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.

Life inside two mental boxes

May 14th, 2010 10:21 am | By

Anthony Grayling nails Terry Eagleton (who has written a new book pretending to say something about evil).

[H]e sets off on one of those complexifying journeys, like the route of a pinball bouncing backwards and forwards among a thicket of pingers, from William Golding to St Augustine, Macbeth to Pseudo-Dionysus, original sin to the Holocaust, Shakespeare to Freud, Satan to Thomas Mann, Arendt to Aristotle, and so copiously on – a verbal pinball ride among the entries in the telephone book of Western culture, to tell us what evil is. But do not expect, by the end, a conclusion, still less a definition, nor even a summary. Eagleton has been too long among the theorists to risk a straightforward statement. You have to grasp at fragments as you bounce among the pingers, not always quite sure whether he is agreeing or disagreeing with this or that author, even whether he is still paraphrasing an author or speaking with his own voice. That’s a technique, of course.

That’s the guy all right – copious name-dropping, energetic showing off by means of style and a bogus kind of erudition, and no actual argument at all. That last bit about not being able to tell if he is paraphrasing or speaking with his own voice applies exactly to Stanley Fish, too. The snail-trail of ‘Theory.’

As we are dealing with Eagleton here, note that this is of course not a mish-mash of inconsistencies, as it appears to be; this is subtlety and nuance. It is, you might say, nuance-sense.

It may not be clear if you haven’t read the whole review: that first claim is pure irony.

Eagleton has spent his life inside two mental boxes, Catholicism and Marxism, of both of which he is a severe internal critic – that is, he frequently kicks and scratches at the inside of the boxes, but does not leave them.

Now that’s a great line. Funny that Eagleton, for all his showing off, can’t write anything as good.

Peculiar George

May 13th, 2010 5:21 pm | By

More Pitcher. He’s an embarrassment to the Anglican church and to the Telegraph (whether the Anglican church and the Telegraph know it or not) so let’s by all means rub it in.

He was so pleased with his stupid abusive self-admiring reply to Sholto Byrnes that he re-posted it on the Telegraph blog. Well all right then, that makes it worth ridiculing.

(I’m doing what I’m criticizing him for doing, of course, and I do it all the time. But 1) I’m not an Anglican vicar 2) I write more restrainedly when I write on other people’s sites and 3) I do it better than he does. Plus did I mention I’m not a vicar?)

He starts by alluding to “a more measured atmosphere than currently prevails on my own foam-flecked thread.” But the foam is his, yet he seems to be pretending that it’s other people’s. So: he’s sly, and devious, and a blame-shifter.

Then he calls people who criticize his extraordinarily abusive post about Evan Harris “attack puppies” then he wonders “how many of them actually read the piece before dutifully answering the Twitter-call.” As if no one would have criticized his extraordinarily abusive post had it not been tweeted. That’s wrong, I criticized it without having seen any tweets about it. But even more absurd is the implication that if people had read the piece they wouldn’t have criticized it, or not as harshly as they did. Nonsense. It was an extraordinarily abusive post – he said Evan Harris campaigns to euthanize terminally ill people. That’s both vicious and false.

Then there are four paragraphs of blustering “I never, and besides they did too,” fetching up at

As for the Lib-Dems’ attack-bunnies, if they consider that’s evil and vicious, then I’d hate them to be around if I was rude about someone

without having mentioned the abusive and dishonest claim that Harris campaigns to euthanize terminally ill people. What a disgusting man – abusive, cowardly, and unrepentant. That claim was evil and vicious, and his refusal to cop to it now is…enough to make you lose your lunch.

Then there’s a rant about how Christian he is, whatever people say.

Many of these people expressing outrage about my criticism of Harris would be the same people who criticise Christians for not being more robust and outspoken; I wish they’d make their minds up.

That’s a good illustration of how stupid he is. He doesn’t know what “these people” would say, so it’s imbecilic to wish they would make their minds up when he has no way of knowing that their minds aren’t made up. Of course it’s also rude, but that goes without saying by now.

