Notes and Comment Blog
Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.
All righty. I was told to read Hitchens’s ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’ more carefully, so I did, and was unsurprised to find more silly stuff, which I feel like poking a stick at. (You may say that he’s being ironic throughout. He’s not though. I recognize some of the thoughts from other work and from interviews; the stuff about childbirth and war for instance; he means it.)
While Jewish humor, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation, is almost masculine by definition.
Oh, is it? I must be a man then. (Mind you, I often think that, when I read journalism about what women are and what men are. When I read that women are caring and co-operative and warm and fascinated by Relationships, I conclude that I’m a man; when I read that men are indifferent and argumentative and cold and bored rigid by Relationships, I conclude that I’m a man. So it goes.) Angst and self-deprecation are male? Come on. I’m in a permanent state of angst, usually about a minimum of seventeen different things, and my dial is also stuck on self-deprecation. Yes yes, I know I’m conceited, I don’t deny that, but I’m also self-deprecating, dammit! Furthermore – I don’t know if Hitchens is aware of this (I would suspect not) but men are often more pseudo-self-deprecating than really self-deprecating. They pretend to self-deprecate but do it in a subtly self-flattering way. They tell stories about their own rudeness or social ineptitude or jokes that everyone misunderstood, so that it seems as if they’re deprecating the old self but in fact they’re reporting on how unconventional and zany and clever they are. So there, Hitch – you do that yourself; you know you do.
Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone’s expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste. Humor is part of the armor-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough…Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is.
Well, there we are again – I must be a man then. But besides that, preference is one thing and understanding is another. Preferring life to be unfair is not incompatible with understanding that it’s not. Aren’t men supposed to be good at logic? Come on, Hitch, pull your socks up.
Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals.
Okay, he got that bit right. Well done. (Except he could have pointed out that we believe we become threatening to men if we appear too bright as a result of experience. It’s not just some superstition.)
For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle.
Humor, if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle. Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can’t afford to be too frivolous…I am certain that this is also partly why, in all cultures, it is females who are the rank-and-file mainstay of religion, which in turn is the official enemy of all humor.
Oh look, it’s the bottom of the barrel! It is males who are the non-rank-and-file mainstay of religion, after all, so why pin the humor-enmity of religion on women?
Okay, I read it more carefully, and found that it’s a lot more riddled with bad arguments than I had realized.
Hitchens makes a very silly opening argument in this conspicuously silly piece, winsomely titled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. (Is this part of his Kingsley Amis shtick? KA was brilliant, but the routine misogyny was hardly his funniest or most interesting bit.)
However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: “She’s a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make ‘em laugh.” Now, why is this? Why is it the case?, I mean. Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.
Come on. The fact that men don’t say their latest female love interest is funny doesn’t mean that women aren’t funny. Surely that ought to be obvious enough. Consider – someone tells you about her recent trip to Chicago, and doesn’t mention the Art Institute; that doesn’t mean that she didn’t go to the Art Institute. Someone tells you about her new car and doesn’t describe the back seat; that doesn’t mean her car doesn’t have a back seat. Someone tells you about her hike on Mount Rainier and doesn’t mention seeing an eagle; that doesn’t mean she didn’t see an eagle. The fact (if it is a fact) that men don’t say their newest girlfriends are funny could have nothing to do with the women and everything to do with what men notice and care about and talk about to other men. As long as we’re making sweeping generalizations, here’s one to sit next to Hitch’s: men don’t care whether women are funny or not, they care about other, more practical features. Or here’s a different and even unkinder one: men don’t like women who have senses of humour; men want women to laugh at their jokes, not say funny things themselves. Here’s another: men are threatened by women with senses of humour.
Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.
Atheists are mean, says Nicholas Kristof. No they’re not, say Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett; you just think so because you’re used to religion’s special immunity. As Dawkins puts it:
Mr. Kristof has simply become acclimatized to the convention that you can criticize anything else but you mustn’t criticize religion. Ears calibrated to this norm will hear gentle criticism of religion as intemperate, and robust criticism as obnoxious.
Which is really not an ideal situation: it really does make it difficult for people to discuss the subject honestly. It’s a little worrying how many people are eager to join the chorus urging atheists to shut up – or to be less ‘obnoxious’ and ‘militant’ and ‘in your face,’ which amounts to the same thing. Dennett notes:
There is nothing “dogmatic” or “fundamentalist” about Dawkins’ tone; he is simply speaking truthfully about matters that most people have trained themselves not to mention, or else to allude to in mealy-mouthed terms.
That self-training is not such a good idea.
