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.

Marilla and Mrs Lynde

May 25th, 2009 9:50 am | By

But physical punishment or ‘correction’ has been morally unproblematic until very recently, some of you retort.

I don’t buy it. I’m at least very skeptical. I agree that it’s been widespread – but not that it’s been morally unproblematic. Of course it was morally unproblematic to some people, to many people, but I’m claiming that to a substantial minority it was not. (I’m talking about the 19th century onwards, if only because there’s so much more literature for children and about children starting then. I could talk about Hogarth on cruelty – but I won’t, for now.)

After writing about Anne of Green Gables from memory I started wondering…wasn’t there a subsidiary character, who did recommend beating? That neighbor? Didn’t she say at some point ‘You ought to beat that child, that’s what’? In other words wasn’t the issue made explicit at some point – didn’t Marilla have a choice, which she made, for our edification?

So I re-read the first half or so. (Don’t scorn; it’s a good book; sentimental, yes, but not too cloyingly so, though I skip most of Anne’s long speeches about the fairies in the glen and whatnot – I’m as bored by them as Marilla is.) Yes, there is. Rachel Lynde comes up to Green Gables to meet Anne, and promptly points out how skinny and homely and red-haired she is, at which Anne loses her temper and shouts at her; Marilla rebukes her and sends her to her room. Mrs Lynde says to Marilla, among other things, ‘You’ll have your own troubles with that child. But if you’ll take my advice – which I suppose you won’t do, although I’ve brought up ten children and buried two – you’ll do that “talking to” you mention with a fair-sized birch switch.’ After she leaves Marilla wonders what she should do. ‘And how was she to punish her? The amiable suggestion of the birch switch – to the efficiency of which all of Mrs Rachel’s own children could have borne smarting testimony – did not appeal to Marilla. She did not believe she could whip a child. No, some other method must be found to bring Anne to a proper realization of the enormity of her offence.’

Well…why couldn’t Marilla whip a child? Or why did she not believe she could? Because she found it morally problematic. She’s a very unbending character, who conceals her affection for Anne for a long time, yet she can’t whip a child. This is apparently plausible, and not unreasonable, and in fact subtly admirable, in a very popular children’s book published in 1908. It can’t have been an extremely eccentric attitude. It wasn’t universal, but it wasn’t freakish, either.

Marilla and Mr Murdstone

May 24th, 2009 5:50 pm | By

You know, I’ve been thinking. There’s this line the religious involved in the Irish nightmare have been giving us – this ‘we didn’t realize beating up children and terrorizing them and humiliating them was bad for them’ line. It’s Bill Donohue’s line too – ‘corporal punishment was not exactly unknown in many homes during these times, and this is doubly true when dealing with miscreants.’

You know what? That’s bullshit. I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s absolute bullshit. It is not true that in the past it was just normal to beat children, or that it was at least common and no big deal, or that nobody realized it was bad and harmful. That’s a crock of shit.

Think about it. Consider, for instance, Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908. Marilla doesn’t really want Anne at first, and she’s less charmed by her than Matthew is. She discourages Anne’s fantasies and her chatter, and she’s fairly strict – but she never beats her, and the thought doesn’t even cross her mind. If it were so normal to beat children – wouldn’t Marilla have given Anne a good paddling for one or more of her many enthusiastic mistakes? Wouldn’t she have at least considered it? But she doesn’t. Why? Because she’s all right. She’s a little rigid, at first, but she’s all right – she’s a mensch – she has good instincts and a good heart. She can’t be a person who would even think of beating Anne. Well why not? Because we wouldn’t like her if she did. So it’s not so normal and okay after all then. And this was 1908.

Think of Jane Eyre. There is beating and violence and cruelty to children there – Mrs Reed treats Jane abominably, and Lowood school (based on the Clergy Brothers School that Charlotte Bronte and her sisters attended) was very like Goldenbridge, complete with starvation and freezing and humiliation and beating. But it’s not okay! It’s not normal, it’s not just How Things Are – it’s terrible, and shocking, and wrong. Think of Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield – he’s not okay; he’s a very bad man. Think of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby – not okay. Think of the poor house in Oliver Twist – not okay. Think of the way Pap was always beating Huck Finn – not okay. Think of Uncle Myers in Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood – very Goldenbridge; not okay.

I’m having a very hard time thinking of any classic fiction in which children are beaten or smacked and it’s treated as completely routine and acceptable. I don’t think that’s some random accident, I think it’s because most people have always known that it’s wrong to treat children like punching bags. Beating and other cruelty may have been much more common a few decades ago, but it was by no means universal, and it was not universally acceptable. So if you hear people peddling that line – tell them it’s a crock.

A book no ecumenicist could love

May 23rd, 2009 7:09 am | By

Have I mentioned that Jeremy and I wrote a book? I think I’ve murmured something about it here and there. It’s due out in a week.

Perhaps you’re wondering what kind of book it is. The title might be a clue: Does God Hate Women? It’s about the role of religion in the subordination of women, and it’s critical of many religious practices and beliefs and claims.

It’s not an ecumenical kind of book. It’s not conciliatory. It’s not about can’t we all get along. It’s not about cohesion, or respecting all religious and philosophical beliefs, or universal blanket tolerance, or saying that at bottom we all agree on the basics. It’s not that kind of book. It’s the other kind. It makes moral and political claims, and it disagrees with and opposes other moral and political claims. That’s the kind of book it is, and that’s always been the kind of book it would be. There’s never been any ambiguity about that. It’s always been a book that some people were going to disagree with.

I thought you might be interested to know that.

Oh pooh, so an adult kicks a child, big deal

May 22nd, 2009 4:38 pm | By

Bill Donohue, on the other hand, doesn’t come within a million miles of getting it.

