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.


It could be understood as consistent

Feb 4th, 2009 4:49 pm | By

Kenneth Miller replies to Jerry Coyne on religion and science.

I made no argument that this happy confluence of natural events and physical constants proves the existence of God in any way—only that it could be understood or interpreted as consistent with the Divine by a person of faith.

Ah. Well sure it could, but lots of things could be understood or interpreted as consistent with the Divine by a person of faith. In fact the number of things that could be so understood and interpreted is, pretty obviously, staggeringly large. Persons of faith have no trouble coming up with the ability to understand and interpret whatever there is with whatever they want there to be; that’s what it is to be a person of faith. In short, that’s a pretty feeble standard.

Sam Harris gives a sardonic reading of the same passage:

That’s just the right note to strike with a neo-militant rationalist like Coyne. These people are simply obsessed with finding the best explanation for the patterns we witness in natural world. But faith teaches us that the best, alas, is often the enemy of the good. For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation. Wrong question Coyne! You see, the wise have learned to ask, along with Miller, whether it is merely possible, given these facts, that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will could have created the world. Surely it is! And the heart rejoices…

Heh. Exactly.



Turn the music down!

Feb 3rd, 2009 11:59 am | By

There was some discussion yesterday about whether support for the right to abortion entails having to support a right to fertility treatment. In particular the question was ‘[if you] see abortion as a woman’s right to control the reproductive functions of her own body’ then how is fertility treatment different?

My answer is that I don’t see abortion that way, not exactly. A right to abortion clearly can be described that way, but it doesn’t follow that therefore if one supports a right to abortion one also has to support a right to anything and everything else that can be described that way, and that’s why I don’t exactly see abortion that way. I don’t generally talk about a woman’s right to control the reproductive functions of her own body, and I think the reason I don’t is because I’m generally wary of talking about things in such broad terms, precisely because I’m not sure I do want to commit to supporting all the possible examples such broad terms could throw up. I do think women should have a right to abortion, and one reason I think that is that pregnancy takes place inside one woman’s body and that means abortion is much more her business than it is anyone else’s. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think everything that takes place inside one woman’s body is more her business than it is anyone else’s. I don’t think that about intentional (aimed at the usual outcome) pregnancy, for instance. Deciding to have a baby does in fact mean one has to, or ought to, cede some rights to the future baby. (That, incidentally, is one reason the right to abortion is important. If one isn’t prepared to cede some rights to the future baby, it’s probably better to stop the pregnancy than it is to go ahead with it.) I’ve never really agreed with the view that telling or urging pregnant women not (say) to do drugs is a violation of their rights, because I’ve always seen those rights as in tension with the rights of the future baby.

That’s certainly not to say that I think the future baby’s rights trump all of the mother’s rights – but I think it probably trumps (should trump) some. A future baby has a much bigger interest in not being addicted to cocaine in utero than its mother has in continuing to use cocaine. So…in short, it’s not just a matter of absolute rights. It’s more complicated than that.

I think (though I’m not sure) one reason fertility specialists don’t treat people who already have children is because the treatment is so labor-intensive and expensive; I think that rule (if it is a rule) is a form of triage. That seems reasonable to me, in a world of limited resources. People who have children don’t really need fertility treatment so, other things being equal, they should go to the back of the line.



Anything goes

Feb 3rd, 2009 9:51 am | By

Simon Barnes says approving things about Darwin, David Attenborough, and evolution – but then he gets down to the real business of his piece, which is (you’ll never guess) chiding those pesky atheists. In fact the approving things turn out to be apparently just some throat-clearing en route to what really matters, which is chorus 3,987,281 of ‘fundamentalism/creationism is bad but those tiresome sciencey atheists are much much much worse.’

So much, then, for benign creation; let’s leave the creationists to fight that one out among themselves. But what of the legions of self-trumpeting atheists? What of Richard Dawkins, who had the arrogance to write a fat book about God without troubling to read up on theology, a discipline that includes many writers as subtle-minded as himself?

Yes what indeed. Let’s leave the creationists to sort each other and turn to the really fun bit, which is self-righteously demanding what business Richard Dawkins has writing about god when after all god is a subject for The Professionals despite the fact that amateurs are always telling us what to do and what to think in the name of this putative god. Let’s pretend that it’s arrogant for people to say why god is not believable but not for people to say why god is believable. Let’s leave clerics and their subjects alone but let’s really get in a huff about people who dispute truth claims that are based on no evidence.

No believer can prove that God exists: isn’t faith rather the point? And no scientist can prove that He doesn’t. You may believe that you have a soul. Professor Dawkins believes that you don’t. Both positions are equally tenable in that both are matters of belief, of faith. This stuff can be neither proved nor disproved, therefore it is nothing to do with science.

Proof and disproof (for the 9 millionth time) is not the issue; the point is that there is no evidence that there is such a thing as a ‘soul’ and there is plenty of evidence indicating that there isn’t. It’s just nonsensical to pretend that the existence of a soul is not an empirical subject at all, and equally nonsensical to pretend that there is no evidence that bears on the question. It’s even more nonsensical to conclude from the first nonsense that therefore belief that one has a soul and belief that one doesn’t are ‘equally tenable,’ because brute belief is not as tenable as belief based on reasons, such as inferences from evidence. I could decide to believe that I have the ability to fly, but such a belief would not be as tenable as the belief that I couldn’t.

It’s true that anyone can just decide to believe any old thing, evidence or no evidence – but that doesn’t mean that therefore there is nothing to be said about the content of the belief. That’s especially when the beliefs are not kept private but are trotted out in political and moral disputes, as of course they so very often are.



