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.


Papal absence of mind

May 11th, 2009 10:53 am | By

The pope’s a funny guy. The right hand knoweth not what the left hand getteth up to. The right hand has an attention deficit.

During his address in Amman, the pontiff called on Jordan’s Muslims and Christians to work together to improve their society. “Some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world and so they argue that the lesser attention given to religion in the public sphere the better,” he said…”However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society?”

Yes…but…but Herr Rotweiler, sir, have you not noticed that you yourself go in for a certain amount of ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends? And that your cardinals and bishops and priests do so too? And that sometimes you instruct them to do that very thing? Have you forgotten your own insistence that politicians who support the right to abortion were to be excommunicated? If you have forgotten, I have to say, that’s a little careless and irresponsible of you. If you’re going to go swanning around the globe telling everyone what to do on the pain of religious sanctions, you really have a duty to keep track. You have a power to bully that no one else on the planet has, you know – don’t you think you should take that power very seriously? Seriously enough to be unable to forget the occasions when you use it? I do. Catholics, sadly for them, may well take your threats seriously, and be badly harmed by them – yet here you are making them one day and forgetting them the next. Callous bastard, aren’t you.

…as he flew toward his much anticipated five-day trip in Brazil, the Pope addressed the question of the “good standing” of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights — a delicate issue that has come up in the U.S., Europe and, most recently, Mexico. During an unprecedented 25-minute on-flight press conference, Benedict left little room for interpretation: pro-choice politicians not only should be denied communion, but face outright excommunication from the Church for supporting “the killing of a human child.” The Pope’s declaration came in response to recent comments from the spokesman of the Mexican bishops conference, who said politicians who pushed through a new Mexico City pro-choice law were to be excommunicated.

One truth in Mexico City and another in Amman, popey? Is that the idea? Going all situationist on us, are you? Or is it more of an irregular verb matter – what you do cannot, by definition, be manipulation, but what other people do can? Is that it? Well if so you should spell it out, so that we know what we’re dealing with.



States of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling

May 10th, 2009 4:05 pm | By

You know how John Stuart Mill had a mental crisis, and became unable to take pleasure in anything. One thing that helped him was reading Wordsworth. Byron was no good to him, Byron was too melancholy himself, but Wordsworth was just the thing – ‘the miscellaneous poems, in the two-volume edition of 1815,’ to be exact.

“In the first place, these poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression. In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth’s, poetry. the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. But Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. Scott does this still better than Wordsworth, and a very second-rate landscape does it more effectually than any poet. What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings…”

And we can do it without God. The Eagletons of the world don’t need to get in a panic.



Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

May 10th, 2009 1:07 pm | By

God damn spammers. They keep coming back. I’m having to spend two hours a day cleaning the god damn ads for viagra and xanax and the rest of it out of old comments. Miserable blood-sucking bastards.

[beats head against wall until the blood runs]



The mirror and the lamp

May 9th, 2009 4:41 pm | By

I read something interesting in M H Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp this morning.

Ever since Aristotle, it had been common to illuminate the nature of poetry…by opposing it to History…But to Wordsworth, the appropriate business of poetry is ‘to treat of things not as they are…but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions,’ and as worked upon ‘in the spirit of genuine imagination.’ The most characteristic subject matter of poetry no longer consists of actions that never happened, but of things modified by the passions and imagination of the perceiver; and in place of history, the most eligible contrary to poetry, so conceived, is the unemotional and objective description characteristic of physical science. Wordsworth therefore replaced the inadequate ‘contradistinction of Poetry and Prose’ by ‘the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact, or Science,’ and similar formulations became a standard port of departure in romantic discussions of poetry…Such statements are intended only as logical devices for isolating and defining the nature of poetic discourse. The prevalence of philosophical positivism, however, which claimed the method of the natural sciences to be the sole access to truth, tended to convert this logical into a combative opposition. To some writers, it seemed that poetry and science are not only antithetic, but incompatible, and that if science is true, poetry must be false, or at any rate trivial.

This perhaps does a lot to explain what Eagleton is getting at – but he apparently considers it beneath him to put it in Romantic terms – which would be too naive, too sentimental, too vieux jeu for someone as hip as he is, for whom only toasters and Chekhov will do. But he seems to be speaking Wordsworth all the same.

That’s probably what he means about religion – it’s not facts but feeling, just as it is with Wordsworth. That is at least intelligible, though not really a good defense of religion, given the temporal, political, institutional, rhetorical power it has, and given the fact that it does make literal factual truth-claims about the world and what is in it.

