More on US and Venezuela

Mar 14th, 2004 8:31 pm | By

This story about the US funding opposition to Hugo Chavez is a difficult one to understand clearly. As all stories are, really. Even if one is oneself an investigative reporter and has many reliable sources with masses of evidence – one still doesn’t know what sources one has overlooked, which sources are reliable but partial, reliable but themselves overlooking something – and so on, back and back it goes, into the receding mirror of who really does know. (This of course is the bit of break in the rock where postmodernism gets its toehold: the truth can be very hard to pin down, therefore why not just shrug and say there is no truth and proceed to tell stories instead.) All stories and reports and analyses are like that, but some are even more so.

My colleague points out that it’s odd that there’s not more about it in the UK media, since they’re not usually reluctant to express suspicion of US motives. And he’s right; I haven’t found much. The BBC has a couple of stories, but they’re precisely the kind that are hard to understand clearly. This one is quite non-committal, saying Chavez ‘claims’ the US is funding the opposition, and that the EU has deplored the climate of violence. This one on the other hand reports that Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN has resigned in protest at Chavez’ policies, and talks about tension, violence and division over a referendum to vote Chavez out.

Venezuela is deeply divided over President Chavez, with his supporters regarding him as a champion of the poor and his opponents viewing him as dangerously autocratic.

There you are, of course. One person’s champion of the poor is another person’s dangerous autocratic demagogue. This is certainly not the first time we’ve seen such a scenario – in fact it sounds exactly like Chile in 1973, just for one. So I’ll just offer up a few links, and let you ponder them.

One from the Toronto Star which is pretty much on the champion of the poor side.

Last month, Haiti’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by Haiti’s wealthy elite, with apparent support from Washington. That has fueled speculation Washington will encourage a similar coup in Venezuela, where the well-to-do are itching for an opportunity to overthrow Chavez. In fact, they’ve already overthrown him once. In April, 2002, an armed faction led by the head of the local chamber of commerce stormed the presidential palace and took Chavez prisoner…This country of 23 million remains fiercely divided, mostly along class lines. The opposition, led by the wealthy elite, has 3.4 million signatures on a petition to recall Chavez, but a court-appointed commission has questioned 1.5 million of those signatures. The matter is under review, with the support of international agencies. It’s not surprising the well-to-do hate Chavez who, in the past five years, has made an aggressive assault against their long-entrenched privileges. For decades, they effectively ruled Venezuela, maintaining close ties with U.S. corporate interests and siphoning off billions of dollars in revenues from the state-owned oil company to support their lavish lifestyles.

One from the Observer that considers the comparison with Haiti. Letters to the Guardian, one on each side. And the link José gave, to a site which has as he says a pro-Chavez point of view.

Not This Again

Mar 13th, 2004 9:24 pm | By

Well, this is familiar. Familiar and stomach-turning. What was that we were saying about ‘democracy’? Sometimes that seems to translate to democracy Henry Ford style. Any colour so long as it’s black; any candidate so long as it’s one the US approves of.

But critics of the NED say the organisation routinely meddles in other countries’ affairs to support groups that believe in free enterprise, minimal government intervention in the economy and opposition to socialism in any form. In recent years, the NED has channelled funds to the political opponents of the recently ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide at the same time that Washington was blocking loans to his government.

Shades of 1954. I thought we’d learned our lesson, I thought (idiotically, I admit) we’d stopped doing this kind of thing, if only for reasons of sensible caution and prudence. I thought we’d kind of realized it has a tendency to turn around and bite us now and then. I thought, not to put too fine a point on it, that we’d finally realized that such behavior is not the way to win allies and that yes as a matter of fact we do need allies, despite being The World’s Only Superpower. Oh what’s the use. My own fault for thinking anything so silly.

One From Column A and One From Column B

Mar 12th, 2004 7:36 pm | By

This article on democracy and Islamism raises some interesting and vexing questions we’ve talked about before.

Nevertheless, recent books like Noah Feldman’s After Jihad and Graham Fuller’s The Future of Political Islam suggest that the Islamist movement may indeed be compatible with democracy. They find that while there are holdouts like Osama Bin Laden dead set against anything like democracy, there are many, perhaps even a majority of Islamists who favor free elections. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the Islamists go when it comes to democracy. Free elections are OK, since they see that they would do very well in polling places across the region. However, it’s not at all clear that the Islamists have any interest in the broad array of liberties—like freedom of speech and equal rights—that most people, certainly most citizens of liberal democracies, associate with democracy.

Yes, but that’s just it. At least so it seems to me. Citizens of liberal democracies may (and do) associate a broad array of liberties with democracy, but that’s their mistake, surely. They are not the same thing, and the one does not entail the other. It’s kind of important to keep that in mind! Otherwise one will go around doing ‘regime change’ all over the place and keep being gobsmacked when the newly empowered people elect leaders with no interest whatsoever in any broad array of liberties. How many times do we have to learn this before it sinks in, one wonders.

Does the name ‘Hitler’ ring any bells for instance? Austrian guy, painter, little moustache, kind of a tough nut? He was elected. Various hard men in the Balkans were elected and then evinced a certain lack of respect for broad arrays of liberties. The demographics and history of Rwanda might be enough to give one pause about the inevitability of any link between democracy and liberties, such as the liberty not to be slaughtered by one’s neighbours.

The fact is, this whole mistake looks like one of those confusions of correlation with causation. Those of us who have grown up in the Western democracies are used to seeing various liberties and protection for minority rights along with democracy, so we assume, rather fatuously, that they are inextricably linked. But unfortunately they’re not. They can be made to be inextricably linked, by constitutions, Supreme Courts, Houses of Lords, Senates, various other institutions; but they’re not linked that way of necessity or by nature. The majority is not always right, minorities are not invariably wrong, The People are capable of voting for gross injustices. Life is like that.

Bad News

Mar 10th, 2004 11:29 pm | By

Oh, damn. It’s only recently that I saw a bibliographical reference to Susan Moller Okin’s work (I think in one of Martha Nussbaum’s books, but I’m not sure) and read Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, but I’ve certainly been leaning heavily on it ever since. I just think it’s an excellent book and argument, that points out a lot of things that get too easily overlooked. I haven’t read her other books but have made a mental note to do so. And now – well damn, that’s all. No more books. That’s a real loss.

