A Gathering of Straw People

Apr 4th, 2004 8:36 pm | By

There are a couple of discussions of Evolutionary Psychology at Twisty Sticks: one here and the other here. They’re interesting because of what appears to be a fairly unshakable assumption that all evolutionary psychologists have a right-wing agenda and that the agenda determines their conclusions. That’s probably true of some evolutionary psychologists – I think I’ve read one or two of those – but it’s not true of all of them. It’s a bit puzzling. It’s not easy to figure out why people are convinced that thinking natural selection might have played a part in making human nature what it is requires being a free marketeer. I’m not a free marketeer, and I think natural selection played a part in making human nature what it is. I don’t quite see how it could be otherwise, really. How could natural selection not have played such a part? How could we have evolved over millions of years in complete independence of selective pressures? How exactly would we go about doing that? With a little help from the God of the Gaps? Is that it? If not, then what? It would be a pretty good trick.

But, then again, maybe I just don’t understand the points that are being made. But I can’t help thinking I detect a good deal of rhetoric in play, a certain amount of deck-stacking. Though maybe I’m wrong. There’s a very interesting archived discussion of related issues among Steven Pinker, Janet Radcliffe Richards and John Gray on In Our Time in November 2002. Anticipating this discussion at Twisty Sticks, I happen to have re-listened to it a few days ago. And the email interview B&W did with Steven Pinker about a month before that is also relevant and worth a read.

Update. Our old friend the Anonymous One has made one of his classic comments, where the retort is so obvious it would be too cruel to make it. Too like aiming projectiles at a piscid in a water-containment device, as Chris said (using other words) of the sweet bit of Lacanian profundity I gave you the other day. So I’ll make it here, instead, where it’s not quite so cruel. He does have (Anonymous, not Chris) such a way of saying things that apply to himself better than they do to the people he’s saying them of. It’s quite hilarious really. A few weeks ago – this is really funny – he called Scott McLemee a talentless ankle-biter! I nearly fell onto the floor laughing at that one. Yo, dude, if you’re going to pee, don’t do it upwind because – oh too bad, too late. I’d run home and take a shower if I were you.

You should check out the wonderful passage from Higher Superstition where they argue that—just hypothetically, mind you—the science faculty at MIT could do a better job at teaching the humanities classes than vice versa, if it came down to that somehow…I certainly would feel better about the future with an English professor teaching differential equations than with Pinker teaching literature or philosophy. At the least the former would be humble enough to try to learn something about what they were doing beforehand, which Pinker rather plainly would not.

Right. Uh huh. And if the English professor is someone like, oh, say, you, which I’m afraid it all too probably is – well, I know which of the two I would rather be taught by. But I won’t say which one that is; it would be too cruel.

The Tortoise and the Hare

Apr 4th, 2004 12:16 am | By

Not too bad, thanks. The agony is somewhat abated, as Macaulay said. (Was it Macaulay? I think so. At the age of two, or a week, or something, when a kind evangelical woman spilled some coffee on him.) I’m tottering around, pale and trembling, but recovering. A little weak, a tad mentally unstable, but on the mend. Kind of you to ask. The flowers are lovely. I don’t suppose you brought any chocolates – ? No no, of course not, silly question.

I wrote the Comment yesterday in such a way that it sounds as if I think I wrote the dictionary all by myself. I noticed that after I’d done it, but having done it, didn’t want to correct it. It sort of had the right number of syllables already and I didn’t want to rearrange them. But of course I didn’t write it all by myself, and I don’t even think I did. I’m delusional but not that delusional. No, my colleague wrote it too. But I’ve left him out of this story because he has nothing to do with it, he’s ecstatically happy that it’s finished, he wouldn’t know a postpartum depression if it bit him on the ankle, or calf. It’s all zip zip zip with him, none of this girly lingering and brooding and whining, thanks. Got a book to do? Wham! Write that sucker in a couple of days and be done with it, that’s the ticket. Plenty of time left for a game of squash, and no backward looks. Whereas I…well I sort of wanted to ease into it, as one might ease into a very hot hot tub, or a very cold ocean, or a tank of piranhas. Ease into it, slowly, gently, thoughtfully, and then once in, just sit there for awhile, a week or three, smiling peacefully and thinking things over. That’s what I wanted to do. And then just very slowly, deliberately, calmly, no rushing, no rapid breathing, no flurry, think up entries, one at a time, and write them down in careful calligraphy and then in the fullness of time type them into the database. That was my plan. But it wasn’t the Zipper’s, so it’s not what we did. No. What we did was more like carefully positioning a bob sled at the top of a cliff, climbing aboard, and then shoving off.