Mary Riddell skipped that lesson, fortunately:
[T]he bishops are on the prowl…The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, announces that ‘illiberal atheists’ and ‘aggressive secularists’ have stolen Christmas. On a point of semantics, secularists do not wish to harm religion or deny its great cultural influence. They simply want it to know its place. Which, in the view of many bishops, is in every corner of the public realm…On 1 January, laws protecting gay people in Northern Ireland will be tightened. Ruth Kelly…has bowed to religious leaders complaining that the pillars of Christendom will totter unless Christian adoption agencies, bookshops and hotels are allowed free rein for prejudice…[T]he harmonious society Mr Blair desires is not best served by Christian leaders passing themselves off as a persecuted minority and the whipping boy of multicultural Britain. This is purest fallacy. The might of bishops trickles down from the House of Lords, where they sit without a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy…Mr Blair is right to be fearless in giving necessary offence. At a time when religion fills the vacuums hollowed out by fear and uncertainty, he should spread his criticism more widely. Tell the Christian churches that their inroads into the public domain are unacceptable and their twisting of the truth sometimes despicable. This is the opportunity to defuse the public power of all gods, to ban religious schools of every hue, to end the cross-contamination of faith and policy and to move towards a secular state.
Terry Sanderson does the ‘aggressive secularist’ thing:
So now the spotlight is turned on “the fundamentalist secularists” who, according to the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, are the real villains of the piece. Sentamu opportunistically put out an overblown and hysterical statement, pointing the finger at “illiberal atheists”. “There is a worrying trend to be seen where illiberal atheists have combined with aggressive secularists to create a ludicrous situation where those who don’t believe in God have decided that a Christian festival is offending other faiths,” he said…Is the man fully in control of his faculties? Who are these “aggressive secularists” who want to rob Christians of Christmas? Come on, Johnny, name names. And don’t trot out Richard Dawkins, because he has never said any such thing. Nor has anyone at the National Secular Society…The Christian push to incite resentment against non-Christians is dishonest and very dangerous. At a time when the term has become extremely loaded, Sentamu’s usage of “multiculturalism” – whose only proponents, in his view, are these “aggressive secularists” with their censorious political correctness – will be understood in many quarters as code for an attack on ethnic minorities and other non-Christian religious groups.
Oh but he’s a Christian, so surely he can’t be inciting resentment. That’s just the kind of thing Christians don’t do…isn’t it?
Some more on the conceptual issues involved in ideas such as equality, equal treatment, civil rights, public accommodation, and so on. Some comments by a dissenting justice in the Civil Rights Cases decision of 1883, in which the court killed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, an act by which Congress attempted to elaborate on and enforce the Fourteenth Amendment – Section 1 of which turned the US world upside down:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Room for conceptual questions there, of course (even apart from the baffling fact that the late 19th century Supreme Court chose to define corporations as ‘persons’, contrary to the intent of Congress in passing the amendment and to the normal meaning of the word); what is meant by privileges or immunities? What is meant by equal protection? Not much, was the answer of the Court in 1883. But Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented.
Congress had intended [in the Fourteenth Amendment], Harlan noted, to wipe out all discrimination against blacks and ‘to secure and protect rights belonging to them as freemen and citizens; nothing more. He took aim at [Justice] Bradley’s formalistic distinction between ‘state action’ and private discrimination. ‘In every material sense applicable to the practical enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment,’ he wrote, ‘railroad corporations, keepers of inns, and managers of places of public amusement are charged with duties to the public, and are amenable, in respect of their duties and functions, to governmental regulation.’ On that issue, Harlan relied on the common law principle that ‘when private property is devoted to a public use, it is subject to public regulation.’ [Irons, People's History of the SC, p 214]
That’s one view, and on that court at that time it was a minority view; but it is a view. It’s a little unnerving to see Anglican archbishops siding with the court majority that killed off the Civil Rights Act and left blacks without redress against the most brutal kinds of treatment* until the Brown decision overturned Plessy in 1954. I wonder if they completely grasp the kind of thinking they’re messing with.
*read Worse Than Slavery for detail on this
We have this on-going discussion about rights, about what they are, what we mean by them, what they aren’t or shouldn’t be or shouldn’t be thought to be, how they are justified, and the like. We have some commenters defending the idea that Christians do have rights to refuse service to gay people in public accommodations. They’re using arguments that have a certain familiarity. The ‘right to free association’ for instance. From a comment on ‘The fundamental right to say get outta my store’: ‘the right to free association. That’s the very same right denied in apartheid south africa or in the US under segregation or by many anti-union laws.’ Well, no, actually. It was the defenders of apartheid and segregation who resorted to talk of rights to free association or to choose one’s own company or customers, not the opponents. There is this 1964 incident in the career of William Rehnquist, a recent Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, for instance:
he opposed [Phoenix, Arizona's] public accomodations law, defending in a letter to the Arizona Republic ‘the historic right of the owner of a drug store, lunch counter, or theater to choose his own customers.’ [Peter Irons, A People's History of the Supreme Court, p. 443]
The churches, whether they realize it or not, are aligning themselves with intransigent segregationists of the 1950s and early ’60s. They can do that, of course, but it’s as well to be aware that the defense of ‘free association’ has particular historical resonances. It emphatically does not refer to or mean the right of black people to associate with whites, it means the right of white people not to associate with blacks, and to exclude them from public accomodations for that purpose. Not a pretty or inspiring kind of right, not one that reasonable people (frankly) ought to defend. The picture to form in your head is not a living room full of friends but a restaurant with ‘No Niggers’ or ‘No Queers’ on the door.
