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.

There are only three things the guys let you be

Apr 18th, 2009 5:47 pm | By

It’s a pig’s life for women in the US military.

According to several studies of the US military funded by the Department of Veteran Affairs, 30% of military women are raped while serving, 71% are sexually assaulted, and 90% are sexually harassed. The Department of Defense acknowledges the problem, estimating in its 2009 annual report on sexual assault (issued last month) that some 90% of military sexual assaults are never reported.

Well yes but don’t forget, women are privileged, the bitches.

I was the only female in my platoon of 50 to 60 men. I was also the youngest, 17. Because I was the only female, men would forget in front of me and say these terrible derogatory things about women all the time. I had to hear these things every day. I’d have to say ‘Hey!’ Then they’d look at me, all surprised, and say, ‘Oh we don’t mean you.’

Hm. I wonder if they ever referred to women as cunts. Ya think?

There are only three things the guys let you be if you’re a girl in the military – a bitch, a ho, or a dyke. You’re a bitch if you won’t sleep with them. A ho if you’ve even got one boyfriend. A dyke if they don’t like you. So you can’t win.

Oh well, those are just words, they don’t matter.

Ask the chaplain

Apr 18th, 2009 5:36 pm | By

Talk Islam obligingly posted the whole of Chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser’s email message on apostasy. He starts off by laying down some ground rules.

While I understand that will happen and that there is some benefit in them, in the main, it would be better if people were to withhold from debating such things, since they tend not to have the requisite familiarity with issues and competence to deal with them. Debating about religious matter is impermissible, in general, and people rarely observe the etiquette of disagreements.

But this is an issue that necessarily is of pressing interest to all Muslims. They have a natural desire to know if they are to be killed or not if they should ever decide to leave Islam. Therefore it is only natural that they should want to know about it, and if they learn something they don’t altogether like, to argue about it. It seems more than a little unfair to say that that is impermissible. It would be like telling Americans that it is impermissible for us to debate about capital punishment, when we could be subject to it. In the US it is not impermissible to debate about capital punishment.

The preponderant position in all of the 4 sunni madhahib (and apparently others of the remaining eight according to one contemporary `alim) is that the verdict is capital punishment. Of concern for us is that this can only occur in the domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority and can not be performed by non-state, private actors.

Of concern for us? Meaning that capital punishment for leaving Islam is not of concern if it is in the domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority? Why’s that then? Because Abdul-Basser and the people he’s talking to are all outside that domain and supervision and thus don’t have to worry about it? Well, if so, that’s rather callous. In fact it’s worse than callous: it’s complicit and callous. What it means is that Abdul-Basser is adhering to a religion that kills people who leave it when it has state power, while staying out of reach of such power himself. If he in fact is happy to be safe while still defending the religion that executes other, distant people simply for changing their religion – he’s a nasty man.

Maybe that’s not what he meant. But that is what it looks like.

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically. And Allah knows best.

Ah; well that’s consoling. As long as Allah knows best, and everybody knows what Allah wants (but do they? how? how do we know? how do they know? how does anyone know? if everybody knows why does anybody have to ask Abdul-Basser? if anyone doesn’t know then how does everyone know that someone knows and who that is and how to know who it is?) then being killed for changing your religion is no problem. That’s a relief.

The atheists had it coming

Apr 17th, 2009 5:30 pm | By

Hmm…I hope Julian isn’t permanently joining the tedious chorus of people shouting at ‘new’ atheists to shut up. It’s not a very glorious vocation.

Intelligent atheism rejects what is false in religion, but should retain an interest in what is true about it. I don’t think many of my fellow atheists would disagree.

I would – depending on what is meant by ‘what is true about it.’ I don’t think anything is true about it, if we mean factually true. If we mean something much looser by ‘true’ such as ‘having some good things to say about compassion or peace’ then I don’t think religion has anything to offer that is inherent to religion as opposed to simply widely-shared moral intuitions, so again, I don’t really think there is anything true about it (about it alone, to the exclusion of other ways of thinking). If I want wisdom about morality or justice I don’t turn to clerics. There are other sources, who are less encumbered by beliefs that need to be protected.

Why is it, then, that we are increasingly seen as shrill, bishop-bashing fanatics who are tone deaf to the spiritual?

Because people like Matthew Nisbet and Madeleine Bunting and now, alas, you, keep writing pieces that call us shrill, bishop-bashing fanatics who are tone deaf to the spiritual, that’s why. Or at least that sure as hell is part of why. It’s a drum that a number of people have been banging on with frenzied energy – Chris Hedges comes to mind – for two or three years now; obviously it’s had an effect! So it’s a little disingenuous to ask such a question while engaged in yet more of the same thing. Why is it that we are seen as shrill fanatics, Julian asks, while engaged in the 40 thousandth piece calling us shrill fanatics.

The answer, I fear, is to be found in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” In short, we had it coming.

Really – for what crime? For not being quiet enough? For not being evasive enough?

Last week, in these pages, Madeleine Bunting spoke for many when she complained about the “foghorn volume” and “evangelical fervour” of the New Atheists, with their “contempt for religion”…Atheists who criticised the details of Bunting’s argument missed the point. What it revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature.

