The World at Large

Dec 21st, 2003 8:42 pm | By

Here, on the other hand, is a comment on the MLA and hipness [in the comments on the post] that is quite another matter – and says (from inside the academy as opposed to outside it) what I’ve been thinking for a couple of days, as well as for many years:

At the moment (ask me again on Dec. 30 how I feel), the bottom line seems to me that many serious scholars of literature and culture, who would very much like to engage in a serious, generous, forthright way with the world-at-large, often find themselves prevented from doing so by both the internal demands of the scholarly universe (publishing in the “right places” demanding certain kinds of technical language and attention to trends) and by the jeers of that world-at-large (the technical language and trendiness taken as evidence of our irrelevance).

There. This is what I’m saying. Academics of all stripes, and especially, for heaven’s sake, literary academics, serious scholars of literature and culture, ought to want to engage with the world at large. Not necessarily every single one of them, I don’t mean that; some people would rather just concentrate on research, and are better at it; but some of them. It ought to be within the possible realm of thought for the discipline. That’s why I take exception to that ‘We’re professionals and this is our turf and it’s nothing to do with you so shut up and go away’ line. The quotation above is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping to see.

It’s common knowledge that engagement with the world at large, that popularization and public education are not the way to get ahead in universities. To put it mildly – they are in fact a ticket to oblivion. I’ve heard this from many relatives, friends and acquaintances. It’s only established stars who can afford to popularize or engage with the world at large. Carl Sagan was kept out of the National Academy of Sciences because he was a popularizer – because he did such a damn good job of turning people on to science. Well, brilliant – that’s a good way to run things. Wouldn’t it be nice if that system could begin to change. (People have been saying that for as long as I can remember, which is awhile. But one might as well go on saying it.)



The End of the Trilogy

Dec 21st, 2003 7:20 pm | By

Chapter 3. (And I still had some items I wanted to examine from the fuss over ‘Hear the Silence’ – some of the odd assumptions behind the rhetoric – but that’s such a long time ago now. I’m just not speedy enough, clearly.) Because there is still a little more. And it really is quite interesting, how very defensive and righteously indignant the defenders of the ‘professional discourse of the humanities’ get. As if people who tease them were committing lèse-majesté, invading the Temple, polluting the inner sanctum. Why? Why do they take themselves so very seriously? Why is a joke (and a damn funny one at that) seen as an outrage? Why are professional discoursers so deaf to humour on this subject? Is that an occupational hazard? If so, it would be an interesting research topic to discover why. Something for a social psychologist, perhaps, or a sociologist of work.

Along with the humour-deficit there is an odd sort of professional gigantism – an unwarranted assumption (as I mentioned yesterday) that all intellectuals are academics, that only academics are intellectuals, and that to tease ‘the professional discourse of the humanities’ is to attack intellectuals. There is something very sinister and unpleasant in these two ideas: one, that academics have a monopoly on intellectualism, and two, that non-academics are forbidden to criticise ‘the professional discourse of the humanities.’ So they have a double monopoly, and the rest of us are doubly excluded. We’re not intellectuals ourselves, and we’re not allowed to tease the people who are. It really does sound very like the medieval priesthood, that used Latin as a fence to keep the people out.

Now, of course, the people who complained that the Chronicle article was a jihad against intellectuals may well not have meant such an implication – but in that case, their clumsiness with language doesn’t give us non-intellectuals out here in the cold much confidence in their highly-trained ability to be aware of their own discourse, does it.

One more thing. Among the several excellent things McLemee said was this –

by all means say hello at MLA. Just do me a favor. If I ask you what papers you have heard that are interesting, please don’t translate my question. What happens every year is that people respond by saying: “Hmmm, what’s ‘hot’ this year?” And then they proceed to tell me what is “hot.” They dilate upon what is “trendy.” I do not care at all what is hot and trendy, and would never use such terms in my writing without displaying conspicious levels of sarcasm. Talk about what you found interesting, important, an addition to the conversation. I’m as concerned with the actually developing substance of scholarship as any of you are. After all, I spend at least as much time as you do reading it. But if you do insist on talking about what’s hip, hot, and happening, I will regard you as part of the nominating committee for next year’s Provokies.

Regular readers may remember that I’ve talked about that very maneuver of translating, many times. I’m interested to see that I’m not the only one who’s noticed. No indeed, interesting is not the same thing as hot or hip. I wonder if there’s some connection between excessive defensiveness and pomposity and humour-deficit, and ambitions to be hip and hot and happening and edgy. That would be ‘ironic,’ wouldn’t it?



Professional Convention

Dec 20th, 2003 9:01 pm | By

I have some more comments I want to make and others I want to quote. Comment boards on blogs are not always the best place to do research on attitudes, naturally, because the people commenting can be anybody and everybody – people who’ve misplaced their meds, people who haven’t been prescribed any meds yet, people who are just that little bit too interested in aluminum foil. So keep that in mind. But the comments at Invisible Adjunct do seem to represent some real attitudes in that sector of the academy that’s under discussion. So let’s dissect one or two of them on that assumption – the attitudes are worth a look even if these particular exponents of them are bogus.