Physical abuse includes “being kicked”; neglect includes “inadequate heating”; and emotional abuse includes “lack of attachment and affection.” Not nice, to be sure, but hardly draconian, especially given the time line: fully 82 percent of the incidents took place before 1970…[C]orporal punishment was not exactly unknown in many homes during these times, and this is doubly true when dealing with miscreants…When most people hear of the term abuse, they do not think about being slapped, being chilly, being ignored or, for that matter, having someone stare at you in the shower…But, of course, there is a huge market for such distortions, especially when the accused is the Catholic Church.

Right, because the Catholic church is the real victim here. Callous bastard.

The penny drops

May 22nd, 2009 4:27 pm | By

Blimey. Even Madeleine Bunting gets it.

The Ryan report’s meticulous gathering of evidence over several volumes paints a picture of a system of church and state in Ireland which was horrifically dysfunctional with its combination of sadism and deference…The apologies flooding out yesterday seem too little, too late. And there is still, extraordinarily, denial – ranging from Mary Kenny’s jaunty variety of “I’ve never met a priest who is a paedophile” to the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who praised the courage of the religious orders concerned and seemed to exonerate their reluctance to face the past as “instinctive and quite natural”. It’s a form of wording which, from such an experienced media operator as Nichols, beggars belief.

Well maybe she doesn’t quite get it. At least, I would skip the bit about experienced media operator because it’s more significant and more disgusting that from a sentient human being such as Nichols his form of wording beggars belief. That’s the really shocking part – as it is from all the wrigglers and evaders and deniers and keep our names out of the reporters and no prosecutions for us thank youers. Nichols should be so horrified and aghast that it simply wouldn’t occur to him to put in a good word for the people who committed the horrors or those who let them go on doing it.

But still, Bunting comes closer to getting it than I’ve ever seen her do before.

A Catholic archbishop tells us what’s what

May 22nd, 2009 3:52 pm | By

The former Archbishop of Westminster lets us know that atheism is the greatest of all evils.

The evil we ask to be delivered from is not essentially the evil of sin, though that is clear, but in the mind of Jesus, it is more importantly a loss of faith. For Jesus, the inability to believe in God and to live by faith is the greatest of evils. You see the things that result from this are an affront to human dignity, destruction of trust between peoples, the rule of egoism and the loss of peace.

Oh really. Is that so. The things that result from the inability (and total lack of desire) to believe in God are an affront to human dignity – while, presumably, the things that result from the ability to believe in God are a compliment to human dignity, and trust and unselfishness and peace. In other words atheism makes people bad: likely to degrade other people, destroy their trust, be selfish and violent, while theism makes people good: kind, trustworthy, selfless and nonviolent.

Really. Is that a fact. Then why is it that Catholic nuns and priests for decade after decade after decade treated children as sadistically, degradingly, mercilessly, dishonestly (telling children their mothers were dead when they weren’t and not telling them they were dead when they were), selfishly and violently as they possibly could? Why did their ability to believe in God and to live by faith never do anything to prompt them to have the slightest compassion for miserable starving deprived overworked lonely friendless children? Why did they have such god damn hard hearts? If faith makes people better, why were they so horrible? Why did they accept such a situation? Why did nothing prompt them to do better? Why was there no still small voice telling them – these are children, they’re defenseless, you can’t treat them this way, it’s wicked and wrong?

The Irish nightmare completely demolishes the cherished bromide that ‘faith’ always and necessarily makes people nicer. It doesn’t. That’s a myth.

God is dependable

May 21st, 2009 10:51 am | By

I heard part of an old Wire Tap the other day, about a family of atheists deciding to have a religious funeral for an atheist relative (for a social reason). They find the church the late atheist relative had once occasionally attended, and talk to the preacher there, who seems very relaxed and human and understanding, including of their atheism – then at the funeral itself he confounds them by shouting about eternal torment and flames of hell. They were angry but too cowardly to confront him, but on Wire Tap the storyteller (Adam Davidson) phones him to ask some questions. They are important questions, which don’t get asked enough. He asked if he had it right – the preacher really believed that people who don’t believe in this god will burn in hell for eternity; the preacher affirmed that he did. So Davidson asked (paraphrasing from memory) ‘If you really believe all that how can you be so calm? You should be screaming at me, telling me to save myself.’ The preacher says he stays calm because it is God who decides. Then the preacher goes off on a little rant, not of the ‘repent or burn’ variety but of the ‘how do atheists do it?’ variety. He can’t even conceive of it – it must be so bleak – if this is all there is – with no one to turn to. Davidson says, mildly, ‘We have each other.’ The preacher says, in a pitying voice, ‘But human beings are not…dependable.’

And at that point I turned it off, in the familiar exasperation. Now I kind of wish I’d heard him to the end, partly because I’m curious whether Davidson managed a decent response.

But what interests me about the preacher’s view is how incredibly back to front it is. Oh poor atheists, with no one to turn to, lucky theists, having dependable old God to turn to.

But what are they turning to? What is this dependable God that theists love and worship and can turn to? It is one that burns people forever because they don’t believe there is such a god. It is a monster – a worse monster than any human has ever been. It is grossly unjust, and cruel to a degree that we can’t even wrap our heads around. Yet the preacher thinks this God is a source of comfort and the absence of it is so bleak that he can’t even imagine doing without it.

That’s a terrible thing, properly considered. Most people who believe in God believe in a god of that kind, and they love and worship it. That’s both tragic and frightening.


May 21st, 2009 10:39 am | By

The new archbishop of Westminster says it took ‘courage’ for clergy involved in child abuse to confront their actions.

