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.


Bad pope

Mar 18th, 2009 10:56 am | By

Bonnie Erbe points out the largest flaw in the pope’s ‘horrifically ignorant statement’:

All the pontiff need do to acquire a more educated view of AIDS in Africa is to read the widespread literature about women and how they acquire the disease. The percentage of female AIDS patients who are prostitutes, or drug addicts, is dwarfed by the percentage who are married women living upstanding lives in their communities. The Pope advised them, according to the Reuters news agency, to exhibit, “correct behavior regarding one’s body.” Very helpful! That advice is completely useless to the typical “woman” in Africa who contracts the disease. Her profile is that of a teenage virgin sold into marriage against her will and “betrothed” to a much older man with many lovers who carries AIDS and refuses to use protection.

It’s that simple. It’s idiotic at best and malevolent at worst to operate on the assumption that all people who have sex have equal autonomy and control and decision-making power and right of refusal. It’s imbecilic to ignore the fact that many women simply do not have the ability to say no to sex with any particular AIDS-infected man, much less to prevent their husbands from having sex with other women and thus becoming infected. It’s simple-minded, wilfully blind, and hideously ruthless to condemn who knows how many wives and children to a horrible early death or orphanhood and destitution because of a pious and retarded loathing of condoms.



Sibling rivalry

Mar 17th, 2009 11:49 am | By

Is there no limit?

A senior judge has called for an end to the use of the phrase “honour killings” to describe what is “in reality sordid, criminal behaviour”…The judge had heard that a mother had set fire to one of her three children and tried to burn down the house where they lived in an attempt to incriminate her sister-in-law. The sister-in-law “presented a problem to the family” and had fled the home after she had been beaten and her first child murdered by her husband, the mother’s brother.

So let me get this straight – a guy beats his wife and murders their child so she runs away – so the guy’s sister sets fire to her own child in order to get back at the woman who fled the man who beat her and killed their child? And they considered this a matter of ‘honour’? So what would fit their definition of violence and squalor then?

The mother of the children – a girl aged 11 and boys of 9 and 5 – is serving a five-year jail sentence for arson. One of her brothers had contracted a second marriage to a woman in Pakistan who came to England in 2003 pregnant with her first child. That child died after being taken to hospital aged 27 months suffering from multiple injuries. The motivation for the killing was not known, but among the injuries on the child were signs of chronic sexual abuse. The brother and his wife were arrested. He was convicted of murder and she was cleared of neglect. The grandfather in the family is on record as saying that the death was an accident and the will of God. He has made it clear that the son will return to live at the family home when he is released. His daughter-in-law returned to live at the family home and gave birth to her second child, a son…In May 2005, she fled with the help of the police and social services after complaining of severe ill-treatment. She was moved to a secret location after saying that the family would track her down and kill her because they would not allow her to disgrace them. She is still in fear of her life. Later that year, the mother of the three children alleged her sister-in-law and another had entered her home in burkhas, cut the mother’s hands and neck with a knife and poured white spirit on to one of the children’s clothing before setting fire to clothing at the bottom of the stairs…“Her flight and the disclosure of her treatment at their hands was seen by the family as being an insult to them. They saw it – and continue to see it – as a disgrace.”

Her flight is the disgrace, not the way she was treated. Their revolting cruelty and violence is just fine, her escape from it is a disgrace.

Words fail me.



The myths that legitimated their hierarchies

Mar 16th, 2009 11:54 am | By

Bernard Williams says some things relevant to this idea of ‘betraying your community’ in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, which I was re-reading a couple of days ago.

“The dispositions and reactions that are exercised within one culture are not merely diverted or shown to be inappropriate by the fact that its members are presented with the behavior of another culture. In any case, it is artificial to treat these matters as if they always involved two clearly self-contained cultures. A fully individuable culture is at best a rare thing. Cultures, subcultures, fragments of cultures, constantly meet one another and exchange and modify practices and attitudes. Social practices could never come forward with a certificate saying that they belonged to a genuinely different culture, so that they were guaranteed immunity to alien judgements and reactions.” [p 158]

“Never” is putting it a little too strongly – which is why I said that tropical islands are a somewhat special case, and isolated groups are a somewhat special case, and that it depends, in a recent discussion of moral relativism. That’s because I think groups that really have been entirely isolated from competing ways of thinking may be a somewhat special case – and also because I think it depends for instance on what people within the groups think about their lives. If some people in the groups are being, say, beaten or raped or mutilated or forcibly married to people they dislike, and they are unhappy and know they are unhappy and say they are unhappy – then I think outsiders can make moral judgments. In the absence of those conditions, it’s trickier, though that doesn’t rule out further inquiry and investigation. But that seems to end up at the same place Williams ends up at: whether or not social practices could ever come forward with a certificate saying that they belonged to a genuinely different culture, we both think they could not be guaranteed immunity to alien judgements and reactions.