For instance this from comment 25:

I repeat: the MLA is a professional convention. Its audience is _not_ the general public. We don’t ask particle physicists to defend big words and opaque paper titles. Why literary and language scholars? Because while we recognize the expertise inherent in a field like particle physics we _all_ feel we have some intuitive claim on language and literature? Because language and literature are about our opinions and emotions? Not. Get thee to Literary Research Methods 101.

Particle physicists – there it is. I love it when literary theorists compare themselves to physicists, particle or otherwise. It’s so funny, for one thing, and such a giveaway, for another. One feels an overwhelming urge to start exclaiming like a Valley girl, ‘You wish! In your dreams; as if; yeah, right; etc.’ Apparently the assumption is that if a discipline is to be found at universities, it therefore follows that they are all of exactly comparable difficulty and rigor. But it doesn’t follow, does it. No.

And then – and here we move from funny and pathetic to rather disgusting – there is the business about ‘professional’ and the repudiation of the general public, and then the brisk removal of literature from the public domain. And yet literary theory on the whole considers itself a left-wing, liberatory, progressive enterprise – doesn’t it? Am I wrong about that? I don’t think so. But one of the first defensive moves in the face of criticism is to proclaim how professional and expert the whole subject is, and none of the public’s damn business. But that’s nonsense. Certainly there is much to learn about theory and criticism, but that does not alter the fact that literature in fact is a public subject in a way that physics (obviously) is not. People don’t generally do amateur physics for fun and pleasure, but people do read novels and poetry and essays and plays for those reasons. All the time! This is a common practice! Why, non-experts are even permitted to read Shakespeare and Wordsworth if they feel like it – and they get a lot out of it, too, without ever asking permission of literary theorists. That’s simply a fact. So, yes, that is one reason the MLA gets more attention than other conventions do – and a good thing too. Universities aren’t some sort of sacred mystery, after all. Academics are not medieval priests, their subject matter is not the Ark of the Covenant. So this indignant relish for the professionalization of the academic study of literature is deeply repellent.



The Provokies

Dec 19th, 2003 11:43 pm | By

Well, this is a rich resource at Invisible Adjunct. Sort of a treasure-chest of lame alibis, bogus analogies, whining, flag-self-wrapping-in, efforts to seem important via association, verbiage, accusation, attempted guilt-mongering, accidental self-revelations, messenger-blaming, conceit, and much much more. It’s funny but it’s also rather depressing. However, it’s not exactly a news flash that people in the literary theory game have gone a little odd lately, is it.

The fuss is about a hilarious brief piece Scott McLemee wrote for the CHE about ‘The Chronicle’s First Annual Awards for Self-Consciously Provocative MLA Paper Titles (also known as the Provokies).’ There’s an Award for Transgressive Punctuation, the Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness (if you’ve read Strange Weather you know how funny that is), the Award for Best Slavoj Zizek Knockoff, and more.

Criteria for the Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness incited heated debate among the judges. Some held that the award should go to a title reflecting scholarship that keeps up with recent cable-television listings. They nominated the paper “Taking Away the Threat: Cribs and The Osbournes as Narratives of Domestication,” by David S. Escoffery and Michelle Sullivan, of Southwest Missouri State University and the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus, respectively. Others contended that the winner should be “très 1990s,” just like Mr. Ross’s own bad self. They argued strenuously for “Judith Butler Got Me Tenure (but I Owe My Job to k.d. lang): High Theory, Pop Culture, and Some Thoughts About the Role of Literature in Contemporary Queer Studies,” by Kim L. Emery of the University of Florida.

Don’t you just want to stampede off to the bookstore or library and snap those titles up so you can start not reading them? I know I do. But alas, some people were not amused. (Others decidedly were, which is a relief. I mean, if you’re going to be all playful and ironic and dangerously hip for the MLA but then go rigid and purple with deadly-earnest rage when other people are playful and ironic – why, people might start to think you’re not really all that playful and amusing after all, mightn’t they.) Comment 15, for example:

The point, as far as I’m concerned, is that these articles are nothing more than a recycled, sneering, hipster version of the same old intellectual-bashing exercises that mainstream US culture is perennially embarked upon. Is it too much to ask that the freaking Chronicle — our own paper-of-record, one would have thought — resist getting in on the action? Yes, ridiculous, yes, sexless, yes, dorky. But who isn’t?

Well, frankly, lots of people are not as ridiculous as the titles of those articles are. Let’s see – historians, sociologists, astronomers, mathematicians, biologists – I can think of lots and lots of disciplines that don’t attract the kind of derision the MLA does (remember the article last year? ‘Theorists make the snappiest dressers?’). So teasing the MLA is not equivalent to teasing (or bashing) all intellectuals. It’s just teasing the people at the MLA. Do they take themselves to coincide exactly with the set ‘intellectuals’? Do they think there are no intellectuals outside the MLA? Do they think literary theorists exhaust the definition of ‘intellectual’?

And then there’s an old acquaintance of ours, talking with his usual politeness and depth of learning to the author of the article:

The fact that these few paper titles out of hundreds offend your parochial sense of what literature professors should do is not particularly surprising; but the Chronicle hasn’t gone broke by perpetuating ignorant stereotypes…I guess they don’t give you the Microsoft-style brainteasers at the Chronicle job interview. But do you know what I bet is a de facto prereq? Unsuccessful attempt at being an academic. You see you’d be delivering papers at the MLA if it weren’t for all the “queer theorists” and “blaxploiticians,” right? It’d make me bitter too.