I find that absolutely extraordinary. The vanity of it, the self-love and self-absorption, the misdirection, the narcissism, the callousness – it’s just staggering. Courage! Courage forsooth! What courage?! The subject here is six decades of gross abuse and exploitation of generation after generation of children by adult nuns and priests; what does that have to do with courage?! It doesn’t take courage for a grown-up well-fed strong adult to bully and starve and torture and shame a child. On the contrary, as we all know, or ought to, large strong people tormenting smaller weaker people is the very opposite of courage. The Catholic church condoned and concealed this kind of behavior for decade after decade after decade – it is much too late for it to talk about its own courage now. It’s also completely beside the point and inappropriate, since the Catholic church is not the victim here: the church is the ruthless savage heartless squalid perpetrator. This is absolutely not the moment for it to be patting itself on the back for finally, under duress, kicking and screaming, and with a guarantee of no names named and thus no prosecutions, being exposed by an independent report. Where does the courage enter into it? The report was not the Church’s idea or its doing; the Church pulled the sharpest teeth from the report with a lawsuit; the report has now appeared and the Church stands exposed as having run a hideous child-torture factory for a century and a half. Some clergy are now – now that there is no escaping it – saying that it was all very naughty. Is that the courage Vincent is talking about? Just saying, in response to a report, ‘Ah yes, that was bad’? Does it not occur to him that courage would have been to do something about it while it was still going on? Or, failing that, does it not occur to him that he should not be wasting his sympathy on the perpetrators right now?

Well it probably does now that people are pointing it out to him, but it didn’t occur to him last night, and that tells you a lot about the terrible vanity and self-satisfaction of the clerical mind. This is interesting because part of the Catholic church’s self-image at this time is that it is the great defender of the weak and vulnerable and disregarded – such as the aborted fetus and the comatose adult in a permanent vegetative state. Well – where was its concern and compassion for the weak and vulnerable and disregarded in Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s and up through the 1980s?

Really – where was it? You can’t get much more weak and vulnerable and disregarded than a baby or toddler who is forcibly taken from its mother and imprisoned in a brutal institution and then treated like shit for 14 or 16 years. Can you? Yet those are the very people that the Catholic church in Ireland singled out for savage punishment, deprivation of every kind, and a constant barrage of insults and humiliation. They were told their mothers were dead, or that they didn’t want them. They were put to work farming or making rosaries, and the church pocketed the money made.

So talking about courage now is both absurd and disgusting. It reminds me of what Hannah Arendt says about Himmler in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

The member of the Nazi hierarchy most gifted at solving problems of conscience was Himmler. He coined slogans…catch phrases which Eichmann called ‘winged words’ and the judges ‘empty talk’…Eichmann remembered only one of them and kept repeating it: “These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again,” alluding to the “battles” against women, children, old people, and other “useless mouths.”

It’s repulsively understandable, what the archbishop said. He was thinking about people like him – colleagues – fellow clerics. He was sympathizing with their situation. But that’s just what’s so repulsive. They’re not the victims here, just as Himmler and Eichmann were not the victims in Nazi Germany. The archbishop shouldn’t be worrying about people like him, because he should be so frantic with grief and shame at what was done to some thirty thousand children that he can’t think about anything else. But he’s not – he’s not the least bit frantic with grief and shame – he has the presence of mind and the placid quotidian selfishness to think about the people he’s familiar with.

So next time a Catholic starts ranting about the fetus, you just start intoning ‘Artane, Goldenbridge, Letterfrack…’

The CICA report

May 20th, 2009 3:52 pm | By

The Commission into Child Abuse report is out. It found that children lived in ‘daily terror’ of being beaten in industrial schools (which weren’t really schools at all) from 1940 onwards.

It found that corporal punishment was “pervasive, severe, arbitrary and unpredictable” in the institutions where “children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from.” The report said that the level of emotional abuse of disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children by religious and lay staff was “disturbing” and that the Catholic Church was aware long-term sex offenders were repeatedly abusing children…the Commission found that “children were frequently hungry, food was inadequate, inedible and badly prepared in many schools.”…Accommodation in the institutions was “cold, spartan and bleak” with sanitary provision “primitive” in most boys’ schools particularly. Academic education “was not seen as a priority for industrials school children” and “in reality, the industrial training afforded by all schools was of a nature that served the needs of the institution rather than the needs of the child.”

But the emotional abuse was even worse.

A finding which the Commission said was “a disturbing element” of the evidence presented before it, was “`the level of emotional abuse that disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children were subjected to generally by religious and lay staff” at the institutions…Separation of siblings and restrictions on family contacts “were profoundly damaging for family relationships.” It meant that “some children lost their sense of identity and kinship, which was never recovered.”

This is the Catholic church, don’t forget, which is always making a parade of its extreme compassion and sympathy and tenderness toward the fetus. These are real, thinking, feeling children who were starved, frozen, beaten, terrorized, taken away from their mothers, prevented from ever seeing their mothers, called horrible names, denied an education, made to work at slave labour, denied even the small wages they had theoretically earned – this is the compassion and tenderness of the Catholic church.

It was institutional.

The five-volume study concluded that church officials encouraged ritual beatings and consistently shielded their orders’ paedophiles from arrest amid a “culture of self-serving secrecy”. It also found that government inspectors failed to stop the chronic beatings, rapes and humiliation.

Well hey, these were only children. If they’d been fetuses it would have been a different story.

The report said that girls supervised by orders of nuns, chiefly the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse but frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless.

Yeah – we know. Marie-Therese has told us.

Sister Fabian always called children by disparaging names; she had a list as long as her arm. Amadan; oinseach; gombeen; half-wit; crackawley; cracked; dope, clown, clot, crackpot; she predominantly said to me; “there is a ‘want’ in you Lougho” – meaning that I was not “the full shilling!”…We were mere nonentities who were never going to quantify to anything in this life. We were never, ever, going anywhere. The sisters could as a result unremittingly lay before us reminders of our lowly status…Sr. Fabian for all time held her nose at children and said “you dirty thing, get out of my sight.” She was a very intolerant sister and caused huge damage to children because of it.