Williams goes on, a few pages later:

“There is no route back from reflectiveness…This phenomenon of self-consciousness, together with the institutions and processes that support it, constitute one reason why past forms of life are not a real option for the present, and why attempts to go back often produce results that are ludicrous on a small scale and hideous on a larger one. This can be seen, above all, with reactionary projects to recreate supposedly contented hierarchical societies of the past. These projects in any case face the criticism that their pictures of the past are fantasies; but even if there have been contented hierarchies, any charm they have for us is going to rest on their having been innocent and not having understood their own nature. This cannot be recreated, since measures would have to be taken to stop people raising questions that are, by now, there to be raised.

But if the questions are there to be raised, should we not – or, at any rate, may we not – raise them about those societies as they existed in the past? In particular, may we not ask whether those societies, however unaware they may have been, were unjust? Can a relativism of distance put them beyond this question?”[p 164]

He adds: “They may not have been wrong in thinking that their social order was necessary for them. It is rather the way in which they saw it as necessary – as religiously or metaphysically necessary – that we cannot now accept. Where we see them as wrong was in the myths that legitimated their hierarchies. We see our view of our society and ourselves as more naturalistic than their view of themselves. This naturalistic conception of society, expressed by Hobbes and Spinoza at the beginning of the modern world, represents one of the ways in which the world has become entzaubert, in Max Weber’s famous phrase: the magic has gone from it. (The current attempts by Islamic forces in particular to reverse that process – if that is what those attempts really are – do not show that the process is local or reversible only that it can generate despair.)” [p 165]

That was in 1985. He was paying attention.



Her own community

Mar 16th, 2009 10:49 am | By

Another pretty story.

“Hannah Shah” is…the daughter of an imam in one of the tight-knit Deobandi Muslim Pakistani communities in the north of England. Her father…rap[ed] his daughter from the age of five until she was 15, ostensibly as part of her punishment for being “disobedient”. At the age of 16 she fled her family to avoid the forced marriage they had planned for her in Pakistan…[S]he then became a Christian – an apostate. The Koran is explicit that apostasy is punishable by death; thus it was that her father the imam led a 40-strong gang – in the middle of a British city – to find and kill her.

Islam is a religion of peace; Allah is merciful.

Hannah’s description in the book of the moment when her “community” discovered the “safe” home where she had fled after becoming an apostate is terrifying. A mob with her father at its head pounded and hammered at the door as she cowered upstairs hoping she could not be seen or heard. She heard her father shout through the letter box: “Filthy traitor! Betrayer of your faith! Cursed traitor! We’re going to rip your throat out! We’ll burn you alive!” Does she still believe they would have killed her? “Yes, without a doubt. They had hammers and knives and axes.”

Then the social services helped out.

When, at school, she had finally summoned the courage to tell a teacher that her father had been beating her (she couldn’t bring herself to reveal the sexual abuse), the social services sent out a social worker from her own community. He chose not to believe Hannah and, in effect, shopped her to her father, who gave her the most brutal beating of her life. When she later confronted the social worker, he said: “It’s not right to betray your community.”

From ‘her own community’ – but which one? The one that was raping her? The one that was beating her? The one that wasn’t protecting her? The one that thinks girls and women should be beaten? The men of ‘the community’ but not the women? Notice the ‘he said’ – the social worker was not just ‘from her own community,’ he was also a man from that community. In what sense was that ‘community’ her ‘own’ community? In what sense was it not a hostile alien force that was oppressing and subordinating her through physical violence and intimidation? And why, above all, were such questions apparently not available to ‘the social services’? Why did such questions not occur to them before sending out a man from this particular ‘community’ to investigate a reported pattern of beatings? In short, why did they not know what they were doing?

‘It’s not right to betray your community’ – so that means it is right to accept beatings and furthermore that it is not right to refuse to accept them. But if that’s the case – then it’s not ‘your’ community. It’s your enemy, your boss, your tyrant, your owner, your oppressor; it’s not your ‘community.’ If you’re not permitted any recourse against violence and brutality – then there is no affiliation, there is only force. Community me no community under those circumstances. Don’t pretty things up. Don’t tell me ‘It’s not right to betray your community’; tell the truth; say ‘You’re not allowed to tell outsiders you’re being beaten, and if you do you’ll get beaten even harder.’

This is the sort of cultural sensitivity displayed by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, last year when he suggested that problems within the British Muslim community such as financial or marital disputes could be dealt with under sharia…What did Hannah, now an Anglican, think on hearing these remarks? “I was horrified.” If you could speak to him now, what would you say to the archbishop? “I would say: have you actually spoken to any ordinary Muslim women about the situation that they live in, in their communities? By putting in place these Muslim arbitration tribunals, where a woman’s witness is half that of a man, you are silencing women even more.” She believes the British government is making exactly the same mistake as Rowan Williams: “It says it talks to the Muslim community, but it’s not speaking to the women. I mean, you are always hearing Muslim men speaking out, the representatives of the big federations, but the government is not listening to Muslim women. With the sharia law situation and the Muslim arbitration tribunals, have they thought about what effect these tribunals have on Muslim women? I don’t think so.”

