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 77,701 words

May 30th, 2009 9:34 am | By

Young men at the Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa spend their time memorizing all 77,701 words of the Koran.

Some people call it the University of Jihad. The fact that some of Haqqania’s graduates go on to become Taliban fighters and suicide bombers isn’t the school’s concern, said Syed Yousef Shah, the head of the 3,000- student madrasa. “One person may become a journalist, another a driver,” he said as he reclined on a pillow in a small meeting room in the school. “We can’t control what people do afterward.”

Well that’s bullshit. Granted, a madrasa can’t control directly what its graduates do later, but any school naturally shapes and influences what its graduates do later, by means of what it teaches. Madrasas teach nothing except the Koran and this fact shapes what their graduates do later in several ways, including by making it impossible for them to do any jobs that require real, substantive education. One person may become a journalist, as Shah said, but one graduate of a madrasa may not, because such a graduate won’t have any of the skills needed to be a journalist. Graduates of madrasas can do the usual kind of underpaid unskilled shitwork, but they can’t do anything that depends on knowledge and literacy and critical thinking.

That’s the minimal objection to what Shah said; there is of course a less minimal one, which is that obsessive focus on the Koran does tend to, at least, soften people up for outfits like the Taliban. Madrasas can’t control what people do afterward but they sure as hell can influence it; they can and they do.

Madrasas are places that train people (mostly male, though not exclusively) to be narrow, uninformed, fanatical, and submissive to authority. They train people to memorize and obey a book written in a language that they don’t even know. They are factories for producing ignorant zealots.

The madrasa curriculum and routine – studying the Koran and other religious texts to the exclusion of much else, with a strong focus on rote memorization and strict obedience – has resisted change for centuries. The vast majority of Pakistan’s estimated 20,000 or so Islamic seminaries are benign. Several hundred, however, teach extreme forms of Islam that experts say provide a training ground for militancy and jihad, or holy war.

No, they’re not benign. This is that excessively minimalist idea of what is benign that we’re always encountering – the idea that anything short of terrorism is okay. There’s a lot that’s short of terrorism that is still not okay. The first sentence of that extract flatly contradicts the next sentence. A pseudo-school that teaches rote memorization of and strict obedience to the Koran is not benign. It deprives all its pseudo-students of anything resembling a real education, and it trains them into fanaticism. There is nothing benign about that.

Old lines

May 29th, 2009 12:01 pm | By

Mark Vernon at Hay.

[N]ew lines are being drawn in the debate between belief and non-belief. In short, the initial dispute appears to be exhausting itself and in its place, a more subtle discussion is emerging. The question is no longer simply, Does God exist? That has never admitted of a final answer anyway. Instead, it is this: What would it be like to live in a world without God?

Oh please. That’s not a new line, for god’s sake. It’s not as if nobody has wondered or discussed what it would be like to live in a world without God until now! The question has never been simply ‘does God exist?’; who said it was? On the other hand, an awful lot of people go around simply calmly assuming that God exists, and that we all agree that God exists, and that there is no reason to think God doesn’t exist, and that we all know who and what God is, and that we all know what God wants from us, so some people have recently been reminding the assumers that their assumptions are assumptions and that they’re rather silly and presumptuous. But that doesn’t rule out talking about what it would be like to live in a world without God, or for that matter talking about what it is like to live in a world without God, and it never has, so there’s no need to draw any new lines, the lines have been there for a long time.

If there is no longer any foundation for ethics, because there is no ultimate source of goodness, then human beings alone must choose how they will live. Some people will choose to be good. But others will not; they will choose to be evil. And it is not easy to say why they should not.

No, it is not, but that ‘ultimate source of goodness’ is not helpful either, because it is easy, but wrong. It is easy only in the sense that it ignores its own weakness.

What would Jesus put on toast?

May 29th, 2009 11:21 am | By

Oh come on – get serious.

A family breakfast turned into a religious experience when they spotted what appears to be the face of Jesus in the lid of a Marmite jar.

Look at the damn picture! It looks like what you’d expect on the lid of a jar of brown goo: some brown goo and some jar lid.

Not to mention the fact that nobody has the faintest idea what Jesus looked like anyway. ‘The face of Jesus’ of course just means some sleepy amalgam of various modern images of Jesus which are vaguely derived from earlier images of Jesus which are derived from more of the same which ultimately derived from whatever people thought Jesus ought to look like.

It’s unkind to make people’s foolishness public in this way.

Still here

May 29th, 2009 11:01 am | By

Jeezis, what a morning. I feel almost a kind of nostalgia for the old calm placid normal-pulse days before last Friday. Ever since then things have been frantic and franticker – but yesterday and then this morning they were frantic cubed. But in a good way. You’ll see why, soon. (When I say frantic – all I mean is that I had to write something quite complicated in a very short bit of time, and that there were other items coming in at two-minute intervals, and that the picture kept changing. I don’t mean invasions or sudden bankruptcy or an army of stockholders coming to tear my liver out. Compared to CEOs of car companies my life is placidity itself.)

So anyway that’s why things went quiet here for awhile. It’s nothing personal. I’m not mad at you.

A kind and imaginative reader and contributor sent me a box of chocolate truffles yesterday. They are from a place called Legacy Chocolates and they are one of the best things I have ever sunk my aristocratic yellow teeth into.

Most of the children were heartbroken and terrified

May 26th, 2009 10:34 am | By

An excerpt from the Goldenbridge chapter of the Ryan report.

“All of the complainants came to Goldenbridge in harrowing circumstances. Some had lost a parent, and the surviving parent was either not able to cope or was deemed by the State to be unsuitable. Others were abandoned. Some came from desperately poor families, and others were born out of wedlock to mothers who felt that society left them with no option but to place their child in care. Some of those committed were babies; others had spent a substantial part of their childhood with their families. Most of the children were heartbroken and terrified on entering Goldenbridge. They all shared a vulnerability that made them emotionally needy.

