Meat

Oct 26th, 2006 4:50 pm | By

Okay so what’s the big deal. Everybody lighten up a little. So the guy compared women to uncovered meat, so what – it’s his sincere opinion, and that’s his culture, so take a chill pill. Anyway is he wrong? Is he?

If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside…without cover, and the cats come to eat it…whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.

Obviously he’s not wrong. Come on, be honest – you know he’s not. The analogy is watertight. If you take out a piece of chicken, and put it outside stark naked with nothing on top of it, and the cats sashay over and eat it – it is of course the piece of chicken’s fault. Who would say otherwise? No one! Not the most Eurocentric Westoxic secularized modernized colonialist heretic infidel would say otherwise. There lies the piece of chicken on its plate, swaying seductively back and forth, twitching its hips, flicking its hair, pouting its lips, goggling with its eyes, rubbing its thighs together, waving its legs in the air, showing off its cleavage – doing everything it can to seduce those innocent honest godfearing hardworking cats to come over there and nibble and suck and lick and eat. That piece of chicken is a harlot, that piece of chicken is out to ensnare and deceive cats and distract them from their duty to Allah. That piece of chicken should be beaten by its brothers and then stoned to death, not pleasantly gobbled up by cats.

So, of course, it’s exactly the same with women. Identical. Because they’re like meat. Cat smells meat, cat wants to eat it; man smells woman, man wants to fuck it. It’s exactly the same. A woman outside is exactly like a plate of chicken with nothing on top of it: wide open, smellable, unprotected, rape bait. Who can deny it? No one. So if the woman is outside and some men come along and rape her, it’s her fault – because she’s not supposed to be outside any more than the meat is, is she! Meat belongs inside the house, inside the fridge, or inside the stomach of the men who have eaten it; it’s not supposed to be outside, walking up and down and doing whatever it likes. It’s only men and cats that are allowed to be outside doing what they like. Meat and women are supposed to be locked up. Got that? Of course they are. Women are supposed to be in their rooms, at home, in their hijabs, just as Sheik Hilali said. Each woman is allotted a room, in a home, where she is supposed to spend her entire life; if she comes out, she does it to entice rapists, and she deserves everything she gets. Am I right? Okay I know it’s not popular, but you know it’s true.



All together now

Oct 25th, 2006 11:41 pm | By

Much of Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts is relevant to all this – not surprisingly: it’s about higher education (and education more broadly), Bhattacharyya’s piece is about higher education (and education more broadly), and Dawkins’s work is partly about higher education (and education more broadly).

He talks in chapter 6 – ‘Postmodernism’ – about the difficulties of grounding moral intuitions, via Lyotard’s disagreement with Habermas about consensus and difference, and via feminist epistemology and local and ‘situated’ knowledge (with a reference to Meera Nanda), and Rorty’s antifoundationalism (about morality rather than epistemology). He quotes (page 256) from an essay of Rorty’s that I’ve always liked, despite disagreeing with much of it, ‘Wild Orchids and Trotsky’:

The democratic community of Dewey’s dreams is…a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters.

I don’t buy it. I think I might have, once, but I don’t now. I’ve become too suspicious of all those words – too aware of the need to ask for further details on all of them: democratic, community, and solidarity. Democratic – well, it depends: is this a democratic community of narrow parochial authoritarian people who hate fags and independent women and ruffians and atheists and elitist intellectuals? Is it the kind of community that expects and demands that everyone fit in and conform? Is it the kind of solidarity people feel when they unite against a putative enemy who is in fact merely different in some harmless way? Perhaps it’s the kind of democratic community that finds solidarity in voting to make the public high school teach ID in its biology classes.

Human solidarity is only as good as it is. Sometimes human solidarity can be murderous, even genocidal; often it can be coercive and limiting. And to at least some people, it is knowledge of something not merely human that really matters – cosmologists, physicists, artists, geologists, poets, musicians, mountaineers; many people. It’s of course true that grounding morality is very difficult, but recourse to solidarity is…dubious.

Michael makes a similar point himself earlier, on pp 222-3, in discussing Lyotard’s disagreement with Habermas:

Habermas imagines the “ideal speech situation” as something oriented not merely toward understanding, as I said above, but toward consensus. This…basically says, “We will all sit down and deliberate as equals – and then, when we’re done deliberating, we will agree.”…[I]n suggesting that consensus is the goal of the discussion, Habermas has left himself wide open to the charge that he does see universalism as the eradication of difference – that universalism will have done its job only when there is no one left to dissent from it. And that, Lyotard insists, puts us right back on the road to Terror.

Same thing. Consensus, too, is only as good as it is. So is agreement; so is universalism. They’re all – democracy, community, solidarity, consensus, agreement, universalism – only as good as they are. They’re all capable of being merely agreement to do bad things, consensus that outsiders are the spawn of the devil. Bertrand Russell’s grandmother was fond of the Biblical saying, ‘Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.’ I quite like that myself.



Inquiry or doctrine

Oct 25th, 2006 7:50 pm | By

Gargi Bhattacharyya considers the relationship between education and religion.

Universities in this country broadly champion secular ideals. Whatever the circumstances of their formation, higher education institutions value their independence from state and church (and temple and mosque and synagogue and gurdwara). This is part of what we think universities are – spaces of free debate and enquiry, free from the strictures of doctrinal thought. According to this view, good education cannot belong to any one tradition. There is no benefit to being taught among people like yourself, in fact this is a disadvantage to the interrogatory processes of higher education…There may be unspoken norms, but broadly, doctrinal thought is frowned upon and is considered insufficient to a proper education.

There it is again, as with the Edwards piece, Group A and Group B, rational inquiry versus unfalsifiable dogma. (Merlijn and John M point out that there are religious people who as Merlijn put it ‘have a certain degree of critical distance between them and their beliefs’ – religious people who are not dogmatic and who do value rational inquiry and belong to Group A rather than B, or perhaps to Group C. A fair point. Not all religious people are dogmatic. But to the extent that they’re not, their allegiance isn’t really to Group B. They’re not so much an exception to Group B as they are members of Group A with some B inclinations. In short, we can consider them as part of Group A if they like, because any dogmatic beliefs they are loyal to or fond of, are safely bracketed and/or put in question. The opposition remains the same. The point is not so much how to allocate all religious people, as it is how to think about doctrinal thought as doctrinal thought.) Good education, as Bhattacharyya says, needs ‘ interrogatory processes’ rather than doctrinal thought. Just so.