Because they’re still labouring under the same confusion – that a ‘community’ is homogeneous and united and dissent-free and any member of the ‘community’ is as worth talking to as any other, except in fact if the ‘community’ in question believes in subordinating and silencing women, why, it is only respectful to talk to the men and ignore the women. They have started learning better (they have talked to Maryam Namazie and Gina Khan) – but slowly, slowly.



What Scruton’s parents would have said

Mar 14th, 2009 10:53 am | By

Roger Scruton has a hilariously funny piece in The American Spectator in which he starts from the familiar conceit of comparing a Good Past with a Fallen Present, doing it by way of his parents and their sensible modest patriotic postwar humanism. It looks suspicious from the outset, given the obvious harmony between the views Scruton attributes to his parents and his own (notwithstanding the basic difference in religious belief). It looks suspicious from the outset, and it looks more suspicious as it goes on, and then there comes a moment when suspension of disbelief falls apart altogether amid snorts of laughter.

The British Humanist Association is currently running a campaign against religious faith. It has bought advertising space on our city buses, which now patrol the streets declaring that “There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life.” My parents would have been appalled at such a declaration. From a true premise, they would have said, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion.

Oh yeah? Would they? Would they really? Both of them? In chorus, would it have been? Both schooled in philosophy, were they? Both given to talking about premise and conclusion? Really? Pardon me if I decline to believe a word of it! Pardon me if I laugh raucously and conclude that Scruton is all too obviously simply inserting his own reaction into the mouths of his parents. Pardon me if I laugh at him for not noticing that he had extended his own rather lame conceit far past the point at which it could be believed. What else would they have said? From a true premise, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion, and what are these MP3 players everyone keeps talking about, and what does ‘google’ mean, and whatever happened to Lyons Corner House?

I wouldn’t mock, except that there is such an annoying tone of bullying nostalgia mixed with whining superiority throughout the piece that mockery seems only appropriate. My parents would have said this, my parents would have thought that. So what? Your parents didn’t have creeping-Jesus politicians to deal with, your parents didn’t have jihadists skipping around the landscape, your parents didn’t have ‘honour’ killings and forced marriages in every newspaper. Your parents didn’t even have Roger Scruton telling them what’s what, not in the way we do. They could afford to be less assertive about their non-theism. It doesn’t follow that we can too.

Humanists of the old school were not believers. The ability to question, to doubt, to live in perpetual uncertainty, they thought, is one of the noble endowments of the human intellect. But they respected religion and studied it for the moral and spiritual truths that could outlive the God who once promoted them.

Really? All of them? I don’t know; maybe they did. I’m not a humanist, and I don’t really know what ‘humanists of the old school’ did or didn’t respect; that’s because I don’t really know what the word ‘humanist’ means or what different people mean when they use it. Maybe it’s true that all humanists of the old school respected religion and studied it for moral truths; if so that might help to explain why I’m not a humanist. I don’t think religion is particularly good at ‘moral truths’; I think religion generally blocks or distorts clear thinking about morality.

Scruton would doubtless say that his parents would have disagreed with me.



He knows how many people are supporting him, and that gives him strength

Mar 13th, 2009 11:56 am | By

The brother of Pervez Kambakhsh is angry and upset not just for his brother but for the people of Afghanistan.

People want justice, but this shows that justice is impossible. People want fairness, not only for my brother, but for the whole of Afghanistan, because everyone is a victim of this…Last year there were protests in 15 provinces on a single day, to try to get justice for Pervez. The people who marched were marching for democracy, marching for justice, and they have been disappointed. These people are the future of Afghanistan, but they have been ignored by the people who are fighting against democracy and against human rights. They are fundamentalists…These fundamentalists have put pressure on the court. No one expected this cruel and unjust decision, and we are all in shock. When we moved the case to Kabul we thought we would get justice. We thought we could trust the courts. We thought we could trust the judges. We were wrong. There is no rule of law, not even at the Supreme Court in Kabul, so what chance have people in the provinces got?

None, it seems, at least for the present. So what can we do?

When I saw my brother yesterday he was in shock and very concerned about his safety. But he knows how many people are supporting him, and that gives him strength. It gives me strength, too.

Well we can do that, at least – we can be among the people who support him. We can do our best to give Pervez Kambakhsh and Yaqub Ibrahimi strength by supporting them.



Ancient and Fraternal Order of Hucksters

Mar 11th, 2009 12:36 pm | By

Okay, now we get the fun part. We visit the Duchy itself. We see pictures of all the pretty little tincture bottles with their mediciney-looking droppers so that you can measure out the exactly precisely correct dosage of the dandelion-tinted water and not use either too much or too little which could be fatal or seriously discomfiting. We see that the tinctures are sold exclusively in selected Boots stores and in Waitrose, and we are suitably impressed. Then (well prepared for the erudition and profundity ahead) we are allowed to read what the Prince of Wales thinks.