As the report says:

The commission said overwhelming, consistent testimony from still-traumatized men and women, now in their 50s to 80s, had demonstrated beyond a doubt that the entire system treated children more like prison inmates and slaves than people with legal rights and human potential. “The reformatory and industrial schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment and the fear of such punishment,” it said. “The harshness of the regime was inculcated into the culture of the schools by successive generations of brothers, priests and nuns.”

Like Sadie O’Meara for instance.

Sadie O’Meara, a 15-year-old Tipperary girl working in Dublin, was brought to one of the Magdalene Laundries by the Legion of Mary. There she worked long hours washing and ironing customers laundry. The daughter of an unmarried mother, she says she never found out why she ended up there and for four years suffered physical and emotional abuse in an institution run by the Sisters of Charity. “You’d be up at 6am and you had to go to two Masses,” she said. “Your cell door was locked every night when you went in and you had a bucket and an iron bed and you couldn’t look out the window. It was all bars. The food was absolutely brutal. And my mam died but they never told me she died. She died on Christmas Day but they never told me. I didn’t know that until they let me out four years later. That’s something that really upsets me.”

Well it would. They told Marie-Therese, on the other hand, that her mother was dead when she wasn’t. “Those at the industrial schools have said the abuse they suffered stays with them all their lives.”

Sundays in the Times with Stan

May 19th, 2009 5:00 pm | By

Russell Blackford also says why Fish is wrong.

It is, of course, true that the grounding of any knowledge claim will eventually run out. If somebody does not accept our basic assumptions about what forms of argument are cogent and what counts as evidence, we can not convince her of anything that she does not want to be convinced of. For that reason, it’s true to say that there is no argument about anything that is effective in persuading all comers, no matter how fanatical or even insane…[W]hile our various chains of inference cannot be justified all the way down to all comers, it does not follow that none are better than others. Chains of inference don’t need to be justified all the way down. In fact, the very idea is incoherent. But some can be justified down into claims that no sane person would deny.

Fish left that part out.

Science’s methods are continuous with the ordinary methods of reasoning that we use in day to day life, but made more rigorous in various well-known ways, to make up for the ubiquity of circumstantial evidence and heavily theory-laden reasoning. Religion is simply not in this position. When we say that it relies on faith, we don’t just mean that it eventually depends on assumptions about what counts as evidence and what counts as cogent reasoning – assumptions that can’t be proved without relying upon them, because they count as our standards for what can be proved or evidenced.

Fish left that part out too. Fish is unserious.

The Fish files

May 19th, 2009 4:49 pm | By

Massimo Pigliucci says why Fish is wrong and silly.

[T]he problem lies with Fish’s cheap rhetorical trick: Stanley seems to think that once one has refuted the naive logical positivist view that human beings can adopt a purely objective viewpoint and grasp reality for what it actually is (a position that in philosophy has been abandoned since the 1950s, by the way), voilà, all knowledge has ultimately been shown to be a matter of faith…It is simply not true, as our friend cavalierly maintains, that “once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained.” And the reason this is not the case is that there are more than two options on the table. True, facts don’t speak for themselves, and evidence is such only within a particular conceptual framework, which itself depends on certain assumptions. But the framework and the assumptions don’t need to be arbitrary. In science, they are not (contrary to postmodern literary criticism).

The web of scientific knowledge is reliable, Pigliucci says, because it works; one can keep examining particular threads, and pulling them away if necessary, without destroying the whole web.

As always in the case of postmodernism, a perfectly reasonable and potentially interesting idea (the non-independence of facts and theories, which was not discovered by postmodernists) gets blown out of proportion to justify an insane conclusion (that science is the same as religion, or that reason and faith are on the same epistemological level), a conclusion that very likely the author himself does not believe. A famous quip by philosopher Bertrand Russell comes to mind: I wish that all philosophers who do not believe in the existence of walls would get into a car and drive straight into a wall (any would do) at a speed proportional to their skepticism concerning the existence of the wall itself.

To finish, Pigliucci tells Fish off for the childish last paragraph in which he reports that somebody wrote a piece that started ‘Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins?’

Piscis ipse dixit

May 18th, 2009 5:12 pm | By

Stanley Fish is back.

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions…that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

Yes yes yes, but it doesn’t follow that any and all assumptions are reasonable and sane and that therefore any old evidence is good evidence as long as it ‘comes into view in the light of’ some assumptions.

Then there is a swerve into a new topic, the fact that some people who commented on his previous musings on God claim that religion is too optimistic. Fish knows better than that.

The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair.

Really?! Nothing but doubt and dissent? So the religions he knows do not include any of the majors, which are about considerably more than doubt and dissent? If the religions he knows are about nothing but doubt and dissent, he must be acquainted exclusively with very peculiar very tiny minority religions which hardly anyone is aware of. His post on the other hand seem to be about ‘God’ which usually refers to a character with some connection with the familiar and well-known monotheisms.

Brian Leiter asks Does the NY Times Not Realize That Stanley Fish is Philosophically Incompetent? Jason Brennan has an interesting comment:

Nicholas Shackel has a fun paper in Metaphilosophy called “The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology.” Among other things, he describes the method of “Troll’s Truisms.” The idea is that postmodernists like to express radical claims about reality and rationality, but when pressed, retreat into trivial claims no one disagrees with. Shackel gives Fish as an example of someone who does this.