But it is at least intelligible. I don’t strictly think it’s ‘true’ that the mountains are full of meaning – but I do think it’s true that humans feel that way – and in fact that they ought to. I think less of people who don’t. I’m chilled by people who are dead to natural beauty, and to beauty of other kinds. I think beauty is an illusion in a sense, or in several senses, but I think it’s a necessary one. I would loathe to be without it. Imagine a brain lesion that made one indifferent to the blossoming fruit trees, the lilacs, the saturated blue of Puget Sound on a bright day, the swallows, the hummingbirds, the long grass, the stars, the sunset. Imagine what life would be if all that and everything like it became just so much Stuff, like a heap of sawdust or a dirty cement wall or a bucket of decomposing slime.

So perhaps Eagleton’s claim is that religion is like the brain without the lesion – it’s the ability to feel a particular way about things. Well – if that’s what he thinks, I can to some extent understand his vehemence. Perhaps he thinks atheism is a kind of machine for draining all of that kind of feeling from the world.

But it isn’t. It just isn’t. If it were…I might be tempted to see if I could force myself to believe too. But it isn’t. Feeling that way is part of the human equipment. Religion is probably one door into it, for a lot of people, but there are others. Music, art, sport, work (drugs) – there are lots of doors. Mind you – it may be that religion does it better for a lot of people than anything else does. Merlijn de Smit once told us that was true for him – growing up in a drab town he could find lavish beauty in the Catholic church that just wasn’t available elsewhere.

Hummingbirds. The world needs more hummingbirds.



Bauerlein on Eagleton

May 8th, 2009 4:27 pm | By

Mark Bauerlein had some thoughts on Terry Eagleton almost a decade ago.

[I]t is a mistake to treat social constructionism as preached in the academy as a philosophy. Though the position sounds like an epistemology, filled with glib denials of objectivity, truth, and facts backed up by in-the-know philosophical citations (“As Nietzsche says. . .”), its proponents hold those beliefs most unphilosophically. When someone holds a belief philosophically, he or she exposes it to arguments and evidence against it, and tries to mount arguments and evidence for it in return. But in academic contexts, constructionist ideas are not open for debate. They stand as community wisdom, articles of faith…Save for a few near-retirement humanists and realist philosopher holdouts, academics embrace constructionist premises as catechism learning, axioms to be assimilated before one is inducted into the professoriate. To believe that knowledge is a construct, that truth, evidence, fact, and inference all fall under the category of local interpretation, and that interpretations are more or less right by virtue of the interests they satisfy is a professional habit, not an intellectual thesis.

Take, he suggests a couple of pages later, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction for an example.

[T]he conceptual analysis is thin, the methodological description hasty. Instead, the book reads like a textbook case of commentary by genetic fallacy and ethical consequence. To the patient exposition of terms and concepts Eagleton prefers the oblique adumbration…In the chapter on post-structuralism, Eagleton spends little time detailing the arguments of founding tests like “Différence,” and instead strings together deconstructive platitudes…Literary Theory: An Introduction hardly counts as a serious discussion of literary theory, but its tactics have come to dominate humanities criticism. Commentaries on ideological origins and ethical results far exceed conceptual analyses and logical expositions. Evaluating concepts and arguments by their political backgrounds and implications has become a disciplinary wont, a pattern of inquiry.

Does it not sound familiar? Does it not sound like the Eagleton (and the Fish too) that we have just been reading, and gently but firmly disputing?

Constructionist notions have become so patent and revered that their articulation need no longer happen, except as reminders to professors who stray from the party line (many utterances begin with “We must remember that. . .”). Those who raise objections soon find themselves trapped in debates shaped by us versus them forensics, enunciated in an idiom of brazen philosophical avowals and insinuations about the character of adversaries. Non-constructionists feel not so much refuted, as ostracized. The humanities become a closed society, captive to a weak epistemology with a mighty elocution.

And the result apparently is that Eagleton and Fish manage to get through their entire careers without ever being compelled to argue properly, with the sad and poignant result that we see before us now – a couple of grizzled sages who think they’re making a case when they’re just making word salad.



Resisting accommodationism

May 8th, 2009 12:23 pm | By

Jerry Coyne, after discussion with other scientists and upon reflection, refused an invitation from the organizers of the World Science Festival to participate on a panel that would discuss the relationship between faith and science. One of the Festival’s sponsors was The Templeton Foundation, ‘whose implicit mission,’ Coyne said, ‘is to reconcile science and religion (and in doing so, I think, blur the boundaries between them).’ The people at the SWF wrote to him and other concerned scientists.

[T]he Festival has programs that not only focus on the content of science traditionally defined, but programs that seek to illuminate how science interfaces with other disciplines and outlooks…For the Festival to have programs exploring the art-science relationship, the government-science relationship, the business-science relationship, the literature-science relationship, and yet to willfully ignore the prominent and tumultuous religion-science relationship would be a strange and, dare we say, cowardly omission.

