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.

The shock of recognition

Aug 11th, 2010 12:07 pm | By

How familiar this statement by Rachel Polonsky sounds

I am very glad to report that the legal dispute that Robert Service and I have had with Orlando Figes and Stephanie Palmer has now been settled.

This dispute began in mid-April when Orlando Figes denied responsibility for the ten Amazon reviews signed ‘Historian’ in a circular email to colleagues…

Our objectives in pressing this case were…to gain a contractual undertaking from Professor Figes not to use fraud, subterfuge or unlawful means to attack or damage us or our works in the future; and to require Professor Figes to circulate a formal apology and retraction to all the recipients of his email of 15 April.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? The denial of responsibility – the “no not me I never”? The use of fraud and subterfuge and unlawful means to attack and damage people and their works? It sounds awfully familiar to me.

So does Robert Service’s version:

I am pleased that this squalid saga is over. I never wanted to go to law, but the behaviour of Prof. Figes over three months made it impossible to let matters rest. He lied through his teeth for a week and threatened to sue me for libel if I didn’t say black was white. His wife, herself a lawyer, took up his cause and lied that she was the culprit and not he. At the end of the second week he was forced by the incontrovertible evidence to admit that he had written the anonymous reviews posted on the Amazon website. There followed weeks of grinding, needless altercation as he tried to tamp down the wording of his apology and retraction…

Check; check; check.

Universities in the UK are under all manner of pressures and criticisms at the moment, and it is terrible that Figes has made it easier for the critics to pounce. He has brought shame on that fine institution Birkbeck College. In my view it is inappropriate that a lecturer teaching about the lies in public life in Stalin’s USSR should himself be so menacing and dishonest. I would also question whether such an academic should soon or ever again be trusted to supply confidential, impartial references or reports for research grant-giving bodies.

And what about his students? Who would want a menacing dishonest teacher?

At the moment I obviously feel sore about the hundreds of hours of wasted time since mid-April, not to mention the unpleasantness…In some of his statements according to the press he has come close to depicting himself as the victim.

Check; check; check.


Aug 10th, 2010 4:40 pm | By

So. There was this widow in Afghanistan; she was 35, and pregnant. So, the Taliban decided the thing to do with her was first to imprison her for three days, then to whip her in public: to whip her two hundred times, in public, being pregnant and all, and a widow. And then to shoot her in the head. And then to dump her body somewhere.

Why? Well the Taliban said she’d committed adultery. The thing to do with a woman who has committed adultery is to whip her two hundred times in public, and then shoot her in the head.

The man, not so much. The man wasn’t punished. The man didn’t get so much as a tap on the hand with a pencil in private. Nothing bad happened to the man at all, while the woman was imprisoned for three days then whipped two hundred times in public and then shot in the head.

Why? Well, clearly, because men are the right kind of people, and women are the wrong kind. Clearly because men are of value and women are so much garbage. Clearly because women are so foul and disgusting and horrible that it is simply not possible to punish them harshly enough. Killing them isn’t enough – you have to flay them alive first in front of an audience, and even that isn’t really enough, but the arms get tired.

Bibi Sanubar was a widow, so she wasn’t even being unkind to her husband by having sex with a different man. It’s just that she had sex without the Taliban’s permission, and that she was a woman at the time.

More atheist women needed

Aug 9th, 2010 12:40 pm | By

Sarah McKenzie points out that religion and atheism both need smart women.

Part of the problem, I think, stems from the brand of atheism that is dominant today. Many people, especially women, might find it intimidating or unappealing…Atheists must be prepared to actively defend their non-belief, a process that by definition will offend many believers.

While there is most definitely a place for this so-called “militant” atheism, it is little wonder that some women might find it off-putting. After all, girls are taught to be sensitive and emotional, to not cause trouble or be particularly forthright with their opinions.

Some girls are. I can’t say that I remember being taught that, and if anybody really did attempt to teach me that, it obviously didn’t work. If anything it’s the other way around – I’m a woman, and women are seen as weak and placating and ingratiating, so I owe it to the gender to be abrasive and obstinate and contentious. That’s not it, of course…it’s not a matter of owing anything, it’s a matter of a visceral loathing of that image, and of wanting no part of it. I refuse to be weak and placating and ingratiating. So I get called a lot of hard names by a lot of threatened men, but I also have a good time. And maybe, who knows, I’m clearing a little ground for other women.