Then there’s the sly nasty stuff about loving him but struggling to like him oh the hell with it he doesn’t like him. Cute. What is he, 12?

Then he flogs his book, then he closes, revoltingly, with “With every blessing.”

There is one ray of light though; David Colquhoun comments (May 9, 10:48 p.m.).

It is no wonder that Christianity is in decline. Attitudes like those of George Pitcher must be helping it in its way to oblivion rather effectively. I can’t recall reading any political diatribe that was quite so intolerant and hate-filled as his.

I am reminded of homeopaths, those lovely cuddly holistic people who, once the realise that there trade has been revealed as fraud, turn quite remarkably unpleasant.

There is some amusement to be derived from the fact that these groups of people, who are both adamantly opposed to science and to enlightenment values, spread there hate-filled messages via the internet, a product, ahem, of science and the enlightenment.

There’s for you, sir!


May 13th, 2010 12:36 pm | By

I think I’m going to start being more thorough about observing the antics of George Pitcher. I find him really remarkable, and all the more so because he’s an Anglican vicar. He’s such a bizarre ambassador for his institution.

Yesterday he extruded a little heap of sneers at Nick Clegg and atheism and Nick Clegg’s atheism.

One aspect of this new Con-Dem Government that hasn’t got an airing yet is that David Cameron is a devout Christian and his new deputy-dawg Nick Clegg is an atheist…I’ve had a right ear-bashing from Nicky’s press office in the past for describing his atheism as “numbskull”. I’m sorry, I’m sure he’s up there with AC Grayling and Dr Simon Heffer.

Really. This is a grown man, with a job that is considered respectable in some circles. His job in fact basically consists of being wise and telling everyone else how to be wise – and this is how he goes about it. Do admit.

If natural compassion

May 13th, 2010 3:02 am | By

Lynn Hunt asks a pertinent question in Inventing Human Rights:

Voltaire railed against the miscarriage of justice in the Calas case, but he did not originally object to the fact that the old man had been tortured or broken on the wheel. If natural compassion makes everyone detest the cruelty of judicial torture, as Voltaire said later, then why was this not obvious before the 1760s, even to him? Evidently some kind of blinders had operated to inhibit the operation of empathy before then.

The facts aren’t enough. Science isn’t enough. There has to be emotion too. People have to care. It’s that simple. If people don’t care, the facts are just facts, they’re inert.

This is also why relief organizations use one person (and animal welfare organizations use one animal) on fund-raising appeals: we’re wired so that we empathize with one person much more strongly than we empathize with a million. If facts were enough for morality, we ought to respond a million times more strongly to reports of a million people in desperate straits, but in fact we respond much less strongly to a million people than we do to one.

Brave new world

May 12th, 2010 6:30 pm | By

And then there’s this whole idea that we can make morality a science by basing it on universal desire for well-being.

One problem with that is that we don’t all have the same view of what constitutes well-being, to say the least. We don’t agree on what constitutes well-being in general and we certainly don’t agree on what constitutes it for self as opposed to other.

And suppose someone did come up with a survey that found – convincingly – that aggregate well-being was higher when women were more or less forced, by the lack of opportunity to do anything else, to be wives and mothers and nothing else, and lower when they had wider opportunities and correspondingly more freedom. Suppose there is such a survey, that shows aggregate well-being higher and women’s well-being lower. Suppose a world where women are distinctly a minority, as they are in India and China because of selective abortion. Would that outcome – a less happy minority but a happier total – be moral?

No; not in my view at least. But the idea that we can make morality a science by basing it on universal desire for well-being seems to mean that it would be.

Byrnes on Harris, Pitcher on Pitcher

May 11th, 2010 5:13 pm | By

Sholto Byrnes did a nice job of defending Evan Harris.