Try for twelve next time

Feb 2nd, 2009 11:04 am | By

Eh? Really? Really?

It was a midwinter miracle; eight babies born to a single mother and every one of them delivered alive. For a nation enduring its deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the tale was a welcome relief from bail-outs and bankruptcies. But this weekend, as the journalistic pack chases an altogether darker dimension to the story of Nadya Suleman, the feel-good factor has suddenly vanished.

What ‘miracle’? What feel-good factor? What welcome relief? Was everybody turning handsprings and throwing confetti off the roof last week just because some fool had decided to whelp eight children at once and thus put them and herself at great risk and use up who knows how many hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical care that could have been more usefully spent on something else? I know I wasn’t; was anyone?

The BBC World Service was, to be sure. I did hear their coverage and I did frown in puzzlement at their exuberant tone. What on earth are they so pleased about? I wondered. But I thought it was some stupid journalistic thing, not a universal thing. I don’t know anyone who thought it was cute or clever or a good idea or ‘heart-warming’ – but perhaps that’s because I know only cold secular urban coastal nerds? Were all the Real Folks out there in the Authentic parts of the world weeping tears of joy over the (shudder) octuplets?

Far from being a heart-warming tale of wonder, the more that becomes known about the Suleman family, the more it seems something very disturbing has occurred. Public reaction has quickly turned from joy to shock and anger.

This guy is out of his mind. A heart-warming tale of wonder! Because a woman tries to imitate a dog and have a whole litter of humans! What is heart-warming about that? It’s freakish, it’s unusual, it’s somewhat disgusting, but what’s heart-warming about it? Who felt any joy about it, and why would anyone feel any joy?

[I]f the American public was looking for hope and inspiration in the face of tough times, the Suleman octuplets will have provided little in the way of light relief.

Well duh, but I have a hard time believing that anyone apart from reporters ever thought any octuplets would provide any hope and inspiration. What a dopy idea.



Pay me, pay me, pay me my money down

Jan 31st, 2009 5:28 pm | By

The story to date: bankers and financial fidgeters made a great many stupid reckless positively inebriated investments that depended on the ridiculous premise that real estate prices would go on inflating forever as if no living bankers had ever heard of such a thing as a bubble; to the astonishment of the experts, real estate prices suddenly stopped inflating and began to do the other thing with ever-increasing speed; trillions of dollars turned out never to have existed except in the imaginations of the ‘experts’; the US economy turned into a heap of rubble, and the economy of the rest of the world followed suit; the US government, guided by the savvy B-school president and his friend Hank Paulson, formerly of Lehman Brothers, one of the many burst bubbles littering the landscape, dumped $350 billion of public money into the banks with the promise of more where that came from and with no requirements for transparency or accountability or even telling anyone where all the money would go. Got that? Next act.

[E]mployees at financial companies in New York, the now-diminished world capital of capital, collected an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses for the year. That was the sixth-largest haul on record, according to a report released Wednesday by the New York State comptroller.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Employees at financial companies in New York are the very people who caused this global train wreck and the drastic impoverishment of millions, perhaps billions of people – and having brought off this feat of talent and dedication, they were rewarded with large bonuses by the very institutions that are being shored up by billions of public money (money which therefore cannot be spent on health insurance or education to name just two items). Rich, isn’t it? They’re financial wizards; that’s why they’re paid the Big Bucks; in their financial wizardry they make the global economy go pffffffffffffffffffft; so therefore accordingly as a result, they get some more of our money to make them that little bit richer and us that little bit poorer.

What could be fairer or more sensible than that?

That question is ironic. And yet, and yet…they don’t see it. They think they really have earned it, and deserve it, and should get it, and should go on getting it, and should not be told they should not get it.

“People come here because they want to work hard and get paid a lot for working hard,” one investment banker said Friday…“My bonus is ‘shameful’ — but I worked hard to get it,” said John Konstantinidis, a wholesale insurance broker.

They think they deserve it because they worked hard. I can think of a couple of problems with that right off the top of my head. One is that they are not the only people who work hard, yet very few people get the kind of bonuses that Wall Street hotshots get. The other is that one may work very hard in order to ruin everything, and it is not obvious why the mere working hard should merit truckloads of money.

“On Main Street, ‘bonus’ sounds like a gift,” he said. “But it’s part of the compensation structure of Wall Street. Say I’m a banker and I created $30 million. I should get a part of that.”

Say you’re a banker and you made $300 million dollars disappear – should you get a part of that?

Oh look, they’ve gone.



One fine distinction

Jan 30th, 2009 11:11 am | By

Buruma is at it again.

Dutch criminal law can be invoked against anyone who “deliberately insults people on the grounds of their race, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation.” Whether Mr. Wilders has deliberately insulted Muslim people is for the judges to decide. But for a man who calls for a ban on the Koran to act as the champion of free speech is a bit rich.

No, not exactly, and not necessarily. Being a champion of free speech does not necessarily mean being a champion of absolute free speech with no exceptions whatever. It can mean, for instance, defending free speech construed more broadly than to allow one anti-speech law but still more narrowly than to permit another. It’s not really particularly rich for Wilders to think, for instance, that the Koran has some dangerous content while Fitna does not. I (for one) think Fitna does have some dangerous content, but I think the Koran has more. I wouldn’t call for a ban on the Koran, for many reasons, but I think Buruma’s disdain is too easy.

Comparing a book that billions hold sacred to Hitler’s murderous tract is more than an exercise in literary criticism; it suggests that those who believe in the Koran are like Nazis, and an all-out war against them would be justified. This kind of thinking, presumably, is what the Dutch law court is seeking to check.