And judging by this article it’s a global loss, and a loss that goes beyond the library, too. (Not that I think the library is not enough, I don’t, but I certainly admire people who add to libraries and do more besides.) Damn and blast.

Okin argued that if theorists fail to speak about the concerns of women in the domestic sphere, they thereby fail to take into account what it takes to have a public sphere, said Rob Reich, assistant professor of political science. In Justice, Gender and the Family, Okin asked whether the principles of justice should be applied to the family. “Her attitude was that the family could not be exempt from a conception of justice,” Reich said. “After that [book], it was impossible for people to write about political theory regarding the position of women” without taking the domestic sphere into account.

That’s the kind of thing that gets too easily overlooked, for instance in the way people think about multiculturalism and “group rights” – which all too often turn out to be rights to oppress girls and women. Well – hail and farewell.

Plain-talking Boots-wearing Reglar Guy

Mar 9th, 2004 11:56 pm | By

I take the ostrich approach about certain things. Maybe it’s because I’m conserving my irritation-energy in order to use it here – but some sources of irritation I just do my best to ignore. I would ignore people shouting into their cell phones (mobiles) in public if I could, but alas I cannot. I would ignore CNN news on the tv set at the airport if I could, but alas I cannot. I would ignore the nasty music playing in the supermarket and the bookstore if I could, but – you get the idea. But some things I do have control over, some on-off switches I do have access to, and I keep them firmly in the off position. I ignore the presidential campaign (mind you, I always do ignore those), and I ignore tv news and various tv argument shows and shout-fests. But once in awhile I bump into one by accident, on my way somewhere else, and my attention is caught. It was caught a few evenings ago, and I stared in slack-jawed amazement. At? A couple of telegenic guys were mouthing about something on MSNBC, but what I was gaping at was the blurb at the bottom of the screen. It said: ‘Elite media bashes ‘The Passion.’ This was on MSNBC, remember. Oh yes, MSNBC, poor penniless non-elite MSNBC. What on earth does ‘elite’ mean in that illiterate sentence? Something along the lines of ‘Has a different view of things from Normal Amurrikans,’ I suppose.

But of course I shouldn’t be amazed. It’s everywhere, that kind of thing. Which is exactly why I ignore so many pieces of everywhere, so that I don’t have to keep being reminded of that. Of the staggering idiocy of people who swallow that line, and the infuriating perversity of people who peddle it. The line that the elite is no longer the rich and powerful, it’s simply anyone with views however microscopically to the left of whoever happens to be using the epithet. Or, that it’s anyone who’s ever read a book, or who likes reading books, or who likes to think now and then. The line that people like that are bad and evil, and that therefore the way to be a good person is to go to great lengths to seem even more incurious and anti-intellectual than one already is. As in this article about what a ‘regular guy’ George W Bush is.

Until last month, President Bush hadn’t been to a NASCAR race since he was governor of Texas and running for president. On Monday, he goes to a rodeo and livestock exhibition in Houston – again, for the first time since he was governor. Such appearances at sporting events this election year help Bush shore up his standing with his core supporters: white men. They also show him as a plain-talking boots-wearer with Middle America tastes – an image Bush has cultivated for years to counter his background as an Ivy Leaguer from an old, wealthy, New England-based family. That comes in handy particularly this year, as the president will almost certainly face Democratic Sen. John Kerry, a wealthy Northeasterner the Bush campaign aims to paint as out of sync with much of the country. Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at American University in Washington, said the events call attention to Bush as “both the macho guy and the regular guy. Despite all the charges that his administration is a giveaway to the rich, this shows President Bush as in touch with the concerns and the lives of ordinary Americans in all the ways the patrician, distant, former hippie war protester John Kerry isn’t,” Lichtman said.

What? What? It does what? It shows what? In touch? What does that mean? The concerns? The lives? The boots? What in hell is the man talking about? Have we been completely invaded by pod people who have sucked out all our brains and eaten them, leaving small pools of Miracle Whip in their place? Do people really not realize that the ol’ boots-wearer, Mr Plain-talking (that’s one way to describe it), is also a wealthy Northeasterner? Who is in fact himself ‘out of sync with much of the country’? (That usually is the case, actually. That’s why we have more than one party, at least it’s supposed to be.) That however many boots he wears he is still who he is and not some ranch hand? That tastes are one thing, and what he does to us is quite, quite, quite another? Is that really so hard to grasp??

Well, you see why I ignore this kind of thing. My voice rises to a piercing scream in a matter of seconds, my eyes bulge out of my head, and then I start to foam at the mouth. So it won’t do. I’ll let Tom Frank do it instead. He does a very good job.

That’s the mystery of the United States, circa 2004. Thanks to the rightward political shift of the past 30 years, wealth is today concentrated in fewer hands than it has been since the 1920s; workers have less power over the conditions under which they toil than ever before in our lifetimes; and the corporation has become the most powerful actor in our world. Yet that rightward shift-still going strong to this day-sells itself as a war against elites, a righteous uprising of the little guy against an obnoxious upper class.

Frank also goes on to say interesting things about the grain of truth in the Volvo-driving liberal stereotype, and what the left ought to do about it.

Fifty Fifty?

Mar 8th, 2004 7:10 pm | By

One question we keep hearing a lot in relation to this discussion of religion is one along the lines of ‘Why bother?’ Why bother to argue about religion, or to analyze it, or to point out weak arguments some of its defenders use? What is the point? Religion is a need, it’s always been there, it’s probably hard-wired, people aren’t going to give it up, arguments are beside the point, you’re wasting your time. Well, one, I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Not in all places and all times, and if not there and then, then not in general either. That is, I think there may be a confusion between what is hard-wired and what is simply heavily reinforced by the surrounding culture. There have been people, cultures, areas, that were more or less secular, more or less skeptical, more or less unsupernatural. Surely if that has happened in some situations, it can happen in other situations. It may or may not be desirable, but I think whether it’s possible or not is an open question. And two, and more to the point, even if that is true, obviously it’s not universally true. Obviously some people do not feel a profound unappeasable need for a deity. Some people (I’m one) even feel an active repugnance for the idea.