He says, doing his bit to re-enforce it that little bit more.

You can’t publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.

You also can’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) set about scolding books with titles like The God Delusion and God is Not Great when you are on record as not having read them, and you also shouldn’t scold people for titles (The Root of all Evil?) that other people chose for them and that they are on record as detesting. That’s unfair, frankly. We mentioned this to Julian last time…

Perhaps a period of New Atheist exuberance was necessary. At least it got people thinking, although I fear it has confirmed every negative stereotype about it. We now need to turn down the volume and engage in a real conversation about what of value is left of religion once its crude superstitions are swept away.

But there again – not having read the books, how can Julian know that the volume is up? How can he know that the ‘new’ atheist books don’t engage in a real conversation about what of value is left of religion?

PZ is also skeptical, and so is Jason Rosenhouse.

A paradigm

Apr 17th, 2009 12:36 pm | By

No no, I’m not starting it up again, I just want to offer a little illustration of what I’ve been saying, which is that the (putative) fact that ‘cunt’ does not refer to women and is not an insulting epithet for women in the UK does not mean that that description holds everywhere. I consulted Google blog search, and one of the first items was a rather truculent San Francisco blog

This Just In: Jeanene Garofalo is a CUNT

Ugly, bitter, has-been Jeanene Garofalo spews more racist hatred on Olbermann.

Bitch still thinks she’s funny. But I guess we can remove the “still” – seeing that she was never funny.

What motivates a person like Garofalo to scream “racist” at anyone who dares object to her God Obama?

I trust I don’t have to convince anyone that that post conveys more than a whiff of misogyny?

I certainly hope I don’t.

The hegemonic modern human rights discourse

Apr 16th, 2009 6:23 pm | By

Harvard has an ‘Islamic chaplain’. Lucky Harvard.

Harvard Islamic chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser ’96 has recently come under fire for controversial statements in which he allegedly endorsed death as a punishment for Islamic apostates. In a private e-mail to a student last week, Abdul-Basser wrote that there was “great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment [for apostates]) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand.”

Oooooookay, isn’t that interesting. One shouldn’t dismiss out of hand the idea that apostates from Islam should be executed, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse. So Harvard has a chaplain who not only quasi-approves (or perhaps fully approves, who knows) death for apostasy, it has one who is disdainful (in a Theoretical kind of way) of human rights. Harvard has a chaplain who not only thinks that perhaps it is ‘wisdom’ to kill people for leaving a religion, but also thinks killing people for leaving a religion is better than human rights. He doesn’t think, then, that people have or should have a human right to leave a religion without being killed for doing so. Harvard has a chaplain of this description. Isn’t that fascinating.

It’s good, under the circumstances, to see that students have no fear about speaking up.

“I believe he doesn’t belong as the official chaplain,” said one Islamic student, who asked that he not be named to avoid conflicts with Muslim religious authorities…“[His remarks] are the first step towards inciting intolerance and inciting people towards violence,” said a Muslim Harvard student, who requested that he not be named for fear of harming his relationship with the Islamic community…A Muslim student at MIT, who also asked to remain anonymous to preserve his relationship with the Islamic community, said the chaplain’s remarks wrongly suggested that only Westerners and Westernized Muslims who did not fully understand Islam would find the killing of apostates objectionable.

Spot on, Muslim student at MIT; that’s exactly what the chaplain’s remarks suggest, insultingly enough. But how sad it is that these students want to preserve their relationship with a ‘community’ that they think might disagree with them about this. How sad that their ‘community’ might agree with Abdul-Basser, and might shun the students for not agreeing with him. How depressing it all is.

Alors, ça suffit maintenant

Apr 15th, 2009 5:16 pm | By

One or two more items, by way of mopping up. (And just in case there is any doubt on the matter, as apparently there was for at least one commenter: no I don’t think the importance of the subject is in proportion to the time I’ve spent on it; no the fact that I’ve done several posts on it doesn’t mean that I think words are more important than, say, marrying a child of 8 to a man 52 years her senior. I’m just interested; and there is a lot of disagreement and a lot of testimony. I’m interested in language – this is not a big surprise, surely; one of the first things I did with B&W was to start the Fashionable Dictionary. I write about what interests me, in the full faith and confidence that if any reader or readers find a particular post boring, they will know they don’t have to read it. There’s no exam, there’s no exit question, nobody has to read any of this.)

Jeremy told me an anecdote last week. He (you may or may not know) is from London, now lives in Toronto.

“I was at soccer, and some guy on the opposing team was acting the tough guy, and I said something like – “You couldn’t hurt pussy, mate”, which to a UK person kind of makes sense (it just means you couldn’t hurt a small furry animal – though I think I picked it up from my father, so it isn’t something that many people say).

Anyway, there were gasps all around, and someone on my own team said:

“What did you just say!?”

Of course, I’d just said something that (a) was just very bizarre – suggesting a penchant for sexual violence or something; and (b) probably a violation of numerous taboos. Luckily, people guessed that in the UK it didn’t mean what it means here, so I escaped with my life. But it was a close thing!”

So apparently in Toronto it’s risky to assume it means kitty-cat.