Blair gave a speech on multiculturalism. (Maybe if he’s very good, next week he’ll be allowed to have a debate on the subject with Madeleine Bunting.) He said some slightly odd things…
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths have a perfect right to their own identity and religion, to practice their faith and to conform to their culture. This is what multicultural, multi-faith Britain is about. That is what is legitimately distinctive.
But when it comes to our essential values – belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage – then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common…
But those two can be in flat contradiction. Blair surely knows that. Is the idea that people are just supposed to ignore that problem? The fact that practicing a ‘faith’ and conforming to a culture can rule out belief in and practice of equal treatment for all? He must know that, he’s not silly – so what does he mean by saying that? Is it just that anodyne but impossible formulas are required for speeches of this kind?
Actually he does admit the problem farther down. (But then why state it this way farther up? Won’t he confuse his hearers?)
[W]e stand emphatically at all times for equality of respect and treatment for all citizens. Sometimes the cultural practice of one group contradicts this. We need very clear rules for how we govern the public realm. A good example is forced marriage. There can be no defence of forced marriage on cultural or any other grounds.
Right. Good. But then it’s no good saying people have a perfect right to practice their ‘faith’ and to conform to their culture when in fact that right is (very properly) limited. That’s misleading.
Andy Armitage sent me the link to this speech and pointed out this passage:
One of the most common concerns that has been raised with me, when meeting women from the Muslim communities, is their frustration at being debarred even from entering certain mosques. Those that exclude the voice of women need to look again at their practices. I am not suggesting altering the law. But we have asked the Equal Opportunities Commission to produce a report by the spring of next year on how these concerns could be practically addressed, whilst of course recognising that in many religions the treatment of women differs from that of men.
Well, okay, but that looks like some thin ice up ahead. But good luck with it.
In the summer, the publication of Amartya Sen’s book, Identity and Violence, was greeted with delight by many reviewers and commentators…He was promptly adopted by the lobby of vociferous aggressive secularists who regard all faith in the public sphere as evidence of some sinister plot.
No, actually, that’s not what we regard all ‘faith’ in the public sphere as, we regard it as an inherently dangerous influence on politics, law, human rights and other such public influences that shape how we all get to live our lives. Get it right, Madders.
Christians continue to struggle to defend their rights.
Allies of Ms Kelly have accused Mr Hain of pandering to Labour activists…His liberal approach may derail sensitive negotiations between the Government and church leaders, who are urging ministers not to put the rights of gays above the rights of Christians.
Church leaders, who are urging ministers not to put the rights of gays above the rights of Christians to exclude and refuse to serve gays in public accomodations – those rights. You know, those ‘rights’ that don’t exist, that no one recognizes, the ones that are just asserted. Those rights.
Some wisdom and insight from Ziauddin Sardar:
The British literary landscape is dominated by three writers: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan…In their different styles, their approach and opinions define a coherent position. They are the vanguard of British literary neoconservatives, or, if you like, the “Blitcons”…Their writing stands within a tradition, upholding ideas with deep roots in European consciousness and literature….The Blitcon project is based on three one- dimensional conceits. The first is the absolute supremacy of American culture. Blitcon fiction is orientalism for the 21st century, shifting the emphasis from the supremacy of the west in general to the supremacy of American ideas of freedom…The second Blitcon conceit is that Islam is the greatest threat to this idea of civilisation. Rushdie’s suspicion of and distaste for Islam is obvious in his novels…References to Islam in Midnight’s Children can be read as deliberately insulting.
Naughty Rushdie. Suspicion and distaste for Islam not allowed. Trust and love for Islam only permissible attitude, also only progressive attitude; other attitude places one as a conservative; Islam self-evidently the opposite of conservatism and deserving of trust and love, respect and admiration, affection and reverence; therefore Rushdie Amis and McEwan are all neocons. Besides they uphold ideas with deep roots in European consciousness and literature. Well I mean to say. How neocon and sinister can you get.