[T]he ideal of the university as a place of free thought is not a bad model for understanding how people might learn things…[T]he university ideal suggests that the most important thing in relation to education is access – to learning resources, to informed and inspiring teaching, to a variety of ideas and ways of thinking and to a mixed and unpredictable bunch of others who are all curiously trying to learn as well…The catch is that all must learn to hear and consider unfamiliar and, perhaps, unpalatable views and beliefs, not because becoming educated demands adherence to any particular view, but because becoming equipped to contemplate all views is what makes you educated.

Which is why ‘faith’ education is not education but something else.



Gills

Oct 25th, 2006 2:29 am | By

Respect and religion, remember? Grayling on respect and religion, Blackburn on respect and religion, and now Dawkins on respect and religion. He got a good reception at McGill.

I am under no illusions that I deserve these enthusiastic receptions personally, or that they reflect the quality of my own performance as a speaker. On the contrary, I am convinced that they represent an overflowing of bottled-up frustration, from masses of decent people pushed to breaking point and heartily sick of the sycophantic ‘respect’ that our society, even secular society, routinely and thoughtlessly accords religious faith. Time after time, people in the signing queues thank me for doing no more than say in public what they have, in private, long wanted to say, and probably could say more eloquently than I can. I think people are fed up to the gills with the near universal expectation that religious faith must be respected.

Exactly. And that’s what I keep saying when people rebuke or reproach or make fun of me for being rude about religion – there’s such an avalanche, such a torrent, of the other thing, and such a shortage of the blunt apology-free ‘why should I believe a word of it?’, that people feel cowed and intimidated and silenced – not of course by fear of the stocks or a whipping or decades in the slammer, but by this universal expectation of respect. Believers get to hear lots and lots and lots and lots of sycophantic respect; most non-believers fall all over themselves apologizing and stipulating before they’ll venture to admit that they’re actually not quite entirely altogether believers themselves though of course they do consider themselves spiritual – believers get to hear what they want to hear pretty much all the time, and there’s a famine of the other thing. When I be rude about religion I’m performing a service. Everyone should give me sycophantic respect for it.



A miniature review

Oct 25th, 2006 2:08 am | By

Hey, Why Truth Matters has a tiny review in the TLS ‘In Brief’ section (October 20 issue). It’s not online. If anybody has an ol’ copy lying around and just longs to send it to me, don’t be shy. (Kind Nick sent one when the Dictionary was there.)



Sensibilities

Oct 24th, 2006 7:57 pm | By

This is great stuff. One quotable line after another.

[T]here is clearly no guarantee that a state arbiter won’t cede to the most unreasonable and extreme demands of religious groups, expressed with adequate fervour and implied threats, especially as we have declared in advance that their ‘sensibilities’, however irrational, are somehow worth regarding. Thus, by abandoning a consistent first principles approach to freedom of expression in favour of some kind of dialectic between reasonable (us) and unreasonable (them) people, we may well find ourselves conceding tactical defeat ad nauseam, to the point where those who do accept the ‘fallibility of human knowledge’ must chafe under the de-facto rule of those who don’t.

Allow me to take stock of our new situation with reference to two hypothetical social groups, A and B. Group A is rather scientific and sceptical, curious and uncertain—at once interested in discovering ‘truths’ through rational inquiry, while remaining open to the possibility that existing knowledge can be falsified. Group B subscribes, with a famous ardour and certainty, to a bundle of unproven and unfalsifiable beliefs—a religion—and thus necessarily rejects the very premise of the ‘fallibility of human knowledge’. Clearly, as B already has The Truth, it shall be somewhat lukewarm on allowing any ‘conflicting notions’ to exist at all….[S]o long as B can bring enough rancour and enmity down on A for showing disrespect to some aspect of B’s unproven and unfalsifiable beliefs, the state may side with B against A…Incredibly, due to the philosophical nature of B’s beliefs as unfalsifiable dogma, we have also necessarily admitted that B can be morally justified in heaping massive opprobrium on A, without being asked or even being able to explain precisely why. That is to say, B may mercilessly assault the character of A without bothering to provide a credible, logical, reason—I’m afraid ‘because God says so’ is no such reason. In short, by allowing any superstition to have a role in determining the theoretical legal limits of ‘free speech’ we are inadvertently crafting a doctrine for unscientific, irrational bullies.

And behold – it shall be so.

We now observe the pitfalls of trying to adjust a scientific forum for free expression to any sensibilities arising from unfalsifiable dogma—as many religious claims are absolute and ‘unimpeachable’ by nature, it is not clear whether ‘believers’ are significantly more tolerant of a serious intellectual challenge from outside the ‘faith’, however polite, than they are of cheap abuse. Indeed, there is some evidence that the more fervent of believers may have some trouble distinguishing between the two.

And actually some may find serious intellectual challenge considerably more of an outrage than cheap abuse. Cheap abuse is not much of a threat, but serious intellectual challenge, naturally, is.

So long as the ‘contestability of ideas’ is open to any compromise with the sensibilities of religious believers, it shall almost invariably be the case that our ‘reasonable person’ test will be held to ransom by religious stonewalling—the sheer weight of numbers, and the intensity of their resolve, can too easily dictate the terms of arbitration. If serious threats to the social peace are enough to force massive concessions on the part of liberals, to the point of endorsing blasphemy laws, precisely how will any forum for the contestation of ideas withstand calls for the prohibition of vigorous religious criticism and inquiry?…To ‘compromise’ freedom of expression by erecting statutory guard-posts around a bundle of unproven and unfalsifiable assertions is to assault the very foundations of science, logic and rationality. Instead of allowing the veiled, and not-so-veiled, threats of irrational zealots to guide our notions of justice, we should resolve to protect all individuals from aggression and threats of aggression, emphasise the rights of freedom of association and conscience as they arise from the axiom of ‘non-aggression’, and redouble our commitment to a free, open and enlightened society.

Eloquent guy.



Not rocket science, nor brain surgery

Oct 23rd, 2006 10:57 pm | By

An interesting (at least in places) discussion at Pharyngula of Eagleton on Dawkins. One of the interesting bits is the one where Andrew Brown drops by to comment. He notes that he reviewed The God Delusion for Prospect with a follow-up at Comment is Free (I put both in News here, and I think commented on one or both; they’re not new). He draws a rather irrelevant analogy.