Amazing, isn’t it? He thinks delivering papers at the MLA is a desirable fate. He thinks people want to be like him! That may be the funniest thing on the whole page.



No But I Played One on TV

Dec 18th, 2003 7:45 pm | By

Catherine Bennett has a very funny piece in the Guardian today mocking the Big Read by suggesting further installments of the idea. Favorite religion, animals’ favorites (why did no one ask them, anyway?), best operation, greatest tits, Cherie Blair’s best PR move – and my favorite favorite, ‘She’s just an actor, OK?’

Stevenson is a fine actress, but who, until now, would have thought she could be convincing enough to be taken by Channel 5’s current affairs team for the real thing? She was not, after all, regarded as a spokesperson for grief-stricken young widows or expert on ghosts following a brilliant performance in Truly, Madly, Deeply. This is not the first such confusion. Around the time of The Deal, the actors Michael Sheen (Blair) and David Morrissey (Brown), both so much more handsome and amenable than their originals, were treated, rather wistfully, as if they might be able to offer genuine political insights. On Saturday’s Big Read, an actress who played Miss Bingley in 1995 appeared as an expert witness for Pride and Prejudice.

No, this is certainly not the first such confusion. Look at all the deeply convincing, sincere-looking, craggy, strong-jawed actors who have played US presidents. Martin Sheen, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Harrison Ford, Henry Fonda – how much more reliable, sensible, confidence-inspiring they seem than the shifty-eyed, lip-biting, stammering, forgetful, whining, paranoid crew who fill the office in real life. Oh if only the real ones could be more like the pretend ones – or in fact if only the pretend ones could just replace the real ones. We keep trying that, and it doesn’t seem to work out all that well, but – maybe if they had better script-writers…

After all, communication, persuasion, conviction are hugely important aspects of most jobs, aren’t they? Of course they are. Doctors perform their expertise and confidence. Scientists dress up in lab coats so that people will take them seriously. Government officials always have a lot of subordinates standing around looking subordinate when they give press conferences so that everyone will know how important they are. Right? Obviously. Display is what it’s all about. So why shouldn’t really good, convincing actors play the parts of all these experts and bossy people? Wouldn’t they do a better job of it than the shlubs with bad haircuts or squeaky voices who do it now? Naturally. And actors are just as likely to be right about anything as anyone else is, aren’t they? It’s all a crap shoot after all. Am I right? You know I am.



The Debate Keeps Going and Going

Dec 16th, 2003 10:33 pm | By

There’s one bit of good news, ‘Hear the Silence’ didn’t do as well as expected – did rather badly, in fact. 1.2 million instead of the 2 million that movies in that time slot usually get. So that’s 800 thousand people who won’t be swayed by that bit of manipulation, at any rate. Other bits yes, but not that bit. That still leaves that 1.2 million, but there it is. Thank goodness for that sex therapy drama ‘Between the Sheets’ which is so popular. Sex outcompetes feisty mothers then – there’s a surprise.

I found quite a good harsh review of Channel 5’s drama by Mark Lawson from last week, too. It was on Front Row that I first became aware of this peculiar bit of agitprop, and so began commenting about it.

Timothy Prager’s script is full of anecdotal polemic, and from its first moments assumes and then pursues a connection between the needle and the speechless, troubled children, which does not yet seem remotely justified by the medical evidence. A series of distracted, sarcastic or conventional doctors representing conventional medicine are systematically shamed and humbled by Saint Mum and Saint Doctor. Scenes in which the Wakefields’ phone is bugged and they receive threatening phone calls are casually dramatised, without any explanation of whether it’s the drug companies or the NHS or the CIA that is being fingered for intimidation. If you walked into a doctor’s surgery looking as lopsided as this drama, you would be sent for emergency orthopaedic surgery at once.

Good line! I’ll have to remember that. But the news is not all cheery, of course. Some people, not at all surprisingly, were persuaded by the drama. The Guardian discussed the show with two London mothers. One was more resistant than the other.

“Elesha is two and although this programme has made me think more about the consequences, I’m still going to give her the booster injections when she’s old enough, because in the end this was a drama not science, and I don’t think there is enough real evidence to back up what was said.” She thought the programme could have a dangerous impact on parents already worried about the triple jab. “A lot of people don’t have the jabs now, and I think that number will grow following this programme, and that could mean a more serious outbreak of measles in the future. There needs to be more research into the possible affects of MMR, but maybe it was not a great idea to make a drama about such a controversial subject, because it’s difficult for the audience to know what was true and what wasn’t.”

Exactly so. But the other woman was more worried.

If it keeps the debate going I think it has to be seen as a good thing. So many people are worried about the possible links it is important that they are not just dismissed. I’ve been putting off taking Kara in because I’m getting increasingly worried about the health risks and this programme certainly did not make me want to rush to the doctors to get the jabs.