Well it was good fun, in a tumultuous sort of way, and I’m sure all the people whose emails I forgot to answer will forgive me eventually. Maybe.

You’re sure about the chocolates? Okay, sorry, no, you’re right, never mind. Forget I said anything. Would you like a little gin in that?

My Baby Done Gone

Apr 3rd, 2004 3:42 am | By

Oh, man, I have the most terrible case of post-partum depression. Or perhaps that’s not the right word, perhaps I mean empty-nest syndrome. Or separation anxiety. One of those, anyway, or possibly all of them. The book is gone! It’s finished! It’s over! It’s history. It’s on its way out into the world, to sink or swim, to make it on its own or to crash in flames, to become something or to flop down on the nearest bench and vegetate for the rest of its pathetic aimless life.

I wasn’t ready. I had plans. I was going to teach it to make toffee, and drive a car, and read Braille. I was going to teach it principles, and wash all its clothes, and make sure it had enough cash for the trip. And then wallop! In a matter of about five minutes it was gone. There was I standing stupidly on the doorstep waving and gulping and calling advice after it, and it was just rocketing up the street without looking back as if it couldn’t wait to get away from me. Which it probably couldn’t. Stupid thing. After all that, and that’s the thanks I get. Wham, bam, bye I’ll phone in a year or two. Well thank you very much.

But I can’t help wondering if I did all I could. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that glass of wine the other evening. Maybe I should have given up coffee. (Yeah, right, like that’s really going to happen.) Maybe I should have spent more time with it, instead of always leaving it with that heroin addict down the street.

Oh who knows! It’s too late now. It’s over, it’s finished, it’s time to move on. Maybe somewhere out there, over the rainbow or behind a cloud or in the garbage can behind the taco place, there’s another book waiting to be hatched and taken home and cherished and nourished so that a few months later it can run away and embark on a life of crime. Who the hell knows. Not the Wizard, that’s for dang sure.

A Few Treats

Apr 1st, 2004 5:49 am | By

As you may have surmised, I’ve been busy. Very busy. Working flat-out on this dictionary. It’s nearly done now, and then I’ll have more time to write long windy inconsequential N&Cs again.

But one good thing about this dictionary caper is that I find a lot of stark staring nonsense while googling for just that purpose. We’re going to have a Nonsense File in a few months, when my colleague has a spare moment to program one. For now I’ll just present you with some links here.

This one for example is a really good (good in a special sense) bit of Lacanian literary criticism. I don’t see how you can fail to enjoy it. I’ll just give you a taste, shall I?

For Lacan, the gaze is always an act of desired appropriation…Seeing becomes desire — part of the scopic drive in which the eye functions as a phallus. The person who does the looking is the person with power, but there is power also in the ability to provoke a gaze. For Bishop, occupying a position of spectator in the phallic mode would not explain her recognition of the inability to grasp, understand or resolve the death portrayed in “First Death in Nova Scotia.” Larysa Mykyta’s discussion of the position of the feminine in Lacan’s analysis of the gaze finds woman in her position as other to be destructive to the illusion of reciprocity and one-ness that the process of seeing usually supports: “The female object does not look, nor does it have its own point of view; rather it is erected as an image of the phallus sustaining male desires”. If we accept this argument then Bishop’s gaze questions the possibility of successfully imagining, at least visually, the phallic drive to apprehend and conquer.

Got that? Splendid. Next there’s this, which will tell you what to think of Eurocentrism. Will you be surprised if I tell you the answer is, not much? No.