No, it wouldn’t, at least not necessarily. One can organize and arrange and categorize such things in more than one way. One could decide that such a Festival should be about science and everything, so that inclusiveness and breadth would be the first criterion. But one could also and instead decide, say, that such a Festival should be about science and other human endeavors that are compatible with science. The second looks, frankly, a lot more interesting than the first. It is genuinely interesting and rewarding to explore various kinds of human activity that can co-exist with science, and enrich or illustrate or expand on it. It’s also, I would think, a better way in the long run to get people interested in science, because the science and everything idea would be too broad and undemanding to hook onto anything. Science and cookies, science and fashion, science and ghosts, science and religion…it’s everything and nothing. But science and history, science and criminal investigation, science and journalism, science and art? Those all indicate the presense of some content, and thus something to think about.

Anyway, as Coyne points out, religion has a problem in this context that dance and literature don’t.

you consider faith as a topic appropriate for discussion in your Festival. You mention that you feature programs that integrate science with dance, with public policy, with literature, and so on. But these are quite different from religion. Neither dance, public policy, nor literature are based on ways of looking at the world that are completely inimical to scientific investigation. Science and religion are truly incompatible disciplines; science and literature are not. That is, one can appreciate great literature and science without embracing any philosophical contradictions, but one cannot do this with religion (unless that religion is a watered down-deism that precludes any direct involvement of a deity in the world).

That of course is just what the Templeton Foundation would like to deny and make disappear, which is why Coyne refuses to take their dime.

The issue is that, by saying it sponsors the Festival, the Templeton Foundation will use its sponsorship to prove that it is engaging in serious discussion with scientists. Like many of my colleagues, I regard Templeton as an organization whose purpose is to fuse science with religion: to show how science illuminates “the big questions” and how religion can contribute to science. I regard this as not only fatuous, but dangerous. Templeton likes nothing better than to corral real working scientists into its conciliatory pen.

Kudos to Jerry Coyne for blowing the gaff on them.



There are people like that

May 6th, 2009 12:27 pm | By

Russell encounters an Eaglefish and has one of those epiphanic moments when a few things suddenly “click”.

[A]mong our friends on the political Left – which is where I have my roots – there are people, not just a few but many, who despise everything I hold dear. These are supposed to be my allies, but they despise liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment. They hate the so-called “New Atheism”…because they see people like Richard Dawkins as providing a rallying point for … yes, liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment…It’s not some sort of accident or coincidence that their commitments so often have them opposing liberalism and all the values associated with it. They know that that’s what they’re doing; they actually see those values as disvalues.

Yeah. And that’s why I would so love to see them magically turned into women and transported to Swat so that they could ponder the absence of liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment up close and personal.

I despise and detest their frivolity. Their stupid, shallow, giggling lack of responsibility; their treating subjects that are very literally life and death to billions of people as mere toys for them to play with. They don’t even offer any serious reasons for their hatred of liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment – that’s what’s so frivolous about it. They just take it for granted, and offer at most silly lightweight pseudo-reasons, like the fact that their grandparents had religious beliefs. These guys aren’t children – they should know they need better reasons than that. They should pay better attention to the world, they should look around them, they should yank their heads out of their own stifling little egos.

Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton, for example, are not just isolated, idiosyncratic sentimentalists who believe in belief. They really do hate the things that I value, and they see themselves as in a struggle to resist the very things that I am fighting for in all my work. When Eagleton says that Richard Dawkins is standing in his way, he actually means it. What’s more, such Eaglefish don’t see themselves as expressing a view that their colleagues and acquaintances will find alien and bizarre. They expect their views to seem familiar and attractive to many readers; they expect to find an audience for which such views will have the ring of truth.

Quite. This is why Butterflies and Wheels was created and why it still exists – because Eaglefish don’t see themselves as expressing a view that their colleagues and acquaintances will find alien and bizarre. B&W has been working hard (that is, I’ve been working hard, but it sounds grander to call myself B&W, as if I were a committee) for nigh on seven years now to make the Eaglefish view seem alien and bizarre to as many people as possible.



Oh go soak your head

May 6th, 2009 10:54 am | By

And people wonder why atheists get huffy.

Obama is scaling back White House plans for Thursday’s National Day of Prayer even as his administration defends the tradition in federal court in Wisconsin…The Obama administration has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims the day violates the separation of church and state. In a rare alliance, 31 mostly Republican members of Congress and a prominent Christian legal group are joining the administration to fight the lawsuit. Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray.