Yes, a lot of people say it’s a good thing to keep the debate going. But of course that’s highly dubious. If there were evidence of a link between the jab and autism, then it would be, but since there isn’t – then how can it be a good thing? How can it be a good thing to keep a nonsensical debate over a factual issue going? And even if it were a good thing, would that make it a good thing to have a tv drama keeping the debate alive? If we want to keep such debates alive, is it not preferable to have them kept alive by people who know something about the facts and the evidence? One would think so.



Poisoning Children, Whatever Next

Dec 15th, 2003 2:23 am | By

Just a few more jottings on ‘Hear the Silence.’ It was reviewed on Saturday Review yesterday. I already liked Tom Sutcliffe, and I like him a lot more now, because he was very harsh about it, even outraged. He said it was dreadfully biased, and that (just as I’ve been whining for the past two weeks, without even seeing it, just that one bit of dialogue I heard was enough of a warning) it was totally on the side of the angry mother, so that her point of view is the one that the audience sympathizes with. And that it makes the GPs absolute monsters. ‘I’ve never met any GPs like that!’ he said indignantly. One of the guests, though, Ruth Richardson, liked it and thought it was good and a good thing – ‘It will open the subject up to debate,’ she said.

Is that a good thing? Why? What’s the point of ‘opening up to debate’ something that doesn’t need debating? It’s not a moral or political or ethical or philosophical issue, it’s a factual one. You don’t decide facts by debating them, you decide by considering the evidence. Sometimes that also involves debate, when the evidence is not clear-cut, but does it involve debate with the general public, or with people who know something of the subject? Should we open everything up to debate as long as someone somewhere has made a scary claim about it? What if someone who’s forgotten to take her Lithium for awhile decides that toothbrushes cause high blood pressure – should we debate whether or not to stop brushing our teeth? If someone decides seatbelts make men impotent and women deaf, should we debate whether or not to stop using seatbelts? Why should we take the MMR scare seriously when there is no evidence for it?

And above all, why should we let entertainers set the terms of the debate? Why should people who write or produce or direct or act in movies have such a large role in matters that they know nothing whatever about? They have power – we all know that – they have huge power, because we love our movies and tv dramas, we love our actors, we love to be entertained and moved. And that’s exactly why people who have that kind of power ought to be very damned careful about using it. They really ought to think twice, three times, a hundred times, before making a dramatization that will persuade people not to have a vaccination against a serious illness that is fatal in 1 out of 500 cases. Stevenson complains (you can hear her do it on that Start the Week I linked to) that the government is patronising people, and in the Independent she says she doesn’t want to be told the fears are nonsense. But what if they are nonsense?! Does she want to be told they’re not when they are? Would that not also be a tad patronizing? Is it patronizing to tell people they’re wrong? Even when they are in fact wrong? Does she want never to be told she’s wrong about anything? She admits she doesn’t have the science – so why doesn’t she just note the fact that no scientists agree with Wakefield, and realize she might have the wrong end of the stick? Why doesn’t every single person connected with this drama realize how irresponsible they’re all being, and give it up? Because they’re in the entertainment biz, I guess.

Sutcliffe pointed out – with considerable heat – that there’s a bit at the end where Stevenson’s character tells a GP something like ‘You won’t get to give him a jab, all you doctors want to do is poison children to make money.’ ‘That’s outrageous, it’s libelous!’ Sutcliffe exclaimed. It does sound a bit extreme, doesn’t it – poisoning children, dear dear, what a way to behave.



Gone, Gone, Gone

Dec 14th, 2003 5:30 pm | By

Well, whatever one thinks of the war, or US hegemony, it’s hard not to rejoice at this. I’m not even going to bother to try – which is no great feat, of course, I don’t think too many people are trying, though I did see an odd comment from George Galloway. But good news is good news. Not a shot fired, no one so much as got his hair mussed, as dear General ‘Buck’ Turgidson put it in ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Just a murderous ruthless tyrant caught like a rat in a trap, lying in a spider hole under ground, hauled off to be shaved and examined and pushed around. He’s still alive, he can be tried in court. He may use the occasion to make a rhetorical case for himself, as Milosevic is doing at his trial, but it still seems worth it. Surely it is worth it, to make tyrants testify before open tribunals. That almost happened with Pinochet, it is happening with Milosevic and some of the guilty in Rwanda and South Africa. Maybe some day bin Laden, maybe some day Kissinger – no, that last is not likely.

It was quite startling, hearing the live press conference by the military spokesman on the radio – the shouts that suddenly erupted when the pictures of Saddam were shown. What it must be like to live in a situation like that. It’s hard to imagine when you never have, and have never even had a serious likelihood of it. The permanent nightmare, that you can’t wake up from becase it’s real. He could come back. He’s out there. Maybe he’ll be back, and then he’ll punish us all. Now at least that’s over. He won’t. He’s not coming back, he’s not going to punish anyone. Not never not nohow.



From Here to There to There

Dec 14th, 2003 1:47 am | By

It can be interesting sometimes, seeing the way a thought goes from one blog to another to another – forming a little cyber-chain. I noticed this one yesterday. First I saw this post at normblog:

Well, I’m sometimes dazed, actually, more than I’m confused, about the way certain others of Marxist persuasion, or merely formation – and indeed others, more generally, on the left – have found it possible to align themselves lately on matters relating to human rights.