McKenzie seems to think so, much to my surprise. Kiran Mehdee pointed out this article to me, saying it mentioned me. I turned an unbecoming shade of puce when I found it was true.

All of this is not to say that there are no vocal or intelligent women out there talking about the role of religion, sharing stories about their own loss of faith and generally waving the atheist flag. However, we rarely hear the names of Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali or author Ophelia Benson mentioned alongside Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

There’s a treat! Putting me in that company. Excuse the narcissism, but…well you see I’m a shy blushing violet really, despite all the above, so I don’t expect this kind of thing, so when it comes along I have to boast about it as loudly as possible. Right? Right.

Just pack your hard hat

Aug 9th, 2010 12:03 pm | By

Oh, sad - Gillian McKeith is in trouble for saying what her spa can do. The Advertising Authority thinks she might not quite be on firm ground here.

Scottish nutritionist Gillian McKeith is to be reported to the advertising authorities over claims that visitors to her new age health resort can be healed by mystic powers.

The Perth-born health guru has set up a Wellness Retreat in rural Spain, which boasts that its “amazing energy vortex” can help to heal and rejuvenate visitors as well as assist them in losing weight.

Yes – so? Maybe it can. Spain is a mystical kind of place, especially rural Spain, so maybe its energy vortices can do just that.

Promotional material for the venture, on McKeith’s official website, states: “I want you to be able to literally detox from the world in a most glorious location with unsurpassed nurturing mountains, swooning eagles, a magnificent lake, big blue skies and an amazing energy vortex for rejuvenation, weight loss and vitality.

“Feel the vibration of the energy vortex of this spectacular location, and be healed by it! It is a moment that will stay with you forever.”

Swooning eagles! Okay I take it back – swooning eagles are dangerous. Thousands of people die of broken necks every year because eagles swoon on them from a great height. If they’re a feature of the magic energy vortex spa, then the detox comes at too high a price.

The church of the savvy

Aug 8th, 2010 5:36 pm | By

Jay Rosen on “the church of the savvy” is great; thanks to Physicalist in comments for pointing him out.

Though they see themselves as the opposite of ideological, the people in the national press actually share an ideology: the religion of savviness.  Since it differs from both liberal ideology and conservative ideology and from political thought itself, savviness often eludes description, or even recognition as a set of beliefs.

Oh is that what it’s called – the way they’re always talking about the process at the expense of the policy. “How will this affect the November elections?” is always the point, after a perfunctory and unenlightening glance at the substance. So that’s savviness.

The savvy do know how things work inside the game of politics, and it is this knowledge they try to wield in argument…. instead of argument. In this sense savviness as the church practices it is the exemption from the political that believers think will come to them because they are journalists striving only to report on politics or conduct analysis, not to “win” within the contest as it stands.

And that’s what makes them so boring and depressing – they report as if the process were an end in itself as opposed to…the process. They report as if winning were the only aim and as if all of us should be as enthralled by the contest as they are, when in fact most of us don’t give a flying fuck about the process, we want to know how they expect us to cough up thousands of dollars for health insurance every month.

Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passon, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit…[T]he savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you… They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature.”

And that explains why they think they get to lecture people who are much older and wiser and cleverer than they are; it’s because they’re savvy. Yes that does explain a lot.

Pearls before swine

Aug 7th, 2010 5:02 pm | By

Russell Blackford posted a comment he made at the Intersection on July 30th, that never got posted, in reply to Mooney’s “final word” on Tom Johnson. It’s a good comment – thoughtful, and civil. But it’s not uncritical – and it’s not posted there.

It may have been penny wise and pound foolish to censor it though, since it’s more conspicuous as a post than it would have been as a comment. Russell suggests (this alone will have been enough to explain the non-posting) that Mooney should lift the ban on me, and adds that if he did I would probably ask the old question again about why he thinks Jerry Coyne was wrong to review books by Miller and Giberson for the New Republic.

 You seem to think that Jerry did something wrong in agreeing to review the books and in reviewing them the way he did. I don’t see it. If you no longer think that, it would be nice if you said so explicitly. If you do still think it, I’d be interested to know what you think Jerry should have done when asked to review those books.