I actually saw Fish perform this maneuver in person. A student group had him out here (to Brown) a few years ago. He spent 20 minutes saying that there is no objective reality, etc.–all the typical twaddle and poppycock. When some student criticized postmodernism, Fish berated the student, and then said that postmodernism is nothing more than the simple claim that all our beliefs are mediated by concepts. I was stunned.

Yep. Susan Haack calls that ‘the bit where they say it and the bit where they take it back.’

The enemy of my enemy is my friend…or perhaps not

May 18th, 2009 11:15 am | By

Brandon does some passive-aggressive self-chastisement:

I at least try to follow principles of amiability on this weblog. I do not always succeed; in a recent argument with Ophelia Benson in the comments thread to this post, when her response seemed to me to be a set of equivocations and red herrings of a pernicious kind that should not be tolerated on such an important subject as people’s lives, I became impatient and lost my temper; whatever the reason, however, the lapse of amiability was simply inexcusable.

I would say it’s not really the lapse of amiability itself that is inexcusable; I think a certain amount of heat is to be expected in substantive disagreements, and can be harmlessly expressed and perhaps dissipated by certain kinds of vehemence. What I think was wrong about Brandon’s reaction was the actual content of what he said – in particular this charge:

Don’t think it has escaped my notice in my years of reading you that on the topic of Muslims you only worry about the obnoxiousness and invidiousness of criticisms applied to you, and that while you’re quick to talk about Muslim liberal friends when you are being criticized, you only use them as shields against criticisms and not as friends to support in public.

That’s a very strong and very offensive accusation, and it’s also false. (Gina Khan’s Diary, anyone?) That’s what I object to – the content, not the heat. So it’s interesting and ironic and…somewhat distasteful that Brandon manages to combine this display of repentance with another round of offensive accusation. It’s interesting and distasteful that on the way to rebuking is own lapse of amiability he accuses me of pernicious equivocations and red herrings of a kind that should not be tolerated on such an important subject as people’s lives – meaning, basically, that I tell lies in an effort to harm or endanger people’s lives. Pretty poisonous stuff for a humble apologetic guy.

What’s the issue here? As near as I can tell, it’s the claim that beliefs are beliefs and that they affect 1) other beliefs and 2) actions. My underlying assumption has been that Islam entails some core beliefs, and that some of those are in tension with liberalism. Brandon’s assumption is, apparently, that Islam is completely irrelevant to how difficult it is for Muslims to be liberals.

Well…there is a sense in which that can be true: if one is talking about de facto Muslims as opposed to doctrinal Muslims. It may well be that that’s what Nussbaum meant in the Boston Review article – Muslims as a population, a group, a ‘community’ within the larger population of India. Certainly people are born into religious groups, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they sign up to all the official beliefs of the religion in question. But then – that is something that has to be cleared up. It’s not possible to be sure what is meant either way, unless it is spelled out, and in any case there is of course a huge amount of overlap: people are born into religious group X, but then the beliefs of X are handed on to them, and they may sign up to most or all of them. One can’t assume that the word ‘Muslim’ means someone who agrees with every word of the Koran, and one also can’t assume that it means the opposite.

Now, in a way, I think Brandon has a point about Nussbaum’s article. In a way my comment on it was ungenerous. Her main point was that Muslims are treated horribly in India – which is a subject I know more about because of her, specifically because of what she’s been writing about the Gujarat massacre ever since it happened. Intercommunal hatred is India’s nightmare (that is, it’s the nightmare of the people of India) – and I admire Nussbaum’s work in explaining that to Americans.

But in another way, I still think I have a point, because Nussbaum does tend to sentimentalize religions and religious beliefs, and to gloss over some unpleasant realities about them. Reading her is often an ambivalent exercise for me: I’m always having to bracket off certain bits where she lapses into rhetoric about profoundest precious etceteras. I prefer to turn a colder eye on religion.

It’s nice to think we can all get along, but it isn’t always true. The US thought the mujahideen were just the ticket for opposing atheistic global communism in Afghanistan, but that turned out to be a mistake. Before that the US thought the Shah was just the ticket for opposing the nationalization of British Petroleum in Iran, and that turned out to be a mistake too. The US made similar mistakes in Guatemala…Chile…and a good many other places. It’s better to ask searching persistent questions about exactly what we’re signing up to before we sign up to things.

Nussbaum quotes Hasan himself saying something related in her article:

The stranglehold of the orthodoxy, especially in its political and religious form, has to be loosened and slackened. The answer lies in more and more Muslim communities moving towards democracy. There is no short cut to democracy…There is no place for pharaohs in the modern world.

He’s saying there is a strangling political and religious orthodoxy which has to be loosened and slackened, and that more democracy is needed. He’s saying there is not enough liberalism, and there is a need for more. Well – that’s all I’m saying.

Catholic priorities

May 17th, 2009 5:12 pm | By

The Guardian continues its commitment to publish commentary from excitingly reactionary clerics and fans of clerics with the vomitings-forth of George Neumayr. His comment is an exceptionally lazy and vulgar diatribe.

Notre Dame’s now-infamous president, Father John Jenkins, is very fond of politically correct patter…This year Jenkins has rolled out his broken wheelbarrow of inane PC clichés to justify honouring the most pro-abortion American president ever.

And so on; it’s all like that.

A brilliant commenter posted a list of bishops taken from a Dallas Morning News list of Catholic bishops who protected sexually abusing priests. There are 19 bishops on the list, out of 61 who signed a petition protesting Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama. She suggested a different headline for Neumayr’s blurt:

George Neumayr and paedophile apologists are outraged by the existence of a liberal African-American president.

A hit, a palpable hit.