…the “Eurocentrism” of social science has been under attack, severe attack. The attack is of course fundamentally justified, and there is no question that, if social science is to make any progress in the twenty-first century, it must overcome the Eurocentric heritage which has distorted its analyses and its capacity to deal with the problems of the contemporary world. If, however, we are to do this, we must take a careful look at what constitutes Eurocentrism, for, as we shall see, it is a hydra-headed monster and has many avatars. It will not be easy to slaughter the dragon swiftly. Indeed, if we are not careful, in the guise of trying to fight it, we may in fact criticize Eurocentrism using Eurocentric premises and thereby reinforce its hold on the community of scholars.

Oh no, not that. That would be terrible. Then there’s this, which will tell you the same thing, and also tell you how to disapprove of science. Ambition is a good thing. All that in a few hundred words; it’s very impressive.

Eurocentrism in science is based on the assumption that because modern science arose and developed in Europe understanding the history of science…does not require us to take into account the philosophical and natural knowledge ideas that are to be found in cultures outside Europe. For example the views of Schrodinger were influenced by Hindu philosophy (as he himself notes), and both Bohr and Heisenberg considered that Taoist, Buddhist and Zen ideas had an affinity to the philosophical implications of the quantum theory (as they have been recorded to affirm), but these reflections are treated as aberrations on their part…This orientation, coupled with the easy facility with which ancient Greek philosophical ideas are connected to modern science, lends credibility to the charge that the philosophical interpretations of contemporary science are also Eurocentric in orientation.

And that must not be allowed so everyone had better cut it out right now or else.

Happy April Fool’s Day; enjoy some foolery.

Odds and Sods

Mar 28th, 2004 11:48 pm | By

I trust you saw this review of Alain de Botton’s latest scholarly work via News. If not, do have a look; it’s very funny. Very enraged, very impolite, and very funny. It starts well –

Alain de Botton is the kind of public intellectual our debased culture deserves. This prince of précis, this queen of quotation, pastes together entire books by citing and then restating in inferior prose the ideas of great writers from centuries gone by. Aping the forms of philosophical thought in tones of complacent condescension, he provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort.

And it goes on well, too.

the second half of the book offers “Solutions” to our unhappiness, drawn from the five spheres of philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia. Each of these, apparently, can allow us to re-examine our priorities and re-engineer our status systems. The lessons from this half of the book are edifying. Buying a new car will not make us happy. Jesus was a holy man, and yet a humble carpenter. Some people have valued poetry more than money. Dropping out of the rat race and lounging around in the park with topless women might be fun. It makes you think, doesn’t it?…Sitting uneasily with this striving for gravitas is the fantastically irritating whimsy by which banal ideas are illustrated by pseudo-logical flowcharts, graphs and diagrams. The effect of one of these is, surprisingly, to imply that God manifests Himself in the shape of a giant pepper-pot.

Very funny, but of course irritating too. Silly books sell jillions and good books sell two. Why do people insist on wanting to read silly books instead of good ones? Perhaps I’ll write a cliché-filled rant on the subject and send it to Norm for his contest.

Speaking of that, there was an article by Terry Eagleton in the Guardian the other day that I meant to say something about. It’s all right, I like its basic point, but I did notice one thing that got up my nose –

For later modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, we could act effectively only by repressing true knowledge. True knowledge would drive us mad. We could not act, and reflect on our actions, at the same time, any more than some dim American presidents could simultaneously chew gum and walk.

When, I’m always wondering, did Freud become a “thinker”? And why, and how, and under whose auspices? What is a thinker, anyway? A gifted amateur? An inept professional? What?

Because the trouble is Freud didn’t think of himself as a thinker, he thought of himself as a scientist. But word has got out that he wasn’t that, because he had such a very peculiar way with evidence. But people in certain bits of the humanities don’t want to give him up and don’t want to admit that he was just wrong about psychology, and move on. So they’ve changed the terminology. Now he’s not anything one can pin down and say ‘Nope, he got that wrong,’ he’s a Thinker. Not a philosopher, but a Thinker. That might be an acceptable word for some people, but in the case of Freud I think it’s just a weasel word, a way of saving appearances.