That being the case – surely there must be vast grey areas in between. Between ardent believers who wouldn’t change their minds no matter what anyone said, and determined skeptics who ditto. Surely there are plenty of people who believe, but tentatively; who believe, but are open to argument; who believe, but recognize the difference between belief and certainty. And plenty more people, especially young people, who just don’t know.

It’s not as if people never do change their minds about anything, after all. They do. We do. I do it myself all the time, and I don’t think I’m so peculiar that I’m the only person on the planet who does. Often the mind-changing we do is fairly easy, because it meets no reisistance: it’s not a matter of altering engrained habits of thought or entrenched intellectual commitments, but simply a matter of learning something we didn’t know before, or learning more on a subject about which we knew little. But now and then, if presented with powerful arguments or evidence, or if we are at some kind of mental turning point, we can even change our minds about things that really matter to us.

And it is worth chivvying away at all this, I think, because bad arguments go on being made. It is worth pointing them out, in hopes that their perpetrators will at least manage to come up with better ones. There is for instance this one which a reader sent me a link to. Read that article and then wonder if the ‘scientist’ (why does the article never say what kind of ‘scientist’ the guy is? what is the point of that absurd honorific use of the word ‘scientist’ in such a totemistic way? that’s the kind of thing that puts people off the very word. And what’s with the repetition of the ‘Dr’ bit? What, he has a PhD therefore what he says can’t really be as silly as it sounds? Is that the idea? Well, I hate to tell you, but…) would have started from such a bizarre assumption if he hadn’t been setting out to find what he wanted to find in the first place.

A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists. Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being. Bayes’ Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation. The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being.

Oh is that the assumption it starts from. Ah. Can we use that for everything? For anything? Shall we all become Bayesians and see how it works? Let’s see. Zeus has a 50/50 chance of existing. So does Tinkerbell. So does Francis the Talking Mule, and Krishna, and Spider Man, and the crew of the Enterprise, and the dramatis personae of ‘The Tempest,’ and the characters in Middlemarch. Everything we can think of has a 50/50 chance of existing, and so does everything we can’t think of. That should cover it.

‘Assumption’ is a very interesting word. It makes a large difference which ones we start from, and why. And it goes on being worth pointing that out, I think.

Update: here is an excellent comment on the book, recommended by José.

What We Don’t See

Mar 4th, 2004 8:08 pm | By

What was that I was saying only a day or two ago about smelly little orthodoxies and the hijab? This article from the BBC certainly gives a good illustration of what I mean. Two mentions of Muslim opposition to the ban, and no mentions at all of Muslim support for the ban. If you don’t already know a little about the subject, and read that article, you’ll be left with the impression that Muslims who have any opinion on the matter are opposed. But that is simply not true. Forty percent of Muslim women support the ban, according to news reports I’ve seen.

Most of France’s political parties, and around 70% of the population, support the ban which some Muslim leaders say risks being perceived as intolerant…Some French MPs, backed by Muslim leaders and rights groups, have warned that the new law could be seen as intolerant and undermine the integration of France’s Muslims. They say young Muslim women are being forced to wear the headscarf, though the few hundred who have turned out for demonstrations against the new law say they wear it of their own free will. Many governments and human rights groups have criticised the bill – including the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the US-based advisory group, the Commission on International Religious Freedom.

That’s it, those are all the places the word ‘Muslim’ is used. It says ‘some’ Muslim leaders in that first sentence, but doesn’t bother to point out that other ‘Muslim leaders’ are not merely indifferent or neutral or not bothering to say anything, but are in fact in favour of the ban. Sly, subtle, sneaky, and not a very forthright form of reporting, I would say. Though it may not be deliberate. The malodorous orthodoxy may be so well internalized that the reporter wasn’t even aware of giving a partial (incomplete) account. It may be so taken for granted that all Muslims love the hijab, and that a school dress code is an interference with religious freedom, that the fact that some Muslims don’t see it that way simply fails to register. As does the fact that many of the people who favour the hijab and oppose the ban are not just nice pious people but extremely reactionary, are well to the right of your Jerry Fallwell and your Pat Robertson, are in fact the kind of people who beat up and rape women for not ‘covering up.’ That’s how smelly little orthodoxies work, isn’t it, they just get dug in until people stop noticing them and stop being able even to see alternatives. A good reason to point them out then.

A Basin of Nice, Thin Gruel

Mar 3rd, 2004 11:55 pm | By

I want to talk just a little more about this question of morality and motivation. The more I think about it the more of a wall it seems. A dead stop, an aporia, a permanent undecideable. A six of one half dozen of the other. Norm Geras put it very well:

I have read that in the Nazi camps, those who did best at maintaining their moral bearings, at not going to pieces in face of the horrors they daily had to experience, were people of very firm and definite convictions: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish rabbis, hardened communist militants. On the other hand, intellectuals, liberal and professional people, sometimes suffered a precipitous moral collapse…To have had to get used to conditions of life and death in places where there was no why would have been hard enough for anybody; but it may have been especially testing and cruel for those educated in the norms of a sceptical rationality. Would we want to say, though, that the religious or quasi-religious forms of certainty which have helped to save some people in such conditions are, on that account, to be given an unqualified pass as ethical motivators, when we know what else, what horrors, such certainties can themselves lead to?

That’s just it, you see. It’s precisely the qualities that enable people to maintain their moral bearings in an unspeakable situation, that also enable people to eliminate doubt, ambiguity, complexity, uncertainty, caution. That can be a good thing, even a splendid thing – but it can also be a bloody nightmare. Maybe overall, thin gruel is really a safer dish than stronger meats. Maybe all those lions with blood dripping from their jaws, all those dedicated impassioned righteous soldiers (one thinks of Opus Dei, and shudders slightly), are simply too dangerous, for all their courage and self-sacrifice. Especially since the things they believe in, the things that motivate them, are not testable or investigatable, not questionable or revisable. If they get it all wrong there is no one to tell them so; no one they’ll listen to anyway. Thin gruel is not an exciting dish, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t scald your insides, either.