But then you move farther east…He told me this yesterday:

“Strange thing. I mentioned this stuff to a Canadian woman tonight (born here), she said that hearing ‘pussy’, even as an insult, she would only really think of cats. She’s aware of the female genital meaning, of course, but denied it would be what came to mind.

When I expressed surprise, she claimed that there’s a difference between the way in which people in the Maritime provinces – where she was brought up – understand this stuff and people in the rest of Canada. It’s less Americanized (so she said).”

Another friend of mine, who has emigrated the other way – from California to Surrey – made this point, after discussing the oddity of ‘how gay’:

“I’m away or I’d look up some quotes about how words ‘chime’, they carry overtones of meaning because they mean more than one thing. In essence, if you know multiple meanings of ‘gay’, then you cannot mention one without invoking the overtones of the other.”

That’s a crucial point, I think. After this discussion I might not go so far as to say you can’t (if only because I’m so sick of Adam yelling at me), but I would at least say that you should realize the possibility is always there.

That’s not even very controversial, is it? Aren’t there quite a few words (like tea-bagging!) that have overtones one doesn’t always want to invoke? Don’t we all know that? Don’t we hesitate over certain words? I think we do, and I don’t think this is particularly different.

And then there’s some just plain stupidity. From the comments:

Look, I can call another bloke a twat just as I can call a girl a prick and neither have any more significant meaning when the terms are reversed. I think you’re just being a massive prude with this whole sexist epithet thing.

It’s got nothing to do with prudery – that’s just a category mistake. It’s not about swearing, it’s not about obscenity, it’s not about blasphemy, it’s not about genitalia as such, it’s about epithets; name-calling; pejoratives. That’s a different subject.

And then just to top it all off we get a guy wondering if women are really all that badly treated – and then I lose my temper. Yes – women are all that badly treated. I’m not, of course, but I’m fortunate; women in Uganda and Pakistan and DR Congo and Nicaragua and Saudi Arabia and a lot of other places are not. Do me a favour: don’t play ‘comparative oppression’ with me. I’m not in the mood.

Welcome to austerity

Apr 15th, 2009 11:59 am | By

Saudi Arabia has seen the error of its ways. Or perhaps not.

Saudi Arabia says it plans to start regulating the marriage of young girls, amid controversy over a union between a 60-year-old man and a girl of eight. A court in Unaiza upheld the marriage on condition the groom does not have sex with her until she reaches puberty.

Oh good; because the only problem with marrying a child of 8 to a man of 60 is of course that she won’t much want him to fuck her, yet. There is no other problem. No problem with ending her schooling, no problem with her having to live with (and under the rule of) a man more than seven times older than she is, a man old enough to be her great-great-grandfather, a man she didn’t know and didn’t ask to marry, a man with whom she can be assumed to have absolutely nothing in common. No problem with consigning her to what amounts to a long prison sentence when she is too young to have committed a crime by any sane legal definition. No problem with deciding her life before she is anywhere near old enough to think about it herself. No problem with turning her into a wife when she is all of two years older than Sasha Obama and should be playing with a puppy rather than obeying some horrible old bastard who thinks himself entitled to marry a child.

Saudi Arabia implements an austere form of Sunni Islam that bans free association between the sexes and gives fathers the right to wed their children to whomever they deem fit.

That’s a stupid word for it – ‘austere.’ Typical BBC mealy-mouthing. What’s austere got to do with it? Where does austerity come in? It’s not austere, it’s harsh and punitive and degrading and cruel. What is ‘austere’ about making a small child marry an adult seven times her age? What is the luxury or hedonism or voluptuousness that that is the antidote to? The wallowing sybaritic indulgence of going on being a child, and going to school, and not being married to some old goat? Is that it? If so, what about the old goat then? Is he being ‘austere’ by marrying a child too young to cross the street by herself? That doesn’t sound like austerity to me. Greedy, ruthless, piggish, hard as nails, yes; austere, no.

Empty signs

Apr 13th, 2009 12:22 pm | By

I wrote to the women’s studies list yesterday to ask for thoughts on sexist epithets, especially pussy and cunt. Here is a sampling from replies.

“Recently, I was standing at the bus stop with a young man who was singing along to rap music. Suddenly, he yelled “Bitch!” and I almost ran for cover. But he was just singing along to the music. Can anyone wonder why young women are treated so badly when the music kids listen to describes them as bitches, evil, and mean?”

“I’m not sure who your informants are but I can absolutely disabuse you of their misinformation. “Cunt” is seen as one of the worst possible expletives that can be used. “Twat” is aged and falling out of fashion currently. “Pussy” has a little ambiguity as (now very old) comedies occassionaly play on the dual usages as a colloquial for cat and for genitalia. I’d be surprised to see any evidence that the meaning of these words isn’t known – what evidence do your informants proffer for that view?

In my opinion is it explicitly sexist but for slightly different reasons – its implication is that the worst possible thing is to be penetrated and that penetration is a sign of weakness in that instance. It relies on a belief that penetration is synonymous with strength and masculinity and to be penetrable is a sign of weakness. It also (certainly in the UK) is often used in the trope which asserts that female genitalia are dirty and smelly.” [That one is from someone at Oxford, so she's not clueless about UK usage.]