The third Blitcon conceit is that American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world. The extent to which this conviction has become central to these writers’ thought can be traced by Rushdie’s surprising progression, over the past 20 years, from political left to centre right. Rushdie’s fiction is more nuanced than that of Amis or McEwan, and he was an outspoken champion of multiculturalism during the 1980s. All that, however, changed when Ayatollah Khomeini, enraged at The Satanic Verses, issued a fatwa sentencing him to death in 1989.
Oh, gee, did it? Well I can’t imagine why! I can’t imagine why a ‘fatwa’ sentencing him to death by a complete stranger in a country he had nothing to do with – a stranger who hadn’t read the book he was so ‘enraged’ about – would cause him to be any less fond of ‘multiculturalism’ – can you? What a narrow-minded spiteful conservative orientalist all-wrong guy he must be, to react that way. Dang, some people just have no tolerance. Obviously he should have been pleased at this creative manifestation of a vibrant culture displaying its difference and Otherness for the edification of all those dreary fools who uphold ideas with deep roots in European consciousness and literature. But nooooo – he had to get all offended and huffy and bitter, and even more unfriendly toward Islam. Is that crazy and neocon or what!
And, the NS tells us, ‘Ziauddin Sardar has been appointed a commissioner of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.’ Oh dear.
The discussion at Cosmic blog of Allen Esterson’s research on the ‘Einstein’s Wife’ myth has continued. Some of the comments indicate why mythic history can get traction.
So far as I know, both Einstein and Maric are dead and continued discussion of who contributed what to either’s research would be pointless (unless you’re dead set on using the work of long-dead scientists to promote your own injured sense of your gender’s worth and equality.) Wouldn’t a more relevant topic be whether or not Einstein’s or Maric’s conclusions were valid, or that their work was useful?
Well, continued discussion might be pointless if it were taking place in a vacuum, but given that there is a story out there that is given prominence on a public television website and is being taught in schools and is wrong, then no, it’s not pointless. Teaching history as pretty, self-esteem inflating stories that aren’t actually true is not helpful. Rigoberta Menchú did not help her cause by exaggerating and embroidering parts of her story. Japan doesn’t do itself any good by minimizing what happened in Nanjing. Turkey is not covering itself in glory by prosecuting anyone who so much as whispers the words ‘Armenian genocide.’ Holocaust denial is neither useful nor benign. Yosef ben-Jochannan didn’t advance black empowerment by giving lectures in which he said that Aristotle had stolen his philosophy from the library at Alexandria. Truth has to apply everywhere in inquiry if it’s going to apply anywhere; once you decide it’s okay if you play games with it in just this one place – you’ve given up on it entirely (for one thing, because you’ve made yourself unreliable). As a reply to the above comment at Cosmic Blog says:
There are probably a lot of people who would agree with you. Thirty years ago I might have been among that number. However, I think there’s something to be said for truth. Some years ago I read an article by the historian Mary Lefkowitz in the paper entitled, “Greece for the Greeks: History is not Bunk.” Very enlightening little essay that inspired me to continue on and read her book “Not out of Africa.”
Interesting. I was inspired to read Lefkowitz’s book too, some ten years or so ago, and that’s why she’s one of the first people I asked to write something for B&W. She did, too – her article is the first one I published here. The next is by Richard Evans and also about why truth matters in history. (Then a couple of interviews – with Norm Levitt and Steve Pinker – and an article from TPM and then there’s the first article Allen sent – so we come around in a circle. We all think history does matter and truth matters and truth in history matters. The commenter at Cosmic Blog goes on:
If Maric really did deserve a share in the Nobel that would be a good thing to know – for everyone. But the evidence for such a thing is extremely feeble, even where it exists. The grotesque exaggeration of her involvement is a disservice to the facts, to ourselves, and most especially to her. There is a tendency now in some quarters to say, “B was a downtrodden class of individuals. They did not have the opportunities that DWMs (Dead White Males) had and their contributions were ignored or downplayed. In many cases they were actually punished. THEREFORE, as a matter of social justice, we must go back and give them retroactive credit for things they might have done had they not been oppressed.” The movement to elevate Maric’s recognition is an extreme example of this…Also, when it comes to teaching our kids – my OWN daughters, one of whom has decided to be a chemist – I want them to know the truth as far we are capable of discerning it. I want to inspire them to their level of brilliance and beyond – using the real accomplishments of those who have come before, and not the imaginary and inflated accomplishments that amount to patronizing inanity.
Yep. Patronizing inanity is no favour. Thanks all the same.
Purves and the niqab again. I find I haven’t quite finished with that subject – I find I didn’t chew it over quite thorougly enough. I find that one small paragraph is peculiarly full of matter for contemplation. I find there is more to say.