Yes, so would I. I don’t expect I will ever know. It’s one of those haunting unanswered questions that irritate us while we’re waiting for the bus.

Sadly, the comments on Russell’s post got infested by the Pieret-Ramsey faction and then by Ramsey jabbing at me endlessly – not to mention DM, who has added me to his death threat list, blasphemous little bitch that I am.

When Betty met Joe

Aug 7th, 2010 3:59 pm | By

The Telegraph is also worked up about the pope and his impending visit and the rudeness and badness of people who think he’s a bad man. That’s not as surprising from the Telegraph as it is from the New Statesman though. But it’s still sick-making.

…the Queen will be playing the formal role of host to a fellow head of state, who is also the spiritual leader of a billion people.

Yes, yes, it’s all very glam. Some people get a sexual thrill from that phrase, “spiritual leader” – and when it’s of a billion people, oh well then – the pope must be very important and thrilling indeed. Never mind that the whole thing is a vast fraud and a system of mental imprisonment – let’s just admire their pretty clothes and their big shiny cars.

 Old-fashioned anti-Popery is not the force that it was in 1982, because the community of anti-papal fundamentalists has shrunk, along with the Christian community in general.

The community of anti-papal fundamentalists! Who knew there was such a community – I certainly didn’t. But everybody is a community in the UK. The lucky ones have spiritual leaders, and the others are fundamentalists about the people who have spiritual leaders. Or something.

Both the BBC and the Government set great store by “celebrating other cultures”. Benedict XVI’s arrival is an opportunity to celebrate a culture that planted our Christian roots; for it was a Pope who sent St Augustine to Britain.

Well yes, they do, as they also set great store by “celebrating communities.” It’s one of their more gag-worthy qualities, especially when the cultures and communities in question are centrally concerned with bending the knee to a non-existent deity. Anyway – you have your orders – be nice to the pope.

Disobey them.

Bend the knee, sinners

Aug 7th, 2010 12:27 pm | By

So now we have the New Statesman rhapsodizing about Newt Gingrich converting to Catholicism and presenting a film that rhapsodizes about the previous pope. Yes really. Then it (in the person of Carla Powell) rhapsodizes about the current pope’s upcoming visit, and his meeting with the queen. Gingrich, two reactionary popes, a monarch…The people’s flag is deepest red, all right.

 And yet, on recent visits to London, I have been shocked by the negative criticism of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Why are so many of the capital’s liberal elite upset? Why is Pope Benedict, an 83-year-old retired university professor, causing such anxiety?

What a fucking stupid question. Because he is the reactionary head of a reactionary institution that tells millions of people what to do, and tells them wrong. Because he is a man at the top of a pyramid of men in an organization that officially bans women from all the decision-making jobs but doesn’t hesitate to tell them what to do.

The child abuse scandals central to all this have been a stain on the Catholic Church. But it is important to remember that this is a problem the Pope has been working to resolve for at least a decade. Grave as it is, the scandal should not be allowed to obscure his core message.

Which is that secularism is evil, that condoms cause Aids, that the ordination of women is The Worst, and that when priests rape children it is up to the church to protect…the priests. Well don’t worry, the “scandal” of child rape and the church’s protection of child rape doesn’t seem to be obscuring that message too much.

The tabloids will always offer apparently easy solutions and those hostile to the robust moral teaching of my faith will jump on any bandwagon.

Bandwagon shmandwagon. Yes I am hostile to the “robust moral teaching” of your “faith.” Why aren’t you? It sucks. The “robust moral teaching” of your faith is that homosexuality is a sin, women must never have the freedom to use their own bodies for their own purposes instead of other people’s, birth control is evil, men must be in charge of everything, and a bunch of priests have access to a special spooky holy morality that cannot be adapted to fit modern sensibilities. I despise the “robust moral teaching” of your faith and your church.

It hurts me that those advocating the arrest of His Holiness are increasingly in danger of sounding like the Chinese government, which seeks to use its brute economic influence to silence the Dalai Lama whenever he travels abroad. So much for British freedom of speech.

Nonsense. It’s nothing to do with silencing, and it’s nothing to do with freedom of speech. Ratzinger concealed crimes from law enforcement; that’s a crime; that’s why he should be arrested.