HRH The Prince of Wales has always been an advocate of a requirement for fundamental reappraisal of the way we view health. He believes poor health does not exist in isolation, but is in fact a direct consequence of our lifestyles, cultures, communities and how we interact with our environments. He is passionate about adopting an integrated approach to health, as well as exploring how safe, proven complementary therapies can work in conjunction with mainstream medicine.

Has he indeed; does he indeed; is he indeed. So the fuck what? Who cares what ‘HRH the prince of Wales’ thinks? (Notice how we are instructed how to address him even on a website, as if there were some danger that the rabble might come rollicking up to him shouting ‘Hey Chuck love the tincture, dude!’ Notice the pomposity even as he plays the role of the carnival barker.) Who cares what HRH has always been an advocate of and what he believes about health and what he is passionate about? Does he know anything about the subject? Does he have any degrees in the subject? If he wanted to set up shop as a doctor or a pharmacist, would he be able to, or would he immediately be busted for practicing medicine without a license?

Honest to god, the conceit and self-importance of that little paragraph really takes the proverbial biscuit. The amateur dilettante HRH has a lot of crack-brained ‘opinions’ and ‘views’ and ‘beliefs’ about health and ‘therapies’ and medicine and he apparently thinks that his membership in the ‘royal family’ somehow converts his worthless opinions into medical expertise – by alchemy perhaps. He’s so deluded by royal conceit that he thinks he’s qualified to sell ‘tinctures’ to a gullible populace. It’s staggering.

Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture is made from extracts of Artichoke and Dandelion, cleansing and purifying herbs to help support the body’s natural elimination and detoxification processes, and help maintain healthy digestion. Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture can be taken as part of a regular detox program. Globe artichoke, which has the Latin name Cynara scolymus, is a thistle-like perennial plant originating from Africa.

And dandelion is that irritating yellow thing that is always turning up in your garden, and both of them are pretty much harmless, and that’s why we decided to use them to make a ‘detox’ ‘tincture,’ since we don’t much want to actually poison people and get sued, but we do want to pretend that we are giving them something in exchange for their ten pounds, so we picked a couple of harmless weeds, and put a few drops of each in some vats of water, and put the result into tiny little bottles with medicine droppers and called them a ‘tincture.’ It could have been floor dust and potato juice just as well, except then we couldn’t have called them ‘herbal.’

It doesn’t say a word about exactly what it is in the dandelions and the artichokes that cleanses and purifies, or exactly how they ‘help support the body’s natural elimination and detoxification processes’ and ‘help maintain healthy digestion.’ It really is the most blatant, shameless, brazen flim-flammery. And this guy is the future king! He’s a ridiculous posturing quack-embracing pompous patent nostrum salesman – and he’s the future king!

He and George W Bush should form some sort of club – Shameless Sons of Nepotism or something.



A nosegay from the Vatican

Mar 11th, 2009 12:08 pm | By

Oh isn’t the Vatican just too adorable? It’s not so busy excommunicating doctors who save the lives of raped little girls by aborting their pregnancies (yes I know that was a Brazilian archbishop and not the Vatican as such, but the Vat sets the policy) that it can’t find time to exercise its puckish sense of humour and love of fun. No indeed, it makes a point of celebrating international women’s day by insulting women with an article about washing machines in l’Osservatore Romano on international Women’s Day. Hahahahahaha – that is so funny.

The Vatican newspaper says that perhaps the washing machine did more to liberate women in the 20th century than the pill or the right to work. The submission was made in a lengthy article titled “The Washing Machine and the Liberation of Women – Put in the Detergent, Close the Lid and Relax.” The article was printed at the weekend in l’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper, to mark international Women’s Day on Sunday.

Condescend much?

I saw the piece about the article at Faith in Honest Doubt, where Dale suggested that the Vatican ‘has moved past self-parody and gone straight to provoking [me] intentionally.’ It would be fun to think so, wouldn’t it?



Small correction

Mar 11th, 2009 11:58 am | By

Just one little thing, Mr President.

Mr Obama reminded everyone of his religious leanings by saying that “as a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering”.

Come on – you know better than that. Play fair. I realize you have to soothe the religious as much as possible, but don’t do it by throwing the non-religious under the bus. You know that’s silly, you know that persons of no faith can just as well believe we should or must care for each other and work to ease human suffering. Yes we say ‘should or must’ instead of ‘are called to’ – but you know the should or must can be every bit as strong and peremptory as the called to. I know you know this because you used to be an atheist yourself, and you know plenty of atheists, and you’ve worked with all sorts of people, and you’re sensible and observant. You’re not like your inattentive clueless incurious predecessor, who probably does really think that only ‘persons of faith’ have any moral sense; so do try not to talk like him.

Thanks about the stem-cell research though. Love ya, mean it.



A costly and luxurious tincture

Mar 10th, 2009 11:19 am | By

The future king is playing games with his subjects.