One, I think that reading is strained; I think comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf suggests that the Koran is like Mein Kampf. But two, which is more important, notice that Buruma says nothing to show that the Koran is not in fact like Mein Kampf. He says nothing to show that in the rest of the piece, either. Well – what if it is? If it is, then there may be a problem, right? If it is, then covering our ears and pretending it isn’t may not be the best idea. It wasn’t the best idea in the case of Mein Kampf and it may not be the best idea in the case of the Koran either. Yet Buruma seems to ignore that possibility.

One of the misconceptions that muddle the West’s debate over Islam and free speech is the idea that people should be totally free to insult. Free speech is never that absolute. Even — or perhaps especially — in America, where citizens are protected by the First Amendment, there are certain words and opinions that no civilized person would utter, and others that open the speaker to civil charges.

Yes; there are libel laws, for instance. But are there laws against ‘anyone who “deliberately insults people on the grounds of their religion [or] beliefs”‘? I don’t think so, because if there were they would probably be (and be found) unconstitutional. Do let me know if there are any such. If I’m right, it’s not a ‘misconception’ to think that free speech includes the idea ‘that people should be totally free to insult.’ Incite hatred against, no, perhaps not (depending on the circumstances etc) but just plain insult, yes. That is, indeed, part of free speech. Why? Well, because one might need to call some corrupt lying hack a corrupt lying hack, and there’s no way to have laws against insulting people while still protecting the freedom to call a corrupt lying hack a corrupt lying hack. In other words, free speech is a basic part of political freedom.

If Mr. Wilders were to confine his remarks to those Muslims who do harm freedom of speech by using violence against critics and apostates, he would have a valid point. This is indeed a serious problem, not just in the West, but especially in countries where Muslims are in the majority. Mr. Wilders, however, refuses to make such fine distinctions. He believes that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim.

But Mr Buruma is perhaps making one fine distinction too many. That is because violence is not the only problem, and it’s either evasive or naïve of Buruma to imply that it is. There are Muslims who do harm freedom of speech by using laws or UN human rights bodies or rhetoric or threats of violence or social pressure against critics and apostates – so it’s just way too easy and too comfortable to pretend that the only problem is with actual overt physical violence. It’s hard to believe that Buruma has been paying too little attention to be aware of this.

Presumbably he’s worried about stirring up hatred of (and violence against) Muslims in general, and that is of course a valid worry; but he shouldn’t be evasive, because there are other valid worries in play.



A piece of the true cross

Jan 29th, 2009 12:50 pm | By

I went into Bartell’s (a drugstore chain; think Boots if you’re in the UK, but not as nice) yesterday, and was skimming along an unfamiliar aisle when I stopped, amazed. There in front of me dangling from those little rods that packages dangle from, were packages of Foot Detox Pads. Kinoki Cleansing Detox Foot Pads, to be exact. They’re real! Sense About Science didn’t just make them up!

There were before and after pictures on the box: clean white pad, then grubby brown pad. Yes but as Sense About Science points out, the pads contain vinegar and herbs and they make the feet sweat: the brown is from moisture and vinegar and herbs, it’s not a nice brown smear of toxicity.

There’s a box on the back with a disclaimer.

Note: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

So it’s just some kind of mysterious ritual then. Okay.

Underneath the box is a different kind of advice.

It is best to consult a qualified alternative medicine professional or holistic practitioner to determine your personal detoxification needs.

Oh yes? What does that mean? What is a qualified alternative medicine professional? What is a qualified holistic practitioner? What do alternative medicine professionals and holistic practitioners learn during the course of their qualification training that teaches them how to determine anyone’s detoxification needs? Since biologists and chemists are unable to find any evidence of such a thing as a detoxification need, one has to wonder exactly what professionals and practitioners are trained to look for, and with what tools. Do they do sciency-looking taps and listens and probes? Do they produce sciency-looking instruments that are actually just mock-ups of some kind? It would be very interesting to know.

Update: I forgot to say, they cost $19.95. For some worthless bits of vinegar-soaked gauze!



Obama and Mugabe

Jan 28th, 2009 3:53 pm | By

Now this one I wasn’t even going to ask for, not yet, because it’s so early and there’s so much to do – but here it is anyway.

President Obama wants a fresh approach to toppling Robert Mugabe and is discussing with aides an unprecedented, US-led diplomatic push to get tough new UN sanctions imposed against the Zimbabwe regime.

They will have to put pressure on Russia and China to (at least) abstain from vetoing sanctions – but perhaps that’s not an insuperable obstacle now. Good luck.



Alma mater

Jan 28th, 2009 11:41 am | By

A commenter has been telling us lately (but with no actual checkable references) that Obama is not all that intelligent because he got only Bs at Harvard. Since all the commenter has offered in response to a request for references is that somebody said that on a (nameless) BBC documentary last week, there’s no need to pay any attention, but in looking for something else I happened on an interesting piece about Obama’s student days from last February. There’s not much about having an average mind (there’s nothing, actually) and there is a fair amount of the other thing. Of course the reporter could be a raving fan and have simply thrown all the ‘average mind’ stuff into the trash can – but for what it’s worth, some people remember Obama as being quite clever.