The shortest form of all these objections is this analogy: Suppose that I, knowing nothing about economics, write a book saying that the world would be better off without money: that money has led people to terrible crimes, and may even be thre root of all evil — “and besides, when you look at it money doesn’t even exist: who is this ‘I’ who promises to pay the bearer on demand? Why should we believe in dollars when no one believes in Reichsmarks or in cowrie shells?” Would this be a scientific work? Would it advance our understanding of money, or of economics?

But religion isn’t economics, and it’s not like economics. Religion is not an expert subject. That’s why I find all these questions about theology beside the point. Religion of course can be an expert subject, but it isn’t of its nature an expert subject, especially not in the form of the various Protestant denominations. Religion is public, and democratic, and inclusive, and all-embracing; furthermore, people are constantly making us a present of their religious beliefs in all sorts of public media, from newspapers to political campaigns to radio shows to tv dramas. It is a perfectly legitimate and indeed necessary undertaking to look at and dispute with that form of religion – public religion – everybody’s religion – Bush’s religion, Blair’s religion, Cristine Odone’s religion. That’s why economics is beside the point.

Brown goes on:

There are lots of us who believe that religion is primarily a social reality. The way to study social realities, and to understand them, is not to ponce around saying “Nyah nyah nyah it’s all just an illusion.”

Well, there are also lots of us who believe – for good reason, I would say – that religion is a social reality that rests on particular supernatural beliefs – to wit, that there is a personal omnipotent benevolent omniscient god who is real but out of our reach and who is transcendent but nevertheless answers our prayers and is involved in our world. One way to study and also criticize a social reality that is based on those beliefs is indeed, surely, to ask whether there is any reason to believe all that. Why wouldn’t it be? When we’re always being urged to believe all that ourselves, and urged or commanded to respect people who believe it, and told to be quiet about our opinion of it, and having plays and museum exhibits closed down before we can see them because of it. It’s our business, isn’t it; it’s everyone’s business. Economics isn’t.* I wouldn’t apply for the job of chairman of the Federal Reserve, because I quite agree that I don’t know enough about economics, but religion isn’t like that (not that I plan to apply for the job of archbishop of Canterbury either).

I can see saying that approach is not terribly interesting or challenging, I can see not wanting to bother with it, but Brown seems to be saying that it’s illegitimate, and I don’t buy that. I don’t think an approach that disputes religion as it is commonly (and often) presented is in the least illegitimate, in fact I think it needs doing.

*Well, economics is, but not in the sense of being able to criticize it cogently merely because we know how to spend money.



To a hammer, everything looks like a nail

Oct 23rd, 2006 12:51 am | By

A couple more thoughts on Dabashi, because they tie into other things, into larger subjects. (Which, come to think of it, is part of what he is claiming about Nafisi and RLT. It’s a reasonable enough thing to claim, it’s just that he does such a terrible job of it. It could for instance be the case that RLT, whether intentionally or by accident, did something to increase US hostility toward the Iranian regime; but that’s a rather different thing from claiming that, for instance, ‘there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi.’ You’ll notice I haven’t been claiming there is no difference between Hamid Dabashi and Iran’s religious police. That would be because I think there’s a difference.)

There is some inconsistency, especially in the interview.

…my critique is almost entirely directed at the substance of RLT, with a very minimum attention to its context. The fact that the author of RLT is a well-known, well-connected, and well-funded neocon, employed by the principle doctrinaire of neo-conservatism Paul Wolfowitz (when he was the head of SAIS), endorsed by the most diabolical anti-Muslim neocon alive Bernard Lewis, and promoted by a scandalous PR firm like Benador Associates, and many other similar indications are all entirely tangential to the substance of my critique…

Well if all that is ‘entirely tangential’ why does he mention it so often and so emphatically and hyperbolically? The tangential doesn’t get hammered on that way.

I am not privy to any information whether this has been a conscious or unconscious choice…Of course I do not mean “recruitment” literally. How would I know if she was or was not recruited to do anything? I am not privy to any such information—whether she is or is not recruited…The accoutrement of neoconservative power that has purchased and promoted that book is entirely tangential and rather irrelevant to the substance of that book and the relevance of my criticism…I am not in the least interested in how her career opportunism has led her to corridors of power without an iota of scholarly credentials to her name…What I am interested in is understanding how the inner dynamics of this vulgar empire works—and how comprador intellectuals like Azar Nafisi and her ilk proceed to manufacture consent for it…Fouad Ajami and Kanaan Makiyyah had made a very powerful case for the US invasion of Iraq…these people disappear from the public scene and there is no court or public forum where one can take these criminal comprador intellectuals and hold them accountable for their deeds. The same is now true about the neocon cohort of Fouad Ajami, namely his SAIS colleague Azar Nafisi.

He doesn’t know, he’s not interested, and yet he does know, and he is interested.

As you rightly document this, I am not “suggesting” anything. I am saying that chapter and verse people like Azar Nafisi have been actively involved in asking the United States officials for what inside the Beltway they call “regime change”—and now there are reports that she and her ilk…are actually on a frequent flier program to and from DC, with regular visits to the White House, the State Department, and Almighty only knows what other doors Elliott Abrams (“the Neocons Neocon”) is opening for them. I am afraid Azar Nafisi’s “friends in Washington,” as she calls them, are precisely people like Paul Wolfowitz, Foad Ajami, Bernard Lewis, and Elliot Abrams.

But, but, that is all tangential to his critique of her book; that’s why he’s so bashful about it all.

What you have in such figures as Azar Nafisi and Foad Ajami is really a band of politically pestiferous career opportunists, peanuts really in the grand scheme of things, utterly illiterate, but at the service of exceedingly powerful people who waste millions of our tax money trying to put a spin on a reality that keeps exploding in their barefaced barbarity. I have said before and I have argued that here is an organic link between what Lynndie England did in Abu Ghraib and what Azar Nafisi did in RLT—and what holds these two underlings in the service of George W. Bush’s war on terror…etc etc

Diffident, tentative, careful, scholarly stuff, befitting a tangential subject that he isn’t interested in and (by his own account) wouldn’t know about. What would he have said if he had been interested and had known, one wonders.