What is this falangist drivel doing in the New Statesman? I know they’re crazy there, but this? A Catholic rant about liberal elites?

In which I do the expected

Aug 6th, 2010 12:12 pm | By

Harriet Baber likes to put things in a provocative way (as do I), and she does so in answering the Comment is Free belief question of the week. Lots of provoking, and I will oblige by being provoked into commenting.

I see no reason why I should believe that life is, as Tony Soprano’s perfectly awful mother Livia put it, “a great big nothing” after which we are annihilated. That may very well be the way things are. But I see no benefit to believing it is so.

Yes but that’s a false choice, because it’s an incomplete description of the alternative to believing that life is made into Something by the existence of god. The choice is not: 1. god, and life=something, or 2. no god, and life=nothing. I don’t think of life as a great big nothing. In fact that’s a very odd way to describe life – life is very much something. The amount and variety of life on this average-size planet is staggering; it’s light years away from “nothing.” If the idea is that life feels like nothing to people who don’t believe god exists, that’s wrong too. Harriet must know that, but…she likes to provoke.

But if I believe in God and a blissful afterlife contemplating him, then even if I am wrong I will not be disappointed. I would rather live in a fool’s paradise than no paradise at all.

Really? An eternity of blissfully contemplating god? Wouldn’t that start to get boring after about, oh, say fifty years?

Truth is overrated. And it’s remarkable that the very individuals who are most vocal in their opposition to religiously motivated puritanism are the most fiercely puritanical when it comes to truth.

No. It’s not remarkable at all, because the two are not the same kind of thing. (And who are these people, anyway?) Thinking that truth matters is not the same kind of thing as thinking that pleasure is sinful.

People in any case overestimate the value of truth and underestimate the difficulty of arriving at it. There are a great many truths in which I have abolutely no interest – truths about the lifecycle of Ctenocephalides felis, (the common cat flea) or the extensive body of truths about the condition of my teeth that my dentist imposes on me. I see no reason why I should bother with these truths or make a point of believing them.

I see no such reason either, but the whole thing is a red herring. It’s not a question of bothering with every truth there is, it’s a question of paying attention to the truth or otherwise of what one already believes.

There is some notion that even if we can ignore these workaday truths we should be concerned about the larger, more significant truths about the meaning of life, if any, and the human condition. I don’t see why. In any case, I’m a satisficer, quite happy in every department of life with good enough…I don’t much care about getting the right answers to what are commonly called the big questions.

An interesting remark from a philosopher.

That is no doubt what she wanted people to say. I’m nothing if not obliging.

It’s like encouraging a mosquito

Aug 5th, 2010 6:28 pm | By

Paul Sims watched Stephen Green on Channel 4′s the other day, so you won’t have to. is Channel 4′s version of the ever-laughable Deepity for the Day on BBC Radio 4. Stephen Green was srsly good, apparently. His Thought was about that there HoMoSeckShuality and why he thinks it should be put a stop to. Paul Sims collected some extracts, which is way helpful of him.

Homosexuals can never be one flesh, so they have to press into, like, sexual duty parts of the body that aren’t designed for that.

I think Stephen Green has been overthinking this. I think he has been having smutty thoughts.

In 30 years our dying civilisation is going to be taken over by a stronger one and the obvious candidate is Islam and the gays aren’t going to like it much living under that system.

So – um – let’s get rid of them all now before that happens, and then they won’t have to worry about not liking it much living under that system, because they’ll all be gone.

But srsly. Why are people giving Stephen Green air time? It’s like giving Bill Donohue air time. It’s like giving mildew a plate of food in your kitchen. It’s a mistake.

Wall? What wall? Do you see a wall?

Aug 4th, 2010 6:28 pm | By

Karl Giberson and Lawrence Krauss seem to see things differently. (Now there’s a surprise.) Giberson tells us that science and religion aren’t in tension at all at all.

A religious scientist functions routinely as a scientist in the lab, perhaps looking for the gene that causes hyperbole. While they are engaged in this search they believe that God is the creator. On regular occasions this scientist goes to church, where he or she sings hymns, listens to sermons, volunteers at the soup kitchen, takes communion, and puts money in the offering plate, all the while believing that the scientific picture of the world is accurate. Occasionally this religious scientist may even daydream about finding that gene for hyperbole while listening to the sermon. At no time do the co-existing mindsets conflict or create cognitive dissonance.