May 17th, 2009 4:34 pm | By

I’ve been wrangling for a couple of days with Brandon at Siris. He took exception to my post on Nussbaum and stereotypes, accusing me of resorting to stereotypes myself, especially in replying to a comment:

It is as if you actively doubted that a black man could be an honest, law-abiding citizen. “Why?” Nussbaum asks. “Isn’t this just the stereotype of the violent black man?” Then says Ophelia’s counterpart (I’m very sure Ophelia herself would never say this): “Why do stereotypes have to be the reason for it? Couldn’t some people think that honest, law-abiding citizenship is just more difficult for blacks for a lot of reasons…?

And more of the same unpleasant implication. I asked him some questions -

So you’re saying that it is simply a stereotype to ask ‘Does the Koran, and the relationship of Islam to the Koran, have nothing to do with it?’? So you’re saying that there is nothing about the relationship of Islam to the Koran that can ever make liberalism difficult for Muslims? That’s not what my liberal Muslim friends tell me. Similarly, you’re saying it is simply a stereotype to ask ‘Couldn’t it be that at least some people wonder if Muslim liberals still have the Koran to contend with, just as Christian liberals have the Bible, and if there is some tension?’? So you’re saying that there is no such tension? None at all? If so can you explain how that works?

And more of the same. He ignored the questions, and pretty much went straight for abuse, starting out by fairly drastically re-writing what I’d said and then flailing away at that. I took strong exception to a couple of his accusations, and he replied (I thought) more reasonably, so I replied in a more temperate way – only to be told that he can’t comment any more because he can’t keep his temper; ‘even reading your arguments above set my lips in a thin straight line more than once.’ So I must have said some really horrible things, right? Well no, I don’t think I did. So I’m puzzled – I’m puzzled by the whole thing. I thought Brandon was a reasonable guy, religiosity aside, but his claims here seem to me quite unreasonable. For one thing, as I said, he simply misreads what I said, and rewrites it and then attacks what he said instead of what I said – and he ignores all my ‘that’s not what I said’s. But more than that – he apparently does think it is simply a stereotype to ask ‘Does the Koran, and the relationship of Islam to the Koran, have nothing to do with it?’. He apparently does think it is both a stereotype and illegitimate (and racist-like) to ask questions of that kind. That’s why I’m puzzled. How can a question like that be simply a stereotype, and illegitimate and racist-like as well? How can it be so illegitimate that he can’t keep his temper while discussing it?

I think the question is simply a question, not an assertion. But I can put it in the affirmative. I think the relationship of Islam to the Koran does make liberalism difficult for many Muslims, just as the relationship of the Catholic church to the Vatican makes liberalism difficult for many Catholics, and the relationship of Southern Baptism to the Southern Baptist Conference makes liberalism extremely difficult for all Southern Baptists unless they leave the SBC, as Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter did. I do not think this is an illiberal thing to think, but Brandon apparently does. He thinks I’m dismissing ‘living, actual people’ out of hand and ‘tar[ring] a lot of pretty decent, and very real and concrete, people with a set of negative stereotypes.’ But he never actually says it’s not true that liberalism is difficult for members of very conservative religious denominations; he just expresses rage at the very idea. I don’t get it. To me that’s a little like expressing rage at someone who says ‘conservatives are conservative.’ To him it’s not. What am I missing?

I don’t even know if he thinks that Islam is not in fact a conservative religion, or if he thinks it is but no one should say so, or if he thinks it’s okay to say Islam is a conservative religion but not okay to say that it’s difficult for Muslims to choose liberalism. But if it’s the last – what I wonder is: how the hell could it not be difficult for Muslims to choose liberalism? Is the world making it easy for them right now? Is liberalism the primrose path for Muslims at this time? I don’t think so!

So, I’m puzzled. Also irritated, of course. I don’t want to pretend to be all high-minded about it – I think Brandon said some really offensive things, to use that over-used word in a precise sense for a change. And I think this whole way of carrying on – expressing barely controllable fury, suggesting the worst kind of thought crime, rewriting – is a way of trying to intimidate out of existence what ought to be a legitimate discussion. I do not take myself to be attempting to incite hatred against people, and I think that’s what Brandon is accusing me of. It’s puzzling and also rather…dubious.

Schools have their job, churches have theirs

May 16th, 2009 5:33 pm | By

About the ‘Good News Club’

The afterschool world at Cold Spring had hitherto consisted of basketball, karate, dance, and other physical fitness activities. In this context, a sectarian religious group that seeks to recruit the very young stuck out like a barstool in a bunny cage…The CEF labels the Good News Club program as “Bible Study,” but the term “study” in this context is a euphemism for indoctrination in and practice of a particular religion. Once class begins, there is no pretense of analyzing the bible as a literary, cultural, or historical document. The program moves directly to the CEF’s stated purpose, which is “to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, disciple them in the Word of God, and establish them in a Bible-believing church for Christian living.”

Before the Good News Club, afterschool programs were physical activities of various kinds. The Good News Club masquerades as a kind of teaching – complete with ‘instructors’:

[T]he Good News instructor was found approaching students and distributing leaflets just outside school grounds. Often, instructors arrive on campus before the bell rings. When young children exit their regular classrooms, they find the instructor outside the door bearing treats and trailing balloons. In Valencia, California, a parent of a kindergartener reported that the Good News Club actually started 15 minutes prior to the end of her child’s school day. The instructor, she said, would enter the classroom as kindergarten was winding down and perform a roll call – effectively segregating the children by religious affiliation.

So that it all seems like just more school, with teachers teaching content to the students.

In short, the confusion Ashley evinced on the playground about just what her school was teaching her was no accident. It is built into the design of the Good News Club program. The average six-year-old cannot reliably distinguish between programs taught by his/her school and those taught in his/her school; and the CEF may be determined to make use of this fact in order to advance its religious aims.