Mr. Obama wrote that he learned of a transfer program that Occidental had with Columbia and applied. “He was so bright and wanted a wider urban experience,” recalled Anne Howells, a former English professor at Occidental who taught Mr. Obama and wrote him a recommendation for Columbia…Mr. Obama displayed a deft but unobtrusive manner of debating.“When he talked, it was an E. F. Hutton moment: people listened,” said John Boyer, who lived across the hall from Mr. Obama. “He would point out the negatives of a policy and its consequences and illuminate the complexities of an issue the way others could not.”…The professor, Roger Boesche, has memories of him at a popular burger joint on campus. “He was always sitting there with students who were some of the most articulate and those concerned with issues like violence in Central America and having businesses divest from South Africa,” he said. “These were the kids most concerned with issues of social justice and who took classes and books seriously.”

No mention of B grades, or of mediocrity. The memories could be fallible, they could be shaded by the present, but for what they’re worth, there they are. And at least that’s a checkable reference, which ‘a BBC 4 documentary last week’ is not.



Kara lost the strength to speak the day before she died

Jan 28th, 2009 11:17 am | By

Responsible, careful, sensible, loving parenthood.

Kara Neumann, 11, had grown so weak that she could not walk or speak. Her parents, who believe that God alone has the ability to heal the sick, prayed for her recovery but did not take her to a doctor. After an aunt from California called the sheriff’s department here, frantically pleading that the sick child be rescued, an ambulance arrived at the Neumann’s rural home on the outskirts of Wausau and rushed Kara to the hospital. She was pronounced dead on arrival. The county coroner ruled that she had died from diabetic ketoacidosis resulting from undiagnosed and untreated juvenile diabetes. The condition occurs when the body fails to produce insulin, which leads to severe dehydration and impairment of muscle, lung and heart function.

Severe dehydration and impairment of muscle, lung and heart function – meaning that was one sick kid, one very visibly, obviously, unmistakably sick kid, one suffering sick kid. And all her parents did for her was to pray, despite of course knowing perfectly well that there are such things as telephones and ambulances and doctors and medicines. For days and days they hung around with a sick, wasted, feeble child, and did nothing about it (prayer doesn’t count).

About a month after Kara’s death last March, the Marathon County state attorney, Jill Falstad, brought charges of reckless endangerment against her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann. Despite the Neumanns’ claim that the charges violated their constitutional right to religious freedom, Judge Vincent Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court ordered Ms. Neumann to stand trial on May 14, and Mr. Neumann on June 23.

So they killed their child, by refusing to get her medical help which would have saved her life, and they’re defending themselves by talking about their ‘religious freedom.’ They’re not lying on the ground banging their heads and wailing, they’re not crying aloud ‘How could we have been so stupid and callous?’, they’re not sobbing and telling their dead daughter how sorry they are – they’re insisting on ‘religious freedom.’ Freedom to what? Freedom to watch your 11-year-old child become unable to walk or breathe or move or speak and do nothing to help her because you have the freedom to believe that ‘god’ will rescue her even though you refuse to avail yourself of the actual tools to help her? That’s a pretty strange sort of freedom to defend, especially after such an outcome.

“The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief,” the judge wrote in his ruling, “but not necessarily conduct.” Wisconsin law, he noted, exempts a parent or guardian who treats a child with only prayer from being criminally charged with neglecting child welfare laws, but only “as long as a condition is not life threatening.” Kara’s parents, Judge Howard wrote, “were very well aware of her deteriorating medical condition.”

Well that’s great! Wisconsin law allows parents to treat a sick child with only prayer as long as the sickness is not life threatening! So mere suffering or pain is not reason enough to make medical treatment mandatory. How disgusting. The ‘religious freedom’ of parents is more important than the relief from suffering of their children? Brilliant.

Investigators said the Neumanns last took Kara to a doctor when she was 3. According to a police report, the girl had lost the strength to speak the day before she died. “Kara laid down and was unable to move her mouth,” the report said, “and merely made moaning noises and moved her eyes back and forth.”

Yet her parents still did nothing.Like the Oregon parents who ‘were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, who died from complications of a urinary tract infection that was severely painful and easily treatable.’

As Lucretius said (as I’ve quoted before), tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.



Greater love hath no father

Jan 27th, 2009 3:50 pm | By

Another one, from last July.

Police in Atlanta have been investigating the death of a 25-year-old Pakistani woman, who was allegedly murdered by her father in the name of family honor. She wanted out of an arranged marriage, but her father thought a divorce would bring shame to the family.

And he also thought that the ‘shame’ that Sandeela Kanwal would ‘bring’ to the family was more significant than her life was. He thought the ‘shame’ was so important that it justified murdering his own adult daughter. Instead of thinking of it as something regrettable and painful but as a speck of dust compared to the value of his daughter – he thought the opposite – he thought his daughter was worth much less than this comparatively trivial shame. That’s an incredibly ugly fact, which never seems to get enough attention in the coverage of these things. He thought a fundamentally social, neighbor-heeding feeling was more important than his own daughter was; he thought it was so important that it motivated him to strangle her to death with a bungee cord – all so that the neighbors wouldn’t snigger at him.

“He admitted to actually taking the life of his daughter,” says Sgt. Stefan Schindler, a 13-year veteran of the Clayton County Police Department. “And the reason he took his daughter’s life,” says Schindler, “by his own words was that she wasn’t being true to her religion or to her husband.”…Schindler says Rashid told him that killing his daughter was a right given to him by God — and that God would protect him.

So ‘God’ is someone who wants women to be killed for wanting to leave men they never chose for themselves in the first place. In other words, yes Virginia, God does hate women.

Shahid Malik is a local representative of Atlanta’s Pakistani population and one of the very few willing to speak about the Rashid case. “This thing hurt the Muslim community, Pakistani community,” he says. He says that the killing has nothing to do with Islam, but that Rashid has little education and comes from a small village in Pakistan where tribal traditions are strong…”Whatever this case is or not, this is not an honor killing,” he says. “It is not based on Pakistani law. Chaudry Rashid loved his daughter.”