Well one, he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know that about any religious scientist other than himself, and he may not know it about himself. He could be kidding himself, or forgetting, or exaggerating. And two, if the co-existing mindsets never conflict or create cognitive dissonance, then that’s a sign that the religious scientist is not thinking properly. They should conflict or create cognitive dissonance. One of them is based on evidence and inference, and the other is based on just Believing. The second is inferior to the first.

Krauss highlights this:

Consider the results of a 2009 Pew Survey: 31 percent of U.S. adults believe “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” (So much for dogs, horses or H1N1 flu.) The survey’s most enlightening aspect was its categorization of responses by levels of religious activity, which suggests that the most devout are on average least willing to accept the evidence of reality.

You see? That is cognitive dissonance, the very thing that Giberson said “the religious scientist” simply doesn’t have. Being unwilling to accept the evidence of reality is that tension. Giberson of course means that in practice he walls the two off from each other, and he does accept the evidence of reality when he’s Doing Science. But he also means that he (and others like him) simply never notice the wall. Well if they don’t they should, and Giberson can’t know that none of them do in any case.

Lawrence Krauss on the familiar taboo

Aug 4th, 2010 5:47 pm | By

Lawrence Krauss notes that the NSF does a survey on US science literacy, and always finds that adults in the US tend to say “No! I won’t believe that!” when asked about evolution and the big bang. Until this year, when the NSF fiddled the survey.

the National Science Board, which oversees the foundation, chose to leave the section that discussed these issues out of the 2010 edition, claiming the questions were “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs.” In short, if their religious beliefs require respondents to discard scientific facts, the board doesn’t think it appropriate to expose that truth.

A 2009 Pew survey found that “the most devout are on average least willing to accept the evidence of reality.” Which is the opposite of the “science and religion are compatible” dogma that we’re all supposed to “accept” for no very convincing reason.

I don’t know which is more dangerous, that religious beliefs force some people to choose between knowledge and myth or that pointing out how religion can purvey ignorance is taboo. To do so risks being branded as intolerant of religion.

Oh yes indeed it does. It also risks being branded as a gnu atheist, and then called a witch-hunter, shouted at, run out of town, fired, and kicked out of the tennis club.

Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous. Unless we are willing to expose religious irrationality whenever it arises, we will encourage irrational public policy and promote ignorance over education for our children.

Dear me, he won’t be invited to the Accommodationists’ Picnic.

Waking up one morning

Aug 4th, 2010 4:28 pm | By

Lashings of extraordinary writing in Hitchens’s cancer piece in Vanity Fair. For one thing, there’s the opening, about waking up in a New York hotel room.

have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.

That final (frightening) sentence is an homage to a parallel scene in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, about a much younger man waking up with a hangover. It’s a set-piece about what a hangover feels like, and it’s funny as hell. It and the Hitchens passage also have a whiff of Wodehouse – Hitchens is Bertie describing his sensations in some awkward spot.

He managed to get to the phone and summon the emergency services.

They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist.

Beautiful writing. Do admit.

 I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

Yes; just what I hate. It’s bad enough in airports and on planes.

If there were an Intelligent Designer, someone who writes that well would live to be ninety. But there isn’t.

A dispatch from the front

Aug 4th, 2010 1:06 pm | By

Sorry posting is a bit light. I’ve been busy trying to pull knives out of my back (no use, they’re stuck), and now I have a sudden avalanche of subbing to do for The Philosophers’ Mag and a mere few hours to do it in, so it’s hard to find a spare moment.

Will try to do better.

If music be the food of love, issue a fatwa

Aug 3rd, 2010 4:57 pm | By

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says music is permitted but bad and nasty.

Khamenei said: “Although music is halal, promoting and teaching it is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic.”…”It’s better that our dear youth spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills and fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music.

Because…music, while permitted, is not a healthy recreation. It’s a recreation, but not a healthy one. It’s permitted, but it’s ungood. Why? Well because it’s pretty, and pleasurable, and emotive, and often sexy, and often exciting. We can’t be having any of that. It’s not healthful. Or useful. Or good. Or compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic. Which are established by a guy with a black cushion on his head, who looks as if he doesn’t rock out much.