“I had a discussion about “pussy” in my psych of women class recently, and the students insisted that when Jon Stewart and others use the word they mean “weak as a kitten.” Of course, that is sexist, especially when men apply it to each other to suggest they are not macho enough. But I think they are wrong in their understanding.”

Katha Pollitt refused to believe that the British are ignorant of the word ‘cunt.’ Well I sympathize, I can’t believe it either, and yet people insist – not quite exactly that they’re ignorant of the meaning, but that that’s no longer what the word means. In particular John Meredith in comments on Knowing what words mean.

“‘Slag’ is, nearly always, a sexist term…It means a woman who is disgusting by dint of having more sex than is approved. It is sexist because it can only be applied to women and evinces disgust simply because she is a woman and behaves like one. But ‘cunt’ which can really only be applied to men, just means (in its sweary sense) ‘bastard’ and does not imply any hostility towards women as women, so is not sexist. It is an empty sign, really, that just indicates ‘I feel extreme hostility towards you to the degree that I will use a taboo word for you’. The word itself could be one of dozens used pretty much interchangeably.”

I find that completely incomprehensible, and hard to believe. Just for one thing, why is the word taboo if it’s an empty sign? What is it that makes the word taboo if it is just an empty sign? What are the dozens of other words that could be used interchangeably? I don’t think there’s even one, let alone dozens. As far as I know, cunt is right at the top of the heap of Bad Words to call someone, and it is there because it is the most vicious hate-filled word for the female genitalia, while ‘pussy’ is a little less vicious and ‘twat’ is comparatively mild.

But there’s also a thread on Shiraz Socialist:

The word “cunt” is a highly effective insult precisely because of its shock value – nothing is more guaranteed to upset the secretary of the local WI than such a word. It’s no more endemically “oppressive” than any other word, the point is the context in which it is used. As Rosie said, it’s simply nonsense to claim that most people who use the word these days are referring to female genitalia, any more than when they call someone “posh” they are referring to Port Out Starboard Home. When they use the word “cunt”, they just mean that they really really disapprove of or dislike the individual to whom they’re referring. Like the word, dislike it, use it or don’t – I should care. But don’t invent a hierarchy of oppression amongst swear-words which is simply a false excuse for some left-wing version of parochial moralism.

I don’t buy it. If the word has shock value, then the shock value comes from somewhere. If the shock value comes from somewhere, where does it come from? I submit that it comes from the fact that it is a word that 1) equates women to their genitals and 2) expresses hatred for both. If that’s not where the shock value comes from, then where does it come from?

More later.

Here kitty kitty kitty kitty

Apr 11th, 2009 6:14 pm | By

Out of curiosity, since Jean told us Jon Stewart did a segment playing off the word ‘pussy,’ I googled his name and ‘pussy’ – and got a lot of hits, most of them not about that segment. They don’t support the ‘pussy just means kittycat’ view.

For instance:

You already know my feelings on Stewart, particularly after that notorious appearance on Crossfire – but you’re being much to kind to call him a wimp, I’ve always felt that he’s a big pussy, period.

Wimp is too nice, you see; Stewart is worse than that; he’s a big pussy.

For another example:

Thank you to the team at Josh Marshall’s liberal TPM blog for putting together this lovely clip of Cramer desperately stomping around various NBC studios, finding any and all operational cameras, and yelling at them about how Jon Stewart is a sack of shit. In one of these episodes, Joe Scarborough gets in on the act! They talk about how Jon Stewart is dishonest, mean, personal, a cherry-picker, an idiot, and a pussy.

I detect a pattern; do you? It looks to me as if tough-guy liberal-hating right-wing types love the word and fling it around like confetti because it means everything they hate about liberals – which is that liberals are weak, cowardly, sentimental, cowardly, manipulative, cowardly, and just all around generally like women. Which fits exactly with that comment about Mo, and doesn’t sound at all like cats or like sweet fluffy cuddly animals.

Trickery at sea

Apr 11th, 2009 5:43 pm | By

An interesting bit of moral idiocy:

[T]he Somali pirate commander warned against any forcible intervention. “I’m afraid this matter is likely to create disaster because it is taking too long and we are getting information that the Americans are planning rescue tricks like the French commandos did,” Abdi Garad said.

Tricks. That’s good, isn’t it? People attempting to rescue a guy being forcibly held by heavily armed thieves are accused by the thieves of planning ‘tricks.’ The pirates inform all parties a week in advance that they will be seizing their ships and threatening their lives, do they? All open and aboveboard? All strictly according to Hoyle?


How do you know?

Apr 11th, 2009 5:35 pm | By

Russell Blackford makes an important point:

[I]t’s become increasingly apparent to me, partly from the Voices of Disbelief exercise, that many people in the bioethics community are fed up with the never-ending resistance from religionists to rational bioethics. Some of them are asking what credentials religion has anyway. Religious leaders are, of course, able to put their arguments in public, like anyone else. But they cannot expect anyone to defer to them if they rely on controversial religious claims…I suggest that religious leaders should be free to put their arguments, but if the arguments depend on doctrines such as ensoulment, the views of God, the sanctity of the natural order, and so on, these popes and priests should not expect to wield any influence. Those are not the sorts of worldly concerns that should influence government policy. But there’s a further twist. If religious leaders insist that it’s legitimate to put an argument such as “stem cell research should be stopped because my deity says so”, they are going to be met, inevitably, with questions about whether this is even true. How do you know that that’s what your deity says? Why should we believe you? How do we know that your deity even exists? The more that religious leaders rely on arguments based on essentially religious claims, the more those religious claims will themselves be challenged.