No he didn’t. People need to stop saying that. People who love their daughters don’t murder them; people who murder their daughters don’t love them. You don’t get to do both. You don’t get to murder your daughter and still pretend you loved her.

Begner hopes the state doesn’t make this about Islam or ethnicity. This death could have happened, he says, in any culture, with any family.

Well anything could have happened, but is it likely? Is it customary ‘in any culture, with any family’ to murder an adult daughter because she wants to divorce a husband who was not her choice to begin with? I don’t think so.



Sheer poetry

Jan 26th, 2009 6:19 pm | By

Wo, what’s that?! Oh – it’s a blast of fresh air.

President Barack Obama has called for the US to become energy independent, saying its reliance on foreign oil and global warming posed threats…Mr Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review its refusal of a waiver which had previously allowed California to set its own – stricter – vehicle emission and fuel efficiency standards. He said California had taken bold moves in implementing the standards. Mr Obama said: “The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts. We will be guided by them.”

Cue the Hallelujah chorus! And Aretha Franklin singing The Star-spangled Banner! And Springsteen doing Eyes on the Prize and Seeger doing We Shall Overcome! Cue them all, cue everyone singing at once – cue the rocks and the trees, cue the stars and the little green frogs; from every mountainside, lift up your voices and sing -

My administration will not deny facts. We will be guided by them.

Welcome back to the reality-based community, all. Enjoy your stay.



The doll study

Jan 25th, 2009 5:50 pm | By

I was excited and exhilarated to see this article.

Educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have said in recent days that they hope President Obama’s example as a model student could inspire millions of American students, especially blacks, to higher academic performance. Now researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.

Yeah…

I started thinking about things like that some time last spring, when I finally accepted that Obama wasn’t just a charismatic but basically random candidate. I started thinking about them even more once his nomination seemed more secure, and then during and after the convention, and then during the rest of the campaign. But I avoided thinking about them too much, because they prompted too much longing, and I was too afraid of disappointment in the end.

I was thinking about millions of children all over the country, in East St Louis and Detroit and Fresno and Philadelphia, Mississippi, and what it could mean for them to see Barack Obama in the White House. I was thinking about a potential Obama effect. I was thinking about Thurgood Marshall and the ‘colored doll’ -

In the “doll test,” psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used four plastic, diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed the dolls to black children between the ages of three and seven and asked them questions to determine racial perception and preference. Almost all of the children readily identified the race of the dolls. However, when asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it. The Clarks also gave the children outline drawings of a boy and girl and asked them to color the figures the same color as themselves. Many of the children with dark complexions colored the figures with a white or yellow crayon. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred.

That haunting, painful study played a role in Brown v Topeka Board of Education and thus in the end of ‘separate but equal’ as a legal fiction and segregated schools in the US…So it seems pretty obvious that a hyper-intelligent, eloquent, impressive black person in the White House would enable children to select the black doll and attribute positive characteristics to it. This study seems to bear that out.

Not that we didn’t already know that (but it’s nice to have the data). We knew it up one side and down the other. We knew it all over the place for the past week – and a beautiful thing it is. I still have Wednesday’s New York Times hanging around, because I like looking at it – it has the Obamas taking up nearly all of the front page, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with enormous smiles on their faces. They look…extraordinary. Any doll would give its left arm to look that good.

Bill Moyers talked to Patricia Williams and Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Friday. He reminded Harris-Lacewell that when he talked to her last spring she said Obama couldn’t win. I remembered that, once he mentioned it, and I remember the despairing pang it gave me. Harris-Lacewell beamed acknowledgement, and then talked about the intense sense of connection to this country that she felt for the first time in her life. Same here. Same here, same here, same here. One feels as if old wounds and old divisions really do have a good chance of being healed. (I know that sounds soppy – but it’s not sheer airy-fairy fantasy – see the doll experiment!) Furthermore…for the first time in my life I know what it’s like to feel ‘patriotic’ – the idea is suddenly no longer alien. I sang along with Aretha on Tuesday (and I wanted to wear her hat). I suddenly realized today that I don’t even mind American flag pins any more – I don’t have to any more – because they don’t stand for things I hate any more. Now they stand for closing Guantanamo and banning torture and respecting the rule of law.

On a more prosaic but still not altogether trivial level, I also no longer have to cut the sound whenever the BBC or NPR cuts to the president talking; on the contrary, I get to listen with actual pleasure.



Another chorus of ‘Pot, kettle’

Jan 25th, 2009 11:28 am | By

The great thing about religion, you know, is that it teaches people humility.

The Vatican has condemned President Obama’s move to restore US funding for family planning clinics abroad that give advice on or carry out abortions. One Vatican official warned against the “arrogance” of those in power who think they can decide between life and death.

That’s terrific, isn’t it? An ‘official’ of an authoritarian moth-eaten hidebound reactionary gang of priests calls a guy elected in a landslide ‘arrogant’…What does the Vatican ‘official’ think the Vatican is if not arrogant? Humbly obedient to god, no doubt, being conveniently blind to the fact that it’s hard to obey someone who never communicates, and that what the Vatican chooses to pretend is what god commands is actually what the Vatican commands – that the Vatican selects its own laws and then pretends they are god’s laws. It’s a common practice, a familiar con-game, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

And don’t forget the arrogance of the Vatican as ‘those in power who think they can decide between life and death’ by ordering people not to use life-saving condoms during an Aids epidemic.