Prince Charles has been accused of exploiting the public in times of hardship by launching what a leading scientist calls a “dodgy” detox mix. Edzard Ernst, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, said the Duchy Originals detox tincture was based on “outright quackery”. There was no scientific evidence to show that detox products work, he said. Duchy Originals says the product is a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes”.

Notice how conveniently meaningless those claims are, yet at the same time how attractive to the gullible. A ‘natural aid to digestion’ could just mean – something you eat so therefore it ‘aids’ digestion by, you know, forcing you to digest it. ‘Supports the body’s elimination processes’ could mean the same thing – if I drink a root beer or a bottle of gin or a basin of dirty bath water that supports my body’s elimination processes in the sense that I will eventually have to pee because of the added fluids. Yet to people browsing the shelves at Waitrose in hopes of something to ‘support’ the body’s natural health-giving whatnots, that might sound like just the ticket, to the tune of £10 for a 50ml bottle.

Professor Ernst of Peninsula Medical School said Prince Charles and his advisers appeared to be deliberately ignoring science, preferring “to rely on ‘make-believe’ and superstition”.
He added: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.” Marketed as Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, the artichoke and dandelion mix is described as “a food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”…Andrew Baker, the head of Duchy Originals, said the tincture “is not – and has never been described as – a medicine, remedy or cure for any disease.

No, because they were careful; they kept deniability; which is very unattractive of them. It seems to hint that they know it’s worthless, and word their claims carefully so as not to get the future monarch charged with false advertising, yet still persuade the persuadable to buy the expensive ‘tincture.’

Professor Ernst said the suggestion that such products remove toxins from the body was “implausible, unproven and dangerous”. “Nothing would, of course, be easier than to demonstrate that detox products work. All one needed to do is to take a few blood samples from volunteers and test whether this or that toxin is eliminated from the body faster than normal,” he said. “But where are the studies that demonstrate efficacy? They do not exist, and the reason is simple: these products have no real detoxification effects.”

Wellllllll – they don’t actually prevent detoxification, as far as the Duchy knows, so that makes it fair enough to say they aid it. Surely? Be a sport! Say yes!

I was at Whole Foods a few days ago, and found that they are in the business too – they had bottles of something called ‘Urban Detox’ on sale for something like $4.95 for four not-large bottles. Cheaper than the Prince’s stuff though, plus Whole Foods isn’t the heir to the throne.



Thy hand, great Censor, lets the curtain fall

Mar 9th, 2009 11:31 am | By

Here’s a funny thing – there’s this old thread at Talking Philosophy, so old that it’s dated January 8 2008, so old that I’d entirely forgotten it. More than a year old. Long time ago. I found it because I googled ‘Bernie Ranson,’ and I googled ‘Bernie Ranson’ because that was the name on an email message sent to one of my correspondents by what I had thought was a new and unfamiliar troll named Kees but turns out to be a troll I have encountered at least once before, on this old thread at Talking Philosophy. His MO is a little different there, at least at first – which is revealing, because it means he could have done a better job here, but chose not to.

Anyway, there’s an interesting note of obsessiveness about the whole thing – about the two threads taken together. Well ‘interesting’ isn’t quite the right word. ‘Peculiar’; maybe that’s what I mean.

It’s noteworthy (or something) that in January 2008 and in the past week, I took ‘Bernie Ranson’/'Kees’ to task for telling me and others that we were lying – it’s noteworthy that his approach is very consistent in that way (and in others, too).

One substantive issue at the end of the recent encounter was whether it is consistent to defend the right to free speech and also delete comments on a website. Yes, of course it is. I publish this web site: publishers don’t publish everything they are offered, they are selective; I select what I publish here; that includes comments. I don’t delete or edit comments very often – but that is because I don’t need to. Most comments here are good, and worth reading and engaging with, so I don’t do anything to them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do anything to cause them to happen. Comments here are good because B&W attracts people who make good comments, and B&W does that because it has good content, and B&W has good content because I select it. Obviously I select it. B&W has a subject matter, and a tendency, and a set of commitments, and its content reflects all that. The pope doesn’t write for B&W, nor does Robert Mugabe, nor does Ann Coulter, nor does Tariq Ramadan. That’s not censorship, it’s selection.

I thought you’d like to know that.



If everyone felt free

Mar 9th, 2009 10:36 am | By

Ian Buruma is ringing the same old bell.

In civilised life, people refrain from saying many things, regardless of questions of legality…Mocking the ways and beliefs of minorities is not quite the same thing as taking on the cherished habits and views of majorities…[C]ivilised life, especially in countries with great ethnic and religious diversity, would soon break down if everyone felt free to say anything they liked to anyone.