That post directed me to this one at Harry’s place, which quoted from and linked to an interview with Christopher Hitchens that I posted in News a few days ago – a very interesting interview it is, too. Harry says this about it:

Hitchens doesn’t appear to have much interest in belonging to either camp. He has his principles, his views on the main issues and is willing to lend his backing to those who he sees as acting in a progressive fashion. That he has more in common with neo-conservatives than the psuedo-left is obvious – any leftist who supported the armed removal of Saddam was (and is) in the same position. Hitchens’ response to taunts that he is no longer part of the left is generally a defiant “so what?”

And Harry’s post sent me to Socialism in an Age of Waiting, the new blog we met the other day – where I find, writing this and following the link today, that there is a whole slew of new, long posts on the subject, as well as (keep scrolling down – there are no permalinks there yet) the post Harry originally linked to, dated December 9. I’ll quote this bit from the December 9 post:

It seems to us that, whether as socialists, liberals, conservatives or “none of the above”, too many of those who comment either on politics, or on non-political matters from an avowedly political perspective, still approach each issue in terms of total acceptance or total rejection. It is as if you must be either pro or anti, progressive or reactionary, on-message or off, and must never admit to doubts, or hesitations, or second, third or fourth thoughts.

Yup. And among the many problems with that approach is that it leads to orthodoxy-hugging and heresy-sniffing. Maybe one unforeseen side-benefit of the Iraq war will be to teach people to tolerate ambiguity and expect complexity when it comes to political thought. That could be good.



Socially Maladjusted Loner? Excellent!

Dec 13th, 2003 11:07 pm | By

Another remark or two on that discussion at Invisible Adjunct (and I have the link right this time, which makes a change). There is something one person said, about what it takes to become an academic, that strikes such a chord with me.

The problem, of course, is that such people are not much fun to be around and aren’t well adjusted socially. I know this description fits me pretty well, and almost everyone I know (other than my colleagues) finds me odd beyond belief. In short, the best traits for success in grad school are being a socially maladjusted loner with the dedication of a religious penitent. Like priests, others won’t and can’t understand your sacrifices, and can’t even imagine how your life could be happy without all those things you have sacrificed. But you are happy. If you can’t imagine happiness as a relatively celibate, materially deprived (relative to other middle class folks, of course), misunderstood, and largely isolated person, don’t dream of being a professor.

But see those are the kind of people that I do think are fun to be around – for a few minutes every few months or so, which is all the time they can spare. But what’s wrong with that? People set too much store by sociability and conviviality and gregariousness and likability and social skills and all that trivial nonsense. What’s so great about nice people? Give me a good obsessive maniac any day! But then I would say that, wouldn’t I. So such people are ‘odd beyond belief’ – why is that a problem? Odd people are the best people! Normal people are a dime a dozen, it’s the odd ones who make things interesting.



Graduate School?! Don’t Do It!

Dec 13th, 2003 2:30 am | By

Update. Er – the link now goes to the right place. So much better that way.

This is a fascinating blog discussion – it takes off from a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about the angst of deciding whether or not to go to graduate school. There are (as of this writing) 104 comments, including several from Jane Galt, who wrote the Chronicle piece. The discussion started on December 4, and it’s still going on. It’s surprising (at least to me) how strongly the tide is running in the direction of ‘don’t go.’ Well I don’t know why it surprises me, come to think of it, since it’s not something I ever wanted to do. But it does – I suppose because I assumed that even though I didn’t want to, other people did, and went on wanting to and were happy they had. But apparently people like that are the exception.

I was especially struck by this remark (among a lot of others I was especially struck by) at number 40:

I’m a first-term graduate student in English, and I’m seriously reconsidering my decision to go for the doctorate. The probable length of time it’ll take to get the degree…and the overwhelming competition are all convincing me to rethink my choices. The fact that English departments are rapidly becoming cultural criticism departments isn’t really helping either–I know it’s pathetically naive to say so, but I came for the literature, not ivory-tower political “activism.”

Hm. Why’s it pathetically naive? It’s not, of course, it’s only the people who’ve turned English departments into ‘cultural criticism’ departments who think so and have managed to intimidate other people into thinking so. But it’s just as I’ve been saying for years, the theory types are not just boring themselves and their students into fits, they’re also turning people away from the field.



Feisty is as Feisty Does

Dec 12th, 2003 11:22 pm | By

I was going to write about something else, about several other things in fact, but I was so struck by one thing in that Guardian article on the MMR issue I just put in News, that I have to point it out. Have to.

Justine Picardie does a photo feature on Wakefield, his house, and his family, for the Daily Telegraph Saturday Magazine. Andy is, she tells us, “a handsome, glossy-haired hero to families of autistic children”…Then we hit ground zero: she fantasises about a Hollywood depiction of Wakefield’s heroic struggle, with Russell Crowe playing the lead “opposite Julia Roberts as a feisty single mother fighting for justice for her child”.

Oh, gawd. There you have it. Swap Juliet Stevenson for Julia Roberts – gee, they were so close, with the name and all – and there you are. A ‘feisty’ single mother – gosh, that doesn’t sound familiar does it? Hmm. No, surely we’ve never seen Julia Roberts play that part before, right? Right? I wonder why Justine Picardie didn’t fantasise a feisty single mother who dresses like a prostitute and works for Albert Finney, just to make sure we all had the same fantasy.