Okay, it’s a small thing, and we can always just ignore it, but just the same – what business do presidents have asking us to pray? Fuck off! What business do secular heads of secular states have asking us to perform some magical rite? They’re not our priests, they’re not bishops, they’re not clerical officials of any kind; it is none of their business whether we pray or not. None, zip, zero. It’s a highly offensive intrusion for them to make such a request. It also sends that notorious excluding message that atheists are always complaining of and that does a lot to explain our sometimes irritable attitude toward religion, the one that mystifies our friends and acquaintances on the other side of the Atlantic. It sends the message ‘everyone prays and we’re all alike in this and anyone who isn’t is deeply weird and, as Bush I so wisely said, probably not exactly really quite a citizen.’ That’s a stupid and ill-mannered message to send for no good reason – it’s a kind of pro-active rudeness. What the hell do we need such a day for? People who want to pray can pray; why do the rest of us have to be chivvied and hassled?

Well it’s obvious from the initial date what we need it for: to remind us that we’re not like those godless commies. But that’s a bit out of date now, and it’s not, alas, the godless commies who are gathering their forces in Pakistan, getting ready to start slouching towards Manhattan. So it would be nice if we could ditch the gratuitous National Marginalize Atheists Day.

It’s not as if we want to replace the damn thing with National Abolish Prayer Day. It’s not as if we want to set an annual date for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans not to pray. We just want presidents to shut up about praying, that’s all. We want nobody official governmental political to talk about praying at all, because it’s not their job and it’s emphatically not their business.



The community wheeled about as one

May 5th, 2009 4:22 pm | By

Martha Nussbaum says there are liberal Muslims in India – though she doesn’t say how many or what percentage they are or how influential they are. She leaves a lot of details out of her account, which makes it less credible than it might be.

She also starts off with the familiar silly and misleading ‘community’-talk -

India’s Muslim community strongly condemned the terrorist acts and immediately took steps to demonstrate its loyalty to the nation…The world saw a deeply nationalist community, one loyal to the liberal values of a nation that has yet to treat it justly. It was not the first time India’s Muslims have demonstrated a peaceful embrace of the country’s founding values. The personal experience of Mushirul Hasan exemplifies the same commitment. A leader of the community, Hasan has been at the center of controversy for his liberal, secular views…

Come on…she’s a philosopher, so she really ought to do better than that. How can ‘India’s Muslim community’ strongly condemn anything? What does that even mean? To make any sense at all it has to mean that all Indian Muslims strongly condemned and immediately took steps, which is absurd. Perhaps she means all prominent Indian Muslims did that? But no, because she could have said that, and because that’s not what she wants to convey, either – and that’s the problem. She wants to convey, without spelling it out, that the majority of Indian Muslims strongly condemned and immediately took steps – but is that true? I don’t know, but it seems very unlikely just on the face of it, because most people are too busy with other things to do much public condemning and step-taking. But as if she had established that which she wanted to convey, she goes on in the next sentence to say what ‘India’s Muslims’ had demonstrated – when it’s vanishingly unlikely that all of them demonstrated anything. Then she dashes on to claim one person as exemplary of this commitment of ‘India’s Muslims’ and then to call him ‘a leader’ of this notional ‘community’ that all thinks with one mind. It’s all very rhetorical and sentimental and covertly manipulative, and I wish she wouldn’t do it.

It is an interesting piece though – and I hope she’s right. I would be delighted to learn that the situation is just as she describes it and that my suspicions are groundless. I’d be thrilled. I would love to know that India is packed to the rafters with people like Mushirul Hasan.

Stereotypes of the violent Muslim are so prevalent in India—as elsewhere in the world—that it is virtually impossible for Muslim liberals to be taken at their word when they say that they believe in free speech, pluralism, nonviolent persuasion, the rule of law, and the right of each person to a fair trial. ’Oh yes, a screen for darker motives,’ is the typical response, pervasive on Hindu blogs and common even in the mainstream press. You say you are a liberal, and that proves you are a radical Islamist.

Well…are stereotypes really the only reason for that? Does the Koran, and the relationship of Islam to the Koran, have nothing to do with it? 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? Couldn’t some people think that liberalism is just more difficult for Muslims for a lot of reasons (family pressure, customs, the Koran, friends, and so on) and that different people can mean different things by ‘liberal’? I would say it could, and that people who are slow to be convinced are not necessarily simply heeding stereotypes of the violent Muslim. They might be, but they might not.

It is a very interesting article though, and highly informative. Don’t let me put you off.



The glorious transfigured future

May 4th, 2009 11:44 am | By

Let’s see Fish and Eagleton – or should I adopt the latter’s sophisticated witticism and call them Eaglefish? – sneer at progress, liberalism and enlightenment in the context of Delara Derabi’s last minutes, and her parents’ experience of her last minutes. First some Eaglefish sneering -

Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us…[W]e are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.