Khamenei’s views are interpreted as administrative orders for the whole country, which must be obeyed by the government. Last month Khamenei issued a controversial fatwa in which he likened his leadership to that of the Prophet Muhammad and obliged all Iranians to obey his orders.

Controversial – really? I can’t imagine why. Guy says he’s like Mo and all Iranians have to do what he says. What’s the problem? It simplifies life. So does not having music. Simplicity is good, because it keeps people out of badness. Complicated things are bad.

Want some theophanies?

Aug 3rd, 2010 12:06 pm | By

Comment is Free Belief asks “Can we choose what we believe?” Usama Hasan answers briskly right from the outset.

God exists, obviously.

Oh; all right then! Nothing further to think about. He goes on to point out that the Qur’an says so, and give the sura where it says so. Then he gets to the thinky part.

God is a given, and our lives are an opportunity to learn about and experience God in countless different ways because the universe is a collection of theophanies: God’s infinite variety of names is manifested throughout the diversity of nature that includes our complex, intertwined lives.

He forgets to explain how he knows that.

The bill was not ‘male-friendly’

Aug 2nd, 2010 11:27 am | By

Pakistan’s parliament last year passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, but then

it was rejected by the Senate, reportedly because of the objections of one senator, preventing it from becoming a law.

According to insiders, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – Fazl  senator Maulana Muhammad Sherani (presently the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology) had objected that the bill was not ‘male-friendly’ and was contradictory to Islamic law.

Later, the Council of Islamic Ideology also termed the bill “unnecessary”, adding that the implementation of this law would increase the rate of divorce in the country.

In other words, the law might make it possible for women to divorce men who beat them up, and that would be bad, so the law must not be passed, because women have to stay with men who beat them up.

It’s interesting that the Council of Islamic Ideology wants to go on the record as thinking that women should not be allowed to leave men who beat them up.

Things with words doing II

Aug 1st, 2010 3:13 pm | By

Part I of this is getting long, so I might as well start another.

Redundancies was one I meant to do yesterday, and forgot.

  • The reason why. Superfluous.
  • The British “in an hour’s time.” Really superfluous. Why is “in an hour’s time” better than “in an hour”? It isn’t. It doesn’t add anything. Once you notice it, it sounds incredibly stupid.

It’s amusing that BBC presenters thoroughly mispronounce “Barack” when Catherine Sangster of the BBC Pronunication Unit has told them and everyone how it’s done. Doesn’t the BBC Pronunication Unit catch prominent mistakes of this kind? I mean the guy’s name comes up pretty often – you’d think someone would eventually notice. And they must get mail.

His name should be pronounced buh-RAAK oh-BAA-muh. When he first came to prominence, there was some disagreement about his first name, which was also sometimes pronounced buh-RACK or even BARR-uhk, but our recommendation is based on the pronunciation he uses himself…

Well quite. (And by the way it’s basically the same as Baruch – so it’s not as alien as all that.)

And then there’s the British insistence on pronouncing every single French word or name with a heavy emphasis on the first syllable, which is pretty much always wrong. Balzac, Renoir, Degas, Sarkozy, Chirac, café, etc etc etc.

But there’s also the Yank way with the letter T. Budder, bedder, pidder padder.

So it goes.

Clean up your mess

Aug 1st, 2010 10:15 am | By

Drat. I thought I was going to be able to drop the subject now, but Aratina Cage pointed out another item. There was another dust-up at the Intersection last March, that I didn’t follow closely at the time. This one was by Kirshenbaum, and it involved taking some unattractive bluster in a few comments at Pharyngula as literal threats of violence against women. You know: as in taking “fuck you” as a threat of rape. I didn’t follow it closely because I didn’t feel like defending unattractive bluster, but I never thought it equated to literal threats.

In any case, as Aratina points out, the thread is full of comments by TJ under his many many fake names. The thread is still there. The whole thing is an attempt to make Pharyngula, and by extension gnu atheists, look bad. It’s full of fraud, and it hasn’t been corrected or even updated.