Preeecisely. How do you know that that’s what your deity says and why should we believe you? I see no reason at all to think you do know, and plenty of reason to think you don’t. I don’t believe you, and I think I have lots of good reasons for not believing you, and I think you have no good reasons for expecting me to believe you, or for believing that you know, yourself.

And this is why the ‘new’ atheists are so new, or so old but assertive, or so gentle but explicit. It is because we keep being told things that there is no good reason to believe are true – and now in addition we keep being berated and shouted at and pushed into the mud for saying as much. This gets irritating, so we say the magic word – shazam – and become shiny new atheists.

Look at A N Wilson again, for instance.

‘Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?’ [Polly Toynbee] asked in a puerile article…

Puerile? But which is more puerile – to believe in a god-son-of-god who took our sins upon himself to save our souls, or to point out that there is no reason to believe that? Wilson (after a lapse) believes that, yet he calls Toynbee puerile for not believing it. That’s backward. He makes a boast of having been convinced of the truth of ‘the Easter story’ without evidence – yet he calls people who decline to believe fanciful-sounding stories without evidence all sorts of hard names. That’s backward.

If so many religious leaders had not become so aggressive in trying to impose their views on the rest of us – i.e., beyond their congregations – the phenomenon being called the New Atheism might well not have happened, but popes and priests can’t have it both ways. If they’re going to bring their claims of authority, truth, and traditional wisdom to the public sphere, as they have been doing, then they must expect their credentials to be challenged.

Both ways of course is exactly how they want to have it, but they can’t, not unless they get a global blasphemy law complete with death penalty and no right of appeal. Meanwhile, we’ll keep talking.

A N Wilson and Jesus thrash the evil secularists

Apr 11th, 2009 1:16 pm | By

I don’t read the Daily Mail; I know its reputation, so I avoid even sampling it, because I get enough aggressive stupidity right here at home; but I made an exception for A N Wilson on evil secularism, and I’m quite startled by its frank vulgarity. He’s not a moron, Wilson, at least I thought he wasn’t, but this stuff…

This playground attitude accounts for much of the attitude towards Christianity that you pick up, say, from the alternative comedians, and the casual light blasphemy of jokes on TV or radio. It also lends weight to the fervour of the anti-God fanatics, such as the writer Christopher Hitchens and the geneticist Richard Dawkins, who think all the evil in the world is actually caused by religion. The vast majority of media pundits and intelligentsia in Britain are unbelievers, many of them quite fervent in their hatred of religion itself. The Guardian’s fanatical feminist-in-chief, Polly Toynbee, is one of the most dismissive of religion and Christianity in particular. She is president of the British Humanist Association, an associate of the National Secular Society and openly scornful of the millions of Britons who will quietly proclaim their faith in Church tomorrow.

That’s a lot of dreck packed into a small space. Hitchens and Dawkins don’t (of course) think all the evil in the world is actually caused by religion. Why shouldn’t people be ‘fervent’ in their hatred of religion? Religion is a human institution; we’re allowed to hate human institutions. What’s a ‘fanatical feminist-in-chief’? And then it all comes to a crescendo with the bathetic appeal to the poor victimized millions of Britons who will quietly proclaim their faith, not harming a mouse yet beaten about the head and shoulders by all these slavering geneticists and feminists.

Rather than being cowed by them, I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block: cutting-edge novelists such as Martin Amis…

So…it’s wicked to be liberal? And clever? And a novelist? It’s good to defy people who are all three of those by asserting a belief in a magical story? Especially when one is a novelist oneself? I don’t quite follow.

Ah, say the rationalists. But no one can possibly rise again after death, for that is beyond the realm of scientific possibility. And it is true to say that no one can ever prove – nor, indeed, disprove – the existence of an after-life or God, or answer the conundrums of honest doubters (how does a loving God allow an earthquake in Italy?) Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic.

Ah – so now he stoops to sneering at logic itself. Pesky old liberal fanatical sneering cutting-edge Hampstead chattering logic. Logic is for pussies!

Of course, only hard evidence will satisfy the secularists, but over time and after repeated readings of the story, I’ve been convinced without it.

And then gone on to pitch a huge fit at people who commit the crime of refusing to be convinced without it, thus demonstrating the arrogance of atheists and the deep humility of believers. Or something.

Lie down with daily mails and get up with fleas.

That is not what this public debate is about

Apr 11th, 2009 1:08 pm | By

Stop the presses – a Catholic archbishop is a Catholic archbishop. He disagrees with Tony Blair about homosexuality. Stone the crows.

Mr Blair is a very fine politician and he has got very well-tuned political senses. But I am afraid the way the Catholic Church thinks is rather different to that and I think I will take my guide from Pope Benedict actually.