Mar 2nd, 2004 7:34 pm | By

I now think I inadvertently conceded a little too much in that last post. Through not paying quite enough attention to the first part of Chris’ comment – the ‘at its best, religion succeeds in a symbolic articulation of universal moral concern’ part. My attention was grabbed by the parenthesis, by ‘motivation,’ because motivation is exactly what I had it in mind to talk about. I do think religion can be a powerful motivator, for both good and ill. But that symbolic articulation I take to be a separate question, and that one I’m much more doubtful about. I for one simply don’t find its articulations all that impressive, or at least no more so (at best) than secular articulations. There’s a bit of Isaiah I love with a passion – the one about the lion and the kid lying down together – but it expresses a thought that a secularist could (and does) easily have just as well. It’s probably a thought that humans have had as long as they’ve been human.

To put it another way – I’m not sure it really is the ‘symbolic articulation’ that does the motivating. That’s why I take the two to be separate. I think the motivation actually comes from somewhere else. From the tangle of idealization, fantasy, imagination and so on that makes up the deity. That’s pretty much the point of a deity, after all. To provide a focus for all those longings and imaginings, to make up for all the terrible lacks of human beings, to be anything and everything we want, desire, need, long for. We need it and miss it and want it; we imagine and conjure it up; we love it. Of course we love it – what’s not to love? What are we going to imagine, a crappy tiresome inadequate deity that’s just as imperfect and frustrating as real people are? As boring, or bad-tempered, or lazy, or more interested in self than in us, as real people are? What would we do that for? What would be the point of that? No, our deity is like all the nicest things in the people we like and entirely without all the nasty bits. That’s the motivator, surely. (That doesn’t describe the all-too-human Greek deities, or the god of wrath, to be sure, but the effect is the same. Either extreme love or extreme fear: both gut-level motivators.)

Religious morality is not particularly original, and a lot of it is disgusting. Even Jesus, that we’re encouraged to think is all about love thine enemy and turn the other cheek and little else, is made to say some appalling things by the writers of the gospels, especially John. It always horrifies me to read of, say, Muslim feminists explaining that the Koran does not in fact require female genital mutilation or the hijab or whatever other piece of female subordination is being discussed. Good, glad to hear it, but what if it did? Would you then bow your head and submit? Or would you find a better way to decide your morality.

Either the morality is good, in which case the deity is surplus to requirements, or it isn’t, in which case the deity is one we should reject. But…the point about thin gruel remains. It’s hard to think of a substitute for religion as a motivator. Literature, as with Arnold and Leavis? Rock concerts? Football? Sometimes political movements can do it. The Civil Rights movement in the US was like that, and the struggle against apartheid. Which prompts baffled thoughts about the fact that we get inspired to be our best, dedicated, self-sacrificing selves when there is a glaring injustice to be corrected…So does that mean it’s good that there should be glaring injustices? Hardly. And yet the inspiration is precisely bound up with the injustice. This is a familiar thought, but one that doesn’t get discussed much. But it’s well-known that veterans of the Civil Rights movement, like veterans of the Spanish Civil War, are nostalgic for the Cause and the ‘beloved community.’ We’re all like Don Quixote, wishing we had something noble to work for. Making a little more money isn’t quite it.

Norm Geras has a very interesting post that’s also on this overall subject. And I have a good deal to add. It’s like a hydra, all this. Every N&C suggests three or four more. Get comfortable; we may be here for awhile.

Antipathy and Propathy

Mar 1st, 2004 12:09 am | By

I was planning in any case to say a few things about the case for the other side. In a laborious attempt to be fair, to avoid groupthink and confirmation bias, etc. No not really, that’s only a joke – there actually are some things to be said for the other side that I find persuasive. Not for the basic truth claims of religion, but for the idea that religion can be a good thing in some ways. (Not much of an admission, believers will think, but it’s the best I can do.) I was planning to do that today in any case and then by pure coincidence I got a reminder or reinforcement from Chris Bertram at Twisty Sticks. He cites as his reason for not sharing my antipathy to religion, the very thing I was going to talk about.

One of the reasons I can’t bring myself to share the antipathy to religion that is expressed by someone like our esteemed regular commenter Ophelia Benson, is that, at its best, religion succeeds in a symbolic articulation of universal moral concern that secular morality finds it hard to match up to (motivationally, I mean). Secular morality is a thin gruel compared to the notion that, as children of God, we are to think of ourselves as brothers and sisters.

I know. I wish I didn’t, I wish it were otherwise, but I do, and it isn’t. At least not generally, not here and now. There have been times and places where secular or mostly-secular forms of morality in fact did motivate people to be good. Stoicism, Epicureanism and other Hellenistic schools did do that kind of work, and I think so did Confucianism. And then of course there is Marxism. Now there’s a secular motivator that’s not thin gruel! But the dire effects of some of that motivation spring to mind and one has to wonder if motivation and irrational conviction are entirely inseparable, and hence dangerous. Can one have the motivation without the tendency to seize the bit and run blindly off into the land of revenge, cruelty, ruthlessness and massacre? I really wonder. That ‘at its best’ that Chris has there is crucial – one couldn’t even have that sentence (not honestly) without it.

But all the same I do know. A thought about this that struck me fairly recently has to do with loyalty, and how that is probably a large motivation factor. A more familiar factor is the one about judgment and punishment or reward – that’s the factor that James Mill had some harsh things to say about, to mention only one critic. But that doesn’t have to be the only one. To the extent that people are able to feel love for whatever deity they believe in – love, as opposed to fear – then they want to do what they think will please the deity. If they think of the deity as kind and loving (which is a bit of a trick, given the world as it is, but never mind that for now), then they will want to be kind and loving. They will feel not just squalid, self-regarding, calculating reluctance to do mean, cruel, pain-causing things, but more generous, other-regarding reluctance. And that does happen. Which comes first, which causes which, is a nice question – whether people who would be like that anyway are the kind who have that view of the deity, or whether such people actually become better than they would be otherwise. But some sort of link seems at least possible.