But to end on an optimistic note, there is this new group blog The Panda’s Thumb. One of its members, P Z Myers has the blog Pharyngula and I think has commented here at least once, and I think Timothy Sandefur has talked to us too at some point. Anyway, The Panda’s Thumb looks set to be another excellent place (along with for instance Chris Mooney’s blog and Carl Zimmer’s) to get scientific news and discussion and analysis.

Miscellany 3

Mar 27th, 2004 11:21 pm | By

And more. Another item from Normblog, that made me laugh a good deal. About people who pontificate in a repetitive repetitive manner about clichés and the end of civilization as we know it. I know people like that, I’ve been trapped at dinner tables and in cars with them on more than one occasion. (Some people even think I do that! Would you believe it!) Drone drone drone they go, droning about droning bores. Rather the way I am now. I’ll let Norm tell it:

Not only that, there are ‘more dangerous’ clichés, says Mortimer, like ‘”the war against terrorism” when we aren’t at war with any country’. One reads this sort of thing so often now, I’m thinking of charging a small fee to explain in simple language to those a bit on the slow side usages of the word ‘war’ not involving simple bilateral conflict between sovereign states. Anyway, Mortimer regrets that ‘political ideas have become clichéd’, and laments a lost time ‘when sentences and our language were used to mean something and sound well’. Harrrrumph! I invite entries of no more than thirty words saying in the most clichéd way you can that we’re going down the tubes because of slack speech patterns.

Good old days, verbs as nouns, they don’t, nobody, any more, you used to be able to, why I remember when, subjunctive, they when they mean he, heorshe, politically correct, between he and I, a good book, tv, youth culture, time was, Orwell, never use a long word when a short one will do, tell what you know, simple, good Anglo-Saxon, Latinate, jargon, sociologese, schools these days, illiterate, teachers, Book of Common Prayer, coughcough hack wheeze.

That was fun. Next. There are a lot of interesting items at Cliopatria. This one for instance on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and a critique of it in ‘Dissent.’ The author of the critique comments there too. And then there’s this and this on the departure of Invisible Adjunct – which has caused a lot of reaction in blogoville, but the comment at Cliopatria is particularly interesting since it comes from colleagues. IA is a historian. Historians regret her departure. This whole adjunct thing is – well, let me put it this way, it’s the market going one way and ethics going another. PhDs are a dime a dozen therefore we can underpay and overwork them therefore we will. Peachy.

Miscellany 2

Mar 27th, 2004 8:11 pm | By

More of the miscellany. I want to look at a sentence or two from a comment on the hijab issue – a comment prompted by this article. I’m not bothering to link to the comment, because it’s quite typical and not all that interesting, in my view. It’s the typicality that makes the sentence worth looking at. It’s the kind of Everyone Says It sort of thing that – well, that everyone says, without really thinking about it much, or perhaps at all. So people go on saying it, and they hear it, and no one ever (or hardly anyone hardly ever) stops to take a closer look at it, and it infects public rhetoric more and more. A meme, in short. Which of course is not to say that I never do that – only to say that I like to point out the ones I notice. Including my own when I notice them.

The action that causes problems, in short, isn’t scarf-wearing at all; it’s intimidation, backed up by credible threats of violence. So why is the solution scarf-banning, rather than making schools safe places to express one’s preferred interpretation of religious faith?

Er – is that what schools are supposed to be? Safe places to express one’s preferred interpretation of religious faith? If so, why? And what other kinds of things is school supposed to be a safe place to express one’s preferred interpretation of? Suppose one has a preferred interpretation of race relations, for example, or sexual orientation, or equality between the sexes? Is school supposed to be a ‘safe place’ to ‘express’ those? In what sense? In what sense of ‘express’ or ‘safe place’? What, in fact, do those fuzzy mushy woolly feel-good words even mean? Does anyone know? Or care? Or do we just like to say them without bothering to think much. And as for that clinching, argument-closing word ‘faith’ – what I just said goes double for that.

Next item. From Scott McLemee’s site a comment on Invisible Adjunct’s departure, including a comment on the vices of anonymity and the admirability of IA’s avoidance of same.

It was last December that IA provided a link to my incredibly vile, destructive, mean-spirited, sarcastic, bitter, and altogether unconscionable effort to destroy the Modern Languages Association, by placing tongue-in-cheek. (Or maybe tongue-in-chic.)