Well yes, we know. The way the Catholic church thinks is rather different: it ignores new ideas and knowledge about what is best for human beings, what does and does not harm people, what is and is not fair in human terms, and the like, and instead it consults its prejudices, attributes them to an unavailable supernatural being called ‘God,’ and declares them authoritative and beyond question. Yes that is different; it’s also ass backwards and wrong. Taking one’s ‘guide’ from pope Benedict is a terrible idea, because pope Ben’s thinking has all the flaws that go with the prejudice-attribution-unavailable deity-beyond question complex.

He also defended the Pope’s recent remarks about condoms made last month en route to his first Papal visit to Africa…Archbishop Nichols said: “What he actually talked about was the need to humanise sexuality and I think to some extent he was speaking up in protection of African women.” Asked if he would advise a “married, faithful, Catholic couple” not to use condoms where one had HIV/Aids, the Archbishop said: “That is a very sensitive point and there are different views on that.” Pressed to give his view, he said: “That is not what this public debate is about…that is the point I would rather pursue, that we really do have to raise people’s expectations of themselves.”

In other words, first he defended the pope’s ‘remarks’ about condoms that amount to telling people to commit slow agonizing suicide, then refused to answer a perfectly serious sensible question about the real-life outcome of such ‘remarks.’ In other words, he acted with the grotesque, shocking, abhorrent irresponsibility with which the Catholic church as an institution does act on this subject. It’s contemptible. It’s disgusting. It’s immoral. He should be ashamed of himself, and he should act to repair the damage immediately. Of course he won’t, but he should. They have no shame, these monsters.

Among the bottom-feeders

Apr 10th, 2009 5:17 pm | By

I had another look at that post David Thompson did last July, and noticed a couple of things. Ironically (or not) I wanted to address that post in a substantive way at the time, and was just about to, but then the torrent of sexist abuse killed any interest in engaging, so I never got to it. This is, by the way, one reason epithets are not such a great thing: discussions that collapse into stupid name-calling do not generally also manage to discuss ideas in a substantive way. That’s probably because discussions that collapse into stupid name-calling tend to repel intelligent people and attract stupid ones, which makes substantive discussion kind of difficult. There is something quite risible about DT’s continued sober, reasonable, slightly pompous tone interspersed with all that schoolyardy jeering, as if DT simply hadn’t noticed that his thread had fallen into a pool of crap.

So anyway. The post started with the stupidity of one Julie Bindel, who apparently makes sweeping claims about men, and went on by way of ‘a riposte of sorts to such adamant idiocy, and to broader claims of “male privilege”’ to quote items from various bloggers’ ‘Female Privilege Checklist’. Such a thing could be interesting – there are of course benefits to being female, and drawbacks to being male, and they’re interesting to think about and discuss. Some of these were unexceptionable – but others were absurd. This one for instance:

If I become pregnant, I and I alone choose whether to terminate the pregnancy or have the baby. As a result, I can be reasonably certain that I will never be held financially responsible for a child I didn’t want to have…

You have got to be kidding. Women are held financially responsible for children they didn’t want or choose to have all the time. Of course women as a class can’t be reasonably certain they will never be held financially responsible for a child or children they didn’t want to have. Women get talked or coerced into sex, they get talked or coerced into unprotected sex, they get talked or coerced into having children that they themselves don’t want to have, and they are by no means certain in any of those cases that they won’t subsequently be abandoned and left with all the financial responsibility. Women also sometimes get landed with the responsibility for grandchildren. In addition to that, not all women do have the power to choose whether to terminate the pregnancy or have the baby; lots of women are forbidden and prevented by their husbands or partners, or the church or mosque, or both – not to mention all the women who live in places where abortion is not available (which includes great swathes of the US) and those who live where it is illegal and harshly punished. In addition to that, of course, women sometimes get pregnant without wanting to but have the child all the same because they don’t want to have an abortion, so merely having the legal right to abortion (which the majority of women in the world don’t have) certainly does not translate to being reasonably certain one will never have (or be held financially responsible for) a child one doesn’t want to have. It’s incredibly shallow and ignorant to suppose that it does. It’s also smug and self-pitying.

Another for instance:

Because I am not expected to be my family’s primary breadwinner, I have the luxury of prioritising factors other than salary when choosing a career path.

Again – you’ve got to be kidding. That just ignores all single mothers, not all of whom are single of their own volition. If you think they’re not expected to be their family’s primary breadwinner, you’ve never heard of ‘welfare reform.’ Of course they damn well are.

I did make a start at pointing this out at the time, but then as I said gave up when the epithet-flingers turned up in force.

Part of what’s odd about this is that DT, much as I disagree with him about many things, is no fool. I was deeply puzzled at the time, and I still am, that the tone of the subsequent discussion didn’t (apparently) give him any qualms.

Ain’t people mysterious.

A few days in the low countries

Apr 10th, 2009 5:00 pm | By

This discussion gets more and more peculiar and interesting as it goes on. There is a whiff of disingenuousness about much of it – a peculiar air of outraged innocence about something that many people take to be a very overt insult. The thing that’s peculiar about that is that usually when we are told we have accidentally said something insulting – we blush and stammer and hasten to explain that we didn’t mean it that way. We don’t insist on going on using the word in the way we (but not other people) understand it. Yet this apparently doesn’t apply to epithets about women. That’s interesting.