One thing that’s interesting about all this is the hyperbole. Dabashi makes Nafisi sound extremely powerful, barely less powerful than Wolfowitz or even Rumsfeld. On the face of it that’s just silly. She’s a writer, and a literary writer at that; how powerful can she be? But then, Dabashi is a teacher of comparative literature. If he makes a literary writer sound immensely powerful by giving an interpretation of her work, he makes himself sound immensely powerful at the same time. Nafisi is the wicked powerful writer, Dabashi is the good powerful literary critic who explains her wicked designs. No one would have known, no one would have understood, all would have proceeded in secret, had it not been for the brave perceptive righteously angry teacher of comparative literature at Columbia. What a great, wise, impassioned, ardent, benevolent and powerful man he must be.

Could that be what’s going on here? Could that be a large part of the reason for this unpleasant and unwarranted outburst? Why yes, I think it could. I think it’s a vulgar and nasty bit of careerism and cv-polishing along with a healthy dose of ego-inflating. I think Dabashi was posturing and showing off and bigging himself up, I think he was splashing some red paint on his radical credentials. It’s like Xenophanes’s observation – if cattle and horses or lions had gods, they would look like cattle and horses or lions. To a teacher of comparative literature, literary writers and their interpreters look like the center of the universe.



Respect

Oct 22nd, 2006 7:49 pm | By

Speaking of respect for religion…There’s Adele Stan in The American Prospect:

In positions it takes on other issues, Feminists for Life is indeed “pro-woman,” whether in regard to its stance on the Violence Against Women Act or support for mothers on welfare. But it’s hard not to wonder if those positions aren’t just a beard, along with the term, “feminist,” for the hard-core, misogynist agenda of the Vatican. The organization’s no-exceptions anti-abortion position follows Catholic doctrine to the letter, a doctrine that has always demanded of women that they bear whatever burden men place upon them, and that they not soil the altar with the very bodiliness they represent by virtue of the means by which children are born.

If you want a contrast, drop in on Cristina Odone. She’s annoyed – or perhaps I mean ‘offended’. She’s also a tad shifty.

[W]earing a cross has become as controversial as wearing a single earring or going bra-less used to be. No one would seize upon gays or feminists for expressing their allegiances today, yet in institutions as British as the BBC and British Airways, wearing a cross is now tantamount to throwing down a gauntlet.

That’s shifty because it’s a bad analogy. To put it as briefly as possible, when gays or feminists ‘express their allegiances’ (whatever that means) they are not declaring belief in a magical invisible friend; people who wear crosses are. (There’s also the seldom-noticed fact that the cross is in fact an odd symbol to wear in the first place: it’s a torture device; it stands for an ancient and very cruel form of execution. I understand that that’s just why it’s meaningful for Christians, but all the same, it is a symbol of sadism. I wonder if Odone keeps that aspect firmly in mind enough.)

Diktats against the cross are fuelled not by concern for minorities, but by a secularism so rampant that it prefers a cross-dresser to a cross wearer, a plumber’s bum to a veil.

Yes. And?

Yes, the cross and veil brigade are different. They believe in eternity, sacrifice, humility and obedience, concepts as alien as equal pay and gay rights used to be.

Ah – shifty again. Eternity is the magical bit, but the rest of it is about ethics, and also raises instant questions. Sacrifice by whom, for whom, of what? Humility on whose part, toward whom? Obedience of whom, by whom? Sacrifice of autonomy and ownership of their own bodies by women? Extra helpings of humility and obedience for women? All three by humans for – the magical invisible friend? We know what’s meant by equal pay and gay rights, but sacrifice, humility and obedience are loose baggy flexible notions. You don’t want to sign a contract that commits you to sacrifice, humility and obedience with no further stipulations or limitations – you could find you’ve just signed yourself into lifelong irreversible slavery with torture. What business does Odone have throwing the terms around in that carefree way? This is why atheists tend to be a little wary of cross-wearers. We think they’re sometimes a little evasive about their plans for us.

Belief, even if its tenets are as innocent as turning the other cheek and self-sacrifice, is frowned upon as too subversive.

Bollocks. Turning the other cheek and self-sacrifice are not belief, they are ethical stances, and they’re not frowned upon as too subversive. That’s whiny self-pitying inaccurate crap. This is another reason atheists tend to be a little wary of cross-wearers – the way they wrap themselves in the altar cloth and whine about how persecuted they are and tell whoppers to get the point across.

If you want a contrast again, Francis Sedgemore cleans the palate.

What is happening here is that some very pissed-off atheists, agnostics and couldn’t-care-less-ists are finding their voice in a debate set up and manipulated by religious forces, and the latter are on the whole reacting hysterically to forthright criticism from the godless heathens. But this is something that religious believers will just have to live with, and that includes insult and ridicule.

That’s better.



Preference for Fairness

Oct 22nd, 2006 2:23 am | By

Did you read Jeremy’s article on justice? It’s very good.

One bit reminded me of something else I’d just read. Serendipity kind of thing. This bit reminded me.

If this is right, it does not follow that one cannot account for the existence of retributive feelings. Mackie, for example, employed Darwinian principles in order to explain their ubiquity and persistence. His argument was roughly this: individuals achieved an evolutionary advantage to the extent that resentment of injuries became a deeply ingrained psychological disposition in their personality structures; this disposition was then universalized for broadly sociological reasons, so that certain harms came to be cooperatively resented, which is the mark of retributivism generally.

It reminded me of this article in the New Yorker about the brain and psychology and behavioral economics and neuroeconomics. Especially this bit:

A good way to illustrate Cohen’s point is to imagine that you and a stranger are sitting on a park bench, when an economist approaches and offers both of you ten dollars. He asks the stranger to suggest how the ten dollars should be divided, and he gives you the right to approve or reject the division. If you accept the stranger’s proposal, the money will be divided between you accordingly; if you refuse it, neither of you gets anything. How would you react to this situation, which economists refer to as an “ultimatum game,” because one player effectively gives the other an ultimatum? Game theorists say that you should accept any positive offer you receive, even one as low as a dollar, or you will end up with nothing. But most people reject offers of less than three dollars, and some turn down anything less than five dollars.

See? It’s the same thing. Resentment of injuries, of perceived injustice, trumps economic benefit. I know damn well I’m like that. I’d happily spurn the two or three dollars for the sake of punishing the greedy unfair stranger on the bench. I would probably also pick up a nearby branch or tennis racket and smack the stranger with it then run away.