So…what he appears to be hinting, albeit very cautiously, not to say evasively, not to say timorously, is that everyone should not feel free to mock the beliefs of minorities; in other words, everyone should not feel free to satirize or cartoonize or tell jokes about Islam, because where Ian Buruma is sitting Islam fits one definition of ‘beliefs of minorities,’ although of course in many other places in the world it constitutes beliefs of the majority and is often in fact legally imposed rather than freely offered. In other words Buruma is being, as usual, rather fatuously parochial (which is odd, because he’s not really parochial at all) about what is a minority and in what sense Islam can be considered ‘vulnerable’ in the way minorities can be vulnerable. In other, other words, he’s urging (again) special sensitivity about and protection for a very demanding coercive intrusive and often punitive religion, which has state power behind it in many countries on the planet, on the grounds that in some other countries on the planet it is a minority belief. Frankly I think that’s a bad and dangerous idea. We don’t think that way about Nazis, or Westboro Baptists, so why should we think it about any minority? I don’t think we should, and I think Buruma is woolly and mistaken.



Moral squalor

Mar 7th, 2009 11:58 am | By

The Vatican demonstrates its moral ugliness again.

A senior Vatican cleric has defended the excommunication in Brazil of the mother and doctors of a young girl who had an abortion with their help…Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told Italian paper La Stampa that the twins “had the right to live” and attacks on Brazil’s Catholic Church were unfair…Cardinal Re, who heads the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, told La Stampa that the archbishop had been right to excommunicate the mother and doctors. “It is a sad case but the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated,” he said. “Life must always be protected, the attack on the Brazilian Church is unjustified.”

‘The twins’ did not yet exist as such; they were not yet persons, innocent or guilty; and their continued development inside a nine-year-old child would have been lethal to that child. That of course is obvious to rational observers, but to people who make a virtue of thinking that ‘the law’ of an invisible absent unaccountable god who doesn’t exist is ‘above’ that of the human beings who have to survive and function as best they can, it is so beside the point that it can be ignored. There’s a real child who has been horribly damaged, and the church in its wisdom wants to damage her further and end up by killing her – for the sake of ‘twins’ who don’t even exist yet. It’s classic theocracy, in a way – ignore the real needs of real people for the sake of purely notional needs of embryos or breathing corpses. Ignore the real world and focus on imaginary beings and imaginary scruples – and then bleat that it’s ‘unfair’ when the victims resist. Classic.



Say what you like provided you respect beliefs

Mar 7th, 2009 11:02 am | By

Hitchens ponders the UN resolution ‘Combating defamation of religions.’

Paragraph 5 “expresses its deep concern that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism,” while Paragraph 6 “[n]otes with deep concern the intensification of the campaign of defamation of religions and the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities in the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001.”…In Paragraph 6, an obvious attempt is being made to confuse ethnicity with confessional allegiance. Indeed this insinuation (incidentally dismissing the faith-based criminality of 9/11 as merely “tragic”) is in fact essential to the entire scheme. If religion and race can be run together, then the condemnations that racism axiomatically attracts can be surreptitiously extended to religion, too. This is clumsy, but it works: The useless and meaningless term Islamophobia, now widely used as a bludgeon of moral blackmail, is testimony to its success.

Well maybe we should try the same tactic then. Maybe we should start complaining about atheophobia and secularophobia and rightsophobia. Catchy? No?

[T]he U.N. resolution seeks to extend the whole area of denial from its existing homeland in the Islamic world into the heartland of post-Enlightenment democracy where it is still individuals who have rights, not religions. See where the language of Paragraph 10 of the resolution is taking us. Having briefly offered lip service to the rights of free expression, it goes on to say that “the exercise of these rights carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations as are provided for by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals and respect for religions and beliefs.” The thought buried in this awful, wooden prose is as ugly as the language in which it is expressed: Watch what you say, because our declared intention is to criminalize opinions that differ with the one true faith.

Yes, and furthermore, note carefully that rights of free expression which are subject to limitations as are provided for by law and are necessary for respect for religions and beliefs are not rights of free expression at all. That last phrase simply makes a nonsense of the very idea. A right of free expression that is subject to limitation by respect for religions and beliefs is a thoroughgoing oxymoron.



Upon this rock

Mar 6th, 2009 11:42 am | By

Why do I frown on Blair’s adult-onset Catholicism? Why do I think it’s reprehensible for informed adults to join the Catholic church? Because the Catholic church is a reactionary cruel woman-hating bullying organization run by men and based on mythology, that’s why. If you join the Catholic church as a reasoning adult, then you are signing up to and endorsing that organization, just as if you joined a neo-Nazi party or the Taliban or any other organization. It makes no sense to disagree with many of its most vehement and public positions and yet join it anyway. Jimmy Carter, to his credit, left The Southern Baptist Convention when it announced a new woman-subordinating stance; if he gets credit for that then Blair gets uncredit for joining the unregenerate Church of Peter.

A Brazilian archbishop says all those who helped a child rape victim secure an abortion are to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The girl, aged nine, who lives in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, became pregnant with twins. It is alleged that she had been sexually assaulted over a number of years by her stepfather.

And in any case she was sexually assaulted by someone, because she’s pregnant, and nine-year-olds can’t give meaningful consent to sex, much less to pregnancy and motherhood.