Suppose you know a little Dutch, and you’re in Haarlem visiting friends, and you pick up a word that you take to mean something like ‘chump’ or ‘buffoon’ and you start to use it yourself. Then a friend takes you aside and gently informs you that actually the word is a vulgar racial epithet and you have horrified several very nice people by flinging it around so breezily. Would you argue? Would you say ‘well it can also just mean “buffoon” and I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss.’ Maybe you would, but I doubt it. I think the usual impulse (except among deliberately obnoxious people, the Fred Phelpses of the world) is to err on the side of caution when it comes to words that can easily be taken amiss. But when it comes to epithets for women…it appears that lots of people are quite happy to just go right on cunting and twatting away.

It’s almost as if hostility to women is okay. Hostility to other races and other nationalities* not okay, but hostility to women kind of hip. Would never call someone nigger or spic or wog, but call people cunts and twats without a second thought.

If it’s true that there’s a different standard, why would that be, do you suppose?

*Except perhaps American…

Knowing what words mean

Apr 7th, 2009 4:00 pm | By

David Thompson did a post telling me off for saying ‘pussy’ is a sexist epithet. He also, very oddly, emailed me to tell me about the post, as if I would be pleased and interested. This is odd because as far as I’m concerned we’ve been on non-speakers since another post he did last July, a rather unfunny one about jokes about women. I was alienated because (having been as it were invited) I commented on that post, somewhat acidly, and was rewarded with three pages worth of sexist garbage. Want a sample? (Relevant, your honour; goes to the question of sexism.)

“Obviously Ophelia is on her period. Now have a seat and let a big, strong man bring you some cold water and a towel to deal with your bad case of the vapors.” That was probably the stupidest, but there was plenty more of the kind of thing. David Thompson has a policy of not interfering with comments, so there they all still are, demonstrating that there is no such thing as misogyny, or something. I concluded that I would not be reading David Thompson’s blog any more – not just because I think people should get rid of personally insulting comments of that kind, but also because the comments were nearly all so unpleasantly stupid and truculent, so as if the commenters all aspired to be Rush Limbaugh. It’s interesting how comments can ruin a blog. That’s why I don’t have a policy of not interfering with comments; I think that’s such a mistake.

So, as I say, David Thompson emailed me to tell me about this new post, which is another one about the non-reality of sexism and how it’s all in my mind. And just to make sure there is no uncertainty about that, there are more of the – erm – slightly crude comments (and backtracks to even cruder posts by other people). The next-to-latest is “Why do we give a shit that some cunt-flapper is offended?” Now why would I think for a second that there is such a thing as a sexist epithet? I can’t imagine, and I’m sure you can’t either.

But, ironically, in the post David Thompson said something (I assume inadvertently) that gave me a hint as to why there is confusion about the word ‘pussy.’

On the very rare occasions I’ve used the word – ironically and with a terrible American accent – I’ve used it to denote a kind of feebleness. Naïve soul that I am, I took the intended meaning here to be that Allah appears to be a sissy, coward or weakling, perhaps rather pampered, like a house cat; not that Allah in some way resembles the female genitals…

You see it? With an American accent. That indicates to me that he has picked up the word from American movies and cable tv shows, without knowing what it means, and without knowing he doesn’t know what it means. That’s easy enough to do. Traveling in the other direction, I’m pretty sure that very few Americans know what ‘wanker’ means. I used to think to plotz was to flop down on a chair or other comfortable spot, and I used it that way, and finally someone gently informed me that it means ‘explode.’ This happened just a few years ago. I didn’t know what it meant, and I didn’t know I didn’t know what it meant. Fine – but then when someone told me what it meant, I realized that I had had it wrong. It’s not completely clear to me why David Thompson and others can’t manage to draw the same conclusion. DT says in the post, and told me via email, that he assumed it derived from pusillanimous. Understandable; but it doesn’t. It means female genitalia, and people who think it means something like kitty kitty are making an understandable mistake but still a mistake. People who make that mistake, and rebuke people who point out the mistake, and call them cunt-flappers – are being what David Thompson told me I was being: presumptuous.

(By the way: I looked it up in Webster’s Third at the library; one definition is female genitals, esp. vulva.)

If only

Apr 6th, 2009 6:00 pm | By

If only this were true.

“In a dramatic development in Islamabad Pakistan, a little girl who was slapped by a Mullah Abu Jahil on the street ran into her school crying only to run out again with some forty girls between the ages of 6 and 10. The girls captured the Mullah and dragged him to the Square area outside the Faisal Masjid, where the Mullah was whipped. Unable to bear this public humiliation, this Mullah has asked for asylum from the British High Commission.

However, the leader of the Mullahs R Us support group for Mullahs – Maulana Fazal Ur Rehman has denied this report. He has suggested that some foreign element is behind this to malign them in public and the little girls were just playing when the Mullah fell at the Faisal Masjid. The only Jew in Islamabad Rabbi Someone Oranother has denied helping anyone or being involved in any underhand activity against the Pakistani state or any Mullah.

However, the girls have promised that from now on they will be the one who will be flogging men in public who tries to misbehave with women.”