A consistently strong voice for the NHS and for science, he shared the title of “Secularist of the Year” with Lord Avebury in 2009 for their work in helping abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. He has campaigned against faith schools and argued courageously in favour of abortion, euthanasia, immigration and gay rights…I think he has been one of the most principled MPs in parliament, sticking to his convictions and standing up for a true-liberal view of free speech and of the idea of liberty itself.

The fact that some of the policies he advocates led “one Labour MP” in this peculiarly nasty Daily Mail profile to say “he’s way to the left of us”, only serves to show that Evan — or “Dr Death” as the Mail’s Leo McKinstry calls him — has not trimmed and tacked to the centre-right as New Labour did.

Well said. Under that there’s a very long and very whiny self-justifying comment by George Pitcher, claiming that he wasn’t really so terribly nasty and dishonest as all that in his Telegraph blog post. He doesn’t even mention his foul accusation that Harris “supported the strange idea that terminally ill people should be helped to kill themselves,” much less take it back or claim he said it by accident. Horrible man.

That is how a girl proves she is a woman

May 11th, 2010 11:43 am | By

And speaking of not having the right to have rights -

“According to African culture, the man is the overlord,” said Peace Atwongyeire, 42, a handsome counselor whose face adorns local billboards saying she is not ashamed to be H.I.V.-positive. “You have to say yes.”

Because a man buys a wife from her father for cows or cash, he “owns” her. If she refuses sex or insists on a condom, he may beat her or throw her out of the house.

Also, condoms thwart pregnancy, and “I prove my manhood by having children,” said Mr. Bitti, a father of 14. “That is how a girl proves she is a woman. In Africa, you cannot tell anyone to stop having children. They will even think, ‘I would rather have AIDS and leave my children when I die. At least I will have produced my three.’ ”

And then abandoned them to misery; terrific.

Many women believe they don’t have the right to have rights

May 11th, 2010 10:33 am | By

Deepa Shankaran on the politics of religious fundamentalism:

In these politics, the key platforms are grounded in “morality”, “the family” and gender roles, and fundamentalist campaigns often call for a return to “traditional” values, speaking to the fear of social upheaval brought about by women’s growing autonomy, sexual liberation and the increasing visibility of LGBTQI people. According to women’s rights activists, a major fundamentalist strategy in every region is the use of discourse that blames social problems on a “decline in morality” or the “disintegration of the family”; and that presents rigid gender roles within the family as “natural.”…As these discourses translate into fundamentalist campaigning on specific laws, policies and practices, they give rise to concrete consequences for women’s human rights.

Quite. This is essentially the subject matter of Does God Hate Women?

Fundamentalist movements also exert a profound and long-lasting psychological impact – a reality that often goes unacknowledged. As Lucy Garrido in Uruguay remarks, “the most serious impact is that many women believe and feel that they don’t have the right to have rights, that decisions about themselves, their minds and bodies, are influenced by and can be made by others.”

Sam Harris reads the Ryan report

May 11th, 2010 10:09 am | By

Sam Harris has been (belatedly, he says) considering the unpleasant ways the Catholic church has with children, and the reasons therefore.

Consider the ludicrous ideology that made it possible: The Catholic Church has spent two millennia demonizing human sexuality to a degree unmatched by any other institution, declaring the most basic, healthy, mature, and consensual behaviors taboo. Indeed, this organization still opposes the use of contraception, preferring, instead, that the poorest people on earth be blessed with the largest families and the shortest lives. As a consequence of this hallowed and incorrigible stupidity, the Church has condemned generations of decent people to shame and hypocrisy — or to Neolithic fecundity, poverty, and death by AIDS.

That sums it up pretty nicely. The church prides itself on this ideology, which takes great care not to think about sex and sex-related issues in a reasonable way but instead simply recycles dogma year after year, decade after decade, century after century. This makes the church “our better conscience” – because it has this hypertrophied ability to invent stupid cruel useless moral rules that make nearly everyone worse off than they have to be.