In an interview published in an Italian newspaper on Saturday, senior Vatican official Monsignor Rino Fisichella urged Mr Obama to listen to all voices in America without “the arrogance of those who, being in power, believe they can decide of life and death.”

Mr Obama does listen to all voices in America, including that of Rick Warren, which I and others consider one voice too many; but really…how obtuse does a senior Vatican official have to be not to realize and keep constantly in mind that he is ‘in power’ and that the Vatican and its officials emphatically ‘believe they can decide of life and death’? Do they never embarrass themselves with this kind of brazen absurdity?



Just checking

Jan 22nd, 2009 12:38 pm | By

Some people are a little dubious about the, what shall I say, the emotionality surrounding the recent transition of power in the US. Our friend KB Player for instance.

Eyes fixed on the horizon? And with the inspirational statesman look? That was pseudo poetic bombast. As an outsider, I felt faintly embarrassed, and thought that a quick cup of tea with the Queen, a few words in front of Downing Street while the old incumbent leaves by the back door carrying a suitcase, that’s the way to do it. Democracy is a good thing, but it doesn’t need to be turned into a religion.

Some doubt was expressed in comments at Talking Philosophy but we ended up in more or less the same place. Anyway I asked myself (and not for the first time, being a suspicious type, and also being aware that since I make a habit of puncturing sentimentalities and pieties I sort of have to be cautious with my own) if I should be more skeptical. Am I making a messiah out of Obama?

That’s certainly possible, for obvious reasons – I really do admire him, to a very unusual and intense degree. I’m not accustomed to admiring public figures (much less presidents) in this way, in fact to be perfectly honest I have no precedent at all for my attitude to Obama. That is almost a guarantee of a susceptibility to mistakes and blindness.

I’m not so deluded that I think his plans for health care are any good though. Maybe I’ll use that as a meter – I’ll just keep checking myself – ‘Do you think “affordable health care” is meaningful or possible? No? Good; still functioning.’ I wish he hadn’t invited Rick Warren to do the invocation…but on the other hand, Michelle Goldberg pointed out that the outrage about Warren’s homophobia has caused him to remove some of the concrete signs of it, so perhaps the invitation has forced him to do better.

Ah, the hell with it, it’s not worth it; I still think Obama shouldn’t have invited him.

I wish we could ditch all the God-talk. I’m very glad he included non-believers, but I still wish we could ditch the God talk. But…(this is where things get really sinister) I don’t mind it as much as I would from someone else, or as much as I did from Bush or Clinton. Have I lost my mind? Partly, maybe – that is, the euphoria of the whole thing motivates me to bury my normal reaction so that I can go on being euphoric. That’s not what you’d call sound intellectual practice – so that’s a fair cop. I’m giving Obama a break that I wouldn’t give other people. (Fortunately, it makes no difference to him or to them – I don’t want to come over all self-important here! I’m just exploring how this stuff works, from the inside; I’m not saying What I Think Matters.) But some of that is because the God talk trails with it the old civil rightsy rhetoric. I wouldn’t want to be without The Promised Land or All God’s Children or (perhaps least of all) ‘Thank God almighty, we’re free at last.’ That’s in spite of the fact that in any other context that line would irritate the hell out of me, because stricly speaking it’s absurd – thanking god for freedom and just politely ignoring the previous four centuries. In any other context I would rudely ask why god gets the credit for the good stuff and none of the blame for the bad stuff; I would ask why, if god could free the slaves, god didn’t just prevent them from being enslaved in the first place. But – in the civil rights context, I don’t. If I had the choice, I would keep all the presidential language secular, but since I don’t…I feel inclined to turn a blind eye. That’s a double standard. Nolo contendere.

Now we’ve got that out of the way…well it’s the old Wordsworth line, you know, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Yes I know it’s soppy, but I do not care – I want to be soppy. I’ve never seen anything like this. None of us have. You don’t know what it’s like (well you do if you live here and it’s affected you too, but otherwise, you don’t) – you don’t know what it’s like to have all but everyone in the damn country feeling ecstatic and elevated and (cough) well I don’t know how else to put this, kind of united.

I can even explain one reason, one of many. For eight years we’ve lived with the unhappy awareness that everyone outside the US thinks of it as Bush country – with a few dissenters perhaps but at its core, Bush-like. Now it becomes apparent that the US is much more Obama country than it ever was Bush country.

Another reason is that the bliss (to call it that) was unalloyed by compromise. This was not hooray the firstblackpresident who is not otherwise so terrific – this was not (for instance) Al Sharpton. There was absolutely no need to think ‘well this is a great First but we had to compromise to get it…’ – so one could wallow with a clear conscience. Obama is a lot more talented than the usual white pol, not less so, so the First is more than legitimate.

And perhaps best of all – I have earnest hopes that the fashion for falling-down prison pants will die an abrupt death.



Of course, not on the head

Jan 21st, 2009 10:19 am | By

It’s always nice to get some spiritual advice, don’t you think? A Melbourne imam gave his male followers some of that a few years ago, in a lecture titled ‘The Keys to a Successful Marriage.’

He said under Islamic law, as described in a koranic verse, it was a man’s right to demand sex from his wife whenever he felt like it. “If the husband was to ask her for a sexual relationship and she is preparing the bread on the stove she must leave it and come and respond to her husband, she must respond,” Mr Hamza told his male followers on the video sermon. He then mocked Australia’s criminal laws, which required consent for sex to be lawful. “In this country if the husband wants to sleep with his wife and she does not want to and she hasn’t got a sickness or whatever, there is nothing wrong with her she just does not feel like it, and he ends up sleeping with her by force…it is known to be as rape,” Mr Hamza said. “Amazing, how can a person rape his wife?”