They should have the right to live as human beings

Apr 6th, 2009 5:58 pm | By

Pervez Kambaksh is hanging on to his hopes.

“I want an Afghanistan where the mothers of this country and the daughters of this country have the same rights that you and I have as men,” he said in an interview inside the Walayat prison where he has languished since June. “They should have the right to education. They should have the right to work in any organisation they want, and they should have the right to live as human beings in this society.”

They should have the right to live as human beings. Yes they should.

Back atcha, Pervez (if I may – I think of you as a friend). We want an Afghanistan where you have the right to live as a human being too.

The epithet question

Apr 6th, 2009 11:26 am | By

I’m curious about something. To the best of my knowledge, a sexist epithet is a sexist epithet. There’s not generally a lot of ambiguity about it, although there’s always room for ironic uses in private conversation and so on. In public discourse, a sexist epithet is what it is. Yet – I keep encountering people who dispute that, in places where I wouldn’t expect to, such as comments on Jesus and Mo. So I’m curious about what other people think.

A commenter said ‘the god of Islam is such a pussy. He is unable to do a thing to protect himself or his reputation and must rely on his minions to do his dirty work.’ I took exception, and someone replied by quoting one of Julian’s Bad Moves from here, on the fact that many words have multiple meanings. True enough, but is there more than one way to understand ‘pussy’ in that comment? Not that I know of.

What’s interesting is that I think that’s pretty widely understood, even by people who pretend or believe otherwise. One reason I think that is that I don’t know anyone who uses the word that way in conversation or correspondence with me. I don’t think that’s an accident; I think it’s because no one who knows me thinks it would be welcome – and for all I know this includes people who do use the word in conversation with other people. The point is that if people avoid the word with (at least) certain audiences, then the meaning is probably pretty clear. Am I wrong?

Certain epithets just are not really ambiguous; they can’t be. ‘Nigger’ is the best known in the US and maybe elsewhere; kike, raghead, kaffir are a few more. Queer and dyke have been reclaimed, and there is a school of thought that ‘bitch’ has but I think on the contrary, ‘bitch’ is more viciously misogynist than ever. And so are, as far as I know, pussy, twat and cunt. It is my considered opinion that no one who comments on Jesus and Mo would have the gall to call the barmaid any of those things, and that if I’m right about that, they should stop using them at all.

‘New’ atheism chapter 27,439

Apr 6th, 2009 11:05 am | By

Madeleine Bunting takes a minute to remind us how stunningly predictable, how jaw-droppingly selective, how risibly but irritatingly woolly she can be and pretty much always is.

Increasingly, one hears a distaste for the polemics of the New Atheist debate and its foghorn volume, and how it has drowned out any other kind of conversation about religion.

Does one? Does one not rather rush about attempting to create such a distaste one’s very own self? Much of this putative distaste comes from Bunting herself, so it’s a little sick-making to see her pretending to be too modest to mention her own energetic campaign. And then of course the drowning out is completely ridiculous – witness Bunting herself, and all the people she quotes, and Tony Faith Foundation Blair, and the archbishops and bishops filling the Telegraph with their complaints and the apologists of Islam filling the Guardian with their rationalizations – ‘drowned out’ indeed! Apparently she confuses addition with drowning out, and not being silenced and closeted any more with ‘foghorn volume.’ Apparently she thinks that religious conversation about religion should have undisputed monopoly of the discussion and thus interprets any disagreement as Much Too Loud and Drowning Out. Excuse my bluntness, but that is stupid.

Ask a philosopher like John Gray or a historian of religion like Karen Armstrong and they are simply not interested in the debate; they bin the invitations to speak on platforms alongside New Atheists. Gray dismisses them as offering “intoxicating simplicity”; Armstrong is appalled by their “display of egotism and arrogance”.

So she doesn’t mean a philosopher like John Gray or a historian of religion like Karen Armstrong, she means John Gray and Karen Armstrong – but putting it the way she did conveys an impression that there are lots of philosophers like John Gray and historians of religion like Karen Armstrong, without having to offer any. But the views of John Gray and Karen Armstrong are highly contested; neither is typical, and both are considered exceptionally tendentious.

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths…”We need to get away from the endless discussion about wretched beliefs; religion is about doing – and what every faith makes clear is that the doing is about compassion,” she argues. To try and shift the debate about faith into more fruitful territory, Armstrong came up with the idea of a global Charter on Compassion for all faiths (and none), which she is drafting and planning to launch later in the year.

Yes, she argues that, and thus we can see how and why her views are so contested. That would be because it is nonsense, and vicious nonsense at that, to say that ‘what every faith makes clear is that the doing is about compassion.’ She can’t say that without simply blowing off what is happening in (you know the dreary list) Swat and Afghanistan and Brazil and Iraq and Nicaragua and Somalia and the list goes on. It’s just not true that every faith makes clear that the doing is about compassion.

At times of crisis – such as the economic recession – the brittleness of a value system built on wealth and a particular conception of autonomy becomes all too apparent, leaving people without the sustaining reserves of a faith to fall back on.

That’s interesting – she talks a lot of wool about compassion but when it comes to practice she resorts to insult, claiming that non-believers build their value system on wealth. That is both stupid and rude.