Yes I remember that. As a matter of fact Scott and I were emailing about the IA thread at the very time the yells of rage were at their loudest. I also remember well that the ones that were by far the rudest came from an anonymous blogger – which is one of Scott’s points about IA: that she didn’t use her anonymity to hurl insults.

Anonymity does not seem to bring out the best in people. Someone using a fake name can be just as much of a blithering, ranting, resentment-crazed, semi-autistic creep as he wants to be. No accountability! Woo-hoo! It’s a virtual paradise for any chump with a chip on his shoulder.

Eeeeyup. We’ve seen quite a lot of that kind of thing here. All the more unfortunate that an anonymous who did not go that route is leaving, taking her good example with her.


Mar 26th, 2004 7:07 pm | By

Dang, I’ve been having a hard time keeping up lately. Not very surprisingly. This writing a book caper does tend to take more than a few minutes a day, after all, and the time has to come from somewhere. And there are other odds and ends, and so – items I want to comment on have been piling up. I do what I can, I wake up nice and early, a good deal earlier than I would like to in fact, but still the piling up goes on. So I’m just going to do a miscellany, a grab-bag, an everything all at once comment, and whittle the pile down a little.

There’s this from Normblog on something George Monbiot said the other day.

The ‘fury it generated among Muslims’. So ‘Muslims’ are entitled by their reactive fury, are they, to determine whether the lives of the people of Iraq may be freed from the tyranny of the Saddam Hussein regime? Would Monbiot allow the same veto power to, say, the racist reactions of some British people over how the issue of asylum-seekers should be handled? It’s not only how people react; it’s whether they have any business reacting in that way.

Just so. And that’s true even if the people doing the reacting are in some sense part of an oppressed group. I’m not sure people always hold that thought firmly enough in mind. Next up, Timothy Burke on Rigoberta Menchu.

The question for me was, “Why did she, with assistance from interlocutors, refashion herself into the most abject and maximally oppressed subject that she could?” The answer to that question, the fault of that untruth, lies not so much in Menchu but in her intended audience. Here I think the academic left, that portion of it most invested in identity politics (which is not the whole or necessarily even the majority of the academic left), takes it on the chin. Menchu is what some of them most wanted, a speaking subaltern.

But read the whole thing. It’s really very good. Farther down we get this:

You want what people in my field call “the African voice”. If you don’t have it in the syllabus, in your talk, in your paper, in your book, somebody’s going to get up in the audience and say, “Where is the authentic African voice?” and mutter dire imprecations when you say, “I don’t have it. I can’t find it. It doesn’t exist”. You may quote or mention or study an African, or many, but if they’re middle-class, or “Westernized”, or literate, or working for the colonial state, somebody’s going to tell you that’s not enough. The light of old anthropological quests for the pure untouched native is going to shine through the tissue paper of more contemporary theory.

Right, that’s enough for this one. I have to get away from this dratted desk for awhile. More later, from Scott McLemee, Cliopatria, Panda’s Thumb, Terry Eagleton.

An Interlude

Mar 24th, 2004 5:15 pm | By

Right, well as long as I’m in a plaintive vein, a threnodic vein, a sorrowful, plangent, mournful, whingey vein – I think I’ll just take a moment to ponder the grief of living in an out of the way corner of the world. And corner it is, too; tucked or rather jammed up in the far far far northwest corner of the whole damn country, not on the way to anywhere except Alaska (and maybe Japan but only if you’re starting from Idaho). It’s not Los Angeles, it’s not San Francisco, and it sure as hell is not New York or Paris or London. It’s not central. It’s not a capital. It’s not a place where things happen and interesting people sooner or later end up, so that one can just walk out the door at a leisurely pace, no need to rush, stroll along to the tube and in a few minutes be chatting with, I don’t know, Umberto Eco or Yo-yo Ma over lunch.