Feisty. Feisty. That word has a lot to answer for, you know? Not that it’s always bad – there was feisty Norma Rae, and feisty Karen Silkwood. But we’ve moved on now, from boring old union struggles in a North Carolina textile mill – I mean how unhip is that?! No, now we have to have feisty woolly thinkers, like Laura Dern in ‘Jurassic Park’ earnestly informing Richard Attenborough, ‘You can’t think your way through this, John, you have to feel.’ Oh yes, that’s good advice. Especially when evaluating medical evidence. When will people start fantasising about movies featuring feisty single researchers who tell ill-informed reporters they don’t know what they’re talking about, and win the day? I’d go see that movie!



Next Monday

Dec 12th, 2003 10:29 pm | By

Update. Ah – now I understand why I didn’t find any reviews of ‘Hear the Silence’ – because it hasn’t been on yet. I was thinking it was shown last Monday (pay attention, woman! Read the fine print!) but it’s going to be shown next Monday. Yes, that would explain it.

Philip Stott has some remarks on the subject here. All you Ukanians out there please watch it and then send us your blistering comments which we may decide to post here without so much as a by your leave. No not really – but I might post them with permission. So be eloquent, stand up straight, turn your toes out, and stop scratching.



Splinter Groups

Dec 10th, 2003 9:40 pm | By

Something interesting here from the Guardian. I’m not entirely sure (well not sure at all really) what to make of it, because I’ve heard George Monbiot say very silly things, and I’ve read very sensible things in spiked. That’s why we link to spiked now and then, and once at their invitation re-published an article of theirs. A good article it was, too. But then again, as I’ve said before, the free market agenda is not my agenda, and I’m not particularly eager to assist the agenda of people who want the market to decide all disputes in its own interest.

But I also don’t want such thoughts to inhibit me from linking to articles I think are good on their merits. So on the whole I try not to do that. But then it seems like a good idea to make the information available.

Philip Stott has a good post on the subject.

Well, one reason, George, is the fact that much of the left seems to have abandoned the Enlightenment completely, which has put many mildly left-wing scientists (like yours truly) in a bit of a bind…Indeed, I will write for most reasonable outlets so long as I can write honestly about what I believe and if my poor scribblings are not edited out of all recognition (and, I may add, Sp!ked has a better track record than The Grauniad on that front!). My ‘natural’ outlet would, in the past, have always been The Guardian – but that has become so emotive, so extreme, and so uncritical on the environment that I have been forced to migrate to more rational and tranquil waters. I hope I make up my mind on every issue carefully and on the evidence, an approach that seems to be at variance with the religious zeal of too many Guardian and Indy writers. Perhaps you and The Guardian might like to think about that a little.

One can even be more than mildly left-wing, as I think I am in some ways, and be dead set against abandoning the Enlightenment. In fact the Enlightenment was quite a radical phenomenon, and what one gets when one abandons it can be all too reactionary. Radical, yes, but them’s the wrong roots.

And an update for your favorites: Norm Geras has moved to a new site, so note new address.



Emotionally Biased Is It

Dec 9th, 2003 9:19 pm | By

There was an “article in the Guardian last week about requests from doctors who worked with Andrew Wakefield, the scientist whose research prompted the MMR controversy, not to show the program.

A former colleague of the scientist at the centre of the row claims the programme will endanger children’s lives by fostering doubts about the triple vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella…One of the doctors who has worked with Dr Wakefield wrote to Jane Lighting, Five’s chief executive, asking her not to transmit it. The doctor, a co-author of the original Lancet paper that provoked the controversy, says in the letter that the film is undeniably good drama, but it unacceptably and dangerously blurs the border between truth and fiction.

Which you would think responsible people would feel hesitant about doing when the result could endanger people’s lives. Wouldn’t you? That’s not a hyperbolic claim, it’s just reality: measles, mumps and rubella are not trivial diseases, they can and do kill. Wouldn’t you think that under the circumstances tv executives would decide Hmm, maybe we don’t know enough about this, maybe this is a subject that isn’t quite right for the ‘docudrama’ approach?

The programme-makers point out that elements have been fictionalised in order to tell the story coherently…Adrian Bate, the producer, admitted the film was emotionally positive towards the concerned parents, but insisted it remained rooted in fact. “It is emotionally biased, but it’s not factually biased,” he said. Tim Prager, the writer, said: “What we have tried to do is to say that there should be a freedom to think and report what you discover without fear of losing your career, and to show that much of what has been written about the possibility of a link between MMR and autism has been based on statistics – part of the point was to humanise the story.”

Freedom. Hm. A glorious and emotive word, but is it really the right one in this situation? And then that contrast between statistics and ‘humanisation.’ Yes well that’s just it, ‘humanising’ can be highly manipulative – almost always is, in fact. You can ‘humanise’ anyone and anything. So the story-tellers in this case opted to ‘humanise’ the anti-MMR side and dehumanise the other side (listen to how robotic and indifferent that GP sounds on the bit of tape they played on Start the Week). So they made their program ’emotionally biased’ but not ‘factually biased.’ Well that’s the problem, you fools! The emotional bias is the point! That stuff works, we all know it works, we’ve all experienced it a thousand times, in movie theatres and just sitting staring at the box. They know how to get us, so even if they do get the facts right, if they get the compelling actor (and Juliet Stevenson is a terrific actor, I wish she’d stayed out of this one, I must say) to say the compelling lines, it doesn’t matter about the facts. As they surely know perfectly well. And there it is.