The Catholic Church tried to intervene to prevent the abortion going ahead but the procedure was carried out on Wednesday…The Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, told Brazil’s TV Globo that the law of God was above any human law…However, doctors at the hospital said they had to take account of the welfare of the girl, and that she was so small that her uterus did not have the ability to contain one child let alone two.

So the archbishop thinks that ‘God’ wants a young girl who was used as a sex toy to bear twins despite the fact that her body is too small to make the attempt safely – so the archbishop thinks ‘God’ is a moral monster. Well I tend to agree with him, but that’s why I think human law is not ‘above’ but better and also a great deal safer than the putative law of God. The archbishop of course does not know what ‘the law of God’ is or might be if there is such a thing; he merely pretends to, and then pretends that his own pretence is ‘above’ human realism and reflection.

Grown-up reasonable people have no business joining such an outfit. In fact they ought to be leaving it in disgust, not stumbling along to join it.



Opinion polling 101

Mar 5th, 2009 11:44 am | By

The BHA is critical of a survey by Theos because the wording of the questions is a tad peculiar.

The survey first asked whether respondents believed in “theistic evolution”. This was confusingly defined as “the idea that evolution is the means that God used for the creation of all living things on earth.” The survey then asked whether respondents believed in “atheistic evolution”, again reflexively defined as “the idea that evolution makes belief in God unnecessary and absurd.”

Yes, that’s pretty obviously tendentious. It’s amusing to remember, though, that some observers have thought the BHA’s own polling wasn’t entirely up to the best standards.

(Last link fixed!)



Happening to

Mar 5th, 2009 10:59 am | By

Tony Blair seems very confused.

In an interview published in the Church of England Newspaper , Mr Blair said: “Sometimes I think we as Christians are more sensitive than we should be although I say that as someone who when I was in office, although I was perfectly open about my Christianity, nonetheless kept it within certain boundaries that were restricted in terms of what I said publicly. The position of prime minister puts you in a unique category. But in general terms in British society there is a risk that people see faith as a personal eccentricity.”

But if faith is not in some sense ‘a personal eccentricity’ then why did Blair keep his Christianity ‘within certain boundaries’? If Christianity is a perfectly ordinary set of beliefs, with no hint of the irrational or the illusory or the wishful about them, then why is there any need for boundaries that are restricted in terms of what a PM says publicly? In other words, is not the perceived need for boundaries there because ‘faith’ is what it is – is belief in the absence of or in defiance of evidence? Yet Blair dances around that rather obvious fact.

“I hope and believe that stories of people not being allowed to express their Christianity are exceptional or the result of individual ludicrous decisions. My view is that people should be proud of their Christianity and able to express it as they wish.” He admitted that conflict is “inevitable” between traditional religions and the new liberal doctrine of human rights. But he went on: “The real test of a religion is whether in an age of aggressive secularism it has the confidence to go out and make its case by persuasion.” Mr Blair disclosed, however, that while prime minister he believed equality and diversity were more important than religion in the case of the Catholic adoption agencies, who failed in their bid to be exempted from laws requiring them to consider homosexual couples as potential parents. “I happen to take the gay rights position,” he said.

Does he really mean he simply ‘happens’ to take the gay rights position? Is he saying he doesn’t take it for reasons? Is he saying it’s not a principled view but just a quirk or a matter of taste, as if gay rights were butterscotch or plaid or Mozart? He is saying that, whether he would stand by it or not – that is, he put it that way in order to skirt the obvious problem that his position is the opposite of the Catholic church’s position and yet he is now a Catholic. He attempted to duck the issue by using a weasel word. He did that presumably because he doesn’t want to address the fact that the Church he just joined has bad nasty retrograde views on various human rights. This is not impressive. It’s also decidedly distasteful in the context of a snide remark about ‘aggressive secularism.’ If it weren’t for ‘aggressive secularism’ we wouldn’t have gay rights, and if it weren’t for aggressive theocracy we wouldn’t keep having to fight rearguard actions against the enemies of gay rights and women’s rights and rights to free thought and speech. It is unbecoming for a Labour recently-ex Prime Minister to blow that off with a ‘happen to.’



Lentils

Mar 4th, 2009 11:23 am | By

It’s interesting to notice how hard it is to think without thinking morally. I suppose it can be done, but one would have to be ruthlessly, dedicatedly, vigilantly selfish and solipsistic. Psychopaths can do that, by definition, but it must be very difficult for everyone else. (Autistic people are another exception but autism is a disability, so that’s a separate issue.) We think with our emotions, as Antonio Damasio has helped to make even clearer than it was before; most of our emotions are related to attraction or aversion; once we become aware, at about age 4, that other people have minds just as we do, we understand that other people have likes and dislikes just as we do. This means that we start to learn very early in life that which we need to know in order to think morally. It is possible to avoid or delay or enfeeble this learning process – but it’s not easy. If our parents and siblings don’t teach us, then other people do, sooner or later. We have to be very dense not to understand that if we hurt people, they don’t like it, and we have to be very callous not to eventually get to the thought that we ought not to do things to people that they don’t like.