One: she said it was ‘good to have the student speaking of “ghosts”, and good to have women who had worn the niqab saying it made them feel not only more devout but more private.’ But that’s ridiculous. You might as well say it was good to have the student saying torture is cruel and bad, and good to have other people saying it is kind and useful. Why would that be good? On Millian grounds, because arguments are stronger if they meet opposition? But that’s not what she says; she doesn’t say why; she just says it was a fun evening. It seems to be merely a matter of let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand opinions flourish, they’re all good, all interesting, all colourful. But that’s saying anything. If the things people say are in tension with each other, and they relate to actions and rules and laws, sometimes a choice will have to be made, so it’s not helpful to just beam fondly and say they’re all lovely.
Two: she ‘admitted’ a moment of discomfort about encountering a woman in a niqab. Why did she ‘admit’ it? That means she thought she did something at least slightly wrong in feeling discomfort. But why should she think that? Why should anyone? Why should there be guilt about feeling discomfort at seeing women with no faces? What’s not to feel discomfort about? Suppose we encountered someone crossing the road wearing a Tshirt slogan in huge neon letters: ‘Woman is man’s rib and born to serve him.’ Would we feel discomfort? Would we feel guilty and apologetic about the discomfort? I doubt it. If not, should we feel guilty about niqab-discomfort? I don’t think so.
Third: the biggest omission, the one that bugged me: the cheerful man’s ‘She can speak, you know!’ I should have noticed that. No, we don’t know! Of course we don’t know – how would we? She’s wearing this thing over her face that makes it impossible to know, isn’t she; that’s the point! For all we know the lower half of her face has been sheered away and she can no more speak than she can fly. Of course we don’t know. And the cheerful man is being completely ridiculous in pretending there is simply no possible reason to think a woman with a bag over her head might not react just like any other person in the street to a casaul uninvited remark from a stranger – in pretending she’s just perfectly routine and familiar and ordinary and commonplace and just like everyone else except for this one tiny detail that she’s dressed like Darth Vader. And in fact he’s being not only ridiculous but also disingenuous, because the point of the niqab is to ward off contact and conversation, not to invite it and not even to say that it’s difficult but possible – it’s just plain to prevent it. Get real, cheerful man. And then of course there’s the question that Purves should have asked, which is whether this mandate to say ‘Good morning!’ applies to men. But that would have taken her into territory that might cause ‘discomfort,’ so instead (apparently) she let cheerful man buffalo her into treating the revolting medieval nonsense as normal and healthy and fine. Sad.
Something ChrisPer said in comments on the ‘Fundamntal right-get outta my store’ N&C, that I found myself doing a longish comment on, so decided to put it out here.
“Christian disapproval of gay practice is not without reasons – its just without reasons that others find persuasive. For instance, you disown the reason of pleasing God on the grounds that He does not exist.”
No, actually; more grounds than that. I could perfectly well think or believe that god does exist and still be far from thinking ‘the reason of pleasing God’ is a valid reason to say and teach and preach that homosexuality is wrong and to think it should be legal to deny gays service in public facilities. Because even if god exists, there are still further questions, before one can conclude that condemnation of homosexuality pleases this god. What kind of god is it? What does it think is good, and what does it think is bad? What does it want us to do? Has it told us what it wants us to do? Has it told us what it thinks is good, and what is bad? If so, how do we know it has? And if so, why hasn’t it told everyone? And if so, and if it thinks good and bad matter, why hasn’t it told everyone in such a way that there can be no dispute about it?
It seems to me that even if there is a god, no human has the slightest idea what the true answers to those questions are, and that even if any humans do know the true answers, they have no way to know they know, and we have no way to know they know.
It’s basically an epistemic problem. People who claim that homosexuality is displeasing to god really don’t know that and have no way to know it.
Some theists claim that is because god wants us to have free will, and wants us to have a free choice whether to believe in god or not, as well as whether to be good or not. Okay – but then the only way to do that is to keep us in genuine epistemic darkness. Not pretend darkness; real darkness. We really don’t know if there’s a god, or if there is what kind of god it is, or what it thinks is good, or if we would agree with it if we knew, or what it wants us to do, or if it has told us what to do, and if so what it is that it has told us to do; and we don’t know how to know any of this, either way, yes or no. Okay. Real freedom, but bogus knowledge of god. There is no real knowledge of this god, and so far there never has been (or it would have been passed on in an indisputable fashion). So – we’re free to choose to believe it exists. All right – but are we equally free to choose to believe we know what it thinks is good and what it wants us to do? Are we equally free to choose to believe we know it has told us what it thinks is good and what it wants us to do, and that it will blame and punish all who disobey? No. I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone has the right to take that risk. Because the reality is you just have no clue what god wants, you don’t even have any clue what it’s like, so how can you possibly know it doesn’t think children should be tortured? Let alone know it thinks homosexuals should be given unequal treatment because of what they do with their genitalia. Darkness is darkness; we don’t know what we don’t know; and this is something we don’t know. It seems to me it’s only right to admit that.