Cohen and several colleagues organized a series of ultimatum games in which half the players – the respondents – were put in MRI machines…When respondents received stingy offers – two dollars for them, say, and eight dollars for the other player – they exhibited substantially more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area associated with reasoning, and in the bilateral anterior insula, part of the limbic region that is active when people are angry or in distress. The more activity there was in the limbic structure, the more likely the person was to reject the offer. To the researchers, it looked as though the two regions of the brain might be competing to decide what to do, with the prefrontal cortex wanting to accept the offer and the insula wanting to reject it…Maybe human beings have an intrinsic preference for fairness, and we get angry when that preference is violated—so angry that we punish the other player even at a cost to ourselves. Or perhaps people reject low offers because they don’t want to appear weak.

See? Same thing. It’s interesting. It’s why small children spend all their time measuring the size of each other’s pieces of cake to make sure they’re not getting stiffed – they’re making sure nobody’s dissing them.



Grayling and Blackburn on Religion and Respect

Oct 21st, 2006 9:01 pm | By

Well this is what I keep saying.

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule. It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions.

That’s all. It’s quite simple. Faith is not a virtue, and it shouldn’t endow privilege. It’s not noble to believe in unsupported claims, especially in the guise of ancient superstitions. ‘Faith’ keeps insisting on throwing its weight around in public matters, so it can’t reasonably claim kid glove handling at the same time. It does claim exactly that; but not reasonably.

Grayling is forthright.

On the contrary: to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so. It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities. Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others; but no-one is entitled to claim privileges merely on the grounds that they are votaries of one or another of the world’s many religions.

Simon Blackburn said much the same in that article ‘Religion and Respect’ [pdf] that I commented on a year ago.

But, I argued to myself, why should I “respect” belief systems that I do not share? I would not be expected to respect the beliefs of flat earthers or those of the people who believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a recycling facility for dead Californians, and killed themselves in order to join it. Had my host stood up and asked me to toast the Hale-Bopp hopefuls, or to break bread or some such in token of fellowship with them, I would have been just as embarrassed and indeed angry.

But the rules change for (established) religion. And they not only change, they creep.

People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellowfeeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.

Or not finally; there’s another step: obedience and submission, along with silencing and censorship. In some places and on some subjects, we’re already there.

Grayling concludes:

But no organised religion, as an institution, has a greater claim to the attention of others in society than does a trade union, political party, voluntary organisation, or any other special interest group – for “special interest groups” are exactly what churches and organised religious bodies are. No one could dream of demanding that political parties be respected merely because they are political parties, or of protecting them from the pens of cartoonists; nor that their members should be. On the contrary. And so it should be for all interest groups and their members, without exception.

Yup. Time for the worm to turn.



Catching Up with Jesus and Mo

Oct 20th, 2006 6:14 pm | By

Hmph. I’ve been too busy lately – I’ve missed some great Jesus and Moze (it’s hard to make a plural Jesus and Mo in writing). Such as this one. Haw. What’s he going to do, sit on us? Haw!

And this one. I love the barmaid. Can I play the barmaid in the movie? Can I, huh, huh? I’d be perfect.

And this one. Catchy. Violent, and catchy.

And this one. ‘That laws-of-physics-defying explanation never even occurred to me.’ Try to keep up, Mo.

And the niqab one is brilliant. Oh, Mo, I feel so liberated.



Participation on equal terms

Oct 20th, 2006 2:31 pm | By

Polly Toynbee says a secular state would be a good idea.

Here is a conflict between two principles – respect for a religious minority and respect for women’s equality…The veil turns women into things. It was shocking to find on the streets of Kabul that invisible women behind burkas are not treated with special respect. On the contrary, they are pushed and shoved off pavements by men, jostled aside as if almost subhuman without the face-to-face contact that recognises common humanity.

She’s right you know. That’s how it works. You can’t have the one without the other – you can’t have the concealment without the reification – the concealment is reification. That is essentially what it’s all about: erasure of every recognizable attribute of the human, leaving only anonymous amorphous colourless interchangeable blocks of fabric that look more like upended sofas or nonfunctional lampshades than like people. Well big surprise that they’re treated with contempt and hostility instead of respect. People who have to be buried in yards of upholstery so that they can’t be seen are, pretty obviously, objects of some form of loathing and suspicion, not of admiration and respect. Why else do we hate the things so much? Why do you think? It’s because they’re such an obvious, blatant, hyper-visible sign of intense ineradicable unappeasable loathing.

The veil is profoundly divisive – and deliberately designed to be. No one need be a Muslim to understand the ideology of the veil, because covering and controlling women has been a near-universal practice in Christian societies and in most cultures and religions the world over.

Of course the veil is divisive and designed to be. Dividing is what it does. It’s a portable form of gender segregation; segregation is, obviously, divisive. It’s only relatively recently that women haven’t been formally and informally segregated in ‘the West’ too; it’s only relatively recently that we’ve been allowed to mix with the world at large. We understand what segregation is, and most of us don’t want it reimposed, formally or informally.

No citizen’s face can be indecent because of gender…It was left to Harriet Harman to make the unequivocal case for women’s rights: “If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it,” she said. “The veil is an obstacle to women’s participation on equal terms in society.”

Just so; because that’s what it’s for; that’s the point of portable segregation. It’s not just a neutral religious symbol, it’s not just a sign of devoutness, it’s not just a ‘choice,’ it’s a barrier between women and the wider world. That’s why sensitive liberals need to give up pretending otherwise.

Harman is astute about the way choice is culturally determined: do women really choose the female roles societies assign them? She is not alone in meeting Muslim woman who are appalled that their own daughters might adopt the veil as a political gesture. It’s a danger to other women’s “choice” if all “good” Muslims are forced to prove their faith by submission.

By submission to the imperative to be things. Don’t do it. Be people.



The higher learning

Oct 19th, 2006 5:11 pm | By

More on Dabashi’s article. I’ve gritted my teeth and read it all now. It’s bad all the way through – it doesn’t take a surprise turn for the better on page 7 or 10.

One thing he wants us all to get is that literature is crucial to empire; in fact it pretty much makes it happen and keeps it going. Without literature – none of it would have happened. Therefore people who teach comparative literature are immensely important. Right? Right.