Complainants lived in an atmosphere of constant fear of arbitrary punishment for misdemeanours and of being humiliated. Despite always being surrounded by people, many expressed an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness. Many of the complainants stated that they are left with deep psychological scars as a result of their time in Goldenbridge…

One witness spoke of arriving at Goldenbridge as a six-year-old child in the late 1940s after her mother had died of TB. She described the experience as ‘very very harrowing’: she said she was stripped of her clothes and that all her hair was cropped.

When asked whether she had understood at the time why her clothes were being taken from her, she replied:

No. You weren’t told. You were just used and abused … you were disposable … They didn’t give a stuff about what you were, whether you were a child, whether you were breathing, whether you were living, what you were feeling. Nobody bothered about a child. You were just a disposable item. That’s the way it seemed to me. That’s the way I have carried all through my life. I don’t like what I have carried all through my life. It has left me vulnerable, raw and it has affected the whole of my life.

I used to scurry around. I used to try to dodge and weave to get away from the beatings, the abuse. You didn’t. You were helpless. Wherever you were you were a helpless victim. You couldn’t get away from them. They used to clatter you, they used to batter you. The names you were called. The stuff you had to go through. The thing was you were always so alone. There was never anybody there for you. Nobody was there this is what I find so hard to tell you. You were lumped together and you were one of a many, many …

Multiply by thousands.

Pax scriptorum

May 26th, 2009 8:30 am | By

Okay, never mind, you can stand down now. It’s not quite a matter of ‘Never mind, it was just a case of the fantods, we’ll be going ahead as planned, sorry to trouble you,’ but it’s almost that. Close enough. All may go according to plan after all. Sorry about the interruption.

Actually it was just a ploy to bounce people into ordering advance copies! Hahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Just kidding. Things did look ominous from our angle, and there is still a part of the story that is obscure, or unfinished, or changing as we speak, or something. But it may turn out all right. I’ll let you know.

Addendum. (Look, it’s earlyish in the morning and I’ve been up for hours, and I haven’t slept much since Friday, so my wits are not what they might be.) I should have said – things did look ominous from our angle for reasons: on Friday the possibilities discussed included not publishing the book at all, dropping a chapter, and making changes – along with that other, major part of the story that is either obscure or unfinished. So it’s not as if the request for a conference call were obviously not going to be more of the same – and certainly nobody told us it was not going to be more of the same – so it’s not as if we over-reacted or leapt to conclusions or spotted goblins behind the refrigerator. We had every reason to think bad things were afoot, and to get busy resisting them.

Book? What book? Was there a book?

May 25th, 2009 3:06 pm | By

About this non-ecumenical book that Jeremy and I wrote, that is due out at the end of this week. Yes, what about it, you’re thinking, all agog. For reasons which I will explain another day, the publisher became nervous about it last Friday. The publisher phoned us on Friday, and talked of changes, or delays, or would we like to drop a chapters. We would not like to drop a chapter, and if we had liked to drop a chapter, the time to discuss that would have been several months ago, not now, a week before the book is supposed to appear. The publisher sent the can-we-drop-it chapter to an ecumenicist to get his opinion.

The publisher sent the chapter to an ecumenicist to get his opinion.

The ecumenicist will not like it. The ecumenicist will hate it. The ecumenicist specializes in Muslim-Christian relations. This book is not about Muslim-Christian relations, and it did not set out to improve Muslim-Christian relations, and it was not shaped in such a way as to improve Muslim-Christian relations. That means the ecumenicist is the wrong kind of person to be vetting our chapter. One might as well send a book on animal rights to a butcher for vetting. One might as well send a book on workers’ rights to someone at the American Enterprise Institute for vetting. One might as well send a book on wetlands preservation to a cement manufacturer for vetting. For that matter one might as well send our book to the pope for vetting. We did not write this book to please ecumenicists, or popes or mullahs or heads of bible colleges or ‘spiritual leaders’ of any kind. If the publisher wanted their imprimatur, the publisher should have turned the book down from the outset, in the same way that Verso did. Verso was interested at first, then decided that after all it wasn’t, because it was uneasy about the subject matter. Verso publishes the messages to the world of Osama bin Laden so naturally it’s uneasy about our subject matter – but it said so before we took the trouble to write the book, which was civil of it. Our publisher, on the other hand, let us write it, and make a few minor changes at their suggestion, and go on our way rejoicing, and did not get to the bit about being uneasy until, as mentioned, last Friday, a week before the book is supposed to come out.

The publisher asked us not to do anything until after the long weekend, and we said okay (without enthusiasm). But now the publisher has scheduled a conference call for tomorrow. The publisher would not have bothered to do this if the outcome were ‘Never mind, it was just a case of the fantods, we’ll be going ahead as planned, sorry to trouble you.’ The publisher will be saying or asking or suggesting or demanding something tomorrow, and there is no something. We’ve done our work. We’ve done what we were supposed to do. The period for revision and proofreading ended several months ago. The book is supposed to appear in less than a week. There is no something that will not fuck things up for us and for the book. If the publisher wanted to do that the publisher should have done it a long time ago – not now.

The publisher, in short, should not be doing a Random House, but it looks as if that’s exactly what the publisher is doing. And this is without any intervention by Denise Spellberg.

So the internalized self-censorship that Kenan Malik is so incisive about will, it appears, strike another blow for silence. Only this time the book being silenced is not a badly-written bodice-ripper about Aisha and her romance with Mr Unmentionable, it’s a well-written book about religion and the subordination of women. It will be a bad thing if this book is silenced.

We are not pleased.

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.