Well quite – one might as well call it beating a hammer if you use it to pound in a nail, wives being much the same kind of thing as a hammer and husbands being, as Mr Hamza indicates, persons. A man is a person, and his wife is an object owned by the person, so obviously a person can’t ‘rape’ an object – what a silly idea. Amazing.

“First of all advise them,” he said. “You beat them … but this is the last resort. After you have advised them (not to be disobedient) for a long, long time then you smack them, you beat them and, please, brothers, calm down, the beating the Mohammed showed is like the toothbrush that you use to brush your teeth.
You are not allowed to bruise them, you are not allowed to make them bleed.”

No, you’re only allowed to beat them, but fortunately you are allowed to do that much, because you are always right and they are always wrong, or if not, it doesn’t signify, because your will is the only one that counts, and theirs is mere disobedience. That’s fair, surely? It must be, because Islam is justice.

Mr Hamza told his followers not to get carried away and become too physical with the beatings. “This is just to shape them up, shape up woman – that is about it,” he said. “You don’t go and grab a broomstick and say that is what Allah has said,” Mr Hamza said to sporadic laughter from his flock.

Oh, ha ha, that’s so funny, ha ha – of course you don’t, who would be so crude and vulgar as to do that? No no, you just hit them on the arms or legs, that’s all.

Mr Hamza runs the Islamic Information and Services Network of Australasia on Sydney Rd, Coburg, which offers spiritual advice, prayer facilities and boxing, karate and gym classes for Muslims.

Spiritual advice is it – yes very spiritual. Highly impressive and thoughtful and elevated, too – but at the same time, charmingly easy to understand. When a man wants to fuck, his wife has to be fucked, and if she refuses, the man can forcibly fuck her, or beat her and then forcibly fuck her, or if he’s really kinky, forcibly fuck her and then beat her. See? No complicated theological niceties, no chatter about ontology or the ground of being, just the man’s right to fuck his wife whenever he wants to; the root of all piety.

Mr Hamza yesterday stood by his comments and blamed controversy over them on a hidden Zionist agenda run by the media. Questioned about his teachings, Mr Hamza said a wife was allowed to be hit on the hand or leg, but “of course, not on the head”. He said if a Muslim wife disobeyed her husband, such as continuing to go out when requested not to, she was able to be subjected to moderate physical punishment. Mr Hamza also reiterated his belief that women should submit to sex when husbands required it. Asked whether it was impossible for a man to rape his wife under Islamic law, Mr Hamza said either male or female partners should be able to demand and receive sex.

And the poor and the rich are both allowed to sleep under bridges. Can’t say fairer than that, can you.



Never in the history of Islam have women

Jan 20th, 2009 1:29 pm | By

The joys of sharia again.

Islamic authorities in the northern Nigerian city of Kano have told organisers of a planned protest by divorced women to cancel the event. The head of the Sharia police, or Hisbah, said the planned protest was an “embarrassment”, and is “un-Islamic”…Women’s rights activists say divorced women are often thrown out of their homes, lose custody of their children, and many end up destitute. The Director General of the Hisbah…said the idea of street protests was “un-Islamic” and “morally wrong”. “Never in the history of Islam have women taken to the street to press for their demands,” he said.

Well of course they haven’t, because they haven’t been allowed to, but that is not a reason for continuing to not allow them to. It’s just a long history of oppression and coercion, which is not the same thing as a reason.

The Hisbah are in charge of policing the morals of Muslims to make sure they are “Sharia-compliant”…One of their duties is to reconcile quarrelling spouses and prevent divorce. But divorce in polygamous northern Nigeria is very common.

That is, the dumping of unwanted women by men in polygamous northern Nigeria is very common; the dumping of unwanted women who are thrown out of their homes and left destitute and without their children. But sharia forbids women to protest this, and the Hisbah are in charge of forcing all Muslims to be ‘Sharia-compliant’. It’s a nice racket for the men, not so nice for the women. Ho hum.



The Anglicans are sharpening the knives

Jan 19th, 2009 2:34 pm | By

Once again the Anglican church drops the mask.

In a paper published on Monday, the Church will voice concern over how the [Human Rights Act] is being interpreted and claim that it has been used by secularists to advance a liberal agenda.

Yes…as opposed to a theocratic agenda. And a theocratic agenda would be better because?

Leading Church figures have claimed that there has been an overemphasis on equality legislation at the expense of faith groups…[Christians] have complained that law has failed to allow them freedom of their beliefs. The Church paper suggests that Christians should be wary of resorting to human rights legislation, which it claims has become a “tool of secular liberalism”.

Instead Christians should resort to religious law, which of course cannot be a ‘tool of secular liberalism’ because religious law is authoritarian, dogmatic, unaccountable, unarguable, based on unwarranted beliefs, unconcerned with justice or equality or freedom, and inherently oppressive. Naturally that is much better than poxy old secular liberalism, which viciously wants equal rights for everyone. What could be more loathsome than that?

“The language of human rights, interpreted as the basis for the State’s relationship to faith, is not one with which all Christians can be comfortable. It is all too easy to adopt the tools of secular liberalism as if they straightforwardly reinforce our case against secularism’s deficiencies…It is part of the calling of the Established Church never to be ‘domesticated’ by the administration of the day.”

In other words, it is part of the calling of the Established Church to consider itself above the law, and to do everything it can to defy it and encourage its members to defy it. In other words is part of the calling of the Established Church to pretend that the non-existent laws of a non-existent deity should and do trump the laws of flawed but more or less accountable elected representatives.