Harris has been reading the Ryan report, and like everyone who reads that blistering document, he is staggered and horrified. And he is taking (joining) action:

I would like to announce that Project Reason, the foundation that my wife and I started to spread scientific thinking and secular values, has joined Hitchens and Dawkins (both of whom sit on our advisory board) in an effort to end the “diplomatic immunity” which the Vatican claims protects the Pope from any responsibility.

Hear hear.

As though

May 9th, 2010 12:26 pm | By

A more central part of Harris’s argument:

…it also seems quite rational for us to collectively act as though all human lives were equally valuable. Hence, most of our laws and social institutions generally ignore differences between people.

Ah but they don’t. One big social institution doesn’t, at least not necessarily: the family. Some parents believe in equality, but some don’t; sometimes it’s a matter of what the male head of household believes, because that determines the rules for everyone else.

This is why the claim that maximizing well-being for all can be scientifically shown to be moral or good does not (as far as I can see) get off the ground. It’s because some people’s well-being partly depends on the subordination of other people, and people like that do not consider the de-subordination of “their” subordinates a source of well-being for themselves. Over time that can change, but it doesn’t happen overnight. So the question arises, how would you show such people scientifically that they are mistaken? It can’t be done. You may be able to show them evidence that the subordinates will have more well-being, but that won’t trump their sense of the fitness of things. The issue isn’t factual (though facts can help, or hinder; it depends), it’s emotional.

Is there anyone who would?

May 9th, 2010 11:47 am | By

Sam Harris has a new article on a science of morality at the Huffington Post. There’s a lot there, but one observation in particular snagged my attention.

I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’?

Wonder no more! There is indeed. There is the anthropologist Frederique Apffel Marglin, who once wrote* that

In absolutely negativizing disease, suffering and death, in opposing these to health and life in a mutually exclusive manner, the scientific medical system of knowledge can separate in individuals and in populations what is absolutely bad, the enemy to be eradicated, from what is good, health and life. In the process it can and does objectify people with all the repressive political possibilities that objectification opens.

And she meant it. She wasn’t writing a parody of postmodernist science-skepticism, she was writing the thing itself. I observed in 2003

There is something a little breathtaking in a level of science-phobia that can see ‘negativizing’ disease, suffering and death, as harmful and repressive. One is reminded of Woody Allen’s retort to a character’s reproach, in ‘The Front’, that he really wanted success: ‘So what should I want, a disease?’ Does Marglin seriously think that disease, suffering and death (the death of other people, remember, as well as one’s own) would be a source of joy and pleasure if only it weren’t for the ’scientific medical system of knowledge’? Has the postmodern left become so tone deaf that it can hear no echo of the complacent droning of landowners and priests (and colonialists, surely) about the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate?

*F.A. Marglin, ‘Smallpox in two Systems of Knowledge’, in Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance, eds. F.A. Marglin and S.A. Marglin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).

Gloating for Britain

May 8th, 2010 5:10 pm | By

George Pitcher, Anglican vicar and Telegraph columnist, is just beside himself with glee that Evan Harris lost his seat in the election. Why is Pitcher so delighted? Because Harris is a secularist, and because he thinks terminally ill people should be able to choose when their suffering ends. That’s not exactly how Pitcher puts it though.

For a doctor, he supported the strange idea that terminally ill people should be helped to kill themselves…His political demise will be mourned only by those with a strange fascination for death, those euthanasia enthusiasts whose idea of care for the elderly and infirm is a one-way ticket to Switzerland.

Stupid, stupid man, and dishonest besides. (And he can’t even write. “For a doctor, he supported the strange idea” – sheesh!) Harris did not support the idea that “terminally ill people should be helped to kill themselves” nor was his idea of care for the elderly and infirm a one-way ticket to Switzerland (i.e. euthanasia). Stupid malicious man – as if he can’t tell the difference between having the option of euthanasia and having euthanasia imposed!

I wish I could gloat that George Pitcher had lost his seat on the Telegraph.