People are funny. Hilarious, even. Yesterday a regular reader emailed me to express concern. The subject line said ‘Something’s afoot.’ Oh what? thought I. John Bolton has been made Vice-president? Barack Obama has turned atheist? No, the something was afoot at B&W.
Am I picking up a shift in your political orientation? Something is changing in the complexion of B&W and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Almost as though you were feeling contrite about slamming President Bush for his brainlessness for so long and felt you needed to give the other side equal time, or even more, that you are saying, “The Devil take the whole bunch of them.” Why, soon you’ll be telling us you are heading back across the ocean having given up on us. Tell me I’m wrong, but your choices are starting to look like Arts and Letters Daily.
??? I thought. What can this possibly refer to? I stole time from pressing work on TPM (and B&W) glancing over recent News items and N&C titles trying to figure out what was meant, and I squandered several minutes writing a longish reply. Then wished I hadn’t bothered when the reply to my reply came in.
Nothing as specific as any of those–just a sea-change I am sensing or a tilt of the tectonic plate. I’ll let you know if I can pin it down more–not that it should matter–but just as long as you are doing equal-opportunity goading, I am reassured.
Pretty funny, you have to admit – first the shock-horror accusations, then the casual admission that actually the helpful reader has no examples. This morning I stole another couple of minutes to point out the absurdity along with the waste of my time which I have better things to do with it actually. The thoughtful reply? ‘Life’s tough.’
I’m laughing again. You do have to admit – that’s not bad.
Don’t worry, I won’t publish your rude emails, not unless they’re as funny as that. I get lots of rude emails that I don’t publish. (Oh well not all that many really. Most of them are about dear Al Pope, and not rude anyway. But I get a few.) But ones that extract the biscuit and cause hilarity – those are fair game. Besides, this way I recoup the wasted time.
It was good to have the student speaking of “ghosts”, and good to have women who had worn the niqab saying it made them feel not only more devout but more private, especially in times of divorce or bereavement. I admitted a moment of discomfort myself: on the way in, crossing the Mile End Road and finding myself face to face with a full black veil, as we jinked from side to side to avoid collision, I gave the usual smilingly embarrassed grimace, yet her invisibility denied me any answering smile. When I said this, a cheerful bearded man in the audience whose wife wears one said: “You should have greeted her. She can speak, you know!’ We agreed that next time I meet a niqab-wearer in the street I will say “Good morning!” and expect a response.
Wait. If the niqab makes women feel more private, especially in times of divorce or bereavement, i.e. when they’re sad and upset and fragile and need to be outside but don’t want to interact with strangers, then why did we agree that niqab-wearers in the street should as a matter of policy be accosted? And as a matter of fact, even without the privacy-sadness-fragility-leave me alone aspect, why did we agree that niqab-wearers in the street should as a matter of policy be accosted? What if they don’t want to be accosted? Why should the niqab be interpreted as a near-requirement to say ‘Good morning’? Is this over-compensation? Over-correction? Reverse psychology? Perversity? What’s the thinking here? ‘I see – you’re wearing something that covers your face, therefore you are inviting me to greet you, and will feel insulted and offended and aggrieved if I don’t. [anxiously] Good morning!!’
Why is the cheerful bearded man in the audience (of course he’s cheerful, he gets to wear his face) whose wife wears one scolding Purves for not greeting a woman whose face is wrapped in a cloth? Why is it Purves’s duty to greet her? Why do people want to have everything both ways, or all ways? Why do people want to put on clothes that they know perfectly well elicit certain reactions, and at the same time rebuke the expected reactions? Why do people want to pretend on the one hand that the niqab is ‘just a piece of cloth,’ nothing more than that, no more peculiar or thrilling than a handkerchief, despite different location; no meaning, no implications, no resonance, certainly no political or religious agenda, just a small square of cloth that could be a doll’s tablecloth in another context; and on the other hand that there are all sorts of rules and ethical imperatives about how everyone is to react to the piece of cloth and the woman wearing it? If I go out in jeans and a sweater, no one is under any obligation to greet me and say ‘Good morning!’ because I am wearing them; so if the niqab is so ordinary and ho hum and average, why are we commanded to greet people who wear them? And then, if a woman puts on a face-shield whose primary effect is surely to make it difficult to greet her, why are we expected to greet her? If I go out with a horse’s second-best blanket over my head, is that a mandate for people to greet me? Is it not rather an invitation not to greet me and also a pretty effective preventive device? If you want people to greet you, you should make it easier, not harder. The way to get people greet you is not to go prancing around with your face in a sheet so that no one can tell if you are smiling or sneering or making bubble-lips. We don’t want to greet people who we can’t tell if they’re laughing at us! If it’s greetings you want, leave the Groucho nose and the mask at home; otherwise, put up with non-greetings. You can’t have everything. Get used to it.