From Edward Said to Amy Kaplan and Gauri Viswanathan, we now have a sustained body of scholarship, extended from the US, through Europe, to India and by theoretical implication all around the colonised world, a persuasive argument as to how the teaching of English literature has historically been definitive to the British, and now by extension American, imperial proclivities.

Ooh, all the way from one person to two more people, we now have a ‘sustained’ body of scholarship about how – mmph – the teaching of English literature has historically been definitive to imperial proclivities. Hahahahahahahaha! Oh, that’s a good one. (As for what it means, well, don’t press these questions. Surely you know what being definitive to proclivities means, don’t you? All sophisticated scholars know that.)

The publication of Azar Nafisi’s [RLT] is the most cogent contemporary case of yet another attempt at positing English literature yet again as a modus operandi of manufacturing trans-regional cultural consent to Euro- American global domination. [geddit? manufacturing consent] The factual evidence of the connection of Azar Nafisi to the US leaders of the neoconservative movement [he means she has some neocon friends] and her systematic deprecation of Iranian culture,…glorifying instead a canonised [ooh, canonised – she’s one of those canon people – that’s bad] inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of “Western literature,” [eww] are additional factors in placing her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire–the service delivered via the most cliché-ridden invocation of the most retrograde Oriental fantasies of her readers in the United States and Europe.

Right. She has neocon friends and she writes a book about reading in a small private group, and that places her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire. Case proven; take her away.

I find it prophetic, were it not so obscene, that in the space of the front and back covers of [RLT] we have an updated pedophiliac Orientalism documented so succinctly: on the front cover the picture of two veiled Iranian teenage “girls” and on the back the endorsement of Professor Humbert Lewis of Orientalism himself.

That’s the first of three times he does that – he calls Bernard Lewis Humbert: either Humbert Lewis or (throwing caution to the winds) just plain Humbert Humbert. Because? Well, he hates him; isn’t that a good enough reason?

And now he buckles down to some serious abuse.

The cover of [RLT] is an iconic burglary from the press…In the age of “the end of history,” as Azar Nafisi’s fellow neocon Francis Fukuyama has theorised it…Here again, Azar Nafisi proceeds to crop the picture she portrays inside her book in a fashion similar to the visual burglary she and her publisher commit on its cover–stealing a part of truth to tell a bigger lie.

Nafisi is not in fact a neocon. She has neocon friends; she’s not a neocon herself. But Dabashi feels entitled to go from innuendo about her ‘connections’ to simply calling her something she isn’t – in the very same breath ranting about a cropped picture and burglary, stealing, and a bigger lie. He’s a nasty piece of work.

Decades into a sustained struggle against the domination of Eurocentric curriculum in the US academy, fighting to restore democratic dignity to the world literary scene, Nafisi once again pushes the clock back for about half a century by a singular and exclusive praise for the Eurocentricity of the literary imagination. Promoting the racist cause of a singular literary canon in the United States and Europe goes hand in hand with denigrating, dismissing, or ignoring the existence of non-Euro-American literary and cultural traditions. No one will ever know, reading [RLT], that Iranians, like all other nations, have a literature of their own…

Okay stop right there. What’s on page 6 of RLT? “We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherezade, from A Thousand and One Nights…”

Oh never mind that, she’s still trampling the democratic dignity of the world literary scene, and by golly she’s certainly still promoting a racist cause, because that’s an automatic fifty points for Dabashi, even if it doesn’t happen to be true.

But joining the neocon takeover of the democratic institutions of the US by a band of militant renegades, and thus helping build a literary canon for a predatory empire, is an entirely different matter. In the former project you restore dignity and hope to a nation and its cultural resistance to imperial domination; in the latter you seek to steal such dignity and hope from them.

Well he’s already told us, or ‘demonstrated’ as he keeps asserting of scholars he approves of, that Nafisi (or her publisher) is a burglar who steals bits of pictures; clearly she steals everything that’s not nailed down.

Nafisi has never taught at any liberal arts college or university in the US. She is entirely ignorant of or indifferent and hostile to the decades of struggle that racialised minorities and women’s and minority studies have endured to make a dent in the vacuum-packed curricular terrors of the white establishment. At a time when the entire nation is engaged in a radical debate about the necessity of curricular diversity, Azar Nafisi joins ranks with the worst reactionary elements singing the praise of the “Western masterpieces.” After decades of consistent struggles, native-Americans, African-Americans, Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans, feminists, and scores of other denigrated and disenfranchised communities, have successfully engaged the white male supremacist canon of the US higher education…

Translation: Nafisi is not a hotshot at Columbia like me, so it’s an outrage that people bought her book. She’s entirely ignorant, unlike brilliant erudite but radical me, and she’s hostile to minorities, unlike radical anti-racist wonderful me (did I mention I teach at Columbia?) and she’s in cahoots with the curricular terrors of the white establishment (what terrors? You know what terrors!) and she is not one of the Good People who have fought a bloody war with the white male supremacist canon (those canon wars, they’re the worst). She’s clueless and out of it because she doesn’t realize that the entire nation is engaged in a radical debate about the necessity of curricular diversity – how can she not know that? Because she’s evil, and I’m good. Stern, but good. End of translation.

Imagine taking a class with that guy.



An illegitimate tone

Oct 18th, 2006 8:59 pm | By

Right, Hamid Dabashi and his rebuke of Azar Nafisi. Good stuff, is it? Readable? Persuasive? Eloquent? Reasoned? Thoughtful? Fair? Dispassionate?

No.

Let’s sample it.

This body of literature, perhaps best represented by Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), ordinarily points to legitimate concerns about the plight of Muslim women in the Islamic world and yet put that predicament squarely at the service of the US ideological psy-op, militarily stipulated in the US global warmongering…”Islam” in this particular reading is vile, violent, and above all abusive of women–and thus fighting against Islamic terrorism, ipso facto, is also to save Muslim women from the evil of their men. “White men saving brown women from brown men,” as the distinguished postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak puts it in her seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

The distinguished postcolonial feminist, mark, in her seminal essay. Already (this is only page 2 of 11 in the printed version) we are in deadly familiar territory, where the in-crowd is always awarded nice little heaps of flattering adjectives like ‘distinguished’ and ‘seminal’ (those are both favourites – it’s remarkable how predictable Theory-heads allow themselves to be) while the out-crowd is scrupulously forbidden such wanton luxury. Already, only on page 2, we begin to feel the familiar queasy disgust at the mix of abuse and sycophancy. And we read on, and the mix gets more so and then more so – until we feel so sick we can’t read any longer. And it’s only page 4.