May 8th, 2010 11:36 am | By

The Sydney Anglican diocese is pissed off because students who have the option are ditching classes in “scripture” to take ethics classes instead. The Sydney Anglican diocese seems to consider this some kind of violation of nature and of its property rights in the children of New South Wales.

The controversial trial of secular ethics classes has ”decimated” Protestant scripture classes in the 10 NSW schools where it has been introduced as an alternative for non-religious children, with the classes losing about 47 per cent of enrolled students.

The figure was calculated by the Sydney Anglican diocese, which is so concerned about the trial that it has created a fund-raising website to ”protect SRE” (special religious education). The website says the values underpinning ”Australia’s moral framework” are under threat…

”If we lose religious education, we risk losing true, fundamental ‘ethics’ that have underpinned Australia’s moral framework for hundreds of years,” the website says.

Well, no; more likely, you “risk” losing false, misleading, often bad underpinnings and replacing them with better thinking. Australia’s moral framework for hundreds of years, by the way, has been as limited and often ruthless as anyone else’s; it stands shoulder to shoulder with the US in its not altogether praiseworthy treatment of its indigenous population. The Anglican church didn’t prevent that, after all, so why should anyone believe it has some pipeline to better “underpinnings”?

Your petrodollars at work

May 7th, 2010 3:52 pm | By

A group of lawyers in Egypt who call themselves (with horrible sarcasm) “the Association of Lawyers Without Restrictions” have sued a bunch of people for publishing or just somehow vaguely having something or maybe nothing to do with publishing The Thousand and One Nights,

claiming that the book “offends public decency.” Hisba cases allow citizens to prosecute individuals who they deem to have insulted Islam…

They are demanding those responsible for the publication be brought to trial under Article 178 of the Penal Code, which if convicted is punishable by imprisonment for a term of two years and a fine for everyone that publishes any prints or pictures that “offends the public decency.”

I heard an Egyptian guy talking to the World Service about this a couple of days ago, disgustedly saying that this is just Wahhabism and nothing to do with Egypt or the way Islam is understood there.

Wahhabism sucks.

It’s national prayerbook day

May 6th, 2010 3:13 pm | By

So you’ve spent the day praying, right? Well not all of you of course, but those of you who are loyal citizens of the United States…and hey, why not, also those of you who want to show solidarity with devout Americans. No doubt there are some of you bending the knee or head-butting the floor in Swansea and Cracow, Lagos and Kinshasa, Bombay and Karachi, Lima and Santiago, Kyoto and Shanghai, just for the sake of showing that state-sponsored prayer must be supported by the united peoples of the world. Yes?

Okay, I’ll stop now. I’ll just offer a thought from Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

It’s obvious that Americans don’t need a government-sponsored day to pray. But this day has never really even been about prayer or the freedom to pray or not.

Instead, the NDP has served as another opportunity for the Religious Right to exert its influence on our government and laws and send a not-so-subtle message that those who don’t agree with the Religious Right on theology are second-class citizens.

Go, sing a song, read a poem, watch a hummingbird, or just scratch your bum and eat a chocolate bar.

Beware the rising tide of

May 5th, 2010 12:07 pm | By

Shaista Gohir is very generous.

Legitimate criticism of Muslims who spew extremist rhetoric and commit criminal acts is acceptable.

Oh. Thanks. We’re allowed to criticize people who commit criminal acts. That’s awfully nice of you.

In France, where the headscarf has already been banned and a face veil ban likely to follow, only a couple of thousand women wear it out of 5 million Muslims.

The headscarf has not been banned in France, of course; it’s been banned in public schools and other government buildings.

Currently Muhammad is the second most popular boy’s name in Britain – if it tops the list of baby names, how long before there are calls to ban Muslims from naming their sons after their beloved prophet?

Gee, I don’t know. Should we start stockpiling baked beans right now, just to be safe?

Urgent re-education

May 4th, 2010 4:52 pm | By

And another thing. Where I come from, diversity training means something along the lines of learning not to express stupid dislike of people for absurd reasons such as race sex class sexual orientation foreignness and the like. But at the Foreign Office it apparently means more than that.