So that’s one item, and I can think of others, having to do with community and so on. I’ll save them for later.


Mar 1st, 2004 12:08 am | By

Are we all awash in a sea of mutual agreement and back-patting and groupthink here? Is all this discussion of lame defenses of religion just another smelly little orthodoxy*? Do we agree with each other too much, with the result that we are smug and arrogant, as the beleaguered minority that doesn’t agree with us says? My colleague probably thinks so, even though he’s just as critical of religion as I am. He thinks blogs tend to foster groupthink; he’s just written a very good column on the subject for TPM. He also thinks a lot of other skeptical things about blogs, which is tiresome of him. No doubt he thinks I’m being very pompous, vain, boring, etc, as some commenters do.

Well, maybe so, maybe I am. But if what I’m saying, and if what other skeptical commenters are saying, about religion is nonsense and self-satisfied arrogant drivel – fine: convince us. Talk us out of it. Make a case. Give an argument. By all means. I just haven’t seen any that convince me yet.

What I have seen is some more material for the Rhetoric Guide. For instance: the easy equation of failing to agree with, failing to be convinced by, a dissenting opinion, with arrogance and smugness. But not all failure to assent to dissenting opinions is arrogance or smugness, is it. One can’t agree with any and every opinion that’s offered, can one, not without risking total incoherence and getting everything wrong most of the time. As so often, there is a conflation, an elision, a running together going on here, a non sequitur. You disagree with me therefore you are being arrogant and smug and obstinate and you’re not listening. But that ‘therefore’ is bogus. One can continue to hold an opinion despite proffered dissenting opinions, without necessarily being arrogant and smug. The one does not entail the other. Surely all sorts of alternative explanations are obvious: the evidence is not there, the arguments are not well-founded, the basic commitments of the two parties are different, and so on. And then, a further possibility is that we are indeed being arrogant and smug, engaging in an orgy of mutual congratulation, and still are right, or still have a better case, or still have better arguments. Or not. But the mere failure to be convinced by opponents, by itself, does not equal arrogance.

And one thing that’s a bit disingenuous about the charge is that there is no shortage of arrogance and smugness on the Hooray for religion side. At least that’s my view – in all its arrogance and smugness. That’s part of the point of this whole discussion – that many of the commonly-heard defenses of religion, defenses that come even from atheists like Gould, in fact have a good deal of arrogance and smugness to them, such as the idea that religion has a monopoly or even a special expertise in morality for example. That’s one reason I want to deconstruct them. (The main reason is just that I think they’re wrong.)

Don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t think I’m doing any original philosophy or anything like that here. I ain’t qualified to do that. I’m just trying to take a look at some familiar public rhetoric on the subject of religion, and say what’s wrong with it. Anyone can do that. A cat may look at a king, and we citizens and consumers of mass media are allowed to offer our opinions on various subjects. That’s something I for one (differing with my esteemed colleague on this matter) think blogs can be good for.

But I don’t refuse to be convinced. Only I have to be convinced.

*One of our more vituperative critics accused me of setting up a smelly little orthodoxy a couple of weeks ago, which was odd, because in the context the phrase meant the exact opposite of what Orwell meant by it: the context was the argument over the hijab, and surely, surely, among the bien-pensants (that’s French for ‘smelly little orthodoxy’) in the Anglophone world the smelly little orthodoxy is emphatically against the hijab, not for it. It’s smelly and orthodox precisely for the extent to which one is forbidden to say anything at all in favour of the ban, and to which one is called rude names and made mock of for daring to do so. What could be more smellily orthodox than that I really don’t know.

Another Bad Defense

Feb 27th, 2004 11:27 pm | By

We’ll get back to the religious discussion (and anyway it’s continuing in a lively manner in the comments), but other things come up in the meantime. This item may seem like just a bit of self-advertising, but it isn’t really. I hadn’t even seen it until today, and didn’t know about it, so I feel I came by it honestly. That is to say, I would have linked to it anyway, even if it had not been by someone who writes a column for B&W; I would have linked to it if I’d never heard of Julian. I would have done a Note and Comment as well, because he mentions some ideas I’ve been scratching away at lately, and others that suggest new areas for further inquiry.

There is this for instance:

Several months ago I was contacted by another Sunday morning show to discuss some religious issue or other, and on that occasion the producer explicitly said that the reason for not using me was that I was “not extreme enough”. This is the kind of thinking that hampers serious, constructive debate over the challenges a multicultural society faces. The media almost invariably confuse balanced coverage with having two sides put equal and opposite cases.

That is a pretty bizarre thing for a producer to say, isn’t it. Arguably, of course, it’s not so much ‘thinking’ as sheer bottom-line calculation. Viewers prefer to watch people with polarized ideas shout at each other rather than people with overlapping ideas tease out their disagreements and discuss the reasons for them. That’s not entertaining, who wants to watch that! It’s useful, it’s helpful, it’s constructive, it teaches everyone something, but it’s not like watching a street fight, so the hell with it. But too right about hampering proper debate. That’s something that gets plaintively pointed out here quite often, too, but fat lot of good it does. James Fallows said it in his book Breaking the News, and Deborah Tannen said it in hers The Argument Culture. But to no one’s surprise the McLaughlin group and Bill O’Reilly didn’t suddenly mend their ways.

And we’ve been running into the same thing here lately, at least it seems so to me. It seems to me there was a strong either-or line on the hijab issue: either you’re completely unequivocally against it, or you’re wrong, and that’s all there is to it. Mention of possible reasons to oppose the hijab was just treated as thought-crime and either ignored or greeted with foam-at-the-mouth personal vituperation. There just wasn’t any room to treat it as a complicated issue with a lot to be said on both sides. That’s odd – but maybe another point Julian makes can help explain it:

The lazy use of derogatory labels is one symptom of this malaise. One of the least helpful of these is “Islamophobia”. The introduction of this term into the lexicon of multiculturalism has, at a stroke, made it much more difficult to draw the kind of careful distinctions a serious discussion needs. It should be obvious that there is a world of difference between disliking a belief system and hating its adherents. “Islamophobia” blurs this distinction, by suggesting that opposition to Islam is just a prejudice, like homophobia or racism.