…one can now clearly see and suggest that this book is partially responsible for cultivating the US (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran, having already done a great deal by being a key propaganda tool at the disposal of the Bush administration during its prolonged wars in such Muslim countries as Afghanistan…Meanwhile, by seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire, Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India…through the instrumentality of English literature, recycled and articulated by an “Oriental” woman who deliberately casts herself as a contemporary Scheherazade, it seeks to provoke the darkest corners of the Euro-American Oriental fantasies…Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home–all in one act.

And so bloody on. Veering from spit-flecked abuse to vulgar testosteroneish sneering but never losing the overwrought inquisitorial tone – as long as he is talking about Nafisi; but when the Good People enter the picture, of course that’s another story. (Dabashi fumes about Bush and the axis of evil but is apparently too stupid or too excited to realize that he thinks in exactly the same terms himself.)

In his study of the cultural foregrounding of imperialism, Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said examined the overlapping territories, as he called them, between the literary and the political, the cultural and the imperial, in the Euro-American imperial imaginary. This, as he was never tired of repeating, was not to reduce European literature to the political proclivities of any given period, but in fact conversely to posit the political fact, in his proverbial contrapuntal hermeneutics, as the principal interlocutor of the literary event–of the European literature of the period in particular. In her similarly groundbreaking work on the relationship between domestic and foreign policies of an empire and their cultural manifestations, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture (2002), Amy Kaplan has demonstrated the link between domestic and foreign affairs in the manufacturing of such an imperial project. In this extraordinary work of literary investigation, Amy Kaplan demonstrates how at least since the middle of the nineteenth century etc etc…From the other side of the same argument, in her pioneering investigative scholarship, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, Gauri Viswanathan has traced etc etc…The study of English literature, as Viswanathan has ably demonstrated etc etc…

Why is this combination of spraying thuggery on the one hand and groveling ass-kissing on the other so repulsive? Because (I guess) it’s a combination of spraying thuggery and groveling ass-kissing. The two just do make a nasty, repellent, stomach-turning pair. Vituperation and accusation immediately followed by beaming smirking licking are a sign of something horribly amiss, of someone with too much bullying rage and too much slavish bootlicking unpleasantly yoked together in one person. And the combination is, of course, especially repellent in an academic. In a corporate executive or an advertising genius or a marketing guru or an entertainment boffin it wouldn’t be attractive, but it wouldn’t be all that astonishing or out of place, either. But academics really aren’t supposed to be that out of control. The writing in that article is just intellectually out of control. It’s swamp thing.

And the guy teaches at Columbia. I don’t want to go all Horowitzy on everyone’s ass, but I find that…disconcerting.



Schools should cross boundaries

Oct 18th, 2006 6:35 pm | By

Is it just me, or does this seem a little confused?

Measure to make all faith schools open their doors to children from other religions are to be considered in an attempt to break down barriers between communities. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, will announce today that he plans to look at the intakes of existing religious schools as part of a review of the admissions code for schools…In remarks likely to alarm supporters of faith schools, Mr Johnson will say in his speech: “Young minds are free from prejudice and discrimination, so schools are in a unique position to prevent social division. Schools should cross ethnic and religious boundaries, and certainly not increase them, or exacerbate difficulties in sensitive areas.”

But then…why are they expanding religious schools? I think Johnson is quite right that schools should cross ethnic and religious boundaries (cf Brown v Board of Education for some of the reasons to think that), but then their policy on the issue is – how to put this – wrong, isn’t it? Maybe they’ve decided that.



Emily Bourgeois

Oct 18th, 2006 5:55 pm | By

Update: I now have the crucial bit: contact information. The name of the group is Masaka Children’s Fund. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and therefore donations are tax-deductible. Checks may be sent to:

Masaka Children’s Fund

c/o Loretta Thomas

7450 S. 114th Street

Seattle, WA 98178

USA

I ran into a friend in the library yesterday afternoon. She’s a retired judge, an omnivorous reader, a novelist, and an activist (she did election monitoring in 2004, for instance). She told me she was thinking of going to Uganda for Thanksgiving. I probably looked quizzical, or surprised, or frightened; anyway, she explained: she has this friend, who has a house in Uganda where she shelters orphans and pays for their schooling – with her own savings from a lifetime of working. She’s up to 45 children now. My friend Katharine found out about her via this article in the Seattle Times; she was so impressed she phoned the reporter who put her in touch with Emily Bourgeois. Bourgeois is back in the US now, because she’s used up her savings and plans to work some more so that she can finance more children. I said hey, I can flag her up on B&W. Any readers who have deep pockets and would like to help Emily Bourgeois pay for the schooling of Ugandan orphans, there she is. (She has, Katharine said, now set up a foundation so that she can accept donations.)



Without being co-opted

Oct 16th, 2006 11:31 pm | By

According to The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, read Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker article, about the Bush admin’s plans to whack Iran, with dismay.

The article prompted him to dust off an essay that he had written a few years before and publish it in the June 1 edition of the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram. His target? Not President Bush or the Pentagon, but Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran…His blistering essay cast Ms. Nafisi as a collaborator in the Bush administration’s plans for regime change in Iran. He drew heavily on the late scholar Edward Said’s ideas about the relationship between Western literature and empire and the fetishization of the “Orient” to attack Reading Lolita in Tehran as a prop for American imperialism…In an interview published on the Web site of the left-wing publication Z Magazine on August 4, Mr. Dabashi went even further, comparing Ms. Nafisi to a U.S. Army reservist convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi,” he told the magazine.

No difference. Interesting. And pleasant, and reasonable, and conducive to rational dialogue.

I saw the article via Crooked Timber just now, and it grabbed my attention with some violence. It is a subject I think about. The aftermath of Ramin Jahanbegloo’s release brought the subject sharply into relief, and I worried about it a good deal – specifically about the possibility of tainting Iranian reformers, in or out of Iran, by supporting them; or endangering them; or both.