And then a few minutes in a world where contempt for progress, liberalism and enlightenment is not just a selfish smug I’m all right Jack trope among male literary critics in Florida and Lancashire but the real thing. Let’s see how funny the joke seems in Tehran.

It was 7am when Delara Darabi phoned home. “Oh mother, I see the hangman’s noose in front of me,” she garbled. “They are going to execute me. Please save me.” Moments later a prison official snatched the handset away. “We will easily execute your daughter and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he barked at the parents. Then, with a chilling click, the line went dead. The desperate couple rushed to the Central Prison in Rasht, Iran, wailing at the guards to let them see their 22-year-old. As they prostrated themselves, an ambulance emerged, most probably with Delara’s corpse inside.

There you are – will that do? Is that sufficiently without progress, liberalism and enlightenment? Is that what Feagleton wants? Is that their idea of an excitingly post-enlightenment world rich with ‘flawed but aspiring religious faith’? Is it part of their bill of indictment against atheism that there’s not enough of that kind of thing?

Yes, pretty much. Eagleton at least is pretty explicit about it.

For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”

But Tel, your transfigured future has already been born; it’s in Tehran, it’s in Kandahar, it’s in Mingora. All those pesky liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals haven’t been able to stop it. What are you complaining about?



Morris Zapp has gone downhill

May 4th, 2009 9:55 am | By

Stanley Fish is moved to let us know that he is just as woolly and assertive and bad-mannered and rhetorical as Terry Eagleton and Mark Vernon and Madeleine Bunting and the rest of the ‘new atheists are bad‘ crowd.

[T]he British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed.

Eh? ‘Other candidates’ than what? Other than Eagleton? Those are our choices – Eagleton on the one hand and science, reason, liberalism, capitalism on the other? Why? How? Who says?

Perhaps Fish means ‘other candidates’ than literary criticism, and we’re supposed to be able to figure that out via the word ‘critic’ in front of ‘Terry Eagleton’ – but ‘critic’ could mean restaurant critic, movie critic, dance critic – it could mean a lot of things, and in any case, it’s far from obvious that we’re supposed to understand Terry Eagleton as standing for the entire genre of literary critics. In short, that’s a bit of remarkably slovenly careless lazy writing, and it’s the opener for an attack on – you’ll never guess – the ‘new’ atheists. An opener as sloppy as that doesn’t bode well for the care and intelligence of the rest – and the rest is indeed surprisingly crappy stuff.

Fish goes on to say that Eagleton admits religion is flawed but ‘at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself…”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

Again, already, the sloppiness makes it hard to tell exactly what is being claimed, but it seems to be that religion alone is trying for something more than local satisfactions and that religion alone takes the nature of humanity for its subject, and all other projects are finally superficial and are merely about consumerism. That suggestion is so obviously stupid I can’t be bothered to say why it’s stupid – I don’t think anyone who reads this needs to be told.

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?” The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

So that is what he’s claiming – on the one hand there are theological questions, which are alone able to ask ‘why is there something rather than nothing’ and related questions, and then there are ‘science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation’ which are all much of a muchness and which can’t ask ‘ ‘why is there something rather than nothing.’ Further, the interpolated ‘never mind answer’ implies that ‘theological questions’ can answer – without of course offering any actual examples of such ‘answers.’

This is lamentable stuff.

On and on it goes – sneers at progress, liberalism and enlightenment, sneers at cures for diseases, sneers at technology, much use of the word ‘Ditchkins,’ and finishing up with a triumphant blast at ‘the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins.’

It is so hard not to wish both of them suddenly transported to a place bereft of progress, liberalism and enlightenment – the Swat valley would be just the ticket – and see how they like it.

That’s not a nice thing to say, it’s even a bit schoolyardy, but I am so sick of smug prosperous safe comfortable pale men urinating all over progress, liberalism and enlightenment while desperate threatened terrified women would weep scalding tears of joy and deliverance to get just a taste of some. I am so sick of safe prosperous men who are never, ever going to be grabbed on the street and whipped, or shot in the back, or locked up in their houses, or married off to some abusive bully, going on and on and on and on about how much they hate progress, liberalism and enlightenment.



Another singer eliminated

May 3rd, 2009 12:31 pm | By

Another woman is reminded that she is not allowed to do anything, and so are all the other women in her part of the world.

The murder of Ayman Udas, who was in her early thirties and newly married, has shocked the city’s artistic community because it symbolises a backlash against women and cultural freedom in an area that is increasingly dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. As a singer and song writer in her native Pashto, the language of the tribal areas and the NorthWest Frontier province, Udas frequently performed on PTV, the state-run channel. She won considerable acclaim for her songs but had become a musician in the face of bitter opposition from her family, who believed it was sinful for a woman to perform on television. Ashamed of her growing popularity her two brothers are reported to have entered her flat last week while her husband was out and fired three bullets into her chest.