An an interesting blog linked to B and W on this subject the other day (yes of course I look, I like to know who’s reading us, naturally).

Just as Norman Geras and Marc Mulholland have already said much of what we’d meant to say on other topics (see yesterday’s post headed “It’s a Funny Old World”), we’ve been very largely trumped on this topic by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels. But never mind: we’re glad of the opportunity to link, not only to her spot-on remarks about this project, but to a secular-humanist site that’s well worth exploring.

Thank you, yes it is, even if humanist isn’t quite exactly the right word, but no matter, it’s close enough.



A Treat

Dec 8th, 2003 9:40 pm | By

There’s been a mildly interesting, or interesting in parts, discussion at Crooked Timber about more obscure (or relatively obscure, slightly obscure, not really obscure but not on any of those Top 100 lists either) favourite books. I got in early with Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, and it’s had more seconds than any other choice that I’ve noticed. Three, plus a link to a quotation on Terry Teachout’s blog, which I’ve just added to Quotations and will also offer up here. It is so generally apposite.

With her brightest students Miss Batterson was always on terms of uneasy, disappointed admiration; their work never seemed to be helping their development as much as the work of the stupider students was helping theirs. Every year there was a little war—an eighteenth century one, though—about whether the school magazine was printing only the work of a clique. Miss Batterson was perfectly good-hearted in this: if you cannot discriminate between good and bad yourself, it cannot help seeming somewhat poor-spirited and arbitrary of other people to do so. Aesthetic discrimination is no pleasanter, seems no more just and rational to those discriminated against, than racial discrimination; the popular novelist would be satisfied with his income from serials and scenarios and pocket books if people would only see that he is a better writer than Thomas Mann.

And yet that book was written in the 50s. How he would have enjoyed Stephen King’s whinge at the National Book Awards, and the spectacle of literature professors attacking dead white guys.



Channel 5

Dec 8th, 2003 1:59 am | By

I thought this was quite interesting too. Just exactly what I thought, when I heard that bit of dialogue the other day.

A number of senior doctors have boycotted a debate to be shown after Channel Five’s drama documentary on Andrew Wakefield, because they say it is biased and emotive in its portrayal of the scientist behind alleged links between the MMR vaccination and autism…David Elliman, consultant community paediatrician at Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, said: “The film is very, very partial. It’s very much this one man against the medical establishment, who is the only man who listens to children and to parents – paediatricians don’t and GPs don’t.

Exactly. And it’s so tediously familiar – Lorenzo’s stinking Oil redux. The medical establishment is all wrong and they don’t pay attention and they’re stuck in their rut and they’re clueless and if only they’d listen and blah blah blah. Yes, if only medical research were done by parents with sick children, how much better everything would be. No possibility of mistakes or confirmation bias or fudging of evidence there! Oh hell no! And the more of this kind of dreck gets made, the more people believe ‘alternative’ medicine is better than the other kind. And of course more of this kind of dreck will get made, because it’s popular, and the entertainment industry tends to do what’s popular, doesn’t it. So public policy, health policy, people’s lives and health, get shaped by people who have no knowledge or expertise about the subject in hand, but just want to tell a good story, and look as if they’re crusading for something or other at the same time. As Neil Postman said, we’re amusing ourselves to death.



Don’t Go Out Alone

Dec 7th, 2003 9:35 pm | By

Well all right, if you can’t imprison and confine and repress women by putting them in purdah, or making them wear bags whenever they go outside, or slicing their genitals off, or smashing their feet, or whipping them with car antennas if they show a bit of hair or wrist – well hell, just get serious and stab them to death. That’ll teach them! I mean they’ve got a hell of a nerve thinking they get to go outside on their own, haven’t they. Who do they think they are? Adults? Responsible human beings like other people? Of course they’re not! They should be safely inside their houses, preferably in their kitchens, doing what women are supposed to be doing.

Oh, I know, that’s a bit unfair and intemperate. This sort of thing could happen to anyone, really, at least to anyone smaller and weaker and more knifeless than the assailant. But so often it is women it happens to, and then out come the warnings.

Detectives last night warned women not to go jogging on their own after a 39-year-old was left fighting for her life following a knife attack by a man believed to be responsible for murdering another female runner…’While we do not wish to be alarmist, we would ask that women who are jogging in parks or exercising their dogs try to be in the company of a friend,’ he added. ‘There are a large number of similarities between the two attacks. Both involved women of small stature, jogging alone through parks.

Try to be in the company of a friend. But what if walking alone is an activity you happen to enjoy and value? And what if the ability to walk alone is an ability you value even more? What if the idea of deciding to stop walking alone in parks makes you feel like a damn prisoner? What then?