Coincidentally enough, I was interviewed briefly by Maryam Namazie yesterday for her tv programme, and blurted out my worries on this subject. I had a feeling as I was blurting that it wasn’t the ideal thing to say, but it was what came into my head – and it gave Maryam an opportunity to be eloquent about internationalism and solidarity, so perhaps it was all right. (She is damn eloquent, Maryam is.) At any rate, under the circumstances, it really is hard for an American not to worry at all that she could be tainting people with suspicion of being in cahoots with the Bush administration, however unwittingly. As the Chron points out –

The conundrum, say these scholars, is how to voice opposition to the actions of the Islamic Republic without being co-opted by those who seek external regime change in Iran through a military attack. “All of us are mortified about the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran,” says Janet Afary, an associate professor of history and women’s studies on Purdue University’s main campus and president of the International Society for Iranian Studies.

But Tim Burke blows some nonsense out of the water.

But read further, and you’ll see one more thing, which is the underlying manner that a great deal of ostensibly “postcolonial” literary criticism is basically nationalism in disguise, because to Dabashi the greatest sin of Nafisi is that she doesn’t like Iranian culture. E.g., this is not so much about whether or not the post-1979 government is or is not repressive. Dabashi isn’t about to be enough of a tool to argue that it is not repressive. This is about diasporic struggles over national identity, and a pretty crude attempt to rough up someone who speaks as a “national” but commits cultural treason against the nation. Anybody who on this blog, commenter or otherwise, has ever railed against the bullshit cultural nationalism of the American right – the calling out of Sontag et al as traitorously “European”, the argument that any time an American intellectual expresses distaste or disgust for American culture, should recognize what Dabashi is doing here. He is posing the sheer impossibility, in his view, of ever being a native who hates or criticizes his native nation (not government, but nation-as-culture, culture-as-nation). In Dabashi’s reading, the moment that a postcolonial subject expresses that perspective, they MUST, inevitably, be a hollow vessel within which lurks the empire. Whereas “Western” subjects still retain the liberal privilege of hating or disliking their nation; they are choosing subjects. This is noxious on a great many levels, not the least of which is the political puppeteering that is going on here. Western subjects choose and so long as they choose to become anti-national, they are good choosing subjects; native subjects must be loyal to their nation or be nothing more than pawns of empire. Two different kinds of human subjectivity here: what could be more faithful to the colonial bifurcation of the world into West and non-West?

Beautifully said.

To be continued.



Meet the authors

Oct 16th, 2006 5:50 pm | By

See Jeremy and Julian being silly – I mean having a serious (albeit brief) discussion of aesthetics, elitism, cuisine, jazz, preferences, and alphabetization.



Religion and Rationality

Oct 16th, 2006 5:38 pm | By

Martin Newland tells us plaintively that ‘these days people find it hard to accept that religion and rationality can co-exist.’ Well, maybe; some people; other people clearly find it very easy. And as for ‘these days’, I would say the social pressure is running more in the other direction ‘these days’ than it did, say, twenty years ago. But maybe by ‘these days’ Newland means ‘these past three hundred years’.

At any rate, he shows us how well religion and rationality can co-exist.

I am a Roman Catholic. As such, I believe that God took the decision to be born into a poor family in Roman-occupied Palestine. I believe that His short life on earth was spent setting down the rules by which He expected us to live, and I believe that as a sign of His love for us He humbled himself on a cross, died and rose again. I believe that He left behind a church which is infused with His Spirit but also subject to sin. I further believe, if pressed, that the fullest incarnation of God’s plan for his church resides in the Roman Catholic Church, with the successor of St Peter at its head and the Apostolic Succession as its historical guarantor.

Okay [Interlude. My eyes happened to move up from the screen to the window while I thought for a second, and they caught the most lurid rainbow – I had to get up and go stare at it for awhile. You should see it. It happens to end right in the bit of Puget Sound I can see from that window – grey water, grey clouds, and this luridly glowing arc of colour transecting them, hovering above the water. It’s moved closer now and is over the marina and ends on the shipping pier. Now it’s fading. Going…going…whew, that was pretty.] Okay do I think it’s rational to believe those things? No. I can see wanting to believe them, and so deciding to believe them; I can agree that I have plenty of irrational beliefs myself; but I can’t say that I think those beliefs are rational; so in that sense he’s right: I don’t think religion and rationality can co-exist. I think rational people can have irrational beliefs, but I don’t think the irrational beliefs become rational merely because rational people have them; I think they remain irrational. So if Newland’s point is that we should think those beliefs are religious and also rational, it’s a fair cop: I don’t.

He says other things along the way, some of them rather unpleasant.

Reactions in everyday secular society to manifestations of religiosity, such as the veil, range from a patronising accept-ance to the downright insulting…Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claims that the veil is not mandated by the Qur’an. But what is mandated is that women cover themselves. What is also mandated is that men dress plainly. And the original texts have been followed, as in all the mainstream faiths, by teachings and interpretation which are also considered by the faithful to be linked to the will of God.

What does that mean, ‘linked to the will of God’? Linked how? In what sense? In what way? By whom? But more to the point – does he not realize what a repulsive phrase that is, ‘what is mandated is that women cover themselves’? Especially when followed by the asymmetrical mandate that men dress plainly? Does he not know how that sounds? Does he not get that it sounds like sheer revulsion and hatred? That it sounds like a visceral reaction to women as both seductive and disgusting? That it frames us as purulent heaving steaming piles of sex organs? He probably doesn’t, but he damn well ought to. He ought to imagine for one second walking down the street in ordinary clothes and having someone shout at him in a voice of rage ‘Cover yourself!’

But I feel a kinship with those Muslim women because the world is full of Jack Straws, who imply by their actions that religiosity entails something vaguely misguided or sinister, something that is ill at ease with public life. By involving the nation in an intensely critical, secularised debate on their personal religious observances, Straw has insulted these women in the same way that I feel insulted and hurt by Madonna aping Christ crucified, by part of the Act of Settlement, by the burning of papal effigies in southern England and by the use of a compulsory BBC licence fee to broadcast the offensive Jerry Springer: The Opera.

But the ‘personal religious observances’ in question are also public, and what we do in public has the potential to be the subject of debate. That’s how it is. (That’s why I never go out. Everybody’s a critic.) At least until theocracy becomes universal (at which time it might not be Newland’s religion that is the favoured one, and he will get all nostalgic for secularism).