Allen Esterson alerted me to and sent me the link to this bizarre item. (Did I see references to it at the time? Possibly. There might be a faint memory – but if so I didn’t follow them up.)
A study by an academic who has spent more than 30 years looking at Bach’s work claims that Anna Magdalena Bach, traditionally believed to be Bach’s musical copyist, actually wrote some of his best-loved works, including his Six Cello Suites…”I also discovered that the only complete manuscript from the time for the Cello Suites was a manuscript in the hand of Anna Magdalena, and that the original manuscript in the hand of Johann Sebastian had vanished.”
Oh well then. What more is there to be said? It couldn’t possibly be that she simply copied the manuscript (because such things have never been known; manuscripts never were copied; wives never were asked to copy their husbands’ work; original manuscripts never simply disappeared) or that the original manuscript was used to wrap the leftover strudel that Johann Christian took to school; therefore, beyond a reasonable doubt, Johann Sebastian Bach did not write the Cello Suites, his wife did.
Suppose someone found a fair copy of Emma in James Austen’s hand, or one of Wuthering Heights in Branwell Brontë’s, or one of Middlemarch in Lewes’s. Would people be rushing to claim any of them wrote the items in question? They wouldn’t you know. And rightly so. Suppose someone noticed a letter in which Frederick Douglass thanked Thoreau in the warmest terms for his help and inspiration – would people fall over themselves in the stampede to say that Thoreau wrote A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass? Suppose someone found a Christmas shopping list on which Toni Morrisson planned to buy a typewriter for someone named George Smithers – would everyone decide George Smithers had written Beloved? Suppose some alert scholar noticed that a contemporary of Emily Dickinson’s named Albert Innacan wrote poetry for the Amherst Gazette and that his poetry featured a lot of dashes – would new books pour off the presses claiming that Albert Innacan wrote Emily Dickinson’s poetry?
I don’t think so. So why do people swallow this kind of nonsense when it goes in the other direction? Can’t they see how pathetic and shaming it is? And if they can’t, why can’t they? Why will they insist on being so silly?
I leave it to your wisdom to determine.
Prompted by an interesting comment on an earlier post about putative rights I did a little Googling about freedom of association. Something I need to know more about. Found this useful page on the subject.
The phrase “freedom of association” does not appear in the Constitution (although the First Amendment protects the right to peaceably assemble). Nonetheless, the Court has recognized to separate types of association that are constitutionally protected: (1) intimate association (protected as an aspect of the right of privacy) and (2) expressive association (protected as as an aspect of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech). Freedom of association cases are interesting in that they bring into conflict two competing views of the world: rights-oriented liberalism that holds that a person’s identity comes from individual choices (and that government ought to create a framework of laws that remove barriers to choice) and communitarianism, that holds that a person’s identity comes from the communities of which an individual is a part (and that communities are an important buffer between the government and the individual).
Well that’s very interesting, because I’ve been thinking of these issues as being about competing ideas of rights rather than about rights competing with communitarianism. I’m sharply aware that I much prefer rights and rights-oriented liberalism to communitarianism – so I’m being consistent here.
I’m tempted to copy in the whole left-hand column of the page, but that would be silly (and perhaps a copyright violation); just read it; it’s interesting.
Conflicting ideas of rights, chapter 793.
It’s normal to feel nostalgic for cherished practices once treasured and now disgraced. Sometimes, being forced to give them up is a violation of rights. At other times, it means retracting a privilege that should never have been extended in the first place. Some Southern whites spent the 1960s pining for the old days, when they could lynch whom they pleased; few today would portray that as a right transgressed! Today, conservative Christians behold society falling from their faith’s exclusive grip and, like their Southern racist predecessors, sigh, “There goes my everything.”
Just so. Sometimes, being forced to give up a privilege that should never have been extended in the first place feels to the forcee like a violation of rights, which is why we are so often treated to petulant arias on the violation of various rights that aren’t rights. That, plus of course it’s a highly useful tactic, always likely to convince a few unwary observers. Don’t let this happen to you.
Hitchens takes down Coulter in his own special way.
She has emerged as a persona because she has mastered the politics of resentment, and because she can combine the ideology of Human Events (the obscure ‘Joe McCarthy was right’ magazine) with the demand of the chat-show bookers for a tall blonde with a very rapid delivery on a wide range of subjects.
Ah yes the very rapid delivery thing. (I’ve never seen Coulter in action, but I’ve seen others.) I’ve never seen the appeal. I prefer the effete languid drawl of a Vidal or Hitchens that nails you without breaking a sweat. Much more amusing, also humiliating. Anyone can jabber; it’s those relaxed, casual, effortless bastards who can really make the blowhards look like fools. As Hitchens proceeds to do.