There’s a big problem here, and it’s not just the familiar old separation of church and state. Or it is that, but the reason for we need separation of church and state is particularly starkly revealed. The problem here is that these people are teaching stuff to children, and the stuff they’re teaching is not true, and there is no good reason to think it is true. That’s not what education is.

That’s part of the social contract when it comes to schooling. People don’t expect the schools to teach their children falsehoods. That’s not the job of the teachers and it’s not the job of the schools.

Given that, I’m not sure why the administration at Cold Spring couldn’t have told the Good News Club people that they don’t have afterschool education programs, Milford decision or no Milford decision. I don’t see why the administration couldn’t have said education was their job and they couldn’t parcel it out to amateurs after hours. I don’t see why the administration couldn’t have taken its stand on education as education and just said No thank you to rivals.

Whither the university

May 16th, 2009 1:43 pm | By

People who oppose abortion rights are making a big fuss about Obama’s invitation to Notre Dame, the Catholic university in Indiana.

The vast majority of faculty and students support the invitation. However, a few academics have come out against and are planning a commencement-day protest. Most of the noise, though, is coming from outside the university. Over 60 bishops have publicly opposed the invitation…

But that’s not the best bit. This is:

The ability of Notre Dame to stir Catholic hearts speaks to the role it plays among “subway” alumni – immigrants and their descendants who in many cases have never visited the university but whose devotion to it and its American football team forms part of their Catholic identity.

Yeah! They’ve never been there, and they couldn’t give less of a shit about actual education or learning or research, but man they love that football team and that there Catholic identity. That’s what universities are for – football, and identity.

Except places like Cambridge. Cambridge has its priorities straight. Right?

Maybe not.

After the university amended its equal opportunities policy to stress it “respects religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds” and opposes discrimination, Prof Ross Anderson warned it could [damage] freedom of speech among staff frightened of causing offence.

It could also damage Cambridge’s reputation for being a university. How can a university possibly respect religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds? When so many religious or philosophical beliefs are idiotic? How can a university sign up to deciding in advance that religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds are automatically worthy of respect?

University policies on race equality were approved in 2002, with statements on disability and gender equality added in 2007. Further development of those policies, as the university puts it, would see respect for philosophical and religious beliefs (including lack of belief) put under this banner of protection. The new addition to policy says: “The university’s core values are freedom of thought and expression and freedom from discrimination. It therefore respects religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds, including the lack of religion or belief.”

But respect for philosophical and religious beliefs shouldn’t be put under a banner of protection. Respect for people, as a shorthand for not doing bad things to them, yes, but for beliefs, no. At a university of all places!

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering, hit out at the amendment, submitting an official note of dissent. He wrote: “The university has no duty under this legislation to ‘promote religion and belief equality’, merely a duty not to discriminate when hiring staff or admitting students – which we stopped doing in 1877. The unfortunate wording of this policy might be interpreted to suggest that Cambridge is to promote the equality of evolution with creationism, or of cosmology with shepherds’ tales. We must never accept any duty to promote the equality of truth and falsehood.”

Out of the mouths of professors of security engineering.

Credo, non credo, whatever

May 16th, 2009 12:52 pm | By

Watch out for beliefs.

[Judge] Rodenberg found Daniel has only a “rudimentary understanding at best of the risks and benefits of chemotherapy. … he does not believe he is ill currently. The fact is that he is very ill currently.”…Johnson, the parents’ attorney, said everyone should be able to get medical care that follows their beliefs. “The Hausers believe that the injection of chemotherapy into Danny Hauser amounts to an assault upon his body”…The Hausers, who have eight children, are Roman Catholic and also believe in the “do no harm” philosophy of the Nemenhah Band. The Missouri-based religious group believes in natural healing methods advocated by some American Indians.

But what the Hausers ‘believe’ is beside the point here in the most fundamental way. It’s beside the point in the same way as it would be beside the point to ‘believe’ that one could stand in front of an approaching high-speed train and be undamaged because one was holding a magic amulet. The Hausers’ ‘beliefs’ make no difference to what is happening inside their son’s body and to what would change that, any more than anyone’s ‘beliefs’ make any difference to what a moving train does to a human body. The train does what it does, lymphoma does what it does, chemo does what it does. What’s needed here is not belief but knowledge. The oncologist knows what chemotherapy does to lymphoma, and the Hausers don’t know, and they apparently don’t know that they don’t know and don’t know that the oncologist does know – or else they do know but choose to decide not to ‘believe’ it. They shouldn’t do that, any more than they should tell their kid to stand in the path of a high speed train while holding a magic amulet.

Rodenberg wrote that Daniel claims to be an elder in the band, but does not know what that means. Daniel also says he is a medicine man under Nemenhah teachings but can’t say how he became a medicine man or what teachings he has had to become one. He also noted that at age 13, Daniel can’t read. “He lacks the ability to give informed consent to medical procedures,” Rodenberg said…According to Daniel’s court testimony, he believes the chemo will kill him, and said: “I’d fight it. I’d punch them and I’d kick them.”

His parents have failed to make sure he knows how to read, and have apparently failed to correct his mistaken belief that the chemo will kill him as opposed to probably saving him. Beliefs are beside the point here, and being beside the point, they are lethal.

What they believe

May 15th, 2009 4:16 pm | By

Let’s find out what the Child Evangelism Fellowship believes and presumably teaches to very young children immediately after school, on school property.