“The uncomfortable truth is that a purely secular account of human rights is always going to be problematic if it attempts to establish the language of rights as a supreme and non-contestable governing concept in ethics.”

Because the only supreme and non-contestable governing concept in ethics is that of a hidden (and non-existent) god as interpreted by an unaccountable elite of priests who pretend to know what the hidden non-existent god thinks is right and that whatever that god thinks is right, is right, whatever any pesky secular liberal may say about rights or justice.

Don’t let anybody try to tell you that the Anglican church is ‘liberal’ – it’s no more liberal than Rick Warren is.



X marks the whatsit

Jan 18th, 2009 5:45 pm | By

Heresy Corner quotes David Deutsch, a theoretical physicist and computer scientist at Oxford, on the ‘anthropic principle’ as an argument for the existence of god.

I do not believe that the ‘fine-tuning’ of physical constants provides any sort of argument for the existence of God or anything else supernatural. That is because if the constants had been set intentionally by supernatural entities, then the intentions of those entities must themselves have been at least as ‘fine-tuned’ when they set the constants, and that fine-tuning would remain unexplained. Hence that supernatural hypothesis does not even address the fine-tuning problem, let alone solve it.

More generally arguing for supernatural explanations on the grounds that the current scientific explanation for something or other is flawed or lacking is always a mistake. There are two main reasons for that. One is that there are always unsolved problems. But they get solved. Science continues to make progress even (or especially) after making great discoveries, because the discoveries themselves reveal further problems. Therefore the existence of an unsolved problem in physics is not evidence for a supernatural explanation any more than the existence of an unsolved crime is evidence that a ghost committed it.

The second reason is that supernatural explanations are always empty explanations. That is to say, ‘the gods did it’ is invariably a bad explanation because, as you can see, to invoke that explanation I didn’t even have to say what it is they did. It could ‘explain’ anything whatsoever and hence actually explains nothing.

That second one is very compelling, I always think. ‘The gods did it’ is an absolutely crappy explanation, because it can mean anything or everything or nothing – and as Dr Deutsch indicates, if it can mean anything or everything, then it means nothing – it’s just a gesture. It might as well be X. X did it. Okay…well that gets us precisely nowhere; now let’s try to dig a little deeper.



Rick Warren creepeth upon his belly

Jan 17th, 2009 12:04 pm | By

Wendy Kaminer has some thoughts on ‘vain and unctuous right-wing pastor Rick Warren’ (what an elegant way of putting it).

Obama justified appointing Warren as his inaugural invocator-in-chief as a gesture of inclusiveness. Warren’s own notion of inclusion has its limits, considering his belief that millions of his heretical fellow citizens are going to hell.

Quite, and that’s certainly one reason I find the man rebarbative.

[D]espite Warren’s extreme social and religious conservatism – reflected in his denouncement of stem cell research, reproductive choice and homosexuality, and his belief that only good Christians are bound for glory…- he is widely regarded as a moderate evangelical by the mainstream press and centrist intellectuals.

And that’s the problem – he defines rabid conservatism downwards. Religious lunacy has gotten so rancid and off the map here that a guy who believes in hell and the ‘sinfulness’ of homosexuality is seen as ‘moderate.’

Warren described God’s positions on social programmes and war as ‘debatable’ for ‘Bible-believing Christians’, but he singled out as ‘non-negotiable’ five issues that should determine the votes of good Christians: abortion rights, stem cell research, gay marriage, cloning, and assisted suicide. In a subsequent 2005 email exchange with Warren, I wondered why God was clear about his ‘non-negotiable’ positions on the Culture War but equivocal about war and social programmes: ‘Does God really care more about gay marriage than the obligation to alleviate human suffering?’, I asked. Not surprisingly, I received no response.

Just what I wonder.

How ridiculous – how pathetic. Stem-cell research, gay marriage, cloning are ‘non-negotiable’ and everything else is more trivial. What a tiny-minded man he must be if he really thinks those are the five worst crimes in the world.

We see a pattern here, don’t we – the Vatican thinks cracker-damage is more serious than genocide, Rick Warren thinks stem-cell research and gay marriage are among the worst things. These people have a hideously warped sense of morality – which is not new, but they do keep performing it in public…

Kaminer and Warren had a brief correspondence after she wrote a critical piece about him, in which she called his book ‘childish and platitudinous and questioned his commitment to religious pluralism and civil liberty for all.’

A few months later, on the occasion of Yom Kippur (which I do not observe), I received an email from Warren assuring me of his personal love and friendship, and seeking my forgiveness ‘for any ways that I may have ever unknowingly hurt you. Your article showed a lot of hurt by, and fearfulness of, what you think I represent … I want you to know that I would like to be your friend. I thank God for you, for your talent at writing, and I ask you, on this sacred day, to forgive me.’…He concluded by assuring me that I was in his prayers and his heart: ‘I respect you, thank God for you, and I am praying for God to bless you this new year. With love in my heart for you.’

Have you ever read anything quite so sickening?

Warren didn’t know me…I have no love in my heart for him, or other people I have briefly or never met. But Warren, it seems, is more like a benevolent deity, who doesn’t simply harbour indifferent goodwill towards others but loves them – loves us all, despite our sins and failings. In fact, Warren’s email to me was apparently a variation of a Yom Kippur form letter that he sent to Jewish journalists. In any case, I didn’t see myself anywhere in his extravagant protestations of love for me and requests for forgiveness; I saw a reflection of Warren’s self-image.

And very cloying and disgusting it is, as well as effrontery in someone who sorts people into sinners and the other thing for the arbitrary reasons that Warren does. Sanctimony and bigotry: a nasty combination.