You ignore the warning, that’s what, and go on walking alone whenever and wherever you feel like it, just as you always have. And in truth the warning is slightly absurd. Statistically, what are the odds of getting stabbed to death (or stabbed at all) in the local park, even if you are alone, even if you’re a tiny woman and it’s three in the morning? Not all that likely, surely. It’s not as if every park is stuffed with knife-carrying would-be murderers, just waiting for some fool of a woman to come toddling along, is it. No. There appears to be one out there, who has killed one woman and nearly killed another. That’s horrible and disgusting, obviously, but is it really reason to stop going into parks alone? Surely not. A great many more people are killed in car crashes every day, more people on foot are killed by cars every day, but people don’t stop either driving or crossing the street.

But the mere suggestion makes me indignant – as you may have noticed. Well I don’t like having murderers tell me how I get to live my life, even by implication. I’m nowhere near Clissold Park, or London, but that’s beside the point. This kind of thing is a meme, it spreads, it has to be resisted. I used to do a lot of hitch-hiking in my youth – all the way through my twenties, in fact. Alone. Of course I was warned against it, often by people who gave me lifts, and of course I already knew it was dangerous. But I did it anyway. I would have regretted that decision if anything horrible had happened, and I was aware of that when I did it, but I did it anyway. I did not want to be confined by fears. I wanted the adventure, I wanted the adventure that other people got to have, people called men; I didn’t want to accept limitations. So out I went, on roads and highways in the UK and Ireland and California. Defiantly. I had a good time, too. I had my adventure.



Radio Machete

Dec 6th, 2003 2:07 am | By

Ah, and just when I was talking about Rwanda, here is this story. How very interesting. The first time media executives have been convicted since the Nurenberg trials. Well that’s too bad, for a start, because Serbian radio was also used to whip up murderous ethnic hatreds. But it’s better than nothing.

In the first verdict of its kind since the Nuremberg trials, an international court today convicted three Rwandan news media executives of genocide for helping to incite a killing spree by machete-wielding gangs who slaughtered about 800,000 Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda in early 1994. A three judge panel found that the three defendants used a radio station and a twice-monthly newspaper to inflame ethnic hatred that eventually led to massacres at churches, schools, hospitals and roadblocks. The radio station, dubbed Radio Machete in Rwanda, guided killers to specific victims, broadcasting the names, license plate numbers and hiding places of Tutsis.

This is the kind of thing I always wonder about when free speech absolutists get wound up.

“The power of the media to create and destroy human values comes with great responsibility,” the court said in a 29-page summary of its judgment. “Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.”…John Floyd, who defended one of the executives, a newspaper editor named Hassan Ngeze, denounced the verdict as a major setback for free speech and an invitation to dictators to close down any media outlet that is out of favor. “This is a terrible, terrible decision, the worst decision in the history of international justice,” Mr. Floyd said. “This is very, very dangerous. This case would have been laughed out of an American court.”

Would it? I hope not, but maybe it would. Fortunately we haven’t (as far as I know) had a situation like that, but if we did, would judges laugh a prosecution of such media executives out of court? US courts do protect political bribery and various kinds of advertising as free speech in the US, no matter how corrupt and harmful they may be, so…who knows.



Lots of People

Dec 5th, 2003 9:48 pm | By

Another interesting point at normblog. Well I can’t help it if he says something that catches my attention twice in three days. That’s just how things fall out sometimes. And really, this is something I’ve been mulling over for a couple of weeks or more, ever since re-reading Philip Gourevitch’s book on Rwanda. Longer than that really, maybe since last spring – maybe around the time Fareed Zakaria’s book on democracy was published. It wasn’t the book itself (which I haven’t read in any case) that sparked the pondering, it was the air of surprise in some of the reviews, that someone could make some shrewd and pertinent comments about democracy which recognized that democracy has some tensions or dangers. I was surprised that reviewers were so surprised – as if this were an idea that no one had ever thought of before, or at least as if it were an idea that everyone stopped thinking of once the universal franchise was in place, at least everyone to the left of General Franco. But surely it’s obvious if you think about it for about one quarter of a second that there is no magic law of the universe that prevents a majority from wanting to do things that are bad, oppressive, unfair, cruel to other people.

And that’s where Rwanda comes in. The population of Hutus was about 90%, of Tutsis about 10%. Not all Hutus wanted to slaughter all Tutsis, but a great many of them did. If there had been a referendum and they had voted on it and the kill-Tutsis side won, that would have been democracy.

Now to what Norm said:

If the liberation of the Iraqi people by military intervention was overall wrong, that needs to be argued independently of the circumstance that there were many in Egypt or Jordan or Syria who were likely to be enraged by it.

Just so. Those are two independent things. 1. X is wrong, or right. 2. X will enrage a lot of people.

Everything is going to enrage someone, and a lot of things enrage a lot of people, and some things enrage most people. But whether the things that enrage them are good or bad is a separate question. In fact one could argue that this is one of the drawbacks of democracy: that out of habit or sloppy thinking or good intentions, we mix up voting and public opinion and merit, as if they’re all more or less the same thing. Then we start to think that it’s arrogant and elitist to have an opinion that the majority of people don’t share. Then we start to think it’s arrogant and elitist ever to say anyone is wrong about anything – and then our brains turn to soup.