That the whole entire bible ‘is given by inspiration of God’ and ‘that it is inerrant in the original writing and that its teaching and authority are absolute, supreme and final.’ So if something is in the bible (the translation of the bible into English, that is, though of course they don’t bother to say that) then it is absolute, supreme and final – so no matter what it is, no matter how harsh, no matter how unjust, cruel, tyrannical, interfering, none of anyone’s business, pointless, reactionary, stupid – it cannot be changed or rejected or refused. What a nice little recipe for the abdication of human reason and reflection and thought, and what a great system for anyone who wants to impose the morality of a few Mediterranean goatherds on people living 5 thousand years later. We’re not allowed to think, we’re not allowed to fashion our own laws on the basis of human needs and wants, we have to obey whatever is written down in a very old book, because a bunch of fools take it to be absolute, supreme and final.

And that’s only the first item. This doesn’t bode well.

They believe in

the infallible interpreter of the infallible Word, who indwells every true believer, and is ever present to testify of Christ, seeking to occupy us with Him and not with ourselves or our experiences.

That’s sick. Being occupied with someone who’s been dead for two thousand years and not with ourselves or our experiences is sick, it’s diseased. I can see being interested in someone who’s been dead for two thousand years; I’m interested in a lot of people who’ve been dead for a long time; but I’m not interested in them to the exclusion of my experiences. The hell with that.

I saw a hummingbird a couple of hours ago, close up. I was walking down the street thinking about something or other and I don’t remember what alerted me – I think I heard the high-pitched little vocalization that hummingbirds make, without really registering it (so now I don’t remember it), but it was enough to make me stop walking and look (for I didn’t know what, until I saw it) – and there it was, maybe six feet away, hovering in front of some flowers. That was my experience. It was a good experience. I find hummingbirds enchanting. Why the hell would I want to occupy myself with Jesus instead? Jesus can at least wait until a duller moment.

That no degree of reformation however great, no attainment in morality however high, no culture however attractive, no humanitarian and philanthropic schemes and societies however useful, no baptism or other ordinance however administered, can help the sinner take even one step toward Heaven…

Calvinist trash, devaluing everything good. A pox on it.

That He was made a curse for the sinner, dying for his sins according to the Scriptures, that no repentance, no feeling, no faith, no good resolutions, no sincere efforts, no submission to the rules and regulations of any church can add in the very least to the value of the precious blood…

Good stuff for very young children (or anyone else). Nothing good is good, it’s all crap crap crap, except Jeezis and his god damn blood.

That the souls of the lost remain after death in misery until the final judgment of the great white throne, when soul and body reunited at the resurrection shall be cast “Into the lake of fire” which is “the second death,” to be “punished with everlasting destruction”…In the reality and personality of Satan, “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world”…

Bad stuff. Bad, bad, bad stuff. Cruel, vindictive, frightening, punitive – ugly. The ugly product of the ugliest part of the human mind. And, fortunately, false. Just a bunch of nonsense that a surprising and depressing number of people take pleasure in believing – and trying to get other people to believe.

But whatever else it is, it’s not something that should be taught to young children on school property. (Or anywhere else, in a better world, but churches have rights.)

Be afraid

May 14th, 2009 12:14 pm | By

This is the scariest thing I’ve read in awhile, at least locally. Schoolgirls being gassed in Afghanistan is much scarier, but locally the Child Evangelism Fellowship is scary as hell. Good News Clubs are terrifying.

Remember the little girl who told her classmate that she was going to hell? Well that was a Good News Club at work.

Their teacher overheard the increasingly heated exchange. When class resumed, she asked everyone to pay attention. People from different religious backgrounds, she explained, have very different perspectives on certain kinds of issues. Emma, feeling good that she had stood her ground, seemed content with the result. But Ashley was crushed. “You mean they lied to me right here in school?!” she began to cry. “Because that’s what they taught me here! How can they lie?”

Because they aren’t actually part of the school but they seem to be, thus giving small children the impression that they are Teachers telling The Truth.

Because the Good News Club seeks to reach children who in many cases are not old enough to read, a centerpiece of its program is the “wordless book,” a simple picture book intended to convey different Evangelical doctrines…The Good News Club aims to use afterschool facilities as soon as possible after the bell rings. Aside from adding to the convenience for students and parents, this maximizes the possibility of contact with non-participating students. It also has the effect of making it difficult for very young children to distinguish between the Good News Club and the other classes they take in school.

And that’s not just a by-product, it’s part of the point.

The club’s best promoters, as the CEF well understands, are the children themselves. Participating students are instructed to invite their classmates to join the group, and prizes are often given to those who succeed. The group’s focus, indeed, is concentrated on the “un-churched” children more than it is on those already in the fold. “If every public elementary school student in the United Sates could join a Good News Club,” the CEF Web site states, “we could revolutionize our culture in one generation!” In short, the confusion Ashley evinced on the playground about just what her school was teaching her was no accident. It is built into the design of the Good News Club program. The average six-year-old cannot reliably distinguish between programs taught by his/her school and those taught in his/her school; and the CEF may be determined to make use of this fact in order to advance its religious aims.

Bad…but at least schools can say No, right? Parents can say No and the schools can say No. Right?


In 2001, in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to exclude the club on the grounds that it is a religious group is to discriminate against its particular religious viewpoint, in violation of 1st Amendment protections on the freedom of speech. The court also went out of its way to say that it could conceive of no basis for concern about a possible violation of the clause of the 1st Amendment that prohibits the establishment of religion. The author of the court’s majority opinion was Clarence Thomas. It is perhaps interesting to note, in that respect, that in a recent speech before a school group, Justice Thomas reminisced fondly about his own school days when he would see “a flag and a crucifix in each classroom.”

Fucking hell – where have I been? How did I not know about the Milford decision? What a nightmare…

“Milford is a bad decision,” a lawyer for Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote to my husband. But it “is not going to be overturned right now. The lower courts will all follow it and the Supreme Court in its current configuration is not going to reverse itself on this issue.”

Help help.