She’s not popular any more, so they’re not ashamed any more, and that’s what counts.

Fellow performers, many of whom have received death threats from hardline Islamist groups, were stunned by the killing. In recent months several popular artists have been forced to stop performing as singers and comedians. Others have fled the country or moved to other cities.

As some people try to hang onto a somewhat normal happy life with some room for art and pleasure, and others try to grind such a life into powder.



During that time we didn’t hear a single protest

May 3rd, 2009 11:06 am | By

A senior Shia cleric in Kabul stands up for democracy.

Supporters of the Afghan law which critics claim legalises marital rape and restricts the rights of women say they will oppose amending the legislation significantly. “A change in this law will be illegal and against democracy,” said Sayed Abdul Latif Sajadi, a senior Shia cleric in Kabul who played a leading role in drawing up the legislation and pushing it through parliament. “Any change will be against the wishes of four million people.”

Men. Against the wishes of four million men. He means any change will be against the wishes of four million men – women of course were not asked and not given any way to voice an opinion. Women, on the contrary, were presented with multiple examples of women being murdered for sticking their heads over the parapet, so we know they had every incentive to shut up and pretty much no incentive to protest a law that makes their enslavement more official than ever.

The Shia Family Law, which has been denounced inside and outside Afghanistan, applies only to the four million Afghans who are Shia. It is the first time in predominantly Sunni Muslim Afghanistan that the Shia, mostly members of the long-oppressed Hazara ethnic group, have had their rights legally defined and recognised.

No; there again, that’s not right, and this time it’s the reporter who gets things backwards. It’s not the case that ‘the Shia’ ‘have had their rights legally defined and recognised’ because what this law does is take rights away from Shia women. What this bill legally defined and recognized was the ‘right’ of men to subordinate women, which is quite different from defining and recognizing the rights of the Shia in general.

“Those Afghans who protest against the law just want to make the West happy,” says Mohammed Sarwar Jahadi, a former prisoner of the Taliban and an MP for the Hazara heartland of Bamyan province in central Afghanistan. He said the law was discussed in parliament over a two-and-a-half-year period and was whittled down from 750 to 249 articles. “During that time we didn’t hear a single protest.”

Gee I wonder why – it surely couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Afghan women live under a constant threat of death. Could it?

Mr Sayed Sajadi, a Hazara, said the strength of protests against the law surprised him. “It was unexpected because already 99 per cent of Afghan women only leave the house with their husband’s permission.”

Ah! Ah yes! There we have it – that’s the real puzzle. 99 per cent of Afghan women are already completely ground into the mud so where the hell would protests come from? Nowhere! They wouldn’t! Thus all these protests are simply astonishing. All the men are looking at each other in baffled amazement, at a stand to figure out how anyone could have the nerve or the energy or the muscle power to make a protest.

Many Afghans say that in any case the relationship between men and women in their country is none of the business of foreign non-Muslim politicians and Nato commanders. Women protesting against the law were denounced by counter-demonstrators chanting: “Death to the enemies of Islam! We want Islamic law!”

Yeah! The relationship between men and women in Afghanistan is none of the business of foreign non-Muslim politicians and it’s also none of the business of the women of Afghanistan, so they’d better shut the fuck up before somebody does it for them, if you get my drift.



Shades of gray

May 2nd, 2009 4:49 pm | By

Simon Blackburn has fun teasing John Gray. John Gray strikes me as a great dogmatic repetitive bore, so I enjoy seeing people teasing him.

The habit of abstraction enables Gray to position himself as a lone voice against a world of fantastical optimists: “All prevailing philosoph­ies embody the fiction that ­human life can be changed at will,” he tells us sweepingly, naming no names. What? I suppose many ­philosophers do think that if you need to have a drink, you can change your life, a ­little, by doing so. Other things can be harder to do. But I challenge Gray to name a single philosopher who thinks we can change everything about our lives at will.

Oh, naming people is for pedants, it’s so much more fun to declare that they all do it. It’s the Mark Vernon school of argumentation.

In reality, Gray’s abstractions have overwhelmed his analytic faculties. Nearly all human action, including political action, goes on without paying even lip service to any gospel of Progress in the abstract…For someone so contemptuous of reason and its constructions, it must have been horrid to spend a life looking at political theories, all of which Gray despises. He does however admire some of the myths of religion. He revels in the idea of original sin, but blames Christianity for inventing the idea of salvation, or, in other words, Progress. Gray could be comfortable only in a religion with no faith, no hope, and no charity.

There, that’s Gray well teased.



No innocent conduct will be captured

May 2nd, 2009 4:30 pm | By

Department of Strange Ideas.