Of course, after that there is the challenging and stimulating process of rationalizing our desires to hurt or damage or hinder people. It’s hard to be entirely solipsistic, but it’s easy to come up with reasons to explain why certain people must be subordinated or exploited or enslaved or raped or tortured or killed or all those. One quick and easy method is just to invoke a deity – ‘God says so.’ Custom, tradition, our people, the tribe, the nation can serve the same purpose. Secular liberals who oppose subordination and slavery and torture don’t have it so easy – we have to come up with something better than a one or two word label for our moral reasons. This takes awhile, and a number of words; this fact often leads observers to think that secular liberals have a weaker case than theists and traditionalists do. That’s wrong. Theists and traditionalists are the ones who have the weaker case; ‘God says so’ and ‘we have always done it this way’ are worthless reasons for doing anything. But fortunately we are not cats or wolves; we can decide to eat lentils instead of animals and we can spend time and words explaining why cruelty is bad.



Ah but who decides what ‘murder’ is?

Mar 3rd, 2009 10:41 am | By

We’ve been visited lately by someone who has (by his own admission) only just realized that different cultures have different moralities, and who has drawn sweeping conclusions from that fact, which he offers to us as if we had never heard that different cultures have different moralities. This is unenlightening and uninteresting – but the larger subject is interesting.

An irony in this is that part of his claim (entangled though it is in overgeneralization, oversimplification, rhetoric, and confusion) is one that I’ve talked about here more than once. It is true that there is a popular claim that ‘we all agree’ or ‘we can all agree’ on certain basics about morality. I think that claim is dead wrong, and often dangerous (because it can lead to such total confusion about what is going on). It may be true that ‘we can all agree’ on certain forms of words – but that doesn’t mean we agree on the moral substance, because the words can always mean different things, and they often do. For example: it might well be possible to get everyone around an imagined global conference table to agree that murder is wrong, but that just moves the issue back (or forward) a step, because people can always define murder in such a way that it doesn’t include the particular killing they want to do. This move works on all sorts of things. Rape doesn’t include husbands forcing sex on their wives, or soldiers forcing sex on ‘rebels’ or ‘the enemy’ or ‘traitors’ or whatever word is needed to make the object deserving of the subject’s action. That is all it takes to make an otherwise prohibited action perfectly acceptable or indeed meritorious.

Irshad Manji talks about this* with respect to a much-cited Koranic verse that repudiates killing – with a much less-cited proviso ‘except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land.’ ‘Other villainy’ covers a lot of territory; it covers pretty much anything an aspirant killer might want it to cover.

Another version we often see is the remarkably fatuous assumption that people who commit ‘honour’ murders of daughters or wives or sisters ‘loved’ them despite murdering them. This is just a way of redescribing reality so that it’s a little bit consoling. Yes, he strangled his own teenage daughter because she didn’t want to wear hijab, but he loved her all the same. No, because if he had loved her, her life would have been a great deal more important to him than whether or not she wore hijab. Beware of the consoling lie, because it trains us to accept horrors.

People disagree about morality, and pious platitudes about all agreeing on the basics are just wrong. But it doesn’t follow from that, and it isn’t true, that nothing is better or worse than anything else, or that there is no way to choose among competing moralities, or that there is nothing to say about morality, or that it is possible to stand outside morality. Morality is a forced choice for anyone who acts in the world, which means all of us who are not comatose. We have to act in order to live, and acting means making moral choices all the time. We have to make them whether we want to or not. That being the case, it is as well to think carefully about them.

*As I’ve mentioned before, more than once; excuse the repetition, but things keep coming up, you know.



Life in Kabul, again

Mar 2nd, 2009 11:51 am | By

Paween Mushtakhel loved acting, and was very successful at it; now she wishes she had never discovered the stage.

In December her husband was murdered by unknown gunmen outside their home after defying months of telephone warnings to stop his wife appearing on television. “I killed my husband with my acting,” [she] says…She has spent the past three months in hiding, fearful for her life and those of her two young children. Her only option, she says, is to flee the country. She is not alone. There is an unease bordering on dread among many working women as the restrictions of the Taleban era begin to encroach again on the relative liberalism of Afghanistan’s cities. “The atmosphere has changed,” she said. “Day by day women can work less and less.”

Well god hates women, after all, so what do you expect.

Mushtakhel reels off a list of high-risk professions for Afghan women: serving in parliament, working for foreign aid agencies, journalism, medicine, teaching, performing as an actress, singer or dancer. The Taleban justifies its attacks on such women by alleging that they are a cover for immoral acts and prostitution. Western employers and managers concur privately that women Afghan employees have begun to resign rather face the risks…The murder of Afghanistan’s most celebrated female police officer, Malalai Kakar, in September was a grim milestone. It was followed by a stream of killings of women journalists, teachers and workers, including four Western female aid workers in the past year.

All in the name of justice, compassion and mercy, no doubt.