Here is another instance of the sheer incoherence that results from a mixture of feigned rage and low sarcasm…[T]he abject confusion, with its resounding non sequitur of a concluding sentence, impels her to the negation of her own supposed “argument”. These are the pitfalls that are set by spite and by haste, and Coulter topples leggily into them every time…So, slice it as you will, Coulter finds herself inventing new ways in which to be wrong. As it goes on, the book begins to seem more like typing than writing, and its demonstration of the relationship between poor language and crude ideas becomes more overt.
See what I mean? No need to say that quickly. No need for haste. Easy does it. Steady as she goes. Whack!
If it matters, I am with her on the tepid climate of moral and political relativism which, while it wants all children to do equally well at exam time, also regards the United States as no worse than the Taliban and thus, by an unspoken logic, as no better. But a polemic against this mentality cannot really be written by a McCarthyite.
Or by someone who’s not very good at writing or thinking clearly, or by someone who invents new ways to be wrong. Not useful talents for that particular job.
In a world where the true enemies of civilization are much, much more godly than the blonde goddess of the hard Right, Coulter is reduced to a blitzing of soft civilian targets – one redeemed only by its built-in tendency to fall so wide of the mark.
That’s how it’s done.
Conflicting ideas of rights, chapter 792. I have a right to equal treatment. No no, comes the reply, I have a right to treat you unequally, provided I don’t actually assault you or break into your house and eat your lunch.
Religious groups are outraged that, from next April, it will be illegal to discriminate against homosexuals or transsexuals when providing goods and services. The clash between religion and secular liberalism is stirring high passions and has even brought threats of civil disobedience…Religious groups have been emboldened by their successes in forcing British Airways to drop its ban on a worker wearing a cross, and in getting the Government to backtrack on its threat to faith schools. Andrea Williams, of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, which has led the campaign against the gay law, said: “This is truly a clash of fundamental human rights. It would seem that, when these rights clash, the homosexual person’s rights trump the religious person’s rights.”
The religious person’s rights…to what? To deny a commercial service to a homosexual person on the grounds that the homosexual person is a homosexual person? Is that a fundamental human right? Is there a fundamental human right to enter the public sphere in order to sell a product or service for public money but still reserve the ‘right’ to reject customers on irrelevant grounds? Is that a fundamental human right? Or is it just a bit of yukkism dressed up in fundamental human rights clothes?
The Guardian thinks it’s the latter. It makes a change, to agree with the Guardian.
The Anglican Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, warned that church-based charities would be forced to close their doors if the government insisted they let in gay people. ‘It is the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers,’ he said…That is a tendentious argument. ‘The poor and disadvantaged’ would only lose out if the churches choose to hate homosexuality more than they like good works. Their objection to the new law is not, as they like to see it, self-defence against a meddling government. It is a threat by powerful institutions to withhold their charity out of prejudice. Churches are free to preach that homosexuality is a sin and their followers are free to believe it in private. But the elected government of Britain does not share that view and has rightly sought to give gay citizens the same public rights as everyone else. Or at least it has done thus far. On this latest measure the cabinet is divided. Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a devout Catholic, is the minister responsible for the new law and is sympathetic to the idea of exempting churches. The Prime Minister is also thought to be amenable to religious petitioning.
No comment. Comment superfluous.
Conflicting ideas of freedom come into play too, of course.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former lord chancellor during the Thatcher era, is the patron of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF), part of a coalition of religious groups opposed to the new rules which they say will ride roughshod over their beliefs. The new rules, which ban those offering goods and services from discriminating against gays and lesbians, will force them to act against their consciences, they say. The rules aim to stop, for example, gay couples being turned away from hotels. But faith groups believe there should be an opt-out clause in situations where it goes against their religious beliefs. Lord Mackay said: “People of faith are having their freedom to live according to their beliefs taken away from them.”
Their freedom to live according to their beliefs – ‘live’ in the sense of being able to reject customers on arbitrary yuk-based grounds. That’s a rather broad definition of ‘live,’ it seems to me. Granted, if you have a very small restaurant or b-and-b, you do in some sense live with your customers – but surely that is precisely the condition you accept when you undertake such an endeavour. Surely you realize it would be unworkable to include in your advertising and on the signs the stipulation, ‘for Discerning People That I Happen to Like.’ Bobbi Sue’s Flapjack House for Nice Straight People Who Are Pat Boone Fans would make the sign bigger than the flapjack house and would also risk narrowing the customer base to the point that Bobbi Sue has to declare bankruptcy four days after she opens the bidness. Or to put it another way, tough. That’s the free market for you. If you don’t like it, just stick with being a vicar.