Well, yes it is, actually. People do come here. It could be much worse. It could be Puyallup or Sequim (you don’t know how to pronounce either of those, and I’m not going to tell you), to which people really don’t go. But people do come here on book tours and lecture circuits. And besides, it was my idea to come here, I wasn’t dragged here in chains. And I like it here. It’s just that –

Well it’s just that my insufferable colleague and his colleague are having lunch (have already had it by now, unless they opted for a very very late lunch, more like pre-dinner, or high tea) with Alan Sokal today. And I’m not. I’m over here, in this hick town, facing the stupid Pacific, missing all the action. And I am devoured by jealousy. Consumed by it. It is so unfair. There they are giggling and chewing and telling jokes about Lacan’s mathematics and Butler’s transgressions, and there I’m not. It is so unfair!

It’s not, of course, it’s not a bit unfair. And it’s also not geographical. If I were there, would I be there? No! Because I wouldn’t be invited, because there’d be no reason for me to be. So it’s not in the least unfair, and I know that perfectly well. But I’m just so jealous. So I’m having an Unreasonable Moment. You don’t think I’m always rational do you? No, of course you don’t.

No, I just thought I would pine a bit, to relieve my feelings. Sokal is something of a hero to people who dislike Fashionable Nonsense. Well he is to me anyway. The parody was such a brilliant idea, and he carried it out so well, and it worked so beautifully, and it made them all look so silly and self-serving – how could one not admire? So one does, and one wishes one could have been there, to ask the great question of our times: why do Americans like pizza with pineapple on it? But I’m an adult, and semi-rational some of the time, so I’ll get over it. I just wanted to pine first.

Update. Just to clarify, by way of making sure no one misunderstands. That is of course mostly joke. It’s quite true that I’d have loved to be there, but that’s all. I’m not really pouting. Sobbing gently now and then, but not pouting.

Second update. You’ll be pleased to learn that my guess was right – they really did laugh about Lacan’s mathematics. I’m clairvoyant.

Ave atque Vale, Invisible Adjunct

Mar 24th, 2004 12:02 am | By

Damn! Invisible Adjunct is packing it in. Rolling up the carpets, unplugging the lamps, feeding the leftover cake to the cat. In short, leaving. Leaving both blogging and adjuncting. I don’t know which is sadder. Well yes I do – the latter is. Presumably it was more important to her, so it’s worse that the world of academe closed her out. My Cliopatria colleague Ralph Luker and IA’s real world history teaching colleague is angry about it.

I am stunned! Angry, first of all, at the academy and more particularly at the history profession for its failure. And, yes, it is the profession’s failure, not IA’s. Deeply sorry, secondly, for the loss of a humane and deeply thoughtful voice in our wilderness. And hopeful, even certain, finally, that IA will find a fulfilling future. But, I am angry …

I feel rather distressed myself. IA writes so well, and seems so thoughtful and reasonable and knowledgeable. There ought – she – it – I mean – if they can’t –

Sigh. And it is a loss to blogoville, too. Some of those threads – like the one on whether people should go to graduate school or not (which now has a whole new resonance, doesn’t it) – were really informative as well as interesting. I think it takes a good host like IA for people to want to reveal that much. I don’t think we can count on some instant replacement for that particular blog. So it’s a double loss all around. Damn!

Well, IA, go in peace, and I hope you find some work where they don’t treat you like a dang adjunct. You’re not an adjunct, you’re central. So there.

Undiplomatic Immunity

Mar 20th, 2004 11:26 pm | By

There is a discussion at Twisty Sticks of the subject we were talking about a few days ago (‘Immunity’), and will be talking about in the future – as I said, it’s one I’m curious about and would like to explore. The subject of Why Does Religion Get Special Treatment? Why does it get a blank check, a free pass, a dispensation, diplomatic immunity. Why are there special rules that apply to religion and nothing else, why does religion get to trump other concerns, why does the importance of religion outweigh the importance of other things – of other concerns, commitments, values, desires, goals.

Which raises a related question, one which probably needs answering or at least clarifying in order to think about all this. The question of what religion is. When I ask why the importance of religion outweighs the importance of other things, what do I mean by other things? What are we talking about here? What things, what kinds of things?