Exactly so. I’ve squandered a lot of breath (and typing energy) lately arguing that it’s a really terrible idea to conflate religion with race, and that includes conflating any particular religion with race. They are very, very different things, both because one is voluntary and escapable and the other is not, and because one is a system of ideas and the other is not. Make religion the equivalent of race and in an instant you’ve made it much more difficult to disagree with anything a given religion does. Which of course is exactly why the defenders of religion and religions do it. But why the defenders of multiculuralism do it is another matter, and one that needs some looking into.

By eliding “race and culture” and presenting them as though they were two sides of the same coin, Phillips tarred Goodhart with the Powellite brush. But this is nonsense. Race and culture are not inseparable. Culture concerns beliefs and practices and we are responsible for what we believe and do. We have no such responsibility for the colour of our skin or ethnicity.

Exactly. Just what I say! Therefore must be right. So there’s another confusion we all need to oppose, along with the one about religion and ‘separate spheres.’ Religion is not entitled to defense on the basis of being the same sort of thing as poetry or love, and it’s also not entitled to defense on the basis of being the same sort of thing as race. It’s going to have to do better than that.

Not Only Where but Also What

Feb 26th, 2004 7:08 pm | By

Funny, it didn’t even seem like that much of a storm. I went out for a walk in it, thinking it was just a common or garden variety storm. I didn’t turn back after five minutes because I was drenched, so it can’t have been raining all that hard! It was certainly raining sideways, thanks to the wind, but I have been in many harder rains. I was wet when I got back but not soaked. And yet there were floods. And then awhile later there was more wind, and then there was a sudden unpleasant absence of electricity, which lasted more than seven hours. Nature can be so obstructive.

I was going to say something about meaning (and what we mean by it), but I want to say a little more about borders first, and also about what we mean by ‘science’. Those two things are essentially the same subject, but approached from different angles. What we mean by ‘science’ makes an enormous difference to what we mean by those formulas about the separate spheres – to where we draw those contentious borders between them. Or rather not all that contentious – not contentious enough. That’s my point. For some reason the platitude about ‘Science over here’ and ‘many other valuable things over here on the other side’ gets endlessly repeated and not questioned enough. If it can get repeated and not questioned even by such a thoroughgoing rationalist and scientist as Gould, we know something must be odd.

One thing worth mentioning is that it’s not only a matter of the location of the borders, but also one of what the borders are actually like. Are they sharp and clear like a fence or a wall? Or are they more vague and blurry, like, Oh, that range of hills; like, From about here to about over there somewhere. Or are they in fact not a border or division at all but a continuum. Maybe it is simply not the case that science is entirely different from poetry, emotion, love, justice and the other items that usually go in the other sphere. Maybe science is simply continuous with rational inquiry, only (as Susan Haack puts it) more so. If that’s the case (and I think it is) then is science really entirely irrelevant to, say, love, or poetry? Is it out of the question to think about either of those things in a rational way? One can think about things in a rational way without thereby excluding also thinking about them in a non-rational way, after all. And surely we all do. Martha Nussbaum has an excellent illustration of this, I’ve just remembered while typing, in Sex and Social Justice [sorry I can’t give the page reference at the moment, because I’m Away and don’t have it with me]. She’s discussing Nell Noddings’ ideas about women’s ‘different’ approach to knowledge via ‘caring,’ and she offers as example her feeling of unreflective love for her daughter on seeing her asleep on the couch after a basketball game. Very nice, says Nussbaum, but is it really true? Aren’t there all sorts of rational ideas underlying that unreflective feeling? How does she even know that is her daughter for example? And how does she know the sleep is a healthy athletic one and not a drug-induced stupor? And many more elaborations of the idea, which are both convincing and amusing.

So that’s the kind of thing I mean. The banal version means something like: science is in another sphere from love because you can’t stick love in a test tube or on a scale. True enough, but it doesn’t follow that you can’t learn anything at all about it by taking thought and even to some extent by considering evidence. And surely that applies to most of the items in the usual version of the Other Sphere. They may not belong in a test tube, but it doesn’t follow that there is nothing of interest or value to be said and thought about them via analysis and inquiry and investigation. The whole scheme is in fact a canard, and should be done away with.

East of the Border

Feb 24th, 2004 4:49 pm | By

José mentioned the resort to fuzzy and misleading analogies that sophisticated theists resort to. I’ve been thinking, and scribbling notes, about that for a day or two. It’s true. There are fuzzy misleading analogies that crop up over and over again. I’m short on time at the moment, so will just say a couple of things, and go on at more length tomorrow.

There is for instance another version of the ‘separate sphere’ argument. That ‘science’ (never explicitly defined, and always cited in such a way that it’s implicitly defined far too narrowly) is in one sphere and poetry, art, morality, meaning and similar (often including things like love) are in another, along with of course religion. But if one thinks about it, that’s an odd way to draw the map. I could just as easily draw a quite different map, or several different maps, with the borders in quite different places. With science and all other kinds of empirical inquiry in one sphere and perhaps art, poetry, meaning and religion in another. Or with empirical inquiry and secular activities such as art and poetry along with emotion in one, and religion and ‘meaning’ in another. Or with all the terms except religion on one side and religion all by itself on the other. It all depends on which criteria you use to decide who goes on which side, doesn’t it.

And that gets into the misleading analogy aspect. Poetry and literature are great favourites for this – but that is indeed a bad analogy. There is a reason fiction is called ‘fiction’ for instance. Because it’s fiction. Surely an enormously important difference between literature and religion is that literature does not claim to be true in the way that religion does. Nobody talks about having ‘faith’ in Anna Kareninina or Macbeth. Nobody reproaches presidential candidates for not mentioning Elizabeth Bennett or Don Quixote often enough. Nobody ends a campaign speech with ‘Hamlet bless you.’ It’s a very tendentious matter where that border should be drawn, as it so often is with borders. It’s a victory for the theist side if as many items as possible are included on their side – in short everything except laboratory science. But one could argue that none of the items really belong there – except possibly ‘meaning.’ I have some thoughts on that, but they’ll have to wait.

Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

Feb 23rd, 2004 11:01 pm | By

I think part of why this either-or argument is so interesting is because the ‘separate spheres’ retort is so popular. If I’ve heard people say that once I’ve heard them say it – quite a few times. It’s always irritated me profoundly. That’s one reason I was so intensely annoyed to see Stephen Jay Gould, of all people, come out with it a few years ago. (Another reason was that he said so many absurd things in the process.) It’s always irritated me because it’s so convenient. So perfectly tailored to allow people to believe anything and everything they want to, just by locating whatever it is in the ‘separate sphere.’ Of course, people are ‘allowed’ to believe what they want to in any case, but with a convenient sphere to stash things in, they can do it without losing face intellectually, or at least they think they can, and some people let them get away with it.

But let’s stop letting them do that, shall we? Let’s hold their feet to the fire. Let’s just ask them, if it’s in some separate sphere that’s immune from any kind of inquiry (and don’t let them claim there’s another, special kind of inquiry for the Separate Sphere, because there isn’t), then how do they know anything about it? And if they don’t know anything about it, why are we supposed to believe them when they tell us where it is? If they do know anything about it – how do they know? Perhaps they’ll tell you it’s via an inner experience. Well, that experience is part of nature, obviously. So let’s inquire into it. They won’t want to let you, of course, they’ll claim it’s impossible, or that they’ve had a Revelation. But just stay calm, nibble a few pistachios for strength, and ask where the Revelation came from.

After all they have gotten away with it for a long time. It is very convenient, isn’t it. There just happens to be this Place that’s not really a place, that’s not part of nature, that’s not subject to scientific inquiry (meaning any kind of human inquiry), that’s not anything we know anything about – but even though we don’t know anything about it, by definition, because it’s in this Other Realm outside of nature – despite that, religious people know all about it and about the deity who lives there. Oh well that’s convincing. Hmph. If that’s where it is then they don’t know anything about it and can’t say anything about it, and can’t whistle about it either.

Either It Is, or It Is Not

Feb 23rd, 2004 6:33 pm | By

Right, where was I, before things got so busy. Several places, one of which was a series of disagreements over theism and atheism. One of our readers, Ben Keen, emailed me a thought on the subject last week that suggested some further thoughts, or they may be just repeated restatements of the same thought, I’m not sure. My brain got a bit curdled over the last few days, and I’m not sure it’s back to normal yet. Whatever ‘normal’ may be in my case.

Ben’s comment, which he’s given me permission to quote, was this:

the topic of
religious claims being exempt from the same sort of scrutiny as other
sorts of truth-claims. Something people often say is that science
makes claims about the natural world and religion about things outside
the natural world. Well, it occured to me that if it’s claimed that
God can possibly have any effect at all on the natural world or if
religious precepts somehow are meant to engage in any way whatever in
how we think or act in the natural world, then indeed they must be part
of the natural world. There’s no way that something can have any
meaningful effect on us without somehow being part of the world we live
in – so the claim of privilege by separation is bogus.

I don’t think I’d thought of it in quite that way before. I’d thought of it in a slightly different way, which was to wonder in a sullen fashion why, if this God people are always saying is in another realm, is in another realm, they think they know so much about it and can talk about it with confidence? Huh? But that doesn’t make the point sharply enough, whereas Ben’s version does. Surely there are only two possibilities. Either the deity is part of nature, in which case it is accessible to human research and inquiry, or it is not, in which case it isn’t. Period. You can’t have a deity that is in some convenient ‘other realm’ inaccessible to atheists and scientists but accessible to ‘spiritual’ people. Or one who is in some other, non-natural realm, but nevertheless is in some way active or relevant in this, natural one. That’s just a flat contradiction, it makes no sense. So that particular argument just falls splat and becomes useless.

Another Installment

Feb 21st, 2004 7:16 pm | By

I suppose you’re thinking I’ve fallen silent. That, exhausted by all the to-and-fro, the heat and light, the blood sweat and tears of late, I’ve shrugged and yawned and decided to take up ping pong in a serious way.

No I don’t, not really, I don’t suppose you’re thinking about it one way or another, on account of how you have better things to think about. I just like to say things like that. I only do it to annoy, because I know it teases. At any rate, no, I haven’t fallen silent. On the contrary, I had a whole stack of things to talk about on Thursday, along with the ones I didn’t get to last week – and then something intervened. My colleague and I had a sudden unexpected and very large assignment, so we had to drop everything else and work on that. So now my heap of back N&Cs is longer than ever. I’ll never catch up. The rest of my life, I’ll have this nagging gnat-like little thing somewhere in my mind, buzzing away in a tiny voice about those old Comments I never commented. No I won’t. I just like to say things like that.

Anyway the heat and light was all very useful really, whatever you may think. I got a lot of new material for the Rhetoric Guide, which I haven’t updated in – I don’t even know how long. At least a year probably. All very ‘if you’ve got a lemon make lemonade,’ isn’t it. But true all the same.

And so back to the discussion. There is a pretty good article at the LRB on the hijab issue. One bit of it gave me a terrible turn for reasons somewhat separate from the hijab issue:

Another factor is surely how difficult it’s got, since 11 September, to tell a man of God from a politician. ‘God bless you’ and ‘Allahu akbar’ are not part of political discourse in France as they are in the United States and the dar el-Islam. France can feel squeezed between the two (and niggled in a third way, so to speak, by the cross-Channel wash of Blair’s piety). People feel that their cherished secular state is now something of a redoubt, and are losing their taste for an open-ended attitude to the veil.