All the staff involved in producing the memo are to be sent on “urgent diversity training”…”Although [the memo] was intended only for internal use, it was ill-judged, naive and disrespectful of some key tenets of the Catholic faith.”

Clearly this urgent diversity training will be for the purpose of teaching staff to respect all key tenets of the Catholic faith – so “diversity” now means not just different kinds of people but different kinds of beliefs and “tenets,” and the underlying assumption is that they all have to be respected.

But – but – but some ideas are just stupid and wrong. Some of the tenets of the Catholic church are just fictitious and wrong but others of them are harmful and wicked. People shouldn’t be trained to respect them. I can see the FO wanting narrowly vocational training in when to say what and to whom, although I’m not sure I can see extending that to internal memos – but I know I can’t see extending it to what to think, which is what this kind of “diversity training” amounts to.

What’s up in there?

May 4th, 2010 2:58 pm | By
What’s up in there?

My friend Claire went to Denver and she saw something very nice there.


The FO simply adores the pope

May 4th, 2010 10:29 am | By

Ruth Gledhill in The Times tells us that

The civil servant in charge of the Pope’s visit to Britain has been suspended and is to be investigated for misconduct after a memo lampooning the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church was leaked to the press.

All the staff involved in producing the memo are to be sent on “urgent diversity training”

Urgent diversity training? Meaning what? They’ll be trained not to have contempt for contemptible beliefs? How will that be accomplished, exactly? Heavy drugging? Waterboarding?

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “As we have made clear publicly, it was a foolish document that did not in any way reflect FCO views. Although it was intended only for internal use, it was ill-judged, naive and disrespectful of some key tenets of the Catholic faith. It has caused great offence…

Why do key tenets of the Catholic faith have to be respected? They are false after all – and the ones that were mocked in the memo are also harmful – so respect should not be mandated. I do realize it’s not the Foreign Office’s job to make the Catholic church a better institution, but it also shouldn’t be its job to lick Ratzinger’s boots.

The FCO very much regrets this incident and is deeply sorry for the offence which it has caused. We strongly value the close and productive relationship between the UK Government and the Holy See and look forward to deepening this further with the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK later this year.

Does it? Why? Why does the Foreign Office strongly value the close and productive relationship between the UK Government and the Holy See? What is there to value in that? The “Holy See” is a horrible secretive coercive all-male obscurantist organization that shields fugitives from justice (Cardinal Bernard Law) and conceals decade upon decade of child rape until the last rag has been stripped away. The “Holy See” tells Africans not to use condoms during an Aids epidemic, it tells everyone everywhere not to use any birth control at all, it works tirelessly to prevent women from getting abortions and thus to deprive all women of childbearing age of a secure sense that they own their own lives. The “Holy See” stinks – it is repulsive to see the Foreign Office crawling to it in this slavish way.

Three girls is three too many

May 3rd, 2010 3:35 pm | By

A pretty story.

Three sisters have suffered serious facial burns after two unidentified men on a motorbike threw acid at them in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The sisters, aged between 14 and 20 years old, were attacked as they walked from Kalat city to Pandarani village…The police named the girls as Fatima Bibi, 20, Saima Bibi, 16 and Sakina Bibi, 14…Two weeks ago, an unknown group – the Baloch Ghairatmand Group (the Honourable Baloch Group) – claimed responsibility for a similar attack on two women in a market in Dalbandin city. The group had warned women to wear the hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf, and not to visit markets unaccompanied by men from their families.

So in other words these three girls had acid thrown in their faces because they existed, because they were girls, because they went outside, because they went somewhere, because they were visible, because they walked and talked and breathed, because there were three of them. They had acid thrown in their faces because nothing. They had acid thrown in their faces because two thugs felt like throwing acid on some women, and the Bibi sisters were there. “Honourable” indeed – give me a fucking break.