I think that’s part of the problem in such discussions, and maybe part of an answer to the why question. Religion is probably the ultimate example of being all things to all people. That’s part of what’s wrong with it, why it’s so irritating (and dangerous and harmful, often), why it’s often so futile and frustrating to argue about it, as Phil Mole notes in an article in ‘Skeptical Inquirer.’ Because it doesn’t have to pin itself down and limit itself, because it’s just anything and nothing. It’s a feeling, it’s morality, it’s meaning, it’s love, it’s Daddy, it’s goodness, it’s purpose, it’s community, it’s someone watching over us, it’s the intelligence of the universe, it’s Mind.

But one of the main things it is is a set of ideas and truth-claims. If it’s not that it’s not really religion, not in the normal meaning of the word (as we’ve discussed here before, at considerable length). It is institutional religion we’re talking about here, because that is the kind that gets this special treatment. It’s the big, powerful, traditional religions about which people say Well maybe we’d better let them ignore laws about humane animal slaughter or else they might burn down Leeds. (Someone did actually talk about cities in Northern England in flames, at Twisty Sticks, so I’m not exaggerating.) So what I’m wondering about is why other sets of ideas that people care a great deal about don’t get this kind of treatment. I only get more curious the more I wonder about it.

Names Again

Mar 18th, 2004 8:53 pm | By

Norm Geras has taken up the discussion of women and names. (And by the way, speaking of Norm, there was a conference to honour his career at Manchester a few days ago. Chris Bertram of Twisty Sticks gave a paper there on Marx and Engels reading Rousseau, Ian Kershaw gave one on the singularity of the Holocaust. I was not there, I was over here, several miles away, turning pale with envy.) You’ll see that he doesn’t entirely agree with JerryS.

..what’s always struck me as the most difficult issue is not – as gets pointed out pretty quickly – that by keeping her own name a woman is still thereby accepting to be known by the name of another man: in this case her father’s. That is unavoidable.

The background to that is that Manchester City beat Manchester United last weekend.

No it’s not, I’m just being silly. As usual. Or rather more than usual. It’s this book, you see. I work on it for awhile and end up feeling light-headed – all that snickering. Anyway, Norm makes a good point about this business of a woman’s keeping her own name after marriage but then giving all the children the father’s name.

But I find the option perplexing. For what it seems to initiate by the woman’s retention of her own name – that is, putting men and women on an equal footing in this domain – it effectively undercuts by the way the child is named.

Just so. I suppose that’s one of the many bits of radicalism that was just allowed to drift away over the years. But many of those bits of radicalism were worth hanging onto and trying to implement, I’ve always thought and still think. And that’s one of them.


Mar 17th, 2004 7:07 pm | By

Yes and speaking of writing books (yes we were, yesterday) and Adonis and one thing and another – we are writing a book, as a matter of fact. We’re doing a much-expanded version of the Fashionable Dictionary. It’s going to be very, very, very funny. Eye-closingly funny, lung-emptyingly funny, furniture-breakingly funny. In fact, to tell you the unvarnished truth and not to put too fine a point on it, it already is. I say this with all due modesty and humility, on account of how I don’t have any. Don’t know what the words mean. (Better bung them in the dictionary then.) Anyway I can pretend I’m talking exclusively about my colleague’s work when I boast. But I’m not. His stuff makes me whinny and shriek like a demented horse, yes, but so does some of mine. How I long to show you some of today’s work…but alas, alas, I cannot. You will just have to wait. It won’t be long – the book will be out in the autumn. And then you can whinny and shriek too, and then you’ll rush off to buy armloads of the book to give all your friends, and I’ll be able to postpone the evil day of having to get an actual Job for another month or two, and so will Adonis.

Actually we’re writing two books. We thought one wasn’t enough, that one is kind of a pale, timid, half-hearted thing to do, that the really butch decisive assertive approach would be to write two. So we are. I’m also raising a litter of feral polecats while my colleague is building an SUV from a kit. No, that’s not true, I just felt like saying it. But all the rest of it is true.

Who’s We?

Mar 17th, 2004 6:08 pm | By

Well really. There is a limit. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks so. I’m perfectly happy to be peculiar, eccentric, bloody-minded, odd, etc (which is just as well), but there are some ideas and thoughts one wants to see plenty of resistance to. There are a lot of them in this ridiculous comment by Katie Roiphe.

These days, no one is shocked when an independent-minded woman takes her husband’s name, any more than one is shocked when she announces that she is staying at home with her kids.