[W]hile the Constitution requires an offence of blasphemy it also, like the position in many other countries, expressly protects freedom of expression. …No innocent conduct will be captured. The revised provision in regard to blasphemy requires at least three elements to be present: that the material be grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by a religion; that it must actually cause outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion; and, crucially, that there be an intent to cause such outrage.

Okay, that does clear things up: it will be a crime to produce ‘material’ that is grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by a religion, if it causes outrage among more than a few adherents of that religion and the outrage is intentional – all this in spite (not to say in defiance) of the fact that the Constitution ‘expressly protects freedom of expression.’ But Dermot Ahern assures us that no innocent conduct will be captured, presumably because of that crucial third stipulation that there must be an intent to cause such outrage. How Irish courts may decide to identify intent, of course, is a difficult question, so the best idea is probably just to…produce no material at all. Better be safe than sorry.



Edging slowly forward

May 1st, 2009 11:47 am | By

G did a comment on ‘The downside of torture’ that needs to be out here in the daylight, so here it is. OB.

What is perhaps most appalling about this is that prosecuting torture has become nothing more than another tawdry political game. Barack Obama is, among other things, not just a Harvard Law graduate but an actual Constitutional scholar. He knows what an appalling clusterfuck the Bush Administration made of the Constitution with its denial of habeas corpus, secret prisons, torture, and all that. He knows what the morally and legally required path must be. But he is rather scrupulously avoiding that path.

Worse, Obama’s administration has in almost all terrorism-related court cases pushed the absurdly counter-Constitutional secrecy policies and claims of authority to defy law at whim of the Bush administration. I am fairly certain that this is not, as some have claimed, out of the desire to preserve those claimed powers for his own use. Rather, I think it is fairly clear that his stated political position of “moving forward” and “not looking back” – i.e. avoiding politically troublesome legal prosecutions of Bush administration criminal acts – absolutely requires that he perpetuate the official legal cover-ups for those activities as long as possible. It is a delaying tactic.

I think Obama has decided that it would be too politically costly to prosecute Bush Administration war crimes at this time. (Sadly, he may be right. Recent polls show that less than half of all Americans support legal investigations of torture and all that, and the ugly reality of such prosecutions would only make them less popular as they proceeded.) But I think Obama also realizes that investigations and prosecutions must happen eventually, both for the good of the nation and for the sake of U.S. standing in the community of nations. So he talks about moving forward and insists that he doesn’t want prosecutions, but he never quite entirely rules out future legal action: Instead, he has officially left that decision it in the hands of his Attorney General (where it belongs, incidentally) – but A.G. Eric Holder will of course not pursue anything until given the go ahead by President Obama.

Meanwhile, the torture memos are released and an al Qaeda operative (Ali al-Marri) is successfully prosecuted in ordinary Federal court without any of the unnecessary and unconstitutional measures introduced by the Bush administration to hold “enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial. (Watch Rachel Maddow’s report on the al-Marri case here. Rachel’s money quote, commenting on the successful prosecution of al-Marri without the Bush system of eternal imprisonment without charges or trial, torture, and so on: “So we end up, at the end of this – after all these years and all of these Constitutional crises one after the other provoked by this system – ending up being able to charge people and bring evidence against them as if we are a normal country under the rule of law.”)

The torture memos and the al-Marri prosecution (along with several other clues) give me the distinct impression that the Obama administration is playing a game of slowly exposing both the brutal reality and the complete ineffectiveness of the Bush administration’s illegal methods, and will keep doing so until the point where the public and the political landscape not only support, but demand investigations and prosecutions.

I don’t know what bothers me more: the manipulative and corrosive character of this political game, or the fact that the American public and U.S. elected officials are so incredibly stupid and venal that such manipulative tactics are probably necessary – and hopefully effective.



The downside of torture

May 1st, 2009 11:39 am | By

Philippe Sands said on ‘Fresh Air’ that Judge Garzon attempted to prosecute a couple of people that the Bush administration had tortured and that the case collapsed because the evidence, being the product of torture, was not admissable in court. Sands said this is one reason Garzon has started a criminal investigation of some of Bush’s team: they (allegedly) not only violated international law, they also made it impossible for other courts to prosecute the objects of the torture.

He also discussed the irony of the fact that Chuckie Taylor was convicted in a US court for crimes he committed in Liberia; that was possible because the crimes he committed were violations of international law. States that have signed such laws have an obligation – not permission, but an obligation – to act on such violations when they have the ability to do so. He also said he was shocked that Jay Bybee still insists that waterboarding was legal; he says Bybee is a federal judge, and US federal courts are highly respected even outside the US, and the honourable thing for Bybee to do would be to admit that in the frantic atmosphere of the time he made a mistake.