TJ got in there in a hurry. Milton C did the second comment. Philip Jr did 3, Seminatrix did 4, bilbo did 6, Vyspyr did 8, Petra did 9 and 14, bilbo did 15 and 17 and 20, Milton C did 21. Then TJ dropped out for awhile, then Petra returned at 93, Seminatrix 107, 109, 110, Milton 112, Polly-O 115, Seminatrix 118, 120 (saying “I think it paints PZ in a bad light”), 123, Philip Jr 128, 131, Seminatrix 138, 141, 142…and so on. That’s all of Kirshenbaum’s homework I’m going to do. I think Philip Jr and Vyspyr are suspected socks rather than confirmed socks; the others are solid.

So there it is. A large number of comments by a known fraud, sitting there saying variations on ”I think it paints PZ in a bad light” over and over and over and over again. Not updated, not disavowed, not stamped with a warning.

That’s “journalism”; that’s “civility”; that’s “I don’t like labels”; that’s “commitment to the truth”; that’s dealing with “sore and unjustified abuse.”

So: Sheril Kirshenbaum: you need to fix that.

How to do things with words

Jul 31st, 2010 6:21 pm | By

Jerry has a post on most-hated verbal infelicities. Solecisms, he elegantly says, but I’m going to be cagy, in order to avoid the obligatory lecture about How Language Works. There are no Mistakes; whatever most people do is Right; language is constantly evolving; lots of putative rules are just made up; language is arbitrary; what you think is a new Mistake actually goes back to Knut. Right. Got all that. Not talking about Mistakes. Talking about things I don’t like.

Because I thought I would mention a few things I don’t like.

  • May instead of might. “If things had been different Hitler may have won the war.” No; he might have, but it is not the case that he may have; we know that he didn’t, so “may” is the wrong word.
  • Impact as a verb.
  • Beg the question used to mean raise the question.
  • Dangling clauses. “Walking up the hill, a dog grabbed my lunch.”

And then there are some oddities of British English.

  • Making up their own way of pronouncing Barack. I don’t get this. Why don’t people just take their lead from how he says it himself? Why do they think they get to have their own way of saying other people’s names? BBC reporters pronounce it in a really bizarre and stupid way – Ba-rakk, with the “Ba” pronounced as if it rhymed with hat. The two syllables rhyme – two short flat as, and with equal emphasis (a spondee). That’s comprehensively wrong. It’s pronounced like Barock, with the first syllable a schwa and the second accented. What’s the problem there? It’s not somehow hard for British people to say, the way a French r is hard for all anglophones to say. So why won’t they say it right? It’s so rude. It’s not as if it’s a word they already have a settled pronunciation for, so why do they insist on doing it wrong?
  • Intrusive R. Laura norder, North career, Indier and China.
  • Over-corrected missing R. They ah in the house. That one is perhaps a bit fussy, but it gets on my nerves. Since intrusive R is so pervasive in contemporary British English, why not just get over it and say they are in the house? People who make a self-conscious effort not to pronounce the intrusive R give an irritating little hitch when they say things like “ah in the house” – there’s a little pause and glottal stop there that just isn’t necessary. Go ahead, say are in; ah rin; it’s allowed even in your terms.
  • Squeezed vowels. There are some accents (and I don’t know which ones – I don’t know enough to locate them – not Liverpool or Northern or West Country or East End or estuary) where the oo sound is so squeezed it sounds like ee. Troops are treeps. It’s irritating.

There, that’s enough being annoying for now.

There are no Mistakes, but on the other hand, there is good writing and bad writing. I’m an editor, and I do a lot of work on small verbal items of this kind. I use the subjunctive; I turn “impact” into “affect” or “harm”; I fix dangling clauses.

I also think that a lot of putative rules are made up though. The rule about prepositions at the end of a sentence, for instance – that’s a nonsense rule. Granted it can sometimes sound clumsy and inelegant to end a long complicated sentence with “of” or “for”…but it can also sound stilted and Martian to do the “of which” thing. I once had a very stilted ”for which” thing in an article for TPM, and I wanted to change it into normal English, but I hesitated to do that to the author, who might think the rule is important. So I consulted Julian, and he said “normal every time!” That was what I thought. Sometimes “for which” is ok, but sometimes it just sticks out; this time it stuck out; TPM should be readable.

And that’s how it is in general. You want some flexibility, and a lot of sense of which rules (or “rules”) matter more than others, and a decent ear.