Oh is that so. No one? Really? How do you know? Have you asked every last one of us? Have you asked the black swan? And anyway, what a silly word to use – ‘shocked’ – how typical that is of this kind of post-feminist bilge. It’s not about being shocked, for heaven’s sake, it’s about equality. ‘Shocked’ is a sly, underhanded way of making prepostfeminists sound like prudish Victorians drawing back their skirts. Of implying that subordination is sexy and sexual (Roiphe ought to read or re-read Mill on that subject) and refusal of subordination is sexless and antisexual.

There’s something romantic and pleasantly old-fashioned about giving up your name, a kind of frisson in seeing yourself represented as Mrs. John Doe in the calligraphy of a wedding invitation on occasion. At the same time it’s reassuring to see your own name in a byline or a contract. Like much of today’s shallow, satisfying, lipstick feminism: One can, in the end, have it both ways.

Ew. Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew. Oh yes that dear old delicious frisson of seeing oneself obliterated and disappeared and nullifed and erased. Of no longer being oneself but being instead Mrs SomeoneElse. Mrs Man. Funny how that’s not a frisson men long for, isn’t it. And funny how people can be stupid enough not to realize (or is it not to care? which is worse?) what these invidious distinctions say about women. Get a clue, Roiphe. If it’s only women who are expected to become Mrs SomeoneElse when they get married and men carry right on being Mr Himself, that is saying something about women. Maybe you should think a little harder about what that something is. (Here’s a hint: it’s that women are inferior and subordinate.) And don’t be in such a damn hurry to assume that you speak for all women, that you know who ‘we’ are and what we think.


Mar 15th, 2004 8:09 pm | By

I’ve been re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s brilliant essay and chapter ‘Religion and Women’s Human Rights’ in Sex and Social Justice. In it she discusses the tension between religious liberty and human rights. It’s refreshing, to put it mildly, to read someone who doesn’t pretend there is no such tension. On the contrary; Nussbaum is quite definite about it:

For the world’s major religions, in their actual human form, have not always been outstanding respectors of basic human rights or of the equal dignity and inviolability of persons…these violations do not always receive the intense public concern and condemnation that other systematic atrocities against groups often receive – and there is reason to think that liberal respect for religious difference is involved in this neglect…Liberals who do not hesitate to criticize a secular government that perpetrates atrocity are anxious and reticent when it comes to vindicating claims of justice against major religious leaders and groups.

Nussbaum goes on to detail some of the ways religion does interfere with women’s human rights, and a very thorough job she does of it. And then she raises some searching questions about group rights.

A “group” is, then, not a fused organism but a plurality of individuals, held together in some ways but usually differing in many others. The voices that are heard when “the group” speaks are not magically the voice of a fused organic entity; they are the voices of the most powerful individuals; these are especially likely not to be women. So why should we give a particular group of men license to put women down, just because they have managed to rise to power in some group that would like to put women down, if we have concluded that women should have guarantees of equal protection…?

Why indeed. And why is it that ‘Liberals who do not hesitate to criticize a secular government that perpetrates atrocity are anxious and reticent when it comes to vindicating claims of justice against major religious leaders and groups’? Why do people who don’t otherwise defend atrocity go quiet when the atrocity is religiously based? That’s not a rhetorical question, it’s one I really wonder about. Habit, custom, ingrained inhibitions, reluctance to be rude and hurtful, yes, but why does all that apply to religion and not to other sets of ideas or institutions? What is it about religion and religion alone that makes us feel so squeamish about, say, interfering with its right to oppress and harm and deprive women?

I’m not sure, and I’d like to tease out an answer. But I think the fact that we do feel this hesitation, the fact that we do let religious groups and no others get away with systematic abuse of women (and dalits, and gays, and animals, among others), is one reason I think well-meaning liberals and leftists should stop being so generous with the ‘It’s in that other sphere’ stuff. I think that’s one compelling reason for saying No it’s not, it’s right here in this one, messing with people’s lives, and not being impeded enough. So that’s one reason I’m going to carry on saying that. I might decide to write a book about it, especially if I can persuade my colleague to write it with me.

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.