those aren’t good reasons.

And then there’s this ridiculous assertion:

Religion, properly conceived, attempts to provide an account of all there is: the most complete narrative that human beings are capable of. Science, by contrast, is – as the British zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter – “the art of the soluble”. It addresses only those questions that it occurs to scientists to ask, and feel they have a chance of answering.

Stealth rhetoric again. ‘Complete.’ Well yes, no doubt (although really I would think people like Tolkien and his many imitators who write those great, thick books full of imaginary worlds would give some stiff competion), but since the narrative isn’t true, why is that such a stunning achievement? Are we all supposed to be little children who just want to be told a Story and let it go at that? There’s a very, very great deal of merit to the art of the soluble – to not offering answers to questions you don’t in fact think you have a chance of answering without resorting to ‘narrative’. There’s something deeply unattractive about trying to persuade people that it’s better to have complete but untrue narratives rather than incomplete but well-supported explanations of soluble questions.

Rigorous What?

Sep 12th, 2003 8:06 pm | By

There’s a bizarrely idiotic argument from a commentator on NPR here. The subject is religion, and the Brights, and Dennett’s editorial again. The commentary starts off with the name, which I have no intention of defending: I think it’s absurd, and I’d rather be nibbled by sharks than call myself a Bright. But then it goes on.

55% of people with post-graduate degrees (lawyers, doctors, dentists, and the like) believe in the Devil. 53% believe in Hell. 72% believe in miracles. Remember these are people with post-graduate educations. 78% if them believe in the survival of the soul after death. 60% believe in the virgin birth. And 64% believe in the resurrection of Christ. You can’t get a post-graduate degree without being taught rigorous examination of evidence – figuring out which symptoms indicate a particular disease, or what facts could justify a lawsuit.

Sure you can, if you pick the right subject. I believe there are PhDs in theology, for instance, and in Critical Theory. And besides that, learning rigorous examination of the evidence that applies to one field is not automatically the same thing as learning what counts as evidence in general. Don’t we all know that? Don’t we all know people who are expert in their own field and lost in the fog as soon as they leave it?

Skeptics would say that the human need for something beyond the realities we can touch is so strong that even highly educated people end up manufacturing delusional belief systems. But there is another possibility – that some of these rationally oriented people have found actual proof for their beliefs. Maybe they’ve had a personal supernatural experience with prayer that makes them believe in God or an afterlife. Maybe they’ve found a compelling logic to their views. Perhaps they’ve looked at the universe and said, “something made the big bang happen.” For some highly educated people, faith is not a matter of faith. Rather, they see around them evidence. Evidence that is, to be sure, hard to explain or prove to others, but is nonetheless quite compelling to them.

Our commentator, for instance, seems to be pretty much lost in the fog. Just for a start, ‘actual proof’? A ‘personal supernatural experience with prayer’ constitutes ‘actual proof’? Is that the rigorous examination of evidence Steven Waldman was taught when he got his postgraduate degree? First, to say proof when he means evidence, and then to take someone’s ‘personal supernatural experience’ as evidence? And third, to claim that evidence that can’t be explained or proven to others is nevertheless evidence? Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron? If evidence is convincing to no one but the person who presents it as ‘evidence’ then it really isn’t evidence, is it, it’s something else. By definition. One would think that would be one of the very first things one would learn when being taught this ‘rigorous examination of evidence’ Waldman says all these highly educated believers in the Devil and Hell and the resurrection of Jesus are in fact taught. Perhaps Waldman skipped class that day.

2001, 1973, 1953

Sep 11th, 2003 7:06 pm | By

Well, I know, it’s all too obvious, everyone is saying it, it’s in the air this year (it wasn’t last year, as far as I remember). Maybe because the anniversary is a round 30 instead of 29, and clearly also because of Peter Kornbluh’s book. But however obvious it is, I’m going to say it anyway. September 11 is a horror-anniversary for Chile as well as for the US. And, stomach-churningly for an American, the Chilean horror show was in large part caused and helped and funded and backed by the US. Which emphatically does not mean that I’m saying we got what we deserved or that Osama bin Laden and his disgusting pals were avenging Allende. But it does mean that the US has done its share (well no, more than its share really) of massacring innocents, abusing human rights, turning a blind eye to murder and torture, and overthrowing democratically elected governments.

And that’s not widely known here. We’re famously amnesiac about history, and history is anything that happened more than about five years ago. But it’s not entirely our fault: it’s not as if the popular media remind us every few days of Pinochet’s coup against Allende and the role Nixon and Kissinger played in the whole thing. And if Chile isn’t discussed a lot, what happened in Iran two decades earlier is even less well-known – and that CIA coup could possibly have more connection to al Qaeda than the Chilean one does. If Iran had been allowed to keep its democratically elected government in 1953 instead of having it snatched away by the CIA and replaced with the Shah and his secret police…who knows what might have happened, who knows whether the idea might have caught on and spread or not. We seem to think that democracy in Iraq will be catching, so maybe it would have been equally catching in Iran fifty years ago. Maybe the whole Middle East would have become democratic, peaceful, prosperous, happy – and thus gutted the pool of recruits for al Qaeda. Who knows. I don’t know, but I do wonder. So even apart from the obvious moral questions, it also seems highly likely that the Iranian coup was a truly terrible idea on consequentialist grounds, for us as well as for the people of the region.

There’s an interesting discussion of the Chilean matter at Crooked Timber today.