Oh, damn. Tell me about it. I don’t watch or listen to things like campaign speeches precisely for this kind of reason (among others, all to do with general pointlessness), but I heard the end of a Kerry speech on the news and sure enough – ‘…blah blah blah and God bless you.’ I jumped as if I’d been cattle-prodded. ‘Will you stop that!’ I felt like snarling. There was a time when presidential candidates did not say that. It’s within living memory, even. I think it was Reagan who started it – I think born-again Carter didn’t do that. Was polite enough to keep it to himself. But everybody since, boy – god-blessing all over the place. Well, so – there we are, paired with the dar el-Islam. Oh good. That’s just exactly what I want the country I live in to be like. Not pesky old secular France but the god-ridden dar el-Islam. Who can blame France for feeling squeezed? (Well that’s a silly question, a lot of people can. But I don’t, anyway.) But back to the main point:

Teachers tell worrying stories which depict the veil as the beginning of selective opposition to the curriculum. This might, for example, include a Muslim student’s refusal to do gym or discuss certain areas of natural science, or to countenance teaching on the Holocaust, and then shade off into abuse or physical violence after a classroom session on the Middle East. Teachers are also clear that the wearing of religious symbols tends to exacerbate the divisions over heated issues such as Palestine. This is a management issue then, as much as a matter of principle, and a very urgent one, because of the frightening rise of anti-semitic harassment in French schools.

The management issue is surely one aspect. It’s not as if school dress-codes are unheard of. If a religion required students to attend school naked from the waist down, would teachers cheerfully acquiesce? Add that onto the coercion of women aspect, and at the very least it seems reasonable to say that one ought to be able to see some merit in the ban without being accused of thought-crime.

The old law of 1905 separating church and state has been much discussed in the course of the veil controversy, particularly by women who support the new one, and it is to women – of Muslim and non-Muslim origin – that the most eloquent defence of the ban so often falls. Painless birth was ferociously condemned by Pius XII in the 1950s, the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter reminded a television audience in January, to illustrate her point that every attempt by women to ‘take charge of their bodies’ has been made in the face of religious opinion, and that the issue of the veil is no different.

I didn’t know that about painless childbirth and Pius 12. That’s fascinating. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, eh? That’s another thing I like to say, and by no means only to annoy.

A Fun Project

Feb 18th, 2004 9:05 pm | By

I linked a few days ago to an excellent article by Chris Mooney about a long article promoting ‘Intelligent Design’ in the Harvard Law Review. It’s worrisome stuff.

Still, you can understand why a rave review in the Harvard Law Review would get the ID crowd excited. Such a publication represents intellectual legitimization of a sort that traditional creationists never achieved. “The whole game plan here is to credential the movement,” observes Florida State University law professor Steven Gey, a specialist in legal issues surrounding the teaching of evolution. Gey calls the Harvard Law Review piece “very weak” in its assessment of the legal case for teaching ID in public schools. But he adds, “I suspect this Harvard note is going to cause problems. I suspect they’re going to make reprints and scatter it here and yon, as if this were really some valid legal approach.”

Great. More ammunition for the ‘let’s take buzzwords like “evolution” out of the curriculum’ crowd. And the Harvard Law Review article even misdescribes what Intelligent Design is.

Even more astonishingly, the Harvard Law Review piece paints the ID movement as entirely divorced from religion, citing its “exclusive focus on empirical evidence and philosophical argument.” This statement is extremely misleading. As Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross document in their new book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford: 2004), there’s virtually nothing to Intelligent Design but religion.

An enterprising B&W reader emailed me yesterday to tell me (with permission to quote him) that he’d done some searching and found an email address for a member of the editorial board of the Review, and then wrote to said board member to alert him to the situation and urge him to read Mooney’s article. He suggested I should include the link to the list of Review board members. An excellent idea, so there it is. If you have an idle moment, why not warn someone from the Harvard Law Review.

Sleeping In An Age Of Waiting

Feb 17th, 2004 11:28 pm | By

Okay, so it’s obvious that the Deluded Socialists are a bit odd. I mean look at their names for starters (P. Traven, D.S. Burton, P. S. Burton, Ben Illin, et al). What’s with the Burton twins? I can’t believe they’re married – after all that’s hardly revolutionary – but I’d lay odds that they’ve both adopted “Socialist” as a middle name. Shame they’re named after a gentleman’s clothing outlet, though.

But what is striking is just that they are extraordinarily boring. Now, it’s a truth almost universally acknowledged that there isn’t going to be a socialist revolution any time soon (well, at all, really). And sure, Marxist theory is pretty much a joke – and hell, I’ve read an awful lot of the stuff (that’s the problem with a doctorate in political sociology). But really one does hold out the hope that if you’re going to have a revolution – albeit that you’re not – it will be just a little bit exciting. Unfortunately, if this particular vanguard are anything to go by, it’s a false hope. It’ll be the only revolution in history where the masses are fast asleep before the first shot is fired.

By the way, Portentous Socialists, if you’ve got a minute in between the busy waiting, you may want to remove the Butterflies and Wheels link from your main site as well. Why limit your irrationality to your blog? Oh you don’t…

The Hazlitt Comparison

Feb 17th, 2004 10:56 pm | By

You may remember that I talked about Hazlitt’s Letter to Gifford recently. I forget what made me think of it then – I think it was something I was discussing with Scott McLemee, but I misremember what. Something has put it in my head again. Memory is an odd thing. Anyway, this is what I said last time. Somehow I just feel like saying it again.

The letter to Gifford starts off briskly:

Sir, You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of any one you do not like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you of it.

There are so many people around who have that ugly trick, these days. How one wishes for a few Hazlitts to cure them of it.

Yes and at the same time, how few people there are around who can write like Hazlitt. Well there’s nothing surprising in that. Few people – in fact no people – could write like him at the time, either. That’s rather the point. He’s a one-off. He was, as I said last time, a brilliant, dazzling writer – so he could get away with things that just make other people look unpleasant and out of control. It is a nice point. One sees the same thing in Christopher Hitchens (who often reminds me of Hazlitt). He can say outrageous, cutting things, because he’s witty and brilliant and knows what he’s talking about. When other people, who are less witty and brilliant and don’t know what they’re talking about (and such people are legion), attempt the same kind of thing, they just look rude and self-infatuated. But they will keep trying.

There’s another thing about Hazlitt, too.

He didn’t write anonymously. When he wanted to insult people, he did it under his own name. I have an idea he would have scorned the notion of attacking people anonymously – would indeed have considered it a trick suitable for the likes of the Quarterly Review and Gifford himself. Anonymous insulting is easy enough, but it’s a mug’s game.