In the frantic atmosphere of the time a lot of people neglected to ask necessary questions.

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned. This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved – not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees – investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

And the result is…they screwed up.

The top officials [Tenet] briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.

Well that’s a distinguished legacy to be part of.



Dear mummy Nature

Apr 30th, 2009 12:18 pm | By

I saw a horrible thing on tv last night, in a PBS show about the Kalahari. There are flamingos that nest in in an area of the Kalahari which slowly dries out during the nesting season, with the result that the chicks have to walk a hundred miles through the desert to get to water. They have to walk. A hundred miles. Through a desert. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds. They’re small, they’re feeble, it’s burning hot. It takes weeks.

250,000 leave; some years not one chick makes it.

Good planning! Wouldn’t you think the adults would manage to think ‘gee, maybe we should find a better place to nest’? Or that, failing to think that, they would all quickly die off because they couldn’t keep the numbers up? But apparently that’s not happening. So instead you get this disgusting trek of misery. One revolting detail is that the chicks’ wing tips pick up mud as they trudge along, and the mud hardens and just hangs there, so they’re all staggering along with these heavy blobs dragging them down. It’s a truly sickening sight – one wants to arrest all the parents for abuse.

Another tale for the Devil’s Chaplain.



Where I left off

Apr 29th, 2009 6:24 pm | By

Oh all right – I quit too soon. It’s too annoying to leave.

[A]ttacking them in broad and often hilarious strokes…allows him to develop an extended interpretive summary of what he describes as mainstream Christian doctrine, a subject about which (as he repeatedly reminds us) the Ditchkins duo, along with the Western intellectual elite in general, knows almost nothing. Eagleton’s terminology is deliberately provocative, and some Christians won’t find his account of their beliefs, colored as it clearly is by the Catholic “liberation theology” of his youth, to be mainstream at all.

Well exactly – a great many Christians won’t find his account of their beliefs to be mainstream at all. So in what sense is he justified in pitching a gigantic name-calling fit at the ‘new’ atheists for knowing nothing of his peculiar idiosyncratic personal version of what Christian belief is? His ‘terminology is deliberately provocative,’ which being interpreted, means he says his version of Christian belief is mainstream when it is no such thing and then screams bloody murder at people who don’t buy his version. ‘Provocative’ is a desperately polite way of describing such a way of proceeding.

I did a post on the same bait-and-switch a couple of years ago, the one in which he said God was no more a person than his left foot was – whatever he said; but I can’t find the post and don’t have time to keep looking. But this is familiar stuff – which doesn’t make it any less irritating.

Horrible man. Revisit this loathsome outburst on the occasion of Salman Rushdie’s K, if you want more evidence of that. He’s an intellectual thug.



One wit spots another

Apr 29th, 2009 4:59 pm | By

Terry Eagleton has at least one fan anyway.

Eagleton…is determined not to commit the same elementary errors he ascribes to such foes as biologist Richard Dawkins and political journalist Christopher Hitchens. (Those two, collectively dubbed “Ditchkins” by Eagleton, are the self-appointed leaders of public atheism and the authors of bestselling books on the subject, Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great.”)

He gets it right by saying Eagleton ascribes these elementary errors, but then he promptly labels Dawkins and Hitchens ‘foes’ – why are they foes? Because Eagleton doesn’t like what they’ve written. That doesn’t really make them his foes, it just makes them people he is quarreling with. ‘Foes’ is more ascribing. And then, what is that ‘self-appointed leaders of public atheism’ doing there? They’re not self-appointed leaders of anything; they wrote books about something. Eagleton writes books about things; now he is busy ascribing things to ‘foes’; does that make him a self-appointed leader of public anti-Ditchkinsism? Not particularly. We’re all allowed to write books without being labeled self-appointed leaders of something or other. (And this ‘Ditchkins’ thing…that’s just childish.)

[Eagleton] freely admits that what Christian doctrine teaches about the universe and the fate of man may not be true, or even plausible. But as he then puts it, “Critics of the most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.”

That’s just populist bullying. Why do they? Why can’t critics of any form of popular culture – no matter how enduring, how popular, how ‘authentic,’ how anything you like – just criticize whatever they think is bad about it? In argument it’s better to argue with the strongest case, but in criticism, you can go after the worst stuff, because that’s your point. There’s no ‘moral obligation’ to be deferential to the most enduring form of popular culture in human history; how pompous to say there is.

Still, attacking them in broad and often hilarious strokes – he depicts Dawkins as a tweedy, cloistered Oxford don sneering at the credulous nature of the common people, and Hitchens as a bootlicking neocon propagandist and secular jihadist – lends his book considerable entertainment value.

Hilarious? That’s hilarious? Oookay, if that’s the taste level